Loudon Wainwright III
(Red House Records)
It's funny how much Loudon Wainwright and his rock-star son Rufus complement each other. Rufus embraces melodies from every era of history; Loudon's been writing with the same few chords for years. Rufus' voice soars and purrs as he preaches sweet nothings to an imagined heavenly choir; Loudon's slurs and trails off as he says things no one wants to hear. Rufus is dizzy and self-conscious in concert; Loudon on stage is a born comedian with an impeccable sense of timing. If you could combine Rufus' vocal and melodic links to the pop cosmos with Loudon's withering introspection and gift for the unlikely punch line, you might get one of the most compelling and literate popular musicians of all time, equal parts Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson (just before his final freakout), and Albert Brooks.
Alas, such things are not to be, and this year both father and son have left behind fascinating, infuriating what-ifs: Rufus' gorgeous and opaque Poses and Loudon's less successful collection of self-lacerating tales about being old, horny, and misunderstood, Last Man On Earth. While Loudon is no major star, he is a daring, incisive songwriter, as his live Career Moves attests. But like many a would-be genius, he's erratic almost as an aesthetic strategy, and his biggest problem is the problem shared by smart, self-aware ironists and jokers throughout history -- they tend to use confessional honesty as an excuse for bad behavior. So as unexpected and up-front as "Surviving Twin" (a song in which Loudon grows a beard to remind him of the dad he can't stand) might be, it's a discomfiting, self-satisfied gesture rather than an exciting social truth, and it's not funny, either. Other targets of private scorn: cell phones, organ donors, single men, winos, and e-mail. As far as the father/son thing goes, give me pretentious nonsense over dour bitching any day. -- Addison Engelking
Tied To the Wheel
It only took Bill Kirchen 30 years to produce a worthy follow-up to Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen's 1971 Lost In the Ozone, a classic slice of hippie honky-tonk on which he played guitar. Commander Cody anticipated the Western swing revival, redneck hippie chic, roots rock, and alt-country at a time when playing straight country music branded a musician as either a reactionary or a visionary with little room left in between. The Airmen maintained a balance that allowed them to play clubs full of slumming hippies who wanted to enjoy a band that sounded country but had its roots in bong-hits and college dorm rooms. For a brief time, the Berkeley-based Commander Cody band pulled this trick off very nicely, but in later years the group turned into a touring institution a la the bloated Western swing of Asleep At the Wheel and other Nash Vegas-styled entertainers.
Kirchen stayed with the band throughout the '70s but later served as a sideman with Emmylou Harris, Danny Gatton, Elvis Costello, and Nick Lowe (he has toured with Lowe several times and always made those live performances memorable with a chicken-pickin' Fender Telecaster style that complemented the white-haired one's pop proclivities very nicely). This is Kirchen's third record for Hightone and easily the best thing he's done on his own in decades. Loosely a concept album of trucker tunes, Tied To the Wheel sees Kirchen and his band trying on the Bakersfield sound, a bit of Western swing (no, it doesn't sound anything like the aforementioned Asleep At the Wheel or the soporific gunk Lyle Lovett peddles), a taste of bluegrass, a chicken-pickin' instrumental, what sounds like a Don Williams vocal tribute on Tommy Collins' "Roll Truck Roll," and a guitar-heavy version of Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues." Albums this eclectic usually sound forced and awkward, but Kirchen and his rhythm section make everything sound natural and of one piece. A surprisingly good record by a sideman who sounds like anything but one here. -- Ross Johnson
(Waxy Silver Records)
A Pennsylvania native whose promising debut drew comparisons to Bruce Springsteen for his taut, working-class story songs, Matthew Ryan finds himself in starker territory than ever on his new album. Although his previous release, last year's East Autumn Grin, had some stunning moments, Ryan seemed a bit confused. He flip-flopped between small-scale folk and rock-god opera, with whoppingly great U2-style guitar sweeps that often overwhelmed his subtle strengths. But it's his ever-poignant storytelling that draws the listener in, and, luckily, Concussion focuses on that ability. The new record is pared down to essentials, a much better milieu for his low-key, often whispered vocals. His songs tell tales so impressionistic and dire that you find yourself straining every nerve to decipher the story as it unfolds. In that way he reminds me of a more direct, male, blue-collar version of Cat Power.
This time around, Ryan relocated permanently to Nashville and recorded all the tracks there. The result is a bleakly beautiful parade of dramas and feverish confessions that is powerful and compelling. No one is better than Ryan at writing about the hunger, spiritual or otherwise, of working-class America. You know you're in for a downer when the peppiest track here is a cover of the Clash's "Somebody Got Murdered." But regardless of its tone, the album still shines. On a duet with Lucinda Williams, their whiskey-and-gravel vocals blend together seamlessly, and her ballsy alternative Southern-belle delivery is the perfect foil for Ryan's nihilism. "Chickering Angel" is a study in despair so beautiful it haunts you long afterward. Recorded in a mere eight days on a diet of "whiskey, cigarettes, coffee and raisin bread," as Ryan recalls, Concussion is a dark tour de force indeed. -- Lisa Lumb
The Tall-Tale Storyline
Considered part of the City of Brotherly Love's Psychedelphia scene, Mazarin play a brand of pop music that mixes and matches sounds and genres. Their varied second album kicks off with the quirky "Go Home," which features found sounds singer/songwriter Quentin Stoltzfus recorded in Thailand, and ends with the country-flavored "Limits of Language," a Gram Parsons-inspired tune complete with weepy pedal-steel. Between these two poles is a little bit of indie rock ("Suicide Will Make You Happy"), some trippy psychedelic folk ("What Sees the Sky?"), and two bizarrely misplaced acoustic interludes ("2.22.1" and "RJF Variation 1").
Certainly, The Tall-Tale Storyline is diverse, and perhaps the band intended this to be its strength. But the album's eclecticism is actually its fatal flaw. There's no logical progression from the spacey vortex of "Go Home" to the power chords of "My Favorite Green Hill" to the Elliott Smith pop sheen of "Flying Arms for Driving." It all feels so aimless: There's no overarching theme or concept connecting all these disparate elements, not even a reckless sense of why-the-hell-not. Ultimately, it's not that The Tall-Tale Storyline isn't the sum of its parts, it's that its parts don't seem to add up at all. n
-- Stephen Deusner