Utne Reader Music Reviews

By Staff

Singing Grace

Lizz Wright
The Orchard (Verve Forecast)

There are singers with big, bawdy voices, singers with range enough to go from falsetto to a down-low croon, singers who boldly express unremitting joy or unbridled pain. Then there’s Lizz Wright, a subtle artist who plays in the places and fills in the spaces where we more often live and breathe. Her blend of intuition, dignity, and hard-earned experience endows her with a talent that is not so obviously god-given–emotional credibility.

The Orchard is a rainbow of nuance. In the gospel blues opener, “Coming Home,” Wright invokes exhaustion, hope, and resolve all at once, singing with one foot in the cotton fields and the other in the pew. In “When I Fall,” she conveys the vulnerability, the indecision, and the thrill of falling in love. In the next song, “Leave Me Standing Alone,” she reacts to a broken relationship not with cheap notions of revenge, but with a mixture of self-admonishment for getting involved and rue over what the union could have become.

There are delightful exceptions to these dilemmas, including the joyful, baptismal “Song for Mia” and a quiet, soulfully dumbstruck cover of Patsy Cline’s “Strange.” It adds up to a profoundly graceful collection, enabled by the spare, pristine production of Craig Street (who came to fame producing Wright’s kindred spirit, Cassandra Wilson), and by Wright’s cocomposer on five songs, singer-guitarist Toshi Reagon. But it is the fruit of Wright’s labor that really fills this Orchard.

–Britt Robson

Dengue Fever
Venus on Earth(M80)
What happens when a Cambodian pop princess is recruited by L.A. alt-rock musicians? Well, these circumstances don’t lend themselves to rules of thumb–and that’s the central appeal of the mysterious, unclassifiable sound of Dengue Fever. The band is fronted by Chhom Nimol, a bona fide Cambodian star who delivers the band’s Khmer-language lyrics with ethereal charisma. The music is hook-heavy surf-psychedelia blended with traditional Cambodian melodies–an obscure style pioneered in the ’60s by Cambodian bands tuned to U.S. Armed Forces Radio rock. All this may sound horribly postmodern, but it’s not. Dengue Fever is a rock band, not a novelty act, and its danceable and infectious East-meets-West style will exceed the expectations of world-savvy listeners. –Joseph Hart

Bob Mould
District Line(Anti-)
“Adult pop” sounds boring as hell, doesn’t it? That’s basically what Bob Mould plays, though, and it’s anything but; in fact, it’s more substantive and better crafted than most music by artists half his age. The man who helped redefine punk rock in Hüsker Dü has gone in several different directions since then, from the inward-gazing singer-songwriter fare of Workbook to the bracing power pop of his Sugar trio to the clubland electronica of Modulate. District Line manages to sound like all and none of these previous incarnations, with Mould drawing his disparate threads into a cohesive whole and displaying more emotional range than ever. Fully in charge of a broad sonic palette, he sounds reinvigorated and relevant.

–Keith Goetzman

Fire on Fire
Fire on Fire(Young God)
When punk rockers go acoustic, the results can be unremarkable (Tommy Ramone’s bluegrass duo Uncle Monk), largely forgettable (Nirvana unplugged), and, occasionally, sublime. In the last category is the riveting Fire on Fire, five ex-punks who live together in a house in Maine and make strange, joyful music on traditional and unconventional acoustic instruments. The music on their eponymous EP is heavy on the vocals, which gives it a bit of a gypsy choir feel, and the band coaxes astonishing, moody sounds out of traditional instruments like the mandolin and harmonium to create enveloping, intoxicating music. With five (long!) songs, this EP is available online only (www.younggodrecords.com) and is packaged by hand indie-style, with a screen print by band member Colleen Kinsella. –J.H.

Tyler Ramsey
A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea(Echo Mountain)
I listened to A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea with polite intrigue until I got to track six, “No One Goes Out.” A few days later, I unset the replay button and listened to the rest of the album. Is it fair to recommend an album on the strength of one song? Yes–if the song is as perfect as “No One Goes Out,” a wistful remembrance of a nightclub, of all things, with a haunting melody and a compelling style that nods to Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield days. The other 11 songs provide excellent support. Ramsey recognizes that his freakish skill on the guitar is just one tool at his disposal; others include a smooth tenor voice and a dreamy sensibility. The combination requires deep listening, which pays off in scads. –J.H.

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