Ramblin' Jack Elliott
I Stand Alone (Anti)
So you liked The Seeger Sessions? Good. Curious where Springsteen learned to do that? See: Elliott, Ramblin' Jack. I Stand Alone finds this 75-year-old walking, talking, geetar-strumming Stetson hat mining the territory he's mastered for more than 50 years. It ain't folk music 'less it's about trains, dogs, likker 'n' death, all of whom play starring roles here. There's no artifice or stylization: just 16 sweet slices of Americana, 10 of which don't even pass the two-minute mark--a snapshot of dustbowl fields, rusted-out tractors and hard times they really, truly prayed would come again no more. Nearly half of these acoustic ballads are traditional tunes whose authorship's been lost to the ages, while the rest are credited to legends like the Carter Family, Leadbelly and Hoagy Carmichael--all almost as synonymous with the American folk tradition as Ramblin' Jack Elliott himself. You and your curiosity are in good company, by the way: Lucinda Williams, Flea and Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker were curious too, so they stopped by for a couple of guest spots on I Stand Alone (making the album title a bit of a misnomer, but oh well). For a man whose list of followers includes Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and even Pete Seeger himself, Ramblin' Jack could teach all of them, not to mention us, a little something. (Jeffrey Barg)
Download: "Arthritis Blues," "Driving Nails in My Coffin," "Call Me a Dog."
It's Never Been Like That (Astralwerks)
I hated Phoenix's last album. I dubbed it "smooth jazz for the college radio set." So imagine my surprise when I heard sharp tunes loaded with ringing guitars and fetching soft-boy singing and was told it was Phoenix. Turns out these bold Frenchmen, all childhood buddies, went into a Berlin studio without a note written, in a quest for "first-take" energy. It worked. There are no boring beats or spacey wandering this time, and singer Thomas Mars--boyfriend of a pregnant Sofia Coppola, who put a Phoenix song in Lost in Translation--isn't nearly so cheesy with his lyrics. Even mentions of teardrops and a broken heart come amid the jittery, radio-ready joys of "Consolation Prizes," just before the similarly rousing "Rally." If the songs are still steeped in romance, it's soured enough so we're not wincing this time; we're bobbing our heads and singing along. Phoenix may traffic in rebellion-free pop ideal for cuddling couples, but their perfume-y prettiness and familiar jangle is increasingly hard to resist. (Doug Wallen)
Download: "Consolation Prizes," "Rally."
In Concert: Volume One (Yep Roc)
American music (regardless of its country of origin) has always leaned on, if not quite celebrated, its sidemen. Add Toronto, Ontario's Sadies to that tradition of shadowy onstage figures with modest ambitions and ungodly chops. Led by Good brothers Travis and Dallas, the Sadies have recorded full-lengths behind R&B rapscallion Andre Williams (Red Dirt), Brit post-punker Jon Langford (The Mayors of the Moon) and reigning alt-country queen Neko Case (The Tigers Have Spoken) on top of another five all by their lonesome. And in between studio sessions they've logged enough multitudinous miles as headlining, supporting and backing band to make a cross-country truck driver weary. So when the time came to gather family (including the Goods' mom, dad and uncle) and friends (Langford, Case, Garth Hudson, Gary Louris and Kelly Hogan among others) for a two-night hometown celebration with producer Steve Albini (Pixies, Nirvana and three previous Sadies releases), it presented an overdue occasion for the band to take a well-deserved turn in the spotlight. In a sense, they do. For all their versatility, the Sadies muster a sound unique unto themselves (call it a union of Dick Dale and cowpunk), and through 41 cuts over two discs they slap that style in backing, leading and playing alongside the assembled troops, cumulatively presenting themselves in an honest and forthright light. In Concert: Volume One further cements the Sadies' reputation as the most capable band on the continent. (Rob Trucks)
Download: "Northumberland West," "Hold on, Hold On," "Tailspin."
Urban Angel (Dorado)
The opening title track of Philadelphian Natalie Walker's debut album is as good as anything from the schools of Dido or Beth Orton (or perhaps a chilled Fiona Apple), a delicious, aching trip-hop stunner that floats gracefully through the mind like cool air on a globally warmed summer day. Written and recorded with two-man Brooklyn production team Stuhr, Urban Angel never touches down to earth. Walker's gorgeous gossamer vocals and enchanting internal rhythms coat every track in a slightly melancholic, moody lushness. As she glides through the album like a lighter-than-air cirrus cloud, the accompanying music creates subtle electronic backdrops meshed with acoustic touches. Though "Urban Angel" is the album's centerpiece, Walker also stretches on the ominously moving "Faith" (the singer was raised in a devoutly religious family), where her doubled and disconnected vocals spin around the song like fleeing ghosts. Much of the music moves slowly and pensively, as in the sweeping, waltz-like reverie of "Circles," where backward vocal loops and plaintive piano create a glorious suspension, or the Arabic-tinged and electronic-derived "Red," yet another haunting masterwork of concentrated melody and vocals that recall the best of Sarah McLachlan. That Walker, whose only other credit is as a member of short-lived band Daughter Darling, should record such an exceptional debut is attributable either to some closeness to God (Innocence Mission claim a similar feeling of heavenward aspirations) or her path of self discovery. Simply marvelous, whatever the source. (Ken Micallef)
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