LIGHTNING STRIKES – Quick But Essential Reviews for the Discerning Listener

Chris Butler / The Magic City Trio / Lisa Mednick Powell
Got It Together! / Amerikana Arkana / Blue Book
Future Fossil Music / Kailua Recording / Cicada Sounds

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CHRIS BUTLER – “Got It Together!” (Future Fossil Records)

Last we heard from Mr Chris Butler, chief architect of the Waitresses, owner/creator of the Guinness Book record for the longest song ever, and among the brilliant weirdo team of musicians responsible for the NE Ohio quirk dimension that spawned Devo, the Rubber City Rebels, and countless others including the forever overlooked Tin Huey that helped launch not only his career (though to be fair Butler spent 3 years in ultimate cult band – still going – the Numbers Band, AKA 15-60-75) but that of Ralph Carney and Harvey Gold, he had at last shepherded his not inconsiderable talents toward what was in essence a musical autobiography.

Easy Life, released in 2014 and corralling together tracks freshly written with those dating back to his earliest wanderings, was the work of a man tracing, and tracing over again as re-emphasis dictated, the contours and seismic patterns of a life checkered by historic trauma, pop glory, and the more quotidian (but perhaps greater?) challenges that faced any young person trying to figure out how to do life in Middle America during a period that stretched from naïve counter-cultural bliss through the Kent State massacre to punk rock iconoclasm. It was a heady, important work that, while succeeding on its merits to an extent few such project do (check SEM’s coverage here and here), it also, in most respects, necessarily departed from the – smartly idiosyncratic, wryly dark – occupational whimsy that’s marked his output from the start. Four years hence, with the arrival of the panache-injected Got It Together!, we feel it’s safe to report that Chris Butler the ageless skewed rock wunderkind is decidedly back in action.

Inventive, off-kilter virtuosic and imbued with a no-fucks-given insouciance that, frankly, is sorely needed these days, GIT!, self-released on his own Future Fossil imprint, finds the errant maestro and expert mid-century furniture fancier in, well, not rare form because it’s not rare for him so let’s just call it usual form. Playing most everything himself (longtime confrere/ideal foil Mr Gold and a couple others lend a quick hand or two), Butler covers a host of typical topical bases – relationships, aging, life death sex and, y’know, all the other flukes of mortality that compel us toward our final slide into home plate – with an aplomb both exacting and instinctively boisterous.

From the fast-footed, defiant shuffle of opener “Physics” – the off/on Farfisa solo is just the sort of genius you go looking for when this guy puts out a record – through the reflective shimmer of the written-in-winter “Summer Money,” “Nicotine Weather”‘s manic, dystopian dadaism – oh the craze of contrariness that substance can drive one to (nicotine, not dadaism) – that was written as if it was for Tin Huey and yes it’s that good, the bar band swinging intransigence of “Bitch Box,” a song Root Boy Slim forgot to write (and yes that’s a glowing compliment), “Better Than I Ever Was” that’s half-Stax, half-Half Cleveland and we’d venture the finest of both halves, and bouncing out with the curious “Curious Girls” that, despite having been written in the early 90’s, asks us to imagine the Tubes had they made an overt effort to unseat Boston from the top of the charts (or anyway that’s one scenario), this is a record that, in all its sonic and/or conceptual chicanery, reflects the character of its maker as honestly as any we’ve heard in a fair stretch. Throughout his life as a musician Chris Butler hasn’t had too compelling a use for filters beyond those needed to distill rock and pop’s classic tropes and formulae into the individualized shapes his songs have tended to take over the years. Got It Together!, crafted as it is with that proprietary Butlerean blend of heart with enough dashes of snide to give it snap, continues that one-man tradition. Plus? The guitar work throughout is impeccable, which, c’mon, seals it. [√√√ ½]

Got it? Get it. [here]

THE MAGIC CITY TRIO – “Amerikana Arkana” (Kailua Recordings)

This is a sit-up-and-take-notice album, and not simply because The Magic City Trio – besides being in fact a quartet on this full-length debut – is helmed in the main by Frank Sweeney, a once-upon-a-time member of timeless UK tunesmiths the June Brides, and his real-life accomplice Annie Holder of Cherry Red C88 cult faves Annie and the Aeroplanes (though indeed that alone should be pretty persuasive), nor because of the by-now commonplace fact that these are Brits tackling a style from the US heartland, but rather because the cumulative attributes offered on Amerikana Arkana – the writing the execution the production and arrangements; the whole shootin’ match, as it were – add up to such an unqualifiedly engaging listen.

While drawing from that period in musical time (mid-6o’s, basically) when pop and country found themselves entwined in a sweet and seemingly unforced harmony as if LA and Nashville decided to meet in Austin and get themselves a room, the MCT’s adaptation, though surely as supple and deceptively light of hand, nonetheless carries a twist of gravity to it, their take, as implied by the album’s title, a gently but surely subversive one. There is, in short, a bit of darkness to that sparkle.

 

To wit, well, let’s just say there’s a reason the first track, attended by splashes of fuzzy wah-wah that sound as if someone’s busted up the Farfisa and upward swoops of mellotron’ed strings – think Lee Hazlewood with a trace or two of John Barry cinematics (to a degree not an inapt description for this album as a whole) – is titled “Black Dog Following Me.” There are, in fact, clues to the thematic tilt of this release in the names given to a good half of these trad-sounding, fully original songs. There’s “Cousins’ War,” its sepulchral opening organ figure supplanted by stippled banjo trimmings and featuring, with some inevitability perhaps, the phrase “in the cold, cold ground;” “Goodbye My Friend” where the lachrymal grace of a pedal steel perfectly beds Frank and Annie’s Carter Family harmonizing; “Down in the Willow Garden” where, using country music history as a guide, things generally don’t end too well and this grisly sweet little murder ballad-slash-morality tale is no exception. Breaths of redemption and notes of salvation would seem to arrive just in the nick on Arkana‘s last two tracks – “A Prayer for Hope and Happy Times” with its Marty Robbins Tex-Mex barndance swing, and the steel drum touch of Trinidad that opens closer “Sun Comes Shining Through” – but even there one suspects going in that there might well be a shade of dolor in the offing and one isn’t, in truth, altogether wrong.

Still, it is after all (and has forever been), the sting of likely pain and the specter of heartbreaking failure that makes for the sharpest pop flavors and anyway, above all that, Amerikana Arkana, assuredly full of deeply accomplished – and thereby deeply satisfying – songcraft is the kind of sleeper album that should awaken any of us from our phone-lulled, headline-paralyzed torpor. If you’re good to yourself, you’ll let yourself be one of them. [√√√ ¼]

Amerikana Arkana available here

LISA MEDNICK POWELL – “Blue Book” (Cicada Sounds)

That it’s a genuinely mysterious contradiction is, perhaps, appropriate in a way, but there’s something of the lasting ephemeral in the work of Lisa Mednick Powell. Similar to the Band’s mythic epiphanies or the sand mandalas of Tibetan monks, the songs on Blue Book seem held in this sort of tension of timelessness that makes them feel both fleeting and stamped forever on your music-listening heart. It’s not a trick, there’s no sleight-of-anything going on, they convince you of that from the very start. It’s just how they arrive, as if they’re fully-formed souls aware of their own mortality.

If her name sounds somewhat familiar it should, having produced previous to this two full-lengths of intimate Americana that resonated throughout the alt.country universe like penetrating whispers in a box canyon, earning plaudits from publications as varied as the Utne Reader and Rolling Stone. More importantly, she established along the way a reputation as a songwriting talent of sufficient gravity to not only attract kudos from the likes of Ray Wylie Hubbard (“Her songs are just cool and important”) but as well to pull in ‘old friends’ Victoria Williams, Tommy Malone, Alison Young, Greg Leisz and others to help flesh out Blue Book. As good and no doubt welcome as those assists were, however, they still, in the end, amount to what might be considered well-intentioned lily-gilding. These ten songs inhabit their own cores with authority and grace, delicately suspended on a back porch between the numinous and the unshakably grounded.

Updated but utterly bespoke between the lines, the first-up “Smoke Over Carolina” hangs a Civil War veil over the plight of the working class circa 2018, the result – as Leisz instructs his acoustic to imitate a dobro and Ms Williams backing vox haunt the chorus as if she’s the female Rick Danko – playing like a poignant folk standard adapted by Joan Baez after reading Ehrenreich. Sticking with the literary for a sec, the liltingly desperate “Checkpoint” is soft Americana noir that implies a chance meeting between Ms Mednick Powell and Jim Thompson somewhere along the Rio Grande, while the moving, rousing “Give the Guns to the Girls” (co-credited to husband Kip Powell) is a piece of impatient, soul-scarred journalism that, though written in response to the horrors of Boko Haram, finds its saddened righteous beauty inescapably resonating through our post-Parkland world, the emphatic pound of Powell’s piano chords and Gar Anderson’s flaring anger of a closing guitar solo making for some eloquent prose indeed.

 

Elsewhere, however, the mystique and aspiration find a multiplicity of ways to express themselves. “Cold Coffee,” a Malone co-write, has a Dolly-goes-country rock vibe that isn’t shy about kicking up the sawdust, “I Am Not Gold,” more obliquely – but just as sharply – feminist, with Zevonesque shimmers of organ-like pedal steel and the rhythm section (Kip on bass, Danny Frankel drums) gently plumbing the human heart, could very well make Gillian Welch break down in tears upon contact, while the extraordinary “Crow” spends its near-five minutes wandering the halls between a knowing Shaggs-ian naivety and Laurie Anderson’s earliest avant-pop inclinations, a cut that, with its skeletal double-tracked vocals and the denuded plink-plonk jazz of a prepared piano, may seem a dissociative nightmare set to a Let’s Eat Grandma out-take but is in fact strangely riveting.

 

So, you’re gonna need at least three hands here. On the one, an out-of-the-box (take that phrase however you like) delight, on the other a stay-on-your-toes collection that surprises then wisely lulls then surprises again, then on the third hand a work of quiet (sometimes not-so-quiet) genius. It’s a three-card monty of superior outcomes, you can’t lose.

One last thing, though, needs be said. While the interims between releases have thus far displayed a troubling pattern of doubling – Semaphore appearing eight years after debut Artifacts of Love and now Blue Book sixteen years past its predecessor – let’s hope and bloody pray that the world doesn’t have to wait until 2050 for album number four. Though Ms Mednick Powell’s penchant for permanent evanescence is almost certainly as unique a gift as once can hope to receive from any artist, we humbly (and, OK, kiddingly) implore, addicted as we now are, not to be asked to wait another thirty-two years. √√√¾

Blue Book available here

[feature photo by the amazing Trish Tritz]