In the movies, encroaching middle age often means the end of a career, especially for women. In music, however, age can convey character and authority, and offers endless opportunities for creative renewal. Had Amy Rigby not hit 40, had she never been divorced, had she not been forced to balance her career as a musician with raising a daughter alone (let alone dipping her toes back into the dating pool), the world would have missed out on one of rock's most distinctive and consistently excellent songwriters.
Since her 1996 breakout solo album "Diary of a Mod Housewife," Rigby has embraced the kinds of personal setbacks and frustrations others tend to deny, and her fifth album is no different. "I'm like Rasputin, I get back up again," she quips on "Like Rasputin," the lead track. Whether pondering the disturbing fact that she actually likes her new husband's ex-wife on "The Trouble With Jeanie" ("I even tried to hate her," Rigby sings) or putting a positive spin on the death of an idol ("Dancing With Joey Ramone"), her songs are funny without being silly, rooted in the mundane but elevated by little details that bear the familiar and frank hallmarks of truth.
Who knows if the resonant soulmate sentiments of "That's the Time" or the rueful "Girls Got It Bad" (featuring Rigby's former Shams band mates on backing vocals) are autobiographical or merely based loosely on experience. It makes no difference, since at their most hilarious or heartbreaking, Rigby makes them seem real. They're like mirrors held up for singer and listener to share, carefully polished to reflect everyday life (and all its wrinkles) as clearly as possible.
-- Joshua Klein
Amy Rigby is scheduled to appear at Jammin' Java on Oct. 7.
If country duo Hanna-McEuen sound especially assured on their self-titled debut, consider their pedigree: Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen are the sons of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founders Jeff Hanna and John McEuen and the twin sisters they married. The cousins grew up together and have been playing music since they were kids, and though "Hanna-McEuen" is their first full-length release -- the pair's only previous professional collaboration was a cover of "Lowlands" for their dads' 30th anniversary record -- it boasts a sound that seems honed over a couple of decades and many, many bad relationships.
With their tight harmonies and dual guitars, the duo's parental influence is obvious on twangier tracks such as "Wild Eyes of Love" and "Tell Me." But NGDB isn't the only act that comes to mind during "Hanna-McEuen," which plays like a 43-minute retrospective of roots rock: The melancholy "Read Between the Lies" and "Prayer for You" recall the Eagles' bittersweet melodies, while "Is It Only Me" would be right at home on a Chris Isaak album (especially because of the eerily similar vocals, which makes the first line, "Do you ever hear someone that sounds like me?," an unintended laugh).
The duo share writing credits on all of the album's 12 tracks, and though they lyrically lean toward cheap wordplay a la "caught between a rock and a heartache" and she-done-me-wrong sentiments, many of the songs themselves are as catchy as the classics they emulate. In fact, a line from first single "Something Like a Broken Heart" sums up "Hanna-McEuen" best: "It's a little like an old sad song," the pair croon. "It kills you, but you sing along."
-- Tricia Olszewski
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club broke onto the scene five years ago, generating quite a buzz -- both with its guitars and with the rock critic intelligentsia. The West Coast trio reintroduced droney, shoe-gazer sensibilities (a la the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Stone Roses) to the neo-garage-rock set, grafting their reverb-laden racket to their smoky, leather-clad image.
With its third effort, "Howl," the Club departs from that blustery past by taking a confident step into Americana-inspired pastures. The 13-track album is rife with unplugged jingle-jangles, gritty harmonica blasts and a near-overdose of Johnny Cash-worthy lyrical musings on jail, Jesus, desperation and the Devil. These developments are far from revelatory in and of themselves, but the stripped-down approach seems to have created a path for the band to finally stumble into some good hooks.
Both the title track and "Weight of the World" blossom with somber U2-esque choruses, while "Devil's Waitin' " and "Restless Sinner" evoke the dusky pang of Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" days. "Sympathetic Noose" finds the BRMC at its most distinctive, spilling a stylized Brit-pop sneer over a subtle and delicious mesh of acoustic strumming, guitar-effect washes and trippy drum cadences. It's the sound of a band putting its best foot forward on unfamiliar terrain.
-- Chris Richards
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is scheduled to appear Sept. 28 at the 9:30 club.