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   Sunday, February 01, 2004  
Imitation, flattery, etc...
'It's sort of folky acoustic singer/songwriter stuff but far more interesting, filled with fuzzy analogue production,' says BBC Collective. Not sure what Matt Ward will make of it but reallyrather says "Oi, M Craft, NO!"

Speaking of M. Ward, he's stated in interview somewhere that last year's wonderful Transfiguration of Vincent was originally shaping to have rather more instrumentals than just the pair that eventually made the album. If memory serves, he went to a memorial service for John Fahey and things changed. But his adopted home town has recently thrown up some new instrumental music which takes up the baton from the late finger-picking pioneer. Check out the Portland label Strange Attractors' release Non-sequiturs by Canadian guitarist Harris Newman: 'If you've ever wondered what Kelley Joe Phelps would sound like if he were brought up on Sonic Youth rather than Mississippi John Hurt, then you have to check this out.'
Harris Newman | Strange Attractors Audio House

'I know what you're thinking: it's bland, it's smooth, it's niceness in syncopated 4/'re wrong,' says Independent on Sunday reviewer Nick Coleman today in the course of awarding the new Norah Jones album a whopping 5 stars, the max. In the musical MOR mainstream, the line between mellow-but-meritorious and straight-out anodyne mush is a thin one indeed, a perilous tightrope but one which reallyrather, like Mr Coleman, is not afraid to attempt tho' in support of a different album, one which, unlike Ms. Jones', is presently to be found by looking down the wrong end of fame's telescope...

Before going on, anyone whose instinct upon hearing, let's say, the words 'James' and 'Taylor' in juxtaposition is to dive for the radio off switch can skip this whole bit. Similarly, fans of the Manly Forearm school of rootsy pop-rock (Steve Earle, Springsteen et al) can move right along, there is nothing for you here. Those looking to be startled, challenged or otherwise provoked will be similarly disappointed. Minor key moodiness is also absent; on the 'Alt'-ometer the needle hovers somewhere between .1 and zero. No, this is music which wipes its feet on the way in when it calls round, maybe even brings along a cake it baked just that morning. Which is good, no? Who wouldn't want friends like that? So then, all those still around, meet Deb & Steve aka The Weepies...

Having apparently followed separate but not entirely dissimilar trajectories, the music of thirtysomething singer-songwriters Deb Talan and Steve Tannen has coalesced with the short 'n' sweet self-release, Happiness (Dec 03). "They're both really good songwriters. Their solo stuff is very good," guitarist Jim Henry (who plays on the record) told their local (Northampton, Mass.) paper last month. "But what they've come up with together sounds even better." With eight songs in just over 26 minutes, all with definite endings (not a lazy fade in sight) The Weepies score some early bonus points. They apply the always admirable 'less is more' maxim (possibly out of necessity, the record being largely homemade in a little space at the top of the house) to a bunch of appealing, warm-hearted country/folk pop underpinned by impressive, clear-eyed songcraft.

Here's a little test. Just by their titles, which of the 8 songs are by the guy?:
1. Happiness
2. All That I Want
3. Vegas Baby
4. Somebody Loved
5. Jolene
6. Simple Life
7. Dating a Porn Star
8. Keep It There
Dolly P.'s classic notwithstanding, Jolene's a giveaway. Zooming off on a whim to 'Vegas, Baby'?, that's such a guy thing (a la Swingers), wouldn't you say? And porn stars, well... Of the eight tunes, these are the least essential. Not that any of them really lets the side down - Vegas Baby cooks along nicely in a Crosby, Stills & Nash/Paul Simon style while Jolene and ..Porn Star detour invitingly down a Music Row sidestreet. They're smartly turned, the playing's right on the button and each is enhanced by the pair's hugely appealing harmonies. But this is 'scenario' songwriting; it's in the more domestic universality of the co-writes & Talan-only songs that a Weepies personality emerges and things start to get a little bit special.

The set is bookended by the damn-near perfectly cadenced Happiness and Keep it there, the title track being a sparkling jangle-pop shimmy nailed to perfection, the other a pristine slice of harmony pop which dips and soars like a kite. In between there's the gently pulsing All that I want, a Christmassy song you can play all year round which builds subtly with brushes, bells and upright bass. It's very pretty and pretty fine as is the disarmingly simple love song Somebody loved (featuring just Deb and guitars) and the rounded, radio-ready full-band number, A simple life.

It's all impressively surefooted and supremely melodic. Lyrically, that last song encapsulates the theme which loosely ties the five, ie. figuring out what's really worthwhile, being amazed at actually finding it and then trying to hold on to it.
I'll kiss you awake, and we'll have time
To know our neighbors all by name
And every star at night

...that kind of stuff. Wistful but not corny. There's not an ounce of astringency here but neither is it cloying. Yes, coffeehouse cliches do hover - the wind, the rain and the sun all feature along with whole a skyfull of stars - but the pair have a masterly way of tweeking what might otherwise be quite commonplace lyrics and tunes, lifting them out of and above the pack. As does their singing. Talan's clear voice has an affecting vibrancy (a distinctive 'reedy catch' as someone else recently noted) but it's the pair's choice harmonies, deftly deployed, which take things to another level and prove just how well matched (they're an item as well as a duo) they are.

So then, The Weepies, purveyors of loveliness. A more optimistic, luckier-in-love Rosie Thomas perhaps, with shades of Shawn Colvin/Jill Sobule and James Taylor's reassuring warmth. It's light, bright, mild and mainstream - and still worthwhile? reallyrather has the facts and is voting 'Yes'. Forget what they say, you really can: Go on, buy Happiness...

The Weepies | Deb Talan | Steve Tannen | Keep it there mp3
   posted by SMc at 6:49 AM |