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RICHARD X. HEYMAN – Incognito
Richard X. Heyman is one of those performers who can always be counted on to pack his records with tunes that are impeccably constructed and expertly performed, and his latest is no exception. Incognito ‘s 14 songs run the gamut from the slightly mysterious, harmony-filled title track and the pure pop charmer “A Fool’s Errand” to the powerful “Chalk it Up” (just one of many songs that show off Heyman’s amazing drum chops) and the timeless-sounding, beautifully sad breakup song “In Our Best Interest,” which sounds like it could have been a hit single in the mid-‘70s. Speaking of the ‘70s, three tracks where RXH makes like a soul man may be the best things here: the horn-infused “So What” and “Terry Two Timer” both glide along like classic R&B, as does the disc-closing “Everybody Gets Wise,” in which Heyman fashions an O’Jays-type groove and touches on a bit of social commentary with lyrics such as “the system is broken/there’s no easy fix.” They’re the cornerstones of Incognito, which stands as Heyman’s finest album in 20 years. Grade: A
GEORGE USHER – The End and the Beginning, 1990-2009
This career-spanning two-CD compilation from George Usher can accurately be described as an embarrassment of riches: 43 tracks from one of NYC’s finest tunesmiths, with plenty of sturdy folk pop/jangle pop to be found throughout both discs. The fantastic “Not the Tremblin’ Kind” should be on every pop fan’s playlist, while other tunes such as “Our World,” “Baby Laughed When Heaven Fell” and “Are You Coming or Going?” are nearly as fab. Vocally, Usher oftentimes conjures up aural images of Matthew Sweet, which is certainly a good thing. Also included here are nine Usher collaborations with singer/songwriter Edward Rogers (another top-tier indie pop singer/songwriter), as well as a few co-writes with Richard Barone, including the excellent “River to River,” a version of which Barone also released on his 1990 LP, Primal Dream. Music this prepossessing and heartfelt definitely deserves to be revisited. Grade: B+
RONNIE D’ADDARIO – First Songs, 1976-1983
The good folks at the You are the Cosmos label have unearthed three full-length ‘70s/’80s albums by Ronnie “My Kids are in the Lemon Twigs” D’Addario and have packaged ‘em up in a 3-CD set, with a single LP available with 12 tracks culled from the three albums. The release marks the first time these recordings have been available in a physical format, and the sonic touchstones here are McCartney and Emitt Rhodes to the max. All three records – Take in a Show, Falling For Love and Good For You – are one man band affairs for the most part, with D’Addario showing off a flair for crafting easy-to-like popsongs that are too damned good to have sat dormant for this long. D’Addario’s has one of those sweet, plaintive voices – McCartney and Emitt Rhodes to the max, remember? – that makes his sweet, sugary, three-minute nuggets go down smoothly, and he even throws some Beach Boys-like harmonies into the mix (particularly on Take in a Show). It’s all pretty wonderful stuff and should induce blissful smiles from legions of pop geeks. Word on the street is that YATC will be releasing some later-period D’Addario tuneage in the near future, so be on the lookout. Grade: A-
CLAY HOWARD – I’ll Give You Something to Cry About
CLAY HOWARD – Don’t Make Me Tell You Again…
Former Stratocruiser lead vocalist Clay Howard embraces his arena rock side on these two six-song EPs. (Love the titles – will the next one be called I’ll Turn This Car Around?) Big guitar riffs fly around all over the place, the drums often sound like cannons, Howard quotes the New York Dolls before breaking into his own “Love Baby Love” (which sounds like what Sammy Hagar might sound like if Sammy Hagar wasn’t such a turd), he transforms Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone” into a slinky, bass-heavy rocker, and he smolders on a bluesy, Zeppelin-esque number called “Oh, Maybe I.” Howard’s voice suits the material perfectly, too, although both collections would have benefited from a few more memorable melodies. Grade: B-
Stuck in My Head: An Offbeat Look at Music and Mental Health
Self-Published, 181 pages
Strange but true: I first met Michael Dane, the author of this wacky tome, when we were both participants in an online fantasy baseball league. I soon learned we also had a mutual interest in music, his book hit my mailbox, and the rest is…well, there is no “rest,” really, but this is an often entertaining read that, while certainly offbeat, contains several pearls of wisdom that I completely agree with. To wit: “Not every experiment is worth pursuing, or more accurately, worth recording and asking your fans to buy. I’m looking at you, Neil Young, and your strange techno album. Put down the vocoder and grab your guitar. You’re good at the guitar.” And this, about Gary Puckett: “I had trouble getting past the songs…’This Girl is a Woman Now,’ and most disturbingly, ‘Young Girl.’ Sure the late sixties was a different era, but didn’t anybody think these songs were creepy?”
My hand’s raised.
Anyway, Dane is at his best when making these sorts of cogent – and humorous – observations about pop music; the book gets less interesting when he interviews accordionists (yes, more than one) and his high school band director, but the way he weaves music around various events in his life is pretty cool. So Stuck in My Head is a mixed bag of sorts and also tends to jump around without any rhyme or reason, but since the back cover states “Michael Dane is…out of his mind” and talks about his “mental quirks, from OCD to anxiety disorder,” maybe that’s the point, eh? Grade: B-