Two music obits made news on Tuesday. We lost '70s singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty -- he of the songs "Baker Street," "Right Down the Line" and the Steelers Wheel hit "Stuck in the Middle With You" (so now there are clouds to the left of him, angels to the right ...) -- but I want to mention another loss from the same day, because I doubt many will: Mick Karn, 52, bassist for the band Japan, lost his battle with cancer.
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One week this summer, we dug out our old Cake CDs. Can't remember what set that off -- it was eerily just before the band's last hit, "Short Skirt / Long Jacket," showed up in a recent iPod commercial, and before news broke about the band recording again -- but it was fun (at first, anyway) to plumb that particular vein of the '90s. John McCrea's snarky deadpan sounds a bit dated now, but the free-wheeling swagger of those first two records, "Motorcade of Generosity" ("Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle") and "Fashion Nugget" ("The Distance"), still holds up musically. Somewhere back then I remember chatting with guitarist Greg Brown about his deep Western swing influences, all the way back to Bob Wills.
Which made it even more surprising when Brown and bassist Victor Damiani ditched Cake at the end of the '90s to play in Deathray, an unabashedly New Wave-inspired project in the Northwest. The rollicking, honky-tonk guitar he applied to Cake disappeared; instead, Brown peeled tight, fuzzy riffs straight out of the Cars, Gary Numan and Nazz playbooks, making Deathray's self-titled debut in 2000 a gem of the New Wave revival before it really began.
OK, so it's August, but as Chicago's summer heat begins waning there's plenty of warmth and light still to draw from Laura Veirs' "July Flame." This is the seventh album from the Portland, Ore.-based singer-songwriter, which means it's even more tragic that more people haven't discovered her by now. This outing might be her tour de force, the best collection of sunny, satisfying songs she's assembled yet.
"July Flame" builds on Veirs' penchant for writing songs about nature and the outdoors, this time perfectly capturing the languid feel of midsummer. The name comes from a variety of peaches she once saw at a farmer's market.
A semi-regular blog feature in which I discuss a record that's worth noting -- but not new. Because there's life beyond Tuesday, and the cutting edge is usually duller than you expect ...
OK, so Sia's new album is ... meh. She excelled working with Zero 7 and her first solo outings, but there seem to be too many cooks in the kitchen on her new pop CD. Another former Zero 7 vocalist, however, haunts me still. Tina Dico, popular in her native Denmark, two years ago stepped out of her pop-folk arrangements and released a stripped-down trio of EPs in one package titled "A Beginning, A Detour, An Open Ending." This is where I restrain myself from unleashing a torrent of superlatives to describe how these songs continue to stun me. Suffice to say, if this year's regurgitated Lilith Fair lineup included more singers with this much heart, insight and way with a simple tune, I'd be in line already.