It truly is Christmas in October at my comfortable little rent-a-house somewhere in the middle of America.
Despite the heroic efforts of Paul O'Neill and the Bronx Bombers, Grandpa's scrappy Indians are in the World Series, giving me something to do every night besides clean up the cat puke up on my TV remote control or try to bone up on this year's Christmas releases before daylight savings time even rears its mindful head. (One of the occupational hazards of writing a bimonthly column that goes to press long before the Great Pumpkin makes his pokey annual trek.)
All this contraseasonal commentary is just my loquacious way of justifying my inclusion of a baseball tribute CD in this post-Series column. Diamond Cuts (Hungry for Music) has spent too much time in my car CD player to wait until next year.
This wide-ranging, wonderful compilation of 25 baseball-inspired new and existing recordings was put together by Jeff Campbell, a zealous Washington, D.C. music and baseball fan, whose Hungry for Music label and charity organization made headlines last year for its inner-city music mentoring and development programs.
In addition to benefitting the brand-new Kansas City-based Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Jackie Robinson Foundation, this collection rocks, soothes, challenges and inspires, with the likes of Jesse Jackson, Negro Leaguer Buck O'Neil, Bob Dylan, Big Bill Broonzy, The Drovers and Barbara Manning's SF Seals speaking and singing about the weird, wacky and wondrous aspects of a fast-disappearing American pasttime.
Dan Bern's "This Side of the White Line" and Chuck Brodsky's churning, earnest tale of the first white player in the Negro Leagues, "The Ballad of Eddie Klepp," are also sobering reminders of the contradictions and dashed hopes that most baseball fanatics tend to gloss over in painting sentimental, idealized portraits of the game.
One will never accuse Nashville's Lonesome Bob of putting a pretty face on ugly situations.
Nope, this country-tinged rocker is so determined to call it like he sees it on his debut CD, Things Fall Apart (Checkered Past), that the liner notes include a disclaimer that reads: "These are songs, not directives... If, upon listening to this record, anyone feels compelled to kill, maim, or otherwise do harm to their spouse/self/other relevant or non-relevant parties (including me), please, put down the gun, knife, hammer, pitchfork, etc., and pick up the phone and call your nearest mental health or crisis intervention center. Thank you."
Bob may be lonesome, but he's no Morrissey. What we have here is a hard-rocking, cynically minded collection of country rock gems, delivered in a stark rock setting. Allison Moorer's twangst-ridden harmony vocals sweeten Bob's bitter baritone just enough to convey the ache and bewilderment of songs like "Waltzing on the Titanic" and "What Went Wrong," while onetime Blue Chieftains Mark Horn and Tim Carroll contribute some tense, searing drum and guitar dynamics to flesh out Bob's ragged canvas of despair.
Robbie Fulks is another talented singer/songwriter often (and mistakenly) associated with the surging "underground country" Nashville scene. But don't expect to find this Chicago-based bard mince any barbed words about his true feelings towards Music City on the next installment of "Nashville Now."
"Fuck This Town" lays bare all of Fulks' none-too-concealed emotions about his success (or lack thereof) in peddling his wares on Music Row over the past several years. Taking aim at everything from those dreadful Bluebird Cafe songwriters-in-the-round showcases to the more obvious hat-wearers, this sophmorically gleeful sing-along is just that -- a piece of ear candy designed to distract first-time listeners from Mr. Fulks' true intentions on South Mouth (Bloodshot), his second full-length release.
Once you get past the all the inventive wordplay and the zippy picking of Fulks, The Skeletons backup ensemble and ex-Buckaroo steel player Tom Brumley, you'll find a gifted ballad singer who gives Jones and Haggard a run for their money on tunes like "Heart, I Wish You Were Here" and "Forgotten, But Not Gone." Let's hope that Geffen, Fulks's new label, gives him the creative freedom to mine much, much more from this side of his multifaceted musical personality.
With the exception of some pleasant surprises from Seconds Flat, White Hassle and Slobberbone, not much else has cropped up on my new music radar screen this fall.
Seconds Flat (Green Linnet) introduces a talented Charlotte, N.C., combo with a penchant for California-style country rock harmonies that stand out from the crowd of droners and cloners peddling the "alt-country" sound these days.
Singer/songwriter Anthony Tomlinson showcases off a thoughtful, moody sense of melody on "The Good Life," the sad tale of a battered woman: "All she ever wanted was a piece of the good life, a modest house with a closet space." And "Me and My Friend Heartache" is a shuffling, Buck Owens-inspired honky tonk drinking tune that slips into your brain and rattles around for days on end.
You know you've stayed away from New York City too long (or just long enough?) when you find yourself losing touch with the very alternative country scene that inspired you to write your gol-durned column in the first place.
White Hassle's National Chain (Matador) is my wake-up call to the fact that great country music will continue to spew out of the bowels of the five boroughs, despite (or in spite of) the fact that I no longer have a 718 or 212 phone number to my name.
Sloppy Sears Silvertone guitar strummer Marcellus Hall and kettle-basher Dave Varenka don't do anything that special on this low-fi collection of originals and George Jones, Every Brother and Ray Charles covers. But their raw, easy-going harmonies and rent-party spontaneity make this the record I wanted to hate but couldn't stop playing. It's those They Might Be Giants' dial-a-song answering machine messages from the late '80s with a dose of two-four rhythm and back-porch twang.
There's twang a-plenty lurking in every crevice of the gnashing metallic lurch of Denton, Texas's Slobberbone on Barrel Chested (Doolittle). But the country part of the country-rock equation is hard to find upon first listen to the title cut and the host of jerking, punk-paced rockers that make up the majority of the 11 cuts on this promising debut.
This is one of those records that grow on you, listen by listen, as the delicate sense of dynamics between intense quiet and manic surges reveals the wit and precision in Brent Best's casually drawled vocals on "Engine Joe," "I'll Be Damned" and the disturbing "Billy Prichard." When are these guys going to take this country by storm and blast all those Son Volt lemmings on their slacker asses?
I have a much better chance of catching Slobberbone's hi-octane act at the local shopping mall than I do of running across any of my contemporaries with even the most cursory knowledge of the late Sam McGee.
As the guitar-picking half of '20s Tennessee brother act, Sam & Kirk McGee, Sam laid down the bluesy, hard-driving foundations of the original country guitar sound as one of the first regular Grand Ole Opry performers.
Sam McGee, "Grand Dad of the Country Guitar Pickers" (Arhoolie) is a collection of deftly picked blues, fiddle tunes and buckdances recorded shortly before McGee's death, in 1970, by folklorist Mike Seeger. McGee's signature tune, "Railroad Blues," sounds just as rhythmic and train-like as it did on the scratchy '20s original recording, and the warm, raspy vocals recall a bygone, pre-hypermarted South when the distant sound of a freight train whistle could still conjure up images of adventure, opportunity and romance.
I have a pretty good feeling 5 Chinese Brothers frontman Tom Meltzer is a card-carrying member of this particular Sam's Club, too. And you can rest assured he and the rest of the 5CB clan won't be during their Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart, either.
The band's new holiday offering, A Window Shopper's Christmas (PRIME CD) is just too damned goofy, inventive and eclectic to ever sneak its way between the Cardigans and Spice Girls displays. And news that PRIME CD let them re-record the Surreal McCoys' knee-slapping "Honky Tonk Christmas" and 5CB's own "Christmas on Interstate 80" AND let grinning guitarist Steve Antonakos bare his basso-profundo soul on the maudlin, "Dear Santa," should send any self-loathing Wal-Mart audio employee into barcode-smearing cold sweats.
One more reason to dial 1-800-PRIME-CD to circumvent the distribution process and take capitalism back into your own hands.
While you're at it, check out Romanian-born poet Andrei Codrescu's decidedly off-kilter The Valley of Christmas (Gert Town), a loopy spoken-word tale of a New Orleans yuppie couple and the strange meanderings of their curious son, Almond Joy, on his quest for the elusive Valley of Christmas.
This twisted update on a traditional Transylvanian folk tale first aired on NPR's "All Things Considered" on Christmas Day 1996, and has been updated for CD with an often unsettling, mischevious musical backdrop courtesy of New Orleans band, Evil Nurse Sheila, and musician/producer Mark Bingham.
Ryko-disc has repackaged several previously released holiday songs into one pretty solid label sampler, Xmas Marks the Spot (Ryko-disc). Aside from re-introducing us all to calypso singer Lord Nelson's "A Party for Santa Claus" and Big Star's "Jesus Christ," Xmas Marks the Spot rescues two unassuming plums from the out-of-print refuse bin: Mono Puff's loping "Careless Santa" and Evan Johns and his H-Bombs' peppery "Little Cajun Drummer Boy."
If you're hankering for more of the country-jig holiday variety, you'll want to snuggle up with Christmas at Doobie Shea (Doobie Shea), a tasteful sampler of bluegrass Christmas instrumentals from the Tony Williamson Trio and the southwest Virginia label that put itself on the map with a strong Stanley Brothers tribute CD (The Stanley Tradition) earlier this year.
Flat-picking virtuoso Dan Crary also enters the traditional instrumental fray with Holiday Guitar (Sugar Hill), a beautiful set of delicately picked, often re-arranged Christmas melodies delivered with Crary's warm, gliding acoustic touch.
You'll feel even warmer all over, and a little tipsy at that, if you spend too much time holed up by the fire with Ray Charles's The Spirit of Christmas (Rhino), a reissue of the slick, bluesy 1986 Columbia CD. Though Brother Ray and the Raelettes get mighty intoxicating on "All I Want for Christmas," the bonus track, 1962's Ray-Betty Carter duet, "Baby It's Cold Outside," is more in keeping with the mastery evident throughout the handful of Ray's'60s Atlantic CDs Rhino has recently reissued in remastered, repackaged form.
We're back where we started this whole sordid affair with the Hungry for Music label's A Holiday Feast, Vol. II. This sly, rocking 22-track melange of Washington, D.C. artists like Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun ("Truckin' Trees for Christmas"), The Grandsons ("Yorgi the Yodeling Reindeer") and The Reluctant Playboys ("Who Spiked the Egg Nog?") is a rollicking follow-up to 1995's Holiday Feast, Vol. I (the proceeds from which were earmarked to help the D.C. area homeless population).
Aside from the humantiarian bent of the label behind the CD, how can you NOT get all hot and bothered over a CD which kicks off with my D.C. hometown guitar hero Evan Johns (newly back in the Washington area after giving up on the turgid Austin roots scene) and his brother, Mike, chortling and burping out "My Christmas Wish Came True" over a bouncy little mandolin line?
With Evan back where he belongs, there's no place like my suburban northern Virginia home for the holidaze. Especially if I can wrest complete stereo control power away from Mom and the forces of doom otherwise known as the Perry Como Christmas album...
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at your local roots-friendly record/CD store, in the ever-expanding CD section of our very own Rootin' Bookstore or online at Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records.
Addresses of harder-to-find labels are as follows: Hungry for Music, 2020 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Suite 384, Washington, DC 20006; Checkered Past, 3940 N. Francisco, Chicago, IL 60618; Bloodshot, 912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613; Green Linnet, 43 Beaver Brook Rd., Danbury, CT 06810; Matador, 625 Broadway, New York, NY 10012; Doolittle, 213 W. 4th St., Suite 204 , Austin, TX 78701; Arhoolie, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530; PRIME CD, 111 E 14th St., Suite 300, New York, NY 10003, 1-800-774-6323/1-800-PRIME-CD; Gert Town, 8359 Fig St., New Orleans, LA 70118; Ryko-disc, Shetland Park, 27 Congress St., Salem, MA 01970; Doobie Shea, P.O. Box 369, Ferrum, WA 24088; Sugar Hill, P.O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717; Rhino, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe