Sunday, June 24, 2007

Miss O'Connor waits for no man. And that's a damned fact.

Nora O'Connor
Til The Dawn
Bloodshot Records

Rating: Basically the best album of 2004 that nobody heard in 2004

Nora O'Connor is one of those faces you see and recognize, but only faintly, and only briefly, and then forget that you thought you recognized her in the first place. She doesn't mind. O'Connor has performed as part of two great Chicago indie institutions --
first with the Blacks, then with Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire -- and you probably had nary a clue. And if that resume ain't impressive enough, then how about this? She's also an ordained minister, which, in this correspondent's opinion, comes in handy when writing and performing insurgent-country music.

If at first Miss O'Connor comes off as a cross between a poor (wo)man's Norah Jones and Patty Griffin, then try, try again. She doesn't do the coffee shop thing as well as Jones, nor does she possess the pipes of Griffin, but what she lacks in vocal chops and Starbucks-milieu
, she more than makes up for with an ear for stick-to-your-ribs melodies and hopelessly romantic songwriting. These songs stay with you without really trying. At their heart, they're good ole' country tunes -- but it's the touches of gospel, jazz, blues and mountain music (by way of Chicago, Illinois) that help this too short of an album (at just under 32 minutes) proclaim its greatness to the world. Too bad no one seems to be listening.

From the opening bars of "My Backyard," its clear that Nora O'Connor has no plans for world domination. It's a sweet and tender tribute to hearth and home, one that glides effortlessly over flights of harmonica and Hammond organ. It's followed by "Bottoms", a bluesy fiddle-tune with country harmonies and plenty of barroom heartache. Over the course of nine tracks, O'Connor tempers her country leanings with straight up city/songwriting chops. It works for the most part -- though you wouldn't here me complaining if she leaned a little more West Virginia sometimes.

She still comes through in spades, however: tracks like "OK with Me" and "Nightingale" pack a punch that's rarely heard south of the Mason-Dixon these days -- let alone up-river Mississippi. The latter of the two features some gorgeous fiddle accompaniment by Andrew Bird if I'm not mistaken, who puts his own Bowl-of-Fire-era spin on O'Connor's composition. They make quite a pair. If you get the chance, look around for a pair of other tracks they've done for separate compilations -- "Oh, Sister" and "Two Way Action." If you're a fan of Bird, you won't be disappointed.

All in all, Til the Dawn is brilliant tribute to American music that gives Miss O'Connor plenty of space to shine. It's too bad I didn't hear of it until just recently, otherwise I'd have been enjoying it for going on three years now. And you shouldn't wait neither; go find it quickly, friends. You don't yet know what you're missing.
Miss O'Connor's MySpace Page

"Nightingale," Live from Navy Pier with Kelly Hogan
(Skip ahead to 6:25 remaining)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Perfect Summer! Here We Come!

Matt & Kim

Rating: So Much Fun You Will Puke Upsidedown Frowns From Your Insides For Days & Days & Days, Etc.

Matt & Kim play power pop with synths and drums. And that's about it. They're from Brooklyn, so they probably don't have real problems like normal people, and they most likely aren't still pissed that the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. In fact, they were most likely never pissed about the move at all. I would wager that they don't even know where Ebbets Field was located. That's sad.

Their music, that which they craft for performance, in said Brooklyn areas, is not sad. In fact, it's about some of the happiest music ever. Wait, you interrupt, aren't they just another Mates of State rip-off? Well, I guess. But only you'll admit that Mates of State are just another Quasi rip-off. So take that, you dumb snob! Besides, Matt & Kim are to Mates of State what Arrested Development is to the Cosby Show. Or something like that....You know I'm trying to write reviews without mentioning other artists, so why would you bring that up in the first place!? Shut up while I'm writing!

They talk real funny, too. Like Linford and Karen if Karen had a sense of humor. She doesn't. Maybe Linford could marry Matt & Kim? That would be nice.

I wish I could describe their music. Fortunately for us, there is this thing called the internet so I don't have to. MySpace to the rescue! Also, YouTube! Rock on! Yea Yeah! Basically, they rule.

Matt & Kim Myspace

Video for "Yeah Yea," from their Self-Titled release

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Girls play music. Boys fall in love. Girls win again.

Uncle Earl
Waterloo, Tennessee
Rounder Records

Rating: Fiddles! Fiddles! Like one-million fiddles!

There is such a thing as drop-dead gorgeous toe-tapping bluegrass. And her name is Uncle Earl.

Yes, Alison Krauss is on Rounder Records. And yes, her music is most often terrible. No offence to her and her buds in Union Station, but old-timey music sounds much better when you drop the gloss. And Allie's got gloss in spades.

Which isn't to say that Uncle Earl are a down-home dirty bluegrass band. These four young ladies make for one bad-ass string band, they just also happen to play in tune and sing real pretty, too. They do not, however, try to play pop-bluegrass, which is a good thing, and makes Waterloo, Tennessee a rather compelling mix of standards and originals. As newbie to bluegrass, I can't tell which are which....which is probably the point. It's a record that oozes timelessness and authenticity. If Uncle Earl took that extra low-fi step, you'd probably mistake them for the Stanley Brothers.

Minus the penises, of course.

But enough about the fact that they're all chicks! This band can play! "Wish I Had My Time Again" is a flat-out, foot-stomping barn-burner. It lays low the horrible hordes of invading pop divas lurking from your doorstep to mine in something like two-and-a-half-minutes. The mighty hand of Americana prevails against the wicked! I can't tell you how much I enjoy damn fine fiddle music. So just trust me on this one. It's good.

"Bony on the Isle of St. Helena" turns the tables on their ears, if I may mix my metaphors. There's still a bit of tapping here, but there's also some spare yet gorgeous harmony on this one as well, folks. And knowing me knowing you, you're a sucker for harmony. Admit it. It's not a bad thing.

Over the course of the album, Uncle Earl manage to throw in a few curveballs, too: Some 12-bar blues, shape-note singing, Asian string work, and even a Dylan tune for good measure. Most of the time it works. Occasionally it doesn't. But the fact of the matter remains, if you (A) bought Allie Krauss and EmmyLou records after hearing all that bluegrass music in that one movie with George Clooney, and (B) thought their regular records sucked L-7 weenie, then this is the bluegrass album for you, friend.

So step right up. Rounder Records -- It's not just for 52-year-olds anymore.

(More like 31, give or take a few months.)
Uncle Earl's MySpace

Uncle Earl, Live from Lotus Fest

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The best reason for midnight ever invented. Ever.

The Innocence Mission
We Walked in Song
Badman Recording Co.

Rating: Seven Soft Kisses on Fragrant Downy Pillows

The Innocence Mission are a much-loved band to my near-sweltering ears. At least they would be if it were hot right now. And yet because of fabulous inventions like screens and windows, it's not. This album, however, is hot as hell. At least, as hot as hell as a folk album can be.

Don't ever let it be said that the Innocence Mission are inconsistent. They are (as a matter of fact) anything but. Since 1999, they've released five fantastic recording of majestic folk-pop. No one album blows the others away, though there are standouts. And no one album falls flat, though Christ Is My Hope just might if you're not into Sacred Hymns (I am). We Walked in Song offers more of the same consistency, with just the right amount of dreamy guitar-work, understated bass lines, unobtrusive percussion and wonderful Karen Peris-ness. Mrs Peris' vocals might be an acquired taste to some, but not this Yankee cowboy. Her own stand-out has to be "Into Brooklyn, Early in the Morning", which boasts vocal "Ba-Ba-Bop-Bas" from hubby Don (who doubles as guitarist for the band) and some wickedly delicate accordion as well. I guarantee you this: you will not hear a better "Ba-Ba-Bop-Ba" on any other record of 2007, 2008 or 2009.

Many of the Innocence Mission's songs could double as lullabies, but don't let that fool you. There's a quiet intensity on tracks like "Since I Still Tell You My Every Day" and "Over the Moon" that will freaking break your heart. I guess words like "bittersweet" or "wistful" come to mind (guess who needs a thesaurus!), but those could be used for a hundred other bands. The Innocence Mission deserve a genre all their own....and maybe a gold record or two, were this 1972. Alas, it's not. So I guess we get this amazing little band all to ourselves. O America! If only you knew what you were missing!

Yes, Karen. I'm over the moon as well.
The Innocence Mission's MySpace

Video for "I Never Knew You From the Sun,"
from the album Befriended