Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Keegan McEnroe - From the Wall and In the City


This will be one of the oddest reviews I’ve ever done. And I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I usually read liner notes pretty closely, and in the thank you section of Keegan McInroe’s From the Wall and In the City, I found this: “Thanks to all the musicians involved - my fellow painters! Their participation should in no way be taken as their endorsement of or agreement with the album’s politics or theology.” Neither should my review. I will say right now that I don’t agree with either, and nor am I asking my readers to do so. Why then am I reviewing this at all? There are several reasons.

First of all, I ran a review of Keegan McInroe’s last album, Mozelle, and I enjoyed that one without reservation. So I felt that my readers would want a report on his newest effort. Second, I feel that my role is not to judge what an artist is expressing, but rather the artistry with which they are expressing it. And finally, while I am uncomfortable with some of the lyrics here, the music is astounding.

Mozelle was a personal work that McInroe dedicated to the memory of his grandmother. The music was acoustic and the arrangements spare. I commented then that McInroe is a fine rhythm guitar player. From the Wall and In the City is a set of songs about how McInroe sees the current state of the world. These are indeed extraordinary times, and McInroe is inclined to see them in apocalyptic terms. To get that across musically, he has enlisted a full band, with electric guitars and organ parts in many songs, and with bass and drums throughout. But this is not just full tilt rock n roll. McInroe makes great use of the accordion on several songs, and there is trombone and even flute at times. The female background vocals have a gospel flavor that is very powerful, with Sarah Blacker being a particular standout. McInroe’s rhythm guitar playing is just as vital to the music’s success here as it was on Mozelle, but in a very different context.

From the Wall and In the City is an album of dark songs, but not all of the lyrics are off-putting. The tone becomes more strident as the album goes along, and there are some real gems early on. The opening number is Dogs, and the dogs are a metaphor for humanity. The song doesn’t present us in the best light, but I find it to be a fair criticism. After a beautiful intro on the accordion, the song settles into a wonderful sort of alt country groove. The next song is Genesis Six Blues. Here, McInroe retells the story of the biblical flood, and there is the theme of sin and God’s punishment. But the tale is told with subtlety and even a hint of humor, giving only a glimpse of what will come later. The tone gets much darker with Revolution. The tone of this one reminds me of some of the classic art-rock ballads of the 70s. Think John Barleycorn Must Die or In the Court of the Crimson King. The chorused vocals on the refrain, as well as the trombone and flute parts, are all perfectly placed, and make this one a truly haunting work. Later in the album, I want to single out Down to the Pit. The song portrays a man who feels himself to be surrounded by the evil of the world. The song is a desperate prayer for God’s help in hard times, and while it does not jibe with my own spirituality, the song is the most personal work on the album, and I think it gives us a fair picture of who Keegan McInroe is. Powerful stuff. The last song on the album is The Ship’s Going Down. This one is an anthem that paints the grimmest possible picture of humanity as being awash in immorality. I think the sentiment is a bit much, but if the album needed one such song, this should have been it. Musically, it works, and there can be no doubt that this is how McInroe genuinely feels. There is other good work here, but, especially in the last half of the album, the lyrics become strident, either venting at corrupt politicians or loudly declaiming the coming Judgment. To be clear, my own political views are on the liberal side, but I don’t like strident political songs from Joni Mitchell or Billy Bragg any more than I like these.

To sum up then. This is the first time I have heard Keegan McInroe with a full band, and I like the results musically. I hope that he continues with the musical explorations on display here. But I also hope that next time he returns to more personal material. And that will probably determine whether I review his next album. The good stuff is very good, so I hope so.

Keegan McInroe: Dogs

Keegan McInroe: Revolution

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Blues

The image above is by Theo Booth. To see more of his work and order prints, go here

I feel terrible, I just want you to know.
I feel terrible, I just want you to know.
My baby done left, with that no good so and so.

For outsiders, the verse above sums up the blues. That’s all there is, and they’re ready to move on to something else. That’s too bad, because they are missing one of the great musical forms. That verse, (which I made up, if you’re wondering), fits neatly into twelve bars of music. It expresses the singer’s misery. And the structure provides plenty of room for aimless soloing on screaming guitars. Unfortunately, there is far too much blues in the marketplace that never gets beyond that. But the history of the blues provides great riches, and there are some artists out there today who understand that, and are furthering the tradition in meaningful ways. Let’s look at some blues pioneers, and enjoy the richness of the blues.

Lightning Hopkins: I‘m a Crawling Black Snake


The rigid form of the blues developed in the years after World War II. Older blues is more loosely structured. When Lightning Hopkins played solo on his acoustic guitar, he would suspend time and play these little runs that ignored the song’s structure altogether. But he would always find his way back, and it was never just for show. This suspension of time has made his music a favorite among jazz musicians I’m a Crawling Black Snake is a fine example of what I mean.

Ruth Brown and Johnny Adams: I Don‘t Know


I Don’t Know is a happy, teasing song. It also swings. Most versions I have heard are sung solo, usually by a male singer. Ruth Brown and Johnny Adams perform it here as a duet, and it really brings out the playfulness of the song.

Jimmy Witherspoon: Corina, Corina


Here is a blues song with no guitars. Jimmy Witherspoon started singing the blues with big bands. After World War II, the bands shrank, and the music started to change. Witherspoon kept up, and became one of the best jazz-blues singers of the postwar era. Here we hear him with a small group led by Ben Webster.

Slim Harpo: I‘m a King Bee


I’m a King Bee is a perfect example of the Chicago blues style that developed after WWII. This is the style that most influenced the British Invasion rockers of the 60s. No one showed that influence more than the Rolling Stones. The Stones recorded a version of I’m a King Bee on one of their early albums.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Kim Beggs: Longest Dream


Kim Beggs plays and sings country music like they did in the old days. The arrangements are mostly acoustic, and nicely understated. Beggs knows that the songs don’t need a heavy hand to work. She sings in a wonderfully sweet soprano, and this brings a beautiful tenderness to all of the songs here. There are four covers on the album, and each is a marvel. But I wanted to feature an original song, and Longest Dream is here because I felt It was one of Beggs’ best lyrics. A woman stands by her man as he lays on his death bed. Beggs presents his state of mind, grateful for her faithfulness, anxious about the end, hopeful for the afterlife. Beggs sketches all of this in with very few words. It’s a beautiful example of her artistry, one of many here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

For a Song: Long Tall Cool One

Bruce Hornsby: Long Tall Cool One


Man, it’s hot! I live in New Jersey. In a normal year, we might have five to ten days of 90+ degree weather, scattered through late July and August. This year, we’ve had at least that many already. Today was the topper, with temperatures threatening to top out over 100. As I tried to think of what to post for this feature, my brain boiled away. “Man, a long tall cool one would be good about now!” Well, at least that was easy.

In the song, a Long Tall Cool One may refer to a drink, a man, or even an exchange of money. Maybe it’s all of those. This is the kind of noir tale where the humidity is visible on the screen of the film version. The details are left to the listener’s imagination here. This song is all about mood. When Bruce Hornsby recorded this one, he had just come off the road as a part of the Grateful Dead. Long Tall Cool One, and indeed the entire Harbor Lights album, mark a major shift in Hornsby’s style. The music became jazzier, the structures looser. In short, Hornsby took what he had been doing, and added jamming. The result here is a song you may not be able to sit still to, but I hope its coolness will also reach you, and help you to get through the hot days.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Elisabeth Williamson - Deep


This week, I am presenting an album of wonderful music that could get passed over because of the cover art. I want to do whatever I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. You can see the cover of Elisabeth Williamson’s album Deep above. Yes, that is a lotus blossom floating in a pond, against a backdrop of a galaxy or nebula. It’s a beautiful image, but it’s going to give you exactly the wrong idea of what to expect from the music. This is not a new age album of music for meditation. I might cover something like that one day, but not right now.

Instead, call this folk music for now. A fairly large number of musicians appear on this album, and the liner notes don’t say who plays on which song. Williamson plays rhythm guitar, banjo, and ukulele, and there is upright bass on every track. They may be joined by additional guitars, mandolin, fiddle, pedal steel, and/ or piano. Somewhere in the mix, there is also accordion and concert harp, but they blend in so well that I’m not sure which songs they are used on. When there are drums, they are played softly with brushes.

Elisabeth Williamson sings in a clear low soprano. Her voice is full of warmth, but she knows how to express a full range of the emotions that can accompany love. About half of the songs are jazzy numbers that sound like standards from the 1930s. Williamson sings these in a voice that has the fizz of fine champagne. The rest of the songs have more of a contemporary new grass feel to them, and she modulates her voice to sound more modern here. The result could be a musical tug of war, but that never happens. This album makes sense as a whole, because Williamson and her fine band bring out the common element that unites these two styles. That element is Williamson’s romanticism.

All of these songs are about love. In Williamson’s world, love is indestructible. Once given, it can not be taken back or ever truly replaced. When a lover cheats, he may be lost, but never forgotten. Even when Williamson’s protagonists move on, their former lover is remembered fondly and with the best of wishes. The song Someday is all about this. In Paint the Town, a pair of lovers remember how they were together when their relationship was new, and the set out to experience those feelings again; the listener knows that they will succeed. Alone repeats the phrase “Alone with you” early on; only towards the end does the listener realize that this part of the song was a memory. And The Bell may be the most remarkable piece of writing on an album of very well written songs. Here, the protagonist has a husband or lover who works in a mine; we look in on her just as the alarm bell has gone off, indicating that there has been a serious accident in the mine. By the end of the song, neither the protagonist nor the listener know whether her lover is alive or dead. This is the most haunting song I have heard this year, and the music compliments the story beautifully.

Love is the most covered subject in the history of music, and there are abundant clich├ęs to choose from. But Elisabeth Williamson avoids them all. She is a very visual writer, and she uses extended metaphors well too. So her tools are in place, but she never loses sight of what matters most. The emotion of these songs will stay with you for a long time. So, my advice is this. Get this album, and open it without looking at the cover. And prepare for a treat.

Elisabeth Williamson: Alone

Elisabeth Williamson: The Bell

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hitting the Rails

Tomorrow, we are taking my six year old son to see Thomas the Tank Engine. This is an actual train done up to look like Thomas, with rides available, and other tie-in events. In short, kiddie capitalism at its finest. But he’s going to love it, so we’re going. It’s a two hour drive each way for us, so I’ve been working on a CD of train songs for the ride. Amazingly, I had trouble figuring out what my theme would be for this post. You know, “Can’t concentrate, too many train songs!” Sometimes the obvious really has to whap me in the head hard before I listen.

Anyway, like anyone, I had quite a collection of train songs to choose from, but somehow, I was lacking versions of some classic songs. So, I went shopping in Amazon’s mp3 store, and what I found surprised me. Some of my favorite versions of these songs turned out to be by artists even I had not heard of before today.

Mean Mary and Jamestown: Orange Blossom Special


Orange Blossom Special is usually done as an instrumental, but I knew I had heard words for it before. I wanted the words, because I felt that my son would enjoy the song more that way. The number of available versions of this one is almost paralyzing, and I very nearly missed this one. Mean Mary is Mary James. She sings in a powerful country alto, with occasional soprano whoops. She doesn’t yodel on this one, but I get the feeling she could do a great job of it. Any good version of Orange Blossom Special must have fiddle, and that is here. But the train rhythm here is played rockabilly style, on drums, bass, and electric guitar. It’s not a combination that I would have thought of for this song, but it really works.

David Holt: Wabash Cannonball


Wabash Cannonball is a song that my father remembered fondly from his childhood. It became part of mine, because he would sing it around the house at odd moments. David Holt is not only a fine singer and musician, but he is also one of the best-known storytellers in the United States. I think my father would have liked his version of this one.

Franny and the Fireballs: Chattanooga Choo-Choo


In the early 1970s, there was a revival of music from the 1950s. Until today, I had not known that this revival reached as far as Germany. Franny and the Fireballs modeled themselves after Bill Haley and the Comets, who also did a version of this one. But, to me, Franny and the Fireballs’ Chattanooga Choo-Choo retains more of the jazz feel of the original than Haley’s version did. So this may not be what they were trying for, but their version is better for it.

Steve Goodman: City of New Orleans


On the other hand, sometimes there is no improving on the original. I know Arlo Guthrie had the hit, but I’ve always preferred Steve Goodman’s take on his own song. Goodman had a sunniness that no one else could ever match, and this song is the perfect explanation of what I mean by that.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Alice Tong: Love Painting


As far as I can tell, Alice Tong hasn’t made much of a mark outside of the San Francisco area where she lives. That needs to change. She sings in a sultry alto, but she can also reach well into the soprano range at times with out straining. I’m guessing that she has at least a three octave range, and she uses it very well indeed. On please be brave before the lions they come, she plays six instruments. Impressive, but that would all be meaningless if she didn’t back it up with solid songs and performances. Alice Tong does that. Her songs feature mostly acoustic instruments, with the cello used particularly well. The style is somewhere between folk and country, but also with a distinct jazzy feel. And her voice is just amazing. On Love Painting, you will hear the quiet passion she expresses so well. Only later will you notice that the words present a fresh metaphor for love, and that Tong writes beautifully as well. The multiple talents on display in this song hold through the entire album. Definitely check this one out.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

For a Song: Tenderness on the Block

Warren Zevon: Tenderness on the Block


Shawn Colvin: Tenderness on the Block


I was posting a song by Shawn Colvin on Star Maker Machine today, and I thought of how much I love her music. She’s really an artist that I have been neglecting here. Thinking about her songs, I remembered Tenderness on the Block, and I remembered that the original was by Warren Zevon. Listening to both, I realized that I had to post them together.

My daughter is fourteen now, a freshman in high school, and she has her first boyfriend. I keep missing the chance to meet him, but my wife says he’s a good kid, and of course my daughter speaks well of him. Still, this changes things. I’m happy for her, but she’s not just my girl anymore. This is just starting to sink in for me, I think, so this song hits me in a way it never did before. Zevon’s original projects a certain amount of pride that his girl is handling things so well, but there is also a shadow of regret in his performance. Colvin is possibly anxious in her cover, but also hopeful. Taken together, these versions represent the father and mother in the song, for me. The combination reveals a complicated, and perhaps wary, happiness, and this emotional state does not seem complete without having both versions side by side.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Trapper Haskins & the Bitter Swill - Alluvium


First things first. Alluvium is a term in geology for a loose formation of sand or silt left behind by the running water of a river or large stream. It can also be found in areas that are subject to frequent flooding. It is the dirt or soil that is left behind, unwanted, but it can sometimes contain gems or precious metals. As such, it is the perfect metaphor for many of the lives described on this album. Now that may seem like a reach. I didn’t name this album, I only researched the word that is its title. But if you are going to give your album a name like that, you had better be a good enough wordsmith to make the metaphor work, and not seem forced. Trapper Haskins is up to the job. On Alluvium, we are in the hands of a very fine writer.

Trapper Haskins plays electric, acoustic, and resonator guitars. His band has a drummer, and a bass player who plays both standup and electric. And the final member of the band plays piano, organ, accordion, and saxophone. Guest musicians contribute pedal steel, fiddle, and additional electric guitar. So there are some intriguing possibilities for arrangements there, but you don’t here them right away. Instead, Haskins and Co seem intent on showing their ability as a bar band. That lasts for the first four tracks of the album, while Haskins’ strong lyrics carry the show. Then, to this ear, the music catches up to the words, and the rest of the album is strong in both areas.

The album opens with an uptempo rocker, Souvenir. A guy buys his girlfriend a bracelet when they are young, and its physical condition becomes a manifestation of the state of their relationship as time passes. Out of State Tags presents a man who had left his home town behind him, and returns as a stranger, but thinking of the girl he left behind. Song for Lehigh sounds like a tender love song, but it turns out to be about a man and his guitar; the story has been done to death, but Haskins makes it sound both believable and new.

But the single most amazing piece of songwriting here is Comes a Darkness. The narrator is awaked in the middle of the night by a female friend at his door. He starts to be annoyed, but, as he becomes more awake, he realizes that something serious has happened. The story is told entirely in the words he speaks to her; we never hear her voice. And yet, it is her story, and Haskins lets us know exactly what happened, without the benefit of her words. It’s a remarkable piece of storytelling. Storytelling is the key to this album. Almost all of the songs tell a story, and tell it well. There are strong images and metaphors. And there are times when I marveled at a turn of phrase. Describing a young couple who would turn out to not be right for each other, Haskins sings, “You’d keep your eyes out for meteorites, but I never was patient enough.” That’s perfect. But it is all in service of furthering the tale.

There is one final piece of the puzzle. Trapper Haskins makes all of this work by singing the way he does. For the louder numbers, he sings in a high tenor with a bit of a catch to it. On the softer songs, his voice comes down to a second tenor, or even a baritone at times. This can convey resignation or warmth. Having both options available gives Haskins a full emotional range to draw upon, and he knows how to put this to good use. Every song is believable, because Haskins’ vocal lets you know that he believes. Haskins is echoed in several places by the background vocals of Candace Mache. This is a subtle touch that you could miss if you didn’t know to listen for it, but it gives the music an extra dimension.

Alluvium marks the arrival of a very talented writer, and a band that can take this music in a lot of interesting directions. I’ll be very interested to see what happens next time. This story has only just started.

Trapper Haskins & the Bitter Swill: Comes a Darkness

Trapper Haskins & the Bitter Swill: Song for Lehigh

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Rescue Missions

This week, I found a set of songs to post, but I didn’t know why they made a set. As I worked with them, the songs told me why they wanted to be together. These songs are rescue missions. Two are songs that I feel should be better known. One is known better than the movie it came from, so it is the movie that is being rescued. And the last song is one that the original artist rescued by recording it again.

Thomas Dolby: Budapest by Blimp


Thomas Dolby made a splash with She Blinded Me With Science on his debut album. His second album was very different, but still yielded the hit Hyperactive. But Dolby’s third album, Aliens Ate My Buick, is one that many people don’t even know exists. It almost seems that Aliens was an album that Dolby wanted to use to chase his fans away. Suddenly, Dolby got funky, even working with George Clinton. But Budapest by Blimp is another matter. There is a groove here, but it simmers, not cooks. The lyrics sound like a screenplay to an old movie. The song has a coolness that, ironically, allows the emotions of the piece to really come out. I wonder if Erika Badu has ever heard this one, because some of her work reminds me of it.

The Balancing Act: Generator


The Balancing Act was a group that recorded an EP and two albums for the IRS label in the 1980s. When the label went under, so did the band. They deserved better. The Balancing Act had great energy, and wonderful pop instincts. They blended acoustic and electric instruments perfectly, and they had a gift for using vocal harmonies in just the right places. Generator is one of their slightest lyrics, but that’s not the point here. This song is about hooks, and Generator has them galore. Try and sit still as you listen to this one, but don’t be surprised if you find your toe tapping.

Benoit Charest: Belleville Rendezvous


Do you remember this one? Bellville Rendezvous was the title song from the animated film The Triplets of Belleville. The song was an Oscar nominee, and was the hit of the Oscar broadcast in its year. Ah, but who ever saw the movie. You have to be crazy to make an animated film for adults only, especially one that tells its story almost entirely without dialog. But The Triplets of Belleville is a great piece of work that I am very happy to have in my personal DVD collection. And I love the song as well.

Paul Simon: Late in the Evening


Speaking of movies, Paul Simon was in one once. Wrote the music for the soundtrack too. The movie was One Trick Pony in 1980, and by all accounts, it was pretty bad. The album did yield a hit, Late in the Evening, but I always felt that the song was missing something. In 1991, Paul Simon revisited the song for his concert in Central Park, and he showed me exactly what I had been missing.

Simon had released Graceland, and followed it with Rhythm of the Saints, in which he explored the music of Brazil. In 1991, he was playing many of the songs from these albums live, and he needed a band that could handle the tricky rhythms. So Simon’s band for that concert included musicians from both South Africa and Brazil. They didn’t simply lay down the rhythm for Late in the Evening and let it sit there. These musicians had the talent to play with the rhythm without losing it, so they loosened the song up. And now it really cooks. That was the missing ingredient.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Kingsley Flood: a little too old


Kingsley Flood is a rock band with five musicians. There is a drummer, bass player, and rhythm guitarist. So far, so good. Then there is a lead guitarist who also plays fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. So it gets interesting. Here is a band that can rock out with the best of them, but they can also sound like a folk group. And Kingsley Flood also has a jazzy side. The fifth member of the group plays trumpet. The thing is, the band shows all of this on their album dust windows, and it all works. On a little too old, you will find all of these elements in one song. And you will hear that it works. Naseem Khuri writes the songs, and shows himself to be a fine writer. He can summon an image, or create a great turn phrase, but always in service of the song.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

For a Song: Just Like the River

Robin Williamson: Just Like the River


I had the pleasure of seeing Robin Williamson, it must have been in 1990 or ‘91. It was one of the most unusual performances I have ever seen. As I think of it now, I imagine that the evening began with an array of instruments on stage, the most prominent being the harp at center stage. As we sat in the audience, we heard a tapping sound behind us. There was an old man in a hooded robe, walking down the aisle with the aid of a tall wooden staff. Silver hair flowed out of the hood from his face and shoulders. He reached the stage, turned back his hood, and sat down at the harp, and began to play.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how it actually happened, but see Williamson perform if you get a chance, and you will understand where this image comes from. Williamson fancies himself as a bard in the ancient Celtic tradition, and he has the knowledge to back it up. He has co-written books on the Bardic tradition, and he has a deep knowledge of the old lore. And his performance that night reflected this. It was a mix of songs and stories, and he accompanied himself on mostly harp, but also on guitar at times. He showed a deep respect for and knowledge of the material he presented, but this was no scholarly speech. Williamson also displayed warmth and a sneaky sense of humor.

Just Like the River is the title track from a collection of songs for guitar and voice. The song strikes me as a beautiful meditation on aging. I would have liked to present one of his songs on harp, but sadly, the best of those are not available. Incidentally, if the name Robin Williamson sounds familiar, you may have heard of him as one of the founding members of The Incredible String Band. A lot has happened since then.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Infamous Stringdusters - Things That Fly


The Infamous Stringdusters are a six-piece band whose main instruments are bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle, dobro or lap steel, and banjo. There are three lead singers, two high tenors and a lower tenor/ baritone. So the ingredients are all in place for bluegrass. But Things That Fly is not a bluegrass album, although the band clearly demonstrates a talent for it, and I’m sure these musicians have played plenty of bluegrass in their times. Things That Fly is a country rock album, and a fine one. The banjo and mandolin together usually take the rhythm guitar part, but their percussive sound also covers for the fact that there are no drums. The lead guitar part is handled by the fiddle or dobro or both. So the sound of the album could fool you into thinking it’s bluegrass, especially the vocal harmonies, but the way the instruments are used is completely different, and it works amazingly well.

The first clue that this album is something different comes on the second track. The song is called In God’s Country, and the original was by U2. There is a brief tease at the beginning, and it sounds like this is going to be a Pickin’ on U2 version, but very soon the band starts hitting power cords, and the song drives home from there. Jeremy Garrett delivers a vocal the shows him to be one of the people who can be allowed to sing Bono’s parts.

Most of the songs here are originals, And the Stringdusters show a knack for writing varied grooves and hooks. Everyone in the band writes, and rarity of rarities, they each show an equal talent for it. Most of the original songs are cowrites, either between two members of the band, or by a band member in collaboration with an outside writer. Only dobro player Andy Hall writes by himself here. And I imagine that all songs were brought to and arranged by the full band, because the sound is consistent throughout.

The lyrics throughout strive for a universal appeal. The language is direct, and there are no specific details that might shut out any listeners. The songs offer encouragement and morale boosts, or relate experiences in love that anyone can relate to. You find this kind of writing in arena rock and in country. Many forgettable groups write this way, and so do many of the biggest stars. The difference is how well the singer puts it over. When sung with conviction, songs like these become everyman anthems. The Infamous Stringdusters pass this test with flying colors.

The two songs I have chosen to present both demonstrate the Stringdusters talent for creating an original groove. All the Same has a sort of bluesy almost reggae feel to it. This is perhaps the biggest surprise on the album, considering the combination of instruments, and the song sizzles nicely from start to finish. Masquerade has a four note hook in the bass part, echoed by other instruments, and also some touches of flavor, and that’s it for the verses. The song swells nicely at the choruses, but never overdoes it. It’s a spare arrangement, but it’s all that is needed.

So I wouldn’t mind if the Stringdusters ever decide to record a set of more personal songs. But I’ll keep coming back for the high level of musicianship, and the wonderfully imaginative arrangements.

The Infamous Stringdusters: All the Same

The Infamous Stringdusters: Masquerade

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Summer Jams

Summer is here, and the time is right for going to see live music out of doors. The first concert I ever attended without my parents was an outdoor show. It was the Allman Brothers in 1974, touring in support of the Brothers and Sisters album. This has forever flavored my perception of what a live concert should be. The Allman Brothers did not slavishly recreate their albums in concert; no one did in those days. The Allman Brothers jammed. Their songs would walk a tightrope in concert, threatening to fall apart at any moment. But the group could take a song to amazing places, and always bring it back again. The result were exhilarating when it worked.

Nowadays, bands that approach playing live this way are called jam bands. It tells you nothing about the style of music they play, but everything about how the present it live. So a lot of music gets this label, and it can sound like almost anything. All you know is that, done well, it’s going to be exciting. Let me show you what I mean.

David Ducharme-Jones: Say What You Want


Like the Allman Brothers, David Ducharme-Jones is working in that sweet spot where the blues meets rock. And like them as well, Ducharme-Jone has the chops to pull it off. Weeds is more soulful than the Allmans, and the groove is funkier. The arrangements feature the electric guitar, and the solos are kept short for this studio album, but it’s easy to imagine where they stretch out live. Weeds performs the most important function for a studio album of any kind of jam music: it makes me want to see David Ducharme-Jones live.

Assembly of Dust: Second Song


Assembly of Dust is well enough established on the jam band circuit that they can get big name guests appear on their albums. On Some Assembly Required, they do just that, with a different guest or two on each song. The list ranges from old timers like David Grisman and Richie Havens to newcomers, such as Grace Potter. The amazing thing is that, while each song is tailored to the musical guest, the album makes sense as a whole. That is a testament to Reid Genauer’s skill as a songwriter. The guest on Second Song is Keller Williams on guitar.

Brad Hammonds: Medicine


Brad Hammonds has been part of a duo called Brazz Tree for some time, with violinist and singer Mazz Swift. Brazz Tree’s music is jazz, sometimes bordering on the avante-garde, and it’s fascinating stuff. But Through It All is Hammonds solo debut, and here he steps out as a songwriter and singer. Hammonds sets up a great groove with his band, reminiscent of the Dave Matthews Band at their best. Medicine is a fine example of what Hammonds is capable of as a lyricist; the song seems to be a paean to the joys of drugs, but there is a trap door. Hammonds knows the possible dangers all too well. The song avoids any hint of preachiness, and is all the more powerful for it.

There’s just one thing: after making his name for his instrumental prowess, Hammonds restrains himself here, keeping the songs short and the jamming to a minimum. I hope next time he finds a better balance, and steps out more.

Beautifully Mad: Reason to Shine


Beautifully Mad is a wonderful group from Australia. Their music ranges from gorgeous pop ballads to jazz singing, sometimes in the space of a single song. Tony King is the male lead singer and main songwriter. Kris Ralph is the female lead singer, and often co-writes with King. This is the only live album in this set. Reason to Shine is one of those great pop ballads I mentioned, but it gets to the solo section and the jazz comes out. Then the solos end, and the song settles down again. The listener is left to wonder, how did that happen? With each repeated listen, it makes more and more sense.

The Gentle Guest: Scatter the Ashes

[Available for purchase here as of July 20, 2010]

Marching band-punk-Americana? Those are just some of the styles that The Gentle Guest mashes together. This music has the darkness of Apalachian folk music, but with the punkish energy of the Pogues. And then there are those amazing horns. Overall, the music sounds chaotic, as if it’s going to fall apart at any moment. That’s appropriate, because the emotions of the songs' characters are in similar turmoil. Songs shift midway in surprising ways, as the characters try on different coping strategies. Usually, the listener is left to feel that things are getting better, although there is still work to do. This music has a raw edge, but it takes an amazing kind of control to make music this precarious. And The Gentle Guest are in control at all times.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

For a Song: Go Back to Your Woods

Robbie Robertson: Go Back to Your Woods


Bands, both well known and obscure, break up all the time. Sometimes, the musicians admit to personal difficulties within the band, but just as often, musicians try to paper it over by claiming that there were “artistic differences”. Was this the case? You can tell when the solo albums start to come out. When The Band broke up, and Robbie Robertson went solo, the difference was startling. Where one could claim that The Band was the first Americana band, Robertson’s first solo album was done with producer Daniel Lanois, and seemed, musically, to come from Peter Gabriel territory. It’s a great album, but it was a shock at the time of its release. Four years later, Robertson was once again using the sounds of various musical traditions in the United States, but with the artiness of that first solo album.

The album was Storyville, and Robertson was particularly interested in the musical traditions of New Orleans. Go Back to Your Woods is a stand-out track from that album, and no wonder. The song is a co-write with Robertson and Bruce Hornsby. And what a band! This is basically Robertson and Hornsby with the Meters, plus a couple of Mardi Gras Indian chiefs. This is not the line-up for the rest of the album, and it’s a gutsy move by Robertson that could have failed spectacularly. But Robertson hits it, and this one really cooks.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Peter Ostroushko - When the Last Morning Glory Blooms


If there is one type of song that says love, it is the waltz. Two people in love take to the floor, hold each other close, and move together in a beautiful harmony. For them, the rest of the world does not exist while the song plays. They are in their own world. Peter Ostroushko understands this, and provides the scenery for that world.

I hope I may be forgiven for the romanticism of that opening. When the Last Morning Glory Blooms is almost entirely an album of waltzes, and this is very romantic music. What comes through most clearly is the love that Ostroushko feels for the people he wrote the songs for. Sometimes these are the musicians he has befriended over the years. Two of the songs, The B and B Waltz and The A and A Waltz, were written for friends’ weddings, and are as much about their love for each other as Ostroushko’s feelings for them as friends. And the most exciting piece on the album is Marjorie’s Waltz # 4; Marjorie is Ostroushko’s wife, and, on this evidence, she is a lucky woman.

Peter Ostroushko first came to my attention years ago when he appeared semi-regularly on A Prairie Home Companion. He is best known as a mandolin player, but he switches to fiddle for two songs here. On most of the songs, the other featured instrument is the piano. Sometimes there is a cello or a string quartet, and Marjorie’s Waltz # 4 even has an accordion. The rhythm section, when there is any, is a stand-up bass and possibly an acoustic guitar. And there is only one song that is not in 3/4 time. So there really isn’t a lot of variation in the possible arrangements, and there are no words to focus on; this is an instrumental album. This could be a very dull album. But Peter Ostroushko and his accompanists are very fine musicians, so the emotions in the playing keep this one interesting. Also, Ostroushko explores just how much can be done with the waltz form, so I was right there with him the whole time.

Ostroushko has assembled a fine band here. Norman and Nancy Blake play on one song, The Nine Years Waltz. Texas legend Johnny Gimble joins Ostroushko for a fiddle duet on Memories of Tyler, Texas. But the rest of the songs sound just as good; when Ostroushko plays with the regular band here, there is no drop off in the quality of the playing. The piano playing of Dan Chouinard and Robert Dworskey is particularly notable; they each get a creamy tone that contrasts beautifully with the percussive sound of Ostroushko’s mandolin. This is particularly important because Ostroushko is a generous bandleader; he drops out of a song for a while, and lets his accompanists have a turn. The best example of this generosity is Waltz for Sedra. Ostroushko wrote this one to order for 16 year old fiddle prodigy Sedra Bistodeau, who asked for lots of double-stops. Ostroushko says that he fully intended to add a harmony part, but when he heard the recording so far, he felt that Bistodeau’s performance needed no further embellishment. So here is a song that Peter Ostroushko does not even play on, on his own album!

Ostroushko does a wonderful job of exploring different kinds of love in his writing. The wedding waltzes portray a love that has blossomed from that first rush into something deeper and more lasting. Some of the songs portray the love of a place, whether real or fictional, reveling in the serenity of a beautiful scene. And Marjorie’s Waltz # 4 conveys the exhilaration that is still possible in the love of two people growing older together. I started by saying that the waltz is the song of love. On When the Last Morning Glory Blooms, Peter Ostroushko explains.

Peter Ostroushko: The B and B Waltz

Peter Ostroushko: Marjorie‘s Waltz # 4