On his debut CD Pullin', Sean Ardoin departs from his earlier work in the band Double Clutchin', which he co-founded and co-led with his brother Chris Ardoin. Double Clutchin' always rode the see-saw of traditional and contemporary zydeco; with ZydeKool, Sean tips the scale. It works, because Sean Ardoin's accordion work is nimble, and his voice is supple and soulful, a la Buckwheat Zydeco. The arrangements are a stew of soul, funk, reggae and zydeco, favoring contemporary influences over the legacy of Ardoin ancestors Lawrence, Bois Sec and Amédé. Sean shows his hand in the intro to "Shut 'Em Down": "I was listening to the radio last night, bro, I heard this song, it was like crazy, man. We should make a zydeco song off that."
Another track, "ZydeKool Rollin'," shows Ardoin in full roar. He revs up with an instrumental flourish reminiscent of an early Wayne Toups hit, then hits high speed, delivering sing-songy lyrics, throwing in hollers and background chatter, adding contemporary R&B-style harmonies and guitar licks, nodding toward John Fogerty's "Proud Mary," building up the musical commotion and then ... returning again and again to the motoring of his diatonic accordion.
Like many contemporary zydeco players, he pens lyrics ("I've been sitting down thinking/about what people puttin' on me") that suggest a group of people are out to get him, sort of a thematic cross between Hank Williams' "Mind Your Own Business" and the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers." He shouldn't worry. Like modernizers Buckwheat Zydeco and Beau Jocque, Sean Ardoin is throwing the doors of the new school wide open, and in doing so, he's made one rocking zydeco CD. -- Michael Tisserand
(Beyond/Ezra Dry Goods)
"I got more hooks than Madonna got looks," sings Better Than Ezra frontman Kevin Griffin on "Extra Ordinary," a throwaway line if there ever was one -- except he's right. From Ezra's 1995 breakout hit "Good" to 1988's "At the Stars," Griffin's crafted a succession of irresistible pop/rock songs that gleam like freshly cut diamonds. On the band's new CD Closer, Griffin and his BTE bandmates, bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Travis McNabb, face the hurdle of stretching into new territory and still retaining their signature sound.
It's a challenge the band meets with mixed results. The opening track "Misunderstood" is a trademark Ezra rocker, with lush "Strawberry Fields Forever"-esque orchestration yielding to a melodic guitar lead and soaring chorus. "A Lifetime" is a tailor-made song for rock and college radio, a bittersweet ode to young loss and love that unabashedly references R.E.M. and encapsulates the emotional power of a three-minute song. That kind of sincerity has always been one of Ezra's strong points -- and it also illuminates the weaknesses of the band's experiments on Closer. "Extra Ordinary" contains DJ programming and quasi-rapping from Griffin, as does "Rolling," and both efforts sound like lightweight Smash Mouth cuts, without the humor.
But when Griffin sticks to his meat-and-potatoes anthems and ballads, he's at his best. His multi-octave range on "Briefly" is in the same league as U2's Bono, and his effortless twists of phrase on "Juarez" float through the song's seductive haze. With new cuts like these, Better Than Ezra now could cherry-pick their catalog and already have a damn near perfect greatest hits album. -- Scott Jordan
Better Than Ezra plays Voodoo Festival on Saturday, Oct. 27.
Dyed in the Wool
Shannon Wright is an open wound of a singer-songwriter. Now three albums removed from fronting her band Crowsdell, Wright has established herself as her own artist, moaning songs of love and loss and many points in between. On Dyed in the Wool, Wright brings an almost baroque sensibility to her work, finding more comfort in violas and cellos and pianos than she does in electric guitars (which sound remarkably like a harpsichord).
"Come let's probe these blackened eyes," she half-drones on "Hinterland," with a Phillip Glass-like fill hypnotizing in the background. "Come let's smear this spectacle/ Come let's slam on the light/ This must soon be reversed ... I shall feel nothing/ I shall be rinsed." Regardless of her pain, Wright remains relentlessly defiant, the type of woman who truly believes (not unlike P.J. Harvey) in the credo, "That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger."
Her poetry is often elusive if not a tad dense, which is part of her intrigue; even when you don't know what she's saying entirely, her movement in the shadows makes her that much more mysterious. "This frost you stand in/ It draws on wobbled legs," she sings on "You Hurry Wonder." "This sway is stabled/ I gnaw through your gate/ You sort what I bend/ You jar me for release ... ." What does it all mean? Who knows, and who cares? I'm hooked. -- David Lee Simmons