January 27, 2012

The Little Willies Return, For The Good Times

The Little Willies never set out to be a big deal. If anything they’ve aspired to maintain a low profile, perhaps as an antidote to the mainstream attention their most conspicuous member, Norah Jones, tends to attract with her solo releases. They reflected as much on their laid-back 2006 eponymous debut and, in its assortment of covers and well-suited originals, an earnest affinity for classic country music.

The group’s latest, For The Good Times (EMI/Milking Bull Records), is even more steeped in country, and it's all the better for it. Traditional honky-tonk along the lines of Lefty Frizzell (“If You've Got The Money, I've Got The Time”) and Hank Williams (“Lovesick Blues”) complement moments that are at turns sentimental (“Remember Me) and contentious (Wide Open Road, Fist City) in respectful, refreshing performances.

A seasoned, playful chemistry exists among these musicians — Jones (vocals, piano), along with Jim Campilongo (guitar), Lee Alexander (bass), Richard Julian (guitar, vocals), and Dan Rieser (drums) — invigorating some of these old gems, especially the obscure ones. “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” in particular, finds Julian behind the wheel singing lead as Jones accentuates its sensuous subtext, her voice an echo conjuring images not of some perilous highway but rather of far more risky, erogenous terrain.

(First published at Blogcritics.)

January 23, 2012

Leah Siegel: Freedom’s Just Another Word for Firehorse

Charging out of the gate with a bold and impassioned debut, And so they ran faster…, Brooklyn artist Leah Siegel is off to quite an auspicious start as Firehorse.

Released late last year on Pledge Music, the album has earned significant critical praise from the likes of The Los Angeles Times, Paste, and The Wall Street Journal. Select performances in Los Angeles and New York City, including a buzzworthy showcase at the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon — Siegel’s live band includes guitarist Steve Elliot, bassist Tim Luntzel, and drummer Brian Wolfe — have generated even further acclaim.

No wonder.

And so they ran faster… is a vivid collision of songcraft and imagination, the realization of a promising artist flirting on the fringes of rock, funk, cabaret, indie pop, and dance in ways that are ahead of their time and beyond it altogether.

In recent years Siegel has made a name for herself in and around Manhattan as a resourceful musician and a captivating vocalist, either on her own or with soul/R&B combo Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout and the Citizens Band cabaret troupe.

In 2006, following two short works, Leah Siegel Presents and The Lemon EP, she released her proper full-length solo debut, Little Mule. Her most realized effort up to that time, its progressive textures and unconventional song structures in some respects foreshadowed the music she now plays. Still, Siegel had misgivings; that the album was too self-conscious, too creatively confining, maybe even too contrived.

“I just thought,” she says, “That wasn’t what I meant to say… I realized how much I had held back and how much I’d been limiting myself.”

The enigmatic guise of Firehorse “reminds me that I should be able to do whatever the hell I want creatively,” Siegel explains. “It creates at least the slightest bit of anonymity so that you can do whatever you want, like going to a party and knowing no one; there’s no one to posture for.”

The album indeed reflects that sense of purpose through moments both tender and majestic.

“I’ve always been influenced by classical music,” Siegel notes, “and specifically by old Disney movies. Sleeping Beauty I watched constantly as a kid. I just loved those background vocals, those swelling, choral, huge group background vocals. Then you listen to Elvis — later Elvis — and hear them on there; and Roy Orbison. All of those ideas greatly influenced me.”

“Only the Birds” is arguably the nexus of those influences. Siegel sings amid a somber, ethereal haze that swirls and intensifies toward a bombastic crescendo of vocals — 60 tracks’ worth — and orchestration. “I wanted it to sound like ‘Danny Elfman scores a horror film from the ‘60s,’” she says of the song. Of its creation, a painstaking but admittedly rewarding process, she adds with a laugh, “It was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life in the studio.”

Other standouts, like “Machete Gang Holiday,” which metes out a pulsating funk groove reminiscent of early Talking Heads, and the intimately empathetic “If You Don't Want To Be Alone” further illustrate the scope of Siegel’s aesthetic and, as well, the promise it holds for the future.

“Don’t fight what you are made for,” she sings in “She’s A River,” which opens And so they ran faster... with a startling, electro-nervous lurch. It’s not quite what you’d expect to hear from a singer/songwriter with an affinity for vintage Disney and Vegas Elvis, but such disparities suit Siegel just fine.

“I don’t want to feel boxed in,” she insists. “I just want to be creative. I want to be explosive sometimes, and chaotic sometimes, and sometimes just melodic and sweet, and sometimes sour, and sometimes fragile, and sometimes strong. Maybe that won’t make sense to a lot of people, but that’s what Firehorse means to me. It’s sort of destructive and untamed. That’s just who I am.”

January 16, 2012

The O'Jays Live Up to Legacy in Concert

St. Petersburg showed the O’Jays lots of love this past Thursday night. So much love, in fact, that just about every song they performed met with an instant mix of feminine swoons and joyful sing-a-longs to fill the majestic Mahaffey Theater.

And the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers earned that love all night. More to the point, they worked for it, spinning and gliding in synchronized steps, engaging the audience at every turn, and demonstrating a commitment to not just sing but entertain.

From the get-go, with a high-energy opening medley that included “Unity,” “Survivor,” and “Give the People What They Want,” original members Walter Williams and Eddie Levert, along with relative newcomer Eric Nolan Grant—all clad in matching white, sequined suits—personified showmanship and class.

Williams, for his part, was in fine form, enriching familiar hits and fan favorites with suave, considerate treatments—his lead vocals on an extended rendition of “Forever Mine” and, later, “Use Ta Be My Girl,” were bona fide highlights—yet it was Levert who delivered the show's most soul-gripping, heartfelt moments. He's suffered tremendous grief in recent years, including the loss of two adult sons, musicians Gerald and Sean Levert, in 2006 and 2008, respectively. "He's got the strength of Job," Williams said of his bandmate and friend, "and he's bounced back, hard."

Indeed, that resilience was evident and plentiful. With boyish charisma and seemingly boundless energy belying his age (he'll turn 70 in June), Levert enlivened both slowjams ("Lovin' You," "Stairway to Heaven," "Cry Together") and social statements ("Backstabbers," "For the Love of Money," "Love Train") with urgent, earnest conviction.

The opportunity to experience in-person such legends of American music is growing increasingly scarce these days. With this spirited and superlative performance, though, the O'Jays lived up to their legacy.

(First published at Blogcritics.)