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Queerly Independent:
The Best of New Queer Music Isn't Finding Home at the Major Labels
by Gregg Shapiro

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**Joe Jackson Band @ The Vic (312/559-1212) March 30

**Tom Michael @ Davenport's (773/278-1830) every Thursday in April

** Patty Larkin @ Old Town School of Folk Music (773/728-6000) May 9

** Cheryl Wheeler @ Schuba's(773/525-2508) May 14 & 15

** Buzzcocks @ Alpine Valley Music Center June 21

Since the beginning of 2003, just a few short months ago, I have received no less than two dozen CDs by LGBT artists. Most are self-released, on independent record labels owned by the artists, with limited distribution or availability exclusively through the performers' Web sites. A few, such as albums by Patty Larkin, Joe Jackson, Cheryl Wheeler and Buzzcocks, are released by very respectable smaller labels.

It's never too soon to start thinking about the best albums of the year, and I think I may have discovered a contender. Hung (Le Grand Magistery) the second full-length disc (following Bottom, the EP Circa and the Definitive maxi-single) by Flare is exquisite, complex and the most approachable song cycle they have released. Essentially a two-person unit comprised of LD Beghtol and Charles Newman, Flare is enhanced by a variety of guest musicians, specifically John Wesley Harding, Dana Kletter, Marc Gartman, Ida Pearle, Chris Xefos (King Missile member who also plays in Beghtol's other band Moth Wranglers), and Stephin Merritt (with whom Beghtol plays in Magnetic Fields), to name a few. It took me five listens to get past the first four songs, because I kept playing them repeatedly. At under two minutes, the musical toy lullaby of 'All The Money's Gone' ('Matthew, Martin, Luke & John/That's where all the money's gone') reeled me in and the back-to-back brilliance of 'School of New York' and ''Like' Is A Very Strong Word' propelled me to 'If/Then' ('If I lost a hundred pounds/Would you still want me around?/And if I ever shaved my beard/Would you never shed a tear?') which is sure to have bears everywhere pondering these questions. Flare also covers cheating lovers ('Keep It To Yourself'), a reference to an East Village night spot Dick's Bar ('Obvious'), and the perils of dating ('(Don't Like) The Way We Live Now'), in their own inimitable style.

Some Company (Violent Yodel Music), the third full-length disc by singer/songwriter and piano virtuoso Skott Freedman is the perfect companion to his previous releases and proof that he is maturing and growing as an artist. Opening the disc on a daring note, with 'The Wind,' a song written by the controversial Cat Stevens, Freedman inhabits the brief and breezy song and makes it his own. The title track, featuring Freedman's trademark piano work, is a thought-provoking song about slowing down, with the lines 'Now I'm heading South/gonna learn to shut my mouth/and listen to the people and their places and their stories/before I turn to judge,' sung over his rapid-fire playing. 'Breathing' continues the theme of leaving, as does the powerful 'Tug Of War,' in which Freedman sings, 'Same old story/boy meets girl/boy falls in love/well not in this story/just two boys here.' Freedman's cover of 'Walking In Memphis' is even better than Cher's and it's the right uplifting tune the album needed at that moment. 'In November' is as frenetic as the first snowfall and 'Walking Away,' which closes the album, is Freedman's final word on the end of a relationship.

Before relocating to South Carolina, Skott Freedman spent some time living in Boston, where the queer music scene is particularly fertile. Kate Schutt remains a part of that scene. Her latest album, Broken (Wild Whip) is the third installment in a trilogy that began with the thrilling Brokenwingtrick, on which she deconstructed the songs of Talking Heads, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, and continued on to Brokenworld, a daring album of original songs (including the extraordinary 'Calpernia'). She wraps it all up in a jazzy bow with vocal and guitar covers of songs in a jazz setting. From her light-as-perfume reading of 'The Lady Is A Tramp' to funky take on Janet Jackson's 'Miss You Much' to her folky jazz interpretation of 'Autumn Leaves' to her gentle parental version reading of 'Father Figure,' Kate Schutt has fixed a place for herself at the jazz table. Schutt originals such as the wonderful 'Lost You' and the instrumental hidden track 'Good Gracious,' show that she has an ear for creating new jazz.

I've been listening to Fred Hersch's stellar piano playing since 1989, when Short Stories, the album he recorded with Manhattan Transfer vocalist Janis Siegel was released. Since that time, I've come to admire Hersch's artistry as both a composer and as an interpreter of other people's songs. The albums he released on Nonesuch during the mid-'90s, including the sensational Billy Strayhorn tribute Passion Flower, are especially noteworthy. Live At The Village Vanguard (Palmetto), the first of two albums Hersch will be releasing in 2003, is actually credited to The Fred Hersch Trio, which also includes Drew Gress on bass and Nasheet Watts on drums. The 10-track live recording (recorded in May of 2002) features the trio's renditions of jazz and popular standards such as 'I'll Be Seeing You' and Monk's 'Bemsha Swing,' to name a few, as well as half a dozen Hersch originals including standouts such as the aptly named 'Phantom Of The Bopera' (on which the trio excels as Hersch's fingers fly over the keys), the slow and sticky 'Swamp Thang,' and repetitive, but never boring, 'Stuttering.'

While we're on the subject of jazz, I highly recommend the live recording by the Segre Ensemble, Segre'—Felicita segreta (RAS). The songs are based on poems by Emilio Rentocchini and the disc is the latest album featuring out Italian lesbian jazz vocalist Sandra Cartolari. In fact, her previous solo offering, Two Lips, is also well worth owning.

Although there is no mistaking Patty Larkin's folk roots, her phrasing often has a jazz quality to it—breathy, languorous, elongated. Red=Luck (Vanguard), her new album, opens with her characteristic guitar playing before the near-gospel declaration, 'Hey a change is gonna come.' But it isn't the bible, but 'April told me so.' Jeff Lang's slide guitar takes wing on 'The Cranes,' with the heartbreaking chorus 'If you're thinking of leaving/you're leaving at a very bad time.' With its 'I remember' mantra, 'Children' made me think of a musical interpretation of Joe Brainerd. 'Italian Shoes,' with Jennifer Kimball's 'What I'm trying to say' backing vocals is about the search for the right words and Larkin has no trouble finding something political to say in 'Birmingham.' The stripped-down 'Home' is a tender response to 9/11, while 'Different World,' featuring Jonatha Brooke, is one of Larkin's most radio-ready tunes.

A longtime fixture on the women's music scene, Tret Fure has followed up her acclaimed and long-awaited 2001 solo disc Back Home with her new acoustic album My Shoes (Tomboy girl). On the title track, she addresses her break-up with longtime companion Cris Williamson in direct terms. 'The Wedding Song,' with the chorus 'Don't lose sight/Don't feel bound/Just give thanks for the love we've found/Take my hand/Take my heart/And I will keep the prayer to never walk apart,' deserves to be sung at commitment ceremonies, civil unions and weddings the world over and could come to replace the Paul Stookey song of the same name. 'The Apartment' is a melodic companion to Kusma Petrov-Vodkin's painting 1919: The Alarm and 'Bigger Than I' is a musical cross-country journey. Irish duo Zrazy supply accompaniment (penny whistle and bodhran) on the gently galloping 'Fly.'

On a recent episode of Friends, Monica and Phoebe went to an open-mic night at NYC cabaret room Don't Tell Mama's (where Phoebe's boyfriend, played by Paul Rudd, plays piano). That episode and Jack's MAC-award nomination episode on Will & Grace, are probably the most exposure the cabaret circuit has even gotten in terms of reaching middle America. While I don't imagine beer-swilling frat-boys and their sorority sister girlfriends abandoning the karaoke clubs that they flock to in lieu of an intimate cabaret setting, I do take the cabaret-via-sitcom thing as a sign that perhaps cabaret artists worldwide will finally get the exposure that many richly deserve.

Tom Michael is one such singer. On his second album Written In The Stars (LML), Michael once again finds a pleasing balance between old standbys such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'This Nearly Was Mine' and Berlin's 'How Deep Is The Ocean,' with more bold contemporary material. His 'homey' reading of Carole Bayer Sager and Melissa Manchester's 'Home To Myself' is comforting, while Jill Kaeding's cello playing enhances 'Dialogue.' Michael knows you can't go wrong with a John Bucchino song, and Beckie Menzie's piano accompaniment on 'Better Than I,' allows the singer to enter the tune without obstruction.

Forever Sucks (Chainsaw), the five-song EP by Tracy + The Plastics speaks to the 'politics of dancing' crowd shaking their queer asses to Le Tigre and Ladytron. On disc, the listener doesn't get the complete experience of the live (Tracy) and video image (The Plastics) presentation that is said to be essential to Wynne (Tracy) Greenwood's work. However, the songs (which clock in at under 10 minutes total), especially 'Best of The 70's, 80's, and 90's,' 'Dog,' 'Hey Rubella,' have a good beat, you are welcome to dance to them if you feel so inclined.

Shimmerplanet is an NYC-based duo consisting of John Fischer, who is openly gay ('as a box of birds,' his own words), and Carolyn Eufrasio, who is straight (as in hetero). Their debut disc Welcome To Shimmerplanet (Engine Company) is one of the most original and enjoyable releases in recent memory. The pair takes turns singing lead on the songs, and when they sing together, as they do on the exceptional 'No Safe,' they complement each other like two planets in the same orbit. The variety of the material, from the keyboard and vocal on 'I Am Still Looking For You' to revved-up rock of 'Everything's Perfect' to the deadpan vocals on 'Happy' to the racing S&M heartbeat of 'Beat Me' to humdinger 'Envy,' kept my attention from start to finish (including the 'I Sleep With The Radio On' coda) and made me yearn for travel to Shimmerplanet's galaxy.

Out lesbian drummer Jennifer Yakes, from the punk band Leah Stargazing, was recently written up in The Advocate, as much for her drumming abilities as for her being, well, an out lesbian drummer in a punk band. Yakes's drumming is the driving force behind this youthful New England quintet's sound on their debut disc Leave It All Behind (Telescope). Standout tracks include 'Stick Around,' 'Three Days Too Long,' 'Crazy 17,' 'Expect The Worst,' and 'Wonder What You Wonder.'

Leah Stargazing, and just about any other contemporary punk band, owes a huge debt of gratitude to openly queer Pete Shelley and his band Buzzcocks. For someone who has been at it for more than 25 years, Shelley's fury is as fresh as a slap on the face on the band's new self-titled disc (on Merge). Beginning with 'Jerk,' the 'fight song' that kicks things off and moving on to the 'crazy paved with good intentions' and the words of encouragement, 'keep on keeping it real' of 'Keep On,' Buzzcocks deliver vintage punk rock with a dose of sensitivity. Fellow original Buzzcock Steve Diggle takes the lead on a few tracks, including 'Wake Up Call,' but I prefer Shelley's 'wake up and face the morning after' rousing of the listener on 'Morning After.' Shelley and early Buzzcocks member Howard Devoto (later a co-founder of the band Magazine) co-wrote the hard-rocking 'Stars' and the punk punch of 'Lester Sands.'

The Buzzcocks weren't the only British punk unit with a connection to the queer community. Joe Jackson, who wrote of his bisexuality in his late '90s autobiography, consistently dropped hints in his music, in songs such as 'Real Men' and 'Biology,' to name a few. After exploring his expansive musical horizons (which included swing, soundtracks and symphonic work) for 20 or so years without his original band, Jackson has reunited with them for the album Volume 4 (Restless/ Rykodisc). 'Fairy Dust,' joins the ranks of the aforementioned queer songs, while 'Love At First Light,' proves that Jackson still has a way with words. For the most part, the songs sounds like an attempt to blur the line between Jackson's early trademark sneer ('Take It Like A Man,' 'Awkward Age,' 'Little Bit Stupid,' 'Bright Grey,' and the ska swirl of 'Thugz 'R' Us') and his later pleasant pop ('Still Alive,' 'Chrome'). Like 2000's Night And Day II, a sequel to Jackson's bestselling Night And Day, Volume 4 gives the listener reason to look forward to looking back, without ever having to choose nostalgia over the present day.

Out lesbian singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon produced The Women Gather (EarthBeat!), the 30th anniversary album by Sweet Honey In The Rock, the all-female vocal group founded by her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon in 1973. Reagon also wrote three of the songs, 'Fly' (a song in response to the events of 9/11, written 'with S H I R in mind'), the breathtaking '22 Hours In The Day,' and 'Yes It Was' (which is dedicated to Toshi's late father Cordell Hull Reagon). The remaining songs, which combine messages both political and spiritual, are essential listening, especially at this time in history.

Texas-based singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster's voice is a religious experience, praiseworthy and heavenly. With musician and producer Lloyd Maines (father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines) at the helm on Runaway Soul (Blue Corn Music), Foster's radiant vocals propel these near-spiritual and blue-inflected songs into the atmosphere like sweet incense. 'Runaway Soul' and 'Woke Up This Morning' raise the roof and let the sunshine in and 'Small Town Blues' lives up to its title in a big way. Bonnie Raitt owes it to herself to record 'Home,' a song that sounds like it was written just for her. Foster's cover of Terri Hendrix's 'Hole In My Pocket' is splendid and when Foster accompanies herself on piano on 'Give You My Love,' you can feel the affection emanating from the tune. Foster's partner Cyd Cassone is present throughout, as she provides backing vocals and plays a variety of percussion instruments.

Embracing This (DreamBorn) is the debut disc by young, gay 'soulfolk' singer/songwriter Jeremy Blue. Blue expresses and explores a hopeful range of emotions over the course of the album's 11 songs, including 'feeling like a twink on a Chelsea street' ('Don't Know Where'), the youthful feeling of new love on 'New To Me,' the spell that is cast in 'Green Love' and his jazz-inspired cover of 'If I Only Had A Brain.' Blue shows his true colors, even as he wrestles with 'growing up' on a couple of songs (including 'Some Guy' and 'Garconfille').

You won't find the Cheryl Wheeler song 'If It Were Up To Me,' the one that Garth Brooks had a huge hit with during his short-lived Chris Gaines phase, on Wheeler's CD Different Stripe (Philo/Rounder/EMI Music), even though the CD is being billed as a 'career-spanning collection.' Holly Near also covered the song, and perhaps Wheeler felt that there were other songs which better represented her recording career. The songs on Different Stripe go as far back as 1986 (such as 'Addicted') and also include two new songs (one of which is the amazing 'Gandhi/ Buddha'). A majority of the songs are derived from her 1990 album Circles & Arrows, including the exquisite 'Moonlight And Roses.' Wheeler's songs have also been covered by Bette Midler, Suzy Boggus, Maura O'Connell, openly gay cabaret performer D.C. Anderson and many others.

Citing lesbian vocal improviser Rhiannon among her influences, out jazz vocalist Mary Lofstrom, sings and scats her way across and through unusual covers and promising originals on her album Ginger Comes To Stay (Shimmering Fishbelly). Lofstrom is the second openly queer Seattle-based jazz vocalist that I have recently become aware of (Ben Black is the other), and her singular readings of 'Palm Springs Jump,' 'Sugar In My Bowl,' 'So Nice (Summer Samba),' and 'Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone,' are refreshing. Originals such as the swinging 'I'll Do Dot' and the chilly 'Minnesota's Lament,' make Lofstrom an artist to watch.

Out singer/songwriter Diane Ward has a sizable following in South Florida and there are a few songs on The Great Impossible (Shinytown) that may help to expand her audience. Rhythmic, guitar-driven songs such as 'Wide Awake,' 'Shooting Rockets,' and 'Fade,' have a Melissa Etheridge quality. Some of Ward's ballads, including 'Perfect Kiss,' 'Baby Look Up,' and the title track show another side of Ward.

Originally released in 1955 and 1957 respectively, the live recording Noel Coward At Las Vegas and the studio album Noel Coward In New York (both DRG), capture the legendary wit and songwriter in performance. According to the album cover, the Las Vegas album was 'Recorded In Actual Performance At Will Clark's Desert Inn,' an unlikely venue if there ever was one for Coward, but the audience members, who were responsive to both his popular songs and his newer compositions (including 'A Bar On The Piccola Marina'), were enthusiastic, to say the least. The New York album sounds like the soundtrack to a cake and coffee segment of a dinner party, yours or Coward's.

Other notable releases by queer artists include New Yorker Allison Tartalia's Ready (Make Haste!), Rock Widow (Urban Productions) by gay prog-rocker Robert Urban, bi singer/songwriter and Indiegrrrl founder Holly Figueroa's How It Is (Cake Records), Elaine Place and Roscoe by Chicago-based performer Scott Montgomery, the Prince-inspired songs of Saturn on his CD The Virgin Poet (SJG Entertainment), and Montreal-based Cher Neill's bluesy The St. Laurence Blvd. Semi-Annual Street Sale.

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