The spirit of music lives on, from Austin to Boston to Seattle

No matter what happens with the economy, regardless of whether CD prices go up to an even more ridiculous level, despite the apparent inevitability of all record companies merging into one megolithic, profit-hungry monopoly, music – and the bands who explore its boundaries – continues to thrive. It’s the expression of the human spirit at its most primal, and despite every social trend, will always live and grow. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a number of different cities recently, and the refreshing aspect of each always is finding a burgeoning new roster of local talent, playing and praying for their day in the stage spotlight, or even better, in the radio sun. Last month I wrote about the almost limitless listening opportunities at Austin’s South By Southwest festival. Last week I had the chance to visit a classic rock club in Cambridge, Mass., The Middle East (http://www.mideastclub.com). If you’re ever out in the Boston area, don’t skip the opportunity to walk into this tri-level club. It looks like nothing much on the first level – a narrow diner, usually with some sort of Greek belly dancing or oompah band on the tiny stage by the street-facing window. But downstairs is a big room club with a full stage for alternative rock excitement, and upstairs is yet another music haven. Two jangle-rock Monkees-esque bands were moving the crowd around downstairs on the night I stopped in. Music is always looking backward at the same time as it looks forward. A true Janus.

Last weekend I had the chance to visit Seattle, just after one of its most famous sons was found dead of an overdose in his house – Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley. In something of a dead rock star pilgrimage, I was taken by a local friend to see the house of one of the city’s other self-deleted sons, Kurt Cobain. The classically gabled house – nothing too ostentacious – sits high on a hill above Lake Washington, in one of the most exclusive areas of the city. But a park bench still sits quietly in the open park-like yard behind the fenced and bush-shrouded home, and is filled with the scrawls of fans who pledged their love of Cobain’s and Nirvana’s music with allusions to his lyrics ("now you’re in your heart-shaped box," "teen spirit lives on," "I wish I could’ve met you") and the candlewax drippings of past vigils.

Cobain’s legacy lives on in one of the city’s other must-see offerings, the Experience Music Project (www.emplive.com), a rock ‘n’ roll museum at the foot of the Seattle skyline’s most famous spoke, the Space Needle. No music fan who visits the city should miss this marvelous interactive museum of music. Including a monstrous "Sky Stage" featuring bands every evening and a unique hands-on music studio hall where patrons can play keyboards, guitars, bass and drums (and even make a recording of the results to take home on CD), the EMP boasts three floors of exhibits ranging from Bo Diddley’s square guitar to a Jimi Hendrix homage room to Elvis’ leather jacket to encyclopedia-concise displays tracing a number of rock subculture histories like punk and heavy metal. There’s a strong history of Seattle music exhibit that includes memorabilia and video footage of Seattle’s most famous bands from The Kingsmen, Heart, Soundgarden and of course, Nirvana (the handwritten lyrics locked under glass by Cobain really got to this critic.)

And then there’s the city’s live music scene. Seattle may not be the grunge center of the music universe these days as it was a decade ago, but clubs like The Tractor Tavern (http://tractortavern.citysearch.com/), Sunset Tavern, Crocodile Café (www.thecrocodile.com) — a winding maze that features three bars and paper mache reptiles hanging throughout from the ceiling — and The Showbox (an updated Vaudeville room with a giant mirrored bar and stage/main floor setup akin to Chicago’s House of Blues) feature plenty of up-and-coming talent from at home and abroad. I caught the kitschy but energetic punky pop of Kaito and the chiming shimmer of Imperial Teens (from California) at the Crocodile during my stay, and one of the final legs of Tanya Donelly’s tour at the Showbox. Which, coincidentally leads into this week’s CD review:

 

Tanya Donelly - Beautysleep Tanya Donelly
Beautysleep
(4AD)
½


After leaving behind Throwing Muses to form Belly, and almost instantly scoring a Top 40 hit with "Feed the Tree," Donelly and Belly put out a second, even stronger album that failed to hit hard at radio, and then, finally, the former member of Muses, Breeders, This Mortal Coil and Belly at last unleashed her first solo album in Lovesongs For Underdogs, which sadly got even less attention than Belly’s second disc. It’s now been four years since her solo debut, and Donelly has at last returned with a new collection, a dozen songs that revolve around her experience of giving birth to and beginning to raise her daughter. She brings in several old friends to help out, from Muses drummer David Narcizo to Frank Black guitarist Rich Gilbert to bassist-husband Dean Fisher.

This is no Linda Ronstadt lullabyes album, but the "baby" derived focus of many of these songs does make for a more subdued Donelly, who opens the CD with a heartbeat and a slipstream croon of "Life is But A Dream." The slap of a guitar and drum opens the next track in more of a trademark Belly fashion as Donelly offers her typically intriguing left-of-center poetry: ("you have carbonated my bloodstream"…"I’m not finished yet/I’m under construction/you can peek behind the curtain if you want"…"when I stumble, it will be into your hands/can it be the storm has passed?")

The disc’s obvious single comes in the "mmm, mmmm" background vocals and sinuous pop bassline of "The Night You Saved My Life," which extols the virtues of motherhood ("now I sit with my babe at my breast/I was never this good at my best/never higher"). Another standout is "Moonbeam Monkey," a spooky song about a night creature that "will bring your strange kid back" that reads like the retelling of an American Indian fable but is actually based on a dream of Donelly’s. And she offers her daughter motherly advice for life in the marshall-drummed ballad "I’m Keeping You," summing up her own experience in one verse:

"I’ve loved and been loved well and badly too
my body’s been through everything
I’ve used and been used
I got over it."

Beautysleep is not an album filled with calculated pop radio singles, nor is it a rave-up, return-to-the-circuit jam. This is a delicate record of thoughts and sighs and chiming, laidback beauty. A welcome return from Donelly and a rich entry ticket to dreams.