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Graham Weekly Album Review #1706

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American Beauties: Too Worn to Mend
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/21/2012)

The idea of roots rock, or Americana bands took hold in the 1990s, seemingly as a reaction to the heavily synthesizer-oriented music of the 1980s. Bands like the Jayhawks and later Wilco represented a younger generation of players, who drew their influence from the earlier styles that led to rock & roll in the first place -- like folk, blues and country. The roots rockers concentrated on the instrumentation that was around during the formative days of rock, but sometimes added a bit of the alternative rock influence they grew up on.

Since the 1990s, roots rockers have been a rather durable presence on the scene with generations of younger players going for the sound. By now, though, there are lots of variations on the genre, from punk-influenced to acoustic folk derived, from blues-oriented to bands with a decided country twang, from rough-edged garage bands to the rather musically sophisticated.

This week we have the debut release by a first-rate roots rock band that tends toward the direction that emphasizes classy musicianship rather than the rustic side. They call themselves American Beauties, and their new CD is titled Too Worn to Mend.

American Beauties is a Boston-based group headed by guitarist, lead vocalist and songwriter Michael Gray. In fact, as far as this CD is concerned, it's more or less a one-person band, with various studio musicians filling out the other positions in the group, though according to the band's biography, there is a regular touring group.

While this is American Beauties' debut album, Michael Gray has been on the music for some time. Growing up in Syracuse, Gray was writing songs by age 15, after having done his first public performance at age 13. Following school, he worked as a solo singer-songwriter, touring around the country on the college circuit, before settling in Boston in the early 1990s. He took a ten-year hiatus from performing to raise a family and then in 2003 formed a band group called Dig in the Dirt, which included some of the people who are now in the American Beauties touring band. Dig in the Dirt lasted until about 2008. Then Gray joined a progressive rock band called Sarcasmatics for a while. American Beauties is essentially Gray's first album of all-original music with a group, and for it, he worked with a producer named Ducky Carlisle, who had previuosly worked with bluesman Buddy Guy among others. Carlisle played drums on many of the tracks on Too Worn to Mend. The result embodies the varied influences that Gray brings, with the folkie aspect to many of the songs, an appreciation for the folk-rock groups on the 1960s, and the progressive-rock part of Gray's career with good musicianship, and interesting compositions. In addition to drummer-producer Ducky Carlisle, the musicians who appear on the CD include bassist Mark Hickox, steel guitar player Steve Sadler and one of members of the American Beauties touring band, guitarist Jonas Kahn. Gray does a lot of overdubbing, playing multiple guitar parts, keyboards and vocals. Amber Casares appears on backing vocal on several tracks and occasionally takes the lead vocal in spots.

The material draws on folk-rockers of the past, with the Byrds being a group Gray has obviously listened to. He plays a fair amount of 12-string electric guitar in the style of Roger McGuinn. The material is well-written musically, and lyrically touches on a lot of familiar themes, such as relationships, travel, including songs about places and being on the road. And while there may be some roots-rock lyrical cliches, the songs are for the most part, quite appealing.

Opening is a piece called Snow Blind, which shows the album's combination of roots rock influence with more than standard three-chord rock. <<>> The retro aspect of the music is evoked by Gray's dual lead guitar solos in a style recalling the psychedelic rock period. <<>>

On a String is a nicely-written song about parting that evokes the folk-rock days. <<>>

The Sixties folk-rock tradition of taking up issues of the day is represented on the song Hole in My Lung which addresses global warming and its consequences. A contrast to the lyrics is the happy-go-lucky-sounding tune. <<>>

More lyrically conventional is the song called Tell Me That You Love Me. It's in the kind of classic roots rock style, and is also nicely done. <<>>

Gray does a musical tribute to New York City called Forever Like the Sea. It's rather interesting hearing a song about the Big Apple being done in a country-influenced style. But it works well and does make an interesting dichotomy. <<>>

The album takes a rather different direction on the track called Last Dance. It's a laid-back song of parting with an added cello providing a bit of a contrast to the rest of the album. <<>>

The American Beauties work the country end of the roots-rock spectrum on a song called Grace Under Fire. It's another well-written piece with some of the album's better lyrics. <<>>

The album ends with its lengthiest track, Mercy, a rather sad-sounding song that brings together the country and roots-rock influences. <<>>

American Beauties, and their new CD Too Worn to Mend is a very nicely done roots rock album marked by tasteful musicianship, good quality writing and appealing vocals. While this is a debut recording for the band, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gray has been on the scene since the 1990s. It's interesting that while most roots rock groups are tight-knit bands who work and tour together, this CD is very much a studio project with Gray and producer Ducky Carlisle assembling a group of studio musicians for the project. But Gray is taking a somewhat different band on the road as American Beauties. The CD is a worthwhile one, representing one of the best roots rock debut albums in some time, with the sound tending toward the more musically sophisticated side of the genre.

Our grade for sonic quality is an A-minus. The sound is clean and well-recorded, thankfully free of attempts as lo-fi or emulating the bad recordings of decades ago. But the mixing and mastering follows the lemming-like herd mentality of compressing all the dynamics out of the music for fear that the CD might be a teeny bit less loud than other heavily compressed CDs.

There are a lot of roots rock bands on the scene these days, but few of them have the worthy combination and quality of ingredients that American Beauties brings to the table on their new release.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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