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cds: Now Hear This

Slack Family, The Taters, James "Saxsmo" Gates, Various Artists' Floating Folk Festival, Nat King Kong, Carbon Leaf

Nine of the 15 tunes were written by the band, but both originals and covers consistently work on a number of levels. One of the best of the set is the Slack Family's cover of "Ready For the Time." It's a tender tune handled with appropriate care. "The Wilderness" pays worthy and quick-tempo tribute to Rebel soldiers long gone. "Fergus County Jail" tells the story about the poor boy in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Skelding's fine fiddle gently captures the graceful heartbreak of "Chloe." There's a snappy little tempo change in "Shout Out" that really pumps the tune up and "Mem'ries I Can't Remember" is an upbeat tale of misguided choices that showcases the lightning fingers of the band members.

The only clinker is Townes Van Zandt's great tune "White Freightliner Blues" or "White Freightliner" as listed here. Somehow the boys don't catch the sorrow evoked by the song in choosing to play it as a simple traveling tale. It's too quick, clipped and clean. But that's a small quibble. The other songs ring with truth and honesty and as a unit this band plays together seamlessly.

Nothing here gets in the way of the songs and each of these talented players knows when to jump in and jump out. "Pickin' Up the Slack" is a first-rate pickin' and singin' party. — Ames Arnold

The Taters "RECESS" (Molio Town) ****

Drawing from the well of rootsy Americana pop epitomized by the light twang of Bakersfield-style country (Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam) and the ambitious arrangements and heavenly tenor of Roy Orbison era Nashville, the Taters' latest release shines in many ways.

Craig Evans' lead vocals, stellar throughout, are even worthy of comparison with Orbison or Raul Malo of the Mavericks on some cuts, especially on "Never Really Meant To Be," and that's rare territory indeed. The production is slick and shimmering, with instruments nicely separated and ensemble vocals captured well. String arrangements are smoothly incorporated and ably delivered, and soloing doesn't miss a beat — whether it's from a diesel-fueled lead guitar or the gentle wide-open feeling of a pedal-steel guitar.

The rhythmically impeccable Stu Grimes provides a host of percussion accents that delight in both taste and economy — never too much, always just right. The variety of background vocals even extend to blue-eyed soul style "doo wops" and "sha la las," which busts the Taters out of purely Nashville turf, bringing to mind a Coney Island or Jersey Shore boardwalk. Attentive ears will even pick up hints of Buddy Holly, the Beatles and Motown. A cover of Jonathan Edwards' "Sunshine" starts out fairly ordinarily, but percolates into a chugging version, complete with a controlled but burning guitar solo. Standout tracks are the complex bolero of "The Kiss" and a "Save the Last Dance For Me"-styled album closer "Raphael."

Overall, this is a strong and accomplished effort. The only weakness is that there may be a bit too much polish in the production. I could have stood for more roughness and edge on some cuts. On the other hand, it's hard to fault an album for sounding too good. — Andy Garrigue

James "Saxsmo" Gates "C'mon Over to My House" ***

James "Saxsmo" Gates was born into jazz. His father was (and is) an accomplished tenor sax player; his mother exposed him in utero by dancing at the Cotton Club during her pregnancy. Since he returned to Richmond in the late '80s, after graduating from Berklee and cutting his professional teeth on the New York scene, Gates has built a reputation as a versatile, crowd-pleasing performer.

Gates' playing defies easy categorization, a bit too much R&B production polish for the straight-ahead pigeonhole, a bit too much soloing for smooth jazz. Gates is an improviser, capable of igniting a lot of energy in live performances; the flames are somewhat banked to a warm glow on the CD. His alto lines may engage the brain, but their primary target is the feet.

"C'mon," recorded at Shockoe Bottom's "In Your Ear" studio, features a grab-bag of area players, notably Ban Caribe leader, percussionist Kevin Davis, pianist Dr. Weldon Hill and guitarist Alan Parker. The selections are a blend of funk workouts and soul ballads.

The Jazz Crusaders used to make music like this; modern counterparts, like Soulive, slice the hearts off their sleeves with a postmodern edge. For the most part "C'mon" is the moral equivalent of a romantic record, with the sax as vocalist. It's sweet, romantic and holds its own with the contemporary competition.

It's a good album, but we're still waiting for the occasion when Gates' kinetic talent blasts through the spun-sugar studio confections of an even better recording. — Peter McElhinney

Various Artists "Floating Folk Festival Vol. III" (Planetary) ***

The great thing about the Floating Folk Festival is that it gives both veteran and "under-the-radar" singer-songwriters a flexible performance platform. It also provides a nurturing songwriting environment. This, of course, means the quality of lyric or song can be uneven and among the standouts there can be the stinker.

It's therefore a pleasure to report that the third Festival CD is a satisfying effort overall. The styles are varied, the performances are solid and most of the 19 cuts are strong. Because the tunes were recorded at different times in a number of studios, there is a good variety of production and instrumentation. Most of the performers come from the singer-songwriter side of the tracks but each has his or her distinct way with a tune.

The list of performers is long but some highlights come to the fore. Kate Lawton's "In the First Place" gets things off to a good start with a look at faith and relationships, and Julie Goldman's "The Remains" likewise comes down hard and true on infidelity and confusion. Eddy Kitchen hits the right chord with a solid country take on "The Bottom of the Bottle," and Meade Skelton's big honky-tonk sound of "Not That Lucky" is an ear-grabber.

Jim Westlyn's upbeat "The Best Thing" features plenty of horns and sass. Regan wraps her gorgeous voice around "Useless" with simmering rock 'n' roll grace. Harry Gore's "Settle For One Girl" is acoustic power-pop at its best and it is truly a set highlight. Pam McCarthy's look at paying musical dues in "Before the Big Time" is delivered with her usual soulful elegance.

If I had to pick a favorite, it might be Normal Norman's delightfully wicked look at childhood games in "I Don't Play Doctor Anymore." The Festival's third volume is the best effort yet from a group of hardworking tune-smiths. More power to those who put their hearts on the line for the sake of the song.

— A.A.

Nat King Kong "Kong of the Jangle" (Glass Tube) *****

Straight out of the garage, these 12 original tunes capture rock 'n' roll's timeless heart. You just can't beat a sound graced by plenty of sturdy electric leads, tasteful slide guitar, Elvis Costello-tinged vocals, powerful drumming and terrific songwriting. The band certainly tips its stylistic hat to classic music-makers such as George Harrison and the Kinks, but this is in no way a retro project. From the opening sonic wail, set-opener "Whose Side Are You On?" alerts a listener that this record has some good stuff in store. "I Don't Want to Wake Up" throws a listener a nice Latin-flavored tempo change and features some of that fine slide and a bass that moves the tune along. "Roll" reveals that Kong can play a ballad as well as crunch out cranked-up rock. "Any Planet at All" comes off as a strange and clever 21st-century version of a Hank Williams song. And any project that includes a tune called "God Save the Kinks" captures this listener's heart. Recorded with few overdubs and tons of spirit, "Jangle" is a blast of sound recommended to those who are hungry for live, unadorned bass, drums and guitar. There's nothing fancy here. There's nothing experimental here. Yeah, it's been done before. But these guys do it great one more time. Nat King Kong gives a listener punchy and raw, cut-to-the-bone pop-rock music at its best.

— A.A.

Carbon Leaf "5 Alive!" (Constant Ivy Music/Carbon Leaf) ***

If your previous Carbon Leaf experiences involve a fraternity house and "Beast" Lite, you may be surprised: These guys have come a long way since their early days as a Grateful Dead cover band.

Their latest release, a double live CD, brings to light the talent their legions of high-school fans have already caught on to. Thankfully there are few of the traditional Irish, "Mary Mac"-type tunes on this album. Instead songs structured in the Dave Matthews vein will pull you in. They start soft and tender, then slowly, once you're hooked, build into a crescendo and will have you singing along. They also skillfully pull off an a cappella tune that sounds like it could have been on the "O Brother" soundtrack. "Blue Ridge Laughing" features nice harmonizing and an ever so slight Irish tinge that proves the potential in the band's original sound.

Maybe it's not that there is less of the Irish sound, but that it has been better blended into their roots music. Either way, Carbon Leaf has proven they can take their influences and fold them into something all their own. — Carrie

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