Sharps and flats

Reviews of music from Roy Clark, Owsley, Mogwai and more


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Salon Staff
April 8, 1999 12:00PM (UTC)

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Roy Clark

The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark | Razor & Tie

By Brian Blanchfield | At the middle of the 1987 family-farm disaster flick "The Curse," Claude
Akins' dowdy wife drinks poisoned well water and slips into harrowing dementia. The scene is silly, but terrifying in its own special
way: Ma, singing along with "Hee Haw" on the television, slowly cross-stitches her hands together. As her whimpers become cries, the camera pans across the room and focuses back on Roy Clark and Buck Owens yukking it up.

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I mortally understand the horror of the association. I come from embroidered samplers, from Grandpa Jones, from a place where women while
away their lives with needle and thread. My relatives can recite entire
comedy albums by Jerry Clower and Ray Stevens.

Like young Will Wheaton in "The Curse" -- who stays sane by avoiding the
water -- at 16 I knew enough to avoid the well of Southern culture. I got out of the piedmont area of North Carolina; and I got away from hayseeds like Roy Clark -- but only to find him again and regret my arrogance.

The 12 instrumentals on
"The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark" -- first released in 1962 and remastered by the folks at Razor & Tie this year -- are virtuoso
swing standards that score a breathtaking American cartoon. Backed by a workaday rhythm section and a randy tenor saxophone, Clark and his Fender tour through original twists, swing standards like "In the Mood" and revved-up versions of somber Bob Wills and Hank Penny waltzes. Clark, who had been playing professionally on television and with Wanda Jackson's band since 1955, has a master's control that is at once unifying and soul-quickening. His riffs are precise and punctual; he bends the notes toward breathless finales. The bravado on Clark's "Twelfth Street Rag" or "Drifter's Polka" -- the lightning-quick double-time changes after the bridges -- is crackerjack.

The album is striking enough to get me to warm up to at least a part of that culture, if not to down tall glasses of buttermilk. After all, as Clark proves, there's nothing hokey about doing something double-time, about racing over the old stomping grounds with a thumb pick and a big grin.

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Mogwai

Come on Die Young | Matador

By Sally Jacob | The word "Mogwai" is Japanese for "monster." The band of the same name is indeed something of a monster -- a hybrid, a mutant. The Scottish
ensemble is known for lengthy, massive, guitar-grounded instrumentals that marry the young artist's finicky sensitivity to the soccer hooligan's swagger. The strange alliance is consummated in one of two ways. On the haunting early single "Angels Versus Aliens," which also appeared on the album-length collection "Ten Rapid," the band dropped delicate trinkets of sound down bottomless wells of heroic drone. On Mogwai's 1997 debut album proper, "Mogwai Young Team," they use a different approach, hopping on and off a full rack of foot pedals, alternating between pensive introspection and stadium-scale bombast.

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After the panoramic mood swings of "Young Team" -- and the even more
mercurial "Kicking a Dead Pig" and "Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes" -- "Come on Die Young" is a letdown. The title, like that of "Young Team," is lifted from Scottish gang graffiti, and like graffiti, it feels writ large. Maybe it blows a big old raspberry at the rock star myth; maybe it expresses the band's thwarted desire to move past the turf it staked out on "Young Team." In any case, it perfectly conveys the album's tone: sentimental, with a bad case of the blahs. "Die Young" was recorded by Dave Fridmann -- producer and former member of Mercury Rev -- over several months the band spent locked away in Fridmann's home studio in upstate New York. As a result, the album has a claustrophobic, immobile feel. Fridmann's production itself, which herds all stray dynamics into the midrange, is also to blame. Worst of all, Mogwai's newly tame non-distorted guitar sound robs the monster of its roar.

What's left? Pretty, minor-key piano recitals and sullen Slint
counterfeits. The best songs, or at least the most welcome ones in context, are the ones that break the pall of mournfulness. The flute-laced melody on "Waltz for Aidan" has a pastoral peacefulness; "Ex-Cowboy" builds up to a pleasant, stirring flurry of melodic guitar. But on "Die Young," the rowdy climaxes simply aren't there -- Mogwai seems to have defected entirely to the artiste side. Someone get these lads to a football match, quick!

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Owsley

Owsley | Giant/Warner Bros.

By John Milward | Rock 'n' roll is in such disrepute in these days of rap, teenybopper fluff and boho bluster that one-named guitarist Owsley's cover photo, which shows him leaping in the air ` la Pete Townshend, didn't fill me with anticipation as much as questions. Would he use distortion to cover up weak guitar chops? Would his attitude substitute for melody? Would he be whining instead of singing?

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The first listen proved my doubts unfounded. Days of compulsive repeats
have left me thinking that this album just might end up being the best debut of the year.

Owsley's rock songs are slick but hardly sterile. The tunes use deft
arrangements of guitars, keyboards and vocal harmonies. Owsley is clearly influenced by the pop rock of his 1970s youth, and it's easy to hear echoes of Todd Rundgren, the Cars, 10cc and the band
that inspired them all, the Beatles. But the diversity of these 11 songs and their accomplished execution speaks louder than their stylistic footnotes.

It's not insignificant that Owsley financed the recording of this album
with the dough he bankrolled during an 18-month road trip playing guitar for Christian pop-country singer Amy Grant. Clearly, this is no boo-hoo alternative baby. The wistful "Good Old Days" -- blessed with a
memorable verse and chorus -- shows the depth of Owsley's melodic gift as well as a knack for a finely calibrated guitar solo and a gentle Hammond B-3 swaddling.

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The songs abound in studio wizardry. Owsley includes multiple keyboards, a cello solo and a "Hey Jude" fade on "Coming Up Roses," a suggestive stew that befits the fact that he's a distant relative of the '60s-era psychedelic chemist whose name he shares. Then there's
the propulsive piano pop of "Sonny Boy" (Owsley once played in a band with Ben Folds), the bucolic swoon of "Uncle John's Farm" and the sweet ballad "Class Clown," which closes the album by dovetailing into an organ-spiced instrumental jam. It might sound like an old hippie trick, but Owsley's no clown: With one bold step, he's placed himself up near the front of the bus.

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Various Artists

Fish Trees Water Blues | Bullseye Blues & Jazz/Rounder

By Meredith Ochs | Putting together a musically coherent compilation of more than a dozen
disparate artists working within the blues is no easy task. The producers of "Fish Trees Water Blues" accomplish the challenge
by allowing elder statesmen and -women like John Lee Hooker and gospel
singer Mavis Staples to rub elbows with younger upstarts like punk folkie Ani DiFranco and bluesman Keb' Mo'. The compilation serves a righteous cause: All proceeds go to the Earthjustice Legal
Defense Fund's Fish-Trees-Water campaign, which preserves wild salmon, ancient forests and clean waterways. In good conscience, each artist contributes an ecologically or socially conscious track that reminds listeners that there's more to life than creature comforts.

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DiFranco's funkified "Fuel" takes on media overload, while Staple's
soul-stirring "I'll Fly Away" looks to far more ethereal realms. Laid-back '70s songwriter J.J. Cale's "Stone River" ponders a desolate world without water or vegetation ("What used to be a stream/Is now just a dream"). Blues guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart uses mandolin and old-timey instrumental "Rollin' River" to draw a bucolic sketch. Like any blues CD worth owning, this one has moments of great guitar playing: Joe
Louis Walker's burning fretwork on "The Road You Choose" works well with
accompaniment by saxophonist Branford Marsalis; and John Hammond and John Lee Hooker smolder together on "Drifting Blues." Ruth Brown, Robert Cray, Tracy Nelson, Roomful of Blues and Loudon Wainwright III all add their considerable voices to the project as well. Only Charlie Musselwhite and Bob Weir's version of "Take Me to the River" and Etta James' cover of the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit" -- in both cases, artists working with material they should probably avoid -- seem watered-down. The rest of "Fish Trees Water Blues" flows quite nicely.


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