Cry Tomorrow - Stephanie Finch & The Company Men (CD, download)
Don't Tell - Kathleen Haskard (CD, download)
Let's get 2011's reviewing underway with a bit of catching up…
Two albums that were released in 2009 (Stephanie) and 2007 (Kathleen) but which I've only just got my hands on, following the fine Balcony TV session by Stephanie and husband Chuck Prophet at the end of last year, with Kathleen in attendance.
Chuck picks up production credits for both albums, as well as smearing some of his familiar Telecaster magic over a number of songs, amongst other instrumental and vocal contributions. But he's definitely in support mode here and both headliners have the clout and talent to stand on their own feet.
I guess Americana is the catch-all label for this music - real songs and real instruments, strongly sung and played. But without either any marked country inflection or the plonking earnestness Americana can sometimes imply.
Stephanie's voice is the higher and lighter, the overall tone of her record rockier and more playful. Kelley Stoltz and and Rusty Miller form a reliably chunky rhythm section which drives things along nicely. There are some well-selected covers mixed in with the varying co-written 'Finch +…' credits: Randy Newman's 'She's The One' (and it's probably a worthwhile compliment to say I'd like to hear the Company Men have a crack at the E Street Band workout of the same name…), a reimagined Charlie and Inez Foxx number, and the great Alejandro Escovedo's 'Sensitive Boys'. The last of these bothered me for a while, because I like the original so much and Stephanie's take on the song is so different. Give it time, though: it doesn't cut as deep and lacks the distorted lead guitar Alejandro deployed to such effect, but it's a valid and worthwhile interpretation.
And if anyone has read this far and is still thinking 'who's Chuck Prophet?', try his wonderfully succinct 15 second guitar break on 'In My Book Of Love' (from 2:10). That should spur some rewarding research in his extensive solo and Green On Red back catalogue...
On to Kathleen Haskard. An interesting mix of different styles here, with a lot to enjoy and admire. 'Play Me' is irresistible, airy, Hammond-driven pop. 'Don't Tell' ups the energy level with a crunchy rock attack. 'Losers Weep' pitches open, folky voices against a simple finger-picked guitar pattern. The concluding 'Leave To Remain' is a floatier, experimental, mood piece, which works less well for me. Kathleen's warm voice holds the show together, reminding me in places of Patti Smith in her gentler moods - perhaps most obviously on 'Like A Pearl Necklace', an intense anti-war song.
I'm not sure that either record lands a knockout blow or breaks into the 'you must hear this' category. But both have real charms and have worked their gradual way into my brain over a few weeks' listening. I am sure it will help to see them live: Kathleen is a Californian now based in London, so gigs here should be more frequent; but Stephanie and Chuck are regular visitors from the States.
Give them both a go - and be reminded just how much good music there is out there that you haven't heard yet.