Charlie Robison Covers Previous Ground with High Life

Charlie RobisonWhether a record comprised of entirely non-original material is terms a “covers record” or a “tribute album,” rare is the case where a consumer would pick one of these albums up before they would just as soon grab the original recordings off the store shelf, or their own record bin at home. Not that there haven’t been recent, stellar examples of these types of records, mind you. Steve Earle’s 2009 loving gem Townes is a fine album, regardless of which legend originally recorded those songs, and Earle manages to give a few of the tunes his own distinctive spin while staying respectfully true to others. But still, even in that case, who among us wouldn’t choose this year’s Townes Van Zandt collection of demos and rarities, Sunshine Boy?

Ultimately, covers are fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In concert, they provide a prime sing-along option (See: Social Distortion’s version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire’). On record, they can become re-imagined classics when handled appropriately (See: Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,”).

There’s also not a darn thing wrong with it when a fantastic songwriter chooses to fill his first studio album in four years without a single tune penned by his own guitar. Charlie Robison’s High Life is the rare covers record that certainly pays tribute to its nine songs original writers and performers, but it manages to successfully come out sounding like a Charlie Robison record, regardless of the origins of the collected tunes.

Similar to the love that led Earle to record Townes, Robison picked songs that had meant a great deal to him in-terms of his musical beginnings and his continued progress as one of the top touring artists in Texas. He recently told the Dallas Observer that he doesn’t consider this record a covers or tribute album, but one that he “just didn’t happen to write any songs for” and that the chosen cuts are “songs that have percolated” within him for years. Indeed he picked songs that he says made him want to get into music in the first place.

While Robison’s take on Doug Sahm’s “Nuevo Laredo” is likely the most true-to-the-original cut on the album, Robison is able to own that song, as well as Ry Cooder’s “Girls From Texas,” the album’s other Tejano-powered song, thanks to his own history with including Tejano and Cojunto sounds on previous records. Again, this isn’t merely a musical masquerade.

While The Band’s “Look Out Cleveland” and Bare Jr.’s “Patty McBride” are given rocking treatments that amplify the spirit of the originals, the songs written by his brother, the esteemed writer/performer Bruce Robison and his sister, Robin Ludwick, that provide Robison the greatest tools to make this album sound like one full of his own material and not a playlist off of his own iPod. Many forget that Robison’s best known-songs such as “My Hometown,” and “El Cerrito Place” are creations of his brother and Keith Gattis, respectively, not of Robison himself.

In Ludwick’s waltzing, love under dim-lights number “Monte Carlo,” Robison is able to sing about love in a manner that would sound almost dumb — and certainly sophomoric – through the filter of just about anyone else’s vocal chords. But in his well-traveled, laid-back way, Robison sings what might be the record’s most simplistically elegant line (which is saying much, given that songs written by Bob Dylan and Kinky Friedman are on the record) when he confesses that “Oh, Darlin’ I love you, like the rednecks love to fight, like a cowboy loves Saturday night.”

It doesn’t happen often when an album full of cover songs proves to be a legitimate stand-alone option, but in the case of an artist such as Robison, it isn’t surprising. With a unique delivery and a dedication to interpreting the words and notes of others into his own sonic language, High Life is just another quality Robison record where skipping a song means missing out on something good.

Check out my interview with Robison here and visit his web site to learn more about the artist and his music.

American Aquarium – Live in Raleigh

North Carolina’s American Aquarium has certainly made the most of their tenacious touring and effective self-promotion over the past few years. With their last two studio albums, Dances for the Lonely and Small Town Hymns possessing an irresistibly comfortable blend of country and rock, and the band’s live shows having gained a reputation for being not-to-miss events, it makes perfect sense that the five-piece, led by vocalist B.J. Barham would finally release a live album.

American Aquarium – Live in Raleigh has all the things a good live album should have. An effective mix of quality soundboard-recorded performances with the proper amount of audience whooping and hollering. It’s clear that American Aquarium chose to make proper use of their hometown advantage, knowing that a revved up crowd of familiar faces would give the recordings a punch and an urgency that wouldn’t be as lively anywhere else.

The strength of the songs is as clear here as they’ve been on the earlier albums. Barham’s inventive dirty talk about getting it on with the most addictive of lovers is certainly material for a fun live tune. The sheer southerness of Barham’s drawl makes songs that equate ferocious sex to a religious experience just go over perfectly.

The one album misstep – and it’s a big one for me, at least – is that when provided a chance to turn their heartbreak-turned-into-hatred anthem “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” into a searing, sweaty show-ending catharsis that puts a satisfying finish to the band’s set, they take the easy way out and avoid singing a single note, only allowing the crowd to chant-along. Bummer, man.

Bands inviting the crowd to sing-along to the chorus of a beloved tune is nothing new, but for a band to take their best song, the show ending song, no less, and turn it into a full-length crowd-sized kumbaya moment is odd. To take away Barham’s drunken angst and force that makes the studio version of the chorus so powerful is a crime. Sure, bands love hearing their songs sung back to them by adoring fans. No one wants to rob them of a couple of lines worth of that glory, but for the whole damn song? Imagine the Drive By Truckers not singing a word to “Let There be Rock”, or the Old 97′s letting only the crowd sing to “Timebomb,” and you get the picture.

Regardless of that less-than-satisfactory ending, the rest of the album is certainly one that deserves the attention of any long-time fan, and will provide newcomers a great sampler introduction into the work of American Aquarium. Country rock isn’t anything new these days. But a bands such as American Aquarium that uses energy, clever writing and and an ability to play in a way that seems to force ears to keep listening will always be in demand.

Walter Rose Drives South With Lucinda

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There aren’t many voices out there that are fair or worthy companions to the singular, sultry and smokey groan of Lucinda Williams. The California-dwelling Walter Rose released Cast Your Stone last month, and while it’s a solid album to be sure, it’s tough to deny the magic this song has. Want proof of said magic? As the hypnotic song nears its end, watch your finger veer ever closer to your repeat button, or to your mouse in order to click “play” again. It’s magic, don’t fight it. let it do what it does.

As great as the grit of Williams and the rasp of Rose’s vocals are together, the aforementioned hypnotic nature of the tune may be most attributed to the resplendent steel work of Eric Heywood, an accomplished vet in his own right.

OK, OK, enough chit-chat, I know. Let’s just get to it, right? well, get to clicking below and let the magic happen.

The Possum Posse Rides On Buffaloes!

Most of the time, a band with a gimmick is more gimmick than band. Hokey, jokey one-hit wonders litter our memories like so many bumper stickers on a hippies VW Van. Sometimes – just sometimes – a gimmick is worth more than a disposable three minutes of our time.

Austin’s The Possum Posse, a self-described “sardonic honky-tonk/bluegrass band” is an act that has likely gained momentum thanks to their hilarious narrations of some old movie footage, but if you listen closely, this is a roots band that knows how to get things appropriately stomping on the front porch.

Take a look at the “Guy On a Buffalo” videos here. It’s tough to not see this outfit as a redneck Mystery Science Theater 3000 that traveled back in time to make fun of frontier folk and not merely cheesy B-movies from the 60′s and 70′s. Also, it takes extra talent to make such literal narration of the events unfolding on the film funnier than any jokes in reference to the actions on-screen are.

Great Twangy Hopes

We here at Twangville get to hear tons of great music. We share as much of it as we can with you and just hope that you like it as much or more than we do.

On a personal note, in the past year or so, I’ve had a hard time getting as excited about the artists that dwell in our ever-widening arena of Twang-related performers. Not sure why it is, really. There have been some fine albums come out, but I have to say, the majority of albums that have really captured my attention this year lean far more into the rock realm than in the roots realm. As a proud Texan, I’ve even had a hard time finding regional artists that grab me the way in which Lone Star heroes like Robert Earl Keen, Randy Rogers or Charlie Robison have done pretty easily over the past decade.

Hell, Gillian Welch’s new, universally-adored album hasn’t captivated me in near the manner that it has other fans and critics. Not even close, actually.

Thankfully, a few recent arrivals, as well as a few future releases, have helped lure me from my existential roots funk. If you’re like me and have felt as though this might be a slightly off year thus far, let these help you find your way back into the sweaty, grimey embrace of all that is Twang…

HOPE FOR THE MAINSTREAM - Sunny Sweeney, Concrete ~
I’ll spare you the “this is what modern pop country needs” diatribe. Top 40 country is what it is and always what it has been, most likely. The plain fact is, this album is just plain good. Great even. Adult subject matter mixed with urgent, catchy arrangements inside of songs that are all-around well-crafted gems.

HOPE FOR TEXAS / RED-DIRT COUNTRY - Reckless Kelly,Good Luck & True Love ~
The vets from Austin are back. No concept, no agenda, just straight-forward Texas roots-rock that never aims to be enjoyed by only Texan frat-boys (a penchant that’s become an epidemic in these parts). You’d be hard-pressed to find a more reliably solid and enjoyable band anywhere.

HOPE FOR ALT-COUNTRY (OR WHATEVER)The V-Roys, Sooner or Later AND The Old 97′s, The Grand Theatre Volume II ~
While The V-Roys collection is a fine retrospective and the latest from The Old 97′s is a vibrant gathering of freshly rocked tunes, both bands helped usher in what we now call “Alt-Country,” and these albums prove that sometimes, you gotta just leave the heavy lifting to the big-boys. Young hipsters from Brooklyn that want to be country slackers, take note: These two records show you that navel-gazing, token Johnny Cash shout-outs and dirty t-shirts aren’t substitutes for giving a damn and writing songs that people want to truly listen to every bit as much as they want to bang their head to also.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE OF ROOTS FOLK - Robert Ellis, Photographs AND Levi Lowery, I Confess I Was a Fool AND Gaston Light, Peel ~
Three young artists that traverse the broad scope of folk, roots and overall twanginess as well as anyone in their demo. Ellis whispers his songs in a sparse manner that demands the focus of the listener and reveals a maturity beyond his 22 years. Lowery, fresh off of a short stint as leader for the now-defunct Cadillac Sky takes his bluegrass chops and blends it with his own humor, vulnerability and feel for sounds that transcend simple unplugged roots tunes. Gaston Light, from Dallas, is the brainchild of 22 year-old Jason Corcoran. Where Ellis and Lowery navigate the line of folk and country, Gaston Light goes from that traditional sonic point and speeds towards a garage-rock rowdiness that never detracts from his sharp writing and keen sense for what just sounds good.