Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

FEBRUARY 23, 1998: 

Curlew, Fabulous Drop (Cuneiform)

The human condition makes sounds which are incomprehensibly large, loud, and manifold, and some of its constituent noises are those generated by absurdity. The sounds of absurdity can drive you nuts … or they can simply drive you. It seems to me that avant-jazz saxist George Cartwright and Curlew stoutly incline toward the latter option/attitude.

Memphian Cartwright made (and continues to make) his mark as one of the soon-to-be-legendary NYC “Knitting Factory” artists (a somewhat lazy, yet useful description). Rabidly experimental within the context of a fairly traditional small jazz ensemble, Cartwright and Curlew manufacture some of the most interesting and absurd sounds around.

Loosely speaking, Fabulous Drop’s stereophonic mapping is implemented as follows: Cartwright leads the hard-charging crew from the center, supported by bassist Ann Rupel and drummer Kenny Wolleson (both of whom are located in pretty much the same middle zone). And then there are the two guitarists … oh my, the guitarists; Chris Cochrane and Davey Williams stand chattering and provoking like Heckle & Jeckle perched upon Cartwright’s left and right shoulders, respectively. And, like those mischief-making magpies, Curlew’s two guitar players are constantly troublesome, endlessly inventive, and highly entertaining.

There are no lapses on Fabulous Drop; the entire CD is terrific. Of special note, though, is Williams’ “Crazy Feet, Sensible Shoes,” a piece which combines the band’s customary (I didn’t say normal) sax, bass, drums, and maniacal guitars with the skillful manipulation of noise-making toys (is that a MegaMouth I hear in there?). Supremely goofy.

Avant-jazz saxophonist George Cartwright

If you’ve never heard Curlew, the comments issued above might lead you to conclude that they are mere noise merchants. That would be a mistake on your part, and a disservice on mine. Yes, this band can definitely make some noise, but they are also responsible for some of the most clever and circuitous melodies I’ve heard.

If you try Fabulous Drop and like it, I urge you to check into 1995’s Paradise, another stunningly good release from this woefully underappreciated band. – Stephen Grimstead

Melodie Crittenden Melodie Crittenden (Asylum)

After years of singing demos and working in the music-publishing business in Nashville, Melodie Crittenden certainly has the formula down pat on her debut release: Take one gorgeous girl-next-door with a pleasant voice. Add some slick producer-picked nouveau country tunes, a two-step dance number, and a few maverick choices (just to show how progressive you are). Divide your subject matter equally between saccharine “looking for love in all the wrong places” songs and pseudo-sassy strong-woman tunes. And don’t forget the maudlin domestic-abuse number (to highlight your social conscience) and a religious cut (just to show that you’re really a good girl after all).

Oh, and toss in a few tastefully risque videos to make the package complete.

What is there, you may ask, to distinguish Crittenden from the bevy of new female performers like Faith Hill and Martina McBride who dominate the country airwaves today? Musically, not much. It’s all so dreadfully familiar, but given the lowest-common-denominator factor in the musical tastes of the general public, this album will undoubtedly yield a hit or two. However, the only thing that does set Crittenden apart from her peers is a glimmer of songwriting ability. She co-wrote three tracks here, and while they are all musically weak, her lyrics show a bit more intelligence and subtlety than the usual fare. “This Thing Called Livin’” is a clever and engaging working-class-girl anthem. The only other track that bears a repeat listen is “Never Underestimate A Bored Housewife,” which has a faint Charlie Daniels flavor and some welcome rawness to it. That’s the trouble with this release – it’s so darn polished; the musicianship is perfect, but soulless. And the Barbie doll generic quality of Crittenden and this new breed of singers is a real insult to the hard-working and hard-living heroines of the true country-and-western tradition – artists like Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn, just to name a few. You find yourself longing for some flaws and imperfections, just to tell these new gals apart.

Musically speaking, it’s déjà vu all over again. The opening track sounds suspiciously like Pam Tillis’ “Maybe It Was Memphis,” while the piano intro on “Broken Road” sounds like it was lifted straight from Marc Cohen’s “Walking In Memphis.” In fact, this CD is just brimming with musical and lyrical references to our fair city and King Elvis. Given this fixation, I would suggest to Crittenden that before her next recording she should take John Hiatt’s musical advice and come to Memphis in the meantime to soak up some of our unique local color. Perhaps going down the river and busking on Beale Street might get her mojo revved up enough to help her rediscover any rough edges that may still be lurking in her musical psyche. The faint hints of raunchiness and lyrical prowess that surfaced in this initial release show that Crittenden has the potential to break out of the homogenized female mold that seems to prevail in country pop today. Maybe getting the hell out of Nashville might just be the impetus Melodie Crittenden needs to blast her work out of a state of pretty blandness. – Lisa Lumb

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