By Robert Rodi
I’m just a hair late to the party when it comes to “No Hotel,” the new album by Chicago’s own neo-vaudeville barnstormers, The Claudettes; but the album (which came out in September) is definitely one you should be spinning, streaming or otherwise ingesting whole. It’s the work of just three players—pianist Johnny Iguana, drummer Michael Caskey and (intermittently) vocalist Yana—but there’s enough energy going on to power your average Third World airport.
The opener, “Big Easy Women,” is full of a barreling, hyper-saloon piano banging, with a bridge that playfully evokes silent-movie peril. But it’s the second cut—“California, Here I Come”—that really makes you sit up and take notice. The Claudettes knock the hoary old Al Jolson tune into a minor key, transforming it into a wittily downbeat comment on the cruelty that so often accompanies the go-west-young-man dream.
“You’d Have to Be Out of Your Mind (To Play These Blues)” starts out as a driving, rock-influenced number; but a third of the way in, the tune dribbles to a halt, as though Iguana is struck by sudden existentialist doubt—and it’s thrilling (and funny) to listen to him work through it, and get back to that steamrolling original theme. “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” is a cover of a sixties France Gall hit, which features one of that decade’s most insidious earworms. The Claudettes give it a brawling, “Munsters”-style vibe in place of the original’s Brel-like blitheness. Similarly, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” is almost unrecognizable; the everybody-belt-now original (from Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun”) is basically pureed into pure chaos. You have to hear it to believe it.
Throughout the whole album, the players never flag—their energy level is through the roof, if not through the thermosphere—and Yana’s breezy vocals glide appealingly over all the roof-rattling tumult.
“No Hotel” is available through Yellow Dog Records’ website.
Cold Country is one of the many projects undertaken by the seemingly endlessly ambitious singer-songwriter Sean McConnell, though I get the impression it’s one of the more personal. “Fall,” the latest release from the group (which also includes Chris Jesurun, Jayson Homyak, Anna Holmquist and Will Wholesome) is an EP of B-sides from the previously released full-length “Willow;” despite which, it’s very cohesive. These tunes might have been written to go together.
“Scratching the Surface of a Diamond” is a lovely, plaintive opener; it features beautifully deft playing, and McConnell’s voice is gorgeously tinged with ache and experience. But most striking of all are the superb lyrics: “And I cast shadows on the trees, never them onto me / You mean the world to me, not just some mountaintop to reach / More than the centuries that we knew would bring them crumbling to their knees… / Let them fall.”
Equally stunning is “Letter to My Daughters,” with its swooning, liquid guitar and a delicate touch that evokes parental love; and again, lyrics that just plain knock you flat. “Heads of stone will learn much harder than the ones who would softly say / Who am I, if not a vessel for the tides of time to sway?”
”When We Were Young” is another standout, a wonderfully wry slacker anthem, with a genial, slouching charm. “My mother told me I could be what I wanted if I only got my ass out of bed,” McConnell laments. “Mama I’m trying just as best as I can to do some living here before I’m dead.”
In the closer, “Siamese,” an electric guitar comes growling in like a low-riding helicopter to disperse all the lighter tones and fragile imagery; it’s a straight-up drop-kick into rock ‘n’ roll longing for uncut sensation. “Give me a vision I can touch with all my senses / Give me a dollar I can spend / I’ve been taking all my sidesteps / Taking all my pills / The bridge is what I cross but it’s the train that keeps me still.” Yeah, there’s range here, and ideas, and a confident, distinctive point of view. And these are the B-sides? Sign me up for the As.
“Fall” is available through Cold Country’s Bandcamp page.
Finally, folk-punk legends The Mekons (or most of them anyway) and pomo-country cult figure Robbie Fulks have collaborated on “Jura,” an album of songs written together, covered, or taken from traditional tunes and recorded in Jura, Scotland.
According to the press release, Jura is an island with more sheep than people, “so bare and infertile the Vikings passed it by” (which might be considered a net negative, given the Vikings’ current cultural cachet) and is “a place replete with longing, isolation and remote Gaelic oddness”—as well as a whiskey distillery, apparently. For what that’s worth.
The album is a Black Friday Record Store Day release, and so will be available digitally and on limited-edition vinyl LP only in select outlets on November 27. I’ve heard several cuts and they’re amazing. They have the hardscrabble romance and salt breeze of cynicism you associate with the landscape and people the project conjures; and it’s hard to resist an album whose opening refrain is “Reason walks when rabid dogs gnaw at its hands.” There are some good, rousing foot-stompers, too. Do yourself a favor and grab this one while the grabbing’s good.
And if November 27 just seems too long a wait, a trio of Mekons (Jon Langford, Sally Timms and Rico Bell) will be joining Fulks at his home base, The Hideout (1354 West Wabansia, hideoutchicago.com), to perform songs from “Jura” on November 23. Just to tell you.
“Jura” is available through Bloodshot Records’ website.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena.” His jazz quintet recently completed a two-year residency at Uncommon Ground, and he regularly hosts a jazz singers’ jam at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge. His literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.