Minor 7th Sept/Oct 2005: Rickie Lee Jones, Laurence Juber, Turning Point, Nickel Creek, Xuefei Yang, David Kleiner, Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan, Teja Gerken, Hootie & the Blowfish, Al Petteway & Amy White, Jeff Black, John Gilliat
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

September/October, 2005

Rickie Lee Jones, "Duchess of Coolsville," Rhino R2 79715, 2005

There's a dirty little secret in "Duchess of Coolsville." If "cool" means emotionally detached, then this collection proves that Rickie Lee Jones is decidedly not cool. These 48 tracks expose an artist with her heart and her psyche brightly painted on her sleeve. They plot a surprisingly earnest musical, emotional, and spiritual journey. As if to bring the point home with a surgical strike, "A Tree on Allenford" starts Disc 1 with the fully orchestrated musings of a driver on the way to work. Intimations of mortality lead her to conclude that everything has been loved by something that "waits to be loved again." Jones' highest charting hit reaches a most precious, uncool conclusion: "Chuck E's in love with the little girl singing this song." Listen to Jones' uniquely pained take on "My Funny Valentine." Or "The Evening of My Best Day," introduced as the tale of a desperately lonely child in footy pajamas, sung in a little boy's voice. "Maybe" Jones says by way of introduction, "This song will save him." Like the barfly in Billy Barnes' "Something Cool," Jones can muster up some apparent disinterest when she needs it, but that's only a gauzy veil thrown over her vulnerability. The other significant revelation of the anthology is no secret at all. Collections like this intend to paint a portrait of the artist as a young woman and beyond. But "Duchess of Coolsville" does not present a chronological retrospective. We're not meant to see Jones as she is often portrayed: one thing then another, constantly reinventing herself. We are meant to regard Jones' work as all of a piece. Disk One's nineteen cuts come from ten different albums yet co-exist quite nicely together. Ditto Disk Two. Disk Three contains the obligatory unreleased, live, and rare tracks. Here they are a revelation. Check out the demo for "Satellite," Jones' work with bassist Rob Wasserman on the nearly unrecognizable "Autumn Leaves," and especially the stately version of "Atlas' Marker" with Bill Frisell, in comparison with the demo. Jones can turn a phrase ("The Last Chance Texaco"). She can tell a touching tale ("Skeletons"). She can transform a cover ("Up from the Skies") or swing it lovingly straight ("Makin' Whoopee"). She can write pop tunes with memorable hooks ("Young Blood," "We Belong Together," "The Horses") or experiment with songs you'll never hear on the radio ("Vessel of Light"). Her voice can soothe ("Bitchenostrophy") or challenge ("Scary Chinese Movie"). "Duchess of Coolsville" is a tour de force of breadth and depth. It convincingly demonstrates that Jones is -- as I heard her introduced at a recent performance -- one of the most important artists of the last twenty-five years. And that's very cool.
© David Kleiner

Rickie Lee Jones' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to NPR's "Day to Day"-- working with the 'Duchess of Coolsville'

Laurence Juber, "One Wing", Solid Air Records SACD 2051, 2005

When an ex-Beatle gives you an idea for an album, the next logical step is to record it! As the story goes, Laurence Juber, who served briefly yet admirably in Paul McCartney's last incarnation of Wings (songwriters/guitarists alike should check out the underrated "Back To The Egg"), handed Sir Paul a copy of his CD "LJ Plays The Beatles" during a recent get together. Macca shot back at his former sideman "what about Wings!?" Juber's whip-smart response is this majestic collection of solo acoustic guitar renditions of McCartney classics. Unlike John Lennon and Brian Wilson, McCartney has unfairly been on the receiving end of critical flak for his penchant for effortlessly penning sweet melodies and selling millions of albums. And, his post-Beatles career continues to amaze. Juber's greatest challenge was to distill the composer's complex arrangements, which often included intricate orchestral passages and abrupt key and meter changes, into a single instrumental rendition without sacrificing any of the essential counterpoint and secondary motifs that even casual fans would notice missing. After all, these songs are more than just standards: they are recorded artifacts etched into pop culture history. Juber succeeds and even adds a few joyous twists of his own. For the piano ballad "My Love," Juber takes his time, letting each verse settle into a groove peppered with legato phrases, harmonics, a few palm slaps on the body for a bit of a funky veneer, then continuing on with a series of soft arpeggios and sharp bluesy embellishments of the melody. "Coming Up," originally a glitzy disco hit, is reborn as a mid-tempo dirge with Juber high-lighting the minor key qualities of the song, sometimes playing softly and other times bursting into a near cacophonous flurry of notes and hammer-ons. The once bombastic "Live and Let Die" is given a folksy make-over with Juber sliding up and down the fret-board employing sustained chords to their fullest while quoting the melody and implying the frenetic rhythm of the original recorded version. Other Macca essentials such as "Another Day," "Jet," "Maybe I'm Amazed," and even the obscure "Arrow Through Me" are afforded organic props as well. Juber is a master player and arranger, and solo guitarists would be wise to transcribe any or all of these tracks. If you do, you'll always have a gig waiting! Let's hope Juber takes on George Harrison next.
© Tom Semioli

Laurence Juber's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "Band on the Run"

Turning Point, "Matador", Native Language, 2005

"Matador" will undoubtedly prove to be a turning point in the career of jazz band Turning Point, the point at which they turn from celebrated local legends in the Phoenix area to a legendary international jazz phenomenon. That's an easy prediction because the professionalism of this band after one spin of the disc is so apparent that it's unbelievable that five Turning Point recordings since 1995 precede "Matador," the band having rarely been heaped with the kind of zealous accolades in the press that have been too quickly thrown at lesser musicians. Though most firmly entrenched in the smooth jazz style of the Rippingtons, Turning Point shows on "Matador" that they can easily think and play outside of the smooth jazz box, most notably on Chick Corea's "Spain." On "Spain," guitarist Thanos Sahnas lets his Greek roots shine through with a very modal and very blazing acoustic solo to which Corea, patron-saint of his own bevy of virtuosic guitarists in the 1970s, would give the nod. Sahnas is equally at home on electric guitar, on which he sounds much like Larry Carlton. There seems to be a transition of the CD from electric to acoustic about halfway through, and though the wait is not exactly onerous, it's worth it, as Sahnas and brother Demitri on bass seem to be most in their element when the music is rhythmic, ethnic and acoustic. "Rhapsody for Priapus" is a somber, beautiful and Greek-inflected melody that most smooth jazz execs would immediately kill from the track listing, and it's to Native Language's credit that they left to the Thanos brothers the kind of control over their art that keeps it unique. "Soldier's Lullaby" is a moving composition inspired by "what a soldier in Iraq might be feeling in his soul, heading out to battle while wishing he was home, able to sing his baby to sleep," according to Thanos Sahnas. Not the usual stuff of romantic moodsetting with which smooth jazz has come to be associated...
© Alan Fark

Turning Point's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to a "Rhapsody for Priapus" (mp3)

Nickel Creek, "Why Should the Fire Die?", Sugar Hill 3990, 2005

This is great acoustic music with a rock mentality and that's no surprise given that it was produced by Eric Valentine (Smash Mouth, Good Charlotte). Not that there aren't some pretty ballads and a bit of bluegrass but when you see the line-up of instruments (mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo and more), don't think Bill Monroe. Yeah, the influence is there but this young band has a sound all their own and damn, does it kick. With stellar playing and featuring originals plus one Bob Dylan cover ("Tomorrow is a Long Time") this is a collection full of creative lyrics and unexpected, unique melodies. "When in Rome" has shades of old timey folk but with a contemporary feel. The melancholy "Jealous of the Moon" is a nice contrast to the straight-ahead bluegrass instrumental of "Stumptown." Speaking of instrumentals, "Scotch and Chocolate" starts with the mandolin at center stage with the drone of the fiddle behind it. Then it cranks up to a breakneck speed, ably pushed by Mark Shatz on bass. "Best of Luck" screams out of the gate with chunky chords straight out of a rock opera. This band didn't win a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album for nothin'. Buy this album
© Jamie Anderson

Nickel Creek's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "When in Rome" (mp3)

Xuefei Yang, "Si Ji", GSP Recordings 1028CD, 2005

Xuefei Yang's second album, "Si Ji," is both ground-breaking and beautiful. On this adventurous recording Yang introduces Chinese inspired melodies to the classical guitar canon. Challenging customary boundaries is nothing new for Yang whose native culture regards the guitar as a mere folk instrument. She was the first professional guitarist to teach at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, where traditional instruments like piano and violin were emphasized. A child prodigy, she made her Spanish debut at 14 in Madrid where famed composer JoaquŪn Rodrigo was in attendance. Guitarist extraordinaire John Williams was so impressed by Yang's prodigious abilities that he gave her one of his guitars. At 27 Yang remains an exceptional talent and her recent recording presents an authentic patchwork quilt reflecting her vast musical heritage. On "Yi Dance" her guitar emulates the "pipa" or traditional Chinese lute. On another composition, "Heavenly Bird," Yang offers a reflective reading of a Fujian Folk Song. The guitarist is also not afraid to experiment with new approaches to her instrument. On "South Sea Peace" she uses a prepared guitar with two sets of strings each with separate tunings resulting in a sound that resembles the Japanese koto. On the "Sound and Image" compositions, Yang fuses the traditional pentatonic mode with an alternative tuning to create her own musical imagery inspired by Su Xiaobai's lush landscape paintings. Perhaps one of the most interesting pieces is "Mayila," which at first sounds uniquely Western but is in fact based on traditional Eastern melodies. Not only is Yang's "Si Ji" an exceptional tour de force but is also a recording that should be very accessible to a variety of musical tastes. Classical guitar aficionados looking to expand their musical horizons will thoroughly benefit from this album. Also international and acoustic music enthusiasts will find this music quite compelling. Yang's technical abilities and fluency on her instrument are flawless and impeccable throughout this impressive and innovative recording. However, the strength of this masterwork lies in the inherent love she has for the music of her native heritage and her willingness and ability to introduce them to a wider audience.
© James Scott

Xuefei Yang's Website Buy it at GSP Recordings
Listen to "Yi Dance" (mp3)

David Kleiner, "This Human Heart", 2005

David Kleiner is one of our own. Readers of Minor 7th may recognize him as a writer who interprets music elegantly into words. Those first hearing Kleiner's music will think the exact converse. Words are magically transmuted into music, and the final message rings true to a three-word manifesto which happens to be the title of his new CD, "This Human Heart." Though Kleiner's songs on this disc are peppered with both the words "human" and "heart," to predict the sentiment of intertwining these two words in any one of his songs is as uncertain as the spectrum of all human emotion: "Made of darkness, a combat zone / made of glass, made of stone / Full of rain, full of soul / Like a wheel, with a mind of its own / It's this heart / This human heart." There is a rough-hewn strain to Kleiner's voice, which can either emote like a palpable wince over bad things gone by ("My lover says it's all just dust and dreams / From where I stand, that isn't how it seems / we hurt so that we can learn what we are when hurt departs") or a yearning for things just out of his passionate grasp ("Now I'm in the dark and I know what to do with a candle, a match, and a picture of you / Ashes to ashes, combustible heart / Touch off a fire in this tinderbox"). Kleiner, as David Wilcox is known to do, assimilates ĺ time into his own signature "folk-waltz" sound on "Cape May Waltz," "Tiny Romance," and "Hopeless Romantic." By surrounding himself with stylistic sidemen like Gary Green on harmonica and Curt Johnston on dobro, certain of the songs on "This Human Heart" forge into alt-country sound Š la The Band or J.D. Souther, such as on "Right About the Rain." David Kleiner truly is one of our own... a writer, a musician, but most fitting... human.
© Alan Fark

David Kleiner's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Right About the Rain" (mp3)

Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan, "Happy Hour", NoGuru Records 20052, 2005

Musical veterans Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan team up yet again to serve up some feel-good, upbeat, down-home blues on "Happy Hour." No question about Sultanís guitar chops or Ballís harp skills -- and their performances intertwine like leapfrogs during spring thaw. Behind Ballís travel-worn pipes, the accomplished duo covers Willie Dixon, Brownie McGhee and Bob Margolin, as well as their own compositions. But while the tunes stand well on their own, the accumulative effect of this 14-track collection beats listeners about the head with an overindulgence of happiness, like gorging on Ben & Jerryís three times a day. Itís an unfortunate miscalculation of concept. The arrangements offer too little variation, with the exception of the two lone instrumentals, which depart from the formula: Sultanís take of the traditional "Buck Dance" and Ballís thoughtful rendition of "When the Fire Burns Low." The latter, the highlight of the collection, comes as a welcome respite; itís also a surprise of sorts, featuring, as it does, Ballís able fretwork. The last track of the CD also varies slightly from the overall theme, with Bob Margolinís somewhat heavier "Brown Liquor in a Dirty Glass." As a coda, itís too little, too late. But these two pros are still a marvel.
© Fred Kraus

Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Living with the Blues" (mp3)

Teja Gerken, "Postcards", TGM001, 2005

Travel reveals the textures of people, places, and culture. The music of Teja Gerken on his solo guitar release "Postcards" is a travelogue of textures, a satisfying mix of style and substance played on six and twelve-string steel string, and nylon string guitars. Readers of Acoustic Guitar magazine will recognize Teja as Gear Editor, and moderator of some of their on-line discussion forums. The 12 tunes on the CD (7 originals and 5 from other San Francisco bay area players) aren't an adrenaline rush of sound, but more a respectful exploration of the fusion of man and instrument. Teja's playing doesn't drip with the languid fluidity of Ed Gerhard or Martin Simpson, but carries a more dynamic immediacy. It's evident from the chord changes and picking patterns that he is consciously stretching his own musical limits, not playing it safe. "First Smile" has a bluesy feel without being too in-your-face. "Nine Bridges" reveals an eastern European side (the tune is titled after the Budapest bridges which span the Danube river) strangely brought to life on steel strings in Orkney tuning (used so effectively by Steve Baughmann for his Celtic guitar stylings). Gerken gives his own spin to Baughmann's "Plantxy Bongwater." The bends and single note runs of "City For Sale" juxtaposed against strings of chordal shifts brings to mind some early Alex DeGrassi in an elegant exit to a fine CD of good guitar music.
© Kirk Albrecht

Teja Gerken's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to 5927 California Street (mp3)

Hootie & the Blowfish, "Looking for Lucky" Vanguard, 2005

"Looking for Lucky," the sixth studio album in the Hootie catalogue, might well have been titled, "The Importance of Being Ernest," because the songs are just so... earnest. From the top, on "State Your Peace," it's all there, the "you can change the world" message. "Smile" closes with "smile at your enemy." In the single, "One Love" "...we take one love and spread it around." The problem is they come off as facile truisms -- not topical, not personal, just lyrics. When the record company or the producer calls in no less than eight songwriting collaborators you know something is up. At least you expect more and better hooks. The hooks that are found arise in Darius Rucker's choruses, and they do work nicely. His vocals are as strong as ever, and what a brand name, instantly recognizable voice it is. But weak material leaves him out on a limb. The winner is the ballad "Can I See You." It's personal like Tom Petty's "Don't Do Me Like That" is personal. Some may find this cut a little on the generic AOL side, but it stands out in this field. The band's crunch pop style is tight -- even a little too tight. In moments like that of "State Your Peace" it sounds like it's been spin doctored in Pro Tools. But the dynamic suspensions and shadings of the chorus vocal arrangements in songs like "Smile" warm things up. True, in a lot of rock music lyrics don't matter; but when you showcase them, as Rucker's voice cannot help but do, they form the whole justification or lack thereof for the attitude we're trying to get with. I feel for these guys, and I hope they get lucky, out on the road with this release this summer, competing against their own greatest hits.
© Steve Klingaman

Hootie & the Blowfish's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to State Your Peace (mp3)

Al Petteway & Amy White, "Land of the Sky", Maggie's Music MM233, 2005

Al Petteway and Amy White live in Asheville, North Carolina. Itís gorgeous, an artistsí enclave, with an Eden-like climate. Al & Amy shine as musicians, photographers, artists, writers, composers, singers (well, as least Amy; sorry, Al) and designers. Theyíre wildly, passionately, spiritually in love. Love, love, love, love. And they love not only each other, they love the land, they love Mother Nature, they love creativity, they love what they do. (And they earn a living at it.) Above it all, they seem like sincerely nice people. "Land of the Sky," their latest collecton, resonates as the musical embodiment of this multi-talented couple. As billed, it captures the enchantment, the splendor, the diversity of the Southern Appalachians. Sonically lush but crisp, it fills the room, creating a Celtic-based world of wonder and occasional whimsy. The 14 tracks are either penned by the duo or are their arrangements of traditional tunes such as "Pretty Polly," "Shady Grove," "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Across the Blue Mountains." On the latter, one of just two non-instrumentals, Amyís voice simply soars. She also contributes guitar, Celtic harp, mandolin and percussion. Alís an absolute monster on acoustic guitar, banjo, Irish bouzouki and bass. The titles hint at the variety: "Black Bearís Picnic," "Sunny Day," "Western Highlands," "Bobcat in the Brambles," "A Walk in the Woods." More cerebral than visceral, think of this CD as a PBS-style soundtrack for the mind. Inspiring work.
© Fred Kraus

Al Petteway and Amy White's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Land of the Sky" (mp3)

Jeff Black, "Tin Lily", Dualtone 80302-01202-2, 2005

It's easy to see why artists like Waylon Jennings and Sam Bush have recorded his songs. The melodies are memorable (just try to listen to any song and not walk away singing it), and the lyrics clean and absorbing. He plays keyboards, guitar and harmonica. The latter is the icing on the wonderful bluesy dessert that is "Easy on Me." The thwack of the snare on "Libertine" reminds me of Tom Petty but without the wobbly vocals. Black is sure what he's singing and just in case you don't get it, adds huskiness to the edgier lyrics. Most of the songs are anchored with a strong back beat and a line-up of instruments that's almost pop but with an acoustic guitar at the center. One of the highlights is the contemplative "Nineteen." It features a subtle upright bass and percussion while he lightly strums his guitar. "Free at Last" opens with a rolling piano then segues into something more uptempo with the keyboards adding fat chords a la Marc Cohn and with just enough organ to shout hallelujah. Recommended. © Jamie Anderson

Jeff Black's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Easy On Me" (mp3)

John Gilliat, "Beyond Boundaries", JAGCW-2004, 2004

This is a great CD to play in the car, which is a rarity for an instrumental guitar recording. John Gilliat plays primarily nylon-string guitar in an upbeat, extroverted style, which reflects his experience in clubs, theater, casino cabarets and on radio. He composed all pieces on this disc. His approach is steeped in flamenco, nouveau flamenco and flamenco rumba styles. The opener, "Nylon Heat," and "All is New" showcase the best of his approach, including infectious themes, effective multitracked guitars and insistent single-string improvisation, backed by bass and drums. Some other fine selections are "For Michael," featuring a strong melody, "Diamante Noche," where he intersperses his trademark rapid-fire runs with some nice bluesy phrases and "Sands of Egypt," which sounds like a rewrite of Duke Ellington's "Caravan. The head of "Djangorias" recalls Django Reinhardt's "Djangology," then breaks into a flamenco jazz rave-up. The production shifts subtly on the last three tracks, where Gilliat adds ambient vocals and electric guitar. These tunes are compositionally weaker than the rest of the program, and I suspect Gilliat may have wanted to strengthen them a bit, but they sound overproduced to me. The best of these is "Above the Line," where Gilliat's electric guitar has a nice hornlike tone, with a bit of harmonic distortion in the upper register. Also, the disc could have benefited from some slower selections that would have displayed other aspects of Gilliat's talent. But then, it wouldn't have been such a great CD to play in the car... © Patrick Ragains

John Gilliat's Website Buy it here
Listen to "For Michael" (mp3)

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DVD: "Rickie Lee Jones, Live at the Wiltern Theatre"

DVD: Paul McCartney - "Wingspan" - An Intimate Portrait

DVD: Laurence Juber - "The Guitarist"

DVD: Al Petteway - "Celtic Blues and Beyond"

Nickel Creek Songbook with transcriptions

20 Beatles songs transcribed for solo guitar

Rippingtons Songbook with transcriptions

The Blues Style of Kenny Sultan