by Michael Goldberg
Monday, June 16, 2003
Three brilliant artists deliver three very different albums that will not reach the pop charts soon
The Saddest Songs
During the mid-to-late '90s, Joe Pernice was a co-leader of the sweet alt-country band the Scud Mountain Boys, whose third album, Massachusetts, remains a masterpiece. But Pernice heard a sound in his head that went beyond the countrified rock and pop that he made with the Scud Mountain Boys.
That sound was big and pop and quite out-of-fashion. It was inspired by Pet Sounds and Bread, and perhaps the ethereal harmonies of the Everly Brothers. It's taken Pernice five post-SMB albums to get the sound he heard out of his head and onto a CD, but with Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont), he's hit pay dirt. (Those other albums are good; it's just that with this one everything comes together.)
If pop music is a city, then Pernice's sound can be found up a back road in the mountains located many miles away. Some great contemporary music that of Radiohead, for instance references the present in many ways, whether through its musical connections to various underground sounds or the timely, somewhat topical lyrics. But the Pernice Brothers' music sounds like something from four decades ago, from the early '60s when Roy Orbison and the Righteous Brothers had hits. It's a sound far removed from the present, and it places Pernice alongside many other non-mainstream artists who are now making music with no thought to the mainstream top-of-the-charts marketplace.
There is a sad, melancholy nostalgia in this music. Actually, it's in Pernice's voice. When he sings "Don't cry baby/ Don't cry baby/ I'll be tender till the day I die," you can hear it. That sadness shadows the whole album, and it colors even seemingly optimistic sentiments. In other words, he's telling her he'll be devoted forever, and you know this relationship, if it ever gets started, is doomed.
Underlining the sense of some "summer of '62" love that ends in heartbreak is the Duane Eddy guitar in "Water Ban." When Pernice asks "Marianne," in "One Foot in the Grave," "Are you alive?/ Are you alive?," you know the answer.
Perhaps the saddest song here is "Baby in Two." "Sometimes this sweet life feels like it's never been as bad as it is tomorrow," Pernice sings over acoustic guitar that is joined by a low-key rhythm section. "It's all right/ You can cry/ Living with the price of a world of sorrow."
Cracked Big Star Guitar Pop
Tywanna Jo Baskette reminds me of Victoria Williams. She has an eccentric down-home voice, and there's plenty of whimsy in her songs (the ones that aren't depressed, that is). Actually Baskette, whose striking debut, Fancy Blue, is the first release on producer Dennis Herring's Sweet Tea label, often sounds like a naïve little girl who speaks truths far beyond her years.
The press materials that came with my copy of Fancy Blue compare Baskette to "outsider" songwriters including Vic Chesnutt, Daniel Johnson, Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart and Skip Spence. No artist should have to bear comparison to all of those artists, 'cause there's no way you're ever gonna win the competition, if there is one. Still, Baskette is a real talent, and her debut album is winner. Her producer, Clay Jones, told Nashville's The City Paper, "Ty [and] I met through a mutual friend who got her to send me a cassette. ... And the tape was it was just freaky how good it was. Listening to her tape the first time, it was one of those things like, 'This is never going to happen to me again. ... I'm never going to get a tape in the mail that is this good if I live for a long time.'"
I think what Baskette's handlers are trying to communicate in her press materials is that Baskette is an innocent, natural talent and something of an oddball. Songs apparently just pop into her head and she sings them as she goes about her business. Though she's been making up songs since she was 12, she never wrote them down, and it was only in 1999 that a friend began following her around with a tape recorder. Over two years ago she told a writer from Southeast Performer magazine that she had enough songs to fill four albums.
The music on Fancy Blue crosses several genres (there are 19 tracks, including a few spoken-word pieces), ranging from the old-school country of "Howdy Howdy Howdy Do" to the alt-country of the title track to the cracked Big Star guitar pop of "Pretty Crazy Daisy." The two spoken-word pieces ("The Name Song" and "1985/1998") are probably why Beefheart has been mentioned (note that she sounds NOTHING like Beefheart). One song sounds like a nightmarish nursery rhyme ("Everything Is Awful").
Much credit must go to producer/musician Jones, who has taken Baskette's unusual songs and voice and placed them in amazingly simpatico musical settings.
Like Pernice's Yours, Mine & Ours, Fancy Blue is an album that stands outside the moment in time in which it is being released. Yet unlike the Pernice album, this one isn't rooted in the past. The offbeat production, the timeless writing and Baskette's remarkable voice make this an album that defies time. Right now, as it plays, it sounds to me like it could just as easily have been released 40 years ago, as in another 40 years.
Just A Little Older
Damien Rice is an Irish singer/songwriter with a likeable, affecting and quite vulnerable voice who has made one of those exquisite folk-rock albums his is titled O (Vector) like they used to make in the late '60s and early '70s. You know, the kind of authentic, heartfelt album that Beck wishes he'd made when he recorded the self-conscious Sea Change. I'm talking about such albums as Nick Drake's Pink Moon, John Martyn's Bless the Weather and Fairport Convention's What We Did on Our Holidays. Not sure yet if O is quite up to those classics, but for right now, midway through 2003, it sounds damn good.
Rice's lyrics are poetic and reflective. "Nothing's changed, I'm just a little older, that's all," Rice sings during "Amie." "Cannonball" is just Rice singing above his own accompaniment on acoustic guitar. "Older Chests," begins with just Rice and his guitar before strings swell in, and then, later, Irish singer Lisa Hannigan joins him. During "Older Chests" Rice sings about a father who "lost at the races too many times," about needing time to get over a failed relationship, about old men pondering a world that is changing and passing them by. And then there's "Cheers Darlin'," which could well be Rice's update of Dylan's "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat"; here Rice curses actions not taken when he had the chance to win a girl's love, and now offers, in a hurt voice, "cheers darlin'" to the girl, who has a new lover.
And so O is one of those albums that you can listen to again and again. You can dig the sound of it, and of the vocals of Rice and Hannigan, and when you feel like it, you can take a close listen to the lyrics. Either way, you'll be rewarded.