RECORDINGS : Quick Spins

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Phil Vassar

Singer-songwriter-pianist Phil Vassar, who grew up in Lynchburg, Va., has been kicking around Nashville for a dozen years, writing country smashes for other artists (Jo Dee Messina, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson) while staking out his own semi-successful solo career. But on his fourth album, Vassar, 43, sounds decidedly Midwestern, crafting a collection of unfussy heartland rock whose sound owes more to Bob Seger and John Mellencamp than to any denizens of Music Row.

Some of the tropes are straight out of the Seger-Mellencamp playbook, too. In album opener "This Is My Life," for instance, Vassar plays a frustrated American Everyman, singing: "Sticking it to the middle class/Well they can kiss my price of gas."

In the title track, Vassar (who had a hand in writing 10 of the album's 12 songs) turns a clever phrase about financial struggle: "My little girl needed braces, man, and it cost a couple thousand bucks/She's got a beautiful smile, but it'll be a while/Or my new-used pickup truck." Wistful if cliched rocker "My Chevrolet" is a flashback to better times.

There are love songs, too -- or, more accurately, songs about broken relationships, a nod to Vassar's divorce filing last year. "We never miss a cue, but it's a passionless walk-through," he sings in the up-tempo rocker, "Around Here Somewhere." In "I Would," over a swirl of fiddles, steel guitar and piano, he wishes aloud for a do-over. "Let Me Love You Tonight" is a bereft, pleading ballad.

"It's Only Love" is a standout that matches Beach Boys harmonizing with a chord progression from the old Motown hit "You're All I Need to Get By" as Vassar amusingly and unsuccessfully tries to sing himself out of his funk.

Still, he can sound sweet when he wants to, as on "Love Is a Beautiful Thing," a soulful wedding ballad written by Nashville heavyweights Craig Wiseman and Jeffrey Steele. A little bit country, a little bit rock-and-roll, it's already a big hit -- suggesting that in country music, the sound matters less than the song itself.

-- J. Freedom du Lac

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Love Is a Beautiful Thing," "It's Only Love"


Billy Bragg

Gas prices are out of control, the war in Iraq seems endless, recession looms and Billy Bragg, one of the most radical singer-songwriters of the 1980s, opens his latest album with a lighthearted pop song that promises: "If your plans have come to nothing/Washed out in the rain/Let me rekindle all your hopes and help you start again." It's schmaltzy but sort of perfect, too. Bragg gets to the righteous anger eventually, but the hopeful, comforting opener, "I Keep Faith," sets precisely the right tone.

It makes sense that Bragg would cram the words "love" and "justice" into his album title. He began his career as a Woody Guthrie descendant with a Cockney accent and pointed protest songs like "Help Save the Youth of America," but over the years Bragg has taken pains to show he can write love songs just as well. On this album he displays both sides: In "O Freedom," he sings as a mistreated prisoner in the post-Patriot Act world; in "Something Happened," he muses about the real meaning of love. It's interesting that he performs "O Freedom" almost as a hymn, but cranks up the rock-and-roll on "Something Happened," surrounding its chorus with screaming blues harp.

At age 50, Bragg has added a sort of world-weary reflection to his vocal repertoire. As the title track, which bemoans an unfair breakup, brings the album's two themes together, Bragg sounds neither overly romantic nor overly strident. He's merely easy to listen to.

-- Steve Knopper

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Something Happened," "The Johnny Carcinogenic Show," "O Freedom"


Lyrics Born

Attention music festival organizers: Although Berkeley, Calif.-based Lyrics Born always fits the bill when a big outdoor concert needs a fun, crowd-pleasing rapper, the guy needs a break from the junket. From the sound of his new album, "Everywhere at Once," he has been picking up strange habits. The album contains good, solid party jams (simple lyrics, sunny instrumentals and sung hooks) that would go over well at Bonnaroo or Coachella, but it feels like too much of a peppy departure for the emcee.

Lyrics Born enlisted live musicians for the disc rather than recycling the gangsta-funk samples many West Coast rappers love, but the band's idea of funky often veers into wedding band territory. Funk-lite tracks "I Like It, I Love It" and "Hott 2 Deff" don't measure up to Lyrics Born's funk/hip-hop underground classics "Callin' Out" and "I Changed My Mind."

Other music-fest-inspired oddities include forays into reggae-ish rhythms ("Top Shelf [Anything U Want]," "Is It the Skin I'm In?") and the new wave track "Do U Buy It?," which has Lyrics Born giving a Fred Schneider impersonation.

LB is a lot more compelling when he leaves the party and turns his gravelly, California-accented voice to more serious topics. "Whispers" is a wrenching, detailed account of the death of the emcee's best friend Benjamin Davis, better known as the rapper and radio jock Mack B. Dogg. And the fact that the moving tribute would sound out of place at a concert filled with people lying on blankets and sipping beer is not necessarily a bad thing.

-- Sarah Godfrey


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