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  • Rich Kassirer

CD reviews: Grace Potter, Jakob Dylan, Pieta Brown, Jackie Greene, Crooked Still, Shannon McNally


Despite the fact that Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a killer, must-see live band, their past studio albums have never held up to the promise quite as well.

But with this self-titled release, the group is on the verge of something big.

First and foremost is the band’s change in personnel. Grace has a new bass player, Catherine Popper, and has added a second guitarist, Benny Yurco, to her longtime bandmates guitarist Scott Tournet and drummer Matthew Burr.

The new lineup allows for a fuller – and sexier – sound, and a chance for Grace to step out front even more.

But don’t be led astray, she’s not putting down her Flying V or forsaking her Hammond B3 chores. That is very clear from the first tune “Paris (Ooh La La),’’ which opens with some screaming guitars. It sounds like a ’70s Heart tune on steroids. It’s a great way to introduce her new band and sound.

The best tunes are the hard-rocking numbers, including “Medicine,” “Only Love” and “Hot Summer Night,” which mix the dual-guitar punch with the dual female vocal harmonies. And “Oasis,” another standout, rides along on a trippy ’60s feel.

This is a sexier Grace than we’ve seen before. On “Goodbye Kiss,’’ breakup lyrics are woven into a reggae beat. And ballads “Tiny Light,” the band’s single, and “Colors” are sure to win them some commercial radioplay.

Grace continues to show off her great pipes. She can belt out and lift a song or play it coy and quiet when the mood calls for it, such as on “One Short Night,” an autobiographical tune about an affair.

The band shows its versatility in the album-ending tunes, from the soulful “That Phone” to the scorcher “Hot Summer Night” to the near-country stylings of “Things I Never Needed.” This is the new Grace Potter. Some of her jam-band fans may not take to her new sound, but it is a good fit for her, mixing bits of ‘70s classic rock and southern rock influences – with a dash of Tina Turner – and melding them into something fresh that showcases the talents of a very talented performer.

JAKOB DYLAN “Woman + Country” (Out now)

There is something other than his genes that makes Jakob Dylan someone worth following. He has a mysterious look, an interesting voice and a history of decent, if not remarkable, tunes.

And even though it’s pretty clear that this Dylan, now 40 years old, is probably never going to take the world by storm, it’s OK.

“Women + Country,’’ his second solo album since disbanding the Wallflowers, is a warm, enjoyable album. What it lacks in edginess, is made up for in a laid-back appeal worthy of a backyard barbecue on a hot, summer night. In fact, if he was willing to bring his band, we would gladly set up a nice spot on our porch right next to the cooler.

On board for this album is T Bone Burnett as producer and Neko Case as a backup singer. Now you really wish they would stop by, right?

As for the songs, the opener “Nothing but the Whole Wide World to Give’’ immediately sets the tone and pace of the album. Dylan sings in his husky, above-whisper voice as Neko skates along behind him on the chorus. She never takes over a song but always provides a beautiful harmony to his lead.

“Lend a Hand” has a slightly New Orleans sound with trumpet backing and “Holy Rollers for Love” has some dirty guitar backing. Finding a standout tune is difficult, but the album is generally a good listen.

The pacing seems incredibly similar to that of the Burnett-produced “Raising Sand’’ that brought together Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. At times you wish Burnett would just remove the reigns and let them rip.

But as long as you know what you’re getting and not upset about what might have been, “Women + Country’’ will not let you down.

PIETA BROWN One and All (out now)

Pieta Brown is another child of a famous musician-father, the deeper-than-deep-voiced folkie Greg Brown. And while she didn’t inherit that from her dad, she did get some serious musical skill.

“One and All,’’ which she coproduced with Bo Ramsey, is filled with tales of love and loneliness and everything in between. The album was recorded live and features some standout backing from members of Calexico, Alison Krauss’ band and her frequent collaborator Ramsey.

Her voice (since we’re sure everyone wants to know what it sounds like) has a beauty and seductiveness without being wimpy, reminding us a bit in tone of Edie Brickell on songs such as the opener “Wishes Falling Through the Rain’’ and “Prayer of Roses.’’ Pieta adds an upbeat rhythm to “El Guero,’’ which was also featured on her last album but in stripped-down acoustic form.

Other songs, such as “Faller” and “It Wasn’t There,” offer depth and color.

What the album lacks, as with Jakob Dylan’s new album, is some contrast – some rocking or uptempo numbers or some differing moods. Individually the songs hold up, but as a group, they tend to blur together.

JACKIE GREENE Till the Light Comes (out June 29)

We spent much of our last issue discussing Jackie Greene and his career so we won’t rehash it again. (To read the last issue, click HERE)

Surprisingly, “Till the Light Comes’’ is young Jackie’s sixth solo album. And despite how much time he has spent recently performing with members of the Grateful Dead and immersed in the jam-band concert scene, “Till the Light’’ continues the path of his last album, “Giving Up the Ghost’’: rock, soul and blues spiced with Jackie’s great guitar riffing. This makes us happy.

Long, noodling guitar solos? Not Jackie. Where he shines is on introspective songs such as “A Moment of Temporary Color” and “Grindstone,” in which he offers his insights on life wrapped in a wide-range of sonic colors.

We are particularly fond of the more muscular numbers like “Medicine,” which has an early Who-like bounce complete with handclaps, and the closing, title track.

But Jackie, who plays a boatload of other instruments on this album, including organ, Wurlitzer, Mellotron, glockenspiel and electric sitar, is just as comfortable with acoustic tunes such as the gentle, almost-country-ish “1961.”

Will Jackie Greene finally get his due as a solo artist? He has from us.

CROOKED STILL Some Strange Country (out now)

With their fourth release, their second with the current lineup, Crooked Still has secured its place as one of the premiere “newgrass” acts around, along with the Punch Brothers and the Infamous Stringdusters.

Crooked Still broke out after the release of its second album, “Shaken By a Low Sound,” which melded virtuoso playing by Greg Liszt on banjo, Rushad Eggleston on cello and Corey DiMario on acoustic bass with the angelic vocals of Aoife O’Donovan. Eggleston departed after that, and was replaced by Tristan Clarridge on cello and Brittany Haas on fiddle, providing the group a fuller sound.

To our ears, the first album with the new group, “Still Crooked,’’ seemed a little tentative, like the band was trying to figure out what they had going. But on “Some Strange Country,” it’s clear Crooked Still is back in full gear.

The album’s first two songs, “Sometimes in This Country” and “The Golden Vanity,” make a statement. Where the last album is more subdued, this song immediately jumps out at you. Put in your earbuds and listen closely to the enthusiastic interplay between the instruments. O’Donovan gets her chance to shine on the Celtic-sounding “Distress,’’ where her beautiful soprano glides sweetly and gently over the band’s backing. One of our worries about the earlier makeup of Crooked Still was whether the strong personalities/egos could accept a band concept. This group doesn’t have that issue. The interplay between Liszt, Clarridge and Haas is a joy to hear.

Crooked Still is known for its interpretations of traditional tunes and this album continues that trend offering seven such tunes including Peggy Seeger’s haunting “Henry Lee” and Doc Watson’s “I’m Troubled.” But there are also four originals – including “Locust in the Willow, which gets back to that hyper-grass style we love them for.

Closing out the album is a very cool cover of the Rolling Stones’ “You Got the Silver.”

O’Donovan surely gets into this and Liszt’s banjo stands out as a highlight. We like the idea of contemporary rock tunes redone in the Crooked Still style. Let’s hope there is more of this to come.

SHANNON McNALLY AND HOT SAUCE Coldwater (out now) Shannon McNally has one of those seductive, Southern-tinged voices that makes you take notice when you hear it. That’s what happened when we first heard the album “Geronimo” years ago.

Since then, we’ve followed her career though have never actually seen her play live. Originally from Long Island, Shannon moved to LA before taking to the South, first in New Orleans and then in Mississippi after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Her new album, the self-released “Coldwater,” with her new Miss.-based band Hot Sauce and with the guidance of late great producer Jim Dickinson, offers up a slow-burning dose of blues and country. The band adds some saucy guitar licks tossed around Shannon’s sultry voice, which sounds like a sultry Lucinda Williams.

The album is comprised of only eight songs, scant for this modern age of the 12- to 15-song CD, but Shannon makes most of the short count.

Standouts among her five originals are the leadoff track, the bluesy rocker “This Isn’t My Home,” and both “Bohemian Wedding Song” and “Jack B. Nimble,” which bubble along on country-rock beats.

There are also three covers: a sizzling uptempo version of “Lonesome, Ornery and Mean” and the piano-based “Freedom to Stay,” both made famous by Waylon Jennings. The album closes with the third, Dylan’s “Postitively 4th Street,” which seems incredibly out of place here and really the only misstep on a fine release.

IN THE CINEMA For the Struggle (out now)

Whenever we do CD review packages, we like to include at least one album from a band or musician that few people know. (Hey, Rolling Stone won’t do it, so someone has to!) So let us introduce you to In the Cinema, a duo of brothers, Ryan and Joe Hughes from Minneapolis, whose album “For the Struggle” is a refreshing mix of what they call “beat-driven folktronica.”

The tunes have a folk guitar and keyboard base which are then layered with synthesizer, drums, samples – and, yes, glockenspiel – to give them an edge.

Ryan is the songwriter in the band, filtering his views on hope, desire and redemption in such tunes as “Shelter, Late at Night” and “Tie Me Up,’’ while Joe drops in the percussive details. “Theatre … and the Instinct,’’ one of our favorite numbers, has a driving, drum-filled sound, as Ryan sings about an apparent love gone bad. Blips, buzzes and electronic beats strike a nerve.

Each song provides its own unique personality and sound. The glock adds atmosphere to “Watch the Window,” as bongos do to “Never Leave.”

“For the Struggle” is not your parents’ folk music or your younger sister’s electronica. It is something new and deserves a listen.

And, if you find yourself in need of something to do while listening to this album, the Hughes boys have provided some crayons to color in their CD cover.

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