Review : Various Artists - Kin: Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
PopmattersOn paper, Kin: Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell has the makings of a classic. Karr is an acclaimed poet and a bestselling memoirist, known in both genres for an earthy, plainspoken lyricism. Her book The Liar’s Club, about her emotionally desolate childhood in east Texas, is a classic of the genre. Crowell is a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and producer whose work straddles the fence between traditional country and Americana and he published his own memoir about his own hardscrabble east Texas childhood, Chinaberry Sidewalks, last year. Add in the talents of producer Joe Henry and vocalists Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Leanne Womack, Kris Kristofferson, and Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash, and you’ve got a cross between a Grand Ole Opry superjam and a meeting of the Nashville equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table.
So the first question one has to ask is, does Kin live up to its potential? More particularly, do Karr’s literary chops translate into artful songwriting? Does the all-star cast add to the overall effect or distract from the idea of a coherent concept album about family relationships? The answer to the first two questions is yes. The third one is more complicated. To start with, Crowell has a serviceable country-rock voice, but he’s not the world’s most expressive singer. He writes a mean song, but his vocals are low key and tend to skim along the surface rather than dig into the emotional depths of his lyrics. That’s fine when the songs call for deadpan understatement or tough guy machismo, but too many of these songs cut too deep for his vocal talents, and of course many of them are told from a female point of view. But, as with any album filled with superstar cameos, the ever changing cast of vocalists sometimes draws attention away from the songs. By the time we’re accustomed to the latest singer, the song is over.
Still, that’s a small complaint when measured against the bounty Kin offers, particularly on repeated listens. The opening track, “Anything But Tame”, is classic Crowell, a nostalgic but measured reminiscence of young love set to a solid country-rock backbeat. The second track, “If the Law Don’t Want You”, might be about the same girl, a few years older and told from her own point of view, as she rattles off the bad boy prerequisites she’s looking for in a man: “If you ain’t running from the past / You ain’t making my heart beat fast / You ain’t chugging your paycheck / You ain’t hugging on my neck”, before concluding, “If the law don’t want you, neither do I.” Norah Jones’s vocal is heartstopping, and Emmylou Harris’s harmonies are as heartfelt as we’ve come to expect from her....full text
ChristianitytodayMary Karr's childhood was a mess—and she's the first to admit it. The poet-essayist's seminal memoir, The Liars' Club, is a harrowing tangle of substance abuse and mental illness, a web of broken hearts and human depravity. It lends new weight to the term "broken home." Even the way the story is told, in non-linear fashion, seems to underscore how fractured those days really were.
The same kind of brokenness haunts Kin, a collection of songs based on Karr's memoir. She wrote these pieces with country singer (and fellow memoirist) Rodney Crowell; because Karr herself isn't a singer, Crowell performs the songs with a series of guests, each of them so good it would be a sin to call them stand-ins. Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris are all here to fill Karr's shoes. Crowell even shares space with Kris Kristofferson and Vince Gill.
And Kin, produced by Joe Henry, is a bright testament to the power of song and story to find meaning in brokenness. It's an album fraught with heartache and regret, to be sure—but it's also filled with beauty and grace....full text
VanguardrecordsKarr is an award-winning poet, bestselling memoirist and an unstoppable force in the literary world. Her works have been embraced with an avalanche of rave reviews from nearly every major newspaper in the country. Her memoirs Lit, Cherryand The Liar’s Clubwere all best sellers. The latter spent over a year on the New York Times Bestsellers list and kick-started the memoir craze. Karr has taught at Harvard and Syracuse University, where she still holds a chair in literature. She is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including a Guggenheim, a Radcliffe Bunting Fellowship, The Whiting Writer’s Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Karr adds yet another title, songwriter, to her pedigree with the release of KIN.
Long known as a poet among songwriters, Crowell is a masterful storyteller and hit generator. The multi-GRAMMY-Award –winning singer/songwriter/producer was the first artist to chart five consecutive number one hits with his release Diamonds and Dirt. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and has become best known for the critically acclaimed masterpieces The Houston Kid, Fates Right Handand Sex And Gasoline. He has penned songs recorded by Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Bob Seger, Grateful Dead, Norah Jones, Van Morrison, Etta James, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Band Of Horses and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band among others. Last year, Crowell made his debut as a memoirist with the release of Chinaberry Sidewalkson Knopf/Random House. The memoir received glowing reviews in The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicleand The New York Timesin which his storytelling and ways with the written word were compared to that of Mark Twain....full text
PitchforkTwo clichés that seem to pop up a lot in writing about music: One artist might "know his lane and stay in it," while another "moves outside of her comfort zone." There is virtue in both approaches. On the one hand, it's admirable to know what you do best and parlay that strength into a work to match (see the Ramones or Beach House). On the other, it's hard not to respect when someone decides to do something different with the hope that his or her audience will follow along (see Beck or Joni Mitchell).
The Morning Benders, a Brooklyn-via-San Francisco outfit, were for two albums a workmanlike indie rock band, and on their last effort, 2010's Big Echo, they brought in Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor to produce a solid collection of wooly chamber rock. This year, they changed their name to POP ETC after discovering that the word "bender" has an offensive homophobic connotation in the UK, and they made a shift in sound that was just as radical. Instead of widescreen guitar rock, the newly christened band would draw inspiration from leader Chris Chu's childhood obsession with R&B groups like Boyz II Men and synth-heavy pop artists like Madonna. We're talking neon keyboards, plenty of Auto-Tune, songs with titles like "I Wanna Be Your Man". Is the band's self-titled album under the new moniker a brave change-up? Sure. Is it any good? Not even a little. Forget staying in their lane; the Band Formerly Known as the Morning Benders have drifted into the median, jumped the guardrail, and tumbled end-over-end in the direction of a sheer cliff.
It's not as if twee-leaning indie that incorporates R&B and synth-pop is unheard of. Bands like Passion Pit and, on a smaller scale, the Vampire Weekend/Ra Ra Riot side project Discovery found ways to channel the brashest sound of the radio into something that felt personal and distinctive. But Discovery emanated warmth and affection while Passion Pit get over on exuberance and songwriting chops. POP ETC have none of these qualities. This is unbearably cloying music in the vein of Owl City's "Fireflies", a mix of scrubbed-clean earnestness, bright-eyed naiveté, and some of the dopiest lyrics this side of Zach Attack....full text
ConsequenceofsoundOpening with a track called “New Life” signals the rebirth opportunity that this album is for POP ETC. Formerly known as The Morning Benders, the group changed their name due to an unfortunate connotation with a UK-based slur against the LBGT community. Debuting with a totally new name and a self-titled debut for it lets them both leave that misstep in the past and re-establish themselves with a new identity. It’s a shame, then, that rather than bursting forth with something new and unique, they wind up rehashing stale sounds and leaving the listener with an entirely unmemorable experience.
“New Life” is, in actuality, anything but a new life. The clusters of percussive synth, slightly Auto-Tuned vocals, and sun-faded synths linger and float like a cheesy teen drama soundtrack penned by a ’90s pop star. Chris Chu is not looking toward a new life, but constantly admitting that he’d give up anything to get back with a past love. Even worse, Chu moves into a spoken-word explanation of that relationship, talking about how he “was all alone,” but the delivery lazily falls flat, the mundane confessions of a guy you barely know telling you about his “interesting” relationship situation at a dull party. The song betrays its own mission statement, never moves beyond a loll, and won’t be remembered by the time the second track opens.
The bleeping synths, clip-clap rhythm, and (ugh, again?) Auto-Tuned vocals on “Live It Up” aim for summer jam, but never wake up from a long nap. “I ain’t never disrespect no woman/ never called a girl a ho,” Chu coos through the electric blahs, but the platitude smacks of desperation for attention more than it does an honest statement. The radio-friendliness of “R.Y.B.” is cranked to 13 (forget 11), but even here Chu and bandmates are attempting to put out some sort of ill-placed social message about the need to preserve the Earth. “I don’t own an SUV/ so don’t you judge me/ when I roll up on this Schwinn/ I ain’t guzzlin,” he croons like he’s about to change the world. But isn’t this song about rockin’ your body quick and partying “til the sun burns out”? These moments lack the subtlety to be both radio pop and informative, preachy knots in the middle of what is supposed to be a smooth party jam. Maybe they’re trying to make up for the by all accounts accidental slur in their last band name, but if so, it’s a mindless over-compensation....full text
MusicomhSometimes the simple act of changing their name can have career altering consequences for a band. Hands up if anyone remembers Seymour, or On A Friday, who later blossomed as Blur and Radiohead? Conversely, a name change can have a negative effect. Suede’s chances of real success in the US were stymied by being lumbered with calling themselves The London Suede for legal reasons.
San Francisco's The Morning Benders are the latest to change their name due to some rather unfortunate connotations in the UK, including, bizarrely, some genuine press questions wondering if it is a reference to a running in-joke on UK sitcom The Inbetweeners. The name the band, now slimmed down to a three piece following the departure of bassist Tim Or, have gone for is a bold statement signalling a drastic stylistic reinvention. Pop Etc is a suitable moniker for a band whose self-titled debut aims squarely for the pop jugular.
The album cover is a bold print list of musical genres going from rock to house and psych RnB. The inference is that Pop Etc’s sound covers all aspects of pop’s Technicolor range. This magpie-like spirit of taking bits and pieces from different genres and sounds makes the album a rather disjointed affair, and the quality of the songs veers markedly from the great via the forgettable to the plain old annoying....full text
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