Press Play

There are some albums, which, after putting them in the CD player, sound as if the artist were right in the room. Sometimes, in the case of, say, early Joni Mitchell or Elliott Smith albums, this is a good thing. From the soul genre, take Otis Redding’s discography.

Ruthie FosterThe Phenomenal Ruthie Foster

There are some albums, which, after putting them in the CD player, sound as if the artist were right in the room. Sometimes, in the case of, say, early Joni Mitchell or Elliott Smith albums, this is a good thing. From the soul genre, take Otis Redding’s discography. With the exception of the concert recordings, it seems like we can hear the band right there, playing off each other, with The Big O signaling the horn section.

In the case of Ruthie Foster, it’s a little different. We hear the intimacy of the band playing in the room together, albeit a very “dead” room, a soundproofed, professionally treated room wherein the drum set sounds like not only is it in the room with us, the listeners, but the snare drum is actually next to our heads. As are all the toms, the cymbals, even the organ’s speaker is right up there at intimate proximity. The thing about this album, though, is that “The Phenomenal” Ruthie Foster’s voice is also as loud as all the instruments, if not often louder. She has an undeniably strong, powerful voice, but on this album, we don’t get the feeling that it’s totally under control. Somebody like Aretha Franklin is able to harness her powerful voice, so on the verses of a song like “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” she can sing softly, with a palpable tenderness, and on the chorus, she unleashes hell and we get chills up the spine. On The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, we get the feeling she could do that, if she really worked on her powers of moderation a little more. If she’s singing at a volume of 10 all the time, then the power of a nuanced verse is lost, as is the power that could be there when she really wants to break loose.

She’s Spanish, I’m AmericanShe’s Spanish, I’m American EP

This is a side project of adult pop singer/songwriter Josh Rouse, recorded with his Spanish girlfriend, Paz Suay. The music is fun and uncomplicated, and as much as one might be loathe to hear something that so obviously panders to the cross-continental Starbucks audience, the songs are catchy with hooks aplenty. This is fun, light, guitar-driven rock. Their two voices blend seamlessly, as Suay’s voice stays full of breathy seduction a la Isobel Campbell of Belle & Sebastian, on “Car Crash,” while Rouse’s voice remains soft and strangely feminine, but full and strong as on the playful, meditative “Answers.” On the album opener “Car Crash,” they sing in unison, with Suay covering an octave higher than her boyfriend. The song basically reflects the opposite sentiment of The Smiths’ classic “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” for in this song, the pair of lovers “don’t want to die in a car crash / in the back of a New York City cab.” This is no Romeo and Juliet. For them, to live in Valencia is much more romantic than dying together, for they’ve got “so much left to live for.” This is breezy, idealistic pop music, which would make a good soundtrack for drinking an iced Americano on a warm spring day, while careening recklessly through city streets with the windows down.

The Cat EmpireTwo Shoes

When looking at a CD by a band with a silly name like The Cat Empire, it might be easy to assume that the band might sound something like, maybe, Cat Power playing Bob Dylan’s slickly produced 1985 Empire Burlesque album. Now as intriguing as that musical combination might be, it’s way, way off, and it’s a bad assumption. Because not only is everything in Dylan’s career infinitely more interesting than The Cat Empire, but even the worst Cat Power album is miles beyond this “quirky” Australian band’s cheesy attempts at soul, reggae and R&B. Their promo materials ask us if America is “ready” for this band “who apparently never sleep.” To answer them, yes, we were ready 40 years ago, when this music might have been relevant, exciting, or have a reason for being in my speakers. Today, it’s just trashy attempts to re-create of the sound of bands from a better era, like The Commitments, but substitute that band’s charm and talent with thick, impenetrable Oz accents. They also brag about using no guitars, so what that leaves us is just organs and electric pianos played through distortion pedals, essentially simulating guitar tones. The lyrics are almost pure surface, mostly about dancing, staying up late and basically being a beach bum, Australia-style. The band shares two lead singers who trade off from one song to the next. Felix Riebl has a tolerable, average voice, but when Harry Angus is singing, rather than listening to the lyrics, one is likely to spend most of the time deciding which member of the Lollipop Guild he is. My guess is he’s the orange-shirted one.

Aaron ManninoSympathy for the Wolf

Aaron Mannino is a talented singer/songwriter from Seattle, and he pretty much fits the mold for what you’d expect from the “singer/songwriter” label. He seems equally talented on piano and guitar. He sings well and clearly, he writes good melodies to generally upbeat songs about love, relationships, destiny, and fulfilling your potential, on songs like “The Person You Were Meant to Be,” “You’ve Got a Reason to Live” and “Happy Now.” He even covers Neil Young’s song “Birds.” The mood of the album is equal parts Cat Stevens, Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright, and even his Seattle compatriots The Posies. The point is, he’s fucking talented. Most songs feature Mannino’s multi-tracked voice doubling the melody and harmonizing with himself, frequently covering more than one harmony line. This is the kind of album that makes me glad to be a music reviewer. Strong songs, memorable melodies, and clever lyrics make Mannino a welcome addition to the Northwest music community. His lyrics tend toward the “relationship problems” mode, as on “The Person You Were Meant to Be” where he sings, “All the while you’ve been my lover and my best friend…in a lot you’ve been a sinner and a saint, dear…I’ve come back round when you’re not afraid to be the person you were meant to be.” This album is sort of self-released, according to his website, but it sounds as professionally recorded and mixed as any. With a talent as exceptional as his, it’s really kind of amazing that he’s not much more famous, but he’s still young and Seattle seems to be giving Mannino some due attention. So now, we wait for Portland and the rest of the world to catch up with this talent.