Thursday, September 30, 2010

Betty Lenard - Apus

[purchase, prices in Euros]

Apus is the debut album from Betty Lenard. It takes its name from a constellation that is visible in the southern hemisphere that represents the bird of paradise. So the album is a journey away from the familiar, and into an exotic place. The first and last songs on the album make clear the nature of this journey. Apus opens with Drain a Cup, where the protagonist has a nice cup of tea before heading off to bed, and beginning to dream. Sleep, which closes the album, takes its protagonist through the dream state into the waking state in the morning. So I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to say that Apus is a journey through an unsettled night of vivid dreams.

The narrator finds herself in a state of uncertainty about a love relationship. So the dreams reflect her hopes and fears. Some are the kind where the dreamer is the main character, while in others, the dreamer merely observes the story. The music is a mix of electronic and programmed parts and organic instruments processed electronically. The songs often start without a regular beat, build to a consistent groove, and then fall apart, only to recombine in new ways. So you can never be sure which instruments are real and which are not, and the emotions are so powerful that they tend to be unstable. Haven’t we all had nights of dreams like that? Betty Lenard sings in a high soprano that is full of emotion, and she also provides overdubbed background vocals. So she is in control of putting over most of the emotion here, and she makes it work beautifully. Lenard also has excellent dynamic control, and she can alter her tone in more ways than most singers. All of this serves the songs.

Lenard is not a wordy writer. She leaves holes in her narratives, just as you would experience in a dream. They make sense while you are asleep, but tend to whither in daylight. Writing songs this way means risking leaving your listener frustrated, but Lenard never has that problem. Soldier is one of the songs where the dreamer is an observer. Here is, literally, a soldier who is weary of war and ready to lay down their arms. Metaphorically, here is a person who has viewed relationships as battles to be won, and has come to the realization that all of these victories aren’t bringing happiness. The song works beautifully on both levels. In Risky Girl, there is a tension between the dreamer and the subject of the dream. At first, the dreamer seems to be just an observer, but it becomes clear that the actions of the “risky girl” also have a direct effect on the narrator. It is never clear what the relationship is between the two, but the emotions come through loud and clear. Dancer uses the movements of the human body as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of a relationship. In Engrave, the Norse winter goddess Skadi has built a fortress of ice which imprisons the protagonist’s feelings. The narrator encourages her to break out, and set her emotions free.

Taken as a whole, Apus is a musical dreamscape. The words reflect a state of emotional flux, and the uncertainty that goes with it. Betty Lenard puts it all together beautifully. Apus is both fascinating and moving. Lenard’s next album may be a further journey into dreams, or it may take place in the waking world. I don’t know which it will be, but I am eager to find out.

Betty Lenard: Soldier

Betty Lenard: Engrave

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

For a Song: Stoli

Penelope Houston: Stoli


In the first wave of punk music, The Avengers were somewhat unusual for having a female lead “singer”. Of course, singing is not the right word. The band roared away, with the blaring guitars in your face, and it was the job of Penelope Houston to roar the words right along with it. There was absolutely no evidence that she could actually sing in anything like a musical way. (You may be able to tell that punk was never my thing.)

Many punk bands flamed out rather quickly, breaking up and then disappearing altogether. When this happened, some of these bands attained legendary status. My sources tell me that this happened to The Avengers, but it meant nothing to me. But this story has an odd twist. Penelope Houston resurfaced in 1989 with a solo album. Birdboys was the title, and that was when I learned all of this back story. I read the reviews articles, and the writers were having trouble picking their jaws off the floor. Penelope Houston had completely reinvented herself, and she was a great singer, so they said. By then I knew that this kind of adoring press would mean that the album was either great or terrible. And remember, Houston used to be a punk, and I don’t like punk. So, I picked up the album with a certain amount of trepidation. Remember, you couldn’t listen online first in those days. And you may ask, what happened?

Soon enough, it was my jaw on the floor. First of all, nobody told me this was a folk album. And man could she sing! She also used combinations of instruments that I had never heard before, and made them work. All in all, she gave a clinic on how to inhabit the emotion of a song in a creative way without oversinging. And then, as if a bonus was needed, the album closed with Stoli. This is as perfect an example of a torch song as you are ever likely to hear.

Also in 1989, I discovered another amazing female singer who used interesting, mostly acoustic settings to convey emotions beautifully. Her name was Sarah McLachlan, and I think you know how that story turned out. But, If you have never heard her album Touch from that year, go and give it a listen when you’re done here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Men’s Turn

Last week, I presented a set of music by women, and I posed two questions: What is “women’s music”? and could the songs have been written by men? I also mentioned the notion of “men’s music”. What would that sound like? It occurred to me that I should present a set of music by men for comparison. Then, I could pose these questions again. So here is my set of music by men. Could these songs have been written by women, or is there something distinctly male about them? I would love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Phil Henry: Dear Noreen


Phil Henry draws his characters beautifully, and they are a collection of men faced with unusual circumstances, who cope as best they can. In Dear Noreen, a coal miner is confronted with the possibility of his own death, and he thinks first to apologize to his wife for a promise he broke. The situation is masculine, but I’m more interested in his emotional state. Would a woman in comparable circumstances express herself this way? This is a love song from a collapsed mine, and it shows Henry’s imagination off well. Henry also makes his character totally believable by capturing his emotional state so well.

Jeff Krantz: Wasteland


Jeff Krantz writes songs that dwell on the uncertainties of love. Committing oneself in a relationship is always an emotional risk, and Krantz’s characters never lose sight of that. But, in Wasteland, Krantz has another concern. The song is a beautifully rendered meditation on aging. Krantz presents two characters, male and female, and he has them express themselves in very different ways. He clearly sees a difference between men and women. Would a woman see this difference the same way?

Josh Geffin: Time Machine Man


Josh Geffin uses spare arrangements, but presents detailed and resonant pictures of his characters’ emotions. In Time Machine Man, Geffin gives us an enigmatic lyric. Here is what I take from it. Geffin looks in on a woman who is physically separated from her lover, but whose memories of him are clear. So he is there with her and not there. The sense of yearning comes through loud and clear. A female singer could cover this without changing a word, and it would still work beautifully.

Brad Senne: Road Trip


Brad Senne is a man of few words, so none are wasted. His singing and arrangements fill in any emotional blanks in his songs. This is a strategy that works beautifully for him. In Road Trip, a couple get away for a few days, and they are perhaps surprised at how strongly they feel a sense of freedom. The song and the performance are both restrained, but the feelings come through clearly.

Ken Helman: Caught a Ride

[purchase mp3s]

By including Ken Helman in this set, I am throwing something of a curveball. Helman’s have the urge to cry, but they don’t want anyone to know. The performances are emotionally powerful. In his day job, Helman is a voice coach, and based on this album, I would go to him if I wanted to sing opera, musical theater, or R&B. Caught a Ride beautifully shows off Helman’s gifts as a songwriter. It is not immediately clear what is going on. That’s because the narrator is trying to hold his feelings in, and naming the situation would make that impossible. I won’t provide a spoiler here, because the song is well worth discovering on its own terms. But I will note the mention of “his boyfriend”, when we meet the main character. In discussing gender roles, does this sexual orientation make a difference?

Final thoughts: Female singers perform songs written by men, and vice versa, all the time. Sometimes, a few words of the lyric must be changed, but not always. Even with out changing a word, however, the meaning of the song can sometimes change, depending on the gender of the singer. The most important thing, I think, is that, for me at least, both last week and this week’s songs ring true emotionally.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

For a Song: A Tree On Allenford

Rickie Lee Jones: A Tree on Allenford


Rickie Lee Jones first burst on the scene with Chuck E’s in Love, an infectious bit of folk-pop that was a huge hit. But, with her second album Pirates, Jones began dismantling her popularity, while wowing the critics. I would describe her music from then on as a pop/ art song hybrid. The lyrics have been poetic, and the arrangements have sometimes stretched the usual song structures beyond recognition. The orchestrations and the use of dynamic shifts have showed Jones to be a truly original artist. Only most of this works, but when it does, the results are spectacular.

Consider A Tree on Allenford. The first thing you hear is an English horn, soon to be joined by a clarinet. Later there is a harmonica playing what almost sounds like an accordion part. So the overall sound is like a slightly off kilter cabaret song. On top of this, Jones delivers a beautiful lyric. Her narrator sees flowers left at the base of a tree, in remembrance, probably, of a child who died there. This leads to a meditation on the notion that everyone and everything is loved by at least one other person. So this is a love song, but not in the usual sense. You notice all of the unusual qualities, but they all serve the song beautifully. Rickie Lee Jones is blonde, plays guitar and piano, and is influenced by jazz music. So she got compared to Joni Mitchell a lot when she first came on the scene. By the time Jones recorded A Tree on Allenford, the comparison was clearly absurd. Instead, Jones is a true original, and one of our finest songwriters and musicians.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Trout Fishing in America - Lookin’ at Lucky


I would imagine that many of my readers know that Trout Fishing in America is one the finest kid’s music acts you will ever hear. But their new album is Lookin’ at Lucky, and it is their first album for grownups in a dozen years. To make their kid’s music, Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet must think like kids. The music must have a strong rhythmic sense, and be fairly straightforward. The words need to have a fine feel for what is important to kids, and there must be warmth and good humor. Scolding and, more broadly, anger, must be suppressed. And Trout Fishing does all of this beautifully, and makes music that also appeals to parents. So what happens when these skills are applied to music intended for those parents and other grownups?

The music here retains that strong sense of rhythm, but the structures loosen up a little at times. There is the occasional guitar solo here, although there is no threat to Eric Clapton. Trout has always featured mainly acoustic instruments, but here they plug in a little more often. And there are a few bluesy numbers, which probably wouldn’t happen in their kid’s music. The warmth and good humor carry over, but the subjects change. On Lookin’ at Lucky, there are a couple of hurting songs, with even some anger in them. Subtlety is perhaps the one quality that makes the hardest transition here, but even that is here on a couple of songs.

Lookin’ at Lucky, the song, is the opening track, and it draws the listener in with its beat. The song is an expression of the exuberance of a new love, and it works beautifully. Then comes She’s the Only Smile. This is one of the subtle songs. It begins with a narrator admiring a woman who is the only one smiling on a dance floor. Somewhere as you go along, you find that the narrator has joined her on the floor, and now there are two smiles out there. There was a third one on my face as I listened. Later there is the song Home, a ballad that expresses love beautifully.

So far, there is nothing new here. The emotions here have all been expressed before, and the lyrics are not extraordinary. But they are delivered with warmth and honesty, and that keeps you listening. Who Knows What We Might Do is another matter. This is a song about adults not “acting their age”, and Keith and Ezra don’t see this as a problem. Not Every Dream may be the most personal song on the album, This one describes love as something delicate and precious, and it has a suitably delicate arrangement, with a great fiddle part by Jenee Fleenor. I mentioned that there are bluesy grooves on the album, and I Pretend to Understand is my favorite of these. The lyric looks at a coping mechanism that may not be the best idea, Who knows what this narrator may have agreed to? This strikes me as another example of a song that only Keith and Ezra could have written. The Car’s Running and My Baby Loves Sudoku are two songs where Trout’s sense of humor comes out; both songs feel kind of like their kid’s songs, but address subjects that only apply to adults.

My wife and I were very happy many years ago when we found the music of Trout Fishing in America. It gave us something that first my daughter and now my son would ask for that we also enjoyed. I’m very happy to know that Keith and Ezra also make fine music just for us. To be honest though, I suspect that the kids will enjoy it too, and there’s nothing here I wouldn’t be comfortable playing with them present.

Trout Fishing in America: Not Every Dream

Trout Fishing in America: I Pretend to Understand

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Women’s Music?

I haven’t kept track recently. Do they still consider “women’s music” as a musical genre unto itself? The category arose in the 1970s, as a response to the feminist movement. You don’t generally hear of “men’s music”, but there it was. The idea was supposed to be that this was music that affirmed a woman’s identity as a woman, and served as a reaffirmation. I can see the value of that. But the label “women’s music” became something that was applied to a lot of music that wasn’t really very good, and probably wouldn’t have been released otherwise. It also meant that the good “women’s music” that came out wasn’t being heard by a male audience that might well have enjoyed it.

If you look over my reviews and Spotlights, you will see that I post a lot of music by women, possibly more than by men. I am a man, but I don’t like certain things that are considered male attributes. Music that is aggressive, or threatens violence in anger, probably won’t make it here. I believe that conflicts should be settled by an open discussion of feelings whenever possible. (Let me add that I am not angel, and I can’t always resolve the conflicts in my own life in the manner I would like.) So maybe that leads me more to the music by women than would otherwise happen. But to me, “women’s music” should be for the widest possible audience of both genders, and should simply be music that is made by women, and represents an honest account of their feelings. Could the songs in this post have been done by men? I will leave that question to my readers and listeners.

Joan Shelley: The Buzzard Song


Joan Shelley’s album By Dawnlight can best be described as Americana. There are songs with a bluegrass flavor, outright rockers, and gorgeous country flavored ballads. But The Buzzard Song is a wonderful bluesy piece with a desert wind blowing through it. The song describes a dieing relationship with an eloquent metaphor, and it all works perfectly. Shelley shows herself to be a wonderfully emotional writer and singer. By Dawnlight is her debut, and I look forward to following her career from here.

Laurie McClain: He Smiled Like an Angel


I don’t know the full story behind the song He Smiled Like an Angel, but there are ample clues. Laurie McClain’s brother Danny evidently died too young, and, on the album Ascend, McClain works through her feelings. Sometimes, she needs distraction, and she thinks of happier things for a song or two. There are songs where her sorrow appears to spill over into other parts of her life. And there are a number of songs where McClain turns to her faith, seeking comfort. Mourning doesn’t happen in a straight line, and the album as a whole feels very real. He Smiled Like an Angel is one of those songs that puts a lump in my throat. In a dream, McClain sees her brother in the afterlife, and receives the assurance that he has gone to a better place. The song is beautifully realized, and there was never any question in my mind about which song to post from this album.

Emma Hill: Doctor


On the album Clumsy Seduction, Emma Hill wrestles with issues of addiction. Singing in a smoky alto that sometimes reaches into the soprano range in a cry of pain, many of the songs here sound like a cry for help. The songs tend to start with just Hill’s voice and guitar, and the sound is thin. But the rest of the instruments join in bit by bit, and the songs gather strength. On some songs, this takes quite some time. This technique allows Hill’s narrators to try to break out of their situations. As with McClain’s album, progress does not come in a straight line, and the music waxes and wanes in the space of a single song. Doctor gets this done faster than some of the songs, and it shows just how powerful this technique is. Throughout the album, Hill also displays a wonderful imagination with the musical textures she creates. This one will grow on you.

Julie Peel: Unfold


By my count, Julie Peel plays 11 different instruments on her album Near the Sun. This includes various types of simple keyboard fills and even kazoo on one song, but she also shows a real talent on piano and almost anything with strings. She also has great support on drums, stand up bass, and cello. This allows her to create a wonderful variety of musical textures. But none of that is for show. Near the Sun is a collection of heartbreak songs, and Unfold is a perfect example of how Peel gets this across. The rhythm section sets up a heartbeat, and Peel sings over that, with the emotion of her vocal enhanced by commentary from the cello. It all works beautifully, and Peel’s words say all they have to. The song is mournful, but the lyric is understated in a way that makes it that much more powerful.

Janey Todd: How Much?


When I reviewed George Wirth’s album The Last Good Kiss, I praised his talent for songwriting. There was only one song on the album that Wirth did not write, and that was Dreamland by Janey Todd. Wirth obviously felt that Todd’s song was good enough to stand alongside his own. That’s high praise, and I agree with it. Here are eleven more songs that prove that Dreamland was no fluke. Alcatraz is a tall tale with a skewed sense of humor. Whistle Dixie is a saucy kiss-off. Elsewhere, there are songs of relationships gone awry. Throughout, Todd speaks her mind, and doesn’t worry about who she might offend. She sees the world in her own way, and it’s a fascinating place. The music ranges from folk-rock to rock, and Todd has a great feel for what each song needs. Her voice sometimes reminds me of Michelle Shocked in her perkier moments, and sometimes of Lou Reed at his most melodic. It works beautifully. How Much? shows off her technique well, and as happens throughout this album, the emotion comes through loud and clear.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

For a Song: Show Biz Kids

Steely Dan: Show Biz Kids


Popular wisdom has it that Steely Dan was the duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. At the beginning, there was a regular band around them, even including another lead singer. But very soon, the line-up began to change, and kept changing, so that, in the end, the only constants were Becker and Fagen. In any case, they were the songwriters, and the line-up changes were mostly about them trying to find the right musicians to realize their musical vision.

That’s all the popular wisdom, but it leaves out the third member of Steely Dan. He had no hand in the songwriting, and he never played a note on their albums, but Steely Dan doesn’t sound right without him. This “third member” didn’t come back for the reunion albums, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go. You can hear the difference his absence makes. I enjoy many moments from these two albums, but I consider them to be Becker/ Fagen albums. The missing third member was producer Gary Katz. He was the one who found and hired all of those jazz musicians who would become such an important part of the classic Steely Dan sound.

Now listen to Show Biz Kids. The songwriting is the equal of anything Steely Dan ever did. The song dates from the early days, when the members of the supporting band had mostly rock backgrounds. Even so, Katz found musicians who could reach for the sound Becker and Fagen wanted. I can hear in my head how the song would have sounded if it had been recorded for the album Aja, but even this way, it is immediately recognizable as a Steely Dan song. And that is not as true of those late albums, no matter how good they may be.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mike and Ruthy - Million to One


Mike and Ruthy are on their third album now, and they are still looking for their sound. On their debut, The Honeymoon Agenda, they alternated between folk and rock, and the resulting album had a nice variety of sounds. Then, on Waltz of the Chickadee, they emphasized the folk side of things, and there is a lot of beautiful music to be found there. Now, on Million to One, they explore their rock side. I can hear various influences, from Motown to Bob Dylan, with several stops in between. What comes through most clearly as Mike and Ruthy is the excitement they feel about this music, and how well they have learned to compliment each other musically. As for the lyrics, the two of them have a viewpoint that is all their own.

The music here is mostly acoustic rock. There is the typical foundation of drums, bass, and guitar. To that, add piano or organ, pedal steel, and some electric guitar. Then, on top, Ruthy Ungar can add fiddle, or Mike Merenda might add banjo. Both have breathy voices, and they blend beautifully. And at times, both can add a bit of muscle to their voice to up the intensity. So Covered and Be the Boss each has a gospel quality, while Summer Sun has a smooth, almost New Age feel to it. Goodbye is the Motown type number, but Mike and Ruthy are not soul shouters by any means, so the song is a subtle performance. At first listen, it is possible to almost miss the emotion of these songs, so subtle is the performance. But repeated listens reveal all of the feeling you could want. And, as I said, the energy of the music comes through just fine.

The first few songs on the album are about seeking shelter from the stresses of the world in the arms of a lover. Covered emphasizes how external forces are acting upon the narrator, while Rise is more focused on the sanctuary that the relationship provides. As My Eyes Run Wild is the closest thing on the album to folk, and here the storm clouds start to break. The narrator contemplates the course a relationship has taken, and how a love has matured with age. This sets the stage for Million to One, the song. The title track is an all-out rocker, and the words celebrate love without fears. The rest of the album looks at love from various angles. On the Road explains how a couple of musicians can cope with stresses of the road, as long as they are together. Who’s Who has a dry sense of humor; it explains that the meaning of love is not to be found in reference books. And by album’s end with Summer Sun, love has become a source of peace.

So lyrically, Million to One the album describes a journey through the stages of love. Musically, it finds Mike and Ruthy taking another step on the journey towards their own sound. I look forward to seeing where this journey will take them next.

Mike and Ruthy: Million to One

Mike and Ruthy: On the Road

Saturday, September 11, 2010

We Need a Superhero

I started the week here with a rant about the state of the economy. Then I moved on to a review of a blues album. And now, I close the week with superheroes. How did that happen? Well, it doesn’t seem that far fetched to me. These are indeed hard times, the kinds of times when people sing the blues, and also the kinds of times when people look for a hero. We want someone to don a mask and cape, vanquish the villains, and make everything alright again. In November of 2008, Obama seemed to be that hero. But in real life, things are much messier than that. It is the villains who have secret identities, and going after the wrong one can sometimes make things worse. And, again in real life, punishing the villains does not make everything right again. So Obama cannot be our superhero, and his poll numbers are a consequence of this, as much as anything else.

Still, it’s nice to dream of a costumed savior when things are rough. These heroes must also maintain dual identities, fooling the people closest to them so that they can save the world. This makes superheroes a rich subject for songwriters.

Alison Brown: Spiderman Theme


This post must begin with Spiderman. Spidey was the first superhero I adopted, when I inherited my oldest brother’s comic book collection. Peter Parker always had a messy personal life, but he would put on that costume and his personal problems would go away, and he would be out there making a difference. Of all the superhero TV shows of my youth, Spiderman, with that great Ralph Bakshi animation, was truest to the original comic book. The theme song was good corny fun. Alison Browne removes much of the corn by rendering this one as an instrumental. What remains becomes a wonderful showcase for her jazz banjo playing.

Crash Test Dummies: Superman‘s Song (live)


Superman was another matter. He was the first superhero in 1938, and his was the formula, with all others being the variations. Superman was perfect, while Clark Kent was his creation, and his comic relief. But Crash Test Dummies find something fresh in this relationship. In their telling, Superman needs a secret identity so he can find a job. After all, saving the world doesn’t pay very well. So Superman becomes the burdened reality, and Clark Kent is the escapist fantasy. I also have the studio version of this song, but I have chosen a live version from Mountain Stage. Fewer people have heard this version, and it is wonderful.

XTC: That‘s Really Super, Supergirl


So what happens when an ordinary human becomes involved with a superhero? XTC, always interested in the everyman, takes up this question in That’s Really Super, Supergirl. It turns out that the reality doesn’t match the fantasy at all. Supergirl doesn’t have to start seeing someone else; she’s always spending more time battling villains than she is with her significant other, and the relationship is doomed from the start.

The Brunettes: Hulk is Hulk


The Incredible Hulk has always been an interesting case. To use his powers, he must lose all sense of self. Therefore, he is, in a sense, not responsible for his actions when he uses his powers. That can seem very tempting to an observer, but our narrator here ultimately can not let go enough to do what the Hulk does. The Brunettes are a band from New Zeeland that I had never heard of before. I am impressed with the songwriting here.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Miriam Lieberman: Refugee


I would like to present more African music here, but the language barrier limits the accessibility of the music. Miriam Lieberman’s music may not be completely authentic, but she understands the rhythmic drive of this music, and she sings mostly in English. Her lyrics are written in English on most songs, but the words remind me very much of the translations I have seen of African songs. And she uses traditional instruments. Refugee opens with the sound of the kora, or African harp, and the balaphon, or wood xylophone, is also featured prominently. Best of all, Lieberman understands the beauty of this music, and brings it to her work.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Swississippi Chris Harper - Four Aces and a Harp

[Available September 21, 2010; preorder here]

There is a brand new blues label in Chicago, called Swississippi Records. Their first three releases come out on September 21, and they are Rob Blaine's Big Otis Blues, Peaches Staten's Live at Legends, and Chris Harper's Four Aces and a Harp. The first two are different takes on what has become of blues music these days. The Blaine album is a blues and rock hybrid, while the Staten album presents a powerful soul shouter who reminds us that the B in R&B stands for blues. But I am a traditionalist when it comes to blues. I love the acoustic blues that predated World War II, and those who keep that sound alive. I also love the parallel development of jump blues, which is where jazz gets its blues flavors from. Finally, pure blues, for me, reached its peak with the Chicago sound of the 1950s. So the prize in this first batch of Swississippi releases is Four Aces and a Harp by Chris Harper.

This is actually a very unusual project. Usually, a blues album in a single artist’s name is a showcase for their playing and singing. True, Harper plays harmonica on all tracks here, but he sometimes plays a supporting role, depending on what the song needs. And Harper sings on only five of the album’s 18 tracks. Two other singers take five songs each, and still two more take one each. (If you’re counting, that’s 17; there is one instrumental.) So I wouldn’t call Harper the leader here. Rather, he and co-producer Dave Katzman are the hosts. You see, Harper and Katzman set out to gather together as many Chicago bluesmen as they could find, and record an album that presented the traditional sounds of Chicago blues, as well as earlier blues styles that influenced the Chicago sound. So there are 17 musicians on this album, playing in various configurations. For the electric numbers, there are drums, bass, guitar, and of course harmonica. Sometimes they are joined by slide guitar or piano. A couple of songs also have washboard. The acoustic numbers have drums, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. I’ve never heard an acoustic ensemble like that playing blues, but it sounds great.

The danger in a project like this is that it could come out sounding like a museum piece, with classic tunes slavishly recreated in their best known arrangements. But Harper and company are presenting this music as a living tradition. The arrangements on Four Aces and a Harp are new, but belong within the tradition of Chicago blues. “Arrangements” may not even be the right term; this album has the feel of a group of very talented friends getting together and jamming on the music they love best. Also, the song selection helps make this one sound fresh. There are songs here that were originally done by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and so forth. But these are not their best known songs, which gives Harper and Co more leeway to make the songs their own.

Two songs, Blues is My Life and You Make Me Fly, are Harper originals. From these, it is clear that he brings a strong jazz flavor to the proceedings. Blues is My Life, in particular, is a song I would love to hear with a horn section. The instrumental song on the album is Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, probably also a Harper selection. And these all swing. Just a few of the highlights among the electric numbers are Evil is Going On, Long Distance Call, and What’s Wrong. But the acoustic numbers are the ones that really knocked me out. I Smell Trouble is a ballad, and a song I knew I would post the first time I heard it. The song is a cry, and it is completely convincing. Born in Arkansas is a more uptempo number, and it also completely works for me. The album also has fine versions of Down in the Bottom, Next Time You See Me, and Worried Life Blues.

One of the pleasures of this album is the sense of comraderie that comes through in the performances. Many of the songs have instrumental lines that intertwine, and there is also great interplay between the singers and the instrumentalists. Sometimes the guitar and piano, or guitar and harmonica, seem to have a conversation. The drums and bass provide a solid rhythmic foundation, but they also add in these little asides here and there. It sounds like the musicians were having a great time, and the resulting music is very exciting.

All told, Four Aces and a Harp is seventy-two minutes of music, spread over 18 songs. It doesn’t seem nearly that long. Maybe, there are another 18 songs left over from these sessions. If so, I’m ready to listen to them right now. It would be my pleasure.

Swississippi Chris Harper: I Smell Trouble

Swississippi Chris Harper: Born in Arkansas

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

For a Song: Mr President (Have Pity on the Working Man)

Sam Bush: Mr President (Have Pity on the Working Man)


First of all, you will notice that this post is not an album review. This week’s review is taking longer than I expected, so I’m doing the For a Song post now, and the review will appear later in the week.

I hate to bring anybody down, but here is a Labor Day that finds American workers in the worst shape they’ve seen in any Labor Day in my life time. I don’t think it’s coincidental that union membership stands at only 7%of American households. I am still proud of having voted for Barak Obama, but that doesn’t keep me from thinking of Mr President (Have Pity on the Working Man) on this, the holiday that traditionally honors American workers and the labor movement..

Mr President… is a song that originally dates from 1931, and was addressed to Herbert Hoover. The song became a rallying cry of the unemployed all during the Great Depression, and seems to make a comeback whenever times are hard for the working men and women of this country…

Of course, the last paragraph is not true. Randy Newman wrote Mr President in 1974, during the oil recession that affected so many. It is a measure of Newman’s brilliance as a songwriter that the song sounds like it could be from the Depression. I am presenting Sam Bush’s version, because it so beautifully brings out these aspects.

I offer the song now not only for Labor Day, but also because this country finds itself in such precarious position. The last of the stimulus bill is running out, and the country is still losing jobs. Congress is at war over two basic ideas of what to do. There are those who believe that tax and spending cuts are needed. They say that the economy is improving, and the tax cuts will create jobs. This assumes that companies and wealthy individuals create jobs because they have the money to do so. Why then are so many companies sitting on hordes of cash? It’s because the assumption is wrong. Companies do not create jobs because they have money; they do so because they believe they will sell more stuff. That means that job creation must focus on creating consumer demand, not corporate wealth. Consumer demand comes from targeting stimulus efforts at that segment of the population who have no choice but to spend whatever they receive. Once you see that, it is obvious that tax cuts, which do nothing until next spring when refunds go out, are not the way to go. Programs that quickly provide the legions of the unemployed with meaningful work are far more powerful. And every man or woman who returns to work spends more money, which creates even more jobs. Furthermore, all of these newly reemployed people pay income tax on their earnings. Those who try to scare us about budget deficits never seem to include this fact in their projections.

So I know that most of my readers come here for the music, and I apologize for the rant. But I’ve been needing to get this off my chest for a long time. Next time, it’s back to the music, I promise. Thank you all for hearing me out.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

More From Falcon Ridge

There was so much amazing music at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival that, by the end of the festival, I was telling all of the musicians I met that, as much as I liked their work, I wasn’t sure I would be able to fit it all in here. In the meantime, I have continued to receive a steady stream of music since I got back, from artists who weren’t even at the festival. Still, I want everyone I met at the festival to know that, if I told you that I wanted to find a way to get your music on Oliver di Place, I meant it, and the door is still open. Here is another batch of the wonderful artists I heard and met.

This time, as I put this post together, I noticed a pattern. Falcon Ridge included an array of artists who together represent a good overview of the current state, and even the current definitions, of folk music. “Definitions”, because the term means different things to different members of the audience, and even to different artists. Let’s have a look.

Evie Ladin: Precious Days


Falcon Ridge has an event called The Emerging Artists Showcase. Each artist or group gets to perform two songs, and festival attendees get to vote on who should be invited back the next year for a featured set on the main stage. So it’s a high stakes situation, and I would think that opening or closing the showcase is particularly important. To close, you have the chance to knock ‘em dead, and make it impossible to vote for anyone else. Evie Ladin closed the showcase this year, and she surprised me. She didn’t bring out a full band and leave everyone with a rousing folk anthem. Ladin came on stage alone, with just her banjo. She played and sang a song that sounded like it had been echoing through the Appalachian Mountains for 200 years, and she did it beautifully. And then she set the banjo down. Was she about to close the show with an a capella number? Sort of. The stage was one of these portable metal things you often see at festivals. Usually, the stage has no bearing on the sound. But for her last song, Ladin accompanied herself by dancing, and in this way, provided her own percussion.
From this description, you can tell that Ladin is steeped in the traditions of Southern Appalachia. But she writes most of her own material. On her album, she has a quartet and additional musicians on some tracks. Banjo is her only instrument on the album, but there are times when she knows that a song does not need it, so she puts it down and lets the band do its thing. Ladin’s talent is such that her original songs stand proudly along side traditional tunes, and you can’t always tell which is which. And her performance and that of her band put this material over beautifully.

Andrew and Noah Van Norstrand: Samuel Mason


I met Andrew and Noah Van Norstrand in the dining tent one evening. They had not performed yet, and I only recognized them because they were carrying a box of CDs with them. After chatting with them for a while, I told them about the blog. I told them that I had no idea what they sounded like, but if they wanted to take a chance, I would promise to give their CD a listen. I’m glad I did. As it happened, I was not able to catch their set; I hope to get a chance to fix that in the future.

When you finish listening to Samuel Mason, don’t go looking among lists of traditional bluegrass for the song. Andrew Van Norstrand wrote it. Yes, it has the feel of a traditional bluegrass song, and its tale of piracy also sounds like any number of old songs. And yes, the brothers’ high harmonies sound authentic. But the Van Norstrands take bluegrass as a jumping off point. On the album, not all of the songs sound like this. The Van Norstrands are musical alchemists, who take the component parts of bluegrass and see what it can be transmuted into. Even Samuel Mason has accordion and electric bass, so this is not a traditional performance. And some of their experiments go further. I’m not sure they have made gold yet, but this music is certainly bright and alluring.

Gathering Time: Halley‘s Comet


Gathering Time is a trio, consisting of two men and one woman. All of them are songwriters, and all play guitar, as well as other instruments. The obvious model for this is Peter Paul and Mary, and indeed, Gathering Time covers one of the earlier trio’s songs here. That is Light One Candle. I love the original song’s melody and harmonies, but I always thought that Peter Paul and Mary’s version was overproduced. Gathering Time solves that problem, and they have the talent to carry the song beautifully. But what really makes a group like this work for me is the strength of their original material. And Halley’s Comet is as good a piece of songwriting as you are likely to find. What starts as a ballad of missed chances turns into something far more poignant. I won’t spoil it by saying any more, but this one puts a lump in my throat whenever I hear it. On the rest of the album, each member of the trio shows themselves to be a fine songwriter, and the band displays fine taste in covers. The light touch in production keeps the focus on the songs, and the performances only enhance that.

Bethel Steele: Far Woods


Bethel Steele writes simple and direct poetry, and sets it to beautiful music. She writes in the first person, and I get the sense that she has lived these songs, even if they did not all happen to her as described in the lyric. She sings in a smoky alto, and she never raises her voice. But the emotions come through loud and clear. At the festival, she appeared solo, with just her guitar for accompaniment, and her songs worked that way. But, on the album, she is backed by a small band, and she makes particularly good use of cello and fiddle. She proves to be a very talented arranger, and her songs shine as a result. The singer-songwriter movement started in the early 1970s. By now, it can be called a tradition, and with Bethel Steele, it is in good hands.

Barnaby Bright: Begging My Weakness


Old time ballads. Bluegrass. The folk-pop of groups like Peter Paul and Mary. Singer-songwriters. Strands of all of this and more can be found in the music of Barnaby Bright. Many people say that Irish woman have the best voices in all of folk music, and Becky Bliss is not Irish, but her voice is that kind of beautiful. On stage, Becky Bliss sang while Nathan Bliss played harmonium, and there was also a guitar player. It sounded like something ancient and haunting. On album, Nathan Bliss plays more instruments, and there are other musicians on hand to fill out the sound. Some of that ancient quality is gone, but the emotionality remains. The band includes drums and percussion on many songs, so the music also has more drive than it did live. And Sacha Groschang, who I had not heard of before, contributes beautiful cello parts. Barnaby Bright may be one answer to the question of where folk music is headed. I look forward to hearing more.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

For a Song: Under African Skies

African Sky

Paul Simon: Under African Skies


It is probably fair to say that Paul Simon’s best known work as a solo artist is the album Graceland. In fact, it may even be better known now than his albums as half of Simon and Garfunkle. And for once, an artist’s best known work is also some of his best. I remember when Graceland first came out, and there had never been anything like it. The album inspired me to explore the music of South Africa as best I could without leaving home. Graceland made a little more sense then in some ways, but it still sounded unique. Amazingly, it still does. Of course, there were the hits. But the song that grabbed me from the first was Under African Skies, and this too has not changed for me.

Under African Skies is a pulsating ballad. It’s lyric contains a mystery: who is Joseph? My first thought was the Joseph of the bible, he of the dreamcoat. But the song says that he navigated “by the stars of the Southern hemisphere”, and the biblical Joseph never saw those stars. I don’t think Paul Simon is the kind of writer who would miss that sort of detail. So, that left a puzzle. I made my peace with it by deciding that maybe it doesn’t really matter. Maybe Joseph is just supposed to be an African everyman. Indeed, the song as a whole seems to be about an idealized version of African, viewed from a distance. But lately, another thought has come to me. Maybe Joseph is Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mombazo. They appear throughout the album, and I remember reading that Shabalala also served as Paul Simon’s first tour guide through South African music. Whatever the case, I think I’m happy not knowing the answer. The sense of mystery is part of the song’s appeal to me.