By Natalya Jones
By County Grind
By Liz Tracy
By Chris Joseph
By Liz Tracy
By Matt Preira
By Jesse Scheckner
By Michael E. Miller
When Poe's works are sung and set to music, the results aren't as successful. The musical translation of "To Helen" and "The Haunted Palace" (featuring Ed Sanders of the legendary Fugs) end up sounding overstylized. "The Haunted Palace," however, actually does benefit from a little grunge guitar (Knox Chandler).
It's hard to go wrong when paying tribute to an author such as Poe, whose crystalline language -- and ability to bleed a plot for every last drop of suspense -- remain unequaled. Yet the artists assembled here seem to have a deep reverence for Poe's work -- and that, more than anything, is what makes this compilation above average.
-- Liesa Goins
The Northeast Kingdom
The second solo album from bassist Cheri Knight leans heavily on straight-down-the-middle roots-rock that's crafted and seasoned. Along with two of her former Blood Oranges bandmates (Mark Spencer on guitar and Jimmy Ryan on mandolin), an impressive crew of musicians assists Knight with this project: Steve Earle on electric and acoustic guitars (he also coproduced the CD with Ray Kennedy), Will Rigby (onetime drummer for the dB's), Tammy Rogers (a Nashville fiddler who plays with the Dead Reckoners), and the exquisite Emmylou Harris.
The Celtic-influenced numbers "The Hatfield Side" and "Dar Glasgow" particularly stand out; the latter is especially haunting, with a harmonium washing into all the corners. The chorus of the stunning ballad "Crawling" pulls and aches, while Spencer's fierce guitar work and Rogers' no-holds-barred fiddling infuse "Sweetheart" with some lustrous musical intensity. Nevertheless, a few of the songs -- the midtempo "Roses in the Vine," the countryish "White Lies," the loping, Wilco-like pop song "Black Eyed Susie" -- stay limp. They drag along, ready but not able to catch a breeze.
One problem is Knight's voice. Although clear and steady, it's emotionally flat, and there's not much to notice in Knight's delivery. In "Crawling," Emmylou Harris sings the simple line "I'd be a fool" as if the sound of the words coming from her mouth made her flinch. But I'm not sure how Knight delivers the line, because when the two women sing it I only want to hear Harris' little heartbreak. Nothing on the rest of the album convinces me I'm making the wrong choice here.
Knight certainly knows how to write melodies, sometimes gorgeous ones. The title track is a sultry, dusky tune that alone earns Knight a special dispensation for the less interesting moments. The Northeast Kingdom is a solid disc, but it won't satiate those who like a little extravagance with their melancholy.
Downward is Heavenward
When My Bloody Valentine released Isn't Anything in 1988, it looked as though rock music would never be the same. A slow, loud, roaring, gorgeous disc with barely audible vocals drowning under an ocean of guitars, Isn't Anything was like nothing that had come before it -- and was only the precursor to My Bloody Valentine's landmark album, Loveless (1991). For lack of a better term, the band's sound was dubbed "bliss-rock," and other like-minded groups began surfacing: the Pale Saints, A.R.Kane, the Catherine Wheel, et al.
Those of us who thought this sound was both revelatory and revolutionary were disappointed when it proved to be nothing more than a limited and short-lived subgenre. Basically, there was just no competing with grunge in the early '90s, and it didn't take long for the "shoegazers," as they were scornfully called, to fade from memory.
My Bloody Valentine hasn't released a full-length CD in eight years, but the bliss-rock torch is still carried high by Hum, which formed in Champaign, Illinois, back in 1989. Downward is Heavenward, Hum's second release on RCA, is a beautiful album, highly melodic and Romantic with a capital R. Matt Talbott, on guitar and vocals, is the band's leading light, and his vision is a clear one: On every song, Bryan St. Pere (on drums) and Jeff Dimpsey (on bass) create a deep rhythmic basin that holds the swirling guitars of Talbott and Tim Lash.
The opening track, "Isle of the Cheetah," sets the standard for the rest of the album, with its gentle/brutal passages and Talbott's earnest young voice. The main difference between Hum and past bliss-rockers is that Talbott wants his lyrics heard. They don't make any apparent sense, but they add to the music's high-revving emotional quality. On "Comin' Home," Talbott laments: "Clearly in this afternoon/Clearly we will have to turn/ And come home soon." It's not the words but the somber tone of Talbott's voice that makes the chorus so affecting.
Hum does shoegaze here and there, and some of the songs fidget too long before getting started. There's a particularly poignant chord that graces "If You Are to Bloom," but it doesn't come until the song is halfway over. The midtempo "Ms. Lazarus" barely gets off the ground at all. Still, the lunging guitars on "Isle of the Cheetah" and "Green to Me" provide quite a rush. At this rate Hum may be able to keep bliss-rock alive until it comes back in fashion.
-- Rafer Guzman