22 November 2006

Hoodoo Music Review

A review of Happiness In Time, by Nathan Maxwell

Nashville is more than just a city in Tennessee: the word calls to mind a kind of American music that is vibrant and alive with lush sounds across a spectrum of instruments. On the surface, it may seem easy to peg the Nashville sound as “country,” but that does a disservice to the city and its musical history by leaving out the steel-string guitars, the brass, and the backing vocals that also form signature elements of Rhythm & Blues, not to mention the mixture of rock, country, and R&B that has produced some of the best new American music in recent years.

Into this mix comes the new album from singer-songwriter Nathan Maxwell, Happiness In Time, produced and mixed by Anja Wodsak. (Full disclosure: Anja is a former colleague and close friend.) Much of it was recorded in Richmond, California, with some also done in Nashville, but – geography be damned – it is the latter city’s melange of sound that comes through so clearly here. Hoodoo Music’s web site says that they are looking to create “consistent, timeless albums based on a soulful, rhythm-based sound,” and they have done just that.

One of the most enchanting things about this new CD is that it’s difficult to pin down. The opening track, “Morning Comes,” starts with a down-scaling guitar riff leading into a full band start-up that sounds, for all of 2 seconds, like it could be a dead-ringer for a Rolling Stones-style opener – except it isn’t, and Maxwell’s voice makes that clear some six seconds in. Already by track two, “Come On Girl,” we’re somewhere else, with a piano-supported guitar line that sounds like a cross between the exuberance of the Reverend Al Green and some up-tempo Chicago-style blues. And so it goes, across different styles and tempos: “Down, But Not Out” is powerful, with musical punch lines that match Maxwell’s lyrics; “Sleep All Day, Stay Away All Night” brings back a Stones-ish style over lyrics that are New York to the bone; and “California Star,” the last track, is mournful, and beautifully underscored by excellent piano playing.

By no means is this to suggest that there is musical inconsistency here. To the contrary: Maxwell and Wodsak have clearly called on their vast collective knowledge of American sound to create an album that learns from the past while innovating for the future. It’s easy to hear lots of musical references, if that’s what your ear wants, but this is a much richer album than that. It is also important to note that Happiness In Time is an album of excellent musicianship, with a strong sense throughout that every member of the band is playing not just with emotion but, fundamentally, playing together. They’re limber enough not to feel overly produced, and tight enough to make very clear that this ain’t no average bar band.

Nathan Maxwell should be commended for his fearlessness in doing what many may dream of, but which few accomplish: listening and learning, and then going on to write songs and create music that contributes to the richness of our musical experience. When I think of it that way, it’s easy to understand the meaning of the album’s title; would that we all can achieve happiness in time.

13 November 2006


If David Mamet were to write a screenplay for teens (and if he could make a movie without Rebecca Pidgeon), Brick might be it. Rian Johnson's writing and directing creates an exciting, Noir-ish, slightly absurd tale of high school intrigue: a love affair gone sour, a few different varieties of double-cross, some drugs, some violence, and a dangerous dame who tries to play everyone.

One of the best things about this movie is its staccato, rapid-fire dialogue that forces the viewer to pay attention, as we grope to comprehend references to things we, the audience, don't yet know. Slowly, we -- along with "Brendan," played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (otherwise known for his role in 3rd Rock from the Sun) -- piece together the rough outlines of the tragedy at the center of the story. "Brendan" is the classically-appealing underdog, clever and unexpectedly tough, who stands up for what he knows is right. In doing so, he encounters some uncomfortable truths, but then, don't most heroes?

The supporting cast is also terrific, including a creepy Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss as the muscle-bound hot-head, and Nora Zeheter as the woman of intrigue. This is an independent movie well-worth seeing.

10 November 2006

Just Do It

It'll take less than two minutes. Ten simple, multiple choice questions.

A survey on subscriptions here. Really -- please. Thank you.