He may not be the first name in Americana, but Paul Burch has established himself as one of the more solid reinterpreters of original roots music. The Nashville native's latest is another tasty sampler of several old school styles -- a little honky tonk, some R&B-inflected gospel, some boogie-woogie, a Johnny Cash railroad shuffle -- expertly assembled to tell poignant, 3.5-minute tales of falling in -- and, of course, out -- of love.
Burch's previous effort, 2001's Last of My Kind, was a companion piece to author Tony Earley's great "kids" novel, Jim the boy, and the tunes' authentic, timeless feel set the Burch bar mighty high. Last of My Kind sounded as though it had been recorded on the porches of Depression-era Appalachian homes -- so much so that Burch is now penning the score to PBS' documentary, The Appalachians, to broadcast worldwide in "04.
Fool for Love is an update, of sorts (that is, if the term "update" and 50s and 60s country aren't mutually exclusive). The big photo of Webb Pierce and sweetheart on the back cover tells the tale. The record highlights Burch's ease with this era's music, too, from the opener's familiar Man in Black train-shuffle, "Lovesick Blues Boy," to the tender, R&B-flavored plea of "(She's Not the) Bad Girl She Used to Be," and from the Cajun/Western Swing of "If You're Gonna Love Me," to the Richie Valens-like ass-shakin' rock of "Sparks Fly Out."
Another plus with Burch is that you never get that creepy feeling that you do with some modern takes on old country -- that you're in some musty Smithsonian exhibit; these songs are alive with the universal themes that made the music timeless in the first place. Nor, on the other hand, do you get that equally unpleasant "need to bathe" sensation that alternative country bands on the make tend to give off.
A judicious use of accents also helps. Fats Kaplin plays a host of stringed instruments, ranging from viola and fiddle to pedal steel; George Bradfute blows saxophones and bass clarinets; and Burch himself plays everything from bass, drums and guitars to organ, vibes, and piano. All of it seems to inhabit just the amount of space it's supposed to. With gorgeous melodies and realistic lyrics, it's more confirmation that Burch's voice is a lasting one.
Track to burn: "Sparks Fly Out"
Grade: B --John Schacht
Desert City Soundtrack
Deep Elm Records
The distinct piano notes of the opening track suggest a jazz recording; that assessment would be correct, though ultimately wrong. Desert City Soundtrack do evoke a midnight drive on a still highway, yet guitars are not too far behind to remind one of the coming post-hardcore and abrasive, yet elucidating, sound on Funeral Car. Matt Carrillo's guitar and vocals swap emotions ranging from somber and introspective (the opener "My Hell") to full-on noise-fest ("Drawn and Quartered"). The Charlotte-based, adventurous indie label Deep Elm Records adds to their musical foresight with Desert City Soundtrack as the band adds piano, trumpet and organ as subtle tones to separate themselves from the hordes of indie rockers. It's a natural fit as the piano immediately sets a mood while the guitar and rhythm section amplify it. The dissonance is used in a manner consistent with the band's agenda of shaking musical apathy, of stirring the senses without overwhelming them. Its 12 tracks shift gears quickly without the accompanying metallic grind, confronting an old sound with fresh emotions.
Track to burn: "These Games We Play"
Grade: B+ --Samir Shukla
Sun Kil Moon
Ghosts of the Great Highway
It's rarely the integral mope of Mark Kozelek or his Red House Painters that bothers some, but more the dirge-like pace accompanying so much of it. So when Kozelek's new band project, Sun Kil Moon, starts off their debut, Ghosts of the Great Highway, with a decidedly upbeat feel (musically, at least) -- well, clearly, something's afoot.
The opener, "Glenn Tipton," is a great riff on nostalgia featuring Cassius Clay, Sonny Liston, Clark Gable, Jim Nabors and Tipton, the "second guitarist" for Judas Priest, among others. Though it's just Kozelek and his acoustic through half of the song, the production is far more angular than previous Kozelek projects. And when the Crazy Horse-like slash-and-burn of the third track, "Salvador Sanchez" (the tragic story of a champion featherweight), charges forth from the speakers, it's worth a CD cover spit-take. Maybe two.
Kozelek hasn't lost his dark lyricism, nor his penchant for masterfully melancholic melodies, but the pace here is markedly different from his recent solo material and the last few Red House Painters' projects. So is the production: the melodies are up front in the mix, the accents clear and unmistakably a more equal partner here. Overall, it's a welcome change of pace, with enough fundamental Kozelek to keep the transition from rankling too many of the faithful's feathers while still drawing in some new fans to hear one of the memorable but underrated American songwriters.
Track to burn: "Salvador Sanchez"
Grade: B --John Schacht