by Alan Sculley
New albums reviewed this month include the latest offerings from two all-time greats on the music scene – Lucinda Williams and X. But don’t sleep on the other albums in this column, as Fizz Fuzz, Cable Ties and Catholic Action all give us reason to sit up and take notice of their new releases.
Good Souls Better Angels
One of music’s best songwriters, Williams has returned with Good Souls Better Angels, an album that cracks open some new ground for this veteran artist. For one thing, this is Williams’ most topical album (although the lyrics, written with her husband, Tom Overby, are often presented from a personal perspective). In “Bad News Blues,” she bemoans the media and the people who shape its messages, with both sly humor and insight. “Shadows & Doubts” takes aim at social media and how it allows for people to quickly judge and change opinions about their targets. “Wakin’ Up” is a harrowing look at domestic violence from a woman who’s fighting her way back. Musically, the new album marks a departure from an overall trend toward balladry that began with Williams’ 2007 album, West. This time out, Williams has stepped back to the down-and-dirty blues roots she showed on her early albums. The bluesy tone gets set with the opening cut, the defiant “You Can’t Rule Me,” a rolling, rough-edged track, while “Down Past The Bottom” is a lyrically bleak rocker so gritty you can almost see dust rise as the song plays. While there are still a few quiet ballads (“Good Souls” and “When The Way Gets Dark”), the shift to an edgier sound is welcome. Good Souls Better Angels is Williams’ most satisfying album since 2003’s World Without Tears, and a spirited reaffirmation of her considerable talents.
Just when a lot of fans figured X had reunited as only a touring band, the group has made its first new album in 35 years, Alphabetland. Considering the group’s first five albums still stand as some of the best punk albums ever, X has a lot to live up to on the new album. And Alphabetland delivers on the expectations, as Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake show they haven’t lost a step (and in fact play better and tighter than ever), while sounding very much like they did in the early 1980s. The foursome proves they can still crank on a pair of hyper-speed songs — “Delta 88 Nightmare” and “Goodbye Year, Goodbye” — as well as the hard-charging “I Gotta Fever” and “Water & Wine” (a song where X’s long-standing rockabilly influence resurfaces). Those are just a few highlights from this consistently strong 11-song outing. Since the original foursome reunited in 2004, their shows had featured songs from the original five albums, and playing back catalog songs can only go on for so long before a band starts to seem like a nostalgia act. Alphabetland proves that X is a living, breathing organism, as rocking, relevant —and good — as ever.
Now here’s a duo that really lives up to the description of power pop. On Palmyra, Dandy and Dawn Brown of Fizz Fuzz achieve a huge sound with songs built around big guitars (which by the way, are fuzz-free), deliberately paced powerhouse drums and vocals that stretch toward the heights. What’s also big are the pop hooks that populate such standout songs as “Loose Lips,” “Hereby,” “Dear Old” and “Collapse.” Even a slower-than-slow track like “Shame” becomes a power ballad in the best sense as Fizz Fuzz places the verses within a spare, eerie backdrop that sets up a loud instrumental segment where the guitars and drums rumble to a molten climax. Where most power pop is nothing if not peppy, the way Fizz Fuzz builds sound and drama by slowing things down and supersizing the riffs and other instrumental parts is a novel approach to guitar pop. It’s as if Big Star or the Beatles invaded Black Sabbath, and this seemingly unholy marriage of clashing musical styles turned out more harmonious than anyone would have expected.
What you think of Cable Ties and Far Enough may have a lot to do with how you view singer Jenny McKechnie. Her wailing vocals sound a bit like Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker or Kristin Hersh — only with perhaps even more force and volume. Often, the powerhouse singing heightens the tension in the music, but she pushes the limits toward distraction on “Sandcastles” and “Anger’s Not Enough.” Usually the vocal lines are melodic enough to carry things, and on songs like “Hope,” “Pillow,” “Tell Them Where To Go” and “Not My Story,” the guitar riffs hold their own alongside the vocals and provide a second dose of melody. Meanwhile, churning bass lines and drums put plenty of horsepower into the songs. It’s a potent combination, and it makes “Cable Ties” an energetic — and frequently thrilling — onslaught of hooky punk-flavored rock. But Far Enough isn’t for the faint of heart.
Celebrated By Strangers
Anyone for some electro-synth garage rock? That might be the genre Scotland’s Catholic Action is creating with Celebrated By Strangers. Rather than raucous guitars (although guitars are very much present), the songs here often favor synthesizers or electronic instrumentation. Most of the time, the approach works because these songs have catchy pop melodies, a good energy and instrumental parts and solos that enhance the songs. Just check out the bouncy, cheery hooks and the ear-grabbing instrumental section of the song “Yr Old Dad.” Other tracks (“Sign Here,” “People Don’t Protest Enough”) are pretty addictive with their spry melodies and snappy rock tempos, too. It’s a refreshing change from some electronic and synth acts, which seem more concerned with crafting cool rhythm tracks and finding unique synthetic sounds than writing songs with fully formed melodies and something more than a catch phrase to say lyrically. Thankfully, for as modern as this album sounds, Catholic Action is old school enough to make sure an actual song is at the heart of each track on Celebrated By Strangers.