Thursday, February 26, 2009

Michael Jerome Browne - This Beautiful Mess


I found this to be one of the most difficult album reviews to write. As I listened to This Beautiful Mess, I kept thinking of how the songs might sound performed by other people in a variety of styles. This seemed to be getting in the way of my ability to evaluate the album on its own merits.

When I learned more about Michael Jerome Browne, it didn’t help. The man has recorded an album of (mostly) acoustic blues, and another of string band music, be it a Cajun, country, or folk string band. The man is a musical chameleon.

So This Beautiful Mess contains soul-blues, country, folk, and R&B flavors. It sounds like it ought to be quite a mess. But it really isn’t. My brain kept telling me that this shouldn’t work, but my ears were telling me that it did.

I kept coming back to the thought that these songs should be huge for somebody else. And I finally realized that this was because they were really good songs. The album opens with Low Tide, which has a great groove that would lend itself to an R&B arrangement, or to a southern rock treatment. Here it feels like the best that soul-blues has to offer. That is followed by Your Eyes Tell Me Goodbye. This song is a hit in search of an artist. A classic waltz-time breakup song, it would lend itself equally to a country or soul treatment, and Browne’s arrangement has suggestions of both.

One song that does not cry out for a cover is Summer Shoes On. For this song, the band drops out and Browne plays an acoustic blues on resonator guitar. The lyrics tell of young Cree who is captured while drunk by the police, and later found dead under suspicious circumstances. In the CD booklet, the song is dedicated to Neil Stonechild, who was one of too many young Cree who died this way. This song, with its spare arrangement, does not need to be covered or changed in any way. It only needs enough people to hear it that something will be done.

The title track, This Beautiful Mess, has a great bluesy groove. I find it hard to sit still while listening to it. Once again, the best way I can think of to describe the sound is to say that I would love to hear Bonnie Raitt tackle this one.

A couple of key elements hold all of this together. One is Michael Jerome Browne’s voice. The term that comes to mind is “blue-eyed soul”. It is a full voice, with the slightest scratch in places. Browne never oversings, but his commitment to his material is obvious.

The other unifying element is the approach to the lyrics. On the original songs on the album, these are by Browne’s partner, Bee Markus. The lyrics are simple, not simplistic. They say exactly what they need to say, with no padding. The album also includes four covers, whose lyrics all share this quality.

There are a couple of misses on the album. We All Need Some Love is more of a jam than a song, with lyrics added almost as an afterthought; this is the kind of song that bar bands play late in their show, with each member taking a brief solo as the frontman introduces them to the crowd. I have always felt that this kind of song should never be put on a recording for sale. And When She Goes Out In This World is a song written by a parent to a child. It is the only time the album becomes overly sentimental.

That still leave a solid set of songs, by a man who can mix and match musical styles, and make it all work. And it leaves a treasure trove for producers looking for a hit song.

Michael Jerome Browne: Your Eyes Tell Me Goodbye

Michael Jerome Browne: This Beautiful Mess

Friday, February 20, 2009

Financial Fairy Tales

Once upon a time, people believed:

That tulip bulbs were worth more than houses.

That the price of a house could only go up, never down.

That one man knew a secret which enabled him to beat every other known investment, no matter what the economy was doing.

It’s true. People really did believe these things. And they never thought to ask why or how, until it was too late. In each example, supposedly sophisticated investors put vast sums of money on these beliefs. And in each example, people like you and me, who never had the means to get involved, wound up getting hurt.

So why does this happen over and over, throughout history? I think that, when one of these things gets started, the first investors often know that it is a shell game, but they can still make a killing if they get out in time. Or someone they know brings them in with the simple appeal to “trust me”. Soon the thing gathers momentum, and people get involved based on the idea that serious money is being made, and they are afraid of being left behind. Once that happens, logic flies out the window, and greed completely takes over.

But something always happens, and the whole thing collapses. And many of those who knew that they only had to get out at the right time, didn’t.

It would be so much easier if people would just listen to our storytellers and songwriters. These artists could tell you that, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. The characters in the songs below “just knew” that they had a surefire plan to make a quick buck. And of course, it wasn’t that simple.

Rickie Lee Jones: Easy Money


Robert Earl Keen: The Road Goes On Forever


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

J Shogren - American Holly


I don’t usually quote from press sheets in my reviews, but consider the following, about J Shogren:

“His adventures have taken him from days as a trapper to an endowed professor.
He splits his time between Wyoming and Sweden, where he worked last year- unlikely
as it sounds - as the King’s Professor. Even more riotous, he was a party to the Nobel
Peace Prize as a member of the United Nations Team working on climate change.”

Now, one possibility is that somebody is pulling our leg here. This story is audacious, if so, and demonstrates a wild imagination. On the other hand, what if it’s all true? To live such a life would require a different kind of wild imagination.

Whatever the case, on the evidence of Shogren’s album American Holly, I can confirm the wild imagination. This is a mostly acoustic affair, but the arrangements include jug, euphonium, trombone, resonator, and accordion on various tracks. The lyrics of Relativity link the battle of the sexes to a famous scientific theory. And Hand Grenade is a dead-on spoof of the songs kids are made to sing in bible camps.

The overall sound of the music tends to confirm the part in Shogren’s bio that states that he used to be a trapper. This sounds like music made by a man who lived for some time in a cabin in the Wyoming mountains, cut off from society and from a radio, with only a boombox, a stack of folk and acoustic blues CDs with some Southern gospel and old-time country thrown in, a stack of batteries, and an acoustic guitar for company.

There are two other times I can remember when a singer’s voice prompted in me the same reaction I had when I first heard J Shogren’s. Those were when I first heard Randy Newman and Leon Redbone. I had to keep looking at the album cover to assure myself that the singer was indeed white. Shogren’s voice sounds like one of those great bluesmen from ninety years ago. He also sounds like a gruffer version of Randy Newman.

Most of the time, Shogren’s guitar plating does not call attention to itself; rather, it serves the song, playing only what is needed. But, when you do notice it, you find that Shogren can really play. I have included She’s With Me in this post, because it includes some of those moments which display Shogren’s prowess.

I talked about the wild imagination on display in some of the lyrics. The finest example of this is God’s 9:05, in which John Henry and Casey Jones meet the devil. This one gets added to my list of great train songs.

I do have a couple of quibbles. The title track American Holly opens the album, and is kind of a drone. The vocal melody is the least interesting one on display here. And, as much as I love Hand Grenade, the song does not fit in with the rest of the album.

I have provided a purchase link to get the album from CDBaby. You can also name your price, and obtain individual tracks on J Shogren’s website. Whatever you choose, make sure that J Shogren gets paid. No matter what else he does with his time, I want him to be encouraged to make more of this wonderful music.

J Shogren: She‘s With Me

J Shogren: God‘s 9:05

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love Songs

Happy Valentine’s Day to all. Today is the day to hear love songs.

There is perhaps no subject which has inspired more songs than love. Therefore, it is the subject which has inspired more terrible songs than any other. To compound the problem, love makes people lose their minds. In a recording studio, that means oversinging in abundance, and overproduction to match. Often, the pure emotion gets lost amidst the clutter of the arrangement.

Fortunately, there are also times when love conquers all, and the feeling shines through.

K D Lang: Miss Chatelaine


K D Lang has a big voice, and the production here uses a full band with strings. But, the strings are not a solid wall of sound overwhelming everything else; Lang uses a small section of strings where all the parts can be heard. And Lang has a voice which can carry this kind of arrangement without straining for the notes.

Miss Chatelaine tells of the exhilaration of a first kiss, and the excitement of the experience comes through loud and clear. The slow tempo allows the warmth that starts in the lips to suffuse her spirit in the course of the song.

John Hiatt: Have a Little Faith in Me


While we’re on the subject of first kisses, I can never hear this song without thinking of the climactic scene in the movie Benny and June. This is the song that plays while the title characters have their first kiss. The emotional barriers have been swept away, and love prevails. For me, this is the greatest screen kiss of all time.

Inexplicably, Have a Little Faith in Me was left out of the soundtrack album for the movie. I assume there was a problem with the rights, but, if it had been me, I would have done whatever was necessary to include it.

Jane Siberry: Lovin‘ Cup


Lovin’ Cup has a simple, almost simplistic, lyric. The song conveys a rush of joy that comes with the experience love; this joy is expressed almost entirely through the music. I think the message here is that, when in it comes to love, sometimes there are no words to express it.

Nanci Griffith: Love at the Five and Dime


That first rush of love is only the first step on a journey. Nanci Griffith takes on that journey, showing that their are missteps and obstacles along the way. But her protagonists are able to keep their love through music. I can think of no better way to end a post on love songs than this.

I would like to dedicate this post to the love of my life, my wife Janice.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Darrell Scott - Modern Hymns


I’m a little late with this one; it came out last summer. So I justify reviewing now for two reasons: first, this blog did not exist when the album was released; and second, because , if you weren’t aware of the album from when it was released, I need to fix that.

Darrell Scott has written a number of songs that were country hits for other artists. With Modern Hymns, he has decided to record an album consisting entirely of covers of songs that influenced him. By now, this has been a recipe for a slew of albums, both sublime and mundane. So I wasn’t looking for anything special necessarily, but I was willing to give this a chance.

So I put the album in the player, and the first track, All The Lovely Ladies by Gordon Lightfoot began. I can hear that Darrell Scott is a Nashville writer. The song is pleasant, the arrangement is tasteful and tasty, not overproduced. Scott has a voice that reminds me of Loudon Wainwright, without the whine. I can definitely stand to listen to more of this, to see what else Scott might be up to.

The second track began, and my jaw dropped in amazement. The song is Urge For Going by Joni Mitchell. Mitchell is one of my idols, and you don’t mess with her. In Mitchell’s original, Urge For Going is a slow lament for a departing lover. Darrell Scott renders the song as a bluegrass rave-up, and the emphasis shifts to the power of the urge in the title. And works spectacularly well. It does exactly what a good cover should do; it reveals a level of meaning that was not to be found in the original.

I wondered, while enjoying different flavors of country, whether Scott could do other things. And then I heard James. A cover of Pat Metheny, this was either going to win me over or be the first outright flop on the album. Years ago, I heard the Pat Metheny Group perform this live. Scott has rendered the tune in a style that reminds me somewhat of David Grisman, and gives part of the original guitar part to singer Moira Smiley. Once again, it all works.

So Modern Hymns shows that Darrell Scott has an obvious love for country music, combined with the instincts to avoid its excesses. Scott displays a range that extends well beyond country. And he shows a wonderful imagination in his interpretations.

There is one more jaw-dropper on the album: Joan of Arc, by Leonard Cohen. Cohen originally recorded the song for just acoustic guitar and one voice. Then, on a 1994 live recording, Cohen added a second voice. Done this way, the song is a duet between Joan of Arc, dieing on the stake, and the male voice singing the part of the fire consuming her. Starting from there, Scott adds a third part, a chorus of multitracked angelic voices calling Joan of Arc to Heaven. Scott also fills out the instrumental arrangement, including a string quartet that really works well. This was the only song on the album that thrilled me, without my knowing the original beforehand.

Throughout, the backing musicians are excellent. I was particularly looking forward to hearing the bass playing of Danny Thompson, who first heard in the original lineup of Pentangle. I was not disappointed.

This was the first time I ever heard Darrell Scott. I will look forward to hearing more.

Darrell Scott: Urge For Going

Darrell Scott: Joan of Arc

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Quick Survey Of Scottish Folk Music

I love Celtic folk music. The rhythms are unique. The different combinations of pipes, whistles, guitars, fiddles, bouzouki, accordions or concertinas, bodhrans, and harps, to name a few, provide almost infinite variety, but with a recognizable style.

Of course, when most people talk about Celtic folk music, they really mean Irish music. And the music of Ireland is very fine. But Scottish music has its particular joys. Unfortunately, all that most people know about Scottish folk music is how much they hate the sound of bagpipes. There is so much more.

What follows is an introduction to Scottish folk music. This is by no means a complete survey: my intention is only to whet your appetite for exploration. I hope that you will check in from your journey from time to time, and let me know what you’ve found.

Celtic harps are often thought of as Irish, but the Scots have a rich harping tradition as well. Sileas is a harp duo, who blend an acoustic nylon stringed harp with an electrified steel stringed one, to create a unique sound. Sileas members Patsy Seddon and Mary Macmaster are also part of the group The Poozies.

Sileas: The Pipers


The Scots have a long tradition of dance music. But in 1746, a dispute with the English resulted in King George II banning the bagpipes and any other markers of Scottish clan traditions. The upshot of the matter is that the Scots could not use, or even be found with, their traditional instruments. But, they still wanted to dance. They needed a way to provide music for this purpose, and preserve their traditional dance tunes, while having the ability to disperse quickly and leave no incriminating traces. The solution was the development of a style known as Mouth Music. Traditional dance tunes were given words, and a highly rhythmic vocal style was developed that could be danced to. The lyrics were usually not very profound; the sounds of the syllables was more important than the content of the lyric. At the time, the music was strictly a capella, but nowadays, instruments are often added to the arrangement, since it is once again allowed.

Making quality tweed by hand involves an arduous and lengthy process know as “waulking”. Music helps this process go quicker. But since ones hands are busy all
during the process, instrumental music is out of the question. So the Scots developed an offshoot of Mouth Music, called Waulking Songs. Hug air a Bhonaid Mhor is an example of a waulking song, performed with traditional instruments.

Julie Fowlis: Hug air a Bhonaid Mhor


Seinn Oi is another matter. Here, the group Mouth Music has taken a traditional mouth music song, and given it a radical arrangement with electronics, creating a modern dance track. But one can still imagine what the song would have sounded like with no accompaniment at all.

Mouth Music: Seinn Oi


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ali Marcus -The Great Migration

Ali Marcus has a deceptive voice. She sings in a high soprano, with an almost conversational tone. It’s not a powerful voice. So it would be reasonable to assume that she would get lost singing with a full band. But nothing of the sort occurs.

Actually, the band is, I think, a four piece all acoustic band, with drums, stand up bass, Marcus’ guitar, and banjo or second guitar. There is also harmonica on some tracks. And not all of the instruments appear on all tracks. And Ali Marcus more than holds her own on vocals. In fact, she portrays a range of emotions in these songs that to me come as a (pleasant) surprise.

The second thing to say about The Great Migration is that Ali Marcus displays a wonderful command of the English language. These are sung poems. And Marcus covers relationships and social issues with equal eloquence. There only a couple of places where the lyrics seem underdeveloped, and these are more noticeable because Marcus sets such a high standard elsewhere. Recession Blues tries to mingle economic troubles with emotional ones, and it seems forced to me. And Hey John is a fan’s message to her musical idol, and I find it cloying. But that still leaves 11 gems.

Catastrophe uses the same strategy as Recession Blues, here intermingling global warming and relationship woes, but this time it works. And after Hey John, I was worried about Song, about the process of songwriting, but the results are fine.

Two songs stand out for me. Wapato is the kind of song Iris Dement might write. Marcus imagines a woman asking her grandmother about her recollections of The Great Depression. The grandmother recalls the happy times. And at the very end of the song, Marcus does something Dement wouldn’t do. The song has a jaunty feel to it, but all of a sudden, at the end, the pace slows abruptly and most of the band drops out, leaving just voice, guitar, and an echoey harmonica. The grandmother has left her nostalgia behind, and returned to the present. It is the most powerful moment on the album.

Poseidon equates the back and forth of the ocean’s tides to the emotions of a relationship. In the arrangement of the song, you can feel the ebb and flow of tides throughout. And the lyrics contain an air of mystery that I find very appealing.

Ali Marcus: Wapato

Ali Marcus: Poseidon