April 12, 2007

Test Spins

Print More

Uncle Earl
Waterloo, Tennessee
(Rounder Records)
By Stephanie Jenkins

Waterloo, Tennessee, Uncle Earl’s second major-label release, brings old-time music to life with tight vocal and instrumental arrangements. This all girl stringband has a firm grasp on the old-time genre and on this album they also explore blues, country and a splash of gospel. This CD demonstrates all the girls’ talents, as the tracks are a revolving door of vocals and instrumentals (guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin). The album even features guitarist Kristin Andreasson’s percussive clogging on “Sisters of the Road,” an original tune by fiddler Rayna Gellert. Produced by John Paul Jones, of Led Zeppelin fame, the album’s studio work adds a sweetened sound to a genre that many characterize by its harsh fiddle tones and incomprehensible lyrics. Uncle Earl clearly produced Waterloo, Tennessee for a broad audience who may be new to the style. So check out Uncle Earl: they make old-time for our times.

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra
Up From the Skies, Music of Jim McNeely
(Planet Arts Recordings)
By David Markowitz

Jazz enthusiasts, typically familiar with the likes of Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Thelonious Monk, do not always recognize big band recording artists and their sound. Enter Jim McNeely: nine-time GRAMMY nominated jazz composer, arranger and pianist whose 2006 album Up From the Skies: Music of Jim McNeely accentuates his compositional diversity in big-band playing. Headlining this album is a unique cover of the Jimi Hendrix’s, “Up From the Skies;” a track which represents the energy and creativity expressed by the artist. McNeely’s arrangements are harmonically and intellectually rich, the kind of music that offers something new on each listen. If unfamiliar with big-band repertoire, I fully recommend this recording and give it four stars based on quality and musical originality.

Bright Eyes
(Saddle Creek)
By Maurice Chammah

Several years after recording with Emmylou Harris, being called “the next Bob Dylan,” and becoming quite the controversial figure in independent music circles, Conor Oberst has returned with Cassadaga.

Expectations are raised very high by the first track, a noise collage mostly of an orchestra tuning. Of course, no orchestra later appears, but rather a set of twelve very “down-home country” tunes that range from the thoughtful (“Four Winds”), to the painfully mediocre (“Hot Knives”). Oberst sticks to his comfortable slide guitar and fiddle formula, occasionally incorporating a new sound, like the hand drums of “Middleman.” The lyrics, as he is now known for, simultaneously demand cynicism and sympathy, and while this was the fascinating conflict at the heart of 2002’s Lifted, here they make it hard take Oberst very seriously. He is at the age between wunderkind and serious adult, and Cassadaga, in the end, reflects this awkward period in any songwriter’s maturation.