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September & October Short Takes

Joel Hoekstra "13 Acoustic Songs," 2007 Joel Hoekstra doesn't try to do a solo thing on "13 Acoustic Songs," instead going for an ensemble feel with layers of bass, percussion, keyboards, and even cello and accordion. This is Hoekstra's third CD, and the songs are all nice melodies with some fine accents. His list of credits is substantial, so he's developed some good ears that inform his playing and arrangements, even though he's known more as an electric guitarist. "Open, says G." is a delightful gem that twists enough to keep your attention. "Late Night Magic" features a simple melody (all the songs are really accessible, with little in the way of speed), aided by Tim Lefebvre's fretless bass work. "Almond Brook" is a rolling folk song with overlayed harmony lines to accent the melody. "3 Trees" has images of James Taylor's better songs -- catchy, clean, with the right guitar parts in place. "Nepal" pushes a few more exotic aural boundaries, and features more prominent percussion to help drive the chordal background. These are solid, well-constructed songs played with skill and some fine arranging. A good acoustic outing for Mr. Hoekstra. © Kirk Albrecht

TrueHeart "The Road," 2007 Decidedly and unabashedly mainstream, TrueHeart, aka singer-songwriter Ross Vick and whoever is backing him up, actually lists Christopher Cross as an influence on his MySpace page. That takes cajones. He is a mid-life career-changer from Texas -- now off the corporate merry-go-round-who has a voice that could be twenty-two. It is pristine, pop-ready, without a trace of the passing years that must have threatened to bury him. They haven't. Instead of fronting a corporate logo band, he is placing songs, opening for the Beach Boys and racking up chart stats on several fronts. What a freaking late bloomer. You've gotta hear his "Save Me" for its sheer Adult Contemporary "dare ya" indulgence, like Bacharach on testosterone. He sports a bit of Fogelberg's earnestness and Marshall Crenshaw's enthusiasm. And yes, I admit, I do hear a bit of Christopher Cross in the mix. © Steve Klingaman

Leroy Bell "A Change is Coming," 2008 Not exactly on the heels of his 2003 solo debut, "Spending Time," "A Change is Coming" has been a long time coming. Bell evidently learned well from his not-so-famous but well-recorded uncle, Thom Bell (Gamble/Huff), because LeRoy scored very big, very early, co-writing hits for the Temptations, the O'Jays and Elton John. What's he got now? He grabs you by the throat from the beautiful opening track, "The Way That I Feel Now," and doesn't let go. A voice of whisky, sandpaper and honey bespeaks two rarities: real roots, real soul. It's Muscle Shoals, 1968, all over again. As Bruce is to Jersey, Bell is to his own private state of mind. Check it out -- if only to hear "Everybody," six minutes in the heart of rock 'n soul. © Steve Klingaman

The Sacred Shakers, 2008 "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" 1971's reverential take on old time and country, proved a revelation for the back-to-the-land hippies who got hold of it. They found themselves enjoying the music without regard to the politics they associated with it. With their eponymous release, the Sacred Shakers (Eilen Jewel's band, Eilen and friends) have done something similar with country gospel. They've taken tunes by Hank Williams ("Are You Walkin' and A' Talkin'") and George Jones ("Taggin Along with Jesus") and traditional songs associated with the likes of Flatt and Scruggs ("Prayer Bells of Heaven) and Blind Willie Johnson ("John the Revelator") and revived the swing and sense of pure joy that was in the music all along. With equal parts reverence and great picking, this loosey-goosey affair can be enjoyed with or without regard to its spiritual origins. Pick up your tambourine and get a hold of the most exuberant set of music of the summer. L'chaim! © David Kleiner

Miracle Mile, "Coffee and Stars," 2008 "Coffee and Stars," is a compilation of 18 tracks drawn from this U.K. band's seven previous albums dating from 1997 -- a generous sampler of a body of work that is remarkably coherent over time. Miracle Mile is mostly singer Trevor Jones and multi-instrumentalist and co-writer Marcus Cliff. They are serious students of the recording process, creating finely-honed sonic gems that are synthesized with great care and attention to detail. Jones is a fine vocalist who puts across these epistles from the romantic rockpile with extreme professionalism. If you put them on a grid between, say, Al Stewart, and Lucinda Williams, they would be way, way, over on the Stewart side of the chart. Is it slick? Yes. But it's also heartfelt-manna for romantics everywhere. There is a lot to choose from here, but a sampling of compelling tracks includes "Weatherize," "Simplicity," and "Alaska." If you like your pop with polish and panache, these could be your new Brit heroes. © Steve Klingaman

Frevo Quartet, "Histoire du Tango," 2008 Long story short: About 100 years ago Spanish and Italian fishermen migrated to Buenos Aires. They worked hard by day and partied even harder by night. Hence the "tango" dance evolved from the fierce competition between the numerous males in the bordellos and the few women available. Sound familiar? Judging from this collection of tantalizing tango tunes, composed by Astor Piazolla (1921-1992) and rendered by the Frevo Quartet (Aisling Agnew/flute, Feargus Hetherington/violin, Matthew McAllister/guitar, Douglas Whates/bass) I'm sure the dames went home with the musicians. The brilliance in this collection emanates from the brisk and intuitive interplay between all the players. Guitarists will revel in McAllister's exquisite runs and his accompaniment to Agnew and Hetherington's melodies which draw from a wide arsenal of techniques (singular lines, arpeggios, harmonics etc.). Whates' acoustic bass is majestic in its harmonic simplicity and bubbling rhythm -- bass players seeking a classy approach to playing folk/pop should take notice. For folk guitarists and acoustic ensembles yearning to add flavor to their set list, "Historie de Tango" is essential for material and new ideas. And you'll impress women... which is why we learned to play guitar in the first place! © Tom Semioli

The Shady Grove Band "Back in Circulation," 2008 "Back in Circulation" hits the bluegrass highpoints. There's Bill Monroe's gospel "The Old Cross Roads" and his swing tune, "Dark as the Night." Guest fingerpicker and writer, Tommy Edwards, brightens "Sweet Home in Dixieland," the sentimental paean to the South. Charles Pettee's mandolin gets in some nice licks as well. The title track opens, a humorous she-done-me-wrong song, introducing the band with a tuneful banjo, sweet chorus harmonies, and a nifty solo trade-off from banjo to fiddle and, later, from fiddle to banjo. Special kudos to guest fiddler Nicky Sanders who approaches every tune he's on with confidence and imaginative solos. The unexpected cover entry is Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings." Brown's ominous guitar triplets lead to an extensive revision of the song, including a chorus using the original's refrain. Brown's attack on the guitar is buzzsaw vicious. The instrumental "Gracie," featuring only the core band, showcases their picking. The Shady Grove Band, going strong for over twenty-five years, has never been out of circulation. But, on their second self-released disc since leaving Flying Fish, the band is back from somewhere with a wide-ranging and pleasing record. © David Kleiner

Sal Casabianca, "Shell Games," 2008 At first listen this seems like a light pop/rock offering centered around his masterful guitar work but skip to the last couple of songs and you'll hear something deeper. It's not that the band isn't capable -- they showcase his tunes well, from the pop/rock of "No Friends" to the harder edged "Tell Me Where." "The Way Back Home" is a quieter tune, imploring us not to forget our way home, but like the other earlier cuts, it's driven by a percussion section. He starts most of the songs with a catchy guitar riff and while they're creative and well-played, they're sometimes overused. The real gems, like I mention above, are the last two songs where it's just his guitar and vocal. The first, "Cruising Humvee Paradise" sounds like he's playing a Dobro (though it could be effects-laden electric) and wow, he blazes through some great blues licks. I'd love to hear him dig into some Robert Johnson. The last song, a grim comment about addiction, has some fine guitar work too. © Jamie Anderson

Alma Nova, "Classic Guiliani," 2008 Alva Nova's second release, "Classical Guiliani," offers masterful interpretations of the late Italian guitar virtuoso's enduring work. Alva Nova is an innovative duo consisting of American flutist Jessica Pierce and Bosnian guitarist Almer Imamovic. Both musicians are classically trained and faithfully perform Guiliani's cannon with both grace and passion. Jessica Pierce's virtuosic flute is prominently featured throughout this recording. Her rich, warm intonation draws the listener deeper into each composition. Imamovic's supportive pianistic approach is also noteworthy, providing an excellent backdrop for his partner's melodic cadenzas. The guitarist also creates intricate rhythmic patterns and dazzling solo flights demonstrating a solid fluency on his instrument. Together the two eloquently produce impeccable performances of classical music which are sure to please even the most discerning listeners of this genre. © James Scott

Here's some other great music we received this month:

Roland Chadwick - Freedom Dreamer
The Furious Seasons
Doug Jayne - Voices in the Wind
The Giving Tree Band - Unified Folk Theory
The Willows - See You Next April
Andrew Corbett - Out Into the Dance
Michael Young - Parallel Play
Rocketship Park - Off & Away
Brindl - Acoustic Heart
Maximilian Eubank - 10:00 in the Afternoon
Kole - Exile
Dan Manjovi - Woke Up this Morning


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