Thursday, June 1, 2006
CASSANDRA WILSON | Thunderbird | Blue Note
As an acclaimed jazz diva lauded for her eclecticism, Grammy winner Cassandra Wilson’s decision to forgo her acoustic sound on Thunderbird should come as no surprise. The 10-track release uncharacteristically dances around a fine line rather than crossing it, leaving listeners to wonder if this is deeper expression in new forms, or a more direct appeal for broader acceptance. Fortunately, the hip-hop-influenced opener, “Go to Mexico,” shines, providing a great first impression. Several others leave you wondering if Wilson pushes the envelope with one style too many.
In the 1990s, Wilson’s blues-hued aesthetic and her band’s acoustic, gut-bucket virtuosity rewrote the role of jazz chanteuse a decade before Norah Jones followed with a similar mix of jazz and country. On Thunderbird, Wilson rings truest with the blues/jazz mix in “Easy Rider,” the disc’s high point and her most satisfying blues performance since she covered Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” 13 years ago. —David Lindsay
JEFFREY FOUCAULT | Ghost Repeater | Signature
For every Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen channeling Woody Guthrie, of course, there are a million marginally-talented dudes embarrassing themselves in local coffeeshops. Jeffrey Foucault’s Ghost Repeater proves he’s not one of the latter, even if the Wisconsin-born troubadour sometimes courts cliché as much as his open-mic brethren.
Maybe the weather beat it out of him: Foucault moved to western Massachusetts a few years ago, but he returned to the Midwest during a cold snap to record his third album. Ghost Repeater evocatively captures the freezing, endless plains not far from the Iowa City studio’s door. The album’s title, a reference to the DJ-less radio stations that relay generic, preset playlists across the nation, introduces Foucault’s existential vision of a broken-down America. Ghost Repeater abounds with dark imagery, with Foucault’s declaration in “Wild Waste and Welter” that “There’s killers on the road/ They’re going door to door/ With lamp black eyes/ And the number on your soul” about par for the course. If you think that means Ghost Repeater is 11 tracks of Ghost of Tom Joad–style American Gothic, Foucault employs a full band, and its liberal use of Hammond organ and steel guitar (the latter courtesy of Son Volt sideman Eric Heywood) marks a smart departure from his minimal previous releases, Stripping Cane and Miles From the Lightning.
But if Ghost Repeater is above average, it’s far from iconic. Foucault’s lyrics can veer dangerously toward surface-level declarations such as “Everyone’s buying/ What no one can sell,” and his baritone is a bit too achy-breaky for tasteful alt-country. Johnny Cash—OK, Jeff Tweedy—our man ain’t. —Justin Moyer
KIERAN KANE, KEVIN WELCH & FATS KAPLIN | Lost John Dean | Compass
Songwriting is a craft, and too often the best craftsmen fly under the radar. On Lost John Dean, we find two of Nashville’s finest, Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch, longtime collaborators and masters of their craft. Joined by multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, they create another stunning collection of deep, dark, truthful tunes.
Working out of a consortium of like-minded artists collectively known as the Dead Reckoners, Kane and Welch have made their careers as songwriters for some of country music’s biggest artists (Waylon Jennings, Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs), but wisely keep the best material for themselves. Musically, Lost John Dean is steeped in the hillbilly folk-music tradition, but the words suggest a much more powerful world perspective. Even the three cover tunes ring with an authenticity that transports the listener to another era. This is today’s music, played like yesterday. —James Kelly