S.F. Seals, Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows (Matador)
It has rightly been noted that S.F. Seals frontwoman Barbara Manning was making boldly confessional postpunk folk musicincluding two stunning yet virtually unnoticed solo albumslong before Liz Phair screwed up the courage to commit her now famous to four-track tape. Manning has also been credited, along with Joan Jett, Kim Deal and others, with helping midwife the “girl rock” revolution of the ’90s. Appreciation for her is long overdue, but I’m not sure that even this recognition does her singular talent justice. Whereas Phair and most riot grrls write with a more visceral directness (a fine thing in itself), Manning typically relies on suggestion, using indirection and metaphor to convey the complex, discordant feelings expressed in her impeccably crafted songs.
Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows finds Manning at her acerbic, conflicted best. The record is rife with broken and ill-fated connections; you get the sense that Manning is somewhere other than where she wants to be. At one point, she urges her lover to “open up a little wider,” and at another she’s locked out altogether. Elsewhere, she dismisses her lover for being too sweet, confessing that she can only tolerate poison, while on “Pulp”a song that shares much with The Crystals’/Phil Spector’s controversial “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)”Manning sings, “When you walked out on me/Part of me wanted to/Walk out on me with you.” Even here, her self-doubt betrays desire.
Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows is equal parts neo-psychedelia and hypnotic, Velvet Underground-influenced droning à la New Zealand bands like The Bats and The Clean. Though it lacks the rawer, DIY feel of Manning’s previous records, the refinement and relative calm of the music are hardly drawbacksjust the opposite, they provide a beguiling contrast to her often turbulent lyrics. This even holds true for “Kid’s Pirate Ship,” an annoying sounding but ultimately poignant allegory about monsters out to betray the trust of unsuspecting children.
Your Love and Other Lies (HighTone) and live at the Ace of Clubs Nov. 2
Like the music of other performers who are driven by artistic rather than commercial aspirations, Buddy Miller’s debut album is too rich to pigeonhole. That said, Your Love and Other Lies nonetheless sounds like a latter-day hard-country classic, a record on the order of Gary Stewart’s Out of Hand or Joe Ely’s Honky-Tonk Masquerade. Besides plenty of fiddle and steel guitarcourtesy of Tammy Rogers and Al Perkins, respectivelyYour Love boasts Miller’s muscular guitar playing and soulful, deeply expressive vocals; he’s equally at home with country and blues idioms. Perhaps more importantly, the record has songsfrom driving honky-tonk (“I’m Pretending,” “I Don’t Mean Maybe”) to lean, gutbucket stomps (“Hole in My Head,” “I Can’t Slow Down”) to tender, unsentimental expressions of longing and loss (“Hold on My Love,” “Through the Eyes of a Broken Heart”). Most were written by Miller and his wife, Julie, whose harmonies, along with those of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Dan Penn, further heighten the record’s emotional impact.
Miller played 10 of the 13 songs from Your Love and Other Lies when he opened for alternacountry favorite Jim Lauderdale at a recent Ace of Clubs date. His hard-edged performances cut an even deeper groove live; especially of note were his crawling kingsnake guitar on “I Can’t Slow Down” and Julie Miller’s gritty background vocals on the lowdown “Hole in My Head.” Aching covers of Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” and the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild,” both also on Miller’s album, were among the other revelations. But for me, the show’s high point came when Lucinda Williams joined Miller onstage to add her stray-cat harmonies to the astonishing “You Wrecked Up My Heart.” Their performance fairly dripped with greasy soul, making explicit a musical and spiritual kinship merely suggested on Miller’s thoughtful, hard-hitting debut.
Kathy Kallick, Use a Napkin (Not Your Mom!) (Sugar Hill)
This CD has been in heavy rotation with my 5-year-old son, Marshall, for weeks now. In itself, that’s not surprisingthe record is an engaging children’s bluegrass album, thanks to Kallick’s spirited vocals and the homespun picking of Jody Stecher, Sally Van Meter, Todd Phillips and others. It only starts to sound remarkable when you listen carefully enough to hear the humanity that brims throughout. The traditional string-band material alone is a delight, from “The Crawdad Song” and “C-H-I-C-K-E-N” to “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” and the swinging version of Count Basie’s “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” (which the liner notes describe as a “tune about a real-life folk hero who never chopped down any trees or killed any Indians”). There’s also a zydeco tune, a soaring revision of the Amelia Earhart story, and a song about family values in a home where there are two momsnot the sort of thing you’d normally find on a children’s album.
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