2001 / Music

Review: ‘O Brother’ Singers Craft New Songs That Sound Old

Miles Davis, Res, Steve Wynn, Joe Henry Top New Releases

While their country-angel voices seduced the characters in the Coen Brothers’ film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the sound of Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch singing, as well as their brand of country music, has proved equally mesmerizing on the record-buying public when it came to the movie’s soundtrack album.

Photo: "Down On The Mountain" Documentary

Photo: “Down On The Mountain” Documentary

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the sound of Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch singing, as well as their brand of country music, has proved equally mesmerizing on the record-buying public when it came to the movie’s soundtrack album.

Read The Reviews: Gillian Welch | Alison Krauss | Res | Miles Davis | Steve Wynn | Joe Henry

While their country-angel voices seduced the characters in the Coen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the sound of Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch singing, as well as their brand of country music, has proved equally mesmerizing on the record-buying public when it came to the movie’s soundtrack album.

The record, dominated by roots-ier songs loyal to the American musical tradition and featuring Krauss, Welch, Emmylou Harris and others, has topped the album charts and surpassed platinum status.

Now just in time, both women have new albums out, released with the hope that the musical spell was not yet been broken.

Other new releases on tap include Miles Davis, Res, Steve Wynn and Joe Henry.

Gillian Welch “Time (The Revelator)”

Although she sings that she wants “to sing that rock and roll” on her new album, “Time (The Revelator),” Gillian Welch’s “old time-y” approach to country music is an outsider compare to most of today’s country superstars who’ve continued to blur the line between pop and country.

Welch’s music — which is often just an acoustic guitar, Welch’s faint vocals and a harmonies from musical partner, David Rawlings — mines country music’s roots. You could describe her songs as following traditional models, but she also careful adds elements of folk, bluegrass, gospel, mountain music and a little rock’n’roll.

With “Time (The Revelator),” Welch and Rawlings (with assistance from producer T-Bone Burnett) have built 10 gorgeous songs that rely on the simplicity of pair as a acoustic duo, accentuating the spare-ness in the music.

Welch delivers a masterpiece early in the record with “Revelator,” a track winding around plaintive singing and two intertwined guitars. It’s one of those rare folk songs that because it’s stripped down to basics, achieves a gospel-like feel. For the chorus, Rawling doubles for some exquisite harmonies.

Another harmony-rich song, “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll,” is a live and sounds like it was recorded bluegrass fashion — using only one microphone. The cut turns the clock back to rock’n’roll’s early days and puts listeners in the shoes of the song’s narrator, a bluegrass musician who’s considering a switch to an electric guitar “cause everybody been makin’ a shout/ So big and loud been drowin’ me out.”

For “Ruination Day Part 2,” Welch goes even further back in a time warp to sing a Civil War ballad on the Lincoln assassination. Although written more than 136 years after by Welch and Rawlings, the song conveys that sense of disaster that many in the country felt. The slow plucking of the guitar strings has a faint blues feel that amplifies a sense of wariness inherent in the song.

Although Welch shows a great degree of deference for traditions, Welch has continually escaped the folly of many blue enthusiasts whose stabs at fitting in a mold usually make their songs come across as just soul-less recreations.

These songs easily claim a niche in the traditional vernacular, fitting neatly next to Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” or the Carter Family’s “You Are My Sunshine,” but without sounding calculated.

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Alison Krauss & Union Station “New Favorite”

Alison Krauss and her backing band, Union Station, have probably enjoyed the greatest boost from the success of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Upon the release of the group’s latest album, “New Favorite,” it debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.

While it’s true that the sound of this bluegrass group is more instrumentally aggressive and accessible than Welch’s bare, ghostly ballads and thus, closer to the mainstream country music community. But the initial success of “New Favorite” also might have had to do with both Krauss and the four-piece Union Station appearing all over the soundtrack (and in cameo roles in the movie). Krauss appears on three tracks while guitarist-vocalist Dan Tyminski provided the singing voice for George Clooney’s character, performing the central song for the picture, “Man Of Constant Sorrow.”

When it comes to “New Favorite,” the group’s fourth album together, they’ve opted for an ensemble effort — allowing Tyminski and Ron Block (banjo, guitar) to take lead vocals occasionally.

Even when she’s not singing, Krauss, an accomplished fiddle player, easily fits in as one of the boys. The tracks that feature Tyminski or Block singing lead, “Choctaw Hayride” or “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn,” are bluegrass jamborees with furious interplay between the fiddle, guitar and slide guitar.

But mixed between the hootenannies are Krauss’ torch ballads like “The Lucky One,” “Crazy Faith,” and “I’m Gone,” all relying on a soft medley of acoustic guitar and whimpering slide guitar. Krauss’ voice is sweeter sounding that Welch and easily more emotive. She’s able to give each song that she sings on “New Favorite” a sheen that Welch’s material lacks.

Interestingly enough, the title track is a Welch/Rawlings original that the Krauss and band give a ghostly treatment.

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Steve Wynn “Here Comes The Miracles”

While songwriter-guitarist Steve Wynn’s former band, the Dream Syndicate, was derided in the early ’80s as Velvet Underground clones, a quick listen to Wynn’s new solo double-album, “Here Comes The Miracles,” and you might think he’s now trying to steal Big Star’s guitar thunder.

Although guilty of inhabiting the same well-worn musical terrain as early R.E.M., Neil Young and Matthew Sweet, Wynn’s album draws on his ’60s influences to add color to the raucous guitar-pop. Think of “Here Comes The Miracles” as an enjoyable, if rambling, poor cousin to Sweet’s “Girlfriend.”

The song that best illustrates Wynn’s love of fuzz guitars and gnarled-pop hooks is the album’s opener and title track. While the music during the verses is lurching noise rock, the melody easily collapses behind a gleeful chorus that’s tailored to be a sing-along. As a surprise, a sitar pops up for the tune’s outro.

Other throwbacks are the psychedelic organ swirls in the love song, “Charity”; the Velvetesque guitar jangle on “Watch Your Step”; the punkish zig-zag rhythm of “Strange New World.”

The main weakness of “Here Comes The Miracles” is the length. Over time, the cacophony of pummeling guitars makes the tunes indistinguishable from each other. As if oblivious to the endurance required to make it through to the second disc of the album, Wynn saves his longer songs (one goes beyond eight minutes) until the end.

Equally puzzling is why Wynn’s monotone vocals occasionally lapse into an accurate imitation of Lou Reed’s lyrical delivery, most notably on the glum, piano-based “Drought” and the feedback opus “Smash Myself To Bits.”

For a man so well versed on the music of ’60s and ’70s , the missteps on “Here Comes The Miracles” should be a lesson to Wynn that he should brush up on the history of classic rock do’s and don’ts.

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 Res “How I Do”

In R&B’s musical continuum, which stretches from artists that utilize the genre’s safe formula — the reverent treatment of vocals and the predominance of a staggering, programmed beat — to those that are more progressive, neo-soul upstart Res is probably located two steps to the right of last year’s cross-over sensation, Macy Gray.

Like Gray, Res occasionally drafts human beings to play guitar, bass and drums, sprinkled with some tasty samples, on her debut album, “How I Do.” Unlike Gray, her sweet, multi-tracked vocals demonstrate a more obvious respect for one of the genre’s defining characteristics. Furthermore, Res’ music and her attitude pay far greater homage to the guitar-laden work of Alanis Morissette rather than to Gray’s love of disco-party funk.

The songs that are winners become clear in the first few bars, typically because of a signature rhythm pattern (the tip-toeing bass of “Ice King,” the banjo-like squiggles in “Tsunami” or the heart-pump backbeat and wah-wah guitars in “Sittin’ Back”).

The standout cut is the album’s first, “Golden Boys.” The song, a scathing indictment that demystifies the people that star as pin-ups in popular culture, is a diamond of lush pop — oddly mirroring the current headlines regarding A.J. of the Backstreet Boys. Res’ pretty, dense vocals are a mix of beauty and assertiveness as she proclaims for all womanhood, “We know the truth about you.” At the beginning of the chorus she sings, “Would they love you if they knew all the things that we know,” then taunts the false (or fallen) idols, calling them “golden boys.”

Besides showing she’s no fool for media manipulation, Res’ record demonstrates that she, like Gray or Lauryn Hill, recognizes that there can be more to this music than what comes from a standard drum machine. If R&B is to progress and grow, the genre must be open to experimentation.

(Don’t forget to listen for the unlisted, guitar-heavy song hidden at the end of the album. This might be the first time you’ll find a slab of punk rock on a soul album, but it hopefully won’t be the last.)

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 Miles Davis, “Live At The Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time”

Called jazz’s nightmarish “lost decade” by purists, the ’70s reign of jazz-rock fusion is time that many wish they could delete from history books. While marrying rock rhythms and instrumentation with jazz succeeded in opening new doors for musicians and led to creation of some stellar acts, it would eventually inject an overdose of self-indulgence into jazz and would spawn two mind-numbing decades of Carlos Santana records as well as Sting’s early solo albums.

As proof of the music’s merits, this never-before-released two-disc set captures an incendiary 1970 concert by fusion’s first proponent, Miles Davis. The concert took place at promoter Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York only months before the fusion revolution that Davis led, was born. Later that year and using much of the same material, Davis released his landmark “Bitches Brew,” an album that permanently burned fusion onto jazz’s musical memory.

This concert is also important because it is the lone recording released of what’s been trumpeted as Davis’ “great, lost” sextet. Many of the luminaries in the group, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Chick Corea, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, would create their own fusion outfits before the decade was out.

Perhaps it’s the high caliber of the band that can explain the aggressive tone rampant in the music. Backed by propulsive rhythms (at one point, the rhythm section imitates the stabbing theme from “Psycho”), the musicians tackle their solos, unleashing brawny passages that bump into and knock over their bandmates, the music descending into electrified mayhem.

The concert features two versions of “Directions,” each opening the concert’s different sets. The first take, imitates city traffic and is dominated by Corea’s hiccuping keyboards and some squealing, hyperactive solos from Shorter and Davis. The second version opens slowly until the rhythm section nearly devours every instrument in waves of rumbling sound. Davis, Shorter and Corea eventually wrestle control back and slam melody lines together, impersonating a computer dialect.

Another song that gets a repeat performance is the cosmic funk of “Spanish Key.” The band is led both times, like a piper, by Davis’ frantic, blazing trumpet figure until the song fragments into sections spotlighting each soloist. Thanks to feisty interplay between Corea, DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, the first attempt is the more visceral of the two.

The concert’s climax might be the strutting “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down.” Built around the blues-y bassline, which is an off-shoot of “Born Under A Bad Sign,” Corea first teams up with Davis on some musical call-and-response and then partners with Shorter’s racing soprano sax, until the song runs out of steam.

Whether it’s a battle of musical egos or comparing it to the detached precision that exudes the performances on “Bitches Brew,” or simply an attempt to awaken the crowd (hardly a murmur is heard throughout the entire recording until the end), this Fillmore stint shows Davis and company on fire. It’s a glimpse of a music that’s quickly reaching critical mass.

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 Joe Henry “Scar”

As crucial as writing great songs and capturing peak performances on tape, a great album requires a unique musical mood. Like Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” or countless others, a record with a defined musical territory unifies the artist’s concept and separates it from those albums that are just a string of disparate tunes.

In the case of “Scar,” Henry has succeeded and created a darkly melodic batch of songs buried in a smoky, jazz nightclub-like atmosphere. The record, Henry’s eighth, is easily the best of his career.

Reminiscent of jazz, the songs’ arrangements are precise yet the performances feel loose — pianos, guitars, bass percussion and strings colliding — and compete with Henry’s yearning vocals.

The record opens with the elegant crawl of “Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation.” Ever stumbling, the melody is coaxed forward by teasing piano licks and sluggish drums until it flowers with a swelling clarinet/oboe section. The sorrowful song features lines that might have crossed the mind of the once-great comedian (who now suffers from multiple sclerosis) in real life: “You look at me and it’s like you’ve seen a ghost.” The song’s centerpiece is a spiraling, fluid solo from free jazz legend Ornette Coleman.

Strip away the flamenco beat, big-band string passages and the lonesome, stinging guitar from “Stop” and it’s recognizable as the stuttering second single from Madonna’s latest album. “Stop” (or “Don’t Tell Me” as it appeared on Madonna’s “Music”) is a Henry original that he passed it along to his sister-in-law, Ms. Ciccone, during the “Music” sessions. Madonna eventually recast the song in a more contemporary dance mold. Henry’s version is a tango of spell-binding heartache.

Although the central theme of “Scar” is one of love gone wrong, the upbeat tempos of the music like the classy, hard-swinging drum-bass groove in “Rough and Tumble,” keep listeners nodding with the rhythm instead of weeping in their beer.

Like the very meaning of the word, “Scar,” once the music sets in, strikes a mood — a feeling — that is permanent and unchanging. And that’s a good thing.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2001 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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