Frank Frost & Sam Carr
The Jelly Roll Kings
Modern blues musicians have a formidable challenge before them: to bring a fresh sound to a style of music that is formulaic by definition and has been exploited by American pop culture (in the form of rock 'n' roll) for decades. The opportunities to whip off dime-a-dozen guitar licks are plentiful in the well-known chord cycles that make up most blues songs. So it's difficult for a blues musician to avoid copping a Mississippi Delta or Chicago style of playing and play something that is convincingly heartfelt.
When Frank Frost and Sam Carr -- the Jelly Roll Kings -- play the blues, it's undeniably heartfelt. There's no way they could fake it; they've been playing together for 42 years, which nearly makes them founding fathers of the blues tradition. (Their only predecessors are originators such as Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.) Frost and Carr play basic blues forms, but they do it with such vigor and excitement that it's anything but cliched.
On their latest CD, The Jelly Roll Kings, Frost (lead vocal, harmonica, and piano) and Carr (drums) display the most seasoned of blues chops. But the work is not a parade of musical technique. Frost and Carr dig into the grooves of each song, coaxing chord changes with harmonica slides and fluid guitar lines. And it all hangs on the backbone of Carr's drumming, filled with sharp snare drum downbeats and a thumping bass drum.
The CD begins appropriately with a foot-stomper, "Let's Go Out Tonight," in which Frost's harmonica wails alongside Fred James' moaning slide guitar. The Jelly Roll Kings throw in a variety of songs honoring their Mississippi Delta roots. There's also a handful of upbeat house-rockers ("Will It Be You") and a few brooding dirges ("Sittin' on Daddy's Knee").
Natives of Helena, Arkansas, The Jelly Roll Kings recorded this CD in their hometown, at the Sonny Boy Williamson Memorial Hall near the barrelhouses and juke joints where Howlin' Wolf, Houston Stackhouse, and others used to play. This location is particularly meaningful for the Jelly Roll Kings; during the '50s they worked as Sonny Boy Williamson's backing band.
As their heritage would suggest, the Jelly Roll Kings play authentic blues. But it's made abundantly clear on The Jelly Roll Kings that they're not limited by tradition in the least.
-- Daniel Lovering
Without You I'm Nothing
Taking its cues from the prog-rock and postpunk movements, Placebo is precise and melodramatic, egotistical and theatrical. The trio, led by androgynous, bisexual singer-guitarist Brian Molko, is given toward making narcissistic statements that the band's music doesn't quite live up to. The band members are British, so it's no surprise that they proclaim themselves the greatest band in the world, but ignoring the group's arrogance makes for a more enjoyable listen. Without You I'm Nothing, Placebo's second record, is an album full of sorrow and regret, inspiring empathy and pity as well.
The lead track and first single, "Pure Morning," combines aggressively droning guitars with insistent industrial-lite percussion, which bolsters Molko's whiningly chanted proclamations such as, "A friend in need's a friend indeed/A friend who'll tease is better." The Dr. Seuss-ian wordplay doesn't delve very deep, and though the three-note vocal melody isn't without charm, the song belongs to drummer Steve Hewitt. His thudding, rock/ heavy-dance hybrid beat rarely changes, rarely takes a fill; instead it's a rock-steady wall of consistency that supports and occupies the songs without intruding. The verses in "Morning" are catchy because of the way Molko draws out the words; he seems to be singing a lot faster than he really is. The chorus, in turn, has a short, simple melody and knows enough to stay out of the way. The effect is a marriage of new wave and industrial pop, heady and heavy.
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Most of the tracks on Nothing tackle themes of broken hearts, broken relationships, and people too messed up to see that their relationships are the least of their problems. "Brick Shithouse" is a spooky ghost story in which the murdered narrator watches his lover have sex with his killer. The fact that the song is performed with punkish glee and played with a sloppy, reckless abandon by Hewitt only adds to the creepiness. The symbolism is pretty obvious, but Placebo's melodrama is far more interesting than the direct "I hate your new boyfriend, he makes me wish I were dead" sentiment most bands employ.
Placebo constructs a twisted world made bearable by the trio's delicate touch on lighter songs and its convincing ability to wring angst and outright anger from every note when the songs need more assault. "You Don't Care About Us" contrasts both elements in its quiet verse/loud chorus song structure. Stefan Olsdal channels mid-'80s postpunk, playing bass chords on top of Hewitt's straightforward, bouncy drums, and soon the heart of the beast is revealed: The band accelerates into the overdriven guitars of the chorus as Molko vacantly declares the song's title. Unfortunately Molko's voice is an acquired taste, and the morose atmosphere doesn't make for everyday listening. But Without You I'm Nothing is striking because it flaunts its heartache without irony.
-- David Simutis
Placebo will perform with Stabbing Westward on Friday, March 5, at the Button South, 100 Ansin Blvd., Hallandale, 954-454-3301. Doors open at 6 p.m.