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New Tunes On Monday: Elvis Costello, Marshall Crenshaw, eels, Alex Woodard, and Buckwheat Zydeco

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Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane and Sugarcane

You've heard Elvis Costello sing country music before, but not like this. The lad who gave us Almost Blue is quite mature and worldly wise now. On the opening track, when he sings, "Down among the wines and spirits where a man gets what he merits...once it was written in letters 'bout nine feet tall, now he sees how far he's fallen," he sounds like he truly has been sobered by life's hangovers. The song "Down Among The Wine And Spirits," plus a few others featured on Costello's new album, Secret, Profane And Sugarcane, premiered in 2007 on The Bob Dylan Show tour, and fans have been jawin' 'til the cows come home from Harvard about what direction Mr. Prolific's new album would take. Well, it's country, sort of, smart enough for the overly-educated, toe-tappin' enough for the Cracker Barrel crowd, and mesmerizing enough to keep everyone in-between fascinated.

The behind the scenes lowdown is dizzying, but here's the quick recap: Produced by former Costello cohort and legendary roots reviver, T Bone Burnett (yes, de-hyphenated), this mixed topical bag contains an unfinished storyline commissioned by The Royal Danish Opera involving Hans Christian Andersen, Jenny Lind, and P.T. Barnum ("She Handed Me A Mirror," "How Deep Is The Red," "She Was No Good," and "Red Cotton"); a Loretta Lynn co-write ("I Felt The Chill"); two songs co-authored with T-Bone Burnett ("Sulphur To Sugarcane," "The Crooked Line"); "Hidden Shame" (previously recorded by Johnny Cash on his Boom Chicka Boom album); and a Bing Crosby waltz, the Lawrence Coleman/Joseph Darion composition, "Changing Partners." Musicians include Dennis Crouch (double bass), Mike Compton (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jeff Taylor (accordion), Jim Lauderdale (harmonies), and Emmylou Harris (harmony on "The Crooked Line"). The project was recorded in Nashville by engineer Mike Piersante at Sound Emporium Studios in just three days, and the only amplified instrument is T Bone's Kay electric guitar. Even the cover carries a pedigree being a pen and ink drawing by famed cartoonist/author, Tony Millionaire.

When Costello sings the backwoods-flavored "Complicated Shadows," he emotes its challenging intervals like John Hiatt, an important singer-songwriter who has committed fully to roots music over his last few albums. Loretta Lynn's lyrical and musical contribution to "I Felt The Chill" gives Costello authenticity when he sings heartbreaking lines such as the first chorus' "I felt the chill before the winter came, suffered the guilt and then accepted the blame, I wanted you before you ever spoke my name." Though the next track, "My All Time Doll," initially seems too much like old school Costello to fit with its Depression-era tempo and chord changes, its biting, bluesy lyrics uniquely are swept along by an accordion and more than a couple closing time fakeout fades. "Hidden Shame" borrows very little from Johnny Cash's version though the Man In Black's presence is felt, and the first of the Hans Christian Andersen tracks comes off like progressive gypsy folk. Costello's somber "I Dreamed Of My Old Lover" is reverse-sexed, and from the woman's perspective, "Would our kids grow stubborn or grow strong, would there limbs bronze insult to the sun," particularly is touching.

"How Deep Is The Red" comes off especially country, despite its Andersen-Lind connection, and Costello's youthful stretch for high notes evokes his Attractions recordings. "She Was No Good" makes a 2009 sense out of its 1850s Lindcentric storyline, and the flirty "Sulphur To Sugar Cane" shuffles its western swing into the beautiful, complicated "Red Cotton" that deals with abolition and souvenirs from Barnum's perspective. "The Crooked Line" is all hillbilly, and the old-timey "Changing Partners" closes the project with optimism, like a lesson learned from all that's come before. "There are undeniable threads and themes of rivers and oceans traveled," informs Costello about the album. "Of bondage and guilt, of shame and retribution, of piety, profanity, lust and love, though only the last of these is absolute. There are always contradictions. The music offers the way out. It offers the way home."

Elvis Costello's disparate material snaps together as easily as a third grader's map of America thanks to T Bone Burnett's sonic guidance that raises the album's state of country consciousness. Or maybe it's bluegrass consciousness. Where the pair's previous outings together included the rare, collaborative '85 single "The People's Limousine" (as The Coward Brothers), and T Bone's co-production of The Costello Show's King Of America and Elvis' Spike, this album is the brightest yet folksiest of their works together or anything Costello's ever touched. Its Americana, bluegrass, and folk elements breed a hybrid to hang a genre on. Because of this, maybe Costello's latest isn't exactly for those salivating for that next American Idol-styled, assembly line country album. But it is intelligent country music that's been looking for its moment to shine from beneath a Wal-Mart (via Korea) cowboy hat. Given the stagnant state of country music, maybe Secret, Profane And Sugarcane is just what Doc Watson ordered.

Tracks:
1. Down Among The Wine And Spirits
2. Complicated Shadows
3. I Felt The Chill
4. My All Time Doll
5. Hidden Shame
6. She Handed Me A Mirror
7. I Dreamed Of My Old Lover
8. How Deep Is The Red
9. She Was No Good
10. Sulphur To Sugarcane
11. Red Cotton
12. The Crooked Line
13. Changing Partners

Marshall Crenshaw - Jaggedland

Strangely, despite extreme critical acclaim and occasional heavy marketing, Marshall Crenshaw is not a superstar, although everyone knows a handful of his recordings or compositions (like the Gin Blossoms hit, "Til I Hear It From You"). Well, one of the best things about Marshall Crenshaw's new Jaggedland is, yes, it's another Marshall Crenshaw album, yay. But also, it's a wonderfully solid offering that is another opportunity to make true believers out of casual listeners whose memories and music collections merely include his '82 Warners self-titled debut (with the classics "Someday, Someway," "Cynical Girl," and "There She Goes Again"), or even Miracle Of Science (that featured "What Do You Dream Of," a cover of Dobie Gray's "The 'In' Crowd," and the brilliant anthem and alternate universe Top Ten smash, "Starless Summer Sky").

Jaggedland contains some of Marshall's most adventurous pop recordings, and it starts out with "Right On Time" that employs a sly, return ending to recap the whole lot of fun that proceeds it. "I really do love that," Marshall says about the faux ending, adding, "though we didn't set out to do that at all. The way we cut the tracks, for most of the songs, is we just got in the room and played. We sat in a circle and just kept playing until we thought we had it right. There was one particular take that got into that insanity at the end...I just love how that broke down and degenerated into that chaos. I like to catch those wild moments when they happen." And there was a false start in Jaggedland's recording process. "Four of the tunes are kind of separate from the bulk of the record. I started out with producer Stewart Lerman, and we did some tunes together. He's a really sweet guy, a great friend. We eventually realized we weren't on the same page with all the stuff that needed to come across, but two of the tracks--"Someone Told Me" and "Sunday Blues"--captured something that I thought was worth holding on to. We came up with something pretty nice on those songs. And then 'Jaggedland' and 'Gasoline Baby' are just me on my own, that's me (recording) out in the barn."

Changing coasts, Marshall then joined forces with producer Jerry Boys and jump-started the recording process for the remaining tracks: "We did the other eight in L.A., and we had a core group--myself, Greg Leisz, Jim Keltner, Sebastian Steinberg, and Emil Richards...just the five of us sitting in a circle. I even tried to keep the conversation to a minimum while we were making the music, it was just a matter of having everybody kind of learning the song and then playing it. I had no idea how some of the stuff was going to develop. It was just people doin' it in real time. The ensemble material took just three days to record, and another six or seven went to vocals and guitar solos." With the exception of a couple songs, the whole album was recorded with a stand-up bass that helps give Jaggedland that other-era authority. "I really prefer a stand-up bass in a rock 'n' roll band."

And the story behind the album's unique title? "There are lots of references in the songs to the elements and to nature," Marshall explains. "The word 'Jaggedland' seemed to be a good title. It just sort of described the atmosphere of the record, and it's kind of another word for my brain, my consciousness, a 'jagged land.'" In addition to its melodic and expertly sung pop-rock songs, the album also features a couple instrumentals, including the title track, that are all feel and effects. "There was a period when I was trying to stockpile instrumental music. It actually started as an up tempo piece, and I just got inspired to slow it down." Revealing his creative process, Marshall continues, "I always start with a piece of music, that's how I always write a song. At the beginning, I have it come from an emotional place. The main thing with me is that I just start playing and singing and stay out of its way when it first starts happening. Afterward, there's some crafting involved. If it's going to be a song with words, for some reason, I have this fear and I have to wait 'til it passes before I can get started on them. Sometimes that takes months. I come at it as a musician and a composer in the first place, and then go from there."

Although this release is one of Marshall's most consistently satisfying albums and he is very satisfied with the project as a whole, there are a couple tracks whose musical merits and sonic aspects push them a hair more to the forefront. "I love 'Someone Told Me,' that's a great track, I just like the way it's played. I was trying to come up with a solid rock 'n' roll song, and it sort of took on a very interesting shape, something very singular. The bass on it is really wild, it's almost got this Charlie Haden thing, where Sebastian is sort of strumming it, playing all this kind of syncopated, oddball stuff." He added, "The track on 'Just Snap Your Fingers' is really nice. The shakers kind of remind me of a Bo Diddley or Chess Records kind of track, with the tremlo guitars."

Having grown up in the Detroit area, Marshall was inspired to write "Gasoline Baby" while driving, as he contemplated the stupidity of having to rely on the vehicle so heavily. "It's just an absurd song about the absurdity of the whole thing!" he comments. "When I was sixteen or seventeen, I realized that I couldn't really function in the world or live any kind of life unless I got a car, and I hated that. It just seemed so unfair. When I was young and never had a nickel or a dime, to try to keep a car on the road just seemed like such a drag. When my wife and I moved to New York City, we were so overjoyed that we didn't have to have a car, and we let our licenses lapse. With the car that I have now, I think when it's time to buy another, I want to be in a position where I don't really have to if I don't want to."

On "Passing Through," Marshall recalls, "A day after I wrote that song, I played it for someone and it immediately had a strong reaction. I had a really important assist on that one from Kelly Ryan who came up with four or five of the most beautiful lines in the song. And that was another one where the interpretation was very spontaneous. We were playing it, and all of a sudden Jim gets up from his drum and wanders over to the trunk where he has all his gear and I see him pull out this toy, plastic snare drum. I recognize the drum because when I was a kid, a friend of mine had one just like it--red plastic with gold plastic hardware. The one my friend has read 'The Beatles' Drum,' as I remember. Anyway, Keltner takes his drum out, puts it on the stand, he hits it, and it just goes 'boooom,' like an explosion. I said to him, 'Wow, what's with that drum?' and he goes, 'Oh, I've got nine of these!' So, that's what he plays on that song, a toy, plastic snare drum, but he makes it sound like a million bucks." Of the song's topic, Marshall explains, "I call it a joyful song about mortality. It's one of the topics that emerged, the fact that I'm in the second half of my life and you've got to treasure what's left. I don't have any more time or energy to waste, I just have to be grateful for the chance to do what I do and still be walking the earth, you know?"

Written as an afterthought but evolving into one of the Jaggedland's more emotional songs is its last track, "Live And Learn," on which Marshall gallops along on a borrowed Fender Jazzmaster with Emil's vibraphone and "log" along for the ride. Written with Matt Bair and Dan Bern--Marshall's collaborator on songs featured in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story--its lyrics begin, "Way back when I was young, a minute from yesterday, they said to me, 'Son, be strong, you're gonna be something someday,'" but the song suddenly shifts into something different, an admission of regrets and a resolve to move forward benefiting from lessons learned. "I think it's the most left field one," Marshall reveals. "It reminds me of people sitting around a campfire with this quiet music playing and someone is telling a story. I had no idea it was going to turn out like that. When we were first tracking it, I kept waiting for Jim (Keltner). I felt that at some point, he would just open it up and it would get explosive. But he just kept tapping away and I loved it." That spontaneity applied to the rest of the band as well. "We didn't discuss it all, I just sat down and started playing the song, and they fell in behind me. It was great." Marshall's matter-of-fact vocals and guitar feel plus the band's arrangement give the song an identity beyond its excellent lyrics and sentiment. It offers some common sense and optimism throughout its lyrics, especially in the lines, "It's your turn to live and learn, find your shoes, walk outside, shake the clouds from your head, though the forecast said rain, you've got sunshine instead..." With all its musical excellence, terrific songwriting, group dynamics and "vibe," Jaggedland will be remembered as one of Marshall Crenshaw's most significant releases, especially to the artist. "This album took a lot of wear and tear on my emotions, but in the end, I think it's one of my best ever." And what if its sales aren't triple platinum? "When people ask me why I keep making music after all these years, I have a simple answer: because I have to. For lack of a more colorful term, there is truly something magical to it, and I never take it for granted."

Tracks:
1. Right On Time
2. Passing Through
3. Someone Told Me
4. Stormy River
5. Gasoline Baby
6. Never Coming Down
7. Long Hard Road
8. Jaggedland
9. Sunday Blues
10. Just Snap Your Fingers
11. Eventually
12. Live And Learn

eels - Hombre Lobo

On May 19, PBS replayed its Nova series segment, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, Mark Oliver Everett's touching documentary about his late father, Hugh. For those who missed it, basically, it's the exploration of a father's history by his son, and it required an intense level of critical thinking and planning to accomplish the heartfelt feat. However, the creative process employed to make the biography/autobiography was reversed by the artist when he recorded the latest eels album with band members Cool G Murder and Knuckles. "It was important for the feel of the album that it all happen quickly," says Everett. "It was very immediate. It's an album about passion and desire, and that can't be over-thought. It has to be about the spark that starts everything." He added, "I thought it would be more interesting to make it come from the point of view of this character (Hombre Lobo), especially after doing so much autobiographical stuff over the last few years. I was pretty sick of 'me' by that point."

Hombre Lobo (or The Wolf Man, if you must) was recorded in Everett's home, and is definitely not your father's grandly produced, emo-y eels. "Only a few of the songs were written ahead of time," says the artist, "and most of them were written during the three or four weeks that we actually recorded the album, so it was very spontaneous and collaborative..." Of the twelve songs, Everett reluctantly edges out a few over others when pressed. "I like 'That Look You Give That Guy' and I like 'Prizefighter' a lot. But you know that cliché, that songs are the songwriter's children. I hate to pick favorites 'cause I don't want to say I like 'Prizefighter' and make 'Lilac Breeze' jealous."

But "Prizefighter"'s praise is not unfounded since it kicks off Hombre Lobo with a raw, aggressive energy, though the project sequentially alternates between rock and mid-tempo melancholy. "There's a little bit of a Jeckyl & Hyde thing going on with this 'guy' (Hombre Lobo) who is sometimes more gentle and other times, he's more aggressive." The twelve lyrically compact and musically compressed pop-alt recordings are so sharply executed that it's hard to compliment without outright fawning so we'll leave it at that. (Or maybe not.)

For those who've been following Everett since his days as "E," the good news is that the effect of the scaled-back production brings out more of that goodly "E"-ness, though not in the same self-focused way those early albums framed it. For "The Longing," we get a paired-down, de-spectacled insight that sounds more honest than most songs dealing with desire. The album's overly-overdriven rockers include one of its best tracks, "Tremendous Dynamite" (from which we get the album's title), that is so seventies, eighties, and nineties all at once, it's a weird little minor miracle. "My Timing Is Off" is another perfect pop song that could have been written during E's "Nowheresville"/"Are You And Me Gonna Happen"/"L.A. River" period, as if hardly any time has passed between it and A Man Called "E" and Broken Toy Shop. As tempting as it is to fantasize some full circle effect, you would be reading something into the text that isn't there. "It feels like the next chapter to me," Everett says of his latest. Commenting on his other albums, he adds, "I'm always just focused on whatever I want to do next, and they all feel like there's been some evolution over the years...I'm a million miles away from where I started."

Tracks:
1. Prizefighter
2. That Look You Give That Guy
3. Lilac Breeze
4. In My Dreams
5. Tremendous Dynamite
6. The Longing
7. Fresh Blood
8. What's A Fella Gotta Do
9. My Timing Is Off
10. All The Beautiful Things
11. Beginner's Luck
12. Ordinary Man

Alex Woodard - Alex Woodard

"There's a burned out Chevrolet out on the interstate, I left her halfway, when I found this little town and started settling down, and settling out, and wondering what my life was about now," sings Alex Woodard on "Halfway," one of the emphasis tracks on his 2008 self-titled album. That philosophical waxing now applies to a recent career move that gave the album Alex Woodard--originally released on a Warners distributed label--a new lease on life due to its re-assigned distribution through CD Baby. "A couple of months ago, I got a letter from the record company saying that they had decided that they weren't going to carry the physical album anymore, only the digital version," reveals Woodard. Through some negotiations, all the rights, both digital and physical, reverted back to Woodard, and on the day the deal ended, while touring with Shawn Mullins, he sent the album to CD Baby to get the process of re-distribution started. "I got an email a couple of weeks later saying of the 300,000 records they get, mine was one of the best they had ever heard, and they were going to make it an editor's pick in perpetuity on the site." Seemingly due to major labels expecting immediate success regardless of shrinking promotional dollars and disappearing retail opportunities, indie and DIY music marketing seem to present the best options for an artist like Woodard, and he already is enjoying his new situation: "They are excited about the album which makes me feel like I'm doing the right thing musically, and they are so transparent and honest in the way they do business. Sales are easy to track, and they pay their artists in a clear and consistent manner, which is a blessing in a business not traditionally known for being fair."

For those still unfamiliar with Alex Woodard albums, especially this one, he's been compared to Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen, he sounds like an Arlo Guthrie raised by Toad The Wet Sprocket and the Gin Blossoms, he plays guitar and piano, and his writing and recording style mostly has been categorized as Americana. Defying labels, he currently has a #22 New Music Weekly country hit with "Reno," a waltzing duet that--despite its refreshing, beyond Nashville sound--is dancing its way to the top of one of NMW's charts. That's no easy feat for those working and thinking outside the Music Row box.

But Alex Woodard is part of another group. This son of coastal San Diego county--living in a small nearby town when he's not surfing--is part of an artist cartel that includes Jason Mraz, New Found Glory, Switchfoot, and Nickel Creek, whose Sara Watkins sings with Woodard on his new country hit. "I thought it would be cool to do a duet with Sara," Woodard explains. "I thought her angelic voice and my rougher edge might go well together, so I wrote that song with her voice in mind. The way she enunciates, her tone, etc., I took all that into consideration in drawing up her character in the song, and she brought her fiddle by one day and we recorded it." Watkins' new solo recordings on Nonesuch also have much country chart potential, and if her duet with Woodard maintains its momentum and hits Billboard's Country Top Ten, these Nashville outsiders will have muscled past major label marketing machines, achieving success on quality and listener requests. What a concept.

Beyond the surprise hit single, Alex Woodard includes many travel-tested testaments, including the above-referenced "Halfway"; the humorous "Hoops"; the sweet breakup song, "Billie Holiday" ("We used to lay in bed all day, waste the day away with Sinatra and..."); "Beautiful Now," whose video, directed by award-winning Roman White, features a former Miss Universe, Dayanara Torres; and "Heather's Prayer" with its lay-me-down-to-sleep opening, "In my time o' dyin' I hope I find the grace to say I made some beautiful mistakes." The album's journey ends with the words, "There is a time for sunrise, there is a time for rain, but there is no more time to waste today," which is nicely profound; but its first track, "Older," probably reveals much more about the artist's view of the world than the ten recordings that follow. "No matter what road you travel, you're getting older, and there's no way around it," states Alex Woodard in a press release on his website. "You may be ten years old wishing you were sixteen, or you could be forty wishing the same thing. I really tried to look at love, loss, hope, and struggles we all face as the seasons start running together, and it seemed to me to be about how hard it is to live in the moment when the moments are passing by so fast. Maybe getting older should be celebrated with wisdom and grace, not with an empty attempt to turn back the clock."

Tracks:
1. Older
2. Reno
3. The Table
4. Mountain Town
5. Halfway
6. Photograph
7. Beautiful Now
8. Hoops
9. Billie Holiday
10. Heather's Prayer
11. There Is No More Time To Waste

Buckwheat Zydeco - Lay Your Burden Down

With thirty years and counting and his accordion and Hammond B-3 in tow, Louisiana's Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural, Jr. presides over the latest Zydeco-ization of a bunch of originals and some fine modern classics such as Jimmy Cliff's "Let Your Yeah Be Yeah," Bruce Springsteen's "Back In Your Arms," Captain Beefheart's (or more correctly, Don Van Vilet's) "Too Much Time," Led Zeppelin's, Memphis Minnie's, and Kansas Joe McCoy's "When The Levee Breaks" on his rockin' album, Lay Your Burden Down. This party was produced by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin at Dockside Studios, and the musicians include Lee Allen Zeno on bass, Sir Reginald Master Durall on rub board, Kevin Menard on drums, Olivier Scoazec on guitar, Michael Melchione on guitar, and Curtis Watson on trumpet. Along with guests JJ Grey (background vocals and Wurlitzer piano on "The Wrong Side"), Warren Haynes (guitar on "Lay Your Burden Down," Sonny Landreth (guitar on "When The Levee Breaks" and "The Wrong Side"), Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews on trombone and Berlin on baritone sax, this tight little unit pushes on through its eleven swamp-boogie, pop songs like masters of the art. This is your new dorm disc or download, perfect to show your roomie(s) that you're quite cool, and your new Zydeco album has just displaced his or her (or their) Marley Legend retrospective at 4:20. The album's Louisiana-centric, heavy-ish topics never weigh down the music; overall, the collection just wants you to, yeah, Lay Your Burden Down.

Tracks:
1. When The Levee Breaks
2. The Wrong Side
3. Let Your Yeah Be Yeah
4. Don't Leave Me
5. Back In Your Arms
6. Throw Me Something, Mister
7. Lay Your Burden Down
8. Time Goes By
9. Ninth Place
10. Too Much Time
11. Finding My Way Back Home