There are records that strike a mood instantly. You put them on and slip into some place totally defined by the ambience. Today’s artists are just those kind of full immersion performers.
Pearl Charles is being written up in all the usual trend setting and mainstream places. Her self-described ‘country funk’ sound is all the rage with tastemakers in the US and Europe. But she is the real deal, a performer whose songs instantly evoke any given musical moment from mid to late 1970s. I was struck by the opening of “What I Need” from her 2021 album Magic Mirror, drawn in by its smooth keyboards, unmistakable Fleetwood Mac rhythm feel, and alluring pedal steel guitar. And then there’s her light, piercing vocal style. By the chorus I was convinced this must be some kind of 1978 re-release, the track is so era-note perfect. This only seemed to be confirmed with “Slipping Away,” a more haunting hooky rock and roll number but still cast in a late 1970s register. Charles’ back catalogue is worth a listen too. I love the Abba-esque guitar shimmer on the title track from her 2018 album Sleepless Dreamer. I’m also really partial to the lead guitar riffs driving “I Ran So Far” from her 2015 self-titled debut EP. But don’t let all this retro music talk give you the wrong impression. While Charles is definitely inspired by the past, her tunes are enjoyable in the here and now.
I don’t think Lord Huron need any help from me to sell records. But I feel the need to write about their latest album Long Lost as it is quickly becoming my favourite album of 2021. The record’s first single “Not Dead Yet” caught my ear with its jaunty feel and Duane Eddy lead guitar. But as I started listening to the album as a whole I surrendered to the band’s cinematic neo-1950s musical landscape, with its dynamic emotional tension stretching between a prairie desert ennui and a honky tonk Saturday night. “Mine Forever” captures it all between the rumbly lead guitar, sweeping strings backing, and a tender, somewhat tentative vocal. The record then advances through a juxtaposition of songs and spoken word links, the latter sounding a bit like Andy Griffith’s creepy radio populist in Elia Kazan’s brilliant movie A Face in the Crowd. The guitar tones are also one of the real stars of this record. Just listen to the opening bars of “Love Me Like You Used To” to see how a delicious guitar resonance can make an already fabulous song even better. But arguably it’s the band’s talent in synthesizing so many disparate influences that makes this album such a remarkable achievement. Case study: title track “Long Lost.” The song manages to meld a very Beatles Sgt. Pepper strings section with some classic Owen Bradley plinky piano that is just so Patsy Cline. And the combo somehow works. I could go on (and on) about every other song here as the record really represents the band at the peak of their songwriting. Instead, I’ll just highlight the impressive Johnny Horton-like vocal buoyancy kicking off “Twenty Long Years,” the lovely duet on “I Lied,” and the subtle melodic hooks pulling you in on “What Do You Mean.” But you’ll have your own favourites.
Lane Steinberg is a prolific artist, literate both intellectually and musically. His records are chock full of inverted pop culture references, clever social commentary and more than little dark humour. I discovered him via his fabulous, action-packed 2018 collection Lane Steinberg and his Magical Pony, reviewed here. More recently he’s released a cool EP of Grateful Dead covers (Lane Plays Dead) and a catchy collaboration with former bandmade Steven Burdick (Wondertrack). But I’m here to rave about his recent powerful, stripped down EP The Invisible Monster. Though it’s just Steinberg’s voice and guitar, I find the record riveting. The opening cut “The Invisible Monster” oozes menace, managing to convey both fear and vulnerability. Song-structure-wise, the tune is pure Hoagy Carmichael while the lyrics might be the dark side of Johnny Mercer. The rest of the EP is mostly covers, but you’d be hard pressed to recognize them from the originals given their transformation at Steinberg’s hands. For instance, “I Talk to the Wind” is from King Crimson’s 1969 debut album but the version here emotes a spare 1950s Mel Torme yearning. In fact, all the 1960s cuts on the EP sound like they’ve been put through a Torme/Brazilian jazz filter (and that’s a good thing, in my view). The formula works on material as disparate as Bacharach and David’s Dionne Warwick hit “In Between the Heartaches,” Love’s “Andmoreagain” (from Forever Changes), and Chico Buarque’s 1966 single “Quem Te Viu, Quem Te Vê” (obviously). Steinberg has a slightly different demeanor on a touching remake of the Beach Boys “I Want To Pick You Up” (the vocal reminds of Mark Everitt’s style on his E recordings) while his run at Kurt Weil’s “Lost in the Stars” sounds like something Elvis Costello would work up. The record ends with another original, the timely Bacharach-tinged “These Ain’t Normal Times.” If you’re looking for something to accompany those dark nights of the soul, something for Sinatra’s wee small hours, spend some time with this Lane Steinberg EP. You’ll feel something. Good.
Music can be like a magic mood changer if you’ve got records like these. Visit Pearl Charles, Lord Huron, and Lane Steinberg for your non-prescription mood altering drug.