The Parting Gifts – Strychnine Dandelion

Rating: ★★★★☆

It’s not like Greg Cartwright is new to the game of rock n’ roll, but he manages to continuously add the tiniest tweaks to his sound, crafting solid album after album.  This time around, we find Greg joined by Coco Hames of the Ettes to form The Parting Gifts.  Their new release, Strychnine Dandelion, is all over the map, but it lives in a place of nostalgic sound, harkening back to the 60s, twisted through a bit of gritty garage influences.

Pressing play on this LP will probably excite you, as it should, but don’t let “Keep Walkin” fool you.  Jangling garage pop with a catchy chorus definitely makes this song a winner, yet you’ll find that as the record unfolds this song is sort of a one-off, as its the most modern sounding track on Strychnine Dandelion.  Still, the more you proceed with your listening, the more other gems will unfold before you.

Cartwright channels his inner Tom Waits on “Strange Disposition” scratching at his throat to release his vocals over the piano-laden track.  As the guitar drifts in and out of focus, you clearly get the sense that Greg’s in full control of his gifts at this point in his career.  “Shine” really wins you over with the couplet of “I’ve been saving my best lines/for when her eyes meet mine.”  Sonically, the song definitely gives a nostalgic nod to classic country-tinged rock of yesteryear.  Guitar soloing adds an extra bit of class to the track as well.

Let’s not forget that Coco Hames plays the foil to Cartwright in The Parting Gifts. Abundant nostalgia leads to the group to calling upon the girl-group sound during “Born to be Blue.”  It’s a subdued track, with the focus on Hames as she finally takes the lead all on her own, while Gret coos some monosyllabic sounds in the background. She furthers this sound on “Sleepy City” where her pitch definitely has a sultry innocence that makes the tinkering piano seem obsolete, instead letting the listener be drawn in by her voice, which has hints of a classier Neko Case. We shouldn’t forget that her role throughout Strychnine Dandelion also works great juxtaposed against Greg’s.

The closing moments of Strychnine Dandelion don’t make following the musical shifts less enjoyable. The records title track, “Strychnine Dandelion” has a twirling in the clouds arrangement, using strings to further the sound of The Parting Gifts, while that tiny hint of piano allows Cartwright to control his slight warble to great effect.  And then Coco returns to close it all out for us with “This House Aint a Home.”  She’s got a bit more of a country chanteuse on this number, once again displaying the band’s ability to wander all over the map, musically speaking.  Up to this point, the band has covered a great deal of territory, from country rocker to barroom ditty to garage pop, giving us all a bit of everything we love, in both current and past sounds.  That factor, along with the fact that they offer up 15 tracks, allows listeners to traverse the annals of musical history, done to perfection by The Parting Gifts.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/partinggiftskeepwalkin.mp3]

Download: The Parting Gifts – Keep Walkin [MP3]

FT5: Songs About Heading West

Summertime is vacation time. Roadtrip time. So sweaty you stick to your chair my God why don’t I live in a more temperate climate time. So where do you go at a time like this? “California! Californiaaaaaa! Here we COOOOOOOOMMMMME!” Excuse me. I believe I slipped into the theme song of the O.C. for a moment. I thought about making every track on this list “California” by Phantom Planet, but I’m fairly certain I am the only one who would think that is funny. So instead, here a legit list of songs about heading out west. Enjoy.

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Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter

Richard-Hawley-Trueloves-Gutter-483869Rating: ★★★★½

After he released Lady’s Bridge, it seemed that the British crooner Richard Hawley could do no wrong with me.  As the release drew near for Truelove’s Gutter, I wasn’t quite sure what I expected from this new record.  Would it be similar to his previous work, or would he branch out into a new direction, much as his friend Jarvis Cocker has done?

Well, as the odd soundscape opening of “As the Dawn Breaks” began, I will say that anxiety crept into my throat.  Sure, this dabbling in sonic structuralism was indeed a new direction, but from a man who has blanketed his albums with lush orchestration, it seemed a step too far off.  Still, as the song progressed, the music almost loses its focus, bring Hawley’s throaty baritone to the forefront. Perhaps this is where the album would go?

When “Open Up Your Door” came on, you could hear the instrumentation that so often backs Richard, although it seemed to be in the distance here, that is until the slow drum work came into the picture.  It’s at this point that I found Hawley completely stepping into the role of a modern-day Leonard Cohen. You hang on every syllable, on every gentle note; and eventually, it all breaks into the dense orchestral movement you would expect.

It seems fitting to me that this record was already causing me to waiver on my decision to love this album or not.  Richard Hawley is not a taste for everyone, though surely everyone can find beauty in his voice, which sounds as guttural as anything you’re likely to find out there.  Perhaps the way the instruments traipse about, barely catching your attention until the song requires them to do so, seems striking to most. Almost unimportant. But, how can such songs evoke so much emotional toll on a listener?  It made Cohen great. It made, for some, Waits a classic.  Surely Richard Hawley will find his place, though his lyrics are that of the forlorn lover.

And so it went, to the point where I arrived at “Remorse Code,” the second longest song on Truelove’s Gutter. How does a nine minute long ballad capture you, wrap you around its finger, and throw you upon its back until the end. Listening to the subtle guitar work, I found no answer, only that I adored this song absolutely, as I adore the man singing the words.  I didn’t have to go far, one song past, to find “Soldier On.”  There’s some biblical allusions here, or at least some references to Christianity, though not in the overt sense. Hawley seemingly walks through this album, pacing himself, creating tension for the listener. It’s as if we’re merely meandering through this tune, until you reach just past the four minute mark where the song crashes into you.  It releases you in a wash of cymbals and emotions.

By backing it all into the finer moment that is “For Your Lover Give Some Time.”  I don’t particularly want to go into the detail of this song, as I’m sure, as with most Hawley tunes, each person will get out of it what they will.  It’s such a personal song, for me as a listener, that I don’t dare ruin your impression of it, or what it may offer you.

Thus the album walks into the longest song, the perfect ending to Truelove’s Gutter. The epic failure that could be this album’s bookend is not there.  Although it may be long, it encapsulates everything you wanted from the end.  Your time with Richard Hawley has come to an end, and though you want it to last forever, you needn’t fret, as you can simply relive it time and time again by pressing repeat.  I know I will.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/07-For-Your-Lover-Give-Some-Time-1.mp3]

Download: Richard Hawley – For Your Lover Give Some Time [MP3]

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan – Sunday at Devil Dirt

Rating: ★★★½☆

Despite it’s abilities to work, this still remains one of the strangest duos that has come to light. You could see Jagger and Bowie, but Lanegan and Campbell? Still, two albums in, they are perfecting their devilish-folk musings on Sunday at Devil Dirt.

As per usual, Mark Lanegan, former Screaming Trees singer, takes the lead vocals on this entire album, coating every single song in his whiskey-drenched Southern drawl, coming off like a less-carnivalesque Tom Waits. His voice is fitting for David Lynch screenplays, and yet he matches it with the sweetness of Isobel Campbell.

Most of the musical arrangements on the album come from Campbell, who continues to contrast her traditional role as queen of twee by creating brooding folks songs; each song is carefully constructed with equal part haunting orchestration and guitar picking. It’s this match of sounds that provides for a demonically sultry soundscape throughout.

Most of the time, Isobel doesn’t really make an appearance on the album, at least not as the focal point, which is disappointing, as her voice was one of the most memorable of the late 90s. Still, she does have some stand out moments, which make the tracks stand out from the rest. Her vocal bombast during the chorus of “The Raven” provides the perfect counter-balance to Lanegan. Similarly, the duo trade vocals on “Who Built the Road,” which demonstrates the unique harmony shared between these two juxtaposed musical characters.

One of the more endearing tracks, meaning one of the most upbeat–spiritually speaking, is “Keep Me in Mind Sweethear.” It’s a short number, but even Lanegan makes the longing sound natural, and not nearly as dark has his typical outing on this album. Oddly, at this point in the album, you can feel the lighter side of things shining through, which is ironic since it all comes at the end of the album, but it encourages you to look forward, and move on.

Overall, this is just another example of the dynamic shared between two great voices in independent music. It comes just in time for the cold weather to encourage whiskey drinking and story telling among friends; may your holidays come off something like this album.