Pin Me Down (6/15/2001)
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, The Best of The Wirtz: Fifteen Years on The Road With a 77-Inch Pianist (Hightone Records 2001) - The Rev. Billy Wirtz, a six-foot five-inch tall honky-tonk pianist with a wicked sense of humor and grab bag of unforgettable comic songs, is given a well-deserved retrospective with Best of The Wirtz.
Based in the South, the album reflects 15 years of blues bars, comedy clubs, and a couple of stints with pro wrestling. Best of the Wirtz features such gems as "Roberta" (hearing is believing when Wirtz talks about getting in bed with a 375-pound gal), "Sleeper Hold on Satan" (juxtaposing Saturday morning television gospel and wrestling, wherein Wirtz looks at "the struggle for good and evil as a cage match between Jesus and the Devil"), and "Mennonite Surf Party" (says Wirtz, "The farmin' life's for me - the one that started it all; my signature song.")
Best of The Wirtz also includes a rasslin' interview from the radio, seven new tracks (including "Welcome to Comedy Night"), and live versions of "Just Friends" and "Grandma's Behind the Wheel."
When Wirtz does a song called "Right Wing Roundup" (written during the height of the nation's love affair with Rush Limbaugh), you know where he's heading. The boogie-woogie piano player runs extremely left of center, and is not afraid to take political potshots. Yet the touching "The King," about a mysterious hospital visit from the ghost of Elvis Presley, shows Wirtz's broader skills.
A talented songwriter, with a wicked Southern sense of humor, the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a guaranteed treat.
David Byrne, Look Into the Eyeball (Virgin 2001) - David Byrne, the leader of the dearly-remembered Talking Heads, has released Look into the Eyeball, a warm-toned fusion of pop, Latin music, and strings, with lyrics more serene than edgy.
Now an artifact in pop history, the Talking Heads, along with Television and Blondie, broadcast New York art rock from CBGB's across the nation, starting with '77 (with its unforgettable, "Psycho Killer"), continuing through the polyrhythmic Fear of Music (1979), and culminating in the Jonathan Demme film, Stop Making Sense (1984), with its chart-topping, "Burning Down the House." (Though for my money, 1985's Little Creatures was the highlight of their career.)
The string-driven Look Into the Eyeball is easily Byrne's most accessible album since 1989's Rei Momo. Says Byrne, "When I first started to make music sketches for what would turn out to be this record, I imagined the result would be something a little different. I imagined longer instrumental pieces, which would evolve into songs. But as I kept writing, most of the demos asked to be shorter and more and more concise."
Byrne continues. "At times, I felt like I needed to apologize for how accessible the songs were sounding. But then I realized what they wanted to be . . . The sadness of some of these melodies are countered by the vigor and persistence of the groove."
Go to "The Great Intoxication," with its string backing and sense of Brazilian ballad before moving to the conga beat of "Broken Things" and the gorgeous groove of "Desconocido Soy."
Says Byrne, "I've been wondering if there might be a way to include the warm, lyrical, beautiful, emotional sounds and association of strings and orchestral parts with groove music and beats for the body. I want to move people to dance and cry at the same time."
Byrne works with a host of musicians on the album, built around a rhythm section of Shawn Pelton, Mauro Refosco, and Paul Frazier. The two concluding tracks, "Walk on Water" and "Everyone's in Love With You" are pop gems, with Byrne's distinctive voice front and center.
Adds Byrne, "The record, I believe, is fairly sincere, not ironic, and any tricky-jokey images would give the wrong impression. I settled on the title Look Into the Eyeball, which to me reflects both the record's preoccupation with human relations, and its slightly off-kilter view of the same."
Look Into the Eyeball will reward fans who have waited patiently for Byrne. Byrne wanted to be an anti-star after the burning success of The Talking Heads, and succeeded beyond his expectations. With Look Into the Eyeball, he recaptures his pop stylings in an album that holds up to repeated listenings.
Ellen Edson, Family Fair (Elm Hill Music) - Good music sometimes arrives in surprising packages. Family Fair, subtitled "Folk Songs for Children and their Families," is a real gem, a delight for children of all ages. From the traditional "Skip to My Lou" to the comic "Rubber Blubber Whale" to Woody Guthrie's "Mail Myself to You," Ellen Edson has a sweet voice and a winning style.
A specialist in early childhood education, Ellen works from her strengths - folk music and songs for children. Says the singer, "My niche is traditional American music - it's about where our American experience. Even though our culture is changing, this is the kind of music that identifies us as a people, and it's good for kids to have a rootedness by continuing the sing the songs that our parents and their parents sang."
Ellen comes from a musical family: Her mother was a classically trained singer, her father is the award-winning film composer Jerry Goldsmith, and her brother (Joel Goldsmith) is also a film composer. (Working with her father, Ellen played guitar and auto harp in the theme for the television show, The Waltons.)
Both the kids and I had a fun time with Family Fair. With songs like "Shortnin' Bread," "Chewing Gum," and Ellen's own, "Pumpkin Song," the lady shows a sweet voice and sure style. Family Fair is a real winner - an accomplished performer, working in her best style.
For more information, contact:
Elm Hill Music
121 Old Chesterfield Road
Hinsdale, New Hampshire 03451
Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning (Righteous Babe 2001) - Ani DiFranco, the self-styled "little folkie" from Buffalo, New York, is nothing if not ambitious. With her 13th album on her own label, DiFranco steps up with 29 studio tracks on two CDs.
In addition to her 13 solo albums on Righteous Babe Records, DiFranco has generated two collaborations with storyteller Utah Phillips, and has released albums from other like-minded artists, including a spoken-word piece by New York poet Sekou Sundiata.
DiFranco has been married for a couple of years, and explores those themes on Revelling/Reckoning. Says the singer, "It's not all party music and it's not all quiet, introspective songs, so my albums have always been journeys of sonic peaks and valleys, and emotional peaks and valleys, and opposites butted up against each other."
DiFranco grooves with a five-piece touring band that includes Julie Wolf on keyboards, Jason Mercer on bass, Daren Hahn on drums, Hans Teuber on alto sax, and Shane Endsley on trumpet. Also making guest appearances are sax man Maceo Parker and trumpeteer Jon Hassell, together with pedal steel virtuoso Lloyd Maines on one track.
DiFranco's sound has become more complex over time, with jazz leanings. Yet it always ties into an acoustic mold. Her contribution of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" to Steal This Movie was great enough to justify the purchase of the soundtrack for just one song.
As to matrimony, Ani says, "I've been married for three years now, and it's just been kicking my ass, man. I'm lucky - I adore my boy. But it's so hard. And the prospect of inviting people into our melodrama is kind of terrifying."
DiFranco works from an acoustic-folk background. Says the singer, "A fleet of guitars! It can be kind of deceiving; of course, they're mostly acoustic guitars on both the records - about ninety percent - but what I usually do when I'm recording now is not only mike the acoustic guitar but put the acoustic to an electric guitar amp, so the sound becomes more complex."
DiFranco continues. "I want an acoustic guitar to have a huge range of tone, because that's what I hear when I play it: I hear the most crisp tinkle on the top, and I can feel it shaking my belly when I play. I think the reason that I have grounded myself so firmly in the acoustic guitar is just that. It's also, like a voice, such a dynamic instrument; it has such a range of tone and volume and character."
And so it is with Revelling/Reckoning. Two hours of music; a bellyful. Yet never let it be said that I'm not a patient reviewer. I worked my way through this to find one sparkling gem: Track 11 on the Reckoning disc, the gloriously moody and introspective "Sick of Me," in which DiFranco confides that, "You're the first person/Ever in my life/To ever really matter."
Despite the title, "Sick of Me" is a glorious love song, a track that holds up over and over. And the shining star on Revelling/Reckoning.
- Randy Krbechek © 2001
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