Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Stolen Sweets - Sleepytime in Chinatown


To conclude jazz week, I am happy to present The Stolen Sweets. You will notice that the album cover is designed to look like a matchbook cover. A beautiful woman is in a swanky nightclub. Her gloved hand holds a cigarette in a long holder. Several young men rush up to her and offer her a light. One lights it, and she says, “Thank you, boys” in a voice that makes your heart melt. The smoke rises from her hand like a thing alive, an effect that only works on black and white film.

The music of The Stolen Sweets evokes the world depicted in the films of the late 30s and early 40s. Romance is innocent and pure. Jealousy can drive a man to terrible acts. And everything is idealized. This doesn’t happen in the movies nowadays, and putting it over musically is a challenge. Audiences are jaded, and expect characters to have flaws. The only way to put this over is to evoke a past era so completely that your listeners are willing to suspend disbelief, and take the ride with you. The Stolen Sweets succeed.

The Sweets have two guitar players and a stand-up bass player. There are two male and three female singers. Guest musicians on various tracks add drums, clarinet, a string quartet, cornet, and even Hawaiian steel guitar. The female singers get most of the work; they work as a trio, singing close harmony on lead or behind one of the men; sometimes one of the women sings lead while the other two sing background. This variety of voices and combinations allows The Sweets to capture a variety of moods. I imagine that they have discussions all the time about which vocal combination would best serve each new song they add, and the decisions here are right. The vocal sound often recalls the sound of swing-era sister groups like the Boswell Sisters. The instrumental sound is closer to Django Reinhardt jamming with friends, and the combination works beautifully.

You might expect that Sleepytime in Chinatown would be an entire album of covers of swing-era tunes. After all, we all know that they don’t write them like that anymore. But The Stolen Sweets do. Half the songs here are originals, and they stand proudly side-by-side with the covers. I was particularly struck by the use of language. Listen to the words in The Wizard of Oz, and you will notice the brilliant turns of phrase. Most of the originals here display that same love of language in service of the song. Only one, Easy on the Eyes, fails to deliver in this way; the words here sound good, but the narrative doesn’t make sense. That leaves five original songs that work beautifully. The best of these is Willie the Weeper, the Chinatown Creeper. This is a tale of jealousy, in a gangster setting, and you can imagine that James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart should have been in the film. Dinner for Two recalls a time when women had very different roles than they do now; here is a heroine whose highest ambition is to cook delicious meals for her man. With our modern perspective, we could resent or even pity her, but The Sweets make us believe in her and admire her earnest declaration of love.

The covers include the opening track, I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter. The Sweets’ last album included more familiar tunes, but this was the only cover here that I was familiar with. Like the originals, the covers relate yearning, devotion and jealousy. Puttin’ It On and Guilty are notable, because the bass player, Keith Brush, gets to step out and take solos in each song. He displays the ability to add to the melody while continuing told down the beat; bear in mind that, in the absence of a drummer, the bass is often the only rhythm instrument here.

So here is an album that transports you to a different time and place without a hitch. The original songs, for the most part, work seamlessly along side the covers. The only problem is, the ride is over far too soon. The album is only 34 minutes long! I was left wanting more. And that is the mark of a job well done.

The Stolen Sweets: Willie the Weeper, the Chinatown Creeper

The Stolen Sweets: Putiin‘ It On

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Spotlight Special: Jazz Singers

Once, a jazz musician, Duke Ellington I believe, was asked, what is jazz? “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know”, was his reply. And it’s true. The differences between Kid Ory and Ornette Coleman are extreme, and yet both are jazz. And this is also the case with jazz singers. Ella Fitzgerald and Cassandra Wilson are both jazz singers, but with very different styles and approaches.

This point was really driven home for me at a concert I attended quite a few years ago. My oldest brother was attending Berklee College of Music at the time, and the faculty and students presented a concert on the history of jazz. Different ensembles came and went from the stage all evening, and for me, connections were made. By putting different styles of jazz in chronological order, the performances went a ways towards explaining how one grew into the next.

I am fortunate to have a selection of jazz singers to present that somewhat allows me to do the same thing. All are contemporary artists, but each is working with a different style of jazz. It happens that all of the singers presented here are women. I am quite sure that there are also many great male jazz singers out there; I hope I will hear from them, and I would be happy to share the results another time.

Meanwhile, instead of a Spotlight Song this week, here is a whole set of them. Each of these artists is well deserving of a full album review, but most of these albums reached me too late for that. But I wanted to share their music with you nonetheless, so here they are.

Miss Tess: Saving All My Love


The Boston music scene has many artists who are exploring the sounds of music from the period prior to World War II. Miss Tess is one of these. On her album Darling Oh Darling, she performs songs in early country, blues and jazz styles. Many of these songs are originals, but the sound is from that earlier era. And Miss Tess has a wonderful brassy voice that is perfect for this music.

Remember that, in the pre-war era, the rules of music had not been formed yet. Small ensembles could include combinations of instruments that would seem odd today. The boundaries between musical genres that are so strict now did not exist then, and it was not unusual for an artist or group to cross these musical lines at will. For Miss Tess, this is worth celebrating, and she has the talent to back it up.

Nina Vox: Little Drop of Poison


As jazz music developed, Latin jazz became an important subgenre, one that many artists still draw on today. Nina Vox makes her debut with an album that draws heavily on this style. She has a sultry voice that recalls cabaret singers, and the combination really works.

Here she turns the Tom Waits song Little Drop of Poison into a tango, and all of the emotion of the piece survives nicely. I could tell you that Nina Vox hails from Brazil or Argentina, but no. She’s actually from Australia.

Debbie Cunningham: Overjoyed


Debbie Cunningham probably sounds most like what people think of when they hear the term “jazz singer”. She is backed by a trio with drums, bass, and piano, sometimes joined by other instruments. For her take on Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed, she adds light touches which recall the fusion jazz of the late 70s. The key to this performance is that light touch. Cunningham’s arrangement pays tribute to the source, but I find her delivery of the vocal to be more believable than the original.

Laura Siersema: Talon of the Blackwater and Graces


Over a rhythm carried by the drums and guitar, Laura Siersema sings a beautiful duet with the fretless bass part. Siersema may not think of herself as a jazz singer at all, but this song and a few others on this album have a similar flavor to Joni Mitchell’s album Hejera. Siersema also stakes out plenty of her own territory, but the whole thing has a jazzy feel to it in my mind. And I mean that as a complement.

Joanna Chapman-Smith: Things Are Gonna Go Wrong


Finally, we have Joanna Chapman Smith. I’m pretty sure she will find her inclusion here surprising. And yet, her music contains many of the same elements the combined to form jazz. Here are cabaret, klezmer, some folk, and maybe even some classical references. And Chapman-Smith combines them all into a coherent whole, and makes music that sounds not quite like anything I’ve ever heard before.

Things Are Gonna Go Wrong starts with just Chapman-Smith’s voice and the bass, and it really does sound like jazz. But then, the accordion and clarinet join in. So the sound, and the combination of instruments is certainly unusual. But I still feel that this song belongs in this set, and makes musical sense.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

For a Song: Twisted

Joni Mitchell: Twisted


As I started planning my jazz singers feature for this week’s theme post, I became more and more excited. The fact is that even though I haven’t had much chance to feature it here, I love jazz singing when done well. So I have decided to make a full week of it, starting with this edition of For a Song. The week starts now, and ends with my next album review.

I had no trouble deciding where to start. Twisted was the first example of jazz singing I ever heard. I already knew of Joni Mitchell’s music, mostly from the Blue album at that point. But this was something else. That something else was a quality called “swing”, although I didn’t have a name for it until much later. But I could feel it right away. This was music you could not sit still to. And one other thing distinguished Twisted. Blue is not a happy album, so it was great to hear Joni Mitchell having fun.

Bonus Track:

Lambert Hendricks and Ross: Twisted


In researching this post, I discovered that Twisted could be found on at least two Joni Mitchell tribute albums. I decided not to include either one. One was a fairly slavish copy of Mitchell’s version, while the other was more original. But what particularly struck me was that no one involved in either of these tributes seemed to know that Mitchell did not write or originally record the song. Mitchell’s career has included a scant amount of covers, and this one was the first. So, to set the record straight, I thought I had better include the original version, by Lambert Hendricks and Ross. It is quite wonderful in its own right, and this is what Mitchell was hearing when she came up with her interpretation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Red Molly - James


I reviewed Red Molly’s last album, Love and Other Tragedies, in January; I was rather late, as the album actually came out in 2008. It was only “current” because they were on the cover of Dirty Linen at the time. I won’t make that mistake again. With their new release, James, Red Molly makes a strong case for keeping a close eye on them. James is not a carbon copy of Love and Other Tragedies, although I would have been happy with another album like that. But here, Red Molly stretches out.

First of all, there are drums. Now, when a folk group adds drums, it can mean the end of any claim to folk purity; often, this signals that a group has sold out. No such worries here. The drums, often played with brushes or mallets, enhance the energy or the mood of the songs they are used on, but never overwhelm the material. And they are only used on about half of the songs.

On End of the Line, the band adds a new musical flavor, Western Swing, and it works. End of the Line is one of a few songs where the group also adds some tasty piano parts; again, this seems not like a radical departure, but rather a natural evolution. Maybe the next album won’t have drums or piano, but they will be available if the material calls for them.

But the most significant way that Red Molly stretches out here is with their vocals. The singing on Love… was fine, but here, they demonstrate a greater range, and the results are tremendous. Last time, I described Laurie MacAllister as the country one, but listen to her performance on Lookin’ for Trouble. This is as good an example of blues singing as you are likely to find. Abbie Gardner was the bluesy one last time, but she delivers her own song Jezebel in a way that will make you think the song is a rediscovered Dolly Parton classic. And then there is Gulf Coast Highway. This is my favorite Nanci Griffith song, so I’m especially critical here. And Laurie MacAllister nails it. Some of the gloss in Griffith’s arrangement is gone here, but that works better for Red Molly. Guest vocalist Fred Gillen Jr has a tough assignment here, and I thought he could have blended better with MacAllister, but he certainly does his part to capture the emotion of the song. And there is Falling In. Even in a group where the singers blend so well, you don’t usually hear a song where the lead vocals are shared. But MacAllister starts off Falling In, then Gardner takes over for a couple of verses, and finally Carolann Solebello takes it home. This could have fallen apart at any point, but it never does.

The songs here address a somewhat wider range of subjects that last time. True, the vast majority of the songs are still about relationships. But among these are two songs about coalminers and one about a moonshiner. These people have relationships, but they also live in the wider world. They are doomed but noble working class heroes. In the song Poor Boy, the heroism is featured and the relationships are not explored at all. And still, Red Molly does a fine job of capturing all of the feelings on this wider emotional palette.

So I am very pleased to have the review of James on time. But there is one small problem. This means that I will have a much longer wait for their next one.

Red Molly: Falling In

Red Molly: Lookin‘ for Trouble

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Farewell to Erin

St Patrick’s Day is past, but I am not quite done bidding farewell to the music of Ireland. However, it is time to start saying goodbye. Actually, farewell is as much my theme as Irish music. The songs I have chosen are separate entities, but here they combine to tell a story.

Maire Brennan: Voices of the Land


Amongst fans of Irish folk, Ireland is known for the extraordinary number of fine female singers the country has produced. Maire Brennan is certainly one of these. Brennan is heard here blending elements of Celtic folk and pop, and the result sits just on this side of new age blandness. This type of sound has been a trap for many, but Brennan shows here just how beautiful the music can be when done right.

Voices of the Land sets the stage for our tale, praising the land and its beauty. She worries about threats to the environment, but never becomes preachy.

The Chieftains (with Nanci Griffith): Red is the Rose


The Narrator of Red is the Rose sees the beauty of the land reflected in her lover’s appearance. This one starts as a simple love song, and only fully reveals itself at the end. The lovers must part, and she must lose this beauty.

This one also reaches across the waters. The Chieftains established themselves long ago as masters of traditional Irish Music. But more recently, their career has consisted of making musical connections between this tradition and others. Irish immigrants came to the United States and settled in the South, bringing their music with them. So The Chieftains’ exploration of the links between Irish and country music has produced particularly rich results. Here, Nanci Griffith’s performance of this traditional Irish ballad shows how this works.

Patrick Street: The Braes of Moneymore


There have been many waves of immigration from Ireland to the United States. And so, there are many Irish songs on the subject. In the hands of Patrick Street, The Braes of Moneymore proves to be one of the best.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Chris Huff: Hey Now Now

[purchase both albums here]

Chris Huff recorded an album in 1998, called North Cathedral Way. Here, Huff was the troubadour, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing about meeting great philosophers in a café. He was joined by a stand-up bass player and a djembe player. I find the album charming, but I must admit that this persona did not seem to be the best fit for Huff’s voice.

For the next ten years, Huff tried to find his musical self. He tried on a wide variety of rock styles. The bigger sound suited him. The Death and Texas LP might tell us where he wound up. But instead, the album is a document of the journey. The album is uneven, but there is plenty of good material here. Hey Now Now is the lead track, and it is a perfect pop song with a slight reggae lilt. This one will get stuck in your head for all the right reasons.

So I don’t know if Huff found his voice, or which voice it might be. I suspect that the answer will be found on his next album. I hope there isn’t a ten year wait for that.

Bonus Track

I started this discussion by mentioning Chris Huff’s debut album, from 1998. Here is a taste of how he sounded then.

Chris Huff: The Night Cafe

Blog Business: I'm thinking of turning my theme post next into a spotlight on the work of jazz singers. Please let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

For a Song: The Song of Wandering Aengus

Karan Casey: The Song of Wandering Aengus


Belatedly, I wish a happy St Patrick’s Day to all. And I offer an Irish tune for your enjoyment.

The list of things one thinks about in contemplating Ireland is not the most complementary. There are “The Troubles”, a shortage of potatoes, and too much drinking, just for starters. But the Irish have some of the best music on the planet, a rich folkdance tradition, and great storytellers. And they have a unique relationship with tales of magic.

On its face, The Song of Wandering Aengus is simply a tale of love found and lost. But, for those who know what to look for, there is more. The narrator casts a hazelnut into a running stream, and then retrieves a trout from the water. Then he returns home, and a beautiful woman mysteriously appears to him. The casting of the hazelnut into running water is an old ritual for summoning supernatural beings. Later references to the silver apples of the moon and golden apples of the sun confirm that the woman is a visitor from the Otherworld. In countless tales, such beings can visit in our world, and even love and be loved, but they must always return home in the end.

Karan Casey does a beautiful job of putting forward the emotion of this tale. Casey gained a reputation when she was still with Solas as one the best traditional singers in Ireland, and nothing she has done as a solo artist contradicts that.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Anna Coogan - The Nocturnal Among Us


I don’t usually quote from an artist’s website in my reviews, but I think Anna Coogan’s comments about the song So Long Summertime provide a key to the album as a whole, and are therefore worth sharing. Coogan says:

“I wrote this song for a friend of mine who died too young. We spent many summers together in the woods, on the rivers, driving in smelly, 15 passenger vans. Our relationship was rocky, we fought a lot, and I was intimidated as hell by him. I wish we could have been there for him when he needed it most. This song, and the entire "Nocturnal Among Us", is dedicated to him, and the rest of the kids from Team Adventure.”

Team Adventure is an ocean sailing group that has educational programs for kids. You can learn more about them here.

Update: Anna Coogan sent me a correction concerning Team Adventure. She says, " The 'Team Adventure' that I talked about is a now defunkt kayaking school that I was involved with a kid- not the sailing school that is listed-- close, but probably the new Team Adventure doesn't want to be associated with the old, since it did not end well." Anna, thank you for the heads-up.

Anna Coogan sings in a soprano voice that threatens to break, but never does. She uses this to good effect to put over the emotions of here songs. Her acoustic guitar is sometimes the featured instrument, and at other times it blends smoothly into the mix. There are uptempo rockers here, and they work well enough. But the gems are the slower and quieter numbers. Here, drums, bass, and acoustic guitar carry the day, while electric guitar and keyboards provide gentle coloring. Musically, The Nocturnal Among Us is a work of great subtlety. On the uptempo numbers, the electric guitar and keyboards figure more prominently in the arrangements, but there are still subtle pleasures. I must single out the inventive playing of drummer Eric Hastings throughout. Sometimes he barely plays at all, and when he does, he uses mallets or sticks, and uses his cymbals more than you usually hear except in jazz. Hastings thus gets a wide variety of sounds and feels from his kit, but always in service of the song.

The Nocturnal Among Us, broadly speaking, is a set of songs about dealing with loss. There are songs about breaks or ends in relationships. And there are songs that contemplate mortality. Coogan’s narrators don’t generally give up. So, the women in the relationship songs often hope that someone who left will return. He will realize he still loves her. Even Back to the World, which opens the album, is but a snapshot of a young man who has returned to his father after giving up his love. The young man is scared of the life he must face, but I was left with the sense that he has nowhere to go but up.

Later, Crooked Sea is followed by Take the Sky and Run. Here are two women whose lovers have just left them. One remembers the beautiful feeling of their love, and is sure that he must return. The other is just as sure that she will be able to shake this off, and learn to live and love again. Later still, a song called Love Again offers assurance that is possible to do just that, and that it will happen in this case.

I mentioned earlier that there are also songs that contemplate mortality. You might not recognize So Long Summertime as one of them if you did not know the story behind it. The song depicts a difficult person, full of contradictions, but the narrator ends by promising to be there for him. Given Coogan’s comments on the song, it is clear that this is less of a promise, and more of an apology given too late. Holy Ghosts of Texas is actually and older song that Coogan rerecorded for this album. It works thematically, and is one of the slow numbers I most enjoyed. The narrator here describes the kind of afterlife he wants. Coins on Your Eyes feels like a hymn, and is a beautiful send-off for the dead. Finally, there is the title track close the album. Taken literally, this could be a song about dieing. But metaphorically, it could describe the end of a relationship. So the song ties the album together thematically, and makes the perfect closer.

One thing Coogan does as a writer that I really enjoyed was enhancing the emotion of a song by using nature imagery. Done badly, this can wreck a song’s emotional power, by making it seem fluffy. Coogan never has that problem. She knows just how far to go with a metaphor or an image. Crooked Sea is a good example, but my favorite is Mockingbird. The song is a beautiful work musically as well. The song begins with a simple but powerful pattern played just by the drums. Then the rest of the band joins in, and Coogan sings a soliloquy to the mockingbird of the title. The narrator goes from bemoaning her fate to accepting that her relationship has ended, and you are left with the sense that she is finally ready to build something new. The rest of the band disappears, and the drum figure from the beginning repeats a couple more times, and then the song ends. Exactly the same drum figure feels completely different at the end, because of what has happened.

Anna Coogan has done two previous albums, but The Nocturnal Among Us is my introduction to her work. It has made a strong first impression.

Anna Coogan: Mockingbird

Anna Coogan: Holy Ghosts of Texas

Saturday, March 13, 2010

“Yeah, But…”

The title of this post is the shortest answer I can give to the question, “How do some artists approach cover songs?”. Surely, something drew them to the original song in the first place. But the new version is something else entirely. The song has been transformed so completely that it might as well be an entirely new song. Here is a set of covers like that. Purists may be offended. This set is for the rest of us.

Cassandra Wilson: I‘m So Lonesome I Could Cry


Cassandra Wilson takes Hank Williams’ classic I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, and creates a setting for drums, bass, fiddle, and guitar. There is also a bouzouki, but it still sounds like it might be a fairly straightforward reading. It isn’t. Wilson turns the song into an aching jazz ballad. The lyrics are here, but even Williams’ original melody is gone. It might be best to call this a new musical setting of a poem by Hank Williams. But Cassandra Wilson completely gets the intent of the original. This version aches with loneliness just as much as the original.

Jaymz Bee & The Royal Jelly Orchestra: Fly Like an Eagle


On the evidence of this song, don’t let the name of the band fool you. This is a jazz band with some serious chops. Elizabeth Shepard takes the vocals, and the band swings hard. Fly Like an Eagle has always struck me as a celebration of freedom. This version represents that freedom in musical form.

Incidentally, I got this one from Fongolia at the blog Fong Songs. He presents unusual originals and covers by Canadian artists who are unknown here in the United States. I highly recommend a visit.

Save Ferris: Come On Eileen


Ska bands seem to play a game of Can You Top This. The rules are simple; find an unlikely candidate and create a ska cover of it. This could be a recipe for disaster, but a surprising number of the ones I have heard are quite good. This version of Come On Eileen is one of my favorites.

Dala: Ohio

[purchase from American Laundromat Records]

This version of Ohio comes from a compilation album of Neil Young songs performed by female artists. The album is on American Laundromat Records, where they specialize in compilation albums for various charities. This one helps breast cancer survivors.

Usually, artists choose to cover a Neil Young song from his solo career, but here is one from his days with Crosby Stills Nash and Young. The original rang out in protest of the deaths of the student demonstrators killed at Kent State. By extension, the song was also a rallying cry for the protests against the Vietnam War. The song expressed righteous anger, and demanded action. But here, Dala preserves the words and melody of the original, but changes the tone completely. The arrangement features tolling piano chords and acoustic instruments, and the song becomes an elegy for the dead. And the vocal harmonies of Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine really put this one over. The transformation of the original is probably the most subtle example here, but just as complete.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Dala: Compass


Speaking of Dala, I am pleased to present them here with this week’s Spotlight Song. I have to admit though, this one almost didn’t happen. The album is called Everyone is Someone, and that first thing I heard was the single, Levi Blues. Here is a folk-pop number with breathy girlish vocals, and was ready to dismiss both it and them. However, in due time I got the Neil Young sampler with Ohio on it. I played this one straight through, and Dala’s version of Ohio made me think I might have missed something. I did, but luckily, there was still time to fix it.

I still find Levi Blues to be lightweight, but the rest of the album shines. In particular, Walther and Carabine’s vocal harmonies put me in mind of Simon and Garfunkle, and they get a lot of emotion not only from their individual voices, but also from the way they blend and interact. The lyrics are wonderfully poetic, and feature great imagery.

Compass is a bonus. All of the qualities I mentioned above are here. And the arrangement here is stunning. It’s just two acoustic guitars and a harp, plus those voices. Many Celtic artists have achieved less emotional impact with fuller arrangements. They should all listen to this, and see how it’s done.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Suzi Ragsdale - Less of the Same and Mark Lennon - Down the Mountain

Almost a year ago, I presented a double review, of two EPs. This is the first time I have done it since, and once again Suzi Ragsdale is one of the artists. I would like musicians who have EPs out to know that I will consider your work even without a Ragsdale EP to pair it with.


Note: Less of the Same is only available for purchase in a two-pack with Best Regards.

Suzi Ragsdale made her debut with Best Regards. I was very much taken with the originality of her arrangements, as well as their delicacy. But the new one is called Less of the Same, and she means it. Here are three rockers and three tender ballads, and Ragsdale mostly delivers the goods, but this is not delicate music. This is a set of solid performances of familiar song forms. The writing lifts these songs well above the level of cliché. The emotions are honest and heartfelt, but you can also hear Ragsdale’s influences.

The title track actually is a surprise in that sense. The song less of the same has a distinct 80’s feel to it. It almost sounds like Rupert Hine, who produced the biggest hits of the band The Fixx, is back. Less of the Same does not fit well with the rest of the album musically, but the lyrics belong here. The album opens with a cover of Darrell Scott’s song Full Light. Ragsdale has improved on the original, adding a mandolin riff that really pulls the song together and drives it home. The other two rockers, including Less of the Same and also Troublemaker, are cowrites with Verlon Thompson. Ragsdale made her debut years ago as half of a duo with Thompson, but now she records as herself, and he is billed as a guest. The three remaining tracks are by Ragsdale only, and they are the ballads. Here is where Ragsdale’s vocals are the strongest and the emotions clearest.

Overall, the songs are about the risks of love. At the start, one must decide whether it is worth the risk getting hurt to dare to love again. There comes a point where the decision is whether to take a relationship deeper. Emotional scars from old relationships surface at odd moments. And even deciding to accept the end of a relationship is risky. All of that and more is found here. These songs are snapshots of moments in relationships that are potential turning points. Ragsdale makes an excellent choice in covering the Scott tune, and follows that up with quality writing of her own.

So after Best Regards, I was eager for more of the same, and got Less of the Same instead. Now I have no idea what to expect next, but I look forward to finding out.

Suzi Ragsdale: My One and Only Valentine


Mark Lennon is a much less complicated songwriter, but there are compensations. Here, he presents a set of songs that have a familiar feel, but he nails the feel of them perfectly. I would say that Down the Mountain is a southern rock album. The sound is towards the acoustic side, with acoustic guitar and piano featured prominently. Add bass and drums to supply power and keep things grooving. Then add electric guitar, pedal steel, and sometimes organ, to complete the feel. Finally, there are female background vocals, and Lennon uses these perfectly. The piano and electric guitar get most of the solos. Lennon is a generous bandleader here, giving these players plenty of space to strut their stuff.

Lennon sings these songs in a high tenor. He never stays down for long, even when the songs express negative emotions. That’s appropriate, because this is comfort music. Lennon’s songs never present a situation without hope. There is always the possibility of love triumphing, even when the lyric doesn’t leave things that way.

The album opens with two happy songs. Down the Mountain exults in the possibilities of that first really warm day of summer, and Lennon asks a woman to share it with him. And My Hometown is a fond evocation of small town life.

The next song, Wildside, is a highlight. The song is a duet with Simone Stevens. I looked her up, and I found that she hasn’t done anything new on her own since 2005. Wildside makes me hope she will soon. The song is a cowrite with her and Lennon, and it has a slightly different feel to it. For one thing, the arrangement includes a trumpet. On the chorus, the trumpet plays two parts, one with a mute and one without, and they form a duet. Lennon and Stevens present a man and a woman in a game of courtship; he advances and she pulls back. The tension is delicious, and they wind up apart, but maybe it’s not over.

The remaining songs concern breakups and separations. Two people are separated, or a hoped for relationship hasn’t materialized, but there is still hope. Lennon never shuts the door completely. And he never gives in to despair, either in his words or his singing.

The song I have chosen to present, Tennessee, is a musical change of pace. The arrangement is simple, just acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and mandolin. This allows Lennon to show off his own guitar playing, and it leaves his vocal without the cushion it enjoys elsewhere. So the emotion of the song comes though stronger. This is a song of separation, and Lennon’s most convincing emotional performance.

Overall, what we have here is a happier album than I usually review. Sorrow can certainly inspire great art, but happy songs that ring true are much harder to find. Down the Mountain also sounds to me like a group of musicians who are really enjoying what they are doing. And that makes it a very enjoyable listen.

Mark Lennon: Tennessee

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

For A Song: Next Best Western

Richard Shindell: Next Best Western


This week, the album review is taking longer than I expected. That will appear later this week. So here, out of order, is this week’s For a Song.

When I first got involved with Star Maker Machine, the theme was Songwriting. Next Best Western would have been a fine choice. Richard Shindell’s career was still young at this point, but songs like this had already established him as one of the best songwriters out there. Next Best Western has for a narrator a long-haul trucker, weary from the road and seeking refuge. Refuge here refers both to the physical and the spiritual, and the two blend seamlessly in a character who says, “I wish I could believe.” I have no idea if Shindell was ever a trucker himself, but I would believe it after hearing this.

Incidentally, the background vocals are by Lucy Kaplansky. She worked with Shindell in Cry Cry Cry, and has also made quite a name for herself as a solo artist.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

First Whisper of Spring

I know that, for many of my readers, it is unmistakably still winter. But here in New Jersey, we have had a major thaw in the last week. The snow is retreating, and there is even a noted increase in bird noises in the morning. For me, this triggers a reflex that tells me that it is time to dance.

That may seem strange, so let me explain. Back in the years before I was a married-with-children, I used to go contradancing whenever I could. (Contradancing, if you don’t know, is a folk dance form native to New England.) This even was the start of a chain of events that led to me meeting my wife. I noticed that many of the dancers would vanish when the weather turned chilly in the fall, and returned at about this time of year. I observed this over several years; it was as reliable as bird migrations. So, even though I have not contra danced in many years, (sigh), I still associate this time of year with the return of the dancers.

k d Lang: (Waltz Me) Once Again Around the Dance Floor


That first dance when everyone comes back is one of the most exciting of the year. There is a sense of exhilaration that comes both from the arrival of warmer weather and being reunited with friends. k d Lang isn’t singing about a contradance, and this isn’t even a song she wrote, but her performance still conveys exactly the feeling I’m talking about.

Finjan: Dancing on Water


I have presented Klezmer music before, but I emphasized that faster songs. Here, the tempo comes down a bit, and the sheer beauty of the music shines through. Finjan, my sources tell me, is the leading klezmer group in Canada. Strangely, there is a connection between this track and the last one. Dancing on Water was arranged by Finjan and Ben Mink. Mink played on some of k d Lang’s best work.

Bruce Cockburn: And We Dance


This wasn’t supposed to be a sequel to last week’s Canadian post, but here is yet another Canadian artist. Bruce Cockburn is a socially and politically aware songwriter. He finds it impossible to live in this world without having strong feelings about what goes on in it. Here, he seeks refuge from the ills of the world in a dance. The effort is only partly successful, but the desire for refuge is beautifully expressed.

XTC: War Dance


Finally, we leave Canada for England. XTC also cared deeply about world events. Here, they take on a particular brand of “patriotism”. There are times when nations experience a kind of blood lust. Here in the United States, we experienced this in the wake of 9/11, and our government was only to happy to fan the flames. As XTC points out here, the results are often tragic for all concerned.

New feature: Spotlight song of the week

Here is a new feature on Oliver di Place. I started this blog because I believed that the world is full of great music that too few people were getting to hear. Now I am even more convinced that this is true. The fact is that I receive more great albums than I can review, even at a rate of an album a week. So now I will feature a song from some of these albums in this spot. The artists featured here are just as worthy as those I give full reviews. This just gives me a way to share more of my discoveries with you. I will also use this space for artists who do not have anything new out, but who I only just discovered.

john Arthur martinez: Cobalt Blue


Country music is comfort music, even when the subject matter is grim. Musically, there are no major surprises, but that does not preclude the possibility of fine musicianship. The lyrics cover a limited range of subjects. So the listener knows more or less what to expect, and the most important factor is the sincerity of the performance. And john Arthur martinez delivers a wonderful performance here.

One of the big problems I have with mainstream, (read: major label), country is the production. Sometimes, everything is scrubbed clean of any personality and given a pop sheen, while other times the chorus builds to a 70s rock crescendo, completely obliterating any chance of subtlety. Martinez avoids these traps, and delivers a set of songs that offer all of the comforts of country as performed by someone who means it. The best of all are the songs he wrote by himself. There are three songs here by other writers, and four co-writes. All sound to me like bids to insure commercial acceptance. But the four songs martinez wrote by himself are the highlights for me. These add organ parts to the mix, as well as female backing vocals. These songs have an honest country feel, but also a soulfulness that fits in beautifully. Cobalt Blue also has an interesting lyric. Is the Cobalt Blue of the title a woman or a drink? I think the answer is yes. I like the ambiguity.

So I will put this one on when I’m looking for musical comfort food. And I hope that martinez’ next one includes more solo originals.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

For a Song: You Can Not Win If You Do Not Play

Steve Forbert: You Can Not Win If You Do Not Play


I’m posting this song now for two reasons. Of course, one is that I really like it. The other is that the title expresses a good part of how I was feeling during my recent forced shut-down. Thank goodness that’s over.

Steve Forbert arrived on the music scene full of optimism and eager for the future. His first album was even called Alive on Arrival, and it fits. You Can Not Win… closes the album, and sums up its sentiments nicely. There is no thought here of the fact that you also can not lose. But Forbert would go through the classic music biz ordeal of having his label fail to support him, and even of being dropped, The optimism that was such a delight on his debut is gone now, but Forbert is still a fine musician and songwriter. And his voice is still an acquired taste, but I have always been fine with it.

Incidentally, in researching this post, I learned that Forbert has just gotten the right to release what was to be his fifth album with Sony, his original label. I would tell you the whole story, but fellow blogger Doug Heselgrave, at Restless and Real, has already done a fine job of that here. Restless and Real is new to me, and I’m not adding it to the sidebar because he does not post songs for listening and downloading. But I am impressed with his writing, and happily recommend checking this blog out on this basis.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Raina Rose _ When May Came


I have a confession to make. When I reviewed the album End of Endless False Starts here, the album had actually been out a while. So it was fifteen months later that Rose put the wraps on her new one. And here it is.

End of Endless False Starts described a turbulent relationship, but ended on a hopeful note, as the title would suggest. But soon after, Rose left her boyfriend and even lived in her car briefly. When May Came tells what happened next. The songs may have different narrators in somewhat different situations. But, as with End of Endless False Starts, there is still a narrative arc here. What is described is the mourning process for a relationship.

The album is divided into three sections. The first four songs are ballads or midterm numbers, and all feature narrators at the end of relationships, but still hoping that they can stay together. There is a dramatic tension in these songs, a tug of war between sorrow and hope. If You’re Gonna Go starts with the words, “If you’re gonna go, go now.”, and the last verse starts, “So I’ll go, and I’ll go lightly.” She seems to have given up. But the last line of each chorus is, “So just stay with me this morning.” These songs are not emotionally tidy, but they shouldn’t be.

The music features the guitar here and throughout, with other instruments adding color. Rose produced this one herself, and the musical textures are not as varied as last time, but that suits the material well. Rose’s voice has lost much of the sweetness that was there last time, again, as suits the material. Here, Rose sounds like she has done a lot of crying, and not many tears are left. This was perhaps the biggest surprise to me on When May Came. I didn’t know from last time that Rose could sing like this.

So, I mentioned that the album has three sections. The next two songs provide a breather. Desdemona describes a literal or figurative road trip taken by two women who start the song as strangers. To me, this one had a Thelma and Louise feel. Nashville describes the hopes and fears of a musician trying to make it in the town of the title. The song has no illusions, but sounds a hopeful note. These two songs are uptempo numbers, and provide a bit of relief from the relationship songs.

The last section is five songs long. Here, the narrator finds a way to accept what has happened and try to move on. The emotional tug of war is between denial and acceptance. Pretty Good Today trying to deny the hurt and say she’s fine. In What Do You Bury?, the man has died, and the narrator tries to say she never loved him, as she reviews all of his flaws. But it is still hard to let go. But finally Heart Broke Open and Bluebonnets, she is ready to say, “Yes, I still hurt, but I am ready to try to love again.” I found Bluebonnets particularly moving. The song is a promise to a lover that she has made mistakes, but will try to do better. Will she succeed? Perhaps Raina Rose’s next album will tell us. Or maybe Rose will decide not to be so personal next time. Either way, I look forward to more fine word craft and storytelling. And I look forward to Rose continuing to impress with the range of expression in her voice.

Raina Rose: If You‘re Gonna Go

Raina Rose: Bluebonnets