Past the Tracks

I love hearing folks say that the music scene in Charleston is dead. It always allows me to give numerous examples of why it's as robust as ever.

With the release of "Past the Tracks," local group Weigh Station offers yet another weapon for my arsenal in defense of the Lowcountry music scene.

Recorded locally at Ocean Industries under the professional eyes and ears of Eric Rickert and Jeff Leonard, "Past the Tracks" is one of those local releases that sounds as if it was recorded in a bigger city and in a more expensive facility.

The truth, though, is that Charleston has facilities such as Ocean that combine the know-how and the professional equipment necessary to make a local recording sound good.

Of course, this technical talk would all be null and void if the music in question stunk to high heaven, but in the case of Weigh Station there's no need to worry.

The local sextet, led by vocalist and guitarist John Heinsohn, scores the necessary trifecta of competent musicianship, well-sung vocals and, probably most important, material that is worthy of those first two traits.

I've heard plenty of albums with great lyrics sung by tone-deaf singers, or with great vocalists spouting off lyrics so cliched that even bands such as Creed and Nickelback would say, "Dude, really?"

Thankfully with Weigh Station, the whole package seems to be there. The band's blend of rock and blues will appeal to a wide age range, and songs such as "Rain" and "What Next?" cry out for radio airplay.

While I haven't yet had the chance to see these guys play live, after hearing the six tracks on this CD, I'll be making an effort to do so in the near future.

Key Tracks: "Rain," "What Next?" and "Train of Love."

The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

A few years back, a cache of unrecorded lyrics written by folk music legend Woody Guthrie were discovered. Eventually those songs were recorded by Wilco and Billy Gragg, and the two resulting albums proved to be pretty interesting stuff.

Fast forward to 2011, and apparently the same thing has happened with the late Hank Williams. The country music legend, who passed away in 1953 at the age of 29, left behind notebooks full of unrecorded lyrics.

Now a group of musicians, both young and old, have interpreted those lyrics into song, and the resulting collection, "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams," makes for some interesting listening.

Originally, the idea was to find a single artist that would be able to interpret Williams' lyrics, which led the album's producers to Bob Dylan, who sings "The Love That Faded."

The producers wisely decided to include other artists as well, and the list includes country stars such as Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, as well as pop and Americana artists such as Jakob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams and Jack White.

While each of the artists obviously had Williams' recorded vocals and songwriting style to go by, there is definitely a variety of styles found here.

Some artists, such as White and Levon Helm, stick pretty close to Williams' style, almost imitating the late singer.

Others though, such as Crow and Norah Jones, definitely take the music off in their own direction. The mavericks never completely hijack the idea of the album, but Williams purists might raise an eyebrow.

Possibly the most beautiful track on the album is "I'm So Happy I Found You," sung by Lucinda Williams. Anyone familiar with her work knows that the artist obviously isn't going to sound like anyone but herself, and yet the living Williams (no relation to Hank) makes the words of the dead Williams sound even more emotional and beautiful. That's considerable, given that, almost 60 years after his death, Hank Williams' music still sounds as fresh and lively as when he was still alive to sing it.

Key Tracks: "The Love That Faded," "How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart" and "I'm So Happy I Found You."

The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective

When you see an artist such as Stevie Wonder, Elton John or Billy Joel hammering away at a piano while performing in front of a sellout crowd, there is no denying the power those 88 keys have.

Ben Folds is an artist who has spent his career seeing just how many different ways he can make a piano rock. At a performance in town a few years back, that included jamming breath mint containers between the strings of his grand piano, resulting in a sound I doubt anyone had ever heard coming from a piano.

While there have been other collections that spotlighted the music career of Folds and his band, Ben Folds Five, "The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective" goes above and beyond in terms of the sheer volume of extra material.

The set is divided into three CDs. The first disc features a collection of 18 songs from various Ben Folds Five and Folds solo albums. Fans will recognize BF5 radio hits such as "Brick" and "Underground," as well as solo hits such as "Rockin' the Suburbs." There also is a new BF5 track that was recorded earlier this year.

Disc 2 is where the real fun begins though. The 21 live tracks range from BF5 performances in Europe in 1997 to Folds performing solo in Adelaide, Australia, earlier this year. Standout live tracks include a great version of "Song for the Dumped" from 1998, as well as Folds performing a cover of Wham's "Careless Whisper" with Rufus Wainwright in 2005.

The third CD holds even more musical treasure. Among the 22 rarities on the CD are 17 that have never been released. Included are four-track home demos, covers, alternate mixes and even some new BF5 songs recorded this year. Throw in liner notes with song-by-song descriptions by Folds, and this is a collection any fan would be insane not to want.

Key Tracks: "House," "Careless Whisper" and "Such Great Heights."

Metals

While the music Feist makes is almost always exquisitely lovely on its own, over the past few years the indie artist has become known almost as much for the advertisements in which her music appears as the music itself.

I'm guessing most of the television-watching public has been exposed to her hit "1234," thanks to the ad for a certain electronic music player by a certain company with a fruit for its name.

I certainly don't condemn Feist for cashing in on the popularity of her music. After all, making that music is her job, so why shouldn't she profit a bit if a car manufacturer wants to put one of her songs in its commercial.

I could be bold and say that the music on Feist's latest release, "Metals," is far too sedate and beautiful to be sullied by an advert. I know better than to bet against Madison Avenue though. So until tracks such as "The Bad in Each Other" and "How Come You Never Go There" end up in a beer ad, you have the chance to discover them in their intended form; in among the rest of the excellent songs on "Metals."

For those familiar with the past works of Feist, there is plenty to enjoy here. Feist has a voice that is hypnotically beautiful, and the arrangements that surround that voice are equally as lovely, thanks to collaborations with Mocky, Chilly Gonzales, and Valgeir Sigurosson.

The buildup that precedes the climax on "The Bad in Each Other" makes for a pretty dramatic album opener. Elsewhere things go from stark ("Graveyard") to wonderfully strange and frantic ("Commotion"). There are even a few hints that Feist might be trying to usurp the throne of fellow avant garde musician Kate Bush.

The younger Canadian singer even sounds like Bush on tracks such as "Caught Me a Long Wind" and "The Circle Married the Line."

Whatever her intentions, here's hoping that Feist never changes whatever process she uses to write and record her heartbreakingly beautiful songs.

Key Tracks: "The Bad in Each Other," "How Come You Never Go There" and "Cicadas and Gulls."