Milwaukee, Wisconsin is not usually a city one thinks of when it comes to record labels and music, but the Midwest metropolis is home to a label that is quietly making its mark on the Americana scene with an interesting array of artists in its corral. Touting itself as “casting a spotlight on the best singer-songwriters and musicians from around the corner and across the country,” the Beertown-based Back Porch Records has been responsible for the latest albums from such a diverse array of artists as the Neville Brothers, John Hammond, the subdudes, Over the Rhine, and the duo of Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez. Compact Capsules takes a look at the three latest releases from the label, solo albums from Frank Black of Pixies and Black Francis fame, Charlie Sexton, and relative newcomer Shannon McNally. Simply put, all are worthy of your ears. Let’s take a look.
Back Porch Records 77293
What with his work with the Pixies and his own group The Catholics, Frank Black has never been an artist associated with the more rootsy side of the American music scene. Label the recent solo release titled Honeycomb for Black what the albums John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline were for Bob Dylan. Like Dylan heading to Nashville and plucking a bunch of ace Nashville session musicians to back him on those very country leaning affairs, Black did much the same with Honeycomb. Whereas Dylan went country for his supporting crew, Black went more in a country soul direction enlisting the talents of such road-tested alumni of the Stax and Muscle Shoals recording scenes as Steve Cropper, Reggie Young, Spooner Oldham, David Hood, and Anton Fig, not to mention Buddy Miller from the alt country ranks. Perhaps most vital was the selection of a producer and that honor was bestowed upon John Tiven whose credits included sessions with Wilson Pickett and B. B. King, among others. Recorded live in Nashville just days before the Pixies launched its 2004 reunion tour, comparatively speaking Honeycomb is a laid back and spare sounding affair that represents a complete 180 from his Pixies’ persona. It is an album on which Black’s voice emits a soulful calm and restraint and on the whole is completely in bed with the mix of original compositions and interesting covers. The latter include sincere reworkings of the Dan Penn – Chips Moman country soul classic “Dark End of the Street”, the obscure Doug Sahm treasure “Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day”, and “Song of the Shrimp” from the Elvis Presley archives. Black’s originals come across with the same warmth and affection as those covers. Among the standouts are tracks like “Selkie Bride”, “Sing For Joy”, “I Burn Today” which kicks off with a catchy curly-cue guitar hook straight out of Buffalo Springfield lore, and “Strange Goodbye” with wife Jean dueting on vocals. In a nutshell, I can’t think of any record from this year that has sank its teeth as deeply into the Compact Capsules psyche as Black’s Honeycomb, but be forewarned that repeated listening is required to catch all the nuances. It is an album with a subtle sort of wallop that wins you over one song at a time. Hopefully there’s more of where this came from in the years to come from the solo side of Mr. Black. Highly recommended. (Back Porch Records, 4650 N. Port Washington, Milwaukee, WI 53212, or www.backporchrecords.com)
Cruel and Gentle Things
Back Porch 60398
It has been ten years since the last recording from Charlie Sexton. That album was the dense and sprawling Under the Wishing Tree by he and his Charlie Sexton Sextet. For his latest release titled Cruel and Gentle Things, the Austin, Texas-based Sexton for the most part puts the sextet aside and goes it alone with minimal studio accompaniment. While his multi-instrumental talents have never been in doubt – he plays guitar, steel, dobro, bass, percussion, cello and piano on this new one – going back as far as his days with the Arc Angels and more recently his three year stint as guitarist for Bob Dylan from 1999 to 2002, recent years have seen Sexton retreat to the home front and begin to establish himself as a producer of merit with albums from Edie Brickell, Shannon McNally, Los Super Seven, Lucinda Williams to his credit. It’s not surprising he calls all the shots on Cruel and Gentle Things. After listening several times through to this new recording, you can add songwriter to Sexton’s hefty skill set. The songs of Cruel and Gentle Things, arguably his most personal tomes to date, were crafted during the years since Under the Wishing Tree. Singing in a distinctively charred voice, Sexton’s songwriting moves revel in a late night kind of poeticism while musically the melodies offer flecks of everything from blues to rock to pop to twang. Sexton sings of matters of everything from resignation about issues of everyday life (“Regular Grind” written with brother Will Sexton) to marriage to fatherhood to even an autobiographical tale of growing up in Austin (“Dillingham Road” co-written with Steve Earle about the street in Austin where Sexton grew up) on this 10-song album. Far from an easy listening kind of record, Cruel and Gentle Things is a collection of songs that both simmer and resonate with a home-brewed intimacy and depth. It is also a record with staying power to spare.
Back Porch Records 77269
Once upon a time Shannon McNally was the darling of Capitol Records poised to be a potential next-big-thing for the major label concern. That was 2002 and her album Jukebox Sparrow. Balancing blues, folk and country with a pop sense for its foundation, Capitol called most all the shots with Jukebox Sparrow while at the same time giving McNally all the resources she wanted to make the record. The result was an album that garnered her critical raves not to mention a hit on AAA radio with the song “Now That I Know” which also appeared on the Sweet Home Alabama motion picture soundtrack. Add to that opening slots on tours with Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks and John Mellencamp and television appearances on the late nights shows of David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and the promise of a bright future was staring McNally in the face. Pretty good for a Long Island girl who moved to New Orleans not long after Jukebox Sparrow saw release. When it came time to make the follow-up record, McNally was looking to take more control beginning with the selection of a producer. Whereas Capitol had its own stable of producer types, McNally’s choice was Charlie Sexton of Arc Angels fame who at the time was playing lead guitar in Bob Dylan’s band and whose production credits included Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Lucinda Williams’ Essence. Capitol agreed, but reduced her budget. With Sexton at the helm, McNally proceeded to make the album she wanted, however, when the powers that be at Capitol got their first whiff they wanted no part of the record. Suffice to say McNally no longer wanted any part of Capitol requesting both her walking papers and the rights to the record to go with it. Capitol’s condition was that only if she found a label to release the album, titled Geronimo, would they relinquish the record. That was 2003. To the rescue came Back Porch Records which was willing to release Geronimo, as is, which is something those fortunate enough to come upon this album should be thankful. For all of her few years in the Crescent City, a Louisiana mist hangs heavy over the dozen songs comprising this sophomore release from McNally which dips into soulful balladry, barroom blues, and gritty roots rock. Oft-times a true litmus test for a singer is a cover song. On Geronimo, McNally takes on a couple of heavyweight tunes in Bobby Charles’ country soul waltz “Tennessee Blues” and Taj Mahal’s “Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes”. She proves up to the challenge wrapping her smoky and soulful rasp around each of those numbers and coming up aces in the process. As good as the covers are (and McNally passes the litmus test hands down), McNally carries her end of the proceedings contributing 10 original songs. Consider them literate, songs of substance compositions timeless in their makeup and sound and which for only a second album shows she is a talent on the rise. Geronimo is potent stuff and comes highly recommended.
(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].)