CD reviews for 4-16-08

Insides Out
Jordan Zevon
(New West/Ammal Records)

    Jordan Zevon is the son of the legendarily dark and laconic Warren Zevon, but he sounds like … Joe Jackson? It’s true — Warren’s only son was enamored of Britpop like the Cure, XTC and Elvis Costello. At 38, he has finally recorded his own work — nine originals and a cover of Dad’s “Studebaker.”
    What this is, really, is a really poppy record. The voice — it took a while to conjure, but it’s a ringer for Jackson, or maybe Ben Folds or Glenn Tilbrook. The songs are nice, snappy.
    Warren was a musical prodigy but fucked up beyond belief by alcohol and insecurity. He did horrible things to himself and his loved ones until he got sober for his last 17 years of life. Any bitterness Jordan feels is not manifest here, but he does share his dad’s penchant for compact, clever turns of phrase. He also (wisely) avoids including any novelty songs, so he won’t be dragging around a “Werewolves of London” to obscure his real talent. So, it seems, Dad did teach him some useful lessons in the end. —Cary Stemle

Victor Wooten
(Heads Up)

    Wooten is on the top-shelf of critic-proof musicians. First, he’s been a loyal contributor to the Flecktones for ages — and wouldn’t you get tired of being a recognized jazz talent backing up a banjo player? And the records under his own name do full credit to the term “solo career.” They have a signature thematic blend (spiritual and family concerns ebb and flow throughout like a strong and sure tide). They’re also grounded in bass but not shackled to it, as clearly indicated here by lead-off “2 Timers.” That track not only plays time games — it goes back and forth between tight horn-section turns and harmonica soloing (by original Flecktone Howard Levy). Soon after, there’s “I Saw God,” featuring sweet-and-thoughtful shifting vocal layers. With a range of arrangements, superb dynamic sense and a well-chosen variety of soloists, it’s only after repeated listens that the many returns to the jumping burbles of Wooten’s bass seem slightly out of proportion with everything else on the admirable set. But … it’s a bassist’s record, so this shouldn’t be a shock. —T.E. Lyons

Saturdays = Youth
(Mute U.S.)

    I’m listening to Kim and Jessie and the first thing I catch myself doing is looking around for the girl with red hair sitting alone on the bus. I’m thinking … Cocteau Twins … New Order … whichever, it feels as if a floodgate has been opened to a virtual world of unadulterated homage to the ’80s.
    Sadly, the lush vocals in “Skin of the Night” far overpower its synthesized accompaniment. However, “Graveyard Girl,” though written as a story of a young Goth girl, carries less weight in its delivery, offering more energy and pep allowing the background to serve as the lead. “Couleurs,” as lead single, deserves such honor. Integrated and harmonious balance builds delicately upon itself until becoming full on groovy.
    Overall, Saturdays = Youth is an offer to turn back in time and revisit a world that made a lifelong impact on many of our musical experiences. Regardless of one’s memories of the ’80s and hair bands and hair gel and colors that have since been removed from both the Crayola 150 pack and the color wheel, the music itself had impact and left its mark. Enjoy this sound solid option of momentary redemption from other intensities in today’s world. —Michelle Manker

Justin Nozuka
(Glassnote Records/RED Distribution)

    Holly, the debut album from 19-year-old singer-songwriter Justin Nozuka, is saturated in the naïve wistfulness that makes teenagers buy into the misconception that heartbreak is somehow romantic.
A 19-year-old kid’s tortured pining feels disingenuous. I suspect that the sentiment here is based solely on Nozuka’s expectations rather than his vast experience with love. He sings of heartbreak as if it’s some pending right-of-passage as opposed to the source of unimaginable pain and paralyzing despair that adults know it to be.
However, there is a certain amount of charm throughout Holly.
    His voice is strong and the writing is impressive. The delta swagger of “Be Back Soon” is an early highlight here. The lead single “After Tonight” is so earnest and sappy that it’s just begging to be featured on the next episode of “The Hills.” And “Save Me” deals with difficult subject matter that would have strongly benefited from the ink of a more mature pen.
    While many writers are comparing Nozuka to Ray LaMontagne and Damien Rice, I just don’t hear it; those are guys dealing with real heartbreak … not this imagined stuff. Holly would, however, fit nicely on the shelf, right between Gavin DeGraw and Rocco DeLuca. —Brent Owen

Mountain Tracks: Vol. 5
Yonder Mountain String Band
(Frog Pad Records)

    So here we are … another live album by lauded bluegrass outfit Yonder Mountain String Band. These guys have a knack for smoothing the rough edges of an otherwise obtuse genre that breeds mostly fanatics. Casual bluegrass fans are rare — either they love the music or they hate it — however, YMSB bridges both sides of that particular aisle nicely.
    The first disc is a compilation of the band’s best live performances over the past couple of years. Standouts here are several. The opening track “Sideshow Blues” keeps the down home arrangements solid, with bluesy vocals that shouldn’t fit but somehow ends up working perfectly. “Didn’t Go Wrong,” “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and “Southbound” are just a few other gems on this tight collection.
    On the second disc, the sound quality falls off dramatically as they compile songs from a show last summer in Columbus, Ohio. Stemming from a single performance, the “Jam Band” in YMSB comes out here. They then get bogged down in the same trap as most of their jammy contemporaries do, when it comes to vault-raiding releases, and that is this: While loose improvisation makes for a compelling live show, it does not translate well to live albums. —Brent Owen

Mission in Progress
Morgan Heritage
(VP Records)

    Morgan Heritage is arguably the most consistent reggae band active today. Across almost a dozen albums in nearly as many years, these siblings bring some of the most solid modern roots music available. And there’s something for everybody on a Morgan disc. If you like the Horace Andy/Richie Stephens school of reggae-crooner, look no further than highlights “Politician” and “Yute Dem Share.” If you like a raspier Michael Franti or Damian Marley flavor, check out “The Fight.” If you’re like me and a lot of your reggae love comes from watching the lovely Rachel of BET’s late reggae show in the early ’90s, flash back with me to the Born Jamerican-styled “Brooklyn & Jamaica.” Maybe you have some casual reggae interest and you want the “Get Up Stand Up” hinting title cut. All bases are covered.
    This is a disc you get at just the right time: Just as the weather breaks, you finally crack open some windows and feel the wind in your hair, you slice open the plastic on Mission In Progress and grab a Red Stripe. The album falters a bit at the start of the second half, but corrects itself soon enough to make for a solid start to your springtime. —Damien McPherson