The Callen Sisters master the art of moody, intense folk-pop on self-titled album

Reviewed by Carson James

The Callen Sisters/The Callen Sisters

Because I am old, a college/alternative band fronted by two sisters reminded me of the Throwing Muses. Coincidentally, the opening cut, “Anomie,” with its spiky riffs and little-girl vocals, sounds eeriely close to the Muses in their prime, when Tanya Donelly was still in the group with her step sibling Kristin Hersh. Although not as harrowing as the Muses, the Callen Sisters unintentionally hit me with a 120 Minutes flashback. And while the rest of the CD has more of a folk-rock feel, the Callen Sisters are definitely not your typical coffeehouse duo; their songs have rougher edges on the side, displaying a postmodern influence that energizes and intensifies even their most quiet moments.

Both Jessa and Beth Callen sing, but don’t ask me to identify on which tracks. All I can say is that the vocals throughout the whole album are melodic and bittersweet, tinged with both sorrow and hope. “Wildfires” and “Whirlwind Came” are reminiscent of the Sundays’ summer-afternoon mood swings, gentle and winsome folk-pop heavy on atmosphere. Albums like this have a tendency to drag (even the Sundays were guilty of that); fortunately, the Callen Sisters never meander, ensuring that each cut has a purpose and enough friendly hooks to keep our ears occupied.

Published in: on March 31, 2008 at 11:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Katie Marie’s ‘Share My Air’ is a mature, sophisticated effort


Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Katie Marie/Share My Air

Katie Marie looks far younger than she sounds.

Her music and her singing display a maturity and sophistication that many twentysomethings do not possess. Because of her youthful age, industry gurus will probably liken her to Colbie Caillat, but to me Marie is closer in spirit to Karen Capenter. Marie’s voice has the fragile beauty and bittersweet grace of Carpenter in her prime. There is honest emotion and soul in Marie’s singing that I don’t hear in Caillat and most of her contemporaries. Musically, also, Marie is less trendy; many of the tracks here, even the ones with obvious ’70s touches, are quite timeless.

The title cut and “Borrow Your Smile” offer radiant, summer-afternoon pop. “Borrow Your Smile” sounds upbeat, but it seems to be about a one-sided relationship, the woman at the mercy of the man’s nomadic nature. I like the clever, subtle sarcasm of the title; she has to borrow his smile, his smug complacency, because all she can find is intermittent affection. “Can I borrow your joy for a day/As you walk in it,” Marie sings with the same deceptively pleasant tone that Carpenter had in disguising the somber undertow of her songs. On “Walk Away,” Marie switches to a bluesy strut that belies her age; it’s a show-stopping moment, one that elevates a very good album into a great one, probably among the year’s finest.

Published in: on March 31, 2008 at 1:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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Dreamy vocals embellish Char Butler’s evocative pop/rock

Reviewed by Carson James

Char Butler/”My Life”-“Tonight” [promo single]

Taken from her album Secrets of the Heart, the songs “My Life (I Love You)” and “Tonight” glide by with dreamy textures and somewhat ethereal vocals. With its sublime piano and subtle electronica touches, “My Life (I Love You)” is probably too gorgeous and evocative for commercial radio. Do they still play songs as sweetly arranged and fetchingly sung as this? I’m reminded of the Cranberries without the post-grunge guitars and Irish accents. “Tonight” is reportedly a success on Adult Contemporary radio stations, and I can easily see why. The singing is reminiscent of Paula Cole’s without trying to be (it just is), and the arrangements are more down-to-Earth, a warm bed of acoustic guitars as Butler’s soft voice drifts to the clouds. Daydream the afternoon away.

Published in: on March 30, 2008 at 8:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Joy Adler’s ‘Postcards’ crackles with passion

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Joy Adler/Postcards

There’s certainly no shortage of female singer/songwriters out there, and the number has certainly grown since the mammoth success of Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones. Alas, there are many women who arrive with a catchy guitar riff and a poetic pen but have no voice, either one that is stylistically distinct or technically impressive. Joy Adler is among the few with all of those qualities intact.

Although the songs on Postcards are easily accessible, they seem more personal to me than radio-ready attempts to achieve commercial success. You instantly get the feeling that Adler recorded this CD mainly to express herself and not just to acquire a quick pop hit, which has sadly become harder without a million-dollar record label behind you. Avoiding the bland slickness of Adult Contemporary radio, Adler looks to Americana, blues, and jazz for inspiration. Even the Cult’s Goth-metal landmark “She Sells Sanctuary” is given a bluesy makeover, quite unlike anything you’d hear on alternative-rock stations either during the mid-’80s or today.

Of Adler’s original material, many of them sparkle, some way more than others. I’m partial to the pretty piano compositions like “Our Rapture” and “Your Love Is Everything,” wherein Adler is reminiscent of Tori Amos but with definitely more soul. It’s the passion that Adler equips these tunes with that make them crackle, give them added intimacy.

‘A Meeting of Angels’ is a ‘naked, honest’ mix of folk, blues, and jazz


Reviewed by Carson James

Little Blue Planet/A Meeting of Angels

About halfway through A Meeting of Angels, Little Blue Planet had me weeping with them. The song, “This Hurt Is Too Deep for Tears,” is among the most heartbreaking songs about a broken relationship that I’ve heard in decades. The profound agony in Corry Suter’s singing is nearly impossible to bear; her voice is nearly cracking with pain and loss. It’s a shame such a devastatingly sad vocal performance will go unheard by millions of real music fans simply because Little Blue Planet do not have the push of a major label behind them. Then again, record companies have no room for naked, honest songs like this anymore.

Consisting of Suter, guitarist Blue Ray Luxemburg (love that name), and harmonica player Shakey Reay Suter, Little Blue Planet are a Canadian folk trio that also delve into the blues and jazz. However, on “This Hurt Is Too Deep for Tears,” they actually approach the harrowing despair of the late Nico. Each member has an important role in shaping the sound of the album. Luxemburg’s acoustic riffs shift styles to fit each track, either laying down rainy-day atmospherics in “The Great Stretch” or aiming for brittleness as on “This Hurt Is Too Deep for Tears.” Shakey’s harmonica can be wonderfully bluesy at times; check out his scorching work on “A Good One” and “Song for C.” Suter is a wonder to behold. Her voice will haunt you when you sleep.

Published in: on March 29, 2008 at 5:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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Harmonies highlight old-school country album from Amy Gallatin and Roger Williams

Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Amy Gallatin and Roger Williams/Something ‘Bout You

What is missing from country music these days? Just about everything that is on Amy Gallatin and Roger Williams’ Something ‘Bout You. You can call me a purist even though my introduction to country music was through the film Urban Cowboy more than 20 years ago. But once you hear the greats – Patsy Cline; Hank Williams, Sr.; Johnny Cash; etc – it’s really hard to stomach the designer jeans stitched by Nashville since achy-breaky hearts were broken in the early ’90s. Gallatin and Williams belong to the old-school country crowd, which is oddly finding a devoted audience amongst indie college kids these days.

For authentic, whiskey-drinking, beef-jerky munching Americana, it doesn’t get any more pure than Something ‘Bout You. There are no slick studio add-ons here, just the melodic voices of Gallatin and Williams accompanied by traditional country instruments such as pedal steel, fiddles, and mandolins. The harmonizing of Gallatin and Williams is delicious to to the ears; on the title track and “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name,” the duo reach emotional highs and lows with eloquence and heartbreaking drama. The singing alone makes this record one that is highly recommended. However, the music rises to the challenge of capturing the wounded sentiments of its vocalists. Listen to Wayne Benson’s radiant mandolin playing on “Forever Has Come to an End” and tell me that you’re not touched.

Published in: on March 25, 2008 at 7:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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‘No Air Guitar Allowed’ offers hilarious look at concertgoing experience


Reviewed by Carson James

Steve Weinberger with Sarah Torribio/No Air Guitar Allowed

Love may be a battlefield, but so can be the concert experience. Concert vet Steve Weinberger could’ve written a book just about his days in the mosh pit; instead, he takes it several layers deeper, categorizing the kind of people that you will usually meet at these shows (all genres have their stones overturned). You will find yourself laughing at nearly every page.

Weinberger writes with a intensely observant yet never mean-spirited eye; the closest comparison I could make are the less than caustic but nevertheless hysterically funny parodies in Mad magazine or perhaps National Lampoon, who would’ve easily published this 20 years ago. Rarely have I ever seen somebody write something so intelligently about the stupidest human behavior. Weinberger will have you observing your fellow concertgoers at the next gig you attend, searching for the characters in his book. For example, under the heading “Gal Pals,” Weinberger addresses the Lilith Fair crowd that made superstars out of female singer/songwriters such as Paula Cole and Ani DiFranco. “First, it is understood that the ‘woman show’ is a time to reclaim lost tribal unity. This means that the girl who keeps bumping into you is not That Bitch (see the Girl Fight) but instead a misguided sister,” Weinberger explains. That’s just a small sample of the big laughs in No Air Guitar Allowed.

Published in: on March 23, 2008 at 6:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Vickie Russell evokes laughs, tears on new album


Reviewed by Brooke Curtis

Vickie Russell/Next

Don’t be fooled by the smiling, innocuous face on the cover; there’s a wicked wit hiding beneath the pop country flavors and Adult Contemporary hooks on Next. More specifically, the title track which is about searching for Mr. Right and, well, sometimes ending up with Ms. Wrong. “Big, blonde and built/You thought he was a steal,” Russell sings playfully. “Then you caught him dancing/In your panties and heels.” Pretty funny stuff, and the kind of song which could leap onto country radio with its hilarious lyrics alone. (Actually, knowing the market quite well, it’d probably take a cover from a popular country act to get it onto the proper airwaves, which is too bad.) That tune alone is worth having this CD. Every woman should be able to relate to it, the frustrations of the dating scene wherein each seemingly good find turns out to be a bust – or even an arsonist.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to peg Vickie Russell as a novelty singer, either. “All the Time” is a moving tale of romantic reconciliation with a sad beginning and a happy ending, breaking away from country music’s soap opera formula of napkin weeping. Russell strays from her country roots, too. The piano-driven, cello-colored “Painted by Monet” showcases some elegant artistry while “Tell Me from Your Heart” recalls early ’80s AM radio Adult Contemporary. On “He’s Your Man Now,” Russell manages to be both humorous and melancholy, simultaneously missing an old flame while warning his new girl about his faults.

Published in: on March 22, 2008 at 5:39 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lisa Dudley EP offers heartwarming patriotism with old-school country


Reviewed by Carson James

Lisa Dudley/I Believe in America (EP)

To say that Lisa Dudley’s music sounds as if it was released decades ago is an understatement. One track in particular, “Bring ‘Em Home, Lord,” captures the mournful twang of vintage country so well that it gives me flashbacks to an era I never lived through. In other words, like those classic black-and-white films they air on cable TV, “Bring ‘Em Home, Lord” has a haunting time-machine pull. Dudley’s rhythm guitar, Bo Brown’s mandolin and dobro, and Jonathan David Brown’s bass sound as if they’ve just returned from a Patsy Cline recording session. Then there is Dudley’s voice – fragile, sobbing, and filled with Gospel yearning. The shocker is that the performance, the lyrics, and the music are all new. Take it into the context of the Iraq War, and “Bring ‘Em Home, Lord” suddenly hits the world of today.

While the other two cuts on this emotionally stirring EP, the title track and “Twenty-One Guns,” don’t have the retro rush of “Bring ‘Em Home, Lord,” there’s no denying Dudley’s country-gold singing style. Free from the bogus pop seasonings of many of today’s country artists, Dudley returns the genre to its roots with her singing alone. The patriotic bent of this CD might be too sweet and sentimental to youthful cynics, but it is heartwarming and always a joy to listen to.

Published in: on March 9, 2008 at 5:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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Vonnie Scott gives Christian rock the grit of classic Heart and Janis Joplin


Reviewed by Carson James

Vonnie Scott/Beckon Call

Singer/songwriter Vonnie Scott may sound like vintage Heart, Janis Joplin, and Melissa Etheridge at times, but lyrically she is in another zone. What may not be immediately apparent, if you just absorb her music on the surface level, is that Scott is a Christian artist. Songs such as “The Well” and “Rest in You” instantly recall the Heart of old, especially the tough-girl grit of Scott’s vocals, but the words are definitely of a spiritual nature. And with so many Christian artists mining the same secular modern pop/rock influences for a larger audience, it is certainly welcome. Consider Scott then an alternative to the usual Christian alternative.

“The Well” is propelled by sharp acoustic riffs and robust drumming; however, the focus becomes Scott’s powerful pipes, knocking over speakers with its big rock kicks. If you’re going to sing for the Lord, raise your voice. On “My Essence” and “If I Touched You,” Scott shows that she is able to plumb the subtleties of human emotion, declaring her spiritual faith with the dreamy softness of a candlelit prayer. Beckon Call is highly recommended to fans of contemporary Christian music as well as those who miss the rootsy FM sounds of the ’70s.