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5 Music Reviews

Easy to Be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson (Planting Seeds)

A drastic reinterpretation of someone else's song can be exciting, though also disastrous, but there's something refreshing about a tribute album that leaves the experiments for someone else. Easy to Be Free is a true tribute - a bunch of musicians who obviously love Rick Nelson's music singing and playing them straight-ahead, trying to capture some of the grace and spirit of them. It's a rock-solid, enjoyable album, with no major disasters and a fair share of renditions that show a genuine understanding of Nelson's gifts as a songwriter and performer, and yet are not so direct that they come off like cheap imitations. Instead the contributors' own musical personalities shine through, but so does Nelson's, at very moment. Including both songs Nelson wrote and songs he didn't, and capturing the varied stages of his career as teen pop idol, as country-rock singer, etc. the album kicks off with The Primary 5, Paul Quinn (ex-Teenage Fanclub)'s current band doing an energetic "One X One," followed by a nice and smooth "Poor Little Fool" from "The Voyces. Linda Draper's spellbinding "How Long" properly demonstrates the dreamy quality of Nelson's music. Astropop 3 keep their take on "Life" pure and simple, and benefit greatly for it. Micheal Barrett's "Nightime Lady" is hushed and romantic. Liz Durrett's "Try (To Fall in Love)" swoons in slow-motion, like her own songs, while capturing as many of the songs do the sensitive, introspective aspects to Nelson. The whole affair feels particularly attuned to why Nelson is a musician to pay attention to, yet it's also a completely listenable and rewarding collection. dave heaton

The Minor Leagues, The Pestilence Is Coming (Datawaslost)

On the inside cover of The Pestilence Is Coming there's photos of 42 faces: the four members of the band, three featured musicians on the album, and 35 others who sang or played on it. I keep looking at them for some reason they look like nice, friendly people, not exactly your average grizzly rock star-types. Together they've created a heck of a pop-rock album, though, one that's packed full of melody and light and an inspiring, lift-up sort of feeling. There's a community feeling to the music, one reminiscent in sound of Head of Femur and perhaps the Elephant 6 bands, Beulah especially. The music's big and sweeping, and the instrumentation is varied lots of horns and percussion and joyous singing-together, making the Minor Leagues resemble a mini-orchestra at times. That communal feeling's appropriate too for an album that seems at times like a conceptual work about community, about social problems and how their handled (or not), about the end of the apocalypse and how we'll handle it. It starts with the hoopla of a store's grand opening, happening in the midst of crime and poverty as politicians offer only ineffectual crosstalk. And it ends with the end of the world, love, and unanswered questions: "No I just don't know the truth." {mp3} dave heaton

Alan Sparhawk, Solo Guitar (Silber)

Plain and simple, the title spells it out: this is Alan Sparhawk of Low playing the guitar. But there's nothing simple about the way he plays it. The music is involving, filling the room with mood. The mood is both harrowing and meditative. The general tone of Low's music dark yet oddly peaceful is here. The minimalist approach is sometimes disguised in clouds of reverb, though other times what we hear is stark and quiet. Sparhawk lets his guitar resonate, repeat, circle around until it builds into a slow-moving. But he also plays in a fiery way that doesn't avoid shredding displays of technique. That's true well before he covers Van Halen's "Eruption," even. Beautifully balancing explosion with the aura of a unpopulated, never-ending landscape, the music is mysterious, visceral, and completely haunting from start to finish. {mp3} dave heaton

Kara Suzanne and the Gojo Hearts, Aumsville EP (self-released)

I'm generally hesitant about indie releases that fall into the general realm of alt-country, country-rock, etc., because so many of them end up being fairly dull, cookie-cutter affairs. This three-song EP by Kara Suzanne and the Gojo Hearts is another story altogether. Though the group does fit that general category of traditional-leaning country with more of a modern pop-rock sensibility, their music has so much more heart and style than many of their contemporaries. Kara Suzanne's songs are humorous but also moving, particularly the EP's middle track "I Promise." That song forms gently around a narrative about a lying ex-boyfriend using a worn-out pick-up line, but it also pulls a certain amount of feeling out of the line itself. That track is sandwiched between a ballad that takes a more serious, melancholy approach to a lover's kiss-off and a quick, upbeat barnburner that jokes about numerology but also has some real pain inside it. All three songs sparkle on the outside, yearn on the inside, and leave me wanting more. dave heaton

Track a Tiger, Woke Up Early the Day I Died (Future Appletree)

There's a song on this Track a Tiger album called "It's Pretty Hard to Go Home (After Something Like That)" that always lingers for me after the album ends. There's a haunting tone of consideration, as acoustic guitars are gently strummed, a cello is played, and Jim Vallet sings words that touch on something awful that's happened a car accident maybe and allude to relationship turmoil, but also have a determination, a certain rough sense of hope: "And I'm real, real heavy into staying alive." The song lingers not because it's the best one on the album, necessarily, but because it's like a tightly wrapped-up summary of the album's mood of reflection, of hurt intertwined with hope. It's in many ways a quiet, gentle, introspective album, with a late night/early morning mood, in the general world of dreamy, patient, fairly minimalist, folk-like music. There's hurt and regret and hardships in the lyrics, for sure. But there's also a brightness to the album, a certain low-key pop spunkiness that keeps the songs absolutely attractive and infectious through and through. It's a fantastic album from this Chicago/Iowa band fantastic for that perfect balance of hurt and healing that's in the music and the lyrics. And for the melodies, the harmonies, the zone-out tone that's just beneath the surface of the hooks. An extremely affable album, one that I keep playing, one that keeps staying present in my thoughts. {mp3} dave heaton


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