She Loves You
GREG DULLI'S TWILIGHT SINGERS
One Little Indian
Afghan Whigs, the marginally successful adult alternative act Greg Dulli fronted until their breakup in 2001, had a knack for repackaging old soul and R&B tunes. It became most evident on 1992's Uptown Avondale (where their version of The Supremes' "Come See About Me" was impeccable), but frequent forays into decidedly non-indie-friendly territory yielded other gems as well.
The Whigs covered TLC's "Creep" with nary a hint of irony. They did justice to another Supremes classic, "I Hear a Symphony." And now, backed by a group of musicians almost nobody's heard of (dubbed The Twilight Singers), Dulli offers us She Loves You. Production-wise, it's still very plainly the Dulli Show, placing his cigarette-stained voice of heartache front-and-center. No mystery there.
But there's more to it, as evidenced by some incongruent song selections — after all, who else has the audacity to put Fleetwood Mac ("What Makes You Think You're the One"), John Coltrane ("A Love Supreme") and Mary J. Blige ("Real Love") tunes together on the same disc (but oddly enough, not the Beatles' "She Loves You")? Furthermore, who could stomach listening to all of these songs in one sitting? Dulli, ably assisted on five tracks by ex-Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan, makes each song his own, using the diversity of selections to sermonize his own heartbreaks — his grievances come in at least as many forms as there are songs here. But he also respects the original arrangements — before you hear the first utterance about catfish jumpin' on the closing track, you already know it's Gershwin's perennially covered "Summertime." Compared to the Whigs' remarkable material of the mid-'90s, you can't expect She Loves You to measure up. If anything, it reminds listeners that the old guy's still got some things to say, even if they're someone else's words.
Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck
Though he's most widely known for a cover of David Allan Coe's "Take This Job and Shove It" and a self-defeating lifestyle, Johnny Paycheck was in reality a talented C&W songwriter whose checkered career caromed from raw honky-tonk to weepy pop-country ballads and back again. This tribute disc, which features fairly big names from every color of the country/roots-rock/singer-songwriter spectrum, unarguably showcases the former Donald Lytle's gifts — his reverence for traditional Americana's simplicity; his ability to employ a humorous bit of wordplay without sacrificing honesty or depth; his knack for turning his own woes into compelling subject matter. And the instrumental tracks are top-notch.
Where Touch My Heart falters, however, is in the performances of its luminary vocalists, most of which sound competent at best. There's very little gravelly excitement here; the majority of singers seem content to turn in faithful, oddly detached versions of the originals.
Neko Case, Gail Davies & Robbie Fulks, Dave Alvin, Johnny Bush and Bobby Bare Jr. all fulfill their duties, but don't reach for more. Marshall Crenshaw does, and gets there, with the energetic Texas swing of "I'm Barely Hangin' on to Me." So does Mavis Staples, whose R&B-inflected "Touch My Heart" is the best thing here. Hank Williams III tries, too, with a moody, bare-bones rendition of "I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised," but it comes off as forced. Jim Lauderdale provides another highlight in "I Want You to Know," but former Paycheck employer George Jones' "She's All I Got" sounds like a goof, engaging but superficial.
"Take This Job and Shove It," performed by Bobby Bare Sr., Radney Foster, Buck Owens and Jeff Tweedy, is about all that ups the vitality quotient, as if it were the only thing on this 16-track compilation that mattered from the get-go. Given that it's not even Paycheck's tune, and that the excellent material of his own presented here holds so much more potential, it's tough not to see the whole as something of a disappointment — though not enough of a disappointment to deny recommendation of the disc on the strength of its songs.
Whiskey Tango Ghosts
Oh Tanya — where did you go after Belly, the Grammy-nominated alterna-pop group you fronted in the mid-'90s, disbanded? Did you retire to an ashram to smoke copious amounts of pot, far from the caustic judgments of shameless music critics? What about the rumors of you becoming a yak herder in Tibet? Any truth to that? For most fans of Belly (or Throwing Muses or The Breeders or any other project she's formerly been involved with), Ms. Donelly has been heaped onto the ever-growing number of carcasses of decade-old pop stars now absent from the limelight. Thankfully, Whiskey Tango Ghosts reassures us that the prolific songstress has continued doing what she does best — penning impeccable lyrics and indelible melodies. Few of us grow up and mellow out so publicly, but like Elvis Costello, Donelly transcended the limits of her angry youth to make music better suited to Sunday afternoon housecleaning than to Saturday night troublemaking. Opening track "Divine Sweet Divide" is Donelly at her folksiest, with vocals that invite comparisons to Joni Mitchell and only piano accompaniment. Whiskey Tango Ghost's title track is similarly fluid, adding muted drum patterns, pedal steel guitar and sober lines like "You're just a freckle away/ From changing everything." Donelly's ruminations are a reminder of what it was like to visit family after a few months away at college — you love her, you've stuck with her for a long time — but after being gone for so long, she's better taken in small doses. 1/2
It's been more than 20 years since alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe came out of the loft scene to cut records for Columbia. His tenure there yielded some formidable music but, in the end, a major label will only trade dismal sales for artistic cred for so long. Blythe has found a good home. At a small indie like Savant, he can continue to make good music without worrying whether his bottom line will catch the eye of someone in corporate accounting. Exhale is a thoroughly engaging hodge-podge of Blythe's different interests, none of it too terribly avant-garde, but generally edgy and challenging enough to rise above a legion of cookie-cutter post-boppers. (If there's any complaint here, it's that Blythe doesn't quite push the limits enough.) Instead of an acoustic bassist, for instance, he employs the services of tuba player Bob Stewart, which lends a nice bit of exotica. Blythe's quartet, which also includes pianist/organist John Hicks and drummer Cecil Brooks III, dives into everything from Miles Davis' "All Blues" (played pretty close to the original Kind of Blue version) to a downright perky take on Nat Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right." The three-part "Exhaust Suite" evokes Love Supreme-era Coltrane, with the added dimension of Hicks' sinewy organ. The band also bites into a rollicking version of "Night Train," the definitive stripper blues. Blythe's inimitable, tightly rasped tone cuts through it all, one of the more indelible sonic signatures of jazz's last three decades. (www.jazzdepot.com) 1/2