Monday, February 05, 2007

Fountains of Wayne, Joe Craven, Milton and the Devils Party, Jon Rauhouse

Some new or about-to-be-released music that I’ve enjoyed of late …

Fountains of Wayne – Traffic and Weather

Fountains of Wayne frontmen Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood will remind you of the two smirking wiseacres who always sat in the back of the class during your high school years. They’re hip and they know it, they’re cynical, and they’re too clever for their own good. They rhyme “diner” and “Carl Reiner,” “law degree” and “Schenectedy,” “routine” and “Lichtenstein.” They find the ridiculous and surreal in every current cultural fad, and they pepper their lyrics with topical references that will be out of date by the time their next album is released.

That’s okay. These smartasses also happen to write the best hooks extant in rock music, and their delicious power pop is guaranteed to make old farts like me jump on the couch and play air guitar. The fourteen songs here borrow shamelessly from every great band from The Beatles to Weezer, and if they don’t really do anything here that they haven’t done on their previous three albums, songs like “Someone to Love” and “New Routine” certainly reinforce the notion that that there is, and always will be, an exalted place in the rock ‘n roll canon for three-minute songs with clever lyrics and singalong choruses. Best of all is “Fire in the Canyon,” where the smirk is replaced, finally, by some honest, melancholic soul-searching, sweetened by spot-on Simon and Garfunkel harmonies.

Joe Craven – Django Latino

Originally released in 2004 to overwhelming indifference, Joe Craven’s Django Latino is being re-released on Compass Records. Don’t miss it this time; it’s a great album. Craven, a longtime musician in David Grisman’s Dawg Music ensemble, is a one-man band who plays mandolin, mandola, cavaquiño, violin, ukulele and a full range of percussion instruments, including cookie tins and martini shakers. Here he multi-tracks himself to play nearly every part on these wondrous songs associated with gypsy guitarist extraordinaire Django Reinhardt and violin maestro Stephan Grappelli of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. These songs, originally recorded between the 1930s and 1950s, are among the most beloved of the jazz canon. Here Craven adds his own unique spin by adding elements of cumbia, meringue, samba, and tango. Not a jazz or world music fan? Okay, then consider this: Joe Craven’s playing will make your jaw drop in wonder and amazement. He’s a dazzling soloist, his virtuosity matched by his ability to swing. Django Latino is both a fine tribute and a stunning reinvention.

Milton and the Devils Party – How Wicked We’ve Become

In case you were wondering, that’s “Milton” as in “John,” not as in “Berle.” There’s little to laugh at on How Wicked We’ve Become, but enough heartfelt angst and literary allusions to keep even the most introspective, morose English major happy. Or at least as happy as introspective, morose English majors ever get. Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Norman Mailer all make cameo appearances, as does sadsack Morrissey from the introspective, morose musical world.

It’s enough to make you think that these songs were written by an English professor. And then you find out that they were. But if Daniel Robinson doesn’t do much to disguise his day gig, he also does just fine as a part-time rock star, turning out tuneful, spiky guitar pop that is reminiscent of Marshall Crenshaw, The Police, and early Elvis Costello. There are deep undercurrents of longing and yearning in the lyrics, cleverly disguised by the bright, uptempo music. The themes are universally relevant, although it’s probably not a bad idea to keep a thesaurus near your iPod just in case. But if you can handle “The palliative promise of eternal life/Has turned into a stultifying curse” as a jangly guitar anthem, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this little genre exercise in pop existentialism, and probably score better on your SATs as a result.

Jon Rauhouse – Jon Rauhouse’s Steel Guitar Heart Attack

Those of you who associate the pedal steel guitar solely with cry-in-yer-beer country weepers are in for either an unpleasant shock or a delightful surprise. Jon Rauhouse plays pedal steel guitar the way John Zorn plays the saxophone. That is, he thoroughly messes with your head as he takes you on a schizophrenic musical journey. On … Heart Attack Rauhouse covers western swing, Hawaiian music, Big Band standards, ‘60s easy listening schlock, Bing Crosby crooners, the TV themes to Mannix and the Andy Griffith Show, and gunfighter ballads. Along the way, he’s helped out by members of Calexico, Giant Sand, The Mekons, Kelly Hogan, and the incomparable Neko Case, who lends her pipes to the old Sinatra chestnut “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon).” Best of all is Rauhouse’s take on Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” where the pedal steel does a Broadway turn. It’s great, uncompromising, wildly eclectic music.

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