Trust The Sky
By PAUL ZOLLO
She writes the kind of songs people say nobody writes anymore. The kind of songs written by the greatest of the great singer-songwriters – songs with uniquely poetic lyrics wed to gorgeous melodies, songs in which both the words and the music are equally inventive and inspired. In great songs, it’s not the words or the music that matter most, but the way in which they connect. In her songs the melodies and lyrics glide together with the immaculate dynamism of figure skaters. The haunting “Trust The Sky,” for example, is a song of quiet zen acceptance, of learning to trust the universe. Its tune is ripe with unexpectedly delightful melodic passages, such as the bluesy turn on the title phrase at the end of each chorus. It’s surprising and beautiful, as is this entire album. Add to that a bridge of aching yearning that resolves into a sparsely tender acoustic guitar solo, surrounded in loving instrumental touches, combined with a lyric of gentle confidence, and you have something timeless and great.
The production throughout – as steered by Paula with the multi-instrumental Ian Hattwick (who also co-wrote several of these songs and contributes lovely musical touches to each track) – is wisely subtle, always understating the arrangements to enhance rather than overwhelm these powerful songs. These songs are not only inspired, they’re crafty – designed by a savvy songwriter to last, so that they won’t fall apart on the street like a cheap radio. But they are singularly uncontrived, which is the hardest challenge for all songwriters, met and surpassed by Paula, to write something which is fresh and unheard, yet alive with a timeless inevitability. Her songs sound great on first listening, and only grow richer in time.
“Without Ever Saying A Word” is a breathtaking ballad that is brilliant in its simplicity. Kind of the lyrical flipside to George Harrison’s “Something,” it’s built on a clever conceit but easily transcends cleverness to pinpoint an intangible, always a hard hurdle to clear in the realm of romantic songs, and with a gorgeous tune. “So Long” is a great upbeat declaration, and on it she bears the kind of edgy but passionate feminine presence of a Liz Phair or Patti Smith. Sparked by an unrestrained electric guitar solo by Hattwick, it shows the range she possesses, from tender ballads to rockers. The poignant “3 Flights of Stairs” displays the kind of lyrical spell she can cast, as she projects images of fragile vulnerability, connecting this stairway to a person’s crooked spine so that we not only recognize her subject, we internalize it.
That this is her debut album is hard to believe, because it resounds like the work of a mature, experienced singer- songwriter, someone who’s been doing this for decades. But like Laura Nyro, Carole King and others who wrote inimitable masterpieces from the very start, Paula is a prodigiously gifted singer- songwriter who has taken her inherent abilities and soared with them. With clear and confident vocals and a natural gift for harmony singing (she beautifully overdubs harmonies with her own voice with the warm assurance of Joni Mitchell or Dan Fogelberg), she has everything it takes and more to be a lasting presence in our musical landscape. In a world where there seems to be too much of everything except time to take it all in, this is a collection of songs that demands attention, and given it, it’s time well-spent. This is a record that makes no promises it doesn’t keep, but culminates in the promise of more to come. Paula McMath is very much the real deal, an artist plugged directly into the electric current of creativity. This is not to be missed.
The Old Ways
By PAUL ZOLLO
Carrie Wade is a seriously great songwriter. There’s a whole lot of people writing songs these days, and it’s always evident which ones have the gift, the spark, and which don’t. Carrie Wade has that spark. And that natural talent combined with years of musical and life experience has resulted in a songwriter who embraces the full gamut of life in her work, and always gracefully and uncontrived. This is genuine. In songs like her title tune “The Old Ways” and “In A World That Goes Wrong,” she fuses a prodigious gift for tunefulness with poetic lyrics of unforeseen candor. She’s a gifted melodist, and her archly angular yet irrepressible tunes bring to mind Neil Young and early Joni Mitchell, as in the title song, simultaneously sophisticated and simple, and exceedingly inviting. Her lyrics strike that crucial balance between the colloquial and the poetic, and her soulful vocals are reminiscent both of the aching purity of Emmylou Harris and the wounded bravado of Chrissie Hynde. She’s a savvy artist in a multitude of ways, not the least of which is her choice of co-producers, New Zealand’s Peter Kearns and America’s own Marty Rifkin (legendary for his pedal steel playing with Springsteen and others). Both are hands-on multi-instrumentalists who draw from their own seemingly limitless instrumental palettes, but always in service of the songs; the production throughout is gently inventive and dimensionally evocative, surrounding yet never overwhelming these heart songs with a happy and rhythmic luster. Carrie’s message throughout is a positive one, that although our lives are often painful, such sorrow and struggle can deepen the artistic well and strengthen the soul. “In A World That Goes Wrong,” which is beautifully colored by Rifkin’s haunting pedal-steel passages and Kevan’s Torfeh’s mournful cello, we get a declaration of triumph, of transcending everything modern times presents to derail an artist. That sense of triumph shines throughout The Old Ways, and it’s a welcome sound in these trying times. Keeping hope alive is perhaps the greatest challenge we daily face in these chaotic days, and music like this goes a long way in helping us all remain hopeful.
Lonely House (Covers)
By PAUL ZOLLO
Had Coltrane never recorded “My Favorite Things,” it’s quite possible that his genius might have gone unheard by millions of his fans who were attracted by the famous melody. One hopes this new album by the remarkable trio Cargo Cult (Tomas Ulrich on cello with Rolf Sturm on guitar & banjo and Michael Bisio on bass) has the same effect, luring listeners in with famous melodies so that they then become exposed to the expansive improvisational genius of these three amazing musicians.
Lonely House, named for the Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes song, goes a long way in proving that which we have long known, which is that Tomas Ulrich is the Miles Davis of the cello. Like Miles, Tomas is fluent in every musical language, and in each his warm tone and distinctive depth of expression lets you know it’s him and nobody else playing. Ulrich’s voice on the cello is one of the most poignant and distinctive sounds in modern music – he can sing with the warm tonality of a human voice, lavishing much grace onto glorious melodies, but also veers off into places voices can never reach. Like Miles he understands the meaning and value of silence, the space between the notes. His playing is expansive and yet very personal – always on that razor’s edge of joy/sorrow, and whether playing a melody by Donizetti, Cole Porter or Neil Young (all of whom are represented here), the Ulrich spark – the great oceans of sorrow connected to limitless elation – is there. His playing reflects always the full gamut of human experience, from darkly mournful to pure exultation, and always soulful, like a man singing purely from the heart.
From the opening cut here – “Una Furtiva Lagrima” by Donizetti — we are alerted to something very special. Set against the ostinato bass line of the monumental Bisio and with eloquent coloring by the exceptionally gifted Sturm, Tomas takes the beautiful melody and soars with it. Long revered for his own beautiful Mingus-meets-Zappa compositions and his improvisational genius on cello – an instrument on which musicians rarely improvise, and never with the confidence and complexity he easily summons – here on this album of covers, he shows his respect for the purity of melody by bringing his full-bodied tone to the beauty of these great tunes. He brings you into the realm, sings a beautiful and/or visceral melody through his instrument, and then proceeds – not unlike Miles – to deconstruct that melody and take it to new and unimagined places. This might be the best Ulrich group effort yet to introduce new listeners to the majesty of his music, and he shows that the tonal range of the cello, in his hands anyway, make it perhaps the most expressive instrument in existence – with the high frequency clarity of a violin or soprano sax, the mid-frequency agility of an alto sax or guitar, and the deep amber colors of bassoon and bass.
The song choice is unusual and fun – a standard like Weill’s “September Song” might be expected (though they take it to unexpected places) but who would expect Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” from a jazz group? Though simple and diatonic, Ulrich bends the notes of the tune like a drunken sailor trying to walk home after a whole night of drinking, and Bisio plays the part of the friend keeping his pal from falling face-down with his steady and comforting bass line. Sturm’s playing throughout is joyful – with tastes of country and folk mixed in with jazz voicings and eloquently clean solo lines. On “September Song,” as Tomas sings the famous and beautiful melody, underscored lovingly by Bisio’s bowed bass, Sturm shines brilliantly in his accompaniment, which is eloquently quirky and great, and then solos with an inspired blend of Django, Chet Atkins, and more.
When Cargo Cult takes on the blues, as they do here with Robert Johnson’s classic “Come On In My Kitchen,” what we get is miraculous – suddenly we’re in the Mississippi Delta, in a great wedding of acoustic textures and blues and soul. This isn’t an elitist jazz journey to the blues. This is authentic, as Sturm brings the metallic taste of banjo into the mix. When they take on the sophisticated changes of Stevie Wonder’s “’Cause We Ended As Lovers,” they bring out the soulful splendor of its great melody, and then open up to one of Tomas’ most exquisite solos.
The entire album, as produced by Robert Rusch, was recorded live – and preserves and celebrates the tonal purity of these three musicians so intimately that you can hear one exhale on a furious lead line, or the occasional sounds of fingers sliding on strings. Rusch wisely didn’t tamper with the intimate immediacy of Cargo Cult’s greatness – the live meeting of three musicians inspiring each other. The guitar and bass are panned to opposite stereo sides, while Ulrich remains in the middle, linked by spirit, rhythm and harmony with his band mates.
Eden Ahbez’s delightful “Nature Boy” shows off Ulrich’s amazing versatility and range of emotion – from gently stating the elegiac tune to a solo which is both brash and delicate, skating through the changes with marvelous dynamism and poignancy.
A jaunty swing melody, without the need for drums, on Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” shows that Ulrich can bring Grappelli-like verve to the cello – while Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” has him burning like Hendrix on cello, somehow producing currents of distortion and overdrive without the use of any electronics.
If you are yearning for meaningful music, yearn no more. This is the ideal Cargo Cult album with which to start. This isn’t background music or cocktail time jazz. This is something transcendent. This is now, yet this is timeless. This is Cargo Cult, and should not be missed. – Paul Zollo
Live at the Viper Room, Los Angeles
By ABIGAIL MILLER
When Grant Hart, former drummer of the influential punk band Hüsker Dü, stepped onto the stage at the Viper Room in November, it was hard not to be transported back to early 1980s Hollywood. Hart, touring in support of his latest solo release, Hot Wax, made the show feel like a quietly reflective commentary on the past 25 years. It wasn’t long before an intimate crowd began shouting out requests from Hart’s days with Nova Mob (a group he formed after the breakup of Hüsker Dü in 1987), such as “Admiral of the Sea” and “Little Miss Information,” and even memorable oldies from Intolerance (1989), his first solo effort, including “2541.” Notable among Hart’s Hot Wax pop/punk numbers were “Barbara” and “Sailor Jack.” His soft but insistent vocals were a testament to both his punk sensibilities and his emotional honesty.
As Hart began the set he thanked the crowd for showing up, praised the Viper Room’s staff, then complained about its disorganization. (His set had to be shorter than he originally was told.) Hart has been known to be temperamental and outspoken, and this performance was no exception, although he has definitely mellowed in recent years. But for a celebrated veteran musician touring the country on his own dime, it’s understandable that he might be peeved. It’s a shame more people didn’t come out to see Hart’s sincere, open performance, but I’m glad I was one of the lucky ones who did.
Ellie Lawson, Lost Songs * This is astounding. This is worth pulling the car over to the side of the road and listening. This is worth stopping everything for. This is a young woman plugged directly into the electric source of creativity. This is songwriting and record-making of the highest level.
Among the many music-lovers in her native England and here in the USA, I was utterly entranced and jazzed by the wonder that was her debut CD, The Philosophy Tree. Even Ellen Degeneres loved her, inviting her to perform on her show before those of us in the know knew about her. But many artists peak on their first record, that first collection of songs culled from years of writing, whereas the sophomore effort is famously disappointing. Not so with Lost Songs, the new album from Ellie. She’s followed an amazing debut with a genuine wonder. Lost Songs, an 18-song collection of brilliance and inspiration, is a tour de force, a work by an artist at the peak of her creative potential. Here she’s not unlike Brian Wilson during his “Good Vibrations” excursion, both envisioning and realizing songs of great sophistication, as ornately and ingeniously arranged as a symphony, yet glowing with the golden radiance of the greatest pop singles. She succeeds, as did Brian, in being simple and complex at the same time, and her talent as a singer and musician matches the ambition of her songwriting and arranging chops. She’s a very rare artist, in that she has seamlessly fused the rhythms, rhymes and energy of hip-hop with the visceral edge of rock, the intimacy and tenderness of folk (both American and British), and the sweet seduction of pop. Though 18 songs are contained all on a single disc here, rather than be overkill, it flows with the inspirational expansive span of Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life – an abundance of riches; a miracle of an artist spinning is all directions at once and yet remaining radiantly focused.
Often she packs her lyrics with brisk successions of rhymes, like the rapid inner echoes of hip-hop and rap but with the heartfelt and poetic reach of folk – it’s as if Jay Z collaborated with Joni Mitchell. Only better. It’s very much 21st century music, in that it encompasses, really, almost all genres of music. It’s orchestral and intimate at the same time, both very rocking and very gentle.
She plays with traditional song structures, deconstructing and expanding them – often rising from a great chanted chorus into a kind of second chorus that bursts through with flames of exultation. She flirts with dynamics constantly: from fat polyrhythmic, multi-layered sound mammoths to naked voice and acoustic guitar; from fast, conversational word-jammed verses to sparsely worded sections of luminous melody; from verbose eruptions of language to haunting repetitions of simple phrases. Her music weaves threads from so many spheres of music that this is truly world music, but one that doesn’t conjoin two disparate worlds as much as it brings together all realms into a kind of musical Esperanto that has to be experienced to understand.
Great counterpoints of exotic vocal lines here, woven into the mix like Turkish violins, roll with the oceanic splendor of gospel at its most fevered – it’s all about ecstatic spirit speaking through physical forms. Often her music sounds channeled from another universe, bonded in the bedrock of unbroken rhythm. Many songs, like “One Another,” set a chanted chorus against wordless melismatic sections and then explodes into rich melodicism, stacking contrapuntal beds of vocals against soulful expeditions of the heart. “Apple” is an amazement, merging an urgent, passionate chorus with declarative mosaics of rapped verses set against great vocal riffs. It’s a powerful intersection between what’s best of what’s new and old; the beauty of pure melody with celestial harmonies and the timeless structures of classic songwriting. Like Joni Mitchell, she intimately shapes her art to match the specific sound and nature of her own singing.
As multi-hued as this is, it is not eclectic anymore than the Beatles were eclectic. What we have is the sound of new ground being broken. Rather than avoid the advent of hip-hop and rap, as have many traditionally-minded songwriters, she embraces and celebrates the greatness of the new music with the same respect with which she honors the traditions of the old. This music is so rich, so finely envisioned and realized, that you can fall into these tracks, and live in them for days at a time. In a world where a scarcity of substance prevails, this collection swims against the current of what’s conventional, packing in all the tunefulness, rhythmic and verbal wonder that tracks can hold. This is sensational. –PZ. www.ellielawson.com www.myspace.com/ellielawson