Proving “twee” isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, Yael Meyer‘s Heartbeat finds her gossamer voice clinging like drops of honey to impossibly fine strands of acoustic guitar, ukulele, melodica, piano, and gentle percussion. Unapologetically sweet, these five songs are the aural equivalent of sunshine dipped in cotton candy and wrapped in a bow — she’s received a lot of Feist comparisons, but to these ears, Meyer makes Feist sound like Joan Jett. A whole album of this stuff might be enough to give a person a toothache, but give her five songs, and Meyer will keep you spellbound.
I suppose this suggests troubling things for Meyer’s long-term future as a recording artist, but it isn’t like Heartbeat is bad, it’s just one-note — and Meyer does such a good job of holding that note that I have faith she’ll take care to introduce some new textures whenever she gets around to following it up with her next full-length. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a burst of sweetness to carry you through a few of these dreary winter afternoons, you could certainly make worse five-dollar investments than this charming EP.
When James Maddock released Songs from Stamford Hill in 1999, he was performing under the alias Wood — a questionable artistic decision that might have paid dividends if Beavis and Butt-Head had still been on the air, but left a perfectly fine album of soul-speckled folk twisting in the wind. Now that he’s using the name I presume his parents gave him, perhaps Maddock’s commercial fortunes will improve — and they really should, because Sunrise on Avenue C has all the warmth and patient craftsmanship of a finely aged bourbon. (My regular readers will know that I must be serious now, because I care too much about bourbon to toss this comparison around willy-nilly.)
Like Songs from Stamford Hill, Sunrise on Avenue C is built from time-tested ingredients: Acoustic guitars, pianos, strings, and vocals that soar and stumble with the unlikely grace of a drunken angel. The chief difference between the two is that this time, the songs are better; during his decade away, Maddock has learned to drive deeper for his songs, and his music’s richer for the added effort. Incorporating elements of ragged rock & roll, Philly soul, classic AOR, and melancholy folk, Sunrise is an album that wraps you up with its opening chords and doesn’t let go until the last strains of the final track have faded away. Does it sound like something that should have taken ten years to release? Not really. But it does sound like something you might enjoy listening to for the next ten years, and the title track is almost certainly the first song to suggest what might have happened if the Eels had cut an album with Thom Bell and James Newton Howard. Wonderful, just wonderful.
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There’s beautiful music, and then there are the songs of Carrie Newcomer, an artist whose calm, clear vocals and unwavering commitment to simplicity have helped make her a darling of the ‘new folk’ scene for 30 years and counting. Her twelfth Rounder release, Before and After, adds another solid entry to a distinguished discography, and includes some of Newcomer’s most powerful music in the bargain.
True to form, Newcomer doesn’t waste a note here, imbuing each of Before and After‘s 13 songs with all the timeless grace and quiet dignity you’d expect from an artist closely identified with the Quaker faith. The album even makes room for a little humor with the bonus track, “A Crash of Rhinoceros,” a sprightly tongue-twister that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Pete Seeger’s collections of music for kids. Brief moment of levity aside, the album is a testament to the virtue of slowing down and paying attention to what matters — a call to quiet, to faith, to heart — and in the crowded clutter of digital noise that dominates the marketplace, these songs fairly startle as they soothe the soul. Steep yourself a pot of tea, settle down under a blanket, and let Carrie Newcomer gently remind you of the things that really matter.
In the latest news to remind me I’m creeping inexorably toward pale, saggy death, Whitney Houston‘s debut album turns 25 this year — and just to rub my nose in it, Sony Legacy has put together a celebratory reissue. Aside from the usual remastering rubdown, Whitney Houston: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition adds five bonus tracks to the album (12″ remixes of “Thinking About You,” “Someone for Me,” and “How Will I Know,” an a cappella mix of “How Will I Know,” and a live performance of “Greatest Love of All”) and tacks on an eight-track DVD containing the videos for “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love,” “How Will I Know,” “Greatest Love of All,” live performances of “Home,” “You Give Good Love,” the Dreamgirls song “I Am Changing,” and new interviews with Houston and Clive Davis.
It also contains — and 11-year-old me can’t believe that 35-year-old me is writing this — some of the last truly timeless songs to come out of modern R&B. Lyrically, I suppose none of these songs are anything special, but torch ballads like “Saving All My Love for You,” “All At Once,” and “You Give Good Love” used to be a proud tradition in pop songwriting, and when was the last time you heard something so wonderfully elegant assembled for no reason other than to give an incredible vocalist room to shine? “Vision of Love,” maybe, but even that was 20 years ago. Say what you want to about the smattering of cheesy filler tracks, or the fairly dreadful mid ’80s production, but there are some airtight pop songs on Whitney Houston, and listening to it now — especially if, like me, you haven’t listened to it since 1985 — will make you hate Bobby Brown all over again. (You also won’t be fond of whoever decided to make Whitney record a pair of duets with Jermaine Jackson, but that’s another story.)
For those of you of my generation, it might feel a little disorienting thinking of Whitney Houston as a classic deserving of this kind of treatment, but look again, bitches — it’s been a quarter century since Ms. Houston first graced the Top 40 with her presence, and no matter how steep her slide since then, this album is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement worth celebrating.
Bryan Eich‘s Sleeping by a Wire was one of my favorite albums of 2007, and in the years since its release, I’ve occasionally wondered what happened to him. Now I have the answer: He’s been toiling on Devil in Disguise, an EP whose biggest problem is its piddling five-song length. Given that Eich has an entire album of unreleased demos collecting dust, I know the problem isn’t a lack of material, so I can only guess Eich went the EP route for monetary reasons, which is bullshit — if Jill Sobule has enough fans to drum up the kind of donations it takes to fund a full-length effort, then by gum, Bryan Eich should have just as many.
Help rectify the situation by checking out Devil in Disguise. By cutting things down to five songs, Eich has made things a little harder on himself — on an EP this short, you’d better not include any filler — but he’s up to the challenge, particularly when it comes to the second track, “Heaven’s Just a Feeling (Devil in Disguise),” which peels off slippery slide licks over a stomping, machine-augmented beat and a melody that drills directly into the center of your brain. Elsewhere, Eich demonstrates that he hasn’t lost his way with an anthemic chorus (“I’ve Been Alive,” “Shakin’ Up the Love”) or a slow-drifting ballad (“Care for You,” “Building a Room”). Pretty much everything you’re looking for in a modern singer/songwriter, other words. Somebody get this guy a giant publicity machine, pronto.
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