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Indie Music: A Soundtrack for Troubling Financial Times

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The crashing economy might have a silver lining after all, since it is forcing all of us to rethink priorities and look for simplicity. Suddenly, it is not so important how many cars are parked in the driveway, but rather whether anyone will have a driveway tomorrow. Families, friends, and students are hunkering down, eating out less, and spending more time around the kitchen table with friends and loved ones. A bottle of wine, a simple dinner, and conversation are luxuries to be enjoyed and treasured.

If popular music provides the soundtrack of an era, Independent (Indie) music may well come into its own during these troubling financial times. Concert tickets are high and mainstream music, represented by touring acts which support record deals subsidized by major record labels, is lagging well behind economic realities faced by the consumer. In times of stress, music is a source of relief and concert tickets for many are simply out of reach.

Forty years ago the soundtrack to society's collective angst over Viet Nam was found on the radio, when local stations were privately owned and not bound by the straight jacket of major record labels and corporate playlists ordained by focus groups.

There is a strong alternative in the Indie music scene, but it is difficult for the consumer to sort through the catalog of music that is available through MySpace and other social networking sites on the Internet.

The holy trinity of the New York Times, Rolling Stone and the LA Times do not support Indie efforts unless the effort is so bizarre that it defies mainstream expectations and is therefore deemed "art." Songs of drunken losers and alcoholics come to mind -- perfect examples of rewarding bad behavior and addictions with accolades. Therein lies the rub. Competent singer/songwriters are held hostage to the whims, verbiage, and elitism of mainstream media and the public is not served.

Here are three gems, among many, that should not be overlooked. The messages offered by these fine Indie artists offer a simple space -- a time and place when you invite a few friends over for a glass of wine and a bowl of spaghetti. Light a few candles, fire up the iPod player, and a living room easily morphs into a concert hall.

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The diamond in this three-tiered musical tiara is Mississippi native Claire Holley's third album, Hush (Olivia's Attic Music). Paste Magazine likened Holley to "Rickie Lee Jones singing John Prine," but Paste got it wrong. Jones and Prine might be icons to a small segment of a generation, but Holley out sings, out writes and is a far better musician than either.

Paste valiantly supports Indie artists and should be applauded for doing so, but they did Holley a disservice with that description and probably cost her a few listeners. Holley is young, vibrant, and offers a positive message for trying times.

There is something about southern women singer/songwriters' abilities to conjure up a sense of time and place that is sweetly visceral. Hush showcases Holley as a domestic Norah Jones (forget about Prine and Rickie Lee) and the effect is a simply wonderful celebration of family life, neighbors and friends. Like southern sweet tea on a hot afternoon, everything about Hush is just plain excellent. Holley's voice is nothing short of achingly beautiful, the songwriting could be used as an example of a poetic art form, and the production is top notch.

But beyond the obvious qualities one looks for in a music compilation, Hush is a celebration of family and love -- offering comfort in difficult times.

"The last you wrote, the sailing was pretty good, when the storms return come visit me," is the hook on "Visit Me," a standout track and perfect arrangement. Home beckons. All the lonesome traveler has to do is tack into the wind and return to the open arms of family and friends.

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On "Simple Meals," Holley nails the sentiment of home and tucking in with your beloved. "We'll have little bowl of soup and some bread... that wine you bought will go straight to my head. If I am the first to go, know that I loved our simple meals." This song could well become the soundtrack of the coming recession and soothe the fears of loss for a generation that played by the rules and lost to the professional gamblers on Wall Street. Love does indeed conquer all.

"Say Goodnight" becomes a lullaby to child, friend or lover. The listener becomes the baby being rocked to comfort in the strong, capable arms of Holley's songwriting. A mournful cello punctuates Holley's soothing vocal as she suggests, "It's time to go to sleep -- from your head down to your feet. So say goodnight to the stars -- to things both near and far. It's time to go to sleep says the cat down the street."

Two of Holley's songs have appeared on ABC's Men in Trees. L.A. Weekly nominated her for Best Original Music in See Rock City, a play by Arlene Hutton. This coming April 2009, Holley travels to her home state of Mississippi to join Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kate Campbell and Caroline Herring for a concert in association with the Eudora Welty Centennial Celebration.

Speaking of the capable Herring, in 2005 Holley and her fellow musician and friend recorded a live album at St. Andrew's in Jackson, MS. They released a CD from that performance, Live at St. Andrews. Go buy it! Don't think about it, just do it!

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There is something about the Midwestern male songwriter that just "gets it," when describing everyday people facing everyday problems and emotions. Scorpio Falling (Fat Earth Records) is Indiana native Tad Armstrong's latest effort. Armstrong is a veteran Indie musician and songwriter -- another talent that has sadly navigated below the radar for far too long. Listen to "Indiana Weather" and hear echoes of the Boss in his glory days. Jersey may lay claim to the perils of the workingman, but Armstrong has a firm grip on the psyche of the steel mill workers of Gary and the everyday rhythms of middle class Indianapolis. "Americana" is an over-used word in music these days, but Armstrong delivers his American roots in songwriting that is emotionally seasoned and soulful.

New Orleans singer-songwriter Susan Cowsill (The Cowsills, Continential Drifters) recruited Armstrong for summer touring. The tour has included stops all over the eastern USA, Canada, and Fenway Park to perform the National Anthem at a Boston Red Sox game.

In 2007, Armstrong joined The Cowsills as bassist and backing vocalist. The legendary family band scored multiple hits in the late 1960s ("Hair", "Indian Lake", "The Rain, The Park, and Other Things") and was the inspiration for TV's The Partridge Family. The Cowsills are currently touring the US and Canada, and have recently performed with the Lovin' Spoonful, The Rascals, and Vanilla Fudge.

But don't let the oldie's tour fool you. Armstrong is a contemporary voice for contemporary hard times.

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Finally, for rip-roaring, just plain fun pop/rock with intelligent lyrics as a firm foundation, log onto Herman Put Down the Gun for New Orleans/Atlanta rocker Sonia Tetlow's latest offering. Former bassist for Cowboy Mouth and front woman for the Sonia Tetlow Band, Tetlow has found sympathetic muses in bandmates Lee Kennedy and Linda Bolley. I was fortunate to catch Herman live at a Fifty Artists get together in Atlanta, and if you think the album is tight, you will be knocked senseless by a live performance. These relative youngsters play in a mind-melding format that gives new meaning to the term "organic whole."

Studio veteran drummer Linda Bolley has a Grammy nomination under her belt for Michelle Malone's 2006 "Sugarfoot," and it shows. Bassist Lee Kennedy plays like he is living inside Tetlow's head as she jumps around the stage in a rocker's classic stance.

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Tetlow's growling, mature, yet easy-on-the-ears vocals deliver songwriting at its absolute best. The imagery is stunning and whether or not it stems from her Catholic upbringing is left to the mind of the beholder, although "Savior Sacrifice," certainly offers some clues. A standout track is hard to choose, since all are instantly hummable favorites, but if forced to choose one, and you hold a gun to my head, it would have to be "Lonely Street." I won't give it away, but after starting out with "Somewhere down the road in a place where I never want to go again I lost whatever sense I had.... Stop. Put down the razor blade. Give yourself a break..." and ending up with a kick-in-he-gut last line, the listener will be hooked on songwriting excellence beyond compare.

Or, if you need specifics, Herman describes itself as "sound(ing) like Led Zeppelin one moment and the ghost of Jim White the next."

Those music lovers lucky enough to be in New Orleans for Voodoo Fest can catch Herman off-site at Carrollton Station on October 24.

I like them. Herman Put Down the Gun delivers.

Note: The great thing about modern technology is that the buyer no longer has to "beware," and can sample these offerings on the links provided. I would be interested in listener's takes on these fine compositions, where the writers put their best offerings front and center with no financial backing whatsoever.