Over three decades of work, Cindy Bullens has perfected the tough-tender, country-rock hybrid sound; by now, she's such an American tomboy that on her latest album she even sings about -- and with -- a baseball hero.
On the rollicking "7 Days," the 52-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist recalls being left at home, too young, when Ted Williams came to town. She gets from "Well, he died today / I never saw him play" to "But I'm gonna see my baby in 7 days" through passion rather than logic, but that's okay; she achieves a sort of thematic unity by bringing in Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield to sing backup.
Clearly, Bullens enjoys hanging out with musical pals, too: Delbert McClinton shows up for the masochistic swamp-rocker "This Ain't Love" ("This ain't love / You've taken me hostage"), and Elton John, with whom Bullens got her music-biz break as a backing vocalist, gets to play honorary American via his barrelhouse piano on the glossily bluesy road trip "Dream #29 (One True Love)." These aren't novelty cameos or bolsters to buck up a lesser singer; their contributions -- yes, even Wakefield's just-evocative-enough monotone -- flourish organically in this accomplished collection.
Producer Ray Kennedy, a Steve Earle collaborator, is mindful of distinctive touches such as Bullens's Mellotron on the sensuous "Oriental Silk" and the itchy burst of electronica that opens "Dream #29." There's much here for fans of McClinton, Earle, Melissa Etheridge and Lucinda Williams to enjoy. If "Dream #29" doesn't pull Bullens from obscurity in this age of alt-country and strong female vocals, she'll just have to continue lending guts and grace to the world of the critic's darling.
-- Pamela Murray Winters
CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
It's somehow not surprising that this year's hipster sweethearts, Brooklyn's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, greatly resemble last year's model, the Arcade Fire. Both bands feature frontmen who sound like more excitable, higher-pitched versions of David Byrne. Both are fond of dense, inscrutable wordplay and of the extravagant flourish -- in CYHSY's case, this means a reliance upon the sort of Waitsian carnival riffs that have become a shorthand signifier of indie-rock whimsy.
But although the Arcade Fire offset its occasional preciousness with some of the most moving and intimate songs in recent memory, CYHSY's self-titled, self-released debut is more concerned with style for style's sake. It's a solid, perfectly pleasant offering that cribs from the best of late '70s art rock, early '80s New Wave and '90s post-folk but doesn't offer much new.
Constructed mostly around synthesizers, harmonicas and clattering guitars, "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah" has an air of pained self-consciousness masquerading as ironic distance, thanks in no small part to Alec Ounsworth's mostly indecipherable vocals. There are samplings of subverted pop (briskly paced, shored up by a cheery, galloping bass, "Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away" sounds like the best Big Country song ever), almost-folk ("Blue Turning Gray") and convulsive post-punk (the great, magisterially weird "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood").
Currently buffeted by the sort of hype not seen since, um, the last band from Brooklyn, CYHSY won't survive it unless it can muster up more in the way of either lyricism or novelty. "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah" offers a little bit of both, but not enough of either.
-- Allison Stewart