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Little Annie, "Songs From the Coal Mine Canary"

Looking back on her fascinating but uneven back catalog, it struck me that the pixie-ish, world-weary chanteuse known as Little Annie "Anxiety" Bandez has pretty much always been at the mercy of her producers. Throughout her career, the one constant has been Annie's voice—that smoky, Marianne Faithful drawl and sardonic, campy delivery—but the sound settings in which her vocals have been placed have been wildly variable, depending upon the producer.


Durtro Jnana

Penny Rimbaud's approach was to weave a ragged punk collage of dirty musique concrete and industrial noise to match Annie's apocalyptic beat poetry. Adrian Sherwood took the On-U-Sound approach to a new level for Ms. Anxiety, placing her brutal and pithy hysterics amidst a baffling, complex network of techno and dub mutations, bursts of noise and unexpected audio collisions. Guest spots on other artists' work produced varied results, but Annie often still sounded lost in hostile surroundings, with the notable exception of her hilariously disturbing monologue on Coil's "Things Happen" from Love's Secret Domain.

Starting in the mid-'90s, Annie's new team of collaborators and producers put the singer on more solid, less experimental footing. Can "Khan" Oral and Kid Congo Powers of Gun Club sexed it up and camped it up for their Legally Jammin' releases. Larry "Electroclash" Tee and Joseph Budenholzer used traditional instruments to cushion Annie's increasingly more understated vocals, lending the singer a sophisticated, downtown NYC jazz-room feel. This new album, Songs From the Coal Mine Canary travels down this same path, with sophisticated jazz ensemble arrangements for every track, placing Annie's voice front and center, with all of its wounded imperfections and evocativeness intact.

A sticker proudly proclaims "Produced by Antony," perhaps trying to catch the eye to Mr. Hegarty's newfound legion of rabid fans for album sales, as Little Annie herself remains unjustly obscure. To be fair, this isn't just a cynical sales tactic, as Antony's presence is felt throughout the album, which features his piano playing, backup vocals, and songwriting skills on several tracks. The tracks that Antony co-wrote with Annie, especially "Absynthtee-ism" and "If I Were a Man," have very much the same quiet torch song vibe familiar from Antony and the Johnsons material, but the spotlight here belongs to Annie. This is simultaneously the album's biggest weakness and its greatest strength. Those who don't connect with Annie's subtly disarming lyrics or her savvy, time-ravaged vocals might find the album a bit slight. It's probably true that songwriting has never been Annie's strength, and though she is bolstered here by very talented collaborators, there aren't really any showstoppers on the album.  Attentive fans will even notice some repetition, a couple of songs that are reworked from past releases.

But that's not the whole story, as Songs From the Coal Mine Canary is much more than just the sum of its parts. There is something about the way in which the introspective love ballad "Diamonds Made of Glassine" merges with the dark, Angelo Badalementi-style jazz backing that makes it sound like liquid city moonlight poured into a cocktail glass. The upbeat but devastatingly apocalyptic "End Is Near" explodes into being and careens towards a thrilling Nine Simone-style conclusion, with Annie giving an impassioned vocal performance, tough for a singer who can't help but sound languorous and tossed-off. There are moments that hint at the scathing punk screeds of her past, but mostly this is a mature, sophisticated Annie, an impossibly cool character, a lady of the evening haunting an out-of-the-way gay bar in NYC, filling everyone's ears with stories of past exploits and bitter regrets.

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Review of the Day

Sugarman Three, "Pure Cane Sugar"
Daptone
Raw honesty and incredible musicianship happens to make this white boy wanna shake his ass. Guitars, horns, organ, and the most groovtastic drums I've heard in a long time work together to drop one giant bomb of grimy funk. Sure, I've heard this sort of thing before and lets face it: this is the same kind of funk made during funk's heyday and it's a hard formula to change without totally spoiling that thing that makes funk so great. But Sugarman Three pull it off perfectly. Wah-wah pedals plaster the walls, organs jive and moan and dear me do they wail, and then there's drumming. I can't say enough about the team of Rudy Albin and Ernesto Abreu. Throughout the album they effortlessly create rhythms that pulse, flow, and force me to sway, tap my foot, or even get up out of my chair and dance the best I possibly can. Even the rather down-tempo "Modern Jive" has a groove to it that simply cannot be refused. "Funky So-and-So" is the veritable big-bang that starts this bad-boy off on the good foot and paves the way for the bad thing. Contained herein is a percussion breakdown made of pure sweet sugar, just as the title implies. "Shot Down" puts some serious tension in my stomach and gets my blood flowing, most of the time I want to scream right along with Lee Fields and it's hard to contain the excitement. (I feel bad for people that have to ride in my car with me when I listen to this.) The tension is real and the funk is hot. This is a lightning-fast record at just over fourty-one minutes long and I think I've had it on repeat for about ten plays now. Excuse me, but after listening to this I have the urge to go out and find myself a lady-friend to get down with, I'm feelin' a bit frisky.

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