Iron & Wine: Our Endless Numbered Days

There are moments of greatness on Our Endless Numbered Days. The opening track, "On Your Wings," begins with a slide guitar that coils around whispery words. The feel is tense, and the minimal percussion only adds to the anxiety. The tension finally breaks near the end, and proves that you don't have to play loud to be loud.

Yes, there are moments of greatness on Our Endless Numbered Days, but they are overshadowed by plainness. Quietly disturbing pieces like "On Your Wings" alternate with singer/songwriter fare like "Naked As We Came," a happy-sad little ditty that is nice but absolutely unoriginal. The album's gentle touches are often lost in a pool of lite folk-rock drivel, and after a while, this collection begins to feel more like a bunch of endless numbered songs.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Our Endless Numbered Days is like Simon & Garfunkel with too much Garfunkel. At its best, this is a record with subtly beautiful songs that can fill the quiet moments of your life. At its worst, it is reminiscent of over-emotional wimpsters like James Taylor or David Gray. Of course, some people will like Iron & Wine for just that reason, and if you're one of those people, you should rush right over to the EPFL and check this out. God willing, I will never get stuck on a long car ride with you.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The design is very good, and the booklet is a perfect companion piece to the music. The cover art is simple, and reflects the songs well. The lyrics have lots of space, and although the size of the typeface is a bit too small, it is easy to read. The handwriting in the booklet is actual script, not some crappy font that attempts (and fails) to imitate the warmth of the written word. The paper stock has a nice texture, and the grain in the paper adds to the overall effect of the package.

Listen if you like: Crosby Stills and Nash, David Gray, Sufjan Stevens, Garfunkel and Simon

If it were food, it'd be: A warm loaf of freshly baked white bread.


Woody Guthrie: Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs with Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, Bess Hawes

In honor of Lead Belly's birthday, I'm devoting this week's posts on Pratt Songs to his music. Today's review is a vinyl copy of Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs.... (You can get the same recording on CD from Smithsonian Folkways.) Last Tuesday's post was a review of the only Lead Belly recording in the EPFL catalog, a vinyl copy of Keep Your Hands Off Her. Hopefully, the good people over at Pratt will order some Lead Belly CDs soon!

Lead Belly only plays on one song on this album, but it's a great example of why he was so awesome. His rough voice on "We Shall Be Free" stands out in stark contrast against the other singers. All of the musicians are warm, but there's a rich earthiness in Lead Belly's voice that the other musicians don't possess. That quality makes this song shine in a way that nothing else on the album does.

That's not to say the other 13 tracks are bad. I've been in awe of Sonny Terry's harmonica playing since I first heard On My Journey: Paul Robeson's Independent Recordings. Cisco Houston's fine playing is all over the album, but his voice is mostly relegated to a supporting role. Bess Hawes has a lovely backup voice, and she is yet another of the many Smithsonian Folkways artists whose music I need to explore. Unfortunately, most of Woody Guthrie's performances here don't really grab me. The notable exceptions are "Hard Travelin'," "The Rising Sun Blues," and "Nine Hundred Miles," the latter of which has some great fiddle playing by Guthrie.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Take my rating lightly on this one, because my goal was to hear Lead Belly, not Woody Guthrie. With that said, I'm not entirely sure why this album is considered to be such a classic. Apparently, Guthrie and his friends recorded these songs in Moses Asch's studio in New York during the '40s, but Asch didn't release them on his Folkways label until 1962. That doesn't surprise me, because these sound like the kinds of songs that would sit on the shelf at the record label for a decade or two before getting released. The album is worth hearing, but it's not as inspired as some of Guthrie's other recordings.

And frankly, I wish there were more collaborations between Guthrie and Lead Belly. Their voices are completely different, yet they complement each other beautifully. There's a playful energy on "We Shall Be Free" that isn't on any of the other songs. I would've been really irritated if I'd bought this album based on the title, and then discovered that a more accurate name would've been Woody Guthrie sings Folk Song with Leadbelly.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Like many covers, the EPFL has gutted and repackaged this one. I normally kind of resent their efforts, but the fact that this album has remained in circulation for over 30 years proves they're doing something right. There's something wonderful about seeing the scrawls and stamps on the sleeve: "Spots, Side 1, Feb 20 1974, Officially Noted. Scratches, Both Sides, Officially Noted, Feb 24 1975." The original pocket for a check-out card is still stuck onto the sleeve, and some lazy clerk put a sticker with due dates right on the front cover about 10 years ago.

As for the actual packaging, the cover is a shadowy black & white photo that beautifully captures a certain aspect of Guthrie's music. An insert that came with the original album is taped to the back of the EPFL package, and it contains lyrics, an introduction by Pete Seeger, and sheet music for every song. Sheet music was an important source of entertainment for families before TV and the Internet, and it's easy to overlook the fact that Folkways Records adamantly encouraged their listeners to actively participate with the music instead of passively listening to it.

Listen if you like: Any of the artists on the album, classic folk music, Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue albums.

If it were food, it'd be: A stew, the kind that contains lots of random stuff that was leftover in the fridge. Every once in a while you get one bite with the perfect mix of ingredients, but for the most part, it has a bit too much of this and not quite enough of that.


Lead Belly: Keep Your Hands Off Her

In honor of Lead Belly's birthday, I'm devoting this week's posts on Pratt Songs to his music. Today, I reviewed the only Lead Belly recording in the EPFL catalog, a vinyl copy of Keep Your Hands Off Her. (You can buy the same songs on a CD titled Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs from Smithsonian Folkways.) On Friday, I'll review a vinyl copy of Woody Guthrie Sings Folksongs, which includes one song with Lead Belly. Hopefully, the good people over at Pratt will order some Lead Belly CDs soon!

I've known Lead Belly's name for years, but I never bothered to listen to his music. It didn't matter that nearly every great rock band -- from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana -- has praised Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly), I just never cared enough to listen. But then I checked out Classic Railroad Songs from Smithsonian Folkways from the EPFL. When I heard his recording of "Linin' Track," I was floored.

Lead Belly was amazing. I don't even know how to describe his voice, other than by saying it was real. It's not trained, it's not refined, and it's not pretty. It's hard and flawed, and it's completely compelling. Apparently, Lead Belly held audiences captive when he performed. When you hear his voice, it's easy to understand why; something about the man was magnetic.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There are probably better introductions to Lead Belly, but to my ears, Keep Your Hands Off Her is a perfect place to start. The a capella "Good-Good-Good (Talking, Preaching)" is one of the most delightful portrayals of heaven that I've ever heard, and "Linin' Track" proves there's far more to good rhythm than playing in perfect time to a metronome. "Corn Bread Rough" demonstrates his skill on the accordion, and if it doesn't make you want to get up and dance, you might want to check your pulse. "Stewball" and "The Blood Done Sign My Name (Ain't You Glad)" have been stuck in my brain with a tenacity that is usually reserved for cheesy pop songs like Hanson's "MMMBop."

It's worth noting that the EPFL's copy of this record sounds fine on speakers, but it's virtually unlistenable on headphones due to some kind of imbalance between the left and right channels. The $15 you'd spend on buying this CD from Smithsonian Folkways is absolutely worthwhile, though, and I highly recommend it.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I like this cover art a lot. It's a painting of a woman provocatively posed in a red dress, and it makes me want to listen to the album and see exactly who she is and why I need to keep my hands off her. Otherwise, the package is disappointing. There's no gatefold, and the inner sleeve is plain. There's a Woody Guthrie excerpt on the back, titled "Leadbelly is a hard name," that's interesting, but is far too short to provide any meaningful information. The cover of the CD release is just a black & white photo of Lead Belly. It's a good photo, but the late '50s / early '60s design of the vinyl release is more interesting to me. The CD includes the same essay by Guthrie.

Listen if you like: music that is memorable and catchy, performed by musicians who sing in a straightforward and honest way. But also, listen if you like bands who were directly influenced by Lead Belly, like Nirvana or Zeppelin.

If it were food, it'd be: flapjacks in heaven


Jem: Finally Woken

The first four bars of Finally Woken shimmer with exciting possibilities. Then the beats kick in, and the excitement vanishes in a flash of lite dancefloor rhythms and basic boombastic basslines.

There's nothing wrong with Finally Woken, as long as you don't mind the wave of unassuming female vocalists who took the music of artists like Portishead and watered it down for bored housewives and doe-eyed college girls. The beats are good, the production is big and clear, the melodies are somewhat memorable, and the vocal performances are as impassioned as a trip to the mall for a sale at Abercrombie & Fitch.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Jem's music is perfectly listenable, but the same thing has been done dozens of times before. Her lyrics are peppered with predictability, and the lite-dance production hurts her. "Come on Closer" is typical of the album's failures: the juxtaposition of sweet lyrics over sinister music doesn't work, because there's nothing even remotely creepy about either her words or delivery. In fact, Jem sounds like a loving woman who is taking great satisfaction in making her partner very, very happy. Had the song been sung a capella, it could have inspired serious shivers of delight, but the arrangement makes it a forgettable album track on a record full of forgettable album tracks.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The artwork is just like the music: competent but dull. On the cover, an attractive young woman is lost in the throes of a really sad day. The photos inside the jacket are less melancholy, and portray Jem as a thoughtful lyricist (her carefully placed dictionary and blurry midriff prove her intelligent sensuality) with a free spirit (she peers out of the passenger side window as a rush of fresh air blows through her dark hair). The photos remind me of the two-dimensional girl I wanted to meet when I was a 16-year-old boy who didn't understand that women are real, honest-to-God human beings who laugh and cry and learn and love and sweat and stink and piss and shit and grow old and die. Nope, the girls I wanted to meet were the ones who lay in bed reading dictionaries and looking cute. Bah. What a bore.

Listen if you like: Dido, Imogen Heap, Beth Orton

If it were food, it'd be: A spicy and exciting meal that will be corrupted for the dull taste buds of mass-market consumers at family restaurants where the servers wear cheery suspenders and the walls are decorated with "antique" knick-knacks that were manufactured by child laborers in Malaysia.


Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

I don't know Bruce Springsteen. I never owned one of his albums, I never saw him in concert, and I certainly wasn't listening to him when I lost my virginity or left to see the big world beyond my parents' backyard. So when I saw Born to Run at the EPFL, I got a little excited. Finally, I was going to listen to a great Springsteen album from front to back. Finally, I was going to immerse myself in the musical world of working-class New Jersey. Finally, I was going to understand.

But I don't. I don't understand at all.

Springsteen himself is good. His voice is urgent, and his words are filled with the bitter longing that inspires young men's dreams and middle-aged men's crises.

The band, however, is kind of awful. I mean, they can all play their instruments, but they have no soul. Which is pretty rough, considering the music is mostly a rockified interpretation of classic soul. Clarence Clemens wouldn't know a tasteful sax solo if it came up and bit him. The Brecker brothers, those mercenaries of soulless '70s studio work, are as boring and predictable as ever. Roy Bittan's keyboard performances work reasonably well, as long as you like that overblown Billy Joel style of piano playing. Max Weinberg and Little Steven are the only people who keep the E Street Band from turning into a giant sinkhole.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The music is young and hopeful, in the way that only people who don't have much hope can be hopeful. The vocals are pretty awesome, even if (or maybe because) they border on melodramatic. The individual musicians leave a lot to be desired, but they can't destroy Springsteen's energy. "Meeting Across the River" is the best example of the album's interwoven strengths and weaknesses; the musical performances are terrible, but you can picture a young Bruce nervously riding through the Holland Tunnel and wondering what waits on the other side.

Packaging: n/a (Altered by EPFL)
The original cover is superb, but it's not included here. It was nice of someone at the EPFL to photocopy the front and back, so at least we have a track listing. The version that I checked out comes with two DVDs that I didn't watch. The booklet that accompanies the CD (it's behind the counter, so you have to ask for it) contains the original (boring) liner notes from the album plus a bunch of photos. Big whoop.

Listen if you like: R&B influenced rock like old J. Geils Band, dramatic classic rock like Billy Joel, melodramatic rock like Meat Loaf, or Springsteen-influenced rock like Marah. You may be like me and not care for Born to Run, but it's ridiculous that I've been a rock fan for so long and I've never heard the whole album. Learn from my mistake. Just listen.

If it were food, it'd be: There used to be a pizza place in Jersey that everyone always talked about. They had big slices for cheap, they were open late, and they always won lots of local awards. When I finally tried a slice, the pie was decent, but the crust was limp and the sauce was kind of bland. Its reputation was definitely better than its actual flavor.


The Killers: Sam's Town

The Killers aimed for Bruce Springsteen and Queen on Sam's Town, but their arrows landed just this side of Meat Loaf.

There's a fine line between passion and melodrama. Springsteen owned his brand of working-class desperation before it became a rock stereotype, and Queen always sounded like a rock band whether they were playing arena anthems or operatic ballads. But it wasn't cheesy metaphors or layered harmonies that made The Boss and Queen so great; they were great in spite of those things. Like Meat Loaf, The Killers don't understand that.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
When The Killers try to be Springsteen, their lyrical shallowness becomes obvious, and when they try to conjure Queen, their musicianship falls flat. The greatest moments on the album come when The Killers are just ripping into a simple, upbeat pop song. In other words, the greatest moments come when The Killers sound like The Killers.

Packaging: 1 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Let's see. On the cover, we have an anonymous beauty queen whose inner ugliness is just begging to be set free, a run down trailer, and a big horn sheep. I imagine that fading beauty queens and crappy trailers are a dime a dozen in the lower-class squalor that radiates out from the Las Vegas strip (Vegas is The Killers' hometown), but the big horn sheep is the piece de resistance. When I think of Vegas desperation, the first thing that comes to mind is a big horn sheep. Not a meth lab or a pit bull or an old Monte Carlo with rusty, dented fenders, but a sheep. I actually feel kind of bad for Anton Corbijn, who had to take this ridiculous concept to fruition. His photos are gorgeous, but the context is pretty stupid.

Listen if you like: Remember when Duran Duran tried to be all serious and grown up on Notorious? If you liked that, you'll absolutely love this. Otherwise, this is good for fans of Interpol, Kaiser Chiefs, Hot Hot Heat, Metric, and all of the other new wave revivalists. Springsteen and Queen fans are better off checking out Marah and My Chemical Romance, respectively.

If it were food, it'd be: Campbell's condensed clam chowder. It's trying so hard to be serious that it almost loses it's simplistic appeal.


Brandi Carlile: The Story

In Songbook, Nick Hornby writes about a moment in Rufus Wainwright's "One Man Guy" when God makes a little cameo in the song. He (as in Hornby, not the capital-h He) is not sure if He (as in God, not the capital-h Hornby) pays a visit because maybe He hears the music from afar and wants to listen in, or because He understands what they're trying to do and wants to give them a little help; whatever the reason, God is in the song for just a moment.

When Brandi Carlile sang "All of these lines across my face tell you the story of who I am" in the last verse of the title song from The Story, I'm pretty sure that the Big Guy was in the studio with her. And while T Bone Burnett's production of The Story is superb, that must've been a humbling moment for him; somehow, winning Grammys for O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn't seem quite as impressive when compared against, say, creating the universe.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Brandi Carlile's first album made me wish that she and the Hanseroth twins (her musical partners in crime) would let go of their reservations and take some real musical risks. While The Story still doesn't fully deliver on their potential, it's a big step in right the direction. This is the kind of album that you can sit down and listen to from front to back, and when the last note of the hidden track fades away, you feel like you maybe know a tiny bit more about life than you did before you pressed play. And isn't that what great rock and encounters with God are all about?

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Altered by EPFL.)
The cover is designed to look like the cover of a weathered photo album or scrapbook, and it's a fitting (albeit overused) theme. The photos abandon the teen-popstar feel of Carlile's debut, and instead portray a sensitive yet possibly troublesome group of characters. The booklet focuses on words, but the space is effectively broken up by small woodcuts, fonts that alternate between black and maroon, and different typefaces for each song title.

Listen if you like: Jeff Buckley, Concrete Blonde, Elton John, the music on Smithsonian Folkways but you wish it were performed by rock bands.

If it were food, it'd be: fresh baked biscuits and gravy. It's a simple and honest meal that is hard to perfect. You're never quite the same after your first plate of good biscuits and gravy.


Sly and Robbie: The Dub Revolutionaries: Sly & Robbie Meet The Mad Professor Featuring Dean Fraser

There is only one thing keeping this from being an excellent dub album. It's not Mad Professor's production, which is full and thick and has none of the eardrum-shattering high end that is so often found on even the best dub records. It's not Sly's drumming, because this is some of his finest work in the past 30 years, and the decision to favor drums over drum machines was a wise one. It's not Robbie's bass, which is the epitome of sexy.

No, the only thing that drags down The Dub Revolutionaries is Dean Fraser's awful sax playing.

Now, that's not entirely fair. When Fraser plays as part of the band, like he does on "Finger on the Pulse," his decades of experience in the world of reggae shine like the sun. But as soon as his sax moves into the forefront, his lite-jazz noodling kills almost every bit of soul. (Almost. There is too much soul here for one man to kill it all.) The two songs he wrote, "Dean's Version" and "Dean's Mood," could be titled "David Sanborn's lame Version" and "Kenny G's even lamer Mood, if that's at all possible."

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Why is it that mediocre musicians always want the solos? There's no bass solo on here, and Robbie Shakespeare has more spirit in two fingers than Dean Fraser has in his whole body. As producer, Mad Professor should've recognized the problem, but he didn't. Fortunately, most of the album is devoid of Fraser's wanking. And when the musicians (including Fraser) come together under Mad Professor's watchful ear, they bond like the blood the flows through our bodies.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The design is generic and the text is difficult to read, but the three pages of interviews and history are great. Without that, the package probably would have gotten a 2.

Listen if you like: Lee Scratch Perry, King Tubby, Massive Attack's No Protection

If it were food, it'd be: Fried plantains that are partially covered by the aspartame-laden glory of sugar free cherry Jell-O.


Harry Smith: Anthology of American Folk Music

How in the world am I supposed to summarize six amazing CDs in one blog post?

Pretty much everything that has happened in American music is here in one form or another. If you're a musician or a history buff or an anthropologist, or if you simply love music, you should check this out from the EPFL. (Make sure you get the booklet from behind the desk, too.)

Checking it out won't be enough, though. I've already renewed it once, and I've barely scratched the surface. Don't check it out unless you've got 80 bucks to spare, because there's a good chance you'll end up wanting to buy it. And really, this is something that no serious music collection should be without.

It's amazing. Really. Trust me on this one.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The music on here has, directly or indirectly, influenced pretty much every modern musician. If Harry Smith hadn't put together this collection of mostly forgotten recordings and released it in 1955, pop music as we know it today would not exist. Period. That's how important this is. James Brown and Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin and Johnny Cash and Tom Waits and Beck and pretty much everyone else would have all become bankers or shopkeepers or haberdashers or something.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Harry Smith's original notes summarized each song with a single sentence, which resulted in garish headlines like "Wife's Logic Fails to Explain Strange Bedfellow to Drunkard." The notes that accompany this 1997 CD reissue aren't quite as much fun, but they are as thick as a book and fascinating to read. Best of all, they list recent versions of each song in a number of genres, so you can really dig in and learn about every piece of music on here. Again, this isn't something that can be digested in the three weeks that the EPFL gives you. Don't check this out if you're not willing to take the risk that you'll want to buy it.

Listen if you like: music and/or people

If it were food, it'd be: Water. The source of all food, and all life.