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.


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