Thursday, September 18, 2008

Michael Carpenter & The Cuban Heels -- New Dog - Old Tricks (2008)

Michael Carpenter & The Cuban Heels -- New Dog - Old Tricks (Big Radio)

Michael Carpenter has always had a fair amount of heartland rocker in him. While pigeonholed in the power pop bin, his covers albums have shown a love for Springsteen, Petty and Earle. These influences have crept into some of his songs too.

On this instant EP (recorded in early August 2008 and made commercially available in roughly a month!), Carpenter has assembled a band to add some rootsy backing to five new originals and two covers. All this does is make some of his inspirations more overt. Carpenter doesn’t try to come across like a Robbie Fulks honky-tonker or a Gram Parsons wannabe. He just ornaments his consistently strong songwriting with some different instrumentation.

This becomes especially evident on "Some Days Are Worse Than Others". This showcases one of Carpenter’s greatest traits -- the empathy that comes across in his songs, a result of his engaged vocals. He writes fairly direct lyrics and commits to them thoroughly. This mid-tempo song is about a guy in the aftermath of a break up, and with Jason Walker’s pedal steel and Jadey O’Reagan’s piano, the song is cut from the same cloth as Poco, The Eagles and Scud Mountain Boys.

A couple of tracks move into Bob Dylan/Byrds territory. "If You Ask Me" has a classic folk rock structure and is played with the right relaxed feel. The bridge out of the chorus has some delicious chord changes, and there’s a great middle eight that ups the emotional ante. This is an instant classic. The opener "The Ballad of Ambivalence" not only evokes Dylan and The Byrds (Carpenter’s vocals are a bit more pinched), but I can hear a little Michael Nesmith too. That’s never a bad thing.

It’s not all strum and twang. "Working for a Living" is a flat out rocker. For all of Carpenter’s melodic magic, he’s a lot more capable rock guy than he gets credit for. Here, the whole band simply shines, playing with a lot of vigor. However, this song is pretty darned close structurally to "Working for a Living" by Huey Lewis and the News. There are worse things in life, as that single was a typically enjoyable slice of Huey back in the ‘80s, but it nags at me every time I hear it.

The disc ends with a spirited cover of Hank Williams’ "Jambalaya". Carpenter finds a great mid-point between the pure country vibe of Hank and his own ebullient personality. By that I mean that he’s not hung up on being totally authentic, he and the Cuban Heels just go out and have a cracking good time. It’s a great song, just sing it with spirit and it will work.

This is a limited edition, so act now if you want a copy. Maybe Carpenter will find a way to make more. Or get the Heels back in the studio really quickly. If they book a week in the studio, they could knock out a box set.

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