Give Up Your Dreams
On-again, off-again Dumpster juicers Morning 40 Federation, like many New Orleans musical acts, aren't just better when experienced live; to be fully appreciated, the Bywater brown-baggers almost have to be witnessed, missing something essential (or a couple of things, likely sweat and alcohol) when reduced to record. Former co-frontman Ryan Scully does not suffer this fate. "A lot of bands have made some pretty candy-ass records here that don't sound anything like they do live," the singer/guitarist once told OffBeat, but capturing the feeling of a performance on wax only works when the songs cooperate. His Rough Seven has gigged since 2008, sharpening its show by incorporating some of the best players in the city: guitarist Rob Cambre, keyboardist Ratty Scurvics, singers Meschiya Lake and Erika Lewis. Debut Give Up Your Dreams holds up not because it sounds like a Rough Seven concert, exactly — Scully's compositions are just more fully realized now, standing out less on shtick than on craft. They also fit this band like a koozie, Scurvics' barroom piano making the balladic "St. Anthony" into an ideal sunrise drinking song and Cambre's Hendrixian axe cutting through the blues of "Had a Home" like so much split firewood. In the end, it's Lake and Lewis who add the most to the platter, countering Scully's gruff Westerberg grunts with sky-high gospel cries that continually recall Merry Clayton's vocal work on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." That kind of interplay is a subtle touch, but it's enough to turn fun tunes into fine tracks.
The Happy Talk Band
Starve a Fever
Luke Allen kicks off the Happy Talk Band's latest album with a minimalist Spoon groove, a slinking, contracting and expanding three-chord organ figure accompanied only by syncopated handclaps and Allen's tangled, storytelling croon. For those who have become accustomed to the Happy Talk's brand of well-honed country rock, which typically switches between two gears, buzz saw and tear-in-your-beer, it may take a few more bars before the band comes into focus. The A-side of Starve a Fever is laden with such surprises, some of which work better than others. On the nursery-rhyming "Muggers Waltz," a humorous and humanizing ode to criminals set to orchestral strings ("Muggers need money too / There's bills to be paid and their babies need shoes"), Allen sounds like Tom Petty covering Andrew Bird. But preceding cut "Not Accidental" misses its mark both musically and lyrically — the conventionally arranged, mid-tempo spooker delving into Zachary Bowen's gruesome 2006 murder of girlfriend Addie Hall via uncomfortably bland lines like "Up above the voodoo shop / He's made you something in a pot." The album hits its stride on the back half, where the band settles into a more familiar, inspired rhythm. The toe-tapping intimacy of "All Played Out" makes like M. Ward jamming at the Circle Bar, and spare piano piece "Dr. Ike's Lament" unfurls in slow motion, paying poetic homage to Ponderosa Stomp founder Ira Padnos' other job ("The anesthesiologist, he seldom smiles, he barely blinks / He's counting pills, he's counting sheep / He counts on gravity to let him sleep"). They're a buildup to "Answer Me," an ivory-tinkling, ironically affecting death row F-off stuffed with delicious details. "Hey warden, could you cook me my last meal," Allen sings, "in a bloody apron and a pair of stiletto heels?" That meal? "Two eggs over easy, a steak and a loaf of bread / Just Bunny Bread."