By Lee Ann Westover
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Nashville songbird Alison Krauss, Led Zeppelin’s rock god Robert Plant and star producer T. Bone Burnett, have created one of the best albums of the year in “Raising Sand.” The trio’s individual track records (along with curiosity about what happens when you mix oil and water) have created quite a buzz surrounding this release, which will doubtless carry it all the way to Grammy season next year. Overall, the album’s tone is ominous and dark, and takes full advantage of a repertoire supplied by some of our best songwriters (The Everly Brothers, Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt). Although each artist has the chance to showcase familiar styles (Krauss’s lilting soprano and Plant’s wail), Krauss and Plant also stretch beyond the boundaries of audience expectations. On many of the tracks, Plant’s voice is so subdued that he sounds positively (dare I write it?) angelic. Krauss excels when she gets the chance to deliver a powerful vocal performance on “Let Your Loss be Your Lesson,” where she gets to attack all the notes with the intensity of an angry Dolly Parton.
Back at the University of Texas, my friends and I used to spend a lot of time playing D&D, experimenting with controlled substances and looking at fractals on my boyfriend’s Amiga all the while listening to Ween. Now with controlled substances and role playing games a distant, fuzzy memory, Ween does still give me a thrill. Their crazy mix of real and synthesized instruments still seems au courant in this day of Freak Folk and Feist. The record opens with a rollicking Latin number reminiscent of Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass, only to move through a few more random-seeming genres before arriving at the hilarious and profane “My Bare Hands.” If you are a fan of Tenacious D or the funny parts of Barenaked Ladies, give Ween a whirl to hear where these young whippersnappers got a lot of their tricks.
Clare and the Reasons
Clare and the Reasons’ latest release, “The Movie,” opens with a reverberant throng of violins playing arpeggiated pizzicato lines. Above it all floats the flute-high voice of Clare Muldaur-Manchon as she sings, “Pluto, I have some frightful news for you. In the New York Times, they’ve just reported you’ve been overthrown from your silver throne for good.” This musical dedication to the former planet is indicative of the Reasons’ music overall: quirky pop that is rich with strings, lush vocal harmonies, and lyrics that tend toward the romantic. Another favorite is “Cook for You,” a ballad dedicated to a loved one that opens “I like to cook for you in my underwear.” In the hands of Ween, this would sound ridiculous, but Muldaur-Manchon’s sincere and sweet delivery makes it simply dreamy. Her husband, Olivier Manchon, is the source of the Reasons’ heady string arrangements. They transport the recording to a place where the band no longer inhabits a stage, but stars in a perverse, otherworldly movie in which we all get to fall in love.
Playing Thursday, Dec. 20 at 9 p.m., Southpaw, 125 5th Av., Brooklyn, spsounds.com
“Far From Home”
Mother West Music
Twins Sarah and Clare Bowman have sung together since their parents gave them their first tape recorder. On those first childish recordings, they began discovering the music that would help them create The Bowmans’ sunny folk-pop style later in life. Over jangling guitars and a selection of other stringed instruments, pot and pans, organ and horns, the women sing in close harmony much of the time. They bring to mind the Roches when they sing, and not just because they’re sisters. Their vocal counterpoint is so intuitive, they sometimes seem to be different layers of the same voice. On “Make it Last,” harmonies wander and meet, almost as if one or the other of them is going to fall out of tune…yet never does. Not nearly so serious as Wilco, the Bowmans sometimes pop out with a sick sense of humor, as in The Porker Song. “I don’t like to fight / But I will fight for my own life / But fight I will for my own life / So you can’t have your bacon in the morning.”
“Sky Blue Sky”
Over the years, Wilco has gained a reputation for being a genre-forming, genre-busting group with way too much to say. Because of this, critics and fans have loved Wilco and followed them through various incarnations and changes in lineup. “Sky Blue Sky” which has been nominated for the Best Rock Album Grammy this year is a very exposed version of the sound that placed Wilco on the critics’ favorites lists in the first place. Though played and produced well, a muted feeling extends from bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s warbling vocals out to the rest of the recording. If you are a big fan of Dylan, the Velvet Underground or Gram Parsons, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in the dampened feel of this effort. If you’re looking for a good time, however, stay away. Tweedy’s lyrics are beautifully written, but they remind me of some of my worst boyfriends. “That’s what I wished for / Somebody just like you / To tell me what to do, honestly / And leave me like you found me.” I think my own feelings about the record can be summed up by Tweedy’s lyrics, too. “How can I warn you / When my tongue turns to dust…It doesn’t mean that I don’t care / It means I’m partially there.”
“Fresh off the Boat”
Lucy Maude Montgomery wrote that “all pioneers are considered to be afflicted with moonstruck madness,” and Golem is no exception. Some of the hippest and craziest acts out there today are made up of young musicians and writers who are exploring the edges of traditional forms. Beirut does it for gypsy music, Nellie McKay does it for jazz and Golem does it for klezmer. Where other klezmer acts may focus on reproducing an antique sound, Golem, a New York City based group founded in 2001 by bandleader Annette Ezekiel, takes klezmer to the outer limits, adding in a dash of punk spirit while amping up the energy overall. Their latest album, “Fresh off the Boat,” showcases the bravado and adrenaline of pioneers everywhere. Among the brouhaha you’ll find all the trappings of a typical klezmer group: Ezekiel’s own accordion, plus tambourine, violin trombone drums and bass. That is where the tradition ends, however. Songs like “Helm is Warsaw” will have you bouncing around in your desk chair as Ezekiel belts out the lyrics over the organized mayhem of her band of talented players.
Playing Thursday, Dec. 27 at 8 p.m., Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey Street, boweryballroom.com.
Lee Ann Westover is the lead singer of The Lascivious Biddies and The Deelees. She blogs at TheTinyGuide.com