A winning combination of melody and invective, “Walking the Plank” sounds as sharp and blistering as an early Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson song. But this is no wearisome nostalgia trip, as there’s likewise something very present and unbeholden to anyone about this trio’s disciplined, fiery sound. While vocalist Jay Leo Phillips (also the guitarist) has an Elvis-like timbre, his voice is deeper, and rougher around the edges; plus, he has his own intermittently explosive guitar to play off against, which seems clearly to add to the intensity of his performance. (And that’s the funny thing about most of those early EC gems–they rocked, but, largely, and strangely, without any sort of lead guitar sound.) Being a trio is no small point of differentiation–I really think that trios, at their best, offer rock energy that is as pure and focused as it comes. No matter how noisy a trio gets, there’s something concentrated and essential about the sound it makes; you can always hear each instrument precisely if you listen, which I find bracing somehow. “Walking the Plank” is the lead track off the band’s Chariots of Fire CD, their second, which was released in June on Theory 8 Records. The MP3 is available via the band’s site.
“Put On Your Light” – Hezekiah Jones (with Clare Callahan)
A slow, bittersweet foot-tapper, if such a thing is possible. But go on and see if your foot doesn’t for some reason want to tap along to this sad and swaying tale of troubled love. It’s not just the minor key that lends the song a woebegone air; listen too to how the achy melody is often sung off the main beat (the one your toe is tapping, remember)–this fosters a resistant, unsettled, I might even suggest unhappy vibe. Meanwhile, there’s a duet going on between the almost ghostly-sounding Callahan and the full-voiced Jones (whose name is actually Raphael Cutrufello), but it’s an odd duet. Callahan starts, Jones joining in to finish the end of both lyric lines in the verse. They sing the chorus together, but with the lyrics offering one side of a love relationship hitting a rough patch, the effect is disconcerting. By the presence of the duet, we are seemingly given both voices–both sides of the battle, as it were–and yet they’re singing the same words; they’re even singing the same musical notes, with no interval harmonies at all. The two lovers of the story sound all the sadder and more isolated as they sing without the other really hearing; the listener meanwhile is unnerved for lack of any clues about who’s done what, who’s “right” and who’s “wrong,” who to believe, who to side with. Very lovely and very sad. Cutrufello recently released the first Hezekiah Jones CD, Hezekiah Jones Says You’re A-Ok, on Yer Bird Records, but “Put On Your Light” isn’t actually on it; it’s available as an unreleased song via the HJ site.
There’s no question, to my ear, where the center of this brisk but meaty song is: the first line of the chorus, that vocal leap Buckner takes at the end. The entire song is built upon short lyrical snippets and small melodic intervals; but there at the end of the opening line of the chorus, the last interval of the snippet, heading upward, is a fifth. A leap up always sounds larger than the interval actually described, and so right away there’s something startling and pleasing about it. I like how, the first time we hear it, Buckner is singing the word “down” as the melody jumps up. I like even more the grand character of this gruffly smooth (or maybe smoothly gruff) voice as it is exquisitely revealed in the process of taking, and making, that leap. Buckner heads to and hits just the one five-steps-up note, and yet as he holds it his voice stretches and intensifies in marvelous ways, every time that line-end comes around. It’s a subtle but beautiful and memorable hook right there; what solidifies it as the center of a beautiful and memorable song are the chords Buckner employs to create the structure around the hook. They are neither novel nor tricky but they are invitingly true and inevitable, a sweet descending series falling away from the initial leap upward. I keep wanting to hear this part over and over, and it sticks in my head for hours afterwards. “Town” is the first song on Buckner’s upcoming CD Meadow, which has a lot of one-word song titles for some reason. The CD–Buckner’s eighth–is set for a September release on Merge Records.