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Thursday, November 4, 2010

 

Lissie

 

“Catching a Tiger”

Fat Possum Records

On her five-song EP last year, Lissie Maurus played understated, spare songs colored by both the blues and early country music. She even covered Hank Williams’ “Wedding Bells,” wrapping the song in dreamy reverb and ghostly vocal layers. As pretty as her voice is — and it is something to behold — the songs retained a rough Shelby Lynne edge.

The original songs from the EP are here, along with several other originals, all of them gussied up in Nashville with a backup band and brighter production from Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King.

Much of that original coarseness has been buffed away, polished up for soccer-mom-friendly iPod playlists. Still, many of these songs are so catchy and so thoughtfully composed — and Lissie’s bold, rich voice is so irresistible — that it’s almost all forgivable.

The gently driving, and unfairly catchy, “Little Lovin’ ” yearns for country living and simpler times, while the jangling “Stranger” recalls ’50s girls groups. Lissie’s voice soars and swoops over a simple piano and guitar riff in the remade “Bully” while the melancholy piano ballad “Oh Mississippi” is positively one of the finest Americana songs of the year.

Still, the album can be a little jarring as more intentionally pop songs like “Record Collector” and “When I’m Alone” slip into warm and huggy-rock Lillith Fair territory.

 

Kim Taylor

 

“Little Miracle”

Don’t Darling Me Records

Listening to this cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Sharp Cutting Wings” tells you all you need to know about Cincinnati singer Kim Taylor.

The song is stripped bare to strumming guitar, light piano and aching lyrics, lines about lost love and regrets.

“The sun can shine down/ All on my town/ But, it never shines in my day,” Taylor sings, but just barely.

There’s a buzzy little twinge to Taylor’s understated voice, with a twisting jazz sense to rhythm and phrasing, and she wisely never lets anything else here get in the way.

At just 33 minutes, Taylor gets in and gets out on this filler-free album, with nine spare but loaded songs, mostly tender piano ballads, with a little countrified organ on cuts like “Lost and Found” and “American Child.” When the pace does pick up, it’s just enough for a barroom shuffler like “Do You Ever Feel Lonely.”

There’s plenty of gloom here, but it never feels melodramatic or self-indulgent. Taylor’s gift is in stating the human condition in poetic brevity. She’s an artist in full control of her powers.

 

Bob Dylan

 

“The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos”

Columbia/Legacy

Just when you think the Bob Dylan bootleg barrel couldn’t be scraped any deeper, out comes “The Witmark Demos,” a true gem that actually sheds new light on the mighty troubadour.

Legal light, that is. While most of these songs have been circulating on black market bootlegs for 50 years, at least 15 of the songs are getting their first official commercial release.

Recorded for two publishing companies between 1962 and ’64, before Dylan was even 24, the songs are bare bones and solo, with Dylan accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, harmonica and piano.

What’s striking is how enduring many of these early songs have been, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Masters of War” and “The Times They are a Changin’.” What also jumps out is how universally beloved many of these songs are, having been covered by thousands upon thousands of artists over the years.

But, that’s not the real revelation. The fun of this two-CD box set is how charming the young Dylan could be. He forgets the words to “Man on the Street” and offers a bashful and rambling introduction to “Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.”

The other even more important revelation is witnessing how quickly Dylan develops as a songwriter, pushing beyond the heavily Woody Guthrie-influenced folk ballads such as “Rambling Gambling Willie” and “Hard Times in New York Town” to the more poetically sophisticated “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Paths of Victory.”

The only catch here is that the recordings aren’t exactly hi-fi. But so what. The rawness of the sessions only add to their historic allure and enhance the sense of being there for the big bang of a colossal career, the birth of one of the four or five best songwriters of the last 50 years.

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