By Bruce Sylvester
Some old, some new, some covers, some blues – here are a few cool recent releases.
The expanded two-CD 30th anniversary edition of Violent Femmes' Why Do Birds Sing? (Craft) – their fifth studio disc and last with original drummer Victor DeLorenzo – ends the first disc (the original album) with four early song versions and a B-side two 45 singles shared, hard-core “Dance, MF, Dance!” CD 2 is a 13-song July 21, 1991, Norfolk, VA, concert, with numerous songs from earlier LPs. Birds opens with anthemic “American Music,” a perfect singalong with lead writer/singer/guitarist Gordon Gano's typical upbeat delivery as he delves into a young man's growing pains, angst, and romantic adventures. His boyish vocals enhance the vibe. He's direct about his foibles and bad memories, but his singing style keeps the overall mood celebratory. A college-radio DIY band back then, the Femmes were Americana before the term emerged for the genre. “Controlled chaos” is Goldmine editor Pat Prince's term for their sound in a podcast with Gano on www.goldminemag.com. Gordon explains “American Music”'s inspiration in the CDs' informative notes. The live disc shows the trio's thrash side (“Old Mother Reagan,” which says it all in 37 seconds) and his serious side (“Country Death Song,” which he wrote in high school). Bassist Brian Ritchie – a world music enthusiast – brings in a range of unusual instruments from afar. (PS; Youtube has a number of good Ritchie and Femmes videos. In an animated cartoon, Brian relives the band's worst gig ever.)
Commemorating the Legendary Shack Shakers' 25th anniversary, founder/leader J.D. Wilkes rounded up a few former members to help the quartet romp through decades of country genres on Cockadoodledeux (Alternative Tentacles) with label owner Jello Biafra adding his frenzied yelps and yodels to the opener, a cover of bygone TV show Rawhide's theme (one of two covers amid 10 Wilkes originals). Various tracks dig into western swing, bluegrass, southern gothic, folk, Sun rockabilly, and Tex-Mex conjunto. On “Punk Rock Retirement Plan” (“He likes a square dance instead of a slam dance.”), the bridge name checks iconic Johnnys Cash, Horton, Ramone, and Rotten. The CD's title references the Shack Shakers' breakthrough 1991 Cockadoodledon't.
On Pinky's Blues (Stony Plain), Canada-native Sue Foley focuses on Texas blues, moving from contemporary writers such as Angela Strehli to long-gone legends Frankie Lee Sims and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Bass, drums, and Hammond B3 organ support her taut picking on her pink Fender Telecaster she's named Pinky. The disc's sessions, done in only three days, were clearly fun. As Foley has said, “I saw my first blues show at 15 and I swear I've never been the same. I was lucky because I was able to play with so many legends before they passed away. That direct transmission is what it's all about. I have the kind of experience and education that you can't get anymore. In a way, it's a big responsibility to carry the message of these giants, but even more important, it's about finding your own voice within the framework. In blues, that takes times. The beauty of blues is that you get better as you get older. I've always been a fan of older musicians. There's something about the message, the life experience, the whole package.”
New York-based Brad Vickers and His Vestapolitans' good-natured The Music Gets Us Thru (Man Hat Tone) does exactly that with Louisiana-flavored blues and rock plus witty writing from vocalist Margey Peters. Her “Birds on My Family Tree” sounds like she's versed in the 1930s-40s Golden Age of Songwriting.
With his somewhat gruff, weathered voice, Georgia native Willie Jackson on All in the Blues (self-release) confronts head on topics like aging and romantic jealousy that some writers soft pedal. Turning funny, on “Give Me My Rib Back” backup singer Mary Davis chants, “You can't have it,” with Ace Anderson acing the harmonica
Dedicated Men of Zion's recent success led Alice Vines of The Glorifying Vines Sisters to recruit DMZ, the Vines, and eight other Black gospel quartets from eastern North Carolina for an eight-day recording session yielding Sacred Soul of North Carolina (Bible & Tire/Music Maker Foundation) variously voicing hope, joy, sustenance, and fear via their growling, soaring, and amazing harmonizing. As DMZ's Anthony “Amp” Daniels says of the region's various styles, “It all comes from the same root, but it's like a tree and branches out. But the roots, that's were it all came from.” We're hearing origins of R&B, soul, and rock. The CD ends on a refined note – its sole a cappella solo – Vines daughter Melody Harper's vibrato-filled “Amazing Grace.”