Hipster coffeehouses lend themselves to acoustic instruments and lilting voices. Gentle music tends to further conversation by filling in the lulls and a poignant lyric can grab attention from the New York Times homepage or mundane Facebook updates. Four Letters, the new release by Cariad Harmon is nothing if not perfectly executed lilting coffeehouse fare.
Harmon is a Brit with a smooth, breathy voice bringing an instant comfort and intimacy. Comparisons to other accomplished female singer-songwriters come instantly with every track. All the girls here — gliding notes of Sarah McLachlan, the purposeful playing of the Indigo Girls, breathy intimacy over techno beats of Dido, smoky jazz of Norah Jones, even day-in-the-life storytelling of Suzanne Vega (sans graphic child-abuse).
Four Letters is an impressive debut album and it’s obvious that Harmon has absorbed the work of those that blazed the trail before her. She weaves her words into the fabric of the tracks with the ease of someone that has paid her dues on the “not here to listen to the music” circuit of pubs, coffeehouses and bookstores. Lyrically, Harmon’s songs lean toward the confessional. However, the downside of confessing the feelings that everyone has had is just that — it’s not clear what the listener should take away from the experience of the album.
Four Letters is perfectly executed background music for a slow-start morning. In fact, the cover art is punctuated with a photo-shopped stain from a virtual ceramic cup. It’s almost as if the CD has been lying there, on your desk next to your laptop, unnoticed except for that lazy Sunday you were too lazy to find a coaster. Press play and that feeling instantly returns. –Jeffrey Ramsey
Rosie Flores and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts
Girl of the Century
If not carefully executed, rockabilly can slip into the “back-in-my-day, Sonny” nostalgia, complete with poodle skirts and root beer floats. Often that nostalgic longing for “simpler times” is a cover for a longing for boys-club social dynamics that have been in decline since Wanda Jackson screeched her way through sets on the same bill as Elvis Presley.
On Girl of the Century, Rosie Flores kicks in the door of that boy’s club for good and serves up their own words with authority. I got guys to the right a me/I got a man to the left a me/I got boys all around me/Yeah, but I ain’t got you, she sings with the authority of a woman that takes what she wants. And it’s clear that she wants to be surrounded by the guys, men and boys that dominate the rockabilly and roots-rock worlds.
What Flores does have is an attitude that turns the rockabilly form on its head to infuse songs written by men into powerful female statements. By ripping unapologetically through songs dripping with bravado, Flores demands to make her own choices.
While the album, produced by Jon Langford of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers, stays firmly inside the lines of traditional rockabilly, there is an underpinning of urgency and force. That, along with the “live-in-the-studio” recording style used on the album, betrays the punk roots of Flores and Langford. The combination of technical precision, knowledge of the form and passion to make a statement yields a more authentic roots-rock record than any number of ‘50s tribute acts in Branson or on PBS pledge drive specials. –Jeffrey Ramsey
Darrin James Band
The Lovely Ugly Truth
Bridge Street Records
The kudos descended upon Darrin James for his song writing skills in his debut album Thrones of Gold, and his sophomore effort, The Lovely Ugly Truth, will also attract the accolades.
As the title attests, The Lovely Ugly Truth is about love — love gone bad (“Lovely Ugly Truth”), love filled with regret (“I was Wrong”), love on the run (“Baby Don’t Bitch”), just plain bad love (“Someone to Depend On”), real bad love (“Shallow Grave”), good love that’s wrong (“Love So Sexy”) and, maybe, just maybe, good love found (“Just U”). And each one feels real, like James lived it and seeks to purge the stink — or keep the beauty — surrounding the story in his music. And they’re all good, songs and the band, plus a collection of guest musicians attracted to the talent involved, lending the right amount sound — be it horns, organ, guitar, pedal steel or backup vocals — to accent each tale.
Whether James exhausted his love vibe or not, he threw in a tune about illegal immigration, “Green Card Rag,” and a couple about working for the Man — “What’s the Hurry?” and “Easier.” The authenticity bleeds through the words, especially in “Easier.” James sings:
I don’t need a lot, but I’m feelin’ burned
As the mail keeps piling up and I’m not lazy
But sometimes it’s not enough to just get by
And I’m sorry that there’s nothin’ more that I can provide
Oh, Lord can you make this world a little easier
James reminds one of Tom Waits, both in his voice and the way his songs creep into your insides and rattle the truth you sometimes fight to avoid. And just like when the realization hits home and an escape may be necessary to put things in perspective, James has a rocker of a song for that, too — “Whiskey Breath Blues,” a perfection of attitude for when the times call for the middle finger to be raised against the world amid drinks with wayward friends. —Bruce Rodgers