Like a Fox, Rarebirds, White Rocket, Icy Demons, Kathleen Edwards, Grimace Federation, North Lawrence Midnight Singers + M. Ward
Kathleen Edwards may look like a Botticelli angel with her cream-colored skin, high cheekbones and wavy red hair, but she certainly doesn't act like one. Not on the video for "The Cheapest Key," anyway. To plug the single from her 2008 Asking for Flowers, the Canadian songwriter donned a tight T-shirt and a sassy attitude, calling out a miserly love with blues licks and the occasional double finger. Bringing out the fire underneath Edward's smoldering voice, this standout song from a remarkable album is, most likely, the one that will bring the house down.
Noodling guitar melodies, prominently featured vibraphones and funky drumbeats characterize Grimace Federation tunes, but that barely scratches the surface of this intense, unique Philly act. Culling from the sensual soundscapes of experimental jazz acts like Tortoise and the deep grooves and trip-hop beats of Ninja Tune artists, Grimace Federation songs are complex and layered, but engaging and accessible--so much so that the band has collaborated with hip-hop MC Aesop Rock and Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas. With seven full-time members, there's enough aural diversity and visual stimulation (how often do you see multiple drum sets sharing the stage with an upright bass?) to draw in any audience.
On their song "All Day All Night" Philly fivesome North Lawrence Midnight Singers call to mind the Replacements when they went down to Memphis to record with Jim Dickinson: whiskey-and-cigarette-shaped vocals from a punk heart merging with rockabilly backbeats, country guitar twang and a potent dose of classic R&B soul. The ghosts of Sun Studios live in several of NLMS' other tunes, and when they say they're fond of "all the cats who made up the Traveling Wilburys," they're not kidding, though they certainly handle those collective influences with care.
On paper M. Ward hardly seems the most exciting of musical prospects. The dreaded acoustic singer-songwriter tag suggests the aural equivalent of a Valium overdose (with half the laughs), plus monobrowed Mancunian Noel Gallagher rates him--and let's face it, that's usually the musical kiss of death. But dig a little deeper beneath the deceptively laid-back facade, beneath the burnished blues-inflected folk stylings, and you'll find an artist at the top of his game, perfecting his own peculiar furrow of cosmic Americana. Think Sparklehorse meets early Grandaddy with a voice seeped and steeped in honey and a new album, Hold Time, which is truly a thing of languid, smoldering splendor. We're talking a win-win situation all round.