Thursday, July 12, 2007


So CBS FM is back. After 25 months of being held in captivity by Jack, the station that played “the greatest hits of all time,” was set free Thursday, July 12. As Jack got the heave ho, in a mock Sopranos’ takeoff, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” segued into Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind”, an obvious kiss up for the unseemly exit two years ago; and, after a montage of songs and moments going back to 1964, the first official song, the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” was played at (now get the pun?) 1:01 P.M. From the minions of grateful oldies fans, a gigantic “Thank you, God” could be heard across the tri-state region. Jack had left the building; what was once new was now old again; the enemy had been vanquished and all was right with the world.


But hold onto your jukeboxes, sock hoppers. This isn’t your daddy’s CBS FM. For one thing, rock-n-roll seems to have begun in 1964, not 1955. I wonder what Bill Haley and Alan Freed would have to say about that. In fact, no mention of any pre-Beatle song is found anywhere on the updated WCBS website. The word oldie has been completely eliminated and replaced with hits. In deed, the theme throughout is the greatest hits of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. No Doo Wop, no Elvis, no nothing! And while it was nice that the Beach Boys got first dibs, the more sentimental favorite would’ve been “Hit The Road Jack” by Ray Charles. But, truth be told, the song never stood a chance of getting the green light, and for one very important reason: the suits at CBS still don’t believe that Jack failed. Deep down, the reason for the switch back to CBS FM was the feeling they simply didn’t handle the original transition well. In other words, it wasn’t the message, it was the messenger. In one respect, it was gratifying to learn that someone high up on the food chain had some degree of shame and regret over their conduct in ’05; credit Dan Mason, at the very least, for understanding that much. But that appears to be where the introspection has stopped. While Jack may have been officially relegated to the CBS HD2 channel, until yesterday reserved for the oldies format, the goal of corporate still has not changed: to move forward with the younger demographic. In other words Jack, plus ‘60s music, plus DJs equals compromise (i.e. truce) and, hopefully, ratings. The obvious intent is to get the original listeners, hence the advertisers, back in fold, keep a few of the Jack fans (those that didn’t go back to playing with their iPods), and in the end make everyone happy. Good luck!

Because, deep down, CBS still doesn’t get it. Whether or not you think that the oldies format has a future or is even relevant at all, know this: No other format has had the loyal following that this one has enjoyed. The moldy oldies, as they are jokingly referred to, are NOT your typical radio listener. Many of them grew up in the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s, and had one, possibly two favorite stations that they would listen to. And heaven help anyone who tried to change the dial in the middle of a song. Further more the DJs on those stations were like icons; they were as big as the artists they were playing on the radio – sometimes bigger. Names like Bruce Morrow, Dan Ingram, Bob Shannon, Harry Harrison, Bill Brown, Don K. Reid and Jack Spector were, in their own way, as popular as the Beatles, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Stones, the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Aretha Franklin. You eagerly awaited the next song these guys would play, and far from an annoyance, their charm, wit and soothing voice, would be the perfect antidote for the hustle and bustle of the work week. You had coffee with Harry, joked with Dan and Bob, guessed which secret song Bill would play, sang along with Brucie, and reminisced with Don K and Jack. It wasn’t the dressing for the salad; it was the whole damn salad!

Compare and contrast that with the generation that grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s – the age of the walkman and the personal computer. Before the ‘80s you didn’t even have presets on car stereos; by the ‘90s you had multiple bands for both FM and AM. With MP3 players and satellite radio in the mix, a typical terrestrial radio station would do well to score a 3.5 in the ratings, let alone a 4.0. And yet CBS FM, which was pulling in the mid threes for most of this decade and in the first three months of '05 was actually in 8th place according to Arbitron - this in spite of the stripped down format and reduced playlist - was scrapped for a format that for all intents and purposes never got off the ground, and as of the first quarter of '07 was mired in 16th place( a 2.0 as of sign off); a format that reached out to a demographic that can measure listener loyalty in the millisecond range. Even stranger, is that CBS chose this format in more than a dozen markets, and on stations that heretofore had been holding their own and for the most part were playing oldies. Go figure! Was it any wonder that more and more people were choosing to fork over $12.95 per month for Sirius and XM? Satellite radio, despite its reception problems, has now become the number one choice for music lovers. No matter what genre of music you prefer – rock, R&B, jazz, oldies, hip-hop, country – you can find a plethora of choices with a seemingly endless selection of songs. There are no restrictions. And the DJs know something about the music they're playing and aren’t afraid to offer valuable insight, something sadly lacking on most stations and completely devoid of at Jack.

But, I don’t want to sound too pessimistic. After all, I am grateful to have CBS FM back, even if only partly. Yes it was nice to hear Bob Shannon again. Two years was long enough. But, Broadway Bill Lee? Where hasn’t this guy worked? KTU, Hot 97, LTW, Fresh 102.7 and XM channels 5 and 8, all in the last eleven years! I’ve had less jobs than him. And can somebody please track down Bill Brown and see if he’s still alive? I miss my Brown Bag. CBS has talked about bringing back the Top-20 countdown, and doing other specials that have long been a staple of the station. If that happens, it will be good news. But I remain cautiously optimistic, in deed, somewhat skeptical over the motives for this return to the past. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being around senior management, it’s that they seldom get it. More often than not they repeat the same mistakes. If, in deed, this is more than just a PR move designed to placate disgruntled listeners, then here are some suggestions for the current CBS FM to incorporate into their fabric.

1. Play some ‘50s music. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, the Drifters, Frankie Lymon, the Everly Brothers and the Platters are not dinosaurs, nor are they dirty words. Without them, much of the music of the ‘60s would have been impossible.

2. Drop the playlists, or at least drop the restrictions. There are thousands of songs from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and even the ‘80s. Play them; play them all. Don’t sell the audience short. Enough “playing what we want”; play what the listeners want. Trust me, they can keep up; and those who can’t still have their iPods.

3. Keep in touch with the past by resigning past DJs who have worked at the station and who still have a presence in this market. Perhaps someone at CBS could sit down with Scott Greenstein of Sirius and work out a deal where Cousin Brucie’s Saturday night oldies show could be simulcast? Talk about a coup.

If CBS FM is to survive, it will survive being what is has historically been: the city’s station, playing the songs that a generation of fans grew up listening to. It can’t afford the “luxury” of appealing to a demographic that never listened to it in the first place, and who could care less whether it is called CBS, Jack, Bob, Brenda or Exene.
In the meantime, just to keep our new good guys honest, below is a playlist of hour one of CBS FM, compared with Sirius, XM and True Oldies. To be fair, I will limit the satellite selections to their ‘60s and ‘70s channels. I have no control over what decade True Oldies plays from. And the hits just keep on coming!

The Beach Boys – “Do It Again”; Frankie Valli – “Oh What A Night”; Aretha Franklin – “Respect”; Bruce Springsteen – “Glory Days”; Fleetwood Mac – “Don’t Stop”; Lovin’ Spoonful – “Summer in the City”; Maxine Nightingale – “Right Back Where We Started From”; The Rolling Stones – “Satisfaction”; Billy Joel – “Only the Good Die Young”; The Contours – “Do You Love Me”; John Mellencamp – “Jack and Diane”; The Beatles – “Twist and Shout”; The Bee Gees – “You Should Be Dancing”; Roy Orbison – “Pretty Woman”; Tommy James and the Shondells – “Mony, Mony”; Donna Summer – “Last Dance”; Sam the Sham – “Wooly Bully”; Bruce Springsteen – “Pink Cadillac”.

Sirius ‘60s Vibrations:
The Hombres – “Let It Out”; The Byrds – “Turn, Turn, Turn”; Bob Dylan – “Like a Rolling Stone”; The Beatles – “All My Loving”; Spencer Davis Group – “I’m A Man”; Stevie Wonder – “My Cherie Amour”; The Archies – “Sugar, Sugar”; The Doors – “Light My Fire”; Aaron Neville – “Tell It Like It Is”; Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston – “It Takes Two”; Lovin’ Spoonful – “Summer in the City”; Chad & Jeremy – “Yesterday’s Gone”; B.J. Thomas – “Hooked on a Feeling”; Gary Puckett & The Union Gap – “Over You”; Spanky & Our Gang – “Like To Get To Know You”; The Vogues – “Five O’Clock World”; Animals – “It’s My Life”; Lou Christie – “Lightning Strikes”; The Hollies – “Bus Stop”.

Sirius Totally ‘70s:
Lee Michaels – “Do You Know What I Mean”; Atlanta Rhythm Section – “Spooky”; Carole King – “I Feel the Earth Move”; Joe Walsh – “Life’s Been Good To Me”; Andrea True Connection – “More, More, More”; Curtis Mayfield – “Freddie’s Dead”; Jigsaw – “Sky High”; Al Green – “Look What You’ve Done For Me”; Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Sweet Home Alabama”; Paul Simon – “Me & Julio”; Cornelius Brothers – “Treat Her Like a Lady”; Sammy Johns – “Chevy Van”; Elton John – “Bennie & The Jets”; Samantha Sang – “Emotion”; War – “Low Rider”; Aerosmith – “Walk This Way”.

XM ‘60s:
The Beatles – “Birthday”; Percy Sledge – “Warm & Tender Love”; The Zombies – “Time of the Season”; Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Down on the Corner”; The Youngbloods – “Get Together”; Sandals – “Endless Summer”; Paul Revere – “Just Like Me”; Jan & Dean – “Honolulu Lulu”; Herman’s Hermits – “Leaning on a Lamp Post”; Rascals – “Beautiful Morning”; James Brown – “I Got the Feeling”; Sly & The Family Stone – “Dance To the Music”; Del Shannon – “Keep Searchin’”; Jimmy Glimmer – Daisy Petal Pickin’”; Mel Carter – “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”; Jackie DeShannon – “What the World Needs Now is Love”; Bobby Lewis – “Tossin’ & Turnin’”; Elvis Presley – “Good Luck Charm”; The Beatles – “Love Me Do”.

XM ‘70s:
The Rolling Stones – “Brown Sugar”; Andy Gibb – “Everlasting Love”; Charlie Rich – “The Most Beautiful Girl”; Elton John – “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down”; Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough”; Eric Carmen – “Never Gonna Fall in Love”; The Chi-Lites – “Oh Girl”; Starbuck – “Moonlight Feels Right”; Jim Croce – “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”; Hurricane Smith – “Oh Babe, What Would You Say”; John Travolta & Olivia Newton John – “Summer Nights”; Toby Beau – “My Angel Baby”; Dorothy Moore – “Misty Blue”; Eric Clapton – “Lay Down Sally”; Dr. Hook – “Sharing the Night Together”; Steve Miller Band – “Take the Money and Run”; England Dan & John Ford Coley – “We’ll Never Have To Say Goodbye Again”.

True Oldies Channel:
Herman’s Hermits – “Wonderful World”; The Spiral Staircase – “More Today Than Yesterday”; The Beatles – “I’m Looking Through You”; The Drifters – “On Broadway”; Roy Orbison – “Pretty Woman”; The Temptations – “Ain’t To Proud To Beg”; Swinging Blue Jeans – “Hippy, Hippy Shake”; The Hollies – “Long Cool Woman”; Dionne Warwick – “Walk on By”; The Box Tops – “Cry Like a Baby”; The Coasters – “Charlie Brown”; The Supremes – “Love Child”; Every Mother’s Son – “Come on Down To My Boat Baby”; The Rascals – “Good Lovin’”; The Beach Boys – “California Girls”; B.J. Thomas – “Rain Drops”; Blues Image – “Ride Captain, Ride”; Paul Revere – “Hungry”; Al Wilson – “Show & Tell”.

While all the stations faired well, including CBS, which was a pleasant surprise, the True Oldies Channel edged out Sirius’ ‘60s Vibrations for top prize, if for no other reason than they had a more diverse selection. Were it not for that, though, ‘60s Vibrations would have won hands down. Neither of the ‘70s stations distinguished themselves; either the decade is too eclectic for its own good, or neither can handle it properly. Kudos to the XM ‘60s station as the only one in the bunch to play an Elvis song, and two Beatles songs ALL IN THE SAME HOUR. Are you listening CBS FM? It can be done. And speaking of our dear lost station, the mix was about what it was before the initial switch over two years ago: nine songs from the '60s, six from the '70s and three from the '80s. Eighteen songs in all, with the clear winner, not surprisingly, the '60s. Perhaps I was a bit premature predicting a Jack Facsimile, afterall. Only time will tell. But if you still need a hint as to where this station's sympathies will most likely lean, look no further than the lyrics in the Fleetwood Mac song "Don't Stop." "Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone." It is in deed.

Well, I’ve written all I intend to on this. I’ll listen to CBS FM from time to time, but based on what I heard today, Bob Shannon’s emotional return notwithstanding, I will not be canceling my Sirius subscription any time soon. The lack of any serious pre-'64 content will, I fear, keep a lot of long-time listeners away, and the long-term prospects of increasing its demographic among a younger audience seems dubious at best. I wish them well, and sincerely hope they make it. Prior to this afternoon, there was only one FM station worth playing on the dial: WFUV. Now there are two, which if I’m not mistaken was how many there were on June 3, 2005 when all this mess started.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Faced with ratings that continued to spiral downward and unable to defend a format that more closely resembled an iPod than a radio station, Infinity Broadcasting cries “uncle” and brings back the format that memories were made of.

It was Friday, June 3, 2005, 3:57 in the afternoon and long-time DJ Bill Brown was doing his usual sign off for WCBS FM, but something was missing. It was customary for the exiting DJ at CBS to announce the next DJ, in this case Bob Shannon. But Shannon never got a chance to sign on that afternoon. Instead he and the rest of the CBS crew were called into a conference room at 4:00 P.M. and told that they would no longer be employed at the station. WCBS owner Infinity Broadcasting had decided to change formats from oldies to “adult contemporary” and, under the new call letters JACK, would no longer need disc jockeys. At 4:30 that afternoon, while CBS was issuing its pink slips, Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” was winding down. No one at the time thought it would be the last song heard at CBS. After 30 minutes of movie and song clips that seemed to make no sense at all, a voice came on to announce the new call letters. The next song heard was the Beastie Boys’ “You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party,” and that, as they say in the biz, was that. As Don McLean would’ve said, it was a day the music died.

For almost 33 years, WCBS FM (the golden 101) faithfully played the songs of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and, with some of the best talent on the radio, was recognized as the preeminent oldies station in America. But sagging ratings, and an increasing demographic shift towards a younger audience, spelled trouble for the iconic station. The first sign of clouds on the horizon occurred in the summer of 2002 when Don K. Reed's long-running Sunday night Doo-Wop Shop program was closed down. They also cut pre-1964 product down to once or twice per hour and began playing '70s music even more often, becoming focused on the years from 1964-79. At this point they were playing at least two ‘80s songs per hour. In a July 2005 keynote address to the Radio & Records Convention, musician/actor/DJ Steven Van Zandt labeled this switching out of 1950s music for 1970s music as the key death blow to WCBS-FM (and other oldies stations), not the later Jack takeover. [1]

The station canceled more specialty shows in 2003 such as the "Top 20 Oldies Countdown". In the summer of 2003, to appease some fans, they did bring a specialty 1955-64 oldies show called "Heart & Soul of Rock & Roll" with Norm N. Nite (another longtime air personality who had been with the station on and off since 1973). Still in that year Harry Harrison left mornings and Dan Ingram also left. In the spring of 2004, the station tightened its playlist even more, playing almost entirely songs from 1964 to 1979. They played one pre ‘64 song every other hour. They were down to about 30 pre '64 songs altogether. They played several ‘80s songs per day down to a couple dozen of those as well. The rest of the playlist was about 500 songs totally. Harrison still came back for Saturdays in that fall of 2004.

And then came “Black Friday,” as it has been called by both listeners and industry insiders. Never in the history of radio had such a move been made on such short notice. Not even the blood-letting at WNCN in December of 1993, when the station switch formats from classical music to rock and changed its call letters to WAXQ, could compare. In that scenario listeners had been told ahead of time that the switch was coming, and in any event, there was still another venue for classical music: WQXR. When CBS FM went off the air, suddenly and without warning, it meant the end of oldies music in New York.

Critics argued that the manner in which Infinity flipped formats angered long-time devotees of the station, calling it a slap in the face for the DJ’s they had grown up with. As if to add insult to injury, during its inaugural week, Jack poked fun at the CBS FM listeners, while at the same time having the audacity to “invite” them to visit an internet site that had been set up to play the songs of the old format. So not only did the station unceremoniously part ways with its past musically, it completely severed ties with virtually ALL of its listeners in the tri-state area. Jack was now in uncharted territory. Never before had a format change resulted in such a drastic demographic shift and a plunge in ratings, all at the same time. It would take months before the station was able to even approach the ratings CBS FM enjoyed for most of its tenure. To date, it has never equaled those pre-Jack ratings, a triumph of personality over attitude if ever there was one.

But there were other problems that plagued the new format, even worse than its lack of class. It was obvious that Infinity Broadcasting had seriously miscalculated the demand for a music format that more closely resembled an iPod than a radio station. What was billed as an eclectic mix of music representing all genres and all age groups proved to be nothing more than a very restricted playlist. Additionally, Infinity did not count on the fact that while the demographic for oldies music was shrinking due to the fact that some of the baby-boomers were dying off, they were among the most loyal listeners out there. Conversely, the market that Jack was courting was anything but loyal. Instead of enjoying a monopoly on a loyal, if shrinking, market, Jack was now competing within the adult contemporary market, which included the likes of WPLJ, Z100, WLTW and the new "Fresh 102.7" WWFS, formerly WNEW. Further exasperating an already dreary future was the fact that most of these listeners were not, contrary to the station’s promos, music lovers. They were more casual listeners, who owned maybe 100 or less CDs and were more interested in music for background enjoyment than for serious listening. Without quite realizing it, Jack had become for pop music what CD 101.9 had become for jazz. Failure was inevitable.

So now, having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Jack is poised to exit stage left and leave the building. If reports are accurate, WCBS FM will return this week to reclaim, and hopefully, recapture its rightful place as the best oldies station in the country. The move is said to be the decision of the new CBS Radio CEO Dan Mason, who returned to the company in March of this year after leaving it in 2002 to work as a consultant for the industry. Mason also recently restored 92.3 K-Rock to its alternative music roots when it became obvious no body was listening to the Free FM format either. But what about the on air personalities that helped shaped WCBS's identity? Certainly, some will return; but others like Bruce Morrow, who now calls Sirius his home, are likely lost forever. There is also the rumor that, in an attempt to attract a younger audience, the “new” CBS FM will play mostly music recorded between 1964 and 1979, and may even include some '80s hits, virtually ignoring all pre-Beatles music, and almost certainly annoying its most ardent listeners, without whom the station would never have made it to the ‘80s, much less 2005. But still, limitations and restrictions notwithstanding, it will be nice to hear the old call letters return to where they belong. Hopefully, the suits at Infinity have learned a valuable lesson from this debacle. Never underestimate the power of people who love music, and never overestimate the value of people who think mall music is where it’s at!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Three Glasses: One half filled, one half empty, the other bone dry. Can anyone get me a drink of water, please?!

Patti Smith: Twelve (Sony, 2007).
What often gets ignored when talking about Smith’s career is that long before her ground-breaking debut, Horses, she was a rock critic at Creem, working alongside Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau. And, like so many critics, she developed her own biases and partialities – yes, folks we ain’t the altruistic bearers of wisdom and insight we think we are. And those subjective truths would come to permeate her music in the years and later decades to come. So it shouldn’t be a total surprise that in doing an album of purely covers that she would lean towards her contemporaries, like Young, the Stones, Beatles, Dylan, Simon and Hendrix, in her time legends all. What is a surprise, and a pleasant one at that, is how well done the album is. These aren’t just rehashes of some favorite song list she had stashed away. Smith makes each song her own. She manages to extract the original lyricism of the artist, adding her own sound in the process – that distinctive spoken / sung voice that has been her signature since 1975 – without doing violence to the song, something most cover artists, sadly, do on a fairly regular basis. Expecting a poet to be an interpreter is one thing; expecting an interpretation that enhances the song without reinventing it is a rare gift; one that even Kurt Cobain would heartily approve of. Not everyone who listens to this album will be enriched by its sound. You either like Smith and her voice or you don’t. And, to be honest, nothing here is groundbreaking. But on the whole I’m impressed enough to recommend it, and optimistic enough to think it will give you a fresh perspective on each song. The last time I checked, that was supposed to be the reason for a cover album in the first place. A minus

Paul McCartney: Memory Almost Full (Hear, 2007).
36 years of sub-par performances after an illustrious, if somewhat, brief – relatively speaking – stint as part of arguably the greatest rock-n-roll band of all time apparently have had no affect on his demeanor. So why should year 37 be any different. Because deep down all of us wonder what the hell happened to that wonderful, talented lad from Liverpool. John had his moments, George, too. Even Ringo turned some heads. So how come after all these years are we still anticipating that moment when Paul will thrill us with an effort worthy of his pedigree? Because deep down we want to believe he’s capable of it, and we don’t want to miss it. Fact is, with the exception of a couple of songs on Band on the Run and Venus and Mars, he has been what he always was: the silly romantic who loved love songs, who went for the hook no matter how corny because that’s where the bucks were. John brought balance to his romantic side, and together their genius soared. Apart, Paul foundered. It’s that simple. So, now he’s recording for Starbucks. More money, more airplay, and more anticipation that maybe this time, he’ll deliver on his promise. No such luck. Compared with the rest of his catalogue, Memory Almost Full might seem like a breath of fresh air, but therein lies the problem. His catalogue is so mediocre, almost anything would be an improvement. Not that any of this matters to Sir Paul. Airplay and apologists are what it's all about these days. If the man had cared at all, we wouldn’t be going on four decades waiting for a sign from the heavens. Personally, I stopped holding my breath years ago. As for the rest of you, if you’re still waiting for his masterpiece, I have some sobering news. Don’t hold your breath! B minus

Smithereens: Meet The Smithereens (Koch, 2007).
“The Beatles Tribute Album by America’s Phenomenal Pop Combo!” Seriously, that's what it says on the cover. Fortunately anyone who’s ever listened straight through to a Smithereens album knows this is at best hyperbole; at worst an oxymoron. The only thing vaguely resembling phenomenal in Pat DiNizio’s relatively innocuous career occurred in 1986 when, for a short time at least, he and his band mates enjoyed some fanfare off of a rather pedestrian debut effort, which garnered some airplay among the new-wave radio stations before it fell off the cliff into oblivion. That being said this attempt at covering a group that in its heyday would have run rings around the likes of the Smithereens just goes to show you that we are truly living in perilous times. C

Thursday, July 05, 2007


The Apples in Stereo: New Magnetic Wonder (Yep Roc, 2007).
“Uh oh uh oh, uh oh uh oh, turn up your ster-e-o-o, uh oh uh oh, uh oh uh oh, I feel electric when the meter starts to glow,” Robert Schneider belts out in “Can You Feel It,” the opening track on this, his latest and best Beatles-like album. After a five-year layoff he’s finally nailed it. I disagree with the ELO connection though; I’m thinking more Housemartins minus the political overtones. I’ve always suspected Schneider for a Paul Heaton fan anyway. As for the rest of the album, the tone, as in earlier efforts, defies categorization. Not quite indie, but definitely not pop; I’d call them bubble gum punk, which I guess is as close as anyone is likely to come. Whatever your preference, there’s no denying the charm of the lyrics and the vocals, among the best of the year. The one sad note, the departure of Hilarie Sidney, who wrote and sang "Sunndal Song" and “Sunday Sounds,” two of the best songs on the album. Otherwise sit back in your way back chair, put up your feet, and “feel the magic when the speaker starts to blow.” A

Bright Eyes: Cassadaga (Saddle Creek, 2007).
Far from being the child prodigy rock crits hailed him as only five years ago – he did turn 27 on February 15! – Conor Oberst was more a spoiled brat who couldn’t stop whining long enough to allow himself a chance to transcend the pain that was in his soul. That was then, this is now. Following up on 2005’s pleasantly surprising I’m Wide Awake, And It’s Morning, Cassadaga is his best and most clearly defined effort to date. And if the album title’s reference to a spiritualist community in Florida has you concerned, don’t be. Really, did every one get Jim Morrison’s psychedelic rantings in the ‘60s? Unlike Morrison or Ryan Adams, who still hasn’t shit but refuses to get off the pot, Oberst at least goes somewhere with his self-indulgence. The promise everyone saw in 2002 finally gets delivered here. Gone is Emmylou Harris, replaced by an assortment of mostly anonymous harmony singers (the exception being Gillian Welch on “Classic Cars”), which is probably a good thing; Oberst never did like sharing the spotlight. He still isn’t Dyan incarnate, but, given the current crop of indie frontrunners, he does more with his talent than most. A minus

brakesbrakesbrakes: The Beatific Visions (Rough Trade, 2007).
The album title denotes innocence, which I suppose is their way of being ironic. Like most English auteurs who grew up on the British new wave explosion of the ‘80s, but who cut their teeth on the original British invasion of the ‘60s, Eamon Hamilton had some reconciling to do. So, with the assistance of Thomas and Alex Wright (of Electric Soft Parade) he cut one of the most eclectic albums of the year, spanning the gamut between post punk (“Porcupine or Pineapple” and "Hold Me in the River") to alt-country (“If I Should Die Tonight” and "On Your Side") to adult alternative ("Mobile Communication" and "Isabel"). Every song a winner, even the eight and a half minute ending, which needlessly has about a minute of dead air. I told you they were ironic. Bumper sticker of the decade: “Who Won The War? Was It Worth Fighting For?” They should get the grammy just for that! That being said, I’d settle for a couple of plays at WFUV. A minus

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Some Loud Thunder (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, 2007).
Having released the indie sensation of 2005, it stood to reason that Part Deux would be a disappointment, right? Wrong. Notwithstanding the annoying distortion that plagues the title track – no Robert it isn’t a cracked ceramic cartridge sound; more a saturated tape player sound, which, knowing their love affair with lo-fi, makes more sense – this actually is a more even album than version one. My favorite songs are “Satan Said Dance” and “Underwater (You and Me)”, the former proof that Alec Ounsworth really does have a sense of humor, the latter that he has the instinct and ear for the hit single that one of these days this band will score. Don’t believe the hype from the indie naysayers. Listen for yourself. A minus

Monday, July 02, 2007

Get Your Country Comfort Where You Find It!

Two entries by two women steeped in country tradition; one very good and one encouraging, sort of.

Miranda Lambert: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Sony/BMG Nashville, 2007).
My disdain for country music goes back almost twenty-five years, and with good reason. With the exception of Rosanne Cash, John Anderson, Willie Nelson and a couple of Rosie Flores albums, the genre simply hasn’t lived up to its historical traditions. Somewhere, I suspect, Hank Williams is turning over in his grave at what has happened to this once proud and rich music. While this latest entry by this self-proclaimed Garth Brooks fan is unlikely to repair the damage of the last three decades, it does, if nothing else, offer up an olive branch. Lambert is no stranger to success; her debut Kerosene made her the darling of the country charts in 2005. This album builds off of that and with an edge that is very reminiscent of Flores, circa 1992, which means it’s also part Dwight Yoakam, circa mid 1980s. In other words, Lambert leans more toward Honky Tonk than the traditional El Lay that passes for country these days, and at only a mere twenty-three – a babe even in country – she has more to say than women ten years her senior. While her writing has grown a notch since her debut, the real breakthrough here are the covers: “Dry Town” Gillian Welch, “Easy From Now On” Carlene Carter, and “Getting Ready” Patty Griffin. Not quite Lucinda Williams, but far enough from Brooks and Dunn to bring hope. Quite possibly the country album of the year! A-

Elizabeth Cook: Balls (31 Tigers, 2007).
The title track – actually it’s called “Sometimes It Takes Balls To Be A Woman” – will impress the boys at the bar, the Velvet Underground cover will have her contemporaries wondering if she has her priorities in order, and "Rest Your Weary Mind" is pure Alison Krauss and Union Station. But while everyone in Nashville seems convinced that she’s the next Loretta Lynn, I still have my doubts. True, Rodney Crowell’s production talents help a lot - the last time Crowell got this close to a country star he wrecked his marriage; the guess here is that Cook isn’t nearly that fragile. And, yes, I do like the songs, all of which she managed to write herself! Cook’s main problem is not her writing, tough though it may be. She’s a little too “cute” for my tastes. In other words she’s more Faith Hill than Shania Twain, which probably means she has a long way to go before she gets to Loretta Lynn. B+