CD Reviews: Aaron Espe, Jeremy Messersmith and Spearhead

Aaron Espe's love letter to small towns everywhere Maybe it's because I was raised in a string of population-deficient Minnesota cities, but Aaron Espe's "Songs From a Small Town" really caught my ear. In fact, I wanted to start out this review b...

Aaron Espe's love letter to small towns everywhere

Maybe it's because I was raised in a string of population-deficient Minnesota cities, but Aaron Espe's "Songs From a Small Town" really caught my ear.

In fact, I wanted to start out this review by saying, "It takes less than a minute to fall in love with this album," but, come to find out, that's the lede I used when I reviewed Storyhill's self-titled masterpiece two years ago.

While both accolades are 100 percent genuine, I have to laugh at them because it turns out Storyhill's Chris Cunningham mixed, mastered, co-engineered and co-produced this "Small Town" love letter in his Montana studio.

The folk rock legend also sang background vocals and played piano, trumpets, accordion, acoustic guitar and organ on this, Espe's sophomore release, but dwelling on Cunningham's contributions (or those of Fray drummer Ben Wysocki) really would be misleading: Espe is an impeccable artist in his own right, and his talent would've shined through had this album been recorded on a cell phone in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot.


The key to this Fort Collins, Colo.-based singer/songwriter's allure is an uncanny knack for pairing gorgeous melodies and poignant lyrics about the timeless allure of small-town life and the human connections developed within. His vocal style may be more of an "acquired taste" than that of his Storyhill brethren's golden harmonies, but, hey, that's what they said about Bob Dylan.

And just look where he is today.

Aaron Espe will perform at 8 p.m. Oct. 3 at Beaner's Central. Cost is $7. To promote the show, an interview with Espe will be broadcast at 11 p.m. Oct. 2 on KUMD (103.3 FM). For more info, visit .

Jeremy Messersmith builds on success of 'The Alcatraz Kid'

When "The Alcatraz Kid" came out, I said, "Melancholy has a new best friend forever in Jeremy Messersmith." I may have spoken too soon.

While its follow-up, "The Silver City," isn't like an I'm-having-so-much-fun-surfing-I-could-hurl early Beach Boys record or anything, there's at least a glimmer of sunshine that wasn't present two years ago.

For instance, when the Twin Cities popsmith expounds upon hell on Earth in "Welcome to Suburbia" -- as in, actually living in suburbia -- he does it in such an epic and catchy way that you almost want to reconsider living in a place as special as Duluth. Almost.

Much of this newfound pop love can probably be credited to the man behind the boards, producer Dan Wilson. He's the Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic frontman who, weirdly enough (see previous review), also transformed underappreciated folk duo Storyhill into a Jayhawks-rivaling phenomenon on 2006's "Storyhill."


Everything that made "Alcatraz" such a revelation -- namely Messersmith's fascination with the late great Elliott Smith's skill set (see "Franklin Avenue") -- is still present on "The Silver City," but there's an extra layer of polish that will help the troubadour reach greater audiences. Again, a la Storyhill.

Like Aaron Espe's "Songs From a Small Town," this concept album about getting around Minneapolis* isn't something you'll want to pass up at the local record store.

*As far as I can tell. My reasoning: Interludes include recordings from the city's light rail system, and there's even a cover of the Replacements classic "Skyway."

Jeremy Messersmith will play a CD release show for "The Silver City" Sept. 25 at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. Get the details at .

Politics or no, Spearhead deserves your attention

If all you know about Spearhead is frontman Michael Franti's inclination to get all political on us, take heed: They know how to make records. And not just records that anyone with GarageBand on their computers can make. Real records. Ones that will stay with you for years.

Recorded in the home of reggae, Kingston, Jamaica, and co-produced by the legendary team of Sly & Robbie, "All Rebel Rockers" is what Top 40 radio would sound like if large corporations didn't control the playlists. It doesn't adhere to any one genre -- it blurs the lines between hip-hop, rock and reggae -- and, more importantly, it feels organic.

Franti and crew ease us into the experience with the relaxing "Rude Boys Back in Town" before breaking out the big guns with "A Little Bit of Riddim." It's instantly appealing, yet, thanks to Cherine Anderson's guest rhymes and some light activism lyrics ("Do you remember the time before / Every day was a news of a holy war?"), it doesn't make you want to instantly wash your ears out with soap. (What, club-ready tunes don't do that to you?)


Other singles-in-waiting include the inspiring "Life in the City" and the dance party-approved "Soundsystem," but the one I would finger for No. 1 smash hit would be "Hey World (Remote Control Version)." Like a cross between Grayskul's bouncy "Scarecrow" and any given giddy OutKast hit, everything just seems to come together for four glorious minutes: From the perversely fun lyrics ("I didn't come here to chill, I came here to rock / To smash the empire with my boom box") to the top-notch production, this is it.

This is why we listen to music.

Watch the video for "Hey World (Remote Control Version)" at .

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