Summer six-pack 

Six new CD releases that rise above the dregs

Aah, summer! A time of expansion, of creativity, of new growth blossoming and young birds stretching their wings to take to the skies for their first flight.

In the world of music, summer is a time for new releases ascending the charts or dropping from the public consciousness like lead balloons. As you can imagine, this summer has been no different. Lots of albums have been released, possibly more than in any previous summer.

As for how these new releases stack up to their predecessors, it will not surprise you to hear that some of this summer’s albums are great, but most of them are total crap. The smart money says you’d better stay away from over-hyped albums from Mariah Carey and Air Supply (another reunion that never should have been).

Curious where to turn for some of the better releases of the summer? Here’s a survey of six albums that may be worth your listen, depending on your tastes. Most are from relatively little-known artists, although one is from one of the biggest names around. Without further ado, here are six CDs of the summer, in order of how much I enjoy them: Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, Drum Hat Buddha: If you listen often to folk music radio, you know that Carter and Grammer’s second album, Tanglewood Tree, was the most-played by folk DJs in 2000. They are relative newcomers to the recording scene, having released their first album, When I Go, independently in 1998.

To put it nicely, Carter and Grammer are no spring chickens. To put it really nicely, they sing and play on Drum Hat Buddha with sincerity, modesty, and power. Carter’s songwriting has been widely praised and he plays guitar and banjo like nobody’s business. Grammer plays a mean fiddle. But their true gift lies in their vocals, which blend beautifully in the harmonies that weave throughout the album. “Gentle Arms of Eden” is the gem of the bunch, viewing the world with honesty, compassion, and an unreasonably lovely hope for the future.

BR549, This is BR549: A big-time honky-tonk band with some of the smartest and funniest lyrics this side of Bill Cosby’s raunchy, mid-60s comedy albums. If you have ever wandered down to the Union Club (or anywhere else) to enjoy Bob Wire and the Fencemenders, you’ll love BR549. The opening song provides a glimpse of the country-fried comedy within:

“There’s only one thing you got wrong with you/It ain’t the whole world looking at you/Why don’t you find a life that’s real/Too lazy to work, too nervous to steal.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to imply that BR549 is some sort of freak comedy act. They’re an accomplished, proficient country band with two excellent singer/songwriter/guitar players. The gem of the bunch is Don Herron, who is credited with playing acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin, electric mandolin, dobro, banjo, cello, and lap and pedal steel guitars. Anyone know where I can find someone like that around these parts?

Willie Nelson, The Rainbow Collection: Excuse the cliché, but Willie’s collection of “children’s” songs isn’t only for the little ones, but speaks to the kid within each of us. Willie sings these songs pretty straight, elevating several to a newfound maturity. He keeps it light with tracks like “I’m My Own Grandpa.” Rest assured that the collection will appeal to both the youngster and the grandparent in that relationship.

Ass Ponys, Lohio: Usually, it’s best to ignore the propaganda that record companies send you along with albums they want you to review. But in the case of the Ass Ponys, their biography contains a line that helps ease some initial concerns that many people have about the band:

“We got together in John’s apartment a couple of times and thereafter were Ass Ponys, a shitty name that Dan had written on the end of an old possible band names list,” writes Chuck Cleaver, the band’s singer and lyricist. “We figured we’d change it later and never have.”

Cleaver’s voice sounds a little like Adam Duritz from Counting Crows, but Lohio is harder, deeper, and better than anything from the Crows. Lohio is a hidden gem of hard-rockin’ Alternative Country.

The Silos, Laser Beam Next Door: Although it starts strongly with a groovy drum backbeat on “Satisfied,” Laser Beam leaves nowhere near the impact of the Silos’ 1987 gem, Cuba. One has to seriously question the inclusion of the final track, “Wooky Do,” whose opening is unfortunately evocative of Foreigner’s “Urgent.” If you’re a die-hard Silos fan, you probably have purchased Laser Beam already. If not, you might want to save your pennies.

16 Horsepower, Hoarse: Maybe it’s a requirement that albums released on Checkered Past Records (the label that also release Lohio and Laser Beam Next Door) must contain material blatantly referential to the heyday of classic rock. At least one has to wonder when presented with 16 Horsepower’s stripped-down version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Risin’.”

Sure, bands are free to cover whatever songs they want, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to include it on your live album. The 11 tracks on Hoarse reveal a curious blend of southern rock, old-world accordion, and a heaping helping of Gothic gloom. The album concludes with a cover of Joy Division’s “Day of the Lords,” which makes you wonder if the timing of this release wasn’t some sort of mistake. Maybe Hoarse was meant to be released six months from now, when the giddy glee of summer gives way to the oppressive gloom of winter.

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