Reviews of CDs by the Ladies of New Orleans, Neneh Cherry and The Thing, and Alejandro Escovedo.

Cover art for Ingrid Lucia Presents New Orleans Female Vocalists

Various Artists
Ingrid Lucia Presents New Orleans Female Vocalists
(American Brat Collaboration)

Yesterday, I ended up in an unpleasant Facebook conversation with someone who thought he'd identified a fundamental flaw in the Liberal mindset because they're intolerant of Chik-Fil-A's intolerance, and it digressed from there. One woman argued that Obama didn't have a hand in her business and dug in to argue the myth of her complete independence and the nature of Obama's statement despite the fact that they were demonstronably untrue. The writers seemed very happy to declare themselves independent states apart from the rest of us, even though the American promise that you're never truly on your own is one of its best.

After that discouraging exchange, it was so reassuring to return to Ingrid Lucia Presents New Orleans Female Vocalists. As the title suggests, it's a one-stop sampler that features many of the prominent female vocalists in the city, and it's community-minded almost to a fault. Rather than protecting her turf, Lucia includes a number of women who work a similar songbook and style - Meschiya Lake, Miss Sophie Lee, Linnzi Zaorski and Sarah Quintana. Quintana's "With My Baby By My Aside" is particularly winning with her off-handed, understated delivery, but all acquit themselves well.

Lucia also includes artists who are sometimes part of different discussions, whether because they're more established (Banu Gibson, Tricia "Teedy" Boutte), a part of other traditions (Roselyn Lionhart) or off the roots music range (Alexandra Scott, whose "Something Altogether New" is Exhibit A why she should be playing more and getting more attention).

That democratic spirit can sometimes sink a project like this, and at 19 songs, it's a little long. But, it's more the sort of album that you'll be glad is a part of your iPod's shuffle than one you mow through in one sitting, so that's not such a concern. If nothing else, it documents a good moment for female vocalists in New Orleans in a good-hearted way. These days, we can use more of that.

Neneh Cherry and The Thing
The Cherry Thing
(Smalltown Supersound)

Neneh Cherry is best known for "Buffalo Stance" and "Buddy X," and part of what made her so magnetic in those songs is that unlike many of the female vocalists on dance hits from the late 1980s is that you felt that you were listening to somebody. Many women were presented house-style as voices divorced from personalities, but her chuckles and eccentric inflections hinted at a real person who wasn't only engaged with the words but the whole dance pop enterprise. 

My first exposure to Cherry was "Storm the Reality Asylum" and the brilliant "Bob Hope Takes Risks" by Rip, Rig and Panic. The band was an offshoot from second generation British punk band The Pop Group, and at the time, being the teenaged daughter of trumpeter Don Cherry was her claim to fame. Together, they made a version of punk rock that questioned punk, funk and jazz orthodoxies in songs that still hold up (for the most part) today.

The Cherry Thing is the more mature expression of those early musical impulses. On it, she performs an album dominated by covers with Swedish avant-garde group The Thing and once again marks out a space that honors jazz, punk and pop without embracing any orthodoxies without question. Mats Gustafsson's saxophone is the dominant solo instrument, but it guides Cherry's vocal through a delicate melody on his "Sudden Moment." When she steps aside, the track explodes when he and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love take off into an extended group improvisation.

Cherry helps define the album, but The Thing is hardly her backing band, nor do they forego jazz, playing compositions by Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. Still, the album is at its most exciting when they meet on neutral territory, particularly on Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" and The Stooges' "Dirt." The former seems like an unlikely song to become a standard since the New York electro-punk band specialized in audience confrontation and an astringent musical minimalism. Springsteen has covered it though, perhaps because of the song's hard-won optimism that Cherry taps into. "Dream Baby Dream" invites the band to groove, and its open-endedness gives Gustafsson room as he explores the song's simple melodicism, first subtly, then ferociously. Cherry sounds most engaged with the hope in the lyric when Gustafsson's at his fieriest, as if a moment that completely alive is the thing she's dreaming about.

"Dirt" isn't so much a revelation as the band taking the song to its natural conclusion. It welds the end of Side One to the end of Side Two ("L.A. Blues") of Fun House, and in truth, there are few ideas on The Cherry Thing that weren't sketched out in crayon on the second side of The Stooges' classic. But there's no sin in being inspired by a masterpiece, particularly when the results show similar vitality.

Alejandro Escovedo
Big Station

As much as I've enjoyed recent Alejandro Escovedo albums, they've felt a little forced. Real Animal's ode to punk was clearly heartfelt and at times thrilling, but some of the heart-in-the-gutter moments were a bit precious. Street Songs of Love was also solid, but it seemed to offer up a streamlined version of Escovedo ready for the Springsteen audience that manager Jon Landau helped introduce him to. The new Big Station is his least encumbered, most natural-sounding album in a while.

Lyrically, he's dealing with a world in transition and rarely for the better. That gives almost every track richness as he sets them musically in contexts that reference the worlds he has lived in and the bands he's loved. "Man of the World" and "Big Station" recall songs Syl Sylvain wrote for The New York Dolls, while "Sally Was a Cop" delicately and beautifully touches on the impact of the Mexican drug wars. "Bottom of the World" could have come from Escovedo 10 to 15 years ago, as could the dreamy "Can't Make Me Run." "Party People" evokes The Rolling Stones circa Some Girls, while "Too Many Tears" reminds you that he has covered The Gun Club's "Sex Beat."

None of these references seem derivative, though. Part of Escovedo's appeal is that he's one of us, a music fan. He's not only unafraid to let you know where he comes from; he wants you to know. He wants you to hear the Bowie and T. Rex albums that producer Tony Visconti produced because he wants you to enjoy them as much as he did. He's not only in love with his art or his music; he's in love with rock 'n' roll, and he wants you to hear how he fits in. I could live without the sing-spoken "Headstrong Crazy Fools," but Big Station presents Escovedo at his most effortless and charming.