Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore - Saints & Sinners

[due out September 14, 2010. Available for preorder here]

Last year, I discovered the music of Mollie O‘Brien and Rich Moore, and their wonderful album 900 Baseline. It was just the two of them on stage, just voice and guitar, and it revealed the work of two very talented and well matched musicians. But what would happen if they went into a studio with fairly large group of other musicians at their disposal? Saints & Sinners is their new album, and it answers that question with glorious results. 900 Baseline revealed a duo with a wonderful feel for the blues, and that is still here. There was also some wonderful folk singing and playing, and that is back as well. But, with a broader sonic pallet at their disposal, and the input of co producers and fellow arrangers Ben Winship and Eric Thorin, the stylistic range opens up. Here are hints of Dixieland and jug band, cabaret and what I would call folkabilly. It could have been a chaotic mess, but O’Brien and Moore and their friends make it all make sense.

I was sold on O’Brien’s singing last time, but here she has a harder task. Of course, a bluesy number like her own New Boots is going to work just fine, and the Dixieland/ jug band approach to Keep It Clean and Everything I’ve Got suit this style as well. Likewise, the more tender folk approach suits Lonely For a While and the title track beautifully. But here also are covers of Richard Thompson, (The Ghost of You Walks), and Tom Waits, (Dead and Lovely). These require another approach entirely. The arrangements lean towards cabaret, but the voice of each songwriter is brilliantly preserved as well. O’Brien needs a little smoke in her voice, as well as a plaintive quality for the Thompson song, and a tone of weary resignation for the Waits. She is more than up to the task.

The other part of this duo is Rich Moore. He is the featured guitar player. Moore is not a flashy player, and he never upstages his singer. Sometimes his parts all but vanish in the arrangements. But his contributions are vital. Like O’Brien, Moore must be a stylistic chameleon here, and he too is more than up to the task. Moore also has a hand in most of the arrangements here, and those are brilliant throughout. A bowed bass turns up in a couple of places, and Think About Your Troubles has a wonderful oboe part. Again, none of this is for show, and it all serves the song. It also makes Saints & Sinners, the album, a rich and fascinating listening experience. I was particularly impressed with Don’t Bother Me. George Harrison wrote the song as a mid-tempo rocker for the Beatles, but here it becomes a ballad, and the lyric reveals a depth that was missing from the original. This also depends on O’Brien’s performance to bring it out, and she succeeds beautifully. At the end of the album, Rich Moore finally gets the spotlight on an instrumental he wrote called Cuba. His playing evokes tenderness and beauty, and for a moment, no words are needed.

So Saints & Sinners is a collection of 11 covers and two originals. There is a fine balance to achieve in covering the works of others. The artists must make the songs their own, or choose to honor the work of the original songwriters. But here is what almost never happens: O’Brien and Moore manage to do both at the same time.

Mollie O‘Brien & Rich Moore: The Ghost of You Walks

Mollie O‘Brien & Rich Moore: Don‘t Bother Me

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Old Favorites

Look at the top of this blog, and you will see the words, “new discoveries and old favorites”. The new discoveries are always exciting, but it occurs to me that I have been neglecting the old favorites. These are the artists and songs that formed my musical tastes in the first place. These songs spoke to me early on, and gave me my standards of what a song can and should be. One post is not sufficient to give you a full picture, but let me share a few examples.

Grateful Dead: Friend of the Devil


The Grateful Dead were my first favorite band. At my age, it could have been the Beatles as it was for so many of my friends. It could have been the Jackson 5, but I never really liked them. There were many other choices then, but for me it was the Dead. Jerry Garcia didn’t always sing on key, but I always felt, listening to his voice, that he was a good friend. And he told me stories of the West, of flawed heroes and sympathetic scoundrels. I think that my life-long love of folklore may have started with the Grateful Dead. Later, I would appreciate the diverse musical genres that made up the Dead’s sonic pallet, but, on first hearing, I just knew that the music was exciting and the words took me to another place.

Jackson Browne: Fountain of Sorrow


I have not neglected to cover Joni Mitchell here. Jackson Browne was the other artist who shaped my early ideas of what personal songwriting could do. Like Mitchell, Browne’s songs are poetry, and Fountain of Sorrow rang especially true for me when I first heard it. The imagery and use of metaphor here sounds perfect to me.

Bonnie Raitt: Give It Up or Let Me Go


By the time I first heard Bonnie Raitt, I already knew a thing or two about the blues. First the Rolling Stones and then Eric Clapton with Cream sent me off in search of their influences. I found this rich musical heritage from Chicago, and I thought I was an expert. Raitt taught me otherwise. I think I had heard a slide guitar before, but only plugged in. And I had never heard such an unusual combination of instruments before. Also, I had barely heard any female blues artists at all. So Raitt taught me about arranging, and that no instrument was off limits. By and by, I would learn about the blues sounds that came before World War II, but first I would enjoy the richness of Raitt’s performances. Give It Up or Let Me Go is a fine example of all of this.

Lyle Lovett: Family Reserve


When the three previous songs came out, Lyle Lovett’s music was a long way off. Before him, Tom Waitts and Randy Newman had already shown me that there was a wider range of subjects available for songs than I had known. And either of them could have been in this post instead of Lovett. But Family Reserve also has a spiritual element that neither Waitts nor Newman do as well. This is a song about death of course, but it is also an expression of faith in a hereafter where family and old friends await.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Carolann Sollebello: Papa‘s Mandolin


Of course, the Spotlight Song of the Week is always a relatively new discovery. But this is about as close to an old favorite as I can get in this space. A quick look through the archives reveals that I have never had a song here by Carolaan Sollebello before. But she has been part of Red Molly, who I reviewed here twice. I had the pleasure of meeting them at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and I heard the announcement of the worst-kept secret of the festival: Carolann Sollebello is leaving Red Molly. They will carry on with a new member, and Sollebello will resume her solo career, while staying close enough to home to be with her family. I caught a solo set by Sollebello at one of the after parties at the festival, and I especially loved Papa’s Mandolin. The song is filled with love, and describes Sollebello’s inspiration for being a musician. I am pleased to be able to present the song here, and I look forward to reviewing Sollebello’s next album.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

For a Song: Misty Mountain

Ferron: Misty Mountain (from Testimony)


Ferron: Misty Mountain (from Boulder)


Sometime before 1984, some friends of mine invited me to a concert by Ferron. Who? I said. “You’ll like her,” they replied. So I went, and they were more than right. I remember it being just her and her guitar, but it’s possible that she had a small band with her. I also remember it being a mostly or entirely acoustic show, but again, it was a long time ago. There is one thing I remember clearly. Late in the show, Ferron performed her song Misty Mountain. There is a line in the song, “I said Ferron, you’re halfway pretty…”, and someone shouted clearly, “more than halfway!” By then, I had discovered a new favorite musician, and I had to agree. I bought the album Testimony at that show, and it too became a favorite. The arrangements on the album are fuller than they were live, and Misty Mountain in particular became a pop anthem, albeit one with unusually poetic lyrics. But I felt the same excitement hearing Ferron on record as I had discovering her live.

Now it is almost thirty years later, and I decided it was time to share this song. So I decided to check into what Ferron was doing now. It turns out the her most recent album, Boulder, came out in 2008. And there was a new version of Misty Mountain. Now Testimony came out early in Ferron’s career. Since then, she has been through a lot, and learned more about what she wants to sound like. And she wanted to revisit Misty Mountain after all this time. What would this sound like? Well, now the former popish anthem has the quality of a ritual chant, probably Native American. That would be consistent with the animal imagery in the song. In any case, the original bristles with energy, while the remake throbs with power. And this is one of the most remarkable examples I have ever heard of an artist remaking her work.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

George Wirth - The Last Good Kiss



On The Last Good Kiss, George Wirth is generous with his music. I’ve gotten plenty to of albums with just over a half hour of music on them, but this is twice that. The arrangements are spare, with voice and guitar featured, and other instruments adding light touches. There is one duet, Dreamland, and Make You My Home has a few lines of female background vocals. Add to that the fact that George Wirth is limited as a singer. He is not a young man, and his voice has a lot of weather in it. So he can’t belt it out, and his range is probably more limited than it once was. All told, this album could feel long indeed, but it doesn’t. Wirth knows exactly what he can and can not do, and he makes the most of his gifts. And his writing is brilliant.

Wirth plays acoustic guitar, which he plucks or strums. He doesn’t take solos or try to wow the listener, but he knows what each song needs, and he supplies it. Abbie Gardner of Red Molly adds lap steel to one song and dobro to another. Amanda Shires plays fiddle on two songs. Dreamland has a dobro part from Jim MccCarthy and duet vocals from Janey Todd, who wrote it; Todd also adds a brief recorder part at the end. So that’s five songs with guest musicians, and the album has fourteen songs in all. Wirth plays harmonica here and there, and he adds a couple of unusual instruments as well. That’s Alright has a Papoose on it; this is a small-scale guitar which sounds something like a mountain dulcimer here. And Heaven’s Gate has a synth harmonium in the background. Taken together, Wirth seems to know that this is a long album which needs some variations in sound from song to song, but the focus his still on the guitar and vocals throughout.

As I said, Wirth’s voice has a lot of weather in it. He sings in a gruff baritone with a definite scratch in it, and sometimes he speaks a few words before returning to the melody. He knows better than to force it, so this all sounds completely natural. Janey Todd has a smooth and breathy voice, so it’s surprising how well their voices blend on Dreamland. But the important thing to know about Wirth’s vocals is that, as with his guitar playing, he won’t wow the listener, but he puts across all of the varied emotions in his songs beautifully. In his writing, Wirth expresses the complex feelings of an older man, so this is key to the album’s success.

The album opens with I Will Not Go Down Easily This Time, and Wirth takes the voice of Jesus to talk about what He sees at the Second Coming. Weight of Sin also has Jesus as the main character, but has more of the feel of a parable. And religious feelings also surface in Heaven’s Gate and Easter. But this is not a religious album, and in fact, Wirth expresses ambivalence about his faith in the course of the album. Certainly, he never gets heavy-handed or preachy. In Your Arms is a love song, but this is a love that has lasted a while, and the song also expresses amazement and gratitude. The Last Good Kiss is as fine a piece of writing as I have encountered this year. The narrator here contemplates a lost love as he operates a snow play. The musical setting is fairly tranquil, but Wirth’s words had me feeling the winter wind blowing, and the metaphor really works. Dreamland is the only song here that Wirth did not write, but it is fine choice to stand along side his originals. As performed here, the song is dialog, and a beautiful expression of yearning.

The other thing to note about George Wirth’s writing is that it evokes a strong sense of place. Most of the songs are set at the New Jersey shore, particularly Asbury Park. I’ve been there as a visitor, but Wirth gives a voice to the townies. These characters are not idealized, but Wirth feels for them, and the listener can not help but do so too. Sometimes the sea breezes blow away their dreams, or the tide carries them back to a place they though they had left behind, but Wirth always gets you to do more than pity them. And you want to celebrate their successes. Above all, I think this is what comes through on this album. These are real people with complex emotions, and they matter. I suppose that means that this is folk music, and a fine example of what it should do. I will be keeping an ear out for more of George Wirth’s music in the future, and I hope to share that with you when it happens.

George Wirth: The Last Good Kiss

George Wirth: In Your Arms

Thursday, August 19, 2010

For a Song: Any King’s Shilling

Elvis Costello: Any King‘s Shilling


Elvis Costello is an artist who has recorded music in more different styles than anyone else I can think of, and most of it works. Even by his standards though, Spike was an unusual album for Costello. There are two collaborations with Paul McCartney, six numbers with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and even a couple of Irish numbers. Musically, Any King’s Shilling is one of the latter. The album was unusual enough that Musician Magazine got Costello to write an article for them, discussing the album and its songs. Costello explained that taking the Kings shilling was a euphemism for signing up to the army, and went on to say this about the song:

My grandfather was a first-generation immigrant from Ireland and when his father was murdered-that's another story-he ended up in an orphanage and then the army, He was a trumpet player, a bandsman. He got badly wounded in the First World War and then got stationed in Dublin, ironically. His story was, just before the Irish uprising of 1916, his friends warned him to keep out of the way.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lara Michell - Petals


I can tell you that I first heard Lara Michell singing as a member of the Stolen Sweets, and it’s true. But it isn’t very helpful. Petals is something else entirely. It might be tempting to call this a folk album; after all, most of the tracks feature two acoustic guitars and vocals, and not much else. But this too is misleading. The first song on the album features keyboards, and has a beautiful trumpet part. The last song features the guitars, but has drums and bass, and also includes cello and flute. In between, the arrangements are more spare, with twin acoustic guitars featured in most of the arrangements. . Michell is a writer who needs few words, and never wastes the ones she uses. The songs do build and then pull back, but they are not overly adorned. There are three background singers here, all female, and they all sing in a low soprano. What is remarkable is how well the voices blend, becoming one instrument. Put the whole thing together, and you have an album of beautiful, atmospheric music. But Michell never loses track of the emotional part, and the songs ring true.

Petals opens with The Bluest Clown. This is a song that comes from a dark place. Its narrator is in despair, following either a painful breakup or the death of a lover. The rest of the album offers varying degrees of healing, but the pain never entirely goes away, and the future holds many potential relationships that are approached with extreme caution. A Fleeting Lucid Moment offers a bit of a reprieve; here is a relationship that seems to be working, although there is still some caution on the part of the narrator. The song opens with just a nylon stringed acoustic guitar and solo vocals. On the first chorus, we hear background vocals for the first time. Then the second verse arrives, and a steel stringed acoustic guitar joins in, with a part that seems to echo the first guitar. This creates a musical statement that two are joined as one, but there is also a musical tension between the two parts. All of this is very subtle, and it registers emotionally, even if the listener is not consciously aware of how the effect is achieved. And subtlety is the key to how this album works. There no outbursts here, but the album as a whole paints a detailed picture of heartbreak. And yet, it never becomes depressing, because Michell’s narrators always have hope.

In the End It’s Over starts folk-like, with just vocal and strummed guitar, but the other guitar joins in, and then bass and drums, and soon we have a breezy pop song. It comes as a breath of fresh air towards the end of the album, providing a lightening of the mood at the perfect time. The album ends with The Chauffeur, a Duran Duran cover. It is much wordier than Michell’s own songs, and it is the longest song on the album, but the style of the performance fit’s the album perfectly. And the middle somewhere, there is a beautiful song called The Girl in the Garden; this one features a call-and-response between Michell and her background singers that shows just how well Michell knows how to make use of the human voice. Overall then, Petals is a work of subtle beauty and great intelligence, all in service of the song, and all emotionally true. I have now heard Michell in two very different musical contexts, and I can’t wait to hear what she does next. (Actually, I expect to have that here soon, but more on that when it happens.)

Lara Michell: A Fleeting Lucid Moment

Lara Michell: In the End It‘s Over

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Anything Can Happen

For artists and their representatives, the question is, “Would my music fit on your blog?” Ultimately, the not very helpful answer is, “Yes, if I like it.” Beyond that, I suppose I could offer up a list of musical genres I like. But some of my favorite music doesn’t neatly fit in existing categories. I like artists who are adventurous, who chafe at musical boundaries. And I like artists who, within accepted boundaries, do the unexpected. My only requirement in such cases is that it must all serve the song. Let me give you some examples.

The Winterlings: The Postman


For The Winterlings, folk music is just a starting point. They are the duo of Wolff Bowden and Amanda Birdsall. Both play guitar, and they play six other instruments between them on the album The Animal Groom. There are additional musicians who further expand the musical pallette. The result is an album of richly varied arrangements. Bowden sings in a folk tenor, while Birdsall presents a bluesy country soprano. Their voices shouldn’t blend, but they do. The pair cowrote all of the songs here, and they are rich in nature imagery, especially about the weather. Many of the songs come from a dark place, but also a very rich one. The album art is by Wolff Bowden, and like the music, it is the work of an artist whose goes where the muse wishes to take him. The result is dreamlike at times, and endlessly fascinating.

Tin Pan: Dandelion


For this band’s purposes, the term Tin Pan Alley refers to an area in New York City that had a high concentration of music publishers from roughly 1900 through the end of The Depression. More broadly, the term refers to the music that was made there. This was the popular songs of the day. Some of those are on the album Hound’s Tooth by the band Tin Pan. And alongside them are original songs by bandleader Jesse Selengut that fit right in.

Selengut plays trumpet, flugelhorn, and guitar, and handles lead vocals. Stefan Zeniuk plays tenor sax and clarinet, another member plays all manner of guitars, and the lineup is completed by the bass player. There is no drummer. Selengut’s vocals have a rough quality that gives this music a bluesy quality. Overall, this has the quality of street music, coarse but undeniably powerful. And I don’t mean to suggest any lack of talent; quite the opposite is true. This is a band that achieves its affects with great skill, and with a subtlety that belies the listener’s first impression. This is one that I am sure will reward repeated listening.

Guthrie Kennard: God of Abraham


Guthrie Kennard comes under the Americana category, on the bluesy side. The album Matchbox was produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard, and it’s easy to see why he took an interest. Kennard has a voice like a rusty knife, and he writes and sings haunted tales of the heartland. The arrangements are spare, but all of the feeling comes through. And Kennard creates grooves that will stay in your head for a while.

Rachelle Garniez: Blue Blue Grass of Home


I found Rachelle Garniez when I reviewed jazz singer Catherine Russell’s latest album. But that didn’t prepare me for Garniez’ work under her own name. If you must have a category, call this post-cabaret. Garniez sings in mostly in a rich alto, but she can interject bursts of almost operatic soprano at times. She has a playful side in the way she does this. There are only three musicians on the album, but they play multiple instruments, so the texture is rich and varied. Usually, the featured instrument is Garniez’ piano. The songs feature characters who exist outside of society’s norms. These characters don’t seem dangerous, just odd. Garniez likes them, and she gets the listener to do the same. If Garniez and Tom Waits ever got together to perform each other’s songs, I would love to be there. I can think of very few artists that I would put on that stage, but Garniez shows here that she could more than hold her own.

Lisa Engelken: Caravan


Lisa Engelken is another of those fine jazz singers I keep getting lucky to find. And there is no question that she stays well within that musical category. But she still shows a wonderful musical imagination. She takes Billy Idol’s White Wedding, and turns it into a beautiful jazz ballad, and it works. What she does with Duke Ellington’s song Caravan is more subtle, but just as impressive. Ellington’s original version featured a strong exotic beat and the rich harmonies for which he was known. Most covers of the song retain these qualities, but Engelken strips the song down. The rhythm is only suggested, and most of the richness of Ellington’s original charts is gone. This spare arrangement means that Engelken has no place to hide, and her singing must carry the day. She is more than up to the task. Her voice is a smooth purr, but she can express a full range of emotions with it. On the album, she also shows a gift for scat singing. Engelken may be clearly a jazz singer, but she is still not afraid to take chances, and she makes them pay off.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

For a Song: As Cool As I Am

Dar Williams: As Cool As I Am


I thought, “Dar Williams is a folk sort of artist. Her songs are quiet, with mostly acoustic arrangements.” And then Mortal City came out, and our local college radio station started playing As Cool As I Am. This song is a rocker. Actually, if you take it apart, the instruments are still mostly acoustic. It even has the Nields on background vocals. But there are a bass harmonica and a digeridoo which combine to play a rockin’ riff, which is the first thing that catches your attention. It just goes to show that a song can be rock, even without plugging anything in.

The lyrics are another matter. I hear many songs where the intention of the writer is unclear. Some of my favorites do this, leaving the song open to multiple interpretations. Other times, there are songwriters whose lyrics are opaque because they are just not very good. But there are also times when the listener rebels against what the songwriter is saying. “That can’t mean what I think it means, can it?” Yes it can. The chorus of As Cool As I Am has the line, “I will not be afraid of women”. What’s that about? Finally, it dawned on me. The narrator of the song is describing a relationship by relating the events of a series of visits to a lesbian bar. From the sound of it, I would say that, at the beginning of the song, the narrator has never been to one of these places before. Possibly, she has tried to be straight until now. By the end of the song, the relationship has ended, probably badly, but still, “I will not be afraid of women”. She may not have found her lover, but she has found herself. And everything else must come after that.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jenny Gillespie - Kindred


On Kindred, Jenny Gillespie achieves something rare. The songs have synthesizers and programmed sounds, and Gillespie’s piano and guitar parts are often processed, along with the drums when used. But there are also parts here for cello, clarinet, trumpet, and flute, and these sounds are left alone. The rare thing is that Gillespie and her producer Darwin Smith not only attempt this mix, but they make it work. The resulting music sound spare in some places, and lush in others, and it always serves the song, and the moment in the song.

One remarkable example of how this works is the song In the Garden. Using a combination of synthesizers and processed sounds, Gillespie and Co set up a groove for her to sing over. It seems like the song will be that simple, and it sounds fine. But then, part way through, the listener realizes that there are hand claps in the mix. That wasn’t there before! Little details like this accumulate as the song progresses, and the arrangement at the end of the song is completely different from how it started. Now there are drums, electric guitar, and even synthesizer parts that weren’t there before. The important thing is that this not just for show; the affect is to increase the intensity of the song as it goes along, and this perfectly suits what is happening in the song emotionally.

Things are usually not that straightforward though. Usually, the songs have subtle shifts in texture to achieve their emotional effects, but these shifts do not happen in a straight line. And the synthetic sounds do not always dominate the mix; sometimes the more traditional, or what I would call organic, instruments dominate the mix, while the synthetic sounds are added for flavor and texture. Over it all, Gillespie sings in a breathy high soprano, sometimes harmonizing or singing countermelodies with herself in overdubbed vocal parts. Breathy voices sometimes have a limited emotional range, but not so here. Gillespie carries the load of conveying the emotions of these songs beautifully, and the whole thing works for that reason.

The lyrics are allusive, rather than direct. The combined effect of the musical arrangements and the lyrics gives the listener a template to use to fill in the details of what the songs are about. So my discussion of the lyrics may surprise Jenny Gillespie, and may not be what you hear in them either. Much is left to the listener, and this sort of thing must be done well, or it falls apart completely. It is done very well here. I am drawn most to the songs that feature the organic instruments, and I have chosen two of these to post. Swimming in Amber has an arrangement built around the acoustic guitar, and this is a breakup song. Gillespie’s vocal here conveys sorrow and loneliness, but also love remembered during the flashback sections. Merged Furs, on the other hand, takes place at the beginning of a relationship, and finds Gillespie determined to make this work, but also a bit anxious. Throughout, Gillespie’s words and her vocals present emotions as complicated; these are songs about adult relationships, not simple crushes. In Gillespie’s world, emotional states are often reflected in the world around her, so nature images abound. Secret Passageway has “a deer who’s nibbled on glass”, while Dance or Disappear has a tidal pool with rocks jutting from it as the tide goes out. It’s hardly surprising that the only song on Kindred that Jenny Gillespie did not write is called In the Garden.

So each lyric is a poem to be pondered, with meanings that might well change as the reader goes through life. And the musical arrangements enhance this beautifully. I don’t think Gillespie could duplicate the sound of Kindred when she performs these songs live, but the songs are strong enough that I would still want hear them. And Gillespie displays a musical imagination that I’m sure would be up to the task.

Jenny Gillespie: Swimming in Amber

Jenny Gillespie: Merged Furs

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fairy Tales

I confess, I love fairy tales. But, I hasten to add, I’m not talking about the sanitized and prettified Disney versions. Yes, the Disney movies are examples of great animation, but they are certainly not true tellings of the tales. The urge to make these tales “safe for children” is certainly not limited to Disney, but they are the best known offenders. The fairy tales as I love them are both richer and stranger than the best known versions. There is a darkness to them, and endings are not so purely happy. Evil stepmothers are made to dance in iron shoes that just came out of a furnace. Hansel and Gretel may go to a better place, but the tale does not forgive the parents for abandoning them. And some of the episodes along the way are genuinely frightening.

So what does all of this have to do with music? Songwriters have long been inspired to include allusions to fairy tales in their lyrics. Some songs are tellings of classic tales, often from a fresh perspective. And some songs put me in mind of a fairy tale, even though the songwriter may not have even known the tale I had in mind. All of this happens because fairy tales and songs have one thing in common: they address feelings and situations found in real life. Let me show you what I mean.

Emilie Autumn: Shalott


Emilie Autumn is a gothic songwriter and performer. Both her music and her words evoke strong emotions, and convey an air of mystery. So fairy tales are perfect material for her. The title Shalott brings to mind the Arthurian tale of The Lady of Shalott, who waited in vain for her knight to return. But Autumn’s lyrics also evoke Sleeping Beauty, as if she was aware of her surroundings for the entire time she was “asleep”, and waiting for her prince. The connection between the two tales makes perfect sense here.

Los Lobos: Hearts of Stone


Los Lobos probably didn’t have any fairy tale in mind when they wrote Hearts of Stone, but I am reminded of a tale called The Golden Heart of Winter. The youngest son of a blacksmith must find the heart of the title, and turn it from stone to living gold, or the world will be condemned to permanent winter. Thinking of this tale gives the song extra resonance for me.

XTC: My Bird Performs


Likewise, XTC may well have not been thinking of The Nightingale when they wrote My Bird Performs. The connection makes sense to me though. The song has the “bird” singing only for one person, while the tale has the bird singing only when it is free, so linking the two introduces a level of irony into the song that I find appealing.

Gillian Welch: Paper Wings


Paper Wings is a special case. Gillian Welch could not possibly had the tale I think of in mind, because she recorded Paper Wings before the tale was published. Garth Nix is a fantasy author who works mostly in the young adult category. In his just completed series The Keys to the Kingdom, there are paper wings that actually work. So including this song is a bit of a stretch, but it does invoke a sense of magic for me, albeit after the fact.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Bread and Bones: I Know Stories


I was going to have this album for my Spotlight feature this week before I knew what my theme would be, but it worked out beautifully. Bread and Bones are a trio from Vermont who feature wonderful male and female singers. At the last after party that I attended at The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, I almost left before they went on. Something told me to stay, and I’m glad I did. I Know Stories is a great example of the group’s ability to inhabit a character and bring them to life. This particular song is also a wonderful telling of Jack and the Beanstalk from the point of view of the giant.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

For a Song: Rock and Roll Doctor

Little Feet: Rock and Roll Doctor


You will notice that this isn’t this week’s album review. Last weekend, things happened, and I didn’t get the time I needed to work on the review. I thought I would get to it now. But last night in my house, we had a medical scare. On the plus side, I can now report that all is well. But the blog gods are making it clear that I am not supposed to do a review this week. So, the review I planned for this week will appear next week instead. And, in the meantime, a trip to the doctor seemed very much to the point.

Rock and Roll Doctor is a fine example of what the real Little Feat sounded like. Active throughout the 70s, Little Feat wisely broke up when Lowell George died in 1979. But then the surviving members tried to bring the band back, and there is a band called Little Feet around even now. To me, though, Little Feat must have Lowell George singing, playing slide guitar, and writing many of the songs. By the same token, when George did a solo album in 1979, it wasn’t the same either. They didn’t always get along, but Lowell George and the other members of Little Feat needed each other.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

For a Song: Otis and Marlena

Joni Mitchell: Otis and Marlena


This week’s album review is taking longer than I expected, so here is the For a Song feature in the meantime.

Everyone, or at least the vast majority of my readers, surely is familiar with the songs of Joni Mitchell. But far fewer people realize that the later part of her career has continued to yield great songs. Yes, her albums become more uneven as you go on, but the best songs are still as good as any of the early work for which she is so much better known. I love the early songs as much as anyone, and I will feature them here from time to time. But I also want to shine a light on some of the lesser known later songs. Otis and Marlena is a case in point.

Hejira is probably the last album Mitchell’s old fans embrace. They accept this one adventure of Mitchell’s, playing electric guitar, so that they can lay claim to songs like Amelia and Coyote. But Mitchell followed that up with Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. In retrospect, this was as poor a career move as Mitchell could have made. At the time, vinyl was still the dominant format for music, and Don Juan was a double album, correspondingly expensive. The second disc was dominated by two songs which had only Mitchell’s voice and a percussion ensemble. Within ten years, African music would start to make inroads with American audiences, but Mitchell was early, and audiences did not want to pay for two extra sides of vinyl to have these strange songs. So they missed out on the rest of the album, including Otis and Marlena. Ironically, the sound of this one is something of a throwback to Joni’s early sound, with an arrangement dominated by acoustic guitar and Mitchell’s voice.

The tone of the lyrics is another matter. Mitchell presents a couple who are vacationing in Miami, observing other people and the artificial ways they have tried to hold off the aging process. The chorus, in just a few words, emphasizes the triviality of all this. “While the Muslims stick up Washington” probably refers to incident that occurred nine months prior to the release of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, when a band of militant Muslims briefly took over the B’Nai Brith International Center in Washington DC, taking hostages and demanding the release of some of the members of their group who were in prison at the time. This incident is only referred to in the one line, and Mitchell assumes that her listeners would get the reference. Her focus though, is on the contrast with what Otis and Marlena observe. This is not a song that a younger Joni Mitchell would have written, and, as hard as it would have been to imagine at the time, a key reference has lost the resonance it held at the time. But Otis and Marlena is still a fine piece of writing, and the performance is vintage Joni Mitchell.