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+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
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Casey Dienel
Wind-Up Canary

You can almost picture Casey Dienel sitting atop a piano, microphone in hand, Scotch-drinking bar patrons leaning in to catch her words. Her hair might be flopping over one eyebrow, her sequins worn a tad ironically. She seems, perhaps, a bit young to be hitting the cabaret circuit and a little skewed in her approach to these cracked and tender ballads. Still, she has the kind of old-fashioned jazz-inflected voice you last heard on scratchy 78 records, caressingly soft like Billie Holiday, arch and knowing like Lotte Lenya. It is such an interesting voice, so different from most of what you hear on records, that its wordless runs in "The La La Song" are an album highlight. Dienel holds the notes like the trained singer she is, yet there's a vulnerable eccentricity in her phrasings, coming breathily above the rolling piano lines or plucked stand-up bass.

Recorded in rural central Massachusetts with a band of conservatory-trained friends, Dienel's debut record is fittingly called Wind-Up Canary, for it pits the fragile melancholy of a caged bird against the mechanical precision of piano-roll rags. In the opening "Cabin Fever," she accompanies herself with gospel-flavored piano, weaving metaphors that link autumn to a homeless man, "jangling a coffee cup outside store 24/ But he's not a beggar 'till the cold settles in, and he swears there's an Indian summer in him." Bittersweet as November sun, the melody fits perfectly with lyrics about wearing sweaters and cabin fever. "The Coffee Beanery" is much jauntier, feeling like an incidental music from an off-Broadway play. Both these cuts are sparsely instrumented, just Dienel and her piano for the most part. "Embroidery" encases Dienel's voice in a richer fabric of instruments, and layers her voice over itself in harmonies. Yet although this one, and cuts like the banjo-embellished "Baby James" and the tango-rhythmed "Dr. Monroe," contain a denser array of sounds, the focus remains on Dienel's voice. It flits and flirts and dashes over the instrumental sounds, never audibly pushed but somehow dominating the mix.

The songs are engagingly written, folding everyday details like a character "chewing aspirin like it's M&Ms" (in "Fat Old Man") into surreally entertaining stories. The best narrative song on the album is "Frankie and Annette," about a couple who ran off at 16 after finding a ring in a Cracker Jack box. Things turn bad for the pair, yet the song is resolutely sunny, with a chorus that reminds us, "It's all about your 15 seconds/ And it's all about walking away from the wreck/ It's all about assembling a life from what's left in the streets/ Hub caps, coffee cups and broken love seats."

Dienel has toured with Calvin Johnson, and the two could hardly sound more different. Still, if Johnson stripped the artifice off folk-based singer/songwriter songs and replaced it with eccentric honesty, Dienel may be doing the same thing to the far more stylized genre of cabaret music. It's an interesting experiment from a very engaging new talent — and, one hopes, the beginning of a long and wonderful career.

by Jennifer Kelly

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