CD Reviews for 07/15/05 – Laura Cantrell, Michael Shelley, Spike Priggen by Dan Ferguson

Recent releases with a rootsy country/pop flair from artists hailing from the very un-country environs of New York City are in the Compact Capsules spotlight this week. For all that concrete, steel, and asphalt, heavenly sounds continue to emanate from the Big Apple. Leading the charge is the new one from songbird Laura Cantrell. From there it’s into a couple of releases from a couple of little knowns in Michael Shelley and Spike Priggen each of whom have new albums very worth your listening pleasure. Let’s get to it.

Laura Cantrell
Humming by the Flowered Vine
Matador Records OLE651-2

With her third album Humming by the Flowered Vine released for prominent indie Matador Records, Laura Cantrell takes another step towards the big time. The home to such edgy acts as Interpol, Yo La Tengo, and Belle & Sebastian, Humming by the Flowered Vine represents Matador’s first foray into anything close to a country record. A celebrity of sorts in the New York City area as much for her long running weekly radio program – The Radio Thriftshop which airs Saturday afternoons from noon to 3 PM over freeform station WFMU-FM out of Jersey City – as much as for her blossoming recording career, the early returns on Humming by the Flowered Vine is it is primed and ready to be Cantrell’s breakout album. Perhaps you know the story of Ms. Cantrell. A Nashville native who came to New York in 1985 to do her undergraduate studies at Columbia and never left, between involvement with the campus radio station playing traditional country music and exposure to the then burgeoning Big Apple alt country scene of the late 1980s and early ’90s, Cantrell caught citybilly fever. The bug actually first bit her in her teens after taking a summer job as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Through it all, there was always this burning desire to write her own songs and music. The early-to-mid 1990s would bring coffeehouse slots and spots in a band or two, not to mention a guest vocal slot on a They Might Be Giants record. It would be the Scottish label Shoeshine Records that would finally give Cantrell her first big break releasing Not the Tremblin’ Kind on European shores. Brooklyn-based Diesel Only Records would follow suit on this side of the Atlantic with the domestic release of the record. Loads of critical kudos soon followed. The year 2002 would bring her sophomore release When the Roses Bloom Again, also on Diesel Only Records, which would garner her even more praise as well as help to land her opening slots on tours by Elvis Costello, Joan Baez and Ralph Stanley, and appearances on everything from Conan O’Brien to Mountain Stage to even the Newport Folk Festival. If you ask me, the fact the Nashville native Cantrell makes her music out of New York City while tapping the talents of predominantly New York City area musicians and always seems to throw a tune or two with a NYC state of mind into her song mix (Humming by the Flowered Vine gives us three different numbers with Big Apple overtures) makes her a good fit for the NYC-based Matador. Over the course of those first two albums, the sweet and plaintive-voiced Cantrell brought a pop flair to her music while at the same time always maintaining her allegiance to the roots of country and western music. Search no further than such tributes to West Coast gal country singer Bonnie Owens (“Queen of the Coast”) who sang backup for Merle Haggard for too many years to count and “Mountain Fern” about the great Olla Belle Reed for proof of Cantrell’s allegiance to the roots. Humming by the Flowered Vine follows suit and brings us “California Rose” which she wrote in tribute to the late West Coast hillbilly queen Rose Maddox. On the whole, Humming by the Flowered Vine is a record not far removed from her first two albums. It clearly has more production touches thanks most likely to the work of producer J.D. Foster (Marc Ribot, Richard Buckner). As demonstrated by five fine original compositions on the record, Cantrell’s songwriting chops continue to blossom. Particular standouts include “Khaki and Corduroy” about her early days in New York City, “Bees” which takes its inspiration from a friendship Cantrell developed with the late hillbilly performer Zeke Manners during his final days, and “old Downtown” about a trip back to her hometown of Nashville. One of Cantrell’s greatest assets has always been her “songcatcher” talents, that is finding songs by others. Humming by the Flowered Vine includes a number of gems from the likes of the little-known Emily Spray (the catchy, featherlight love song “14th Street” which leads off the record in splendid fashion and is in lockstep with Cantrell’s NYC ties), New York-based songwriter Jennifer Jackson (“What You Said”), late Bakersfield honky tonk legend Wynn Stewart (“Wishful Thinking” which gets the A-1 honky tonk treatment from Cantrell and her band), a previously unreleased early 1980s Lucinda Williams song discovered on a demo tape (“Letters”), and the traditional murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” covered by everyone from the Stanley Brothers to Bill Monroe and which gets a rousing bluegrass makeover on this album. Like prior albums, Humming by the Flowered Vine is one of those records that gets better with each listen. Recommended. (Matador Records, 625 Broadway, New York, NY 10012, or

Michael Shelley
Goodbye Cheater
Confidential Recordings CON-3009

Classify Goodbye Cheater, the fourth solo album from New York City-based singer/songwriter Michael Shelley, as one of those “little” records. By little I mean an album on a tiny label that doesn’t get a lot of distribution and relies more on word of mouth to spread the gospel on just how darn good it is. To these ears, Goodbye Cheater is one of those perfect summertime records. A favorite of in-the-know pop connoisseurs, Shelley’s latest is a quick moving collection of taut tunes chock full of hooks and melody to go with a wry and witty songwriting touch that owes as much to his love of catchy pop as they do a thing for twang. With some of NYC’s finest musicians from the roots and alt country side of the tracks on hand to help fuel Goodbye Cheater, Shelley strikes a variety of nerves taking us from the teenage heartbreak of the irresistible “We Invented Love” to the buoyant country of “Hurry On Up and Fall In Love” and “A Little Bit Blue” to the border feel of “I’ve Been Trying” (featuring Laura Cantrell in duet mode) to the terrific tale of Autumn romance called “The Leaves Fell Off the Tree”. Even the covers are pretty nifty, one from the duo of George Jones and Roger Miller (“That’s the Way I Feel”) and another from former Cricket Sonny Curtis (“I Wanna Go Bummin’ Around”). One of the coolest touches on Goodbye Cheater are the three all-of-sixty-seconds country-flavored instrumentals spread across the 14 tracks and which to these ears make for some prime filler. In the end, they’re just icing on the cake for what is one of those little gems of an album. Highly recommended. (Confidential Recordings, P.O. Box 791, Peter Stuyvesant Station, New York, NY 10009, or

Spike Priggen
Stars After Stars After Stars
Volare’ Records VOL003

All one need do is unfold the CD booklet accompanying the latest release from New York City rocker Spike Priggen and gaze at the shots of memorabilia from his own personal stash to know what fueled the New Haven native’s music muse. Ticket stubs from a Foreigner concert from long ago, a Cheap Trick bowtie, concert posters from a Dwight Twilley gig not to mention one from New Haven legends Hot Bodies. All those nostalgic relics play heavily into Priggen’s new album titled Stars After Stars After Stars. It follows the heavenly dollop of jangle rock that embodied his last album from 2001, the below-the-radar gem The Very Thing That You Treasure, also for Volare’ Records. (That album did receive some mainstream action what with one tune being used in an episode of TV’s Felicity and another featured in the first-ever iPod TV commercial.) Whereas The Very Thing was comprised entirely of originals, Stars After Stars After Stars is a covers record on which Priggen hearkens back to the pop songs that made his own heart beat just a little faster. Mixing classics with obscurities, the most satisfying thing about the covers approach is that there’s nothing predictable about the way in which Priggen and company rework his favorites. They span the grandiose rock of Alice Cooper (“I’m Eighteen”) to the power pop of Big Star (“Nighttime”) and the Ramones (a version of “Questioningly” heavy on the steel guitar) to The Zombies (“How We Were Before”) and Pontiac Brothers (“Be Married Song”) to “In the Inside” from the aforementioned New Haven faves Hot Bodies which leads off the record in spine-tingling glam rock fashion. Be it the rockers or ballads, spine-tingling pretty much hits the nail on the head where Stars After Stars After Stars is concerned. (For information on Spike Priggen and Stars After Stars After Stars and, check out his web site at