Culwell captures American moment’s essence
The Lemon Twigs, “Go To School” (4AD) The Lemon Twigs’ memorable first album, “Do Hollywood”, was so self-assured it was hard to believe its multi-instrumentalist masterminds, Long Island brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, were still in high school. Perhaps even more surprising was that the youngsters were so obviously enamored by the flamboyant pop of their parents’ (or grandparents’) generation. The record was a fun, florid ‘60s-and-’70s throwback brimming with melodies, hooks, harmonies and a hefty dose of psychedelic weirdness.
The ambitious duo, now 21 and 19, have gone straight to the rock musical phase of their career. “Go to School” (4AD) is a sprawling concept record about the adolescent struggles of a chimpanzee raised as a human boy. And as might be expected with a conceit like that, it allows the D’Addarios to go full throttle with the theatrical themes and grandiose production they experimented with on their debut.
The chimp’s father is played by Twigs hero Todd Rundgren, another pop purist who took the form to far-out places. While the brothers have said they’re striving for Sondheim, at its most overwrought, “Go to School” is more reminiscent of Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” – produced by Rundgren.
The striving love song “Queen of My School” is sparkling power pop. “Rock Dreams” is a blast of bombast. And “The Fire” packs an emotional punch, with a flash of violence at school, “where everyone was pushing” our furry hero. The overarching primate-growing-pains narrative is thin, but the best numbers stand apart and will make fans anxious to see what these bold brothers come up with next.
Neil & Liam Finn, “Lightsleeper” (Inertia/PIAS)
“Lightsleeper” is the result of another crowded house at the Finn residence. The album principals, father Neil and son Liam, get the rest of the family involved – mother Sharon, son Elroy, nephew Harper – and also provide room and board to one of Neil’s new Fleetwood Mac bandmates, Mick Fleetwood.
On the surface, “Lightsleeper” is closer to the Finn family’s foundational Split Enz era than to the more renowned Crowded House productions, with dreamy atmospheres, multi-section song structures and hazy shades of melody providing the framework, not tight pop songs with instantly memorable refrains.
Most of the tracks are father-and-son co-writes, but Neil wrote album opener “Prelude-Island of Peace” with an uplifting, congenial choir, as a gift for Liam’s wedding.
“Meet Me In The Air” follows, its relaxed harmonies harking back to the “Surf’s Up”-period Beach Boys, while “Where’s My Room”, which seems to describe a musician’s unenviable condition near the end of a long tour, begins with what sounds like an updated Roland drum machine and, over seven minutes across various “movements”, keeps adding elements, including a string section that at times emulates the sounds of Philly soul.
The theatrical, character-rich “Ghosts” is where the Split Enz influence – or is that Liam’s more experimental side? – is clearest, while album finale “Hold Her Close” is a lullaby that includes practical tips for parents.
As with any music involving a Finn, the vocals are one of the main reasons for listening and the father-son combo more than meets expectations. Neil’s voice is still a tad sweeter but Liam’s phrasing is very similar and no less expressive and they complete each other fabulously.
Ideal for late-night listening, “Lightsleeper” demonstrates that with talents such as these at hand, it makes sense to keep it all in the family.
Ryan Culwell, “The Last American” (Missing Piece Records)
The list of legendary musicians who migrated from Texas to Nashville to make it big is so long you’d think the journey was easy.
It is not.
Just ask Ryan Culwell, whose 2015 album, “Flatlands”, was so good it seemed to rise with the heat right out of the Texas dust. But it might have had more glowing reviews than turns on the radio, this being the state of commercial country music these days.
But now, after supporting himself with a series of odd jobs, including a turn as a Nashville pedal-tavern driver, the Texas native is back with another fine record. His latest, “The Last American,” may not be quite as Texan as “Flatlands”, but it fits the present moment better. Culwell ranges around on this one, maybe a little too much. As he migrates from the rocking “Can You Hear Me” to the angry “Dig a Hole” to the gentle lullaby of “Moon Hangs Down”, it sometimes feels like he’s trying on styles.
But Culwell’s talent is obvious throughout, and the timing feels right for a canon of intelligent, rough-edged songs about the frustration, the yearning, the turmoil and the stress of living at this complicated moment in America – armed only, as he sings in the title cut, with “my old man’s heart and a broke-down Chevrolet.”
With lyrics that good and a voice as honest as a Panhandle sunset, Ryan Culwell keeps making important music. If he stays the course, his work will find its way. (AP)
By Christopher Weber