By Jeff Burger
The Choir—a Cleveland-area garage rock group that broke up about half a century ago after having never released an LP—are enjoying an unexpected second life. The band garnered some attention in 2017 when a reunion concert album by the Raspberries, whose members included Choir alumni, featured several of their songs. Then, in 2018, the Omnivore label issued a CD of the Choir’s 1968 work called Artifact: The Unreleased Album. That led to a reunion show last September, which in turn gave birth to the new Last Call: Live at the Music Box, a double-disc set.
The two-hour recording includes performances of all of the songs on Artifact, plus a version of the group’s best-known single, the infectious “It’s Cold Outside.” Also here are readings of a variety of 1960s hits and album tracks from some of the acts the band members admire, such as Billy Preston’s “What About You” and “That’s the Way God Planned It,” Ray Davies’s “David Watts,” Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” and Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.” Procol Harum receive the most attention with five numbers, including “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Conquistador,” “A Salty Dog,” “Kaleidoscope,” and “Shine on Brightly.”
At least some of the covers impress less because of any fresh ideas than because of how well the Choir manages to ape the originals. That said, many of the band’s own tunes are as good as better-known material that issued from the British Invasion acts that clearly influenced them. And the entire concert is enjoyable. It makes you wonder what might have been for this talented outfit.
Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards, Bitter Better. It’s difficult to imagine that this latest album from Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards won’t end up on more than a few best-of-2020 lists, mine included. Gifted lead vocalist and fiddler Cortese, who sounds a bit redolent of Sophie B. Hawkins, says she and her seven bandmates “tried to infuse these songs with a sense of adventure,” and they certainly succeeded. Employing everything from synthesizers to banjo to cello, their dreamy, hard-to-classify music incorporates elements of contemporary folk and pop while also echoing rock’s so-called “girl groups” of the 1960s. Cortese, who wrote or cowrote all the songs, fills them with surprising and satisfying twists and turns. The production is inventive, and the harmony vocals are sublime. Don’t miss this one.
Crystal Shawanda, Church House Blues. Canadian-born, Nashville-based Crystal Shawanda scored her first record deal as a country artist back in 2007 but on her last album, 2018’s VooDoo Woman, she eschewed that genre in favor of the blues rock that means more to her. She sticks with that focus on this soulful latest release, where she applies her elastic vocals to a strong program that includes four self-penned tracks. Bolstered by an excellent backup crew that features Peter Keys from Lynyrd Skynyrd on keyboards and the Delbert McClinton band’s Dana Robbins on sax, she delivers a series of effusive performances that find her shifting effortlessly between sandpapery-voiced soul shouting and sweet, sultry ballads. If anyone ever asks you to define the phrase “sing your heart out,” point them to tracks on this CD such as “Bigger Than the Blues” and “When It Comes to Love.”
Siren Songs, Siren Songs. Siren Songs is a Portland, Oregon–based duo consisting of singer/songwriter Jenn Grinels and Merideth Kaye Clark, a singer, multi-instrumentalist, and actress. Their debut album, which they recorded live in the studio, features two numbers by Grinels, plus seven imaginatively arranged covers, including such familiar compositions as Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” and John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” The sparsely used instrumentation—which employs banjo, viola, and dulcimer, bass, and guitar—is effective, but it’s the predominant vocal harmony work that’s the star of the show. Indeed, some of the most head-turning moments are a cappella, such as the opening verse of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.