Thursday, September 20, 2007

CD Reviews in a Singer-Songwriter Vein

Despite an impressive body of work that, with the release of “Folk is the New Black” (Rude Girl, c/o, includes twenty albums, JANIS IAN is still basically known for two songs from early in her career. This is an injustice. Ian’s guitar playing is strong and her vocals just keep getting better with time. This CD starts off strong with a couple of lefty political pieces, “Danger Danger” (about closed-minded citizens) and “The Great Divide” (focusing on power structures, such as politics and religion). Most of the rest of her songs look at life, from love to daily living, from the downtrodden to the look for hope. It’s all done tastefully and never preachy when that road could have been easily taken (“Life Is Never Wrong”, for example). There’s even some humor with the final and title cut (“We’ll be singing hootenanny songs/Long after rock ad roll is gone”), which is almost a poking-yet-positive answer to the sarcastic and snide vision of Phranc’s “Folksinger”. There’s also a humorous poke at her own future with “My Autobiography”, as Ian is taking this year off to write hers. – Robert Barry Francos

Every once in a while when I get a new pile of review CDs, I’ll give a woo-hoo, which is how I reacted when I saw “Departure”, by THE MAMMALS ( I thoroughly enjoyed their last release, “Rock That Babe.” On this, their sophomore issue, they see as a move away from their reliance on traditional folk sounds and more on a rock feel. Well, Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and part of what he meant by that is that the form has a strong influence on the content. True here, as well. There are banjos and fiddles (occasionally made to sound like a cello), ukes, harmonicas, as well as the traditional rock instruments, which definitely effects – and affects – the outcome of sound. Yeah, there is a bit less twee sound, but the folk and Americana syle comes through quite strong, especially on cuts like “Kiss the Break of Day.” I’m saying all this as complementary, as the Mammals are an amazing group, and have been since they formed In 2001. The quality and wide swath of their choice of covers shows their originally Vermont liberal bearings (they’re based in Woodstock, NY these days), such as Morphine’s “Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave” (the centerpiece of a trilogy of anti-Iraq sentiments, along with “Follow Me to Carthage” and “Alone on the Homestead”), “Satisfied Minds” popularized by Dylan, and Nirvana’s “Come as You Are”. They make them all their own. Of course, they also show their dry brand of humor with “Tryin’ to Remember What City I Know You’re From”. – Robert Barry Francos

Her song, “Hurricane”, was one of my favorites of a previous release, so I was excited to receive the newest by KRIS DELMHORST, “Strange Conversation” ( Brooklyn raised/New England-based Kris is one of those singer-songwriter types who refused to be two-dimensional. She sings from both her heart and soul, and also a determined bucket of brains. What she has done here, on her fourth full release, is taken some classic poetry and either put music to it, or used it as an influence for a piece (in this case, both the "influencer" and "influencee" works are given in the booklet). The poems include the likes of Robert Browning, Walt Whitman, James Weldon Johnson, George Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, John Masefield, and the only one not from the 20 century, Jalaluddin Rumi (1250s). Her melody choices are as interesting as the poems, including Dixie Jazz (Eliot), country (cummings), and blues (Millay). Kris has a strong, honey voice, and her backing by the likes of Kevin Barry’s guitar only helps to compliment her voice. – Robert Barry Francos

With a beautiful voice, STACIE ROSE has released her sophomore “Shadow & Splendor” (Enchanted Records c/o It makes me both happy and sad to listen to this collection of adult contemporary pop rock. The happiness comes from the beauty of her voice, how well written and intelligent are her songs, and for the musicianship that backs her up. Her songs are strong, as is her voice, which is lush, complex, and better than anything that’s been on the charts for the past I-don’t-know-how-long. And here is where the sad part comes in. Her producer, high roller Robert Smith, guides the production with a heavy hand, overproducing the tracks with a glass-like sheen, geared for top-ten-ability. I don’t blame them for wanting her to have hits, really, her voice is an instrument of beauty. I’m just into more of a simple, lo-fi beauty. I want to hear a guitar and a singer, or even a band. I don’t want to be made conscious of the production, but rather have it organic and invisible. The enhanced CD also includes a video of her possibly (and rightfully so) breaker, “Consider Me”, and a six-minute video called, well, “Six Minutes with Stacie Rose” (my computer couldn’t read it, unfortunately). I’m looking forward to hearing her stripped; that is without all the “goo”, just musicians grooving the sound. – Robert Barry Francos

BUFFY is Buffy Hobelbank, a Boston-based singer-songwriter, whose release, “Highs & Lows” (, presents notice for the listener not to try to pigeonhole her into one genre. Her vocal dexterity is very adaptable to the styles she showcases here, including blues, jazz and soft rock, though one gets the clear impression that if she wanted to rock out, she damn well could. Her songs tend to focus on sour relationships – both inter- and intra- – with drug use being a common theme; one could even say threat. This woman pulls no punches, and yet these songs could be just about all played on the radio. Her melodies also hold up, such as on “Lock Stock”. She is backed up by some fine musicianship as well, with some of the special treats thrown in (e.g., melodia, didgeridoo, and even some Jamaican barking dogs), all of which are done appropriately (meaning, not hitting the listener on the head with “look what I got”-ism). Includes a cover of Phish's “Strange Design”. – Robert Barry Francos

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