Meeting Expectations

Basic Needs (Black Locust)
Leigh Ann Yost
Thenceforward (HiVariety)
Tom Staley and Rick Harper

By Tim Roberts

"The expectable has more than one function in art," David Ferry wrote in the introduction to his translation of The Odes of Horace. "It focuses our attention on performance; it provides recognizable configurations within which the unexpected can occur in interesting ways and in interesting kinds of tension within the familiar."

That's one way of saying, especially in music, that if you know what to expect, you should never be disappointed. And if you hear something different within what you expect, you can be sure that it won't be too far outside what the performer is known to do. All surprises are pleasant. And because we know what we can expect in a performer's repertoire, we can give attention to the elements that can make a song good.

A pair of recent releases from a set of Louisville performers demonstrates all the sounds within the expectable: Basic Needs, the debut from singer-songwriter Leigh Ann Yost and Thenceforward from Louisville music veterans Tom Staley and Rick Harper.

Known for years as the better-looking half of the duo Hank Sinatra, Leigh Ann Yost has gathered a stellar roster of Louisville musicians and production help to back her on Basic Needs, 14 tracks of sparkling acoustic-electric pop and folk goodies. Behind that sparkle, a sound so clear and clean that it sounds like it could cut glass, are producer Bryan Hurst and engineer Jeff Carpenter, two men who could take the rawest singer-songwriter demo on a cassette tape and lovingly polish it into digital perfection. What Mark Goodson and Bill Todman did for game shows, Hurst and Carpenter do for Louisville's singer-songwriters: take something basic and turn it into a production that's memorable and, yes, entertaining. The only problem is there's nothing for Richard Dawson to host.

With Hurst and Carpenter behind the control room glass, we know we can expect an aural crispness from the individual tracks on Basic Needs, all of which Yost sings in a honey-rich alto. The selections vary in terms of theme and tempo: the snap of "Jenny Brown," the sacredness of "See Rock City," the reggae bounce in "Breathe," the slow soul rhythm in her cover of George Michael's "Waiting for That Day." But it all ends with the graceful, rainy-day sorrow of the title track, a fitting period that ends the work with a long sigh.

In addition to the production team, Yost has lots of help from such Louisville musicians as Tim Krekel, Brigid Kaelin, Steve Cooley, danny flanigan, Jim Baugher, David Barrickman and others, which makes Basic Needs a production by veteran Louisville musicians, on both sides of the studio glass, that is thoroughly professional in sound and performance.

Two other veteran Louisville musicians, who worked both sides of the studio glass and on multiple instruments, have teamed up for a new release. Rick Harper, Louisville's King of Do-It-Yourself Production and Tom Staley, a founding member of NRBQ, have come together to give us Thenceforward, a recording that celebrates the history the two have had in music since their days together in the Sacred Frowns and The Breathers and Jangleband, while showing off the songwriting and performance chops they've developed over the years. Hence, the thence and the forward.

Staley and Harper waste no time in getting to the good stuff. Worth repeated listenings is the opening track "Inside Out," a finger-snappy throwback to mid-'60s pop with its multilayered and overdubbed harmonies that sound like Harper cloned himself thirty times just to sing one song. For the balance of Thenceforward, Harper and Staley trade off licks and song styles: Staley seems more rooted in country and blues ("Time Bomb," "Brand New Day, "Waiting" and others, with a side trip into psychedelia with "Mr. Suit"), while Harper digs into his bag o' hooks from 1965 and shows how good they can still sound with "A Thing Called Love," "Only to Lose You," and the instrumental "Walkie Talkie Road." It is, especially from Harper, what we would normally expect to hear from them. And they do not disappoint.

To grow as a performer, a musician needs to stretch out into other challenges. It adds overall flexibility to his or her skills as a performer or songwriter. At the same time, it can make the musician more self-malleable, able to return to the original shape. While it does take skill to return to and retain that original shape, it provides the foundation for future projects or for a comfortable place of return. With the expert team backing Leigh Ann Yost's own performance experience on Basic Needs and Tom Staley's and Rick Harper's years of work and collaboration coming through in Thenceforward, we have a good foundation for one and a place of return for another.

What else would you expect?

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