Lost Highway Records
Listening to an old Lucinda Williams -- any of her first five -- was like listening to a great album, as good as it gets. But compared to her latest album, Essence, it was like listening to it from the other side of the room, outside of the inner circle of the speakers, competing (successfully) with the air conditioner for aural attention. Essence is like putting on the headphones and letting Lucinda into your head to sing you a great album from the inside out.
As it should be, Essence is spare. Music doesn't have to be minimal, with eloquent lines coming out of the fewest of notes, but when it is, there's no one better than Lucinda Williams to evoke a year's worth of aching from the tint of color on a bare, bleached-bone lyric. Her evocative equal on guitar, bending his strings until the character seeps out of them note-by-note, is Bo Ramsey, the wizened, road-worn sidekick who has polished the grain on Greg Brown's deep-textured music for years. Williams turned to Ramsey to play on and produce the basic tracks, and along with heavyweights like Jim Keltner on percussion, Reese Wynans on Hammond B3 organ, and Charlie Sexton on guitars and final production, the result is as good as anything from her unblinking canon of work.
No one can draw more vividly from the sensual, hair-raising, spine-tingling marrow of emotion than Lucinda Williams, armed with a lyric and voice so razor-edge cutting as to get past the roughest exterior. On paper, her lines may look deceptively simple, but Williams makes another language out of the expressive quality of her voice, arresting the listener with a tremulous vibrato or undercutting her own irony with a just a touch of twang. "I envy the rain/That falls on your face," she sings, all weariness and longing, "That wets your eyelashes/And dampens your skin/And touches your tongue/And soaks through your shirt/And drips down your back./ I envy the rain."
In "Blue," Williams tells us to "Go find a jukebox/And see what a quarter will do." She takes Essence down to that quarter, the least common denominator of musical access, and delivers transformative journeys every five minutes and three verses.
Anybody else taking on the lyrics in the title track would probably sound like a dialogue-challenged porn star, but Williams turns the old metaphor of love as a drug into a vibrant enactment of obsessive addiction. Williams convinces the listener that nobody knows the braille of this terrain better than she, our guide into an ache whose depth and duration challenges the imagination.
Even the irony of "Get Right with God" convinces us of a determinedly sincere voice ready to "kiss the diamondback," or to "Burn the palms of both my hands" to accomplish the title's task. In a fundamental barter tempting enough to give pause to the most unambiguous atheist, she sings, "I asked God about his plan/To save us all from Satan's slaughter/If I give up one of my lambs/Will you take me as one of your daughters?"
Heightened exposure and mainstream accessibility like she experienced following Carwheels on a Gravel Road can easily blur an artist's vision, but Williams refuses to rise to any but her own excruciatingly high standards. Essence confidently sets out to satiate her own appetites, departing from the path to follow her instinct inward toward a mature, unwavering depiction of stark and brutal beauty.
Mezcla, a jazz, funk and jam quintet from Denver, is on the brink of something. The band has played together long enough to create that confident sound borne of communication, but not long enough to push that confidence outside the confines of a traditional jam. Mezcla's self-titled debut album, while not a bad disc at all, leaves the listener feeling like they missed out on something.
The first jam, "SoBe Newbie," is very tight but loses momentum during a drum solo at the halfway mark. A good second-set piece, but not the way to begin an album. "Waltzing Brumhilda" goes modern jazzy, but still without taking any risks. A fine sax solo by Phil Foiles crowns the song, but in the end only adds to a growing frustration.
Mezcla is a good band with very talented members. Individually each is a fine player, but together the band seems to prefer sticking within their assumed limits. Mezcla couldn't go wrong by venturing out from the conventional jam structure, by playing louder and longer, by getting a little dirtier.
The album somewhat redeems itself with "Margarita Llueg," a funk-based salsa. Without trying to sound edgy, it fills the Latin structure with rich notes, pulsing drums, melodic, lilting guitar work, and horn highlights in precisely the right spots. The song is filled to the brim with the right sounds, losing its perfection only during the very last loud, jarring, unwarranted notes.
The seven songs on the record are each well-crafted and tight, but because Mezcla didn't choose more challenges on the tracks, their album is left with a slightly empty, half-baked sound. Hopefully, as these musicians mature, they will push themselves far enough to be the truly confident, highly-skilled and immensely talented band they are on the brink of becoming.
-- Kristen Sherwood
They Missed the Perfume
They Missed the Perfume is the latest album from the Disco Biscuits, purveyors of trance-fusion, a genre of music whose definition is ubiquitous and whose practitioners are limited. The band bridges the gap between music played by humans and music created and orchestrated by computers, and they have been described as "the whole Nintendo on 'shrooms deal."
This psychedelically-electronic sound led the Disco Biscuits into Belyea Power Plant in Easton, New Jersey to record their third studio album. The Biscuits refused to play "live" songs while recording. Instead, the band layered loops, samples and sequenced beats piece by piece to compose each song.
The album kicks off with "Highwire," where a catchy guitar hook intermingles with the singsong chorus, causing this song to get stuck in your head for a while. The next track, "Spacebirdmatingcall," features Jon Guttwillig's soaring guitar line that evokes the song's name, and ends with the synthesized sounds of birds. "Home Again" features beautiful vocal layering as the final chorus is built up by loops: Three distinct melodies are sung and delicately laid down over each other to build the sound.
All of a sudden, drummer Sam Altman's jungle beats fill the speakers, and the band enters into "Mindless Dribble," the centerpiece of the album. The verses are hard and driving, but the chorus has a sing-song melody and happy-go-lucky lyrics. The main jam starts out as an ambient-reggae jam led by bass player Marc Brownstein. Just when you are getting used to the mellow mood, the jungle returns and leads the band into the last verse and chorus.
This is an album that works as a whole; the individual songs are not as good out of context. With They Missed the Perfume, the Disco Biscuits have created an experimental album using unconventional means. But the album does not represent the band's sound as a whole. To get that, you have to check them out live.
The Disco Biscuits play three live dates in Colorado in the coming weeks: July 4 at Levels in Steamboat Springs; July 5 with special guests Lost at Large at Mishawaka Amphitheatre in Bellevue; and July 7 opening for Phil Lesh and Friends at Red Rocks. Tickets for all shows are available through Biscotix, at www.biscotix.musictoday.com.
-- Scott Medvin