Saturday, January 30, 2010

It’s About Time

Time is my theme this week. I can think of a number of puns to describe many of the available songs on the subject. “That’s really old”, for example. Time is something we all live with, so it is the subject of almost as many cliches as love. Even the titles of my selections reflect this. Nevertheless, each of these artists finds something fresh to say on the subject, or a fresh way to say it.

Dee Carstensen: Time

[purchase live version]

[support Dee Carstensen by purchasing the original studio version here]

Dee Carstensen contemplates old age and mortality in Time. Her narrator has reached a point in her life where her main concern is the emotional legacy she leaves in her children. The spare arrangement heard here is from a live performance at the Kerrville Folk Festival, and it suits the material beautifully. That string instrument that sounds wrong to be a guitar is a harp, Carstensen’s main instrument.

In researching this post, I learned that Carstensen had been diagnosed with liver cancer, and that she had received a liver transplant. After 2007, information is scarce. So if anyone knows what and how she is doing now, please share that information in the comments. Thank you.

David Wilcox: It‘s Almost Time


David Wilcox starts It’s Almost Time as a statement of faith that a long cold winter is almost over. He sets his song firmly in a seaside town. I don’t live at the shore, but here in New Jersey, we just had a week of weather which gave a tease of spring, but now we have settled back into winter. That only makes it feel colder, and makes this song resonate more. By the end of the song, it is clear that this winter is emotional as well as meteorological. No one that I know of puts this kind of song over better than Wilcox, and this is no exception.

Tracy Chapman: This Time


This Time is a resolution to not get hurt again. Or maybe it’s a reminder. Either way, this is a rebound song. Chapman’s character has been through a hurtful relationship, and she wants the guy to take all the risks this time. The narrator may be trying to break a pattern that has haunted her through a series of relationships. Chapman presents the resolve, but also the uncertainty that her narrator can go through with it.

Just as the words present a state of emotional flux, so too does the music. Passages with not much more than acoustic guitar and voice alternate with pulses of the full band. Throughout, a ghostly violin part haunts the narrator, reminding her of her doubts.

Peter Himmelman: Time Just Flew


Time Just Flew looks back at a long-term relationship, and also takes stock of its current condition. The conclusions are unclear. Time in this one is a windstorm, sweeping away everything in its path. So the song is an emotional catching of breath. I think that’s an important thing to do, but it can be more than difficult to find the time.

Lyle Lovett: Since the Last Time


The emotions in this post have been pretty heavy, so let me end things on a joyous note, at a funeral. I’m serious. In New Orleans, funerals are occasions to celebrate the life of the departed. There are parades, and happy recollections. Sorrow follows later perhaps, and in private. Lyle Lovett does not come from New Orleans, but this song reflects this spirit.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

For a Song: She Just Wants to Dance

Keb‘ Mo‘: She Just Wants to Dance


“Care to dance?” It’s a simple question, but it’s also complicated. Somehow, it has acquired all sorts of baggage. The words don’t say anything about leaving together, or doing anything other than dancing. But no one ever answers the question without considering all of this. So, what happens if all you really want is to dance?

Keb’ Mo’ presents a woman who has an answer to this question. She exists outside of the meat market. There she is on the floor, by herself, and completely free. She dances with no ulterior motive, but just for the love of it. The song does not speak of it, but we can imagine that she provokes reactions in all who see her. The men, including the singer, are amazed at her total lack of an agenda. It makes her all the more desirable to know that she isn’t here for that.

Gaye Adegbalola does a wonderful cover of this song. Because Adegbalola is another woman, we as listeners think about how other women react to this. There is, I think, a certain kind of jealousy. The other women are there playing the game they cannot get free of, and the freedom of our solo dancer seems impossible. They wish they could drop their own agendas, and be her. But they cannot.

None of this is in the lyrics, so perhaps my interpretation is a projection of my own agenda. Keb’ Mo’ just paints a beautiful picture of a free woman, and leaves the rest to the listener.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jo Hamilton - Gown


Where did that come from? The question could refer to the fact that I am reviewing this album. It’s not my usual fare by any means. Jo Hamilton sings in a breathy purr that can rise to a full voice belting vocal within the same song. She has a warm quality, and her voice is a great pop instrument. She could change the production and arrangements on some these songs ever so slightly, and have massive hits. But here, she preserves her individuality, and I value that.

“Where did that come from?” might be about the arrangements here. At first listen, most of the songs here seem fairly straightforward. Yes, there are dynamic shifts, beautifully executed, but the songs seem fairly consistent. But, listen closer, and you will notice instruments and sounds making their appearance in a song when least expected.

Finally, “Where did that come from?” might be about the album as a whole. I can hear the influence of Kate Bush in the first few songs. But then, there is a lovely ballad, Paradise, with a samba flavor to it. There is an almost R & B tune, but for the double tracked sax and clarinet part that almost sounds like avant-garde jazz. And towards the end, there is even a waltz. Amazingly, the album does not sound at all like an I-pod Shuffle gone mad. Hamilton ranges through a wide variety of musical styles, and she makes it all hang together and make sense.

Musically, the first song, Exist (Beyond My Wildest Dreams), is the wildest. I probably wouldn’t have opened the album with it myself. Exist opens quietly, but soon swells into a fine dance groove, but then it almost completely falls apart. You almost have to imagine the beat until it reappears briefly later. And then it almost falls apart again, and reforms. This one makes the listener work, and it’s worth it, but, as the lead track, it sets up the idea that the whole album is going to be like this. In fact, everything else on the album is far more accessible.

Pick Me Up follows, and is a much better example of how the album works. This one sets up a groove and stays with it. There is a backing vocal part which seems to pull the rhythm off, but actually only strengthens it. And Hamilton’s lead vocal purrs on the verses and soars on the chorus.

Next is There It Is. This is a beautiful ballad, featuring acoustic guitar and stand-up bass, and again Hamilton shines on vocals. This is the first time on the album where she shows what she can do with a pure ballad.

I’m not going to go through the album song by song. This is enough to give you the idea. There are more grooves to be found. Hamilton also continues to shine on the ballads. And there are a few places where grooves and balladry are found in the same song. It all works. The textures vary throughout the album, making this a very satisfying listening experience.

For me, most of the lyrics do not stand out as much. Many of them strike me as sort of lyrical fortune cookies; they could be love songs or something else, but they are general enough to apply to any listener. The exceptions to this are all the more noticeable. In Paradise, and especially in Mekong Song, Hamilton evokes a very specific sense of place. In Mekong Song, I felt like I was on that boat on the river, listening to the gentle lapping of the water. I also like the way Hamilton captures the excitement of the beginning of spring in Winter is Over.

To conclude, Gown is a debut album by an artist who shows that she will be well worth keeping an ear out for. I will be very disappointed if Jo Hamilton decides to become a generic pop diva. But, if she continues to find her own voice and her own way, I look forward to the results.

Jo Hamilton: Pick Me Up

Jo Hamilton: Mekong Song

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Journeys By Water

The image I have chosen for this post is the tarot card for the six of swords. I enjoy the artwork in tarot decks, and understanding the meaning of the cards helps me appreciate the intent of the artist. But sometimes, people get carried away, and make their interpretations overly esoteric. The classic image for the six of swords says it all: the card signifies a journey by water. This can be taken literally. Metaphorically, it represents a rite of passage. This kind of journey often involves a triggering event, often emotionally painful, which prompts the journey in the first place. The card shows the journey in progress; it has nothing to say about the outcome.

Al of the above applies equally well to songs about journeys by water. Let’s consider some examples.

Hem: Sailor


Sailor is a song of yearning. The narrator is in love, but does not know if her love is returned. She will leave the shore to see the object of her affection, and hope for the best. The lyric is pretty simple, but Hem does a beautiful job of filling in the blanks with the musical setting.

Richard Thompson: Mingulay Boat Song


Mingulay Boat Song is thought by many to be a traditional Scottish folk song. It describes the life of a crew of simple fishermen, eager to come to shore and be reunited with their families. But the song is actually a nostalgic piece, idealizing a life that no longer existed at the time it was written.. The island of Mingulay, of the coast of Scotland, had been occupied continuously for at least two thousand years, until it was abandoned in 1912. Mingulay Boat Song, however, wasn’t written until 1938, by Sir Hugh S Roberton, in Glasgow. Roberton wrote the song for the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, which he directed from 1901 to 1951. The choir started as an amateur choir associated with a men’s work society, but Roberton set high standards for the group. In time, they would achieve a measure of fame, both in Europe and North America.

Mingulay Boat Song has passed into the folk cannon by now. Richard Thompson’s performance clearly shows why.

Elvis Costello: Last Boat Leaving


Returning to our theme of rites of passage, we come to Last Boat Leaving. Elvis Costello wrote this one, under his given name of Declan McManus, for a movie called The Courier. The film tells the story of a man who discovers that the courier company he works for is a cover for a big-time drug dealer. After Costello finished the song, the film makers changed the ending of the movie, and the song no longer worked. So a shorter instrumental version was used in the film, and the full version heard here was released on Costello’s next album.

I assume that the original version of the movie had the hero going to jail at the end. Last Boat Leaving is a tale of a man regretting his actions once he finds that he is to be separated from his family and sent to prison. Clearly, for him, this will be a rite of passage. The man who left will not be the same man who returns. It’s not necessary to see the film to appreciate this song, and I have never seen it. The song speaks for itself.

John Wesley Harding: William Glenn


William Glenn is another song of crime and punishment. Glenn is a sea captain who has committed a murder on land for the love of another man’s wife. When he and his crew set out to sea, they are beset by a deadly storm. Once the crew learns of Glenn’s crime, they cast him overboard. Immediately, the storm ceases, and the crew is saved. Glenn’s journey takes him to the point where he can admit his guilt, and save his crew if not himself.

The song lightly touches on an old Celtic belief. Death, the ultimate rite of passage, is often depicted in the old tales as a journey over water. The spirits of warriors who fell in battle would be collected and taken to the sacred island of Tir na Nog. In many of the oldest songs of the British Isles, one finds death and the ocean side by side.

Sting: The Wild Wild Sea


The Wild Wild Sea, it seems to me, is a tale of a haunted dream. The black sails suggest death, and the way the character appears in the song suggests that the father is a ghost. Indeed, the song comes from Sting’s album The Soul Cages, which he wrote while dealing with the deaths of his parents. Just as William Glenn presents the journey toward death as a voyage through a stormy sea, so is the journey through the mourning process. I have several friends, and I can also include myself in this, who recently lost a loved one. May this song help us on our journey as well.


So there are many different kinds of rites of passage, and there are many different kinds of songs of the sea to describe them. Likewise, the six of swords embodies all of these different meanings. I see no reason to look for more.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

For a Song: Talk to Me of Mendocino

Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Talk to Me of Mendocino


I had another song picked out for this feature this week. But then I got the news that Kate McGarrigle had died. There is no need for me to post a full-length tribute here; my friend and fellow Star Maker Boyhowdy has done an excellent job of that here. So instead, I would like to tell you a story.

I started Oliver di Place out of the belief that there is an amazing amount of great music that not enough people are getting to hear. And I have discovered that there is even more than I thought. I would say that this belief started to take hold of me in my high school years. I had a best friend, and neither of us had as much time or money as we would have liked. So, as we began to form our own musical tastes, we shared the job of building our music collections. So his collection had the Beatles, while mine had the Rolling Stones. He had Stephen Sondheim, while I had Joni Mitchell. And he got us started on Kate and Anna McGarrigle. I heard their first two albums this way, but I never owned them. I was floored by what I heard. This was my first encounter with the influence of French-Canadian folk music; it would be quite some time before I would hear this folk genre in its pure form. But it informed the McGarrigle’s sound. Here also were two wonderful singers who blended beautifully.

You can guess what happened next. After high school, my friend and I drifted apart. The music of the McGarrigles went with him. But I remembered it, and tried to keep an ear out for their work. Over the years, I would hear a song hear or a song there, and it was always as good as I remembered. Throughout what I heard of their career, the quality never wavered. But there were always other artists vying for my attention. So it comes down to this: Kate McGarrigle deserves to be honored here, but, to this day, I don’t own any of their albums. I have them on a distressingly long list of artists whose work I should have and don’t.

For this post, then, I have chosen the song Talk to Me of Mendocino. It comes from their first album, and is one of the first examples of Kate’s songwriting I ever heard.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Rebecca Loebe - Mystery Prize


I found Rebecca Loebe almost by accident. I feel very lucky.

Rebecca Loebe has a singing voice that reminds me of two other singers, Maria Muldaur and Jane Siberry. Muldaur could be cloyingly sweet, while Siberry has a high girlish voice that forces her to work hard to be taken seriously. Loebe has the sweetness of both, but without either of those handicaps. And Loebe shares with Siberry an amazing dynamic range. Loebe can belt out a song, or sing at an almost whisper, but either way, she gets her point across.

On Mystery Prize, Loebe plays acoustic guitar, and her band includes stand-up bass, percussion, pedal steel, and one musician who can add tenor guitar, harmonica, trumpet, or mandolin. The bass player also adds second guitar and keyboards. Then add guest musicians who contribute accordion, backing vocals, a horn section and a trio of strings. Here you have a recipe either for a sonic mess, or a rich musical pallet. In painting, you would either get an ugly brown blob or Starry Night. This one is closer to Starry Night. Loebe knows just what to do with each musical color; she knows which part of her canvas needs which musical color. But more important, Loebe knows when to leave things out. This is a rare musical gift, requiring confidence and the ability to trust ones instincts. So, yes, there are places where almost everybody is playing, and it’s a big exciting sound. But there are also places where almost everybody drops out, and Loebe sings softly. These are some of the most powerful moments on the album.

Loebe is also a gifted lyricist. Here are eleven songs on the most used subject in all of songdom: love. But Loebe avoids the many cliches available to her, and looks at love from angles that feel new. Mystery Prize, the song, finds a woman in a comfortable relationship who is drawn to a new man. Her in That Dress finds a woman who feels that the qualities of her personality are not enough to compete with the physical attractiveness of a rival. Triangles are something of a theme here, also turning up in Married Man and hinted at in Trenches, Dear. Each time, the subject is treated in a different way. There also one-on-one scenarios. Marguerita has the feel of an old country song praising one woman to the skies; my model for this kind of song would be Amanda. The gender of Loebe’s narrator here is unclear to me, but it is also unimportant.

But her perhaps the most remarkable piece of storytelling here come in two songs that complement each other. First comes Redneck Karaoke Bar. The narrator meets a man and goes wild for him. The song has a joyous feel, and this seems to be the one time on the album when love brings complete happiness. But the song leads directly into Land & Sea, with no break. Now the narrator wakes up the next morning in a strange house and possibly a hangover. By the light of day she can not remember how she got here, and she has cause to regret it. To me, the two songs need to be together to tell the full story, and it’s very powerful.

Loebe can write in a wide range of musical styles, but she never loses focus. She has the musicians with her to pull it off. And I can’t imagine how any of the songs could be done any other way. This is my first new release of the year, and the bar has been set high for all who follow. I have only one criticism; this album is only 37 minutes long. I wouldn’t have wanted any drop-off in quality, but I was definitely left wanting more.

Rebecca Loebe: Marguerita

Rebecca Loebe: Her in That Dress

Friday, January 15, 2010

Stories From the Back of the Drawer

I have a ritual I perform every week. The new theme is announced for Star Maker Machine, and I go scrambling through my CD collection for usable song. Every week, some albums don’t make the cut, and some never do. These are good albums, but they just don’t have the song I need that week. Or, I find what I need sooner, and these albums never see the light of day that week. These albums get shunted to “the back of the drawer”, so to speak. But many weeks, these albums say, “please post from me.”

The other thing is that I don’t get to listen to these albums much. I know I like them, but after a while I for get why. So this week, I chose five of these albums, and here they are. I did some research, to remind myself of why I got them. And it turns out that these albums have some great stories that go with them.

Carrie Newcomer: My Father‘s Only Son


This is the simplest of the stories. Carrie Newcomer is still going strong, and she’s fairly well known on the folk circuit. Her music, I gather, is mostly acoustic, and she particularly wins praise for her songwriting.

But in 1996, Newcomer was on the Philo label. Philo was, (is?), an imprint of Rounder, and well known folk label. And I hesitate to generalize based on two albums, (the other comes later in this post), but, on that evidence, it appears that Philo was trying to crack the pop market with folk-rock releases. So the album My Father’s Only Son may not be the best representation of Newcomer’s music. But the title track is another matter. Things quiet down here, and Newcomer’s songwriting shines through. One of two daughters, the narrator here takes the role of the son her father never had, and describes their days together fishing. Eventually, the peace on the fishing pond is broken by an event that unmistakably establishes this “son” as female. The song is beautiful and tender.

disappear fear: Fix My Life


The other Philo band was disappear fear. That’s not a misprint; the band always wrote their name in lower-case letters. disappear fear was a duo of Sonia Rutstein and Cindy Frank, plus their backing musicians. They were clearly modeled after Indigo Girls, who gave their blessing by appearing on three songs on this album. Sonia Rutstein did all of the songwriting, and arranged all of the covers. In time, Sonia Rutstein dropped her last name, and she now records as Sonia. Cindy Frank is still providing background vocals, but they are no longer billed as a band.

Sonia has certainly expanded her musical horizons. For her most recent album, she composed songs in Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and provided musical backdrops to match. She has also become a painter, and did the artwork for this same album.

Kate Wolf: Secrets Aside


And now we come to Kate Wolf. I heard of a renowned folk singer who died young. I heard from people I trusted that I would love her music. So I kept my eye out, and about ten years or so ago, I found the album Daisy Petals on My Head. Now maybe you are familiar with Kate Wolf’s career, and you know how this ends. But I didn’t. I grabbed the album, and, just as my friends had said, I loved it. Wolf showed a talent for mixing up musical styles without sounding aimless. The album hangs together nicely, but has a rich variety of sounds.

But there is a punch line. As I said, I researched this post so I could speak knowledgeably about the artists. I looked up the renowned folk singer Kate Wolf who died young. Yes I had that right. But on her website was a note, saying that the album Daisy Petals on My Head was by a different Kate Wolf. So fifteen years after its release, and at least ten after I got it, I just found out that this is the wrong Kate Wolf! But I still really like the album. So I tried to find out more about this Kate Wolf, and came up empty. Did she change her name, at least for recording purposes, after this album? Was the outcry from fans of the “real” Kate Wolf to much for her? I have no idea. So, if anyone does know, please tell us about it in the comments. Thanks.

The New St George: All the Tea in India


The New St George put out a wonderful album called High Tea. I remember reading about them in Dirty Linen. They were a half-American half-English band. They played the style of British folk-rock pioneered by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. And the came out of the Washington DC folk scene, and stood on the doorstep of wider fame. And then, I never heard of them again.

So what happened? It’s practically a cliche that someone at the major label champions a band, and then leaves the company before he can promote them. There was that. But there was also incredible bad luck. People looked for the album and couldn’t find it, because it was filed under High Tea, not The New St George. That was caused by a printing error on the spine of the CD cover, and my copy has it. The band was going to get a major boost from a two page spread in a major catalog, but when it appeared it featured a picture of Ian and Sylvia. You can’t make this stuff up. Finally, it got to be too much, and the band broke up. Supposedly, they recorded most of a second album, but it never saw the light of day.

But High Tea stands as a document of a very talented band. All the Tea in India tells of the British occupation of India from the Indian point of view, and it is a wonderfully heartfelt song.

Girls From Mars: Stompin‘ at the Savoy


Finally, here is Girls From Mars. I know exactly how this one happened. My wife and I went into a Borders one Friday night, and Girls From Mars were playing in the cafe. We loved what we heard, and bought the CD as soon as they went on break. We also bought another CD that they were selling, by a band called Beats Walkin’. That one was wonderful Western swing. And as far as I can tell, these were the only albums either group ever released.

No, this wasn’t some great cosmic conspiracy, (see above). From what I can tell, they only ever meant to release one album each, and both groups are still active. The two groups have several members in common, and I believe the albums were done to promote swing dance and western dance workshops in the Philadelphia area. These workshops have since found their way to Augusta, so I guess it worked. Meanwhile, I am quite happy to have the albums for the sheer pleasure of listening to them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

For a Song: Woman in Chains

Tears for Fears: Woman in Chains


Like so many people, I loved Tears for Fears’ song Everybody Wants to Rule the World, and the album it came from, Songs Form the Big Chair. So in 1989, when the follow up album The Seeds of Love came out, I grabbed it. The band lost many of their fans with this album. Tears for Fears did not even try to repeat themselves. Instead, they expanded their sound, embracing psychedelic music. The songs were longer, the sound richer and more textured, and the lyrics more ambiguous. I loved it. And I was knocked out by the inclusion of a female singer I had never heard of before, Oleta Adams.

But, when I go back to much of the music from that time, I wonder what I was thinking. The 80s production tricks jump out at me, and I realize that there was not much substance there. So, when I thought of doing Woman in Chains this week, those were my concerns.

I needn’t have worried. Woman in Chains sounds every bit as good to me now as it did then. I was surprised to discover that the drummer on this track is Phil Collins. Bass player Pino Palladino was one of my favorites in the 80s, and I am reminded of why. He had a way of making the bass sing by playing these wonderful fluid lines. So Tears for Fears went from basically being a guitar and synth duo to getting the sound of a full band. The synth became more fully integrated into the overall sound. And Adams’ vocals still sound great to me.

So what became of Oleta Adams? I remember at the time wishing that she would do a solo album, but keep this amazing sound. That album was rumored, but didn’t show up for a long time. What was finally released from her saddened me. It was cookie-cutter R&B. What had made her special had been bleached out. So, does anyone know what happened to her career after that? Did she ever release an album that capitalized on that early promise? If you know, please leave a comment.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Red Molly - Love and Other Tragedies


Question in two parts: what classic country artist originally recorded Beaumont Rest Stop? And which classic blues artist first recorded Honey on My Grave? Stumped? That’s because it’s a trick question. These two songs from Red Molly’s album Love and Other Tragedies are originals, but they sound immediately familiar. They have a classic quality to them. It is not quite true that they don’t write them like that any more, but it is notable when it happens.

Love and Other Tragedies has five originals, and they have this quality. There are two traditional songs. And the remaining six covers are all treated as classic material, even if the songs are by contemporary songwriters.

Red Molly is a trio. Abbie Gardner sings in a bluesy soprano voice; her main instrument is the dobro, but she also plays guitar at times. Laurie MacAllister also sings soprano, but with more of a country quality; her main instrument is the banjo, but she also plays guitar. Carolann Solebello sings in a warm, folkish alto, and plays mostly guitar, but also some bass and mandolin on one song. They bring in bass, mandolin, fiddle, and electric guitar as needed. So the sound is mostly acoustic, and the instruments might lead you to expect bluegrass, but that is only part of what happens here. Country is a strong influence, and Abbie Gardner brings a strong blues element into the mix. There is also one song, Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia, that has an Andrews Sisters feel to it. And Southern gospel completes the mix. One amazing thing about this album is the fact that Red Molly holds all of this together, by putting their own stamp on all of it.

The last song on the album is a good place to start appreciating how they manage it. The song is May I Suggest, by Susan Werner. Here the song is performed a cappella. In the course of three and a half minutes, Red Molly switches up the arrangement several times to make the song interesting to listen to. This can sound overly busy, but here the shifting harmonies serve the song, and also demonstrate that these are three women who know how best to use their vocal blend. In the same way, they show throughout the album that they know how to use their instrumental versatility to create the best arrangement for each song.

The lyrics of both the originals and the covers here are mostly sentimental musings and devotional proclamations, sometimes in the same song. This sort of thing requires that the performance put it over; otherwise it can sound alternately strident and mawkish. The singing and the playing must convince the listener that these feelings are real. Red Molly passes this test with flying colors. In particular, Wayfaring Stranger is a marvel. The song here stretches to almost six minutes, but never feels that long. Red Molly’s treatment is haunting and sincere.
Then there are those originals I mentioned at the beginning. Beaumont Rest Stop tells the tale of a daughter who left home some time ago, and is now coming back. I can imagine a full Nashville production on this one that would just destroy it. But here, I found myself having chills the first time I listened to it. That’s because Red Molly gives the song just what it needs, and because they believe in it. Likewise, Honey on My Grave is a song that could easily be overdone. Abbie Gardner asks someone to put honey on her grave after she is gone, with the thought that this will help her get to heaven. Her performance is bluesy, but not overdone. Her faith comes through, but she does not beat anyone up with it. And her bandmates match her perfectly in feel. That is what gives these songs and others here such a classic feel. I would also like to mention the song Summertime. This one is Carolann Solebello’s only original here and her only lead vocal. Solebello gives us a sweetly nostalgic look at a Kansas childhood from the point of view of a woman now living in New York City. She is perhaps the best person in the band to put this particular sentiment over, and she does so beautifully.

So I am thrilled to be presenting Red Molly to you my readers. Their next album is due in the spring, and with a little luck, I will be able to share that as well.

Red Molly: Beaumont Rest Stop

Red Molly: Honey on My Grave

Friday, January 8, 2010

Year Two

Over on Star Maker Machine this week, we’re celebrating the arrival of the new year by posting songs with 10 or the word ten in the title. Let me hasten to add my best wishes to all for the new year. So I started the week rifling through my collection, and a funny thing happened: I kept finding songs with the word two in the title instead. Then it occurred to me that this marks the beginning of my second year of Oliver di Place, the way I wanted it. Now you may know that this blog actually went up in December of 2008, so what gives? You see, I started with every intention of posting album reviews regularly. But who is going to send albums for review to something that doesn’t exist? So I started the blog to have something to show, and went to the reviews as soon as I could. I was very lucky. I had enough material to begin the reviews in only a month’s time. So, for me, Oliver di Place as I meant it to be started a year ago. And I would like to thank again the artists and labels who took a chance on me back then, and made it all possible.

The number two occupies a special place in popular song. Often, it denotes a couple. Probably every songwriter who ever lived has written at least one love song. So there may well be more songs for two than any other number. But, of course, I am more interested in unusual two songs.

Bonnie Raitt: Two Lights in the Nighttime


Speaking of two, Bonnie Raitt is one of my two favorite slide guitar players. Two Lights in the Nighttime shows off this aspect of her work beautifully. It is also one of her great bluesy vocals. It is a love song, but this one is about the joys of a mature relationship. Not only are the lovers in the song older than usual, but so is their relationship. Raitt does this kind of song better than anyone else.

Eliza Carthy: Two Tears,


Two Tears is not a love song at all. The relationship has ended, and the two tears in the title are all she allows herself to cry. But those two tears say everything. This is also a remarkable piece of music. Eliza Carthy plays fiddle here as part of a string quartet. There is also a booming drum, a melodeon, and whatever an organetta is. Put it all together and Carthy gets this sorrowful carnival sound. I’ve never heard anything else like it.

Dixie Chicks: Truth No. 2


Truth No. 2 is a love song, perhaps the most normal one here. It’s about feeling threatened by the level of honesty that can occur as a relationship deepens. There is also a certain retrospective irony in the Dixie Chicks having done this song when they did. The song comes from their album Home. Having toed the line and made it as a mainstream country act, the Chicks decided to stretch out on this album, and go for a folkier sound. I would have loved to hear them go further in this direction. But, before that could happen, too much honesty got them in trouble. Natalie Maines made her famous remark at a performance in France, and suddenly the Dixie Chicks were no longer welcomed on country radio. Their music took a turn towards alternative rock at that point, and something good was lost. I’ll keep an ear out, however; I have to think the Chicks still have some great music left to make.

Los Lobos: Two Janes


And then there is Two Janes. This certainly is no love song. Perhaps the two Janes here actually the same person, and then this would be a song about a split personality. Or maybe this is a veiled reference to child abuse. I would love to hear other suggestions in the comments. In any case, this is a fine piece of music from a great band. I saw Los Lobos live a few years ago. They were doing a short set at a festival. If an entire show of theirs is like that, go see them when you can. They were one of the most exciting live performers I’ve ever seen.

Little Feat: Two Trains


I like the way this sequence of songs works. But I must admit that I couldn’t resist rhyming Two Janes and Two Trains to finish. Here is my other favorite slide guitar player, Lowell George. Once again, the song is a fine showcase for his talent. This time, the two in the title refers not to lovers but to rivals.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

For a Song: Hackensack

Fountains of Wayne: Hackensack


I grew up in a very small town in New Jersey. On snowy days, all of the kids went to The Big Hill for sledding. At some point, we would get cold, and we would go to Margaret’s house. Margaret was a woman who lived at the bottom of The Big Hill, loved kids, and had an infinite supply of hot chocolate. At any given time on sledding days, there would be between ten and twenty kids warming up in the house.

By the time I was in eighth grade, Margaret had come into the school and organized a children’s theater group. I had terrible stage fright, but I finally got involved in helping with the writing of an original musical. I worked with my best friend on a song for a show set in the 50’s. We were all born in 1960 or later, so this is pretty laughable looking back at it. Our song was about a guy whose former girlfriend leaves him to go away with a talent scout to Hollywood, and now he only sees her on the screen. We played it for laughs.

Fountains of Wayne took a similar idea seriously, and came up with Hackensack. This is one of those perfect pop songs I occasionally rave about here. The protagonist knows that this girl is not coming back, but he wants her to know that he will be there for her if she does. Everything about the performance captures this impossible yearning perfectly. And the song clocks at exactly three minutes! Amazing.

For the record, I have lived in New Jersey all my life, but I have never been to Hackensack. Yes, it is a real place. And that was my one and only experience as a songwriter.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Gregory Alan Isakov - This Empty Northern Hemisphere


Picture a pond on a calm day. The surface is almost perfectly smooth, with the sky beautifully reflected. But you know, although you cannot see, that below the surface, the pond is teeming with life and activity. The music of Gregory Alan Isakov is like that. What you hear is the texture of the surface going through calm gradual changes. It sounds dense at times, but simple. But there are many parts going on underneath. This is mostly acoustic music, but layered, and artfully mixed. Songs start with one or two instruments and others join in in groups, but the ear hears a texture that builds, sometimes flags and rebuilds, and then subsides at the end. The effect is quietly dramatic, and serves the songs well.

The lyrics are the kind that start arguments. Isakov leaves a lot of room for the listener’s interpretation, and two people may not hear the same thing at all. But Isakov makes you care enough that the argument is worth having. What I hear is a collection of tales of love and heartbreak. Isakov sings these songs with quiet intensity. His voice is a low tenor with just the hint of a catch. Sometimes, he alters his voice with electronic effects; that is a technique that can easily turn me off, but here it is done tastefully.

The album opens with Dandelion Wine. The narrator has mowed lawns for gas money so he can go see his love. That’s the literal idea of the song, but it seems to me that there is also a metaphorical meaning; Isakov is inviting us to join him on a trip through the varieties of love. Sometimes, this is expressed not by a “relationship song”, but simply through a portrait of a woman. Evelyn presents a woman who pumps gas on the graveyard shift, and tells of the people she encounters. The next song, Virginia May, presents a woman as an object of inspiration. But more often, the songs here are snapshots of the state of a relationship. In Words, a couple are separated by distance, and the narrator is letting her know how much he misses her. Big Black Car is more ambiguous, but here the relationship appears to have ended, and the narrator relates his fond memories of how it felt when they were together.

In expressing all of this, Isakov completely avoids cliches. His metaphors are completely new to me, and very affective. One big inspiration becomes clear at the end of the album. The last track, and the only cover, is One of Us Cannot Be Wrong by Leonard Cohen. Personally, I find that I tend to enjoy Cohen’s songs more when other people perform them, and this is no exception.

So Gregory Alan Isakov has delivered an album of songs that is both musically and lyrically fascinating. This Empty Northern Hemisphere is one that I am sure will reward repeated listens, revealing new layers each time.

Gregory Alan Isakov: Big Black Car

Gregory Alan Isakov: Words