Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

AHL cover fullWhen I was a kid, I used to have a hell of a time convincing some of my more conservative relatives that popular music was a worthy vocation for a thinking adult. “All that yelling and screaming,” they’d say. “You learn three chords on a loud, out of tune guitar, scream into a microphone and you’re a rock star.

“For God’s sake, you wanna make that your life’s work, boy?”

“Louie Louie,” they’d shout. “Sgt. Peppers,” I’d fire back.

I never would have told Uncle Louis, of course, but as I got older and began working six nights a week in nightclub cover bands, I too began developing a few doubts about this music thing. Especially after the night’s third rendition of “We are Family.”

But all I had to do during the drive home was crank up the first few bars of any album that had earned a permanent slot in my car’s CD rack (uh, cassette rack) and all doubt about the worthiness of making music vanished. If I could make music like that – music with so much skill, so much heart, smarts and honesty — I would consider my life well spent.

Jill Freeman’s exceptional new album, “A Handmade Life,” is my car’s most recent addition.

Truth is, this album sucked me in within the first few notes of the opening cut, “The Light that Leads Me There.” With only a strumming ukulele behind her, Freeman’s achingly pretty and heartfelt search for kindness and decency let me know that at the very least I was in for some fine singing and thoughtful poetry.

What I got – and continue to get (I’m listening to “Welcome to the Bonehouse” as I write) – is 54 minutes of masterfully written (Freeman), produced (Joel Wachbrit) and arranged (Freeman and Wachbrit) mini-adventures, featuring top-drawer performances by LA’s A-list players and vocal performances by Freeman that range from gorgeous to bawdy to unnerving, in a perfect melding of story-telling credibility and vocal technique.

It is not easy to categorize this music. Think guitar-oriented rhythm section with acoustic bass, violin, woodwinds, banjo, Uilleann pipes, accordion and percussion supporting amurdertown gp 4 color light-toned, expressive alto — all performing an alt-folk, jazz-tinged, Kurt Weill-ian version of Jungian interpretation of fairy tales.

Yeah, another one of those.

And no, I’m not kidding about the fairy tale part:

From Freeman’s website: “Fairy tales are like dreams, filled with deep symbolism about the human psyche. They carry the voice of our subconscious. I wanted to dive into those dreamy stories, swim deep, and see what I came back with. This album is the expression of what I found there.”

The result of Freeman’s Jungian dip with Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and other fantasists whose names and stories had, until now, been gathering dust in the pre-school folds of my brain, are some of the most compelling song-stories I’ve heard. Often dark, sometimes fun and funny, always clever and literate, Freeman’s words take us to places, people and things we used to know but probably haven’t visited in a while.

Cinderella:

Walking on Glass what a big brave girl
Rags all gone and hair all curled
Those glistening shards on your tiny feet
Coulda cut you to ribbons on the cobblestone street
Coulda sliced a heel or lost a toe
But you did the Reel, even Do-Si-Do’d

Walking on Glass… Walking on Glass

-From “Walking on Glass”

Wizard of Oz:

Where once his empty brain was clear
It now was strained with stabbing fear
And jabbing, poking thoughts – a tear
Rolls down his blank expression

The Wizard placed pins in his head
Now, this will make you sharp!” he’d said
And so began what finally lead
To Scarecrow’s great depression

– From “Completely Unaware”

Little Red Riding Hood:

I love sitting
In my gramma’s front porch swing
We shuck peas there
And I listen to her sing

Oh her songs, they
Make me shiver as I laugh
Songs of young girls
Who are stolen on the path

 Songs of beasts
That devour them
Leaving nothing where they’ve tread
But a little bit of Red
A little bit of Red

– From “A Little Bit of Red”

Gliding easily from protagonist to omniscient narrator – often within the same tune – Freeman breathes life into these wide-ranging and varied stories and characters with energy and honesty – and in a few of the more macabre tales, with downright menace. Freeman’s light, airy approach to the lines below definitely pinned the needle on my Sweeney Todd-o-meter:

Oh, you came in then, with a maiden, fair
And you killed her with barely a snap
Then chopped her in pieces, they flew everywhere
Her ring finger fell in my lap

– From “Sweetheart My Dream is Not Over”

This song works so well on so many levels, “Sweetheart My Dream is Not Over” may be the poster child of why so much of this album works.

Based on a tale from the Grimm Brothers collection, “The Robber Bridegroom,” “Sweetheart My Dream is Not Over” is a tale about fear, sadistic murder and dismemberment. Of course, Freeman and crew begin the tune with the sweetest sounding pipes you ever heard and light guiro/tambourine percussion, playing at a brisk-ish three-quarter time.

Freeman joins the fun with…

Love, I dreamed that you lived in a lonely place
And we were to marry that spring
Well, I walked through your house finding nar’ a trace
Of friendliness there, not a thing

As the verse ends, an even sweeter piano arpeggio replaces the pipes while a bird warns Freeman’s protagonist about her fiancé, the guy with the knife–

… will cut you in two, then laugh as your blood drains away…

A light childlike chorus sung in unison to a lone piano and breath percussion raises the spook factor considerably.

Ashes on daffodils, ashes on leaves, ashes on innocent clover…

The first chorus ends with just Freeman and Sara Parkins sublimely strange violin–

But sweetheart my dream is not over…

–setting the listener up for the full band’s entrance and the blood-letting to come.

It isn’t just the track and vocal working against subject matter that make this cut so darned effective — it’s the surprise of it all.

This album is full of surprises: Parkins’ wonderfully demented solo and Steve Nelson’s snaky acoustic bass on this tune; the C-tuned guitar intro (was it Wachbrit or Freeman?) and Mike Nelson’s soaring clarinet in “Letters From Murdertown”; Debra Dobkins’ innovative, driving percussion; April Hava Schenkman’s mad voices and the, uh, unusual backing vocals in “Welcome to the Bonehouse”; Candy Girard’s wonderful reel-like fiddle on “A Handmade Life”; Freeman’s piano and spoken poetry in “The Nightingale”; Wachbrit’s rhythmic banjo in the chorus of “Eyes of Fire”… Hell, even the unexpected quarter-note rest after “…banshee” and before “…heart of hearts” in that same chorus makes me smile every time I hear it.

Of course, the surprises only work because the foundation from which they leap are so fucking solid. Wachbrit’s innovative and cohesive production and consistently fine guitar playing throughout, along with solid drumming and percussion by Dobkins, Robert Perkins and Dave Beyer , Nelson’s bass, and keyboards by Tommy Reeves and John “JT” Thomas firmly ground the songs as only fine players – fine players who like each other, that is – can.

Which brings me back to Freeman’s voice. Again, it’s the strong foundation of Freeman’s technical vocal skill that frees her up to give such artistic, expressive – and often unusual – performances. Jill Freeman is truly a singer’s singer –- pitch, control, crystal clearJilly-2 enunciation… and my lord, her vibrato. In the hands of a lesser singer, vibrato can be an evil weapon – think Ethel Merman or Axl Rose. But Freeman’s choice and control of her vibrato, whether wide and slow, narrow and quick or nonexistent always seems to be what the performance requires. I think I’ll write a textbook titled “Jill Freeman’s Vibrato” which would soon become a required primer in every voice class, if not a N.Y. Times bestseller.

Not to mention, how many singers in the land can rhyme “essential” with “pencil” with such command?

In every respect, Jill Freeman’s “A Handmade Life” is a triumph. Everyone involved with this project should be very proud, indeed. It is a work filled with the kind of intelligence and care that used to erase my doubts about the importance of popular music on my drives home from the club.

As I slide this CD back into my car’s rack, my only wish is that Uncle Louis and my naysayer relatives were still alive, taunting me with “Louie Louie.”

“A Handmade Life,” I’d fire back.

Hear what I mean about “A Handmade Life” at JillFreeman.com

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If you put on Ann Kelly’s latest CD, “Promises,” close your eyes and imagine what the owner of this rich, sultry voice looks like, your mind will probably conjure up a hi-res image of Kelly by the time you reach the first chorus.

Keep listening and the slinky horn lines, jazzy piano riffs and bluesy guitar under the voice will likely morph your Kelly mind-picture into something closely resembling the CD’s cover art – right down to her trench coat, puckered lips and the urban setting.Promises_front_cover[1]

Now you’re ready to experience the album as the multimedia event nature intended.

“Promises” is an album of mood music. It’s difficult to put the Kelly mood into words, exactly, but I know it has a lot to do with dry martinis, French perfume, Aston Martins and parties at Hef’s. With Kelly’s sensuous and often fearlessly emotive vocals setting the tone, “Promises” is mood music for grown-ups: urbane, sexy and expertly made.

The six-song, Mark Ross-produced EP opens with the upbeat “These are the Good Times.” Tight, infectious horn lines, a standout solo by guitarist Tim Pierce and Kelly’s light and confident delivery let you know you’re about to spend time with pros.

“Bluest Blue,” Kelly’s “Dear John” to a doomed affair, is the record’s hardest rocking track, featuring a credible, emotional read by Kelly, fiery leads by Pierce and some extremely ballsy and clever horn lines.

The up-tempo shuffle, “Move on Over,” delivers some of the strongest performances — vocal and instrumental — and some of the best lyrical turns on the CD. The song opens with Kelly’s scornful dissection of a gold-digger on the prowl: “…the pretty little parasite is looking for a host,” then passionately warns the host-to-be away from the vixen with …“better beware, there’s perfume in the air.” Kelly’s mix of worldly swagger, impish fun and rhythmic instinct nails this one.

Brandon Fields’ soaring tenor sax solo, Ross’ syncopated piano, playfully inventive horns and top-flight backing vocals by Janis Liebhart and Lynn Fanelli all conspire to make “Move on Over” as fun as it is musically rewarding.Promises__back_cover

Come to think of it, there is a refreshingly playful spark running through this entire album and everyone involved is obviously in on the grin.

Case in point: Lee Thornburg’s wah-wah trumpet intro (over scratchy needle-on-vinyl effect, no less) on “I’m Your Friend,” is not only a good example of the album’s wit, but is also one of the best bits of flutter-tonguing horn pathos ever blown. When Nick Lane’s trombone joins Thornburg later in the tune for a kind of mano a mano, New Orleans-style horn-orama, its fun is exceeded only by its masterful playing.

In “…Friend,” Kelly tries to extract commitment from a tentative lover with a whispered growl that is so damned sexy, you can’t believe she has to make her case at all. “You love me when it’s easy, when the slipper fits…”, sighs Kelly, then turns up the heat with “…I long for you to comfort me.” If this doesn’t work on the guy, I’m afraid shock therapy is the only answer.

On the slow bluesy title track, “Promises,” Ross’ dramatic string arrangement provides the perfect environment for Kelly’s impassioned vocal and Pierce’s dynamic and thoughtful guitar work throughout.

Which brings us to the final cut – the exquisite and eclectic “If You Only Knew Me.” It’s funny, just the other day I was saying to the wife, “How come nobody ever makes records with a reggae beat, a Montmartre accordion and a Duane Eddy guitar, featuring a Marlene Dietrich-ish vocal in English and French anymore?”

In this medium/slow, incredibly infectious loper, Ross has managed to combine these disparate instrumental elements in a way that feels so natural and easy you have to remind yourself you’re in uncharted territory. As interesting and inspired as this track is, though, it is Kelly’s performance that will stay with you.

One part “Three-Penny Opera,” two parts Piaf-Dietrich love child, this is Kelly’s most evocative read on the album. Purring such lines as “…now we begin the sweet taste of sin” and “…your foolish heart will know that I play for keeps,” in between the tastiest accordion and soprano sax lines this side of La Rive Gauche – well, let’s just say Kelly had me at bonjour.

Kelly’s uninhibited vocal approach, Mark Ross’ crisp production and innovative-yet-catchy arrangements plus ace work by some of the best musicians and singers in Los Angeles have demonstrated once again that having fun and making good music needn’t be mutually exclusive endeavors.

“Promises,” L.A.-based Ann Kelly’s sophomore effort, has just the right blend of fun, drama and musical expertise to recommend it as a highly enjoyable listen.

For samples of “Promises,” visit http://www.annkellymusic.com/store

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From the first few bars of Ann Kelly’s new EP, Petals and Thorns, you know you’re dealing with professionals here. This slick, six-song package features Kelly’s expressive vocals supported by top-flight playing from a group of L.A. studio stalwarts. All in all, this pop-jazz/adult-contemporary outing is a testament to the value of musicos who know what the hell they’re doing.

The CD’s lyrical themes of love lost, love soon to be lost, lost love’s revenge and loneliness are confidently and credibly handled by Kelly, whose voice and phrasing bring to mind a deeper Diana Krall. From her dusky, blue-smoke delivery of the bluesy “She Dances Alone,” to the I’m-wise-to-you-buster vibe of “Who do You Think You’re Foolin’?” to the snarky irony of the infectious, up-tempo “It Must be Good to be King,” Kelly’s performances strike the right notes of assertiveness, playfulness and hurt — a femme fatale undermined by a vulnerable heart.

My favorite cut, the Exotica-tinged “Between the Lines,” is Kelly and band at their mood-setting best. Kelly’s laid-back phrasing and honest, intimate delivery gives the listener a near-voyeuristic glimpse into a doomed affair. Perhaps, more than on any other cut, this mid-tempo gem is where the players demonstrate their top-notch recording chops. In lesser hands, two guitars, a tenor sax and keyboard all trying to lend color could easily sound like an explosion at a pawnshop. But here, guitarists Tim Pierce’s and Tim Kobza’s exquisitely light and echoed fills and Duane Eddy-esqe twang seamlessly compliment and play off of pianist Mark Ross’ elegant, jazzy runs and saxist Danny Pelfrey’s nuanced flavorings, which blossom after the second chorus into a beautifully lyrical and thoughtful solo.

Another standout, the jazzy “Undone Without You,” has Kelly shredding the boundaries of cool. Playful, yearning and above all, sexy, Kelly’s plea to an AWOL lover has an alluring Peggy Lee-meets-Garbo (on the low notes) quality to it that begs the question, who in his right mind would leave? Complete with walking double-bass, octave guitar, libidinous saxophone and what may go down in history as the coolest, most understated piano riffing ever, “Undone Without You” is as fun as it is supremely musical.

If there is a problem with Petals and Thorns, it’s the record’s tendency toward sameness on repeated listening. Of course, one listener’s sameness is another listener’s consistency of sound, but personally, on the next Ann Kelly effort I’d like to hear Kelly open up her higher register a bit more and maybe add more variation to the design and instrumentation of the production.

But, all picking of nits aside — this EP is a thoroughly rewarding listen. With strong, catchy tunes written by Kelly and Ross, Ross’ crisp, uncluttered production and arrangements, and standout performances by pros who obviously still love music, Petals and Thorns is a collection of well conceived and extremely well executed songs that should get lots of radio action. A solid first outing from L.A.’s Ann Kelly.

 Hear samples of Petals and Thorns at www.annkellymusic.com.