Vivian Cook’s Dynamite Debut, and More

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Vivian Cook named her debut album The Long Shot after the subject line on the email she sent to producer R. Walt Vincent, asking him whether he wanted to work with her on it. Assuming there’s any justice in the world, it will become clear that a more accurate title for the record would have been The Sure Thing.

On standouts like the intense “Know-It-All” and “Just Kids,” the catchy “Train Conversations,” and the anthemic, exuberant “Farewell L.A.,” Cook delivers idiosyncratic vocals and a steady stream of quotable lines that convey as much attitude as, say, the debuts from Elvis Costello and the Pretenders. Her melodies are uniformly terrific and so is the instrumentation here, which sounds as if it were recorded live in the studio but clearly wasn’t, since much of the full band sound was produced by just Cook on acoustic and electric guitars and piano and producer Vincent (Liz Phair, Tommy Keene) on guitars, piano, organ, keyboards, percussion, orchestral arrangements, and synth programming. (There’s also a drummer and, on two tracks, another guitarist.)

Cook sums up her sex-drugs-and-relationships turf in a press release, noting that her songs are “about navigating the stormy waters of adolescence and surviving, which isn’t a given. They’re about getting dealt a winning hand…only to get fuck-all in the next round. And composting, because even shit can be turned into something beautiful.”

She has certainly created something beautiful—and exciting and original—right here. I can’t stop playing the album.

BRIEFLY NOTED 

kellyslot_bittersweetKelly’s Lot, Bittersweet. Blues/soul singer Kelly Zirbes heads this veteran L.A.-based outfit, which incorporates elements of folk, country, and rock and employs instruments ranging from bass and pedal steel to sax and clarinet. As Zirbes says in the liner notes, the title track is for Vietnam veterans “who were not welcomed home properly” but “every song [on the CD] has a bittersweet element to it.” Like her frequently one-word song titles (e.g. “Proud,” “Happy,” “Sleep”), her lyrics tend to be simple, and they also sometimes incorporate clichés (“a world that is safe and warm,” “the emptiness I feel”). But on the best tracks here—such as the plaintive “Come Home,” which Zirbes performs with just guitar accompaniment—her emotive vocals are enough to hold your attention.

the-feelies-in-betweenThe Feelies, In Between. The Feelies, a New Jersey-based rock outfit, aren’t exactly prolific: this is only their sixth studio album in a career that has spanned 40 years, including a 17-year hiatus. But their recordings have proved worth waiting for, and In Between is no exception. The guitars of cofounders Glenn Mercer and Bill Million remain front and center on this latest CD, which finds the group continuing to stake out territory somewhere between power pop and punk/new wave. Like such bands as Yo La Tengo, they manage to keep a foot in Velvet Underground territory while also delivering radio-ready harmonies, catchy melodies, and shimmering guitars. There’s a laid-back sameness to much of this material that minimizes its impact, but it’s still an enjoyable listen from first track to last.

caroline-reese-tenderfootCaroline Reese & the Drifting Fifth, Tenderfoot. Pennsylvania-based Caroline Reese sings and plays guitar, banjo, piano, and organ on this likable Americana release, which draws on country, rock, and folk. She wrote 10 of the tracks and cowrote the 11th with Mark Watter, who coproduced with Reese, plays guitars, and sings backup. (The album also features a bass player and a drummer.) Tenderfoot breaks no new stylistic ground—we’ve heard more than a few bands and singers who sound something like this before—but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t sound quite good. Reese is an expressive and versatile singer, and her material is compelling.

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