Recent releases from the Los Angeles and Austin, Texas based indie label New West Records are in the Compact Capsules spotlight this week. Since its inception in the late 1990s, New West continues to establish itself as a quality entity in the indie label ranks by offering a haven for both new artists and those on the rebound after being given the major label heave ho. Whereas up to this year a major player in the Americana music ranks, New West has begun to diversify even more here in 2005. They go abroad for talent with the debut releases for the label by rocker Nic Armstrong & the Thieves and one-time pop wunderkind Ben Lee. Add to that the label debut from the duo of Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion and the third release from the quirky Vic Chesnutt, and reissues of the first two albums from The Drive-By Truckers and the label is off to a flying start here in 2005. All of these releases receive the capsule treatment this week.
New West NW6071
Now a dozen albums into his career with the release of his latest album titled Ghetto Bells, the only thing consistent about singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt is that he remains consistently different from album to album. An artist who has always moved to the beat of his own drum, Chesnutt’s latest is arguably his most mellow release to date. If out-of-the-mainstream, avant-garde pop is your cup of tea, Ghetto Bells should quench the thirst just fine. Accompanying Chesnutt is a stellar cast of sophisticates that includes noted jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, legendary writer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Van Dyke Parks on piano, accordion and organ, Don Heffington (Lone Justice, Jayhawks) on drums and percussion, session ace Dominic Genova on double bass, and wife Tina Chesnutt on bass. Unlike past albums where more than his share of prickly moments in song, was par for the course, there’s a quiet sort of elegance blanketing the bulk of the 11 songs, all originals, comprising Ghetto Bells. It begins with the music, a grouping of beautiful arrangements on which moody tranquility more often than not prevails moving from the strings adorning the first track “Virginia” straight through to the closer called “Gnats” where the sparseness in sound is balanced forthrightly by Chesnutt’s eerie falsetto. His songwriting, equal parts cagey and personal with bite and barb to spare, is to these ears as poetic a collection of tunes as Chesnutt has ever rendered. The sum total is a satisfying album which despite its subdued mood, gains steam with each and every listen and where the nooks and crannies are many. (New West Records, 9215 Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90212, or www.newwestrecords.com)
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
New West NW6067
If bloodlines mean anything when it comes to talent, Sarah Lee Guthrie is fairly well endowed. Daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of the late Woody Guthrie, Sarah Lee’s professional career dates back to 1981 where at the age of two she made her singing debut as part of a children’s chorus on her father’s album Power of Love. Suffice to say that the young lady, now in her mid-twenties, has been in and around music all her life. Guthrie met Johnny Irion in L.A. in 1997 not long after moving there. Irion was out there at the invitation of the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson who had convinced him to move West to join a band he was producing. Within a week of meeting, Guthrie and Irion were dating and hitting it off as well on the relationship side of things as they were on the music side. A couple of years later they were married and ditched L.A. for Irion’s birthplace of Columbia, South Carolina. Only two years later, each emerged with a folk-leaning solo release for Arlo’s Rising Son record label. From both an economies of scale and relationship standpoint, it only made sense to tour together. Also probably not surprising is that all that time on the road performing got the juices flowing to make a record together. That album is the debut from the duo called Exploration. It features 12 songs, all but one from the twosome with the lone cover a previously unrecorded Pete Seeger song. Whereas the duo’s solo releases touched on folk, rock, and country, there is a most definite pop catchiness to the tunes found on Exploration. Here’s thinking that it had a ton to do with enlisting Gary Louris of The Jayhawks as one of the producers for the record. Folks familiars with The Jayhawks of latter years likely know that they traded the twang of the early days for a more ear-friendly brand of pop rock. Combine the pop smarts of Louris with the rootsy leanings of Guthrie and Irion and it equals a pretty appealing record in Exploration. Right off the bat, from the lilt of Irion’s voice to the sweetness of Guthrie, it’s hard not to hear shades of the duets of the late Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris weaving in and out of the songs and music of Exploration. That angle can probably be attributed at least in part to Louris whose fondness for GP and Emmylou is well known. But then along comes a number like “Gervais” which sounds like vintage Jayhawks, except with Irion and Guthrie in the driver’s seat. In all, this duo has crafted a winning brew that sounds more than ready to stand the test of time and win these two plenty of new fans in the process.
Awake Is the New Sleep
New West NW6070
With the release of Awake Is the New Asleep, the stats now read six albums in ten years for Australian singer/songwriter Ben Lee. Pretty prolific considering Lee is only 26. Once upon a time, 1994 to be exact, Lee was an indie pop boy wonder thanks to his debut recording Grandpaw Would which won him supporters ranging from Ben Harper to Fugazi. The follow-up release in 1997 titled Something To Remember Me By only furthered Lee’s indie credentials, not to mention fan base, and helped score him a major label deal with Capitol Records with 1999’s Breathing Tornados his one and only record for the label. Several odds and ends releases have come and gone since until this latest recording which marks Lee’s first endeavor for New West Records. Awake Is the New Asleep reunites Lee with producer Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins) who was at the helm for Lee’s ’94 debut. In a nutshell, to these ears it possesses many of the same qualities that first garnered Lee high praise, that being simple songs with catchy melodies and choruses. Yet, it is the latter, namely the songwriting, that has me wondering about Awake Is the New Asleep. Whereas the songs all sound good purely from a melodic standpoint, there just isn’t a whole lot of depth to these ears. Whereas fans of his previous longplayers will probably find favor with this latest, to these ears Awake Is the New Asleep is best classified as Ben Lee “lite”.
Ben Lee appears at the Orpheum Theater in Boston on June 9. He opens for Aimee Mann.
Nic Armstrong & the Thieves
The Greatest White Liar
New West NW6070
Gotta confess that I knew absolutely nothing about Nic Armstrong when his New West debut showed up in the mail. Given the label’s track record of signing primarily established artists, this one certainly caught me by surprise. Raised in Newcastle and now residing in Nottingham, England, Armstrong with his band The Thieves on The Greatest White Liar mine everything from Beatles-esque Merseybeat (the leadoff track “I Can’t Stand It” sounds straight out of circa-1963 Liverpool) to early Stonesy rock ‘n’ blues swagger ala the segueing track “Broken Mouth Blues” to the dreamy folk pop of its follow-up “In Your Arms On My Mind” to the fuzzy overtones of a cover of Leiber and Butler’s “Down Home Girl” with cool, riffy undercurrents straight out of 1960s Great Britain. It’s an auspicious beginning to what over the course of its 14 tracks is a pretty impressive debut, particularly for rock fans who dig their roll. The inclusion of a cover of Chuck Berry’s “I Want To Be Your Driver” as a bonus track is nothing but icing on the cake. Label the impressive The Greatest White Liar from Nic Armstrong & the Thieves a winning dollop of British Invasion revisited.
Nic Armstrong & the Thieves open for Oasis at the Tweeter Center on June 24.
New West NW6068
New West NW6069
Fans of the Drive-By Truckers should be pleased to know that the band’s first two previously out of prints albums, Gangstabilly from 1998 and Pizza Deliverance from 1999, are now readily available thanks to the reissue of each by New West Records. The label home to the DBTs for each of its last two critically acclaimed albums, Decoration Day from 2003 and The Dirty South from 2004, respectively, Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance were the first Southern fried salvos fired off by this band and were in large part responsible for the cult following that has since grown to national one thanks to the band’s incendiary, not to mention sprawling live shows. This is where it all began, from the songwriting that draws from the band members’ oft-times pointed reflections on Southern culture and working class types set to the music which is redneck in its punch and demeanor. For DBT fans, these reissues are nothing short of essential.
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at [email protected].)