CD Reviews for 12/17/04 (Neko Case, The Gourds, Ricky Skaggs & Ky Thunder) by Dan Ferguson

Neko Case
The Tigers Have Spoken
Anti 86740-2

Over the course of three independent solo albums, one EP, countless compilation appearances, a collaboration with Canadian Carolyn Mark as one half of the Corn Sisters duo, and as part of the glam rock band the New Pornographers, the well-deserved critics darling Neko Case has established herself as a bell of the alt country and indie rock ranks. While diminutive in physical build, label the canyon-sized pipes Case possesses nothing short of an incredible physical instrument that can hit with a Merman-esque wallop (as in Ethel) if need be or be quelled all the way down to a serene thing of beauty. With her new recording, Case says good-bye to her days with insurgent country label Bloodshot Records that yielded those fine solo albums and says hello to the higher profile Epitaph Records imprint Anti Records whose roster includes the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and the late Elliot Smith, among others. Case kicks off her Anti antics with the newly released live album The Tigers Have Spoken. An artist as well as a label that each like to go against the grain, The Tigers Have Spoken is anything but your typical live recording in that only two of its 11 tracks are repeats of songs found on any of Case’s previous albums (“Blacklisted” from the 2002 album of the same name and “Favorite” from the EP Canadian Amp). It offers shades of everything from alt country to the hard stuff to boisterous rockers to sublime pop (the beautiful title track penned by Case). Recorded over seven nights at three different venues in Chicago and Toronto, the album finds Case backed by a cast of cronies familiar from her earlier albums. They include backing band the Sadies along with the likes of steel guitar wizard Jon Rauhouse, singers Kelly Hogan and Carolyn Mark, Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops, Paul Morstad, and Brian Connelly (Shadowy Men On a Shadowy Planet). The material mix is several fine originals from Case to go with a broad spectrum of covers the latter of which truly reveals the young lady’s fine taste when it comes to song mining not to mention her superlative interpretive skills on the vocal end. We’re talking dandy covers of The Shangri-Las’ “The Train From Kansas City”, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Soulful Shade of Blue”, “Hex” from Catherine Irwin (Freakwater), an appropriately feisty version of Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X”, and a couple of traditional numbers from the public domain ranks in “This Little Light” and “Wayfaring Stranger” which close out the recording. Live album or not, the highly recommended The Tigers Have Spoken is a good one and only whets the appetite for the studio recording of all original material promised for next Spring from Ms. Case. (Anti Records c/o Epitaph, 2798 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026, or

Various Artists
It’s a Team Mint Xmas, Vol. II
Mint MRD-080

As far a Christmas albums go, the new Yuletide-themed compilation It’s a Team Mint Xmas, Vol. II from Vancouver-based Mint Records is anything but staid and predictable. It is that avoidance of repetition and same-old, same-old when it comes to Christmas tunes that is this 14-track holiday smorgasbord’s greatest appeal. The cast is an entirely North of the border one all of whom record for Mint Records. Featured are John Guliak, instrumental band Atomic 7, Carolyn Mark, The Buttless Chaps, The Ramblin’ Ambassadors, The Evaporators and Duotang, among others. Whereas these bands do not have much for notoriety on the domestic front here in the States, that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from checking out the stocking stuffer batch of original tunes in the Christmas spirit that this Mint sampler has to offer. (Mint Records, P.O. Box 3613, Vancouver, BC Canada V6B 3Y6, or

The Gourds
Blood Of The Ram
Eleven Thirty 7003

Here’s betting that thanks to its appearances the last couple of years at the Rhythm & Roots at Ninigret Music Festival held annually on Labor Day Weekend in Charlestown, the Austin, Texas-based band The Gourds has won itself a load of new fans. Well fans, we here at Compact Capsules Central are pleased to report that the wonderfully warped, rag-tag band has itself a brand new longplayer on the streets. The sparkling new recording is called Blood Of The Ram and it marks the band’s debut record for Eleven Thirty Records. If you are not familiar with The Gourds, think music with a definite woodshedding sort of slant on the order of The Band. It has been 10 years now that The Gourds has been cooking up its twisted and sometimes turbulent roots rock stew of tunes. (This is a band that in its illustrious past has given the roots rock makeover to tunes ranging from “Ziggy Stardust” from the Bowie archives to Snoop Dog’s “Gin and Juice”.) Blood Of The Ram is yet another sinewy slice of the loose, front porch brew n’ boogie the band has built its reputation upon. The music is a melting pot of stylistic diversity with sounds spanning folk to blues to Tex-Mex to rock ‘n’ roll to country to bluegrass to Cajun and Zydeco, all on a course to roots music nirvana. As par for the course on pretty much all albums from The Gourds, democracy is hard at work on this 13-track affair from the songwriting to the playing to the singing. Blood Of The Ram is comprised entirely of originals primarily from the hands of front men Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith with multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston kicking in a single tune. Consider it yet another feather in the band’s cap. (Eleven Thirty Records c/o The Gourds, P.O. Box 5249, Austin, TX 78763, or

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
Brand New Strings
Skaggs Family Records 6989010062

When the description “German engineering” comes up in terms of car-speak, people typically think superior product on the order of say, a Mercedes. Perhaps the equivalent term when it comes to bluegrass may be something like acoustic engineering or better mountain music engineering. Whatever, when it comes to precision and quality product, classify Ricky Skaggs and his six-piece Kentucky Thunder band as the Mercedes of bluegrass music. Skaggs and company’s latest release is titled Brand New Strings and it is no exception to the mark of quality he has established since diving deep into the bluegrass side of country not long before his mentor and bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe passed away. An album which just a month ago reached the top position on the Billboard bluegrass chart, Brand New Strings finds the band characteristically firing on all cylinders delivering an incredible batch of bluegrass music. The album represents a departure of sorts from previous Skaggs/Kentucky Thunder affairs as it finds he and the band heading in more of a contemporary direction as far as song selections are concerned including a reprise of the title track to his 1991 country album, My Father’s Son. The fact the album is sitting at number one charts-wise is certainly an indication that the bluegrass, as well as Skaggs fans, sure don’t mind a bit more modern sheen. Simply put, if you dig bluegrass music, you can’t go wrong with Brand New Strin…