Blame the Vain
New West Records NW3010
Go back to this same time a dozen years ago and Dwight Yoakam was riding high in country music circles. A Nashville rebel simply by virtue of continuing to make his music on the West coast, his album This Time had been released in March of 1993 and was already challenging for top dog honors on the Billboard country album chart by May (it would go on to spend an incredible 75 weeks in the Top 20) while the first single from the record, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” had a stranglehold on the number two position on the singles chart (and would be the first of five singles from the album to make the Top 20). To this day, This Time remains Yoakam’s most successful album. After giving his latest album Blame the Vain the once-through on the CD player, I can’t help thinking back to This Time. Much like that 1993 smash, Blame the Vain is an album rooted in country that is also a little bit rockin’, a little bit pop, and a whole lot honky tonk with a cool edge to it. In other words, it’s an album that wears real well on the ears. His first self-produced album, Blame the Vain features a dozen original songs which according to Yoakam tell the story of the demise of a love relationship gone bad. In as fine a voice as ever, the arrangements run the gamut from hard country to hillbilly rockers to sweeping pop country to shades of Johnny Cash on the track “I’ll Pretend”. Highlights include a tribute to songwriting great Jimmy Webb called “The Last Heart in Line”, the killer ballad “Just Passing Time” featuring Ventures guitarist Gerry McGee, and the honky tonkin’ road song “Intentional Heartache” which has Bobbye Hall of Motown fame contributing bongos. Just a month ago on this weekly page we previewed a collection of new releases from maverick indie New West Records and made mention that the label has become a haven of sorts for major label cast-offs. Following in the footsteps of such acclaimed acts as Delbert McClinton, The Flatlanders, and Old 97s, Yoakam represents New West’s latest reclamation project. Not that Dwight Yoakam has ever needed any sort of restoration. From what these ears hear on this debut for New West, Blame the Vain is an album just daring country music radio to embrace it. Whereas there has been all this talk the last year of a streak of traditionalism once again seeping its way into mainstream country – Gretchen Wilson, Dierks Bentley, and Keith Urban among the acts at the forefront of this movement – they can’t hold a candle to Blame the Vain when it comes to offering a refreshing slant on traditional country music. Just like Yoakam did in 1986 with his debut LP Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. when he along with the likes of Steve Earle, Randy Travis, and Lyle Lovett resuscitated a Music Row that was drowning in schmaltzy pop being passed off as country, the time is ripe for Blame the Vain. Highly recommended. (New West Records, 9215 Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90212, or www.newwestrecords.com)
Robert Earl Keen
What I Really Mean
Koch Records Nashville KOC-CD-9810
I sometimes get the feeling folks take Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen a little bit for granted. Perhaps it is because the singer/songwriter continues to consistently deliver quality albums. If you caught his Labor Day Weekend performance at the 2004 Rhythm & Roots Festival, here’s thinking you walked away impressed (and likely with a new Keen CD in your pocket, too). Keen and his crack band pulled out all the stops in an hour long set that spanned his ten album career. Keen spent much of 2004 touring to tout his 2003 album Farm Fresh Onions. His debut for Koch-Nashville Records, Farm Fresh Onions was a little bit country, a little bit roots rock, and even part psychedelic thanks to the trippy title track. An excellent outing as far as this camp was concerned; most importantly Farm Fresh Onions found Keen returning to the form of such earlier albums like A Bigger Piece Of Sky, Gringo Honeymoon and West Textures which collectively established the Texas Hill Country native as a singer/songwriter to reckon with. For whatever reason, Farm Fresh Onions was rather unheralded in the Keen scheme of things. For those who bypassed it, shame on you. Now along comes his follow-up called What I Really Mean. It is truly a return to the comfort zone of those earlier albums. Songwriting wise, it finds Keen working familiar territory with memorable characters to go with picturesque lyricism balancing engaging balladry (the title track which is remindful of the endearing “I’m Comin’ Home” from Gringo Honeymoon, “For Love”, and the bluesy “The Dark Side of the World”), both serious and off-kilter story songs that sound readymade to become live show favorites (“Mr. Wolf and Mamabear” which features a cameo by the legendary Ray Price, “Long Chain” and “The Great Hank” ), some good old Texafied honky tonk (“Ride”), and even a little Tex-Mex (“A Border Tragedy”). In a nutshell, here’s thinking much of this return to the form of old has a lot to do with long-time guitarist Rich Brotherton assuming the production duties first for Farm Fresh Onions and reprising that role for What I Really Mean. If anyone knows what makes Keen tick and how to bring out the best of him, it is Brotherton and he earns his producer stripes once again with What I Really Mean. (Koch Records, 1709 19th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212, or www.kochrecords.com)
In addition to being one of the great art museums in the country, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has also been conducting an ambitious, not to mention impressive, concert series. Entries over just the last month have spanned classical to tango to electronica. And this past Wednesday saw the MFA kick off its Concerts in the Courtyard summertime live concert series with the avant-garde pop stylings of Mouse On Mars. This Wednesday, June 22, sees the MFA present what has the makings of an impressive evening of alternative country music featuring New York City-based songbird Laura Cantrell in the headlining role and the Nashville-based singer/songwriter Paul Burch in the opening slot. What with opening slots for the likes of Elvis Costello and Joan Baez in the last few years, an upcoming opening slot for Lucinda Williams’ European tour, and high profile features in media outlets ranging from NPR to Harp Magazine to Rolling Stone, Cantrell is on the verge of next big thing status. Oh yeah, she has a brand new album coming out this Tuesday for prominent indie label Matador Records. Titled Humming by the Flowered Vine, it is her debut for Matador and like her previous two longplayers is a country leaning record with a definite pop edge. A solid songwriter herself, one of Cantrell’s greatest attributes is her songcatcher abilities. As demonstrated by the new release which finds her covering songs from Lucinda Williams, Wynn Stewart, Dave Schramm, and the traditional classic “Poor Ellen Smith”, the lady knows how to pick ’em.
Ask me to name one of the true unsung heroes of the alt country scene and Paul Burch would be at the top. One of those “other side of Nashville” types, Burch over the course of five albums has used the classic country of the ’40s and ’50s as a springboard for his fresh sounding brand of throwback tunes. Burch’s tales of love and woe may sound simple on the surface, but it’s the intricacies to his narratives combined with his tuneful arrangements that make them so wondrous. Mr. Burch’s last album, the 2003 release for Bloodshot Records called Fool For Love, was another in a line of highly recommended recordings (not to mention commanding a top spot on the Compact Capsules “Best of 2003” list). As of late, Burch has been serving as a music consultant for CMT scoring the music to the recent documentary “Revolutions: History of Southern Rock.”
Concert in the Courtyard shows begins at 7:30 pm. Tickets for all performances are available online at www.mfa.org or by calling the box office at 617-369-3306. Upcoming performances of note are Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas on July 13, Jimmie Dale Gilmore on July 27, and the Holmes Brothers on August 3.