Johnny Cuomo

American Idle

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American Idle features a baker's dozen tunes from Johnny Cuomo and Daniel Lowery, a solid and highly listenable batch of originals by the two composers with all lyrics flowing from the pen of Cuomo. It's earthy and honest music in the vein of Alastair Moock, Jon Macey and Steve Gilligan, Kerry Kearney, and a host of other players in the current "new wave" of roots music, artists displaying a huge range of musical dexterity. The blend of Old World instrumentation including Dobro, harmonica, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and button accordion alongside the bass, guitar, and drums takes the "unplugged" format to another level, something that Jonathan Richman brought into popular vogue around the time he asked David Robinson to put towels on his drums -- helping Robinson make the decision to venture off into other groups such as DMZ, the Pop, and the Cars, where he could rock out again. But as Richman realized the value of turning it down, trading in his revamped and punked-out renditions of Alice Cooper and Lou Reed riffs (because he couldn't yet articulate their actual riffs!) and becoming more studied, the door opened for artists such as Cuomo to present songs like "Progress" -- a restrained and lovely ballad with deep affection and mournful vocals (and a reference to Jesus) -- to college kids across the country. Opening track "Try, Try, Try" grooves with fiddle sounding like a violin and an urgent and energetic vocal that would make Janis Joplin and Chip Taylor proud. Indeed, Joplin's early acoustic tapes had this "personal" approach. "Songs from Paul" steps in with a sweeping guitar strum and more of an emphasis on pop, an accessible and highly commercial number with superb production from engineer/co-producer Bill Herman and sweet instrumentation that rings out, the vocals a step back behind the body of the playing over a very original and most catchy hook. Some albums are a sheer joy to spin from top to bottom, and this second Paradiddle Records label outing by Johnny Cuomo contains many episodes that impel the listener to return, including the almost three-minute "Kristen's Song," with its sparse arrangement, and the six-and-a-half minute "Milk & Pumpkins," with guitar that pulls at the speakers and a Dylanesque voice that brings the story home. Lyrics are included in the four-page booklet.

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