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March 25, 2008

CD Reviews for 3-26

S/TThe Health & Happiness Family Gospel Band(SELF-RELEASED)One listen to the debut album from the Health & Happiness Family Gospel Band makes you want to throw your arms into the air and repent; further listens take the listener deeper into the inspiration and energy that went into this recording, as well as the sincerity that went into creating these songs in the first place. Hell, it might just save your musical soul.Delivering traditional gospel tunes with guitars and rocking arrangements really needed to be done, and this group of nine Louisville musicians has done it with grace and aplomb. Consider as evidence a warm and rocked-up take on Hank Williams’ “Calling You,” the moving vocal delivery on the standard “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” — followed by the driving version of Thomas Dorsey’s “I’m Going to Live the Life” — and the case is closed. The variety of voices and players who appear on the recording add to the depth and diversity that will engage your ears and resurrect your affection for this musical style. Plus, man, what meeeaan guitar licks on the gospel standard “What He Done For Me.”These guys hail from a number of different Louisville bands — none of them gospel in nature — including Bad Blood (garage rock), the Hello Darlins (traditional country and bluegrass), Adventure (indie rock), Yardsale (alt-country), the Smacks! (garage punk) and others. What’s more, Health & Happiness has been packing houses with its tent-revival-on-steroids live shows. Gospel meets guitars? Have mercy. —Kevin GibsonFunplexThe B-52s(ASTRALWERKS)After a 16-year recording absence, the B-52s finally step into the new millennium. Last go-round, Cindy Wilson had bailed and drummer-turned-guitarist Keith Strickland was just starting to exert himself as musical director.Now the classic triple-vocalist exchanges are back, and Strickland is composing tunes that start out with Keith Richards-style riffs and turn into synth-burbling beat-landscapes.It’s mostly good news. The songs are tight, and Fred/Kate/Cindy are generally in superb shape when it comes to lyrics and voice. One unfortunate is over-the-top lasciviousness — even after Fred Schneider caps the brilliant anti-consumerism title track by warning There’s too much sex! Opener “Pump” and the outrageous “Ultraviolet” (There’s a rest stop/Let’s hit the g-spot) had already indulged as far as necessary — that is, unless you want one of those four-hour erections the pharmaceutical industry warns about. Producer Steve Osborne (who revived New Order in similar fashion) helps make this a listenable dance-party. But no musical storm clouds materialize to threaten that instrumental breaks or “Oooo-waaa” vocals might kidnap a track; the safe predictability is a trifle sad. —T.E. LyonsThe Good LifeJustin Townes Earle(BLOODSHOT)Earle’s first full-length album for Bloodshot boasts tasteful production, thoughtful lyrics and a solid assortment of Americana music. Of course, it isn’t really shocking that folk, old-school country, hillbilly blues and early rock ’n’ roll inform this rising star. He is, after all, the son of hardcore troubadour Steve Earle. Still, it is to the younger Earle’s credit that he was obviously paying as much attention to the old man’s influences as he was Elliott Smith or the Replacements.What is remarkable about this set is the timeless quality of these 10 songs written by such a young man. But saying that Earle has classic sensibilities is not to say that he is unoriginal. Rather, it speaks to his emerging strength as a songwriter that Earle’s work readily transcends genres and eras.Besides a convincing Civil War ballad (“Lone Pine Hill”), most of The Good Life sounds like it could’ve come straight out of Hank Williams’, Jimmy Rogers’ or even Bruce Springsteen’s repertoire.But it didn’t. It came from a youthful rambler with a cool voice and a very bright future. —Kevin M. Wilson13 Blues For 13 MoonsThee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band(CONSTELLATION)The band name is a mouthful, but wading through their latest album is nearly as exhausting. 13 Blues for 13 Moons is the fourth from Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band, the latest incarnation of Efrim Menuck’s (Godspeed! You Black Emperor) grandiose side project.    The lyrics are bleak at best and apocalyptic at worst. Herein lies the problem. When you drown fairly consequential lyrics in 14 or 15 minutes of musical experimentation, the words themselves become irrelevant. They lose any sense of urgency to the meandering musical labyrinth this record is often resigned to. It is distracting and nearly impossible to discern the singer’s intentions when you’re constantly put in turnaround for several minutes by another instrumental interlude.    The songs “1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound,” “Black Waters Bowed/Engine Broke Blues,” “BLINDBLINDBLIND” and the title track are sonically inventive and genuinely unique but somehow uninspired. Next time, I would advise either hiring an editor while they’re in the studio and shooting for lyrical depth, or retaining the indulgent song lengths and simply recording an instrumental album. When you try co-mingling the two, it falls flat and feels disingenuous. —Brent OwenA Mad and Faithful TellingDeVotchKa(ANTI)Gypsy-inspired music has gotten more than its fair share of attention in recent years. From Beirut to Kocani Orkestar, the melancholy brass instruments and wavering vocals of Eastern Europe have been spreading like wildfire through the ranks of indie rock bands everywhere.One often-overlooked purveyor of such sounds is the Denver-based four-man band, DeVotchKa. Although their inclusion on the “Everything is Illuminated” soundtrack should have gathered more attention for their highly original brand of orkestar-pop, they remain relatively obscure.Their sixth album, A Mad and Faithful Telling, offers more of the sound their fanbase loves, but with a few significant twists not found in past records. The vocals are clearer, some Spanish influences can be heard (the guitar in “Head Honcho” is very Castilian), and there’s even more glockenspiel than in previous albums. On the whole, though, A Mad and Faithful Telling is something that new listeners will enjoy and old listeners will be satisfied with. —Kirsten SchofieldVolume OneShe & Him(MERGE)I think few records this year will be as sweetly charming as the debut effort from She & Him, indie film princess Zooey Deschanel and singer-songwriter extraordinaire M. Ward’s collaborative effort.I confess it took me a few listens to warm up to this record, but Volume One will be perfect for those happy spring days when the sun is high and you’re rolling through back roads with the top down. The songs deliver a retro pop (that’s sometimes country) feeling with delicate harmonies and lushly spare (that’s probably an oxymoron) production courtesy of Mr. Ward.The record’s mix of Deschanel-penned offerings with classic covers like Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and a pedal steel infused version of The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” pulls this debut together quite nicely.Each song is a little gem with “This is not a Test” and “Sentimental Heart” pushing their way forward as standouts.  We should all be glad that him encouraged she to share her songs with us. —L. Park