If you think you know a singer-songwriter and want to be sure before you buy him a beer, check these qualifiers courtesy of Wikipedia: must "write, compose and sing their own material," "appear primarily at house concerts, coffee houses, folk clubs and festivals," and be "better known for their meaningful lyrics than for the presentation of the song." It differs from territory to territory -- in Hong Kong, for example, there are singer-songwriters who are also supermodels! Well, no such luck here, but we do have some Phoenicians who've recently housed their meaningful lyrics in shrink wrap and, in some instances, a jewel case.
Around the time of Mexican-Americana troubadour Eric Holland's last release, Without Borders, in 2004, the hot topic of border reform was still a sleeping giant that hadn't yet been poked with a flagpole. Since then, we've all seen at least one co-worker or neighbor turn ugly on the subject, so the time for an album like American Inmigrante couldn't be better -- or worse, depending on which side of the 370-mile-long fence you stand. But Holland is adept at playing to both sides of the argument with resonant singing and detailed songwriting. He puts a discernible face on the border crossers with "Amnesty" ("He left us near Bisbee, stole our money/That was my welcome, my amnesty") and manages to reel in unsuspecting gringos with a playful cover version of Jay & the Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer." Profits from sales go to HumaneBorders in Tucson. (www.erichollandaz.com)
We know Marc Norman from his numerous band projects (Ghetto Cowgirl, Velvet Elvis), so it's no surprise that the first time he puts out a CD under his own name, it's actually a split CD with himself. Titled Double EP, it's broken up into two decidedly different Marc Norman programs. Part one, Belligerent & the Golf Pro, is billed to Marc Norman and Jess Valenzuela, while part two, Lo Fi Fiasco, is credited to Marc Norman and the Saboteurs of Musical Integrity. The singing and songwriting collaborative with a Gin Blossom is what you might expect -- a polished affair, rife with lush harmonies, stinging slide guitar and carefully considered performances, except for an odd habit of clipping off the endings of songs. Not sure if the standout song "Heading Out West" is a clarion call for California -- it sure sounds like a Tempe travel brochure. Yet it's the shambolic second half, with unbilled players in varying degrees of sobriety, that's actually a better showcase for Norman's throaty, no-holds-barred bark. He really digs into songs like "Words" ("Listenin' to the phone not ringing and I know it's you not callin' maaay-haaay") and "13th Floor" ("I'm so sick of myself"), and this much self-pity would probably be unbearable in a more polished setting. But here, it's Budweiser True Music in the truest sense of the word. (www.myspace.com/ghettocowgirl)
You wouldn't expect a record like Gus Brett's Orphan of Love to be much fun, seeing the musician posed on the cover like the archetypical "sensitive" garden-variety singer-songwriter, sitting in the woods, guitar at his feet like a hunting dog, eyes closed and being at one with . . . oh, something. "Shit," you say to yourself, "it's new age babble or Jesus rock" -- and you wouldn't be too far off, except in that this is really, really good. Brett is a lovable kook, opening up his album with a giddy "You never heard nothing like me" boast, and then backing it up with solid, spiritually centered songwriting like "Abandoned" ("We're all abandoned but not for long") and "Nemesis," a spoken-word message from Central Mind Control that has Brett orating like the Moody Blues and reiterating entertainers' empty mission in life: "Use their televisions, their radios, their computers to communicate your madness to billions/Make death their greatest fear and then rob them of their lives. They will follow." You might not follow Brett's sincere lead into open-heartedness, but give a listen to the title track and you're guaranteed not to run away screaming from it, either. Brett's CD release party is scheduled for Saturday, June 24, at Cave Creek Coffee Co. (www.gusbrett.com)