I can’t think of a better way to close out the year than to conclude my coverage of the artists I heard at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. I had reviewed Pesky J Nixon the week before the festival, but I first saw them perform the first day I got there. Not long into their set, they invited Brittany Ann to join them on stage. She strummed her guitar and she sang. It was her voice that impressed me. I don’t know if I even heard her do any of her own songs, but she could really sing. I have now listened to her album several times for this review, and I still feel that way. But now I can also comment on her playing, arranging, and writing.
Brittany Ann sings in a rich alto voice. She has a bit of vibrato in her voice, and she sometimes adds syllables to words by adding notes. These are some of the signs of over singing in some artists, but not here. Yes, Brittany Ann wrings extra emotion out of her words this way, but she makes it sound true. She is a passionate woman, singing a set of songs of longing, but there is not a false note anywhere. Her only instrument is the acoustic guitar. She plays it as the lead instrument, and she has a way of picking single notes that causes the notes to cascade like the rippling notes of a harp. There is a Celtic harp playing with her on four songs, and the dialog of the two instruments is one of the great pleasures of this album. Elsewhere, a cello lends a haunting quality to October, and the percussion parts on some songs give the album as a whole a rich and varied texture.
The album opens with the song Astounding. Brittany Ann promises to dare to be her own person, and sings, “If somebody’s lived it before, then I’m doing it wrong.” I could go on about how I felt that way when I was younger, but I don’t need to. Much more briefly and eloquently than I could, Brittany Ann describes it perfectly. The title track comes next; here is a picture of a woman who loves without being loved back, a typical enough situation in song. She sums up her situation in the chorus. But the last verse takes the song someplace new; here, the narrator decides to keep her feelings inside as much as possible, and accept the friendship that does not deepen. The chorus does not return; rather, the song is left dangling in this new position. It makes the whole thing work beautifully. But the next song is October, and here is where Brittany Ann really started to knock me out with her writing. She takes the beauty of the leaves changing color and the fact that they will all be off the trees by the end of the month, and uses it as a metaphor for the final end of a summer romance. She uses the metaphor with light touch, and it is all the more powerful for it. This is the level of intelligence and sensitivity in the songs on this album. Most are in the first person, and tell of relationship woes. There is more wonderful writing throughout. And then, Brittany Ann starts to step back a bit. Sister Blue Eyes, is one of the best examples of the interplay between the guitar and harp. It is also a nurturing song, with words of encouragement to a sister who has been unlucky in love. Song For Freedom follows, and it is a folk anthem and a plea for love in the world. This one will get stuck in your head if you listen to it too often, which is exactly what a song like this should do. Then comes Our Way, where love finally works out. This one lets the listener finish the album on a high note. There is one more song however. The only cover on the album is Don’t Know How I Got Here by Taylor Mitchell. This is the kind of enigmatic song that can spur endless discussion. I will leave the interpretation to the listener, and just say that Brittany Ann delivers the song in a way that preserves the flow of the album.
So I can recommend this album highly. And here is the scary thought of the day: as good as this album is, Brittany Ann is only 19, and she is just going to get better. I’ll be looking forward to it.
Brittany Ann: October
Brittany Ann: Sister Blue Eyes
Friday, December 31, 2010
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Ellis Paul: Blizzard
The subject of this week’s For a Song post was not in doubt. I live in a part of New Jersey where we got a foot of snow last night. Today was devoted to cleaning the stuff up. (Note to Dave: I just couldn’t bring myself to go out last night while it was still coming down, so I had to shovel it all today.) So a snow song was called for. I know a number of great ones, but I used some of them during our Snow week on Star Maker Machine a while back, and the rest were songs that my fellow Star Makers turned me on to then. So I had to do something I never do: I had to find a song I had never heard for this post.
I got lucky. Ellis Paul is an artist I have always heard that I ought to check out. Now I know why. I don’t see much of a subtle meaning in the lyrics of Blizzard. I see a perfect description of a man alone on the road in a blizzard. Visibility is limited, so everything looks ghostly. The plows appear suddenly out of nowhere, offering brief silent company, only to disappear again. The faint glow of the dashboard lights is the only constant. Paul captures this mood perfectly. The musical arrangement is simple, just guitar, bass, and background vocals. That’s all Paul needs to set the mood.
So, having found this song, I want to ask my readers for two favors. Can you offer suggestions for exploring the music of Ellis Paul further? And, does anyone know who the background singer is on Blizzard? Please respond in the comments. Thank you.
Blog business: In my last post, I mentioned that Tara O'Grady is raising money to make her next album. She has only until New Year's Eve to make her goal, or she gets nothing. So she needs some combination of a lot of small donations and an angel or two. Please help if you can. Thank you.
Friday, December 24, 2010
As I write this, most of the stores here in the Eastern time zone are closed. The frenzy of shopping is over, and now there is finally a quiet moment to actually think about the meaning and spirit of the holiday. There are presents which are very important, but have no physical substance. I will be giving my children this kind of present this evening as I share a story with each of them at bedtime. And music can often be this kind of gift. So this year, I want to propose a music themed gift for the last minute.
Incidentally, there is no album review this week. I was blindsided by some late-in-the-game elfing, and there wasn’t time. I hope to get one last album review in before the end of the year. Stay tuned, and we’ll see how that works out.
Steve Forbert: Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977
In my mind, nothing better represents the gift of music than a busker. Steve Forbert started out this way, and he put Grand Central Station… on his first album. Forbert clearly regarded the music he played as a busker a gift, although I’m sure he never turned down the money people gave him. But I have often enjoyed the work of street musicians when I have visited New York City. This year, when I made the trip to find Christmas presents for my wife, I heard a wonderful A Capella group who I hope to tell you more about eventually. As I thank all of the musicians I have heard who gave there art away for all to enjoy, that leads me to…
Calls for help:
Urban Sun: Good Beat
[ donate to Urban Sun’s campaign here]
Urban Sun is an old, old school funk band. I’ve been looking for music like this, but I didn’t think anyone was making it any more. I’m glad I was wrong. Urban Sun is an eight-piece band, and each part moves and grooves. Take the songs apart, and it seems like it shouldn’t work, but put it all together and it definitely does. That’s how classic funk, by people like Earth, Wind and Fire and the Neville Brothers worked, and Urban Sun nails it. Their lead singer sounds like Supestition-era Stevie Wonder, and the whole thing just cooks. The band has established themselves in New York City, and now they are hoping that their second album will help them get heard further afield. Now that the holiday shopping is done, and we all have a better idea of what we can afford, please help make this happen if you can.
[donate to Tara O‘Grady‘s campaign here]
I don’t have a finished song or even a demo to share with you from Tara O’Grady. I even had to find an image for this post. For her new album, these are things O’Grady hopes to be able to afford if her Kickstarter campaign succeeds. So, Tara, this post is my Christmas present to you.
For her debut album, Tara O’Grady recorded a set of traditional Irish Songs her father sang to her when she was a girl. But O’Grady grew up to be a jazz singer, and that is how she recoded these songs. It sounds crazy, but she made it work. It was O’Grady with just drums, bass and piano, and it’s an album I would gladly have featured here if I had known about it in time. But now, O’Grady is making her debut as a songwriter. I haven’t heard any songs from the new album, (I don’t think anyone has), but I believe the music will still be jazz. The band, however, will have a lineup that is closer to Americana. If anyone can make this work, it’s O’Grady. Assuming the album gets made, I hope to share the results with you here.
I told you about Chris LaVancher a while back, and I said that I hoped he could exceed his goal, and make the album he heard in his head. With six days to go as I write this, LaVancher has made his goal. Thank you to everyone who was able to help. So anything he gets now is gravy, and may allow him to have more musicians on the album. Please help if you can.
Finally, Kim Davidson and Kristi Martel are raising money on their own to get their albums made. I have not heard otherwise, so I assume they still need your help as well. Thank you for whatever you can do.
I already said “finally”, but there is just one more thing. Merry Christmas to all of my readers who celebrate, and a happy New Year to all and yours.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Joni Mitchell: Moon at the Window
Consider the following:
The thief left it behind:
at my window.
The haiku above is called The Thief Left It Behind, and it was written by the Japanese Buddhist priest Ryokan (1758-1831). There is a Zen teaching tale in which a thief enters the home of a poor monk. Intending to rob him, the thief is surprised by the monk, who proceeds to give the thief all of his meager possessions. The baffled thief leaves, and the monk is left with just the moon. This is a happy ending, for the student to contemplate. The moon, in Zen thought, represents enlightenment.
In light of all this, Moon at the Window seems to be not so much about material possessions as emotional baggage. The song comes at a turning point in Joni Mitchell’s career. After the album Mingus, Mitchell summed up her jazz period with the live album Shadows and Light. Next was the source of this song, Wild Things Run Fast. This album finds Mitchell working with a new bass player, Larry Klein, after working with Jaco Pastorius for the last few years. Pastorius had died, and, with Klein on bass and helping to produce, Mitchell embarked on an exploration of rock music. Moon at the Window shows that Mitchell had not given up on jazz entirely, and it shows up from time to time from this point on. But now jazz is just one color in Mitchell’s palette, no longer the focus.
Monday, December 20, 2010
As I write this, the longest night of the year is almost upon us. Every ancient belief that pertains to this time of year applies especially to this night. Persephone is about to eat the third of her pomegranate seeds. In England and Canada, they are getting ready to tell ghost stories. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was one of these, and one of a series he wrote over the course of several years. Robertson Davies did the same thing in Canada. Soon, the light will shine through that one special arch at Stonehenge. This year, the longest night will be darker than usual; for the first time in 467 years, there will be a lunar eclipse.
At this time of year, the ancients would say that the veil is thin. This refers to the boundary between this world and the next. They believed that, at this time of year, it was possible to pass between the two worlds. In the legends of King Arthur, there is always a strange event at the feast of Pentacost. Often, this was the arrival of a visitor from the otherworld; the best known of these is the green knight. I do not ask my readers to share in these beliefs. But this is the backdrop for the special feel of this time of year, and it has inspired some wonderful music. So, here is a set of music in the form of a journey. Join me, won’t you?
Jillian LaDage: Vanished Secrets
Jillian LaDage gives us an overture of sorts. Vanished Secrets feels to me like a description of a ritual in preparation for our journey. LaDage points out in her liner notes that this song was inspired by Celtic beliefs about memory. That comes through strongly for me here. The arrangement features a clarinet as a lead instrument. I would never have thought of it, but it works beautifully here. The clear model for this kind of music is Loreena McKennitt, but LaDage makes this music her own.
F&M: Passchendaele 1917
Our journey proper begins on Earth. The title, Passchendaele 1917, refers to a battle in World War I that has become a symbol of the futility of war. The mud was so deep that men drown in it, and every two inches of territory gained in the a battle came at the cost of a man’s life. But F&M do not dwell on the misery of war here. The song was inspired by Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, and it focuses on one man facing the possibility of death by contemplating his life. Rebecca Anderson is one of the lead singers in F&M, and she delivers a wonderful performance here. That’s also her on piano, and the rest of the band doesn’t join in until halfway through the song. So Anderson must carry this one most of the way, and she’s more than up to it.
Every Light Must Fade was inspired by a series of conversations about death and life. This could be a morbid and depressing album, but it’s not at all. Some of the songs have a spiritual dimension, but others contemplate what kind of a legacy a person is creating for when they go. How do you live the life you would like to be remembered for? It’s a great question, and the characters presented here establish that the answer must be different for each of us. The music is thoughtful and passionate at the same time. It’s not easy to make that combination work. F&M shows one good way to do it.
Manisha Shahane: Remember This Day
Ask her what kind of music she does, and the quick answer would probably be that Manisha Shahane is a jazz singer. But that’s just the beginning. Shahane is from India, and she sings on this album not only in English, but also in Hindi and two other Indian languages. Many of her songs either are prayers, or have the quality of a prayer. In Remember This Day, Shahane thanks her gods for the day, remembering that each day is a gift. Her beautifully clear soprano is backed by piano, stand-up bass, and drums. And so far we are on familiar ground. But there is also additional percussion here, and I am not even sure what instruments are involved. I can tell that some of it is tuned percussion, and there are what Shahane calls “gamelan-like bells”. Whatever it all is, it takes this music to an entirely different place. Here, the veil is thin between East and West, and the result is a fascinating hybrid. Because this music takes the listener to an unfamiliar place, the spiritual dimension of the music is enhanced. Shahane sustains this feeling over the course of the entire album, so if you like this one, it is definitely worth going further.
The light that Sora refers to is the inner light of the spirit. She sings in an operatic soprano, over Celtic-inspired arrangements. It would be easy to dismiss this music as new-age twaddle, and move on. Don’t make that mistake with Sora. She uses some electronics on her album, but the emphasis is on acoustic instruments. As heard here, the songs undergo subtle changes in texture as they go along. And her voice is a wonderful instrument. Light is, indeed about the spirit, but it also works as a solstice song, welcoming the new sun in the morning. Elsewhere, Sora shows in her writing a real sympathy for the characters of myth the she presents. Heartwood may express itself in new-age terms somewhat, but the album is a work of true feeling.
Mahri Autumn: Angel
Mahri Autumn hails from Australia, so she’s getting ready for the summer solstice. Angel is a song you can get lost in. The texture is the first thing you notice, as the song shimmers and shifts in subtle ways. Autumn’s breathy vocals work perfectly here, furthering a sense of hazy definition slowly resolving to clarity. Angel is a song about personal transformation, so this makes perfect sense. Mahri Autumn plays guitar, piano, accordion, and adds electronic percussion to some songs, and she has guest musicians who can help with whatever else she needs. So her songs feature rich and strange combinations of instruments. This is finely layered music that should amply reward repeated listening.
Blog business: With the holidays falling as they do this year, I’m currently planning on two post for each of the next two weeks. One will be a For a Song post, and the other will be an album review. So this is the last theme post, until next year.
Meanwhile, Chris LaVancher‘s Kickstarter campaign still needs your help. As I write this, he has ten days to go, and he still needs 25% of his goal. Remember, if he doesn’t make it, he gets nothing.
Kristi Martel and Kim Davidson also still need help to make their albums as well. They are raising their funds independently, so they have no deadlines. But theirs is also the harder road, so keep them in mind. As the holiday shopping season winds down, we all have a clearer idea of what we have going forward. Please help if you can. Thank you.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Some of my readers mat be familiar with the music of either Annie Gallup or Peter Gallway. Hat Check Girl is a collaboration between the two, but it is also a departure from what either has done before. Yes, Gallup brings her breathy spoken vocals to some songs, and it works beautifully, And yes, Gallway brings some soulful vocals and bluesy hooks in places, and that also works well. But the first thing to know is that this is an electric album. The liner notes assure me that there are acoustic instruments here, even a mandolin, but the mix blends it all and creates electrified textures. The effect is something like the solo work of either Daniel Lanois or Robbie Robertson. Gallup and Gallway between them play six different kinds of guitars, and these guitars sing or hum along with the vocals, or they play intricate rhythmic patterns. Drums are sometimes programmed, sometimes real, and there is bass, and washes of sound from the keyboards. Music this finely crafted can sometimes sound emotionless, but the effect here is intimate, and filled with simmering passion. Tenderness is an excellent title for this album.
The song Tenderness gets things started. Gallway’s vocal sounds like a pledge of love, but there are two spoken interludes by Gallup which involve cases of mistaken identity; each time, someone has a chance meeting with a person who is not their lover. This gives the love Gallway sings about a tentative quality, and gives the song a wonderful dramatic tension. In See You Raise You, Gallup uses the bidding in poker as a metaphor for two people comparing their former lovers. This goes from being something uncomfortable, to something they do while sharing tidbits from the Sunday paper. So we are in the presence of two very fine songwriters here. The writing is all the more powerful for its subtlety, and the musical settings only enhance the effect. The subject is usually relationships, and there seems to be a progression over the course of the album from tentative to more secure. World at Night, coming almost at the end of the album, sounds like an affirmation, but the relationship is still new enough that the song also expresses a sense of wonder.
Having said all that, the songs I have chosen for posting break from this theme. Top Hat is one of Annie Gallup’s spoken songs, this one in a wondering whisper. Top Hat is the story of a remarkable dog. It’s a kind of a fairy tale, and it’s also a love story in a very odd sense. I don’t want to give away much of the plot, but this one really makes me smile, even though I’m not a dog person myself. Casey’s Nervous Corner is one of those songs that will inspire different interpretations from different listeners. That will happen to some extent with many of the songs here, and it’s a sign of good songwriting. I take Casey’s Nervous Corner to be a bar with a live band. Decisions must be made that can not be undone, as closing time approaches. This is all given a musical setting that features the most infectious beat on the album.
As I listen to this album, I can not help thinking that Gallup and Galway are in a relationship that grew as this album was being made. The album has that much of an intimate feeling to it. If this is the case, their future work together should reflect a deepening of that relationship. This should also free them up to be even more adventurous musically. I can’t wait to find out what that will sound like.
Hat Check Girl: Top Hat
Hat Check Girl: Casey‘s Nervous Corner
Sunday, December 12, 2010
I would like to share a story that has nothing to do with music, before I dive in. The weekend post is even later than usual, because I was not home all day yesterday. I went to New York City to shop for a Christmas present for my wife. Soon after I emerged from Penn Station, I saw a party of three Santas with there beards askew, evidently on their way to get something to eat or drink. Native New Yorkers or those who frequent the city at this time of year may already know where this is going. If so, please don’t spoil it for everyone else. Soon after, I saw two young ladies, dressed as a Christmas present and a Reindeer. I thought this was a little strange, but I thought it was nice that people were getting into the holiday spirit. Then, I took the subway to Greenwich Village. The doors opened at my station, and the car two down from me disgorged at least twenty Santas. They promptly joined in a rousing chorus of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. That seemed like a lot of Santas, until I got out of the station. It was Santas everywhere! There were a good number of Santa Claudias, more reindeer, elves, more presents, at least one person dressed as a Christmas tree and another as a wreath, and Santas, Santas, Santas. I finally found out that there was a Santa Claus convention in town, (I’m not making this up!). So that was the most surreal visit to NYC I’ve ever had.
And now back to our irregularly scheduled post. My title is Building a Jazz Song. How is it done? You start, of course, with the voice. Depending on the singer, one builds from there accordingly. In my previous looks at jazz singing, I have presented some wonderfully creative arrangements with unexpected combinations of instruments. But the traditional setting for jazz singing is just drums, stand-up bass, and piano, with a guitar sometimes added to the mix. Does this limit the singer and the band creatively? It doesn’t have to. Let’s have a look.
Adia Ledbetter: Beautiful Love
Adia Ledbetter starts us off perfectly. On Beautiful Love, she starts the song alone, just her voice. The drummer enters with minimal support, little more than a soft pulse, played with brushes. After the first chorus, the full band appears, but they soon disappear, leaving Ledbetter alone again. Next, the bass joins her, a bit more supportive than the drums were earlier. And so it goes. The song starts with Ledbetter lonely, but in an emotional terrain she knows. Love comes in, and everything becomes strange and somewhat frightening. After going back and forth with herself, Ledbetter finally embraces the possibilities of a new love, and the band supports her fully as the song ends. The arrangement beautifully captures her emotional back and forth, but the whole thing falls apart unless Ledbetter’s vocal can make it work. She does a beautiful job of conveying all of these subtle shades of emotion in the space of a short song. Elsewhere on the album, the subtle emotionality continues, but the arrangements are more traditional. The songs are mostly standards, but they are not the best known, with exception of These Foolish Things. Regardless, I didn’t mind hearing them again with Ledbetter singing them.
Lauren Hooker: I Am Doing Very Well
I Am Doing Very Well sounds like a standard, but is actually a Lauren Hooker original. To our basic band of drums, bass, and piano, Hooker adds a flugelhorn here, which is like adding a second voice. This is one of those songs about a woman who is trying to convince herself that she is alright without a recently lost lover. Listen to the way Hooker sings the word “except”. Another singer might stretch out the note, trying to wring every ounce of feeling out of it, and oversinging instead. Not Hooker. She clips that “except” short, and that says everything. It comes off like a sob caught in her throat, and the whole song works because of it.
Elsewhere on the album, Hooker uses fuller arrangements than most of those in this post. In particular, her use of a cello in Song to a Seagull is a beautiful touch. Hooker can get different shades of emotion by making use of her wide range, but that would mean nothing without the talent and judgment to know what each song needs. Similarly, the diversity of arrangements found on this album is impressive, but never just for show. Hooker knows what each song needs, and she delivers.
Phoebe Legere: Prelude to a Kiss
Phoebe Legere also adds to our basic band, this time with a trumpet and violin. The drums are barely there, just keeping time for the rest of the band. Legere is after a French cabaret vibe here, and her vocal style is essential to that. She sings in a voice full of breath, adding emotion by sliding into a more full voice. This is a style that can sound corny and clichéd, and can make a singer really look bad. But not Legere; she shows how it’s done. Her choices are not limited to breathy and full voice; rather, she has several gradations in between. More importantly though, Legere is fully committed to this style. The listener believes it because Legere does. On various songs on the album, she can be teasing, seductive, or kittenish. On Prelude to a Kiss, she is passionate, and it works beautifully.
Griffith Stevens Quartet: When I First Met You
I once said that I would eventually find some male jazz singers, and I have two to finish this post. First up is Miles Griffith. Actually, the Griffith Stevens Quartet is a group, and the songs arise accordingly. Here, we are back to just drums, bass, piano and voice, but now they work differently than before. When I First Met You opens with just the bass, and soon becomes a bass and voice duet, before the full band finally joins in. The band establishes the groove loosely. Griffith sings elongated notes that have the effect of stretching the rhythm, creating dramatic tension. The whole thing seems to threaten to fall apart, but it never does. The lyric concerns those tentative steps into a new relationship, and the commitment is finally established at the end. Griffith’s voice sounds like it ought to be more limited than the others in this post, but he can make it do some remarkable things. Elsewhere on the album, there are songs where a measure of order emerges from chaos. Griffith always hits the notes he wants, and he is willing to walk a tightrope with the rhythm scheme. The band is right there with him, and the musical risks they take pay off far more often than not.
Marty Williams: Come Together
Marty Williams’ album Long Time Comin’ is a program of standards, many well known. Williams has a broad definition of “standards”; Come Together is the old Beatles song. Williams makes it a funky masterpiece, and he makes a musical connection to jazz by also including a version of Mercy Mercy Mercy on the album. The band is just drums, bass, and guitar, plus Williams at the piano. But the guitar part here is more like a horn part. To be honest, I’ve never been quite sure what this song is about, and I’m still not. But Wiiliams’ arrangement cooks, and his vocal brings out a bluesy quality I’ve never heard in the song before, and it really works. Most of the songs here get a more traditional treatment. But throughout the album, it is clear that Williams both loves and believes in his material. The album notes contain a moving dedication to his wife, and his performance of the love songs here always rings true and never sounds forced.
Friday, December 10, 2010
Michelle Shocked: On the Greener Side
On the Greener Side was the first song that grabbed me from Michelle Shocked’s album Captain Swing. I picked up on her from the beginning, having read an article about the accidental release of The Texas Campfire Tapes. Short Sharp Shocked was her first proper album, the first release that sounded the way she wanted, and there are traces of folk, blues, and yes, even jazz a bit. So I never understood why Captain Swing, with its embrace of swing-era jazz, was such a shock to her fans. I felt then and now that anything was possible from Shocked, and her later albums bear this out. Also, on Captain Swing, Shocked didn’t even go as far as, say, Joe Jackson on his album Jumpin’ Jive. What Captain Swing showed was that swing was an influence on Shocked, one of many. The music sounds joyous, but it often stands in ironic contrast to the content of the lyrics, as happens here. Shocked has always been an artist who can make this work for her.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Note to readers: The purchase link above is for a slightly version of 800 Voices than I received for review. My copy, (which appears to be out of print), has a different cover, and three of the songs are different. I have acquainted myself about the differences as well as I could, and I am confident that my review is valid for the available version of the album.
You might say that 800 Voices is an album that is not appropriate for the holiday season, with its heavy subject matter. I’ve had the album for about a month, but there were other promises made, and other things I had to get to first. But this album is more than one man’s story; Danny Ellis has created a set of songs that is deeply personal, but is also a gift to any who have suffered as he has. So I think it fits the time of year perfectly, as we remember those less fortunate and reach out to help.
These are original songs, as they must be, but the music is deeply rooted in Irish folk styles. Ellis sings in one of the most emotive high tenors I have ever heard. The songs are based around Ellis’ acoustic guitar, and there are sometimes additional acoustic guitar, banjo, and/or mandolin. Then add some combination of flute, pipes, and fiddle over the top at times. Add a rhythmic kick from the bodhran or other percussion on some songs, and you have music that is powerfully driven, even on the ballads. That drive sometimes has a rock flavor to it, which is only fitting for a man who describes secretly listening to the Beatles in 1962 in the song Radio. The arrangements are wonderfully varied, and Ellis has a great sense of what each song needs to best convey the emotion of the piece.
And then there are the words. For my Irish readers, all I need to say is Artane Industrial School. The school closed in 1969, but I dare say they still remember it in Ireland to this day. After all, the official investigation into the institutionalized abuse of children, an investigation that included Artane as well as the Magdalene Laundries, only delivered its final report in the last couple of years. Artane was run by an organization called the Christian Brothers. Danny Ellis was an inmate at Artane from 1955-63. Almost fifty years later, Ellis is finally able to sing about his experiences there, and 800 Voices is his story. I said that Danny Ellis was an inmate, but his only crime was to be born poor, the child of a broken marriage; I use the term inmate rather than student to describe how the children were treated. I would not blame Ellis for delivering an angry album of songs filled with graphic descriptions of cruelty, but this is not that album. Ellis does not, can not, forgive everything that happened to him there. But 800 Voices is a work of remarkable grace.
The album begins with the song 800 Voices, which tells of Ellis’ arrival at Artane, and closes, in the version I have, with The Day I Left Artane. In between, gives a series of descriptions of the life he lived there, as he remembers it now. A line here or there tugs at the listeners heart, but Ellis never succumbs to self pity. We human beings make the best of whatever life sends us, no matter how harsh the conditions. So, in the song Tommy Bonner, Ellis tells us about a boy who inspired Ellis to sing, and mentions at the very end of the song the sense of abandonment he felt when Tommy Bonner turned 16 and left Artane. In Artane, boys were sometimes beaten so badly that they had to be hospitalized, a fact that Ellis mentions only once. But Artane had a boys band which played for the public, and made money for the school but never for the musicians. Still, if you were in the band, you couldn’t have any visible injuries, so you escaped the worst of the beatings. Ellis describes his audition in the song The Artane Boys Band, and Music For a Friend is about a time when Ellis got kicked out of the band, and what he went through to get reinstated. In these two songs, Ellis talks about Brother O’Connor, who ran the band, and Brother O’Driscoll . O’Driscoll in particular he remembers as “a bad tempered man”, but Ellis remembers both men in these songs for moments of kindness. Although both Who Trew Da Boot? and Kelly’s Gone Missing contain brief moments where your emotions fall through a trapdoor, both recount incidents which are largely humorous. Only one song on 800 Voices does not have words by Danny Ellis; he has created a musical setting for the poem The Stolen Child by W B Yeats. The child in the poem is stolen from the human world by the faery; here, the song serves as an apt metaphor for Ellis’ experiences.
Overall, this is a set of songs that I think Ellis had to sing and record, as part of his healing process even after all this time. The wounds to his spirit will never completely heal, but this is an important step. I would not blame Ellis after what he endured if he had lost his belief in God; I have seen accounts of other Artane survivors who reacted that way. But Ellis has kept his faith, and it may well have helped make this album possible. I am not very religious myself, but I wish to close this way: I pray that making this album and sending it out into the world has given Danny Ellis a measure of peace. Further, I pray that these songs may reach the ears, not only of other Artane survivors, but also of other abuse victims who may benefit from it. Finally, I would like to ask a favor of my readers: if, by some chance, you happen to know someone who is an Artane survivor, would you please let them know about this album? Thank you.
Danny Ellis: Tommy Bonner
Danny Ellis: Music For a Friend
Totally off topic, I would just like to let everyone know that Mary Bragg’s Kickstarter campaign is now over. She made her goal with 58 minutes left in her drive, so she will receive full funding for her new album. To all who helped, thank you.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Unlike in the past two years, this year I wanted to do a holiday post just with music that I received from the artists. That netted me one Hanukkah song, and four Christmas songs. I intend no slight to my Jewish audience, (which includes me, after all). It’s not too early too send me material for next year, and I’ll try to be more balanced then. In the meantime, I offer a pause in the frenzy of the season, to recall why we’re all doing this.
Three Quarter Ale: Blood of the Maccabees
Hanukkah is, after all, a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. So there are many songs about the frivolous aspects of the holiday. Songs about latkes and dreydls tend to be silly or aimed strictly at kids, or both. But Three Quarter Ale goes back to the story of the holiday in Blood of the Maccabees. They remind us that Hanukkah is a celebration of the fight for freedom of religion, and that such fights usually involve the death of good people. This is presented reverently, not in a heavy handed way, and with a beautifully heartfelt performance. The album Shall We Gather By the Fire includes a few more Hanukkah songs, as well as many Christmas songs. The arrangements range from almost classical, to the folk style heard here, to even some jazzier numbers. Three Quarter Ale is a group that can do all of this well and have it make sense together. Both the reverence and the fun of the holidays are to be found on this album. There are some narrative bits between some of the songs that I found distracting, but the music is strong enough for me to forgive that.
Lori Lieberman: Daughters and Sons
This year, Christine Lavin released Just One Angel. This is a collection of holiday songs by songwriters famous and less so. Most of the songs are originals, including both Christmas and Hanukkah, sometimes in the same song. So I could have presented another Hanukkah song, and there are some decent choices here. I could also have presented a number of other Christmas songs, including some by artists who are new to me, and who I will be seeking out and possibly presenting here in the future. But I noticed a new song by Lori Lieberman. I got my hopes up, and Lieberman did not disappoint me. The same beautiful yet delicate arranging style that I so admired on her album Gun Metal Sky is here as well. This serves a song about a mother whose children are grown and live far away. There is a hint that one or more of them may be a soldier at war. Christmas here is the time for bittersweet reunions. There may be a thousand songs on this theme, and most of them are maudlin and weepy. But Lieberman hits it just right, and the song rings completely true.
Heather Dale: I Saw Three Ships/ Song of the Ship
Most of the songs on This Endris Night are at least 300 years old. Heather Dale, playing all of the instruments here, gives them modern arrangements but sings them in the original languages. So she sings in English, French, Latin, German, and even Huron. She also provides her own English translations of the lyrics to many of the songs in the liner notes. So this album is an impressive of linguistic talent. Dale has a fine almost operatic quality voice, and she plays keyboards, recorders, bowed psaltery, and bodhran, to name a few. She’s after a fusion of ancient and modern, and she makes it work better than most. I Saw Three Ships is familiar enough, but Dale intertwines it with the less familiar Song of the Ship. As heard here, the two songs have a conversation, with each enhancing the other. This is a wonderful piece of inspiration, and a most welcomed addition to my holiday music library.
Anne & Pete Sibley: Once in Royal David‘s City
One of the joys of holiday albums for me is finding an old song that I’ve never heard before. Often this happens because the song must be performed in a certain way to work, and not everyone can do it. Anne and Pete Sibley take Once in Royal David’s City, and turn it into musical swaddling for the infant Jesus. There is no doubt at all what this song is about, just from the sound. The rest of the album has one original, the title track, and a selection of more familiar carols, all performed beautifully.
Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer: The Ditching Carol
Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer were asked by a hardware store chain to participate in a holiday album by various artists that the store used as a gift for their customers. The first year went well enough that they were invited back the next two years. The result was four original songs and four readings of traditional songs. So American Noel was not originally intended to be an album, but it works quite well as one. The Ditching Carol is on of the traditional songs. It is a gentle but eloquent reminder to remember this less fortunate this holiday season. Carter and Grammer’s performance gets it perfect.
It‘s crunch time for Mary Bragg. She has two days left in her Kickstarter campaign, and she still needs just over $4000 as of this writing, or she gets nothing. Follow the link to see my original write-up on her campaign, and hear a song. From there, please follow the donation link, and do whatever you can.
Chris LaVancher is in better shape, He has more time and a more modest fundraising goal. Still, your help is needed.
Kim Davidson and Kristi Martel are doing this the hard way, raising the money for their albums on their own. Follow the link for a taste of their music as well.
On behalf of these artists, thank you for your gifts. And happy holidays to all.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Joe Jackson: Shanghai Sky
At the end of my album review this week, I mentioned that David Wilcox instructed his audience not to applaud until they were sure each song was over. Wilcox wanted the energy a live audience could give him, but not the noise on each track. Wilcox plays mostly solo on the album, and I believe that he was able to get all of the songs recorded at one show. I know of one other album that was made this way, but it was a little more complicated.
In January of 1986, Joe Jackson brought his band at the time to the Roundabout Theater in New York City for three nights. During these three shows, Jackson and co recorded the album Big World. I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the third show. The resulting album has no overdubs or remixing or fixes of any kind. The songs sound just the way they did to the audience. Because this is a full band recording, and because Jackson is an artist who uses a lot of dynamic shifts in his music, they gave themselves three tries to get each song perfect. During that third show, Jackson and his band concentrated on the songs that were giving them the most trouble. We were told before the show began that there might be songs which would start wrong, and have to be done again from the top. There might be songs that we would hear more than once. But I don’t remember any of that actually happening. I do remember that they reached a point where they knew that they had nailed it, that the album was finished. Jackson then treated us to some of the songs we hadn’t gotten to hear from the album, as well as some old favorites. All in all, it was a unique concert experience for me, and Big World will always be one of my favorite albums.
Shanghai Sky is one of the songs that was finished that third night. The song is an instrumental for the first half of the song, but there are words eventually. The song takes its narrator from disillusionment to new hope, in just a few words, very eloquent ones.
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
I’ve heard songs by David Wilcox over the years, and I reviewed his last album, Open Hand. But the new album, Reverie, marks the first time I have heard him in mostly a solo setting. There is percussion on One Way to Find Out, and the title track has, I believe, three other musicians on it, but the rest is just Wilcox and his guitar. Over the course of fourteen songs, that could have been a long album. So the great revelation for me here is just how good a guitar player Wilcox is. He displays a great versatility here in terms of the styles and techniques he brings to his playing. No two songs sound the same, and yet there is never any doubt of whose songs they are. The other treat here musically is that Wilcox’ voice sounds great. In my review of Open Hand, I praised Wilcox’ singing, and I saw no reason to mention that it sounded different than it had on the older albums of his that I have. On Reverie, he sounds more like the younger Wilcox. The subtlety that I admired last time is still here, but, on Reverie, Wilcox’ voice sounds stronger, and he sounds like he can sing exactly what he wants to here.
Lyrically, Reverie is something of an emotional tug-of-war. End of the World (Again) opens the album, and it gives no indication of what is to come; this is a drolly humorous look at doomsday prophecies, (another one?). Next comes Shark Man. Here, Wilcox’ narrator becomes menacing as a relationship sours. Having once stood by a female friend as she worked her way out of an abusive relationship, I find this song hard to listen to.
Then comes Cast Off, and the themes of the album come into focus. The song starts with a person literally having a cast removed from a broken arm that is not fully healed. The patient has become so used to the cast that he or she no longer has the confidence to do without it. The cast becomes a metaphor for becoming dependent on a state of weakness, and the situation is described beautifully. Then, something surprising happens; at the very end of the song, the plaster of the cast becomes the plaster of a church ceiling. What had been a song about a relationship turns into a meditation on the dependence on organized religion. The amazing thing is, you don’t feel like Wilcox has misled you; the thematic shift makes sense, and the song works as a coherent whole. This is one of the most remarkable pieces of songwriting I have ever heard. From then on, Reverie alternates between relationship or personal songs and songs about the world at large. Issues include the religious right, strife in the world between faiths, and the hypocrisy of “patriots”. These worldly songs never get strident; however, Little Fish and We Call It Freedom are gently tongue-in-cheek, and I could see how a listener might miss the satire, and think that Wilcox actually means the words he sings. The more personal songs include the two cowrites on the album. Angeline, the beautiful love song that closes the album was written with Gary Jules. David Wilcox and Billy Jonas perfectly describe the point in a relationship where you decide to dare to fall in love in One Way to Find Out. Wilcox talks about how he feels connected to the tradition of music in Ireland; from the sound of it, if he and I were in Ireland at the same time, me might meet each other while looking for music and musicians.
David Wilcox recorded Reverie in front of a live audience, who were instructed not to applaud until they were sure that each song was over. He says in the liner notes that he was looking for the energy that a live audience gives him. I would say that he found it. Wilcox brought that audience a fine set of songs, which they got to hear before anyone else. I would call that a fair trade.
David Wilcox: Cast Off
David Wilcox: Ireland