Tiny Town

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published August 5, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Here's a winner, first spawn of a new quartet of inveterate rockers as hot to trot as they are long in the tooth (I will never mix metaphors that flagrantly again). Two of 'em, guitarist Tommy Malone and bassist Johnny Ray Allen, are from erstwhile roots/pop cult favorites the Subdudes. But it's the other two I'm excited about: singer Pat McLaughlin and drummer Kenneth Blevins. A lazy slug from Iowa who can hardly be bothered to brush his thinning hair, McClaughlin is, quite simply, America's best unsung singer-songwriter, a classic, rheumy-voiced, blue-eyed soul singer and a writer of wry songs that (to paraphrase one of his Tiny Town tunes) stick to the roof of your mouth. Blevins, as remote from household-name status as McLaughlin, is a supremely limber, supple drummer who could be earning mid-six figures in Nashville's studios if he weren't, as he puts it, "a band guy."

Cut live in a big old Nashville room by Pioneer's A&R head, former Eagle Bernie Leadon, "Tiny Town" isn't quite as good as McLaughlin's three or four solo albums, but it offers plenty of pleasures: Malone's stinging leads, hired hand Johnny Neel's juicy Hammond B-3 organ and, above all, McLaughlin's grainy vocals and Blevins' slip-sliding funk, comfortable as a good back-scratch. If you're a Los Lobos/John Hiatt fan scrounging for fresh meat, chew on this -- it's nutritious!

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Rufus Wainwright

-->BY KERRY LAUERMAN | This little EP is surely meant to satisfy those in the throes of Teen Beat adoration for the mutton-chopped, 25-year-old Wainwright. It's an unambitious enterprise, with two live and one canned song off Wainwright's self-titled debut, along with some chitchat with Southern California radio station KCRW's Liza Richardson. When Richardson dutifully lobs him softballs, he whiffs in a way only a true believer will find adorable: Do the Cole Porter-style, cabaret and torch songs he sings mean he's just a nut for musicals? "I hate musicals. No, I love them, but I hate them." Did he feel pressure to prove himself on his debut because his parents -- cynic-folkie Loudon Wainwright and trad folkie Kate McGarrigle -- were famous musicians? "No. It's just a job."

Though we also learn he played Jesus in "Godspell," Wainwright never talks about what he's most famous for: being a rising young pop star who is gay and whose acclaimed first album (and recent hype-stealing opening gig for fellow famous son Sean Lennon) has helped him avoid being labeled a rising young gay pop star.

That's fine, because the die-hard fan this record is aimed at knows all about that, and more. The two live cuts, "Foolish Love" and "In My Arms," are lovely, faithful renderings of the recorded versions, notable only in that they dismiss the doubts of skeptics, who wondered whether producer Van Dyke Park's lush orchestration was simply camouflage for flaws in the singer's nasal croon. Unencumbered by the strings, marimbas and accordians of Parks' busy production, on these two acoustic cuts (he plays piano on the former, guitar on the latter) his voice soars.

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Tommy Womack
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BY MEREDITH OCHS | With plenty of boozing, lack-of-sex laments and rhythms that make you drum on your steering wheel, Tommy Womack's "Positively Na Na" is a perfect record for drinking and driving (preferably not at the same time). The former leader of the Bowling Green, Ky., punk band Government Cheese sounds like he grew up listening to the same kind of mid-'70s AM radio stations as Wilco, sharing with Jeff Tweedy a strong roots sensibility shaped by pop melodicism. Womack's Americana is as colorful as the characters in his songs; from bar band blues to Memphis white-boy soul, from rickety rockabilly to high-speed honky tonk, from ballsy roots rock to early '80s new wave ` la Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello, each track takes an unexpected turn but never falls short of its mark. Womack is a damn fine songwriter and a clever lyricist, too, whether he's passing up a sexy hitchhiker in favor of a Dairy Queen sundae, wreaking havoc upon the townie slobs who tortured him as a child or pondering the fate of long-lost punk heroes ("Whatever happened to Cheetah Chrome/the man with orange Dead Boys dome?").

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Alpha Blondy
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BY J. POET | Alpha Blondy, Ivory Coast's reigning reggae star, was inspired by the music of Bob Marley, and recorded one of his best albums, "Jerusalem," with the Wailers shortly after Marley's death. Blondy completes the Marley connection on "Yitzhak Rabin," recorded for Marley's Tuff Gong label with the stellar backing vocals of the I Threes -- Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffith.

Like Marley's, Blondy's music is deeply spiritual, full of compassion for the poor and shining with a vision of international brotherhood. Blondy is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, French, English and several African languages, and sings in all of them, sometimes in a single song. The title tune, in Arabic and English, is a tribute to a great peacemaker as well as a prayer for peace. "Les Imbeciles" asks Africans to stop slaughtering each other, while in "New Dawn" a broken-hearted lover proclaims his undying belief in the power of love. Blondy's backing band, the Solar System, now rivals the Wailers in the depth of its groove and the magnitude of its musical invention. The set is full of simmering roots reggae sounds, topped off by Blondy's majestic tenor, an aching voice full of soul and suffering.

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Squirrel Nut Zippers
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BY SAM HURWITT | A North Carolina combo named after a brand of impenetrable nut candy and penning playful ditties with a '20s and '30s flair, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are just too darn hot to be dismissed as a novelty or revival act. They may be operating within the confines of a genre that was a hit before their mothers were born, but they manage to make the musty grooves sound fresh and vibrant. Smooth and tight, funny and doggedly upbeat, they swing so hard that the term "swing" doesn't begin to do them justice.

It's appropriate that they called this third album "Perennial Favorites," because almost every Zippers song sounds like it could be, or should be, an old standard. But this disc is a thinner endeavor than "Hot" or "The Inevitable." It scarcely matters that sax man Tom Maxwell's creepy calypso "Trou Macacq" sounds exactly like "Hell," the band's one radio hit to date, nor that Jim Mathus' "Suits Are Picking Up the Bill" is straightforward retro-swing. But the Zippers seem to be getting gradually goofier, if one can judge by Mathus's spooky klezmer "Ghost of Stephen Foster," with haunting violin by Andrew Bird, or Maxwell's convoluted Raymond Scott-influenced composition "The Kraken," with steel drums and a Chinese percussion opening.

Mathus' Cab Calloway-style "Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter" is tight and solid, and the platter is easily worth picking up for Katharine Whalen's breathy, girlish delivery on "Low Down Man" and Billie Holiday drawl on the lazy tango "My Drag." But on the whole, "Perennial Favorites" is little more than an amusing trifle. The delightfully slurred and reeling New Orleans-style "That Fascinating Thing" quickly winds down to the drowsy Kansas City-style refrain "It's Over": "Just when you think the party's starting ... It's over." Alas, how true.

By Tony Scherman

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