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March & April Short Takes

Eric Elias & Luke Nelson "My Compliments", Phunquie Pholk Records, 2002 Wow! From the opening notes of this release, I was instantly transported to a 1930's film noir set. There I was, looking all dapper in my white tuxedo, sipping a dry martini with an olive at my table, checking out the cigarette girl prancing by with Chesterfield Kings and Lucky Strikes for sale. I was about to tell the piano player to "Play it again, Sam", but my reverie was interrupted when I realized I had never heard 1930s acoustic jazz guitar sounding so fine. Turns out, I had not placed an Eddie Lang or Django Reinhardt collection into the CD player after all. Nope, the musicians conducting me on this magical mystery tour are very much a part of the new millennium, employing digital recording to capture the sound of 30s acoustic jazz guitar like never before. Indeed, the opening cut which triggered my fantasy was not a 1930s tune at all, but one written for this 2002 release. Eric Elias and Luke Nelson have been playing together since 1998, refining and tightening their chops for this debut. Playing Luke Nelson's arrangements entirely on Stromberg guitars, they tackle standards ("All the Things You Are", "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", "After You've Gone", "All of Me", and "In a Mist") along with originals inspired by this jazzman's genre. Luke Nelson contributes seven originals (his "Take Your Pick" seems inspired --- if only in title --- by Eddie Lang's "Picking My Way"), and Eric Elias contributes two ("The Sandman" and "Rumor Has It"). All are effective, worth hearing, and demonstrate that this is no mere nostalgia act. © Patrick Grant

John Wunsch "Looking Toward Leelanau", 2001 John Wunsch's "Looking Toward Leelanau" contains a wealth of melodic progressions and a delicate array of pizzicatos and harmonic overlays. At times, Wunsch's elegant guitar playing blends the best of a soft, jazz-sound with the warmth of a truly accomplished, classically oriented technique. Nature is the dominant theme here, and its musical expression for Wunsch in this instance is a kind of passionate quietude. Even though Wunsch is an expert player, this very successful blend of different aesthetic registers is indicative more of an exploration in melody and sound rather than a pre-formulated performance of speed and technical expertise. Most impressive of Wunsch's nylon-string guitar playing is the artist's ability to be simple in focus, while at the same time using rather complex arrangements and timing to execute each song. ©Bernard Richter

Native Son "Spirit", ZR1325-2, 2002 If you love roots music with pop overtones, you’ll never grow weary of Native Son. On par with Dave Matthews, Counting Crows, and India.Arie, Native Son ply organic melodies with expert musicianship, delving deep into strong folk, rock, and jazz influences with an occasional burst of r & b. In other words, they draw from every avenue of American music. Ably commandeered by singer songwriter Wayne Leeloy, the band’s repertoire is open to a wide range of harmonic possibilities. To their credit, Native Son never meander or wander into meaningless jams. Leeloy’s confined baritone and literate lyrics are emotive and serious, as his driving acoustic guitar comping anchors each cut. However Leeloy’s nimble fingered posse, notably violinist Jon Westover and bassist Will Lowrimore provide the thrilling counterpoint and rhythmic acrobatics that lift the songs to a level of mainstream-radio hit potential. From the sentimental retrospection of "As A Child" to the angelic harmonies of "Bird On A Wire" (no, not the Leonard Cohen classic), to the seductive vibe of "Open Book", Spirit is Native Son’s calling card to success outside their borders. Long may they run. © Tom Semioli

Dick Smith "Smoke Damage", Clayhead Records CH009, 2002 Dick Smith stares death in the face -- then smiles a loopy grin. Half-fried, slightly toasted and moderately askew, this three-man band celebrates life with a unique blend of "swillbilly". Think New Riders of the Purple Sage, John Prine and the Bad Livers swirling together in a mountain brew and you’ll be in their musical neighborhood. Rootsy bluegrass with elements of punk and a sly sense of humor. Lyrically, "Smoke Damage" takes a walk on the dark side, exploring the weight pulling on the working man in "Gravity", hiding out from the authorities in "Pissin’ Rain", life on the run in "One Day They’ll Shoot Me Down", bad habits in "Whiskey Bottle", and death in "Box of Bones". Chicago-based musical veterans Dave Nelson (dobro, harmonica), Dave Ramont (vocals, banjo, concertina, jug) and Bob Kuhn (vocals, mandolin) display a rare talent for shaping a musical niche. They round out their universe with several able pals on accordion, lap steel and upright bass. The guys describe their effort as "like a sunny night, or dancin’ at a wake". Just don’t let them decorate the coffin. © Fred Kraus

Tyson Williams "The Ripcord Recordings" "The Ripcord Recordings" by Tyson Williams is a scantly produced collection of songs from a talented and brooding songwriter. Tyson is a fine guitar player with a style and voice not unlike an understated Adam Duritz of Counting Crows. The CD suffers from a hearty dose of Gen X angst that tends to whine, and from a recording that sounds like it was done in somebody's living room. I found myself pining for a few more chordal resolutions, but the heavy use of minor chords is a tight fit for the unsettled mood of Tyson's music. © Rob Dunne

Mustard's Retreat "A Resolution of Something" 2003 Mustard Retreat's A Resolution of Something combines solid playing, high-powered guests (The Kennedys, Peter Ostroushko, co-producer Garnet Rogers) and a mix of lyrical songwriting and familiar tunes to explore the possibilities at the intersection of the traditional ("Shenandoah") and the contemporary . "The Water is Wide" sports some new words and expressive piano work from guest David Woodhead. The contemporary is represented by-among others-- tales of divorce ("The Road Back Home to You," "Phone Messages") and politics ("Pay the Toll"). Throughout, the lyrics find their greatest strength in images ("Woodsmoke drifts on a Winter's night/snow blows across my two headlights"). Michael Hough and David Tamulevich don't go anywhere unexpected on this disc, but everywhere they do go they make beautiful music and aspire to touch the heart . © David Kleiner

Roger Scannura & Ritmo Flamenco "Encore", 2002 Roger Scannura's new disc Ritmo Flamenco treats us to highlights from previous released recordings. The compositions show inspiration from his travels in Spain as well as his experiences accompanying traditional flamenco dancers. Mr. Scannura's works capture the varied nature of contemporary flamenco music. While tracks like "Azulejos" and "Colmenares" demonstrate the up-tempo fire of the flamenco dance, we are also treated to more rhapsodic works like the lyric "Marissa", "Summerwine", and "Misterio". The diverse use of additional instruments including violin and percussion enhance the dance nature of the performances. The recording quality is very clean. The guitar is clear with just enough reverb to imitate a small warm recital hall. This disc takes the listener on a journey through the streets of Spain and the music of the flamenco dancer.. © Philip Hemmo


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