Out Here

Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks
Noise and Smoke
(Kilroy Records)

Maybe Little Jack really does like to keep his Turks young: By his count, the artist known to his family as Steve Carter has burned through 19 full-timers plus "a dizzying assortment of occasional subs." Sounds like Menudo to us. That, or Carter's devotion to all things Brecht and Newman has made him a hard man to work for, if only because there probably isn't much money to be made singing songs about invading Switzerland or performing bossa novas about couples taking "Separate Vacations." Almost a decade on, and still there's no better lyricist around these parts than Carter, who writes songs like a short-story craftsman who sings for his supper. Of course, that will forever doom him to obscurity, since only the cult crowd digs songs that actually say something, that actually mean something with or without the swing.

This live disc, recorded at Dan's Bar in Denton, is such a joy to listen to even during its sad-sack and whacked-out moments; listen to it long enough, and you'll wonder why in hell Carter didn't pick up the family long ago and settle in Manhattan's Alphabet City, where such genius is celebrated instead of pigeonholed. Consisting of old faves ("Happily Ever After (West of Eden)," "J'ai Faim, Toujours") and the occasional new tune (including the opener "Out of the Woods," which strives for Sondheim territory and actually reaches the mainland), Noise and Smoke is the rare live album that feels alive. That is, the re-creations of the familiar tunes sound as though they were written during the performances, even the band's ripped-through run-through of Weill's "Alabama Song." Perhaps that's the result of having a new band every time he makes a record; they ain't getting bored of the material, that's for sure. But more likely it has something to do with Carter's ability to doll it up smarmy or sappy when the time is right without ever overplaying the moment.

And so a song like "Out of the Woods" is either a hopeful meditation on the promise of love ("Better take my hand / Better stay close to me") or a sorrowful expression of its ultimate betrayal ("Candles in windows once led out of the woods"). And "Separate Vacations" is either a coy quip ("He loves the food in Ibiza / She thinks the waiter is coarse and lazy") or the heartbreaking reality of deadpan disappointment ("You'll see things your way and I'll see them mine / Separate vacations again"). And the live forum allows Carter and company to play fast and loose with the material, which almost seems to get away from the boys at times. Say, when sax player Jacob Duncan turns notes into cobras during "Happily Ever After," or when Carter does his deeply affectionate Tom Waits impression on "A bottle full of snake oil" and comes up this short of re-creating Waits' own anti-advertisement anthem "Step Right Up." Docked a point for including "Cum on Feel the Noize," but add two for "Is That All There Is?" Steve Carter is Peggy Lee.

Robert Wilonsky


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