(Double Decker Bus)
Though Velvet has been writing and gigging since 1995, The Juggernaut is the band's second album, previous progress hindered by a confluence of moves, member exits and monetary holdbacks. That, in part, explains Velvet's proficiency with guitar-based power-pop, the staple of this 12-track affair borne on strong hooks sharpened by careful harmonies, all belying the album's sophomore status. Simple-chord structures and straight-ahead rhythms twist into convincing arrangements, bridges big and propulsive, guitar solos capable enough to allow for tone tampering.
Simultaneous nods to the sleek swoop of Let's Active and the robust jangle of The dBs pin Velvet to the Children of Nuggets caste, references to 6L6 amplifier tubes and El Caminos playing their respective role. But Velvet, now a trio, brings something to the table beside decade-old obsession: Guitarist Jay Manley and bassist Jane Francis, co-songwriters swapping and sharing vocal duties, are married. Sparks fly naturally. On "No One Here," the best song on The Juggernaut, Manley--who sounds like a slightly nerdy Northern new-waver fully coming of age in Athens, or even a lighter Ted Leo--slices in with a chugging overdrive, drummer Zsolt David tapping out tom hits two by two. Manley sings the first four lines of the first two verses, purposefully punching through via deliberate monotone: "No one here knows anything/ About what she wants or what she needs."
But Manley defers for the final line, Francis winning it with a weathered innocence, charming cracks popping up in a voice caught between Aimee Mann and Neko Case: "There's nothing I'd like much better/ than to meet someone who really understands," she winks, dragging, then raising, the final note. Manley and Francis nail the final two verses together, indicative of the rest of the record: Songs for two voices, holding up as one through songs about hard love, tough breaks and bad politicians.
Importantly, they're comfortable letting one another alone, too: Francis pleads the gorgeous title track with an earnestness requiring solitude, and her temptress romp on "New Day Witch" would just get weird with too much help. The songs actually get too much help from Mitch Easter and his Fidelitorium: In spots, they're too refined for the band's good, the exuberance of the melody lost in the search for the perfect guitar sound. Sometimes, that's just not as important as it may seem. --Grayson Currin
Velvet releases The Juggernaut at Cat's Cradle on Thursday, Aug. 3 at 9 p.m. with SNMNMNM and Carter Gaj. Tickets are $3. For more, see www.velvetpop.com.
Long Steel Rail
(Sugar Hill Records)
"I'm actually an old-time musician," says Riley Baugus. "But I sort of fall into the Americana category because I play traditional old-time music that I learned from old people in the mountains."
That's the path Baugus takes on his latest, Long Steel Rail. Proficient on both fiddle and banjo, the former blacksmith demonstrates the three-finger, Scruggs-style banjo technique on the title cut. His playing is old time, but his vocals sound like Mississippi Hill country blues. Alternately, as on the obscure hymn, "What Are They Doing in Heaven," Baugus is an emotive singer.
Dirk Powell, founding member of Balfa Toujours and the musical arranger for Cold Mountain, plays prominently on the album: Previously, Baugus has toured with two Powell bands, and Baugus sang on Cold Mountain. Powell takes fiddle chores for "June Apple," and his manager handles the bouzouki on a duet of "Sail Away Ladies," Baugus showing his own fiddle style. "No Corn On Tygart" is included here only after Powell's 2-year-old daughter, Amelia, requested it every time she saw Baugus play it.
But, ultimately, Baugus keeps the roots of old-time mountain music alive both by interpreting the music of his Appalachian home: "My family is from Allegheny County, up around Sparta, and they grew up hard and made their own way as did my father. He passed on those same mountain values to me. You can take the boy out of the mountain," he says, laughing, "but you can't take the mountain out of the boy." --Grant Britt
For more on Riley Baugus, see www.rileybaugus.com.
Charles Latham writes like a tortured gemologist: Every time he digs just beneath the crust and finds a jewel, he admires it without cleaning it, refusing to polish away the dirt left from the earth that shaped the object of his obsession. Likewise, when self-described antifolk songwriter Latham finds a perfect melody or twist of phrase, he leaves it alone, obstinately refusing to shape it to perfection. His uncertain words remain as is, addled by a world that thinks his losing streak is nifty, and paired to the cracks in his voice and the buzz of his tape machine. It's an absolutely winning effect.
Over the nine songs on Pretty Mouth, Latham maintains his sanity by manning up to screwy situations in his own semi-serious way: "Nice (to Me)" confronts a beneficiary who had rather buy Latham dinner than give him a smile. He seems genuinely agitated by what's happening, his guitar strings rattling and his voice cracking, pleading "Why can't you be nice to me?" again and again without flinching. But winks come in spades: "You can be hot for me, buy all my pot for me;" "Wear thongs, write songs or sickly devour me;" "Most of you is a ghost of you that's vanished, my dear." He's resigned to joking about his place for some small personal victory, and the images invoke empathy as much as laughter.
Elsewhere, songs about wet dreams as symbols of mounting mundane frustrations ("Nite Man") and praying to a one-man, materialism-friendly god from a toilet seat ("My Perfect Church") pit major problems against a minor crooked smile. Even the protagonist from one of the disc's more stoic moments, "Applications for Employment," dives for grins: His attempts to sell out have been unsuccessful, though his business suit makes him shifty. "Vacationing when it's economical," he's painted in enough hyperbole to make him amusing.
Latham is a ramshackle arranger with a sharp pen. That combination gives Pretty Mouth pretty much all the polish, dirt and shimmer it should ever need. --Grayson Currin
For more on Charles Latham, see www.myspace.com/sircharleslatham.
If Tamasha's appropriately titled debut Unformat has a central fault, it's focus, or the near-complete absence of it: Three members (and one collaborator) of the Raleigh quartet earn individual songwriting credits for 12 of the disc's 13 tracks, resulting in 57 minutes of music that--though at times compelling and always played in meticulous fashion--makes for exhausting, mystifying listening. For instance, androgenic Tori Amos moments give way to breezy pop, and Southern guitar jams precede keyboard-heavy power ballads.
Opening track "myguitarismy.. 'and' sohlouhv thuhsa," written by Chris Little, pairs huge Built to Spill guitars with Little's lyrics about his axe serving as a wooden-framed chassis, shouted emphatically like Cursive's Tim Kasher. Meanwhile, Tim Fenwick's "Next to Me" is a Dave Matthews Band "Stay" reprise in overkill, devolving into Dionysian banter and falsetto parroting too funny not to be intentional parody. Bassist Preston Bounds contributes "The Circuit is Cursed," one of those dark, ultra-sophisticated spoken-word songs playing on piano and guitar feedback: "Neurotransmitters pile up in the synapse like unread dispatches: 'Where are you? What are you doing? Update us on your present status.' The cell is quiet as a tar baby." Blame Radiohead.
Stylistic ambition and hybridization is difficult and essential, and Tamasha seems to have the best inclusive impulses of obvious influences The Grateful Dead at heart. But, here, it just seems forced, individual elements not gelling specifically because the band refuses to consider developing a cohesive style. But, if that ever happens, there may be a transformative concept album just on the horizon. --Grayson Currin
For more on Tamasha, see www.tamashamusic.com.