Archive for September 2008
I recently heard a comment to the effect: folk music- changing the world four minutes at a time.
A collection of topical songs recorded by Canadian artists, These Times doesn’t just catalogue the obvious targets of those with a social conscious in the earliest years of this century- the environment, war, corporations, poverty- it provides logical and realistic challenges for individuals to consider. And it does so within (largely) catchy, accessible tunes that don’t belabour their point.
Wonderful stuff. Evalyn Perry’s poetic spoken word diatribe against the plain silliness of the bottled water industry (“Bottle This!”) is clever and thought-provoking, while favourites including Michael Jerome Browne, Enoch Kent, Bob Snider, and Ron Hynes deliver as expected. And it isn’t all moan and groan.
Largely culled from previous Borealis releases, a new song from Eve Goldberg is an instant classic. “The Streets of Burma,” inspired by the recent and ongoing struggles for democracy in Myanmar, summarizes the spirit of folk singers everywhere: “This is history that’s not yet done; And so we raise our voices one by one.”
A change is indeed going to come. Someday.
A Major Label
Any FredHeads out there?
Tinderbox, the most recent album from Ontario’s Fred Eaglesmith, could well stand as a milestone album for the (almost) always impressive resident of Port Dover.
Never one to shy away from hot-button topics, this time out Eaglesmith has created Tinderbox, a collection of almost twenty songs both loosely and directly connected to fundamentalist religion and manipulation. He captures sketches of people who hold to strong, imbedded faith. As a concept album, the songs and sounds stand as a vital, dynamic project. The individual songs, when approached singularly, hold the listeners attention and can be appreciated as such.
“Quietly,” “Sweet Corn,” “Shoulder to the Plow,” (written with Mary Gauthier) and “The Light Brigade” stand with anything Eaglesmith has previously written. These are not the catchy songs of 50-Odd Dollars, Drive-In Movie or even Milly’s Café.Eaglesmith has always delved deep, but this time has gone even further into his soul to colour each song with passion while maintaining a unified, coherent sound.
“Shoulder to the Plow” starts out rather easily- seemingly even a bit lazy- before its elegance and brilliance is revealed: “Fox is in the hen house, crow’s in the corn, devil dancing in the church yard blowing his horn; Sun beating down it’s a dusty old road, only one place you can go.” Like the best Texas songwriters- Ray Wylie Hubbard, Guy Clark, Steve Earle- Eaglesmith has that rare ability to combine the familiar and the profound within descriptions that are straightforward, outwardly obvious, and completely original.
The song (“Worked Up Field”) where Kori Heppner talks over Fred’s singing kind of confuses me, but the resulting juxtaposition of her observations of her man’s failings and obsessions with his lamenting about rainfall and trains seems positively real.
Eaglesmith’s tendency to draw toward stylistic annunciation challenges the listener, but provides the album with a touch of southern affectation that feels appropriate given the subject matter.
“Quietly” doesn’t appear to be about religion and fundamentalism, although I suppose the characters within the song could easily be those who attend any of the country churches described elsewhere. To this listener, it is a love song, one of Eaglesmith’s best. There is a tension, a darkness permeating the song, even as “the morning light” invades the bedroom.
This musique noir repeats itself throughout the album. Within “Get On Your Knees,” the narrator finds his strength through prayer with shocking result. “I stayed up til dawn, praying for her soul; Satan was awaiting, she come through the door.”
“Killing Me II” is also dark, but in a different way; here the refrain of “This old world is killing me” is spoken/sung until it becomes mantra-like. Hypnotizing, really.
“Stand” is a straight-forward gospel number, and one senses that Eaglesmith included such a song to further define the lifestyle and society he characterizes throughout Tinderbox. Its singer is in glory, happy to know that his mother no longer has to worry as he “is standing on the rock.” I can hear a bluegrass band doing this one.
There is no hint of arrogance or judgment about Tinderbox. One suspects one knows where Eaglesmith’s allegiances lay, but he serves almost as a reporter- respectfully describing and identifying that which he witnesses.
I can’t swear that all the instruments are acoustic, but it sounds that way to my ears. Maybe I missed some electric bass or other guitar, but the album appears to be predominately unadorned by anything but wood, steel, and percussion. Willie P. Bennett makes his final recorded appearance on this album, and while his individual contributions are not listed, one appreciates what one assumes are his touches of mandolin.
The album sounds a bit like an episode of the HBO series Carnivàle looked. It is grey, dusty, and sparse. The instrumentation is percussion heavy- bells, shakers- and seldom do more than a couple instruments sound prominent in the mix.
Fred has always scared the hell out of me, and after Tinderbox…let’s just say I’m reconsidering the balance- or lack of it-within my own life. More than ever, I’m on Fred’s side. Tinderbox received one of my votes in the initial Polaris Music Prize balloting this summer, and certainly is deserving of any accolades it may receive.
Tinderbox isn’t likely the best place to delve into Fred Eaglesmith’s music for the first time. But, it is certainly worth exploring. It is destined to be considered a classic.
(I’ve attributed Tinderbox to Fred’s A Major Label, but the album packaging doesn’t actually identify it as such.)
Jim Lauderdale & the Dream Players
Winning Grammy Awards has allowed Jim Lauderdale to record what he wants, when he wants. Such is the case with his latest album-his fourth in less than eighteen months- Honey Songs.
With a backing band the sort of a liner note reader’s wildest fantasy (Burton, Tallent, Perkins, Hardin, and the like,) Lauderdale has crafted a full-bodied collection of songs that successfully straddle the conflicting forces of the country world- Nashville commercialism and retro-country hipness.
“Honey Suckle Honey Pie” establishes the parameters of the proceedings with classic-sounding, tic-tac country guitar and playful but heart-earning vocals. Elsewhere, pedal steel comes wailing to the fore.
“I Hope You’re Happy”,”Hittin’ It Hard”, and “It’s Finally Sinkin’ In” are a trio of love gone south tunes, but each has a distinctive approach to the conveyance of the proceedings. Emmylou Harris stops by to lend her voice to the album’s pining closer (“I’m Almost Back”) while Patty Loveless, Buddy Miller, and Kelly Hogan appear elsewhere.
Jim Lauderdale is one of the most criminally under-known country singers and songwriters enjoying critical acclaim. Honey Songs reveals a little more with every listen, and is further evidence that his creative well is in no danger of running dry.
The legendary status of Stan Rogers has been secured in the years since his unexpected death in 1983. His recorded legacy has brought much joy and pleasure to those such as I who were too young and ignorant to be aware of his songwriting and singing talents during his lifetime. His recordings have been explored dozens of times over the years since, and I doubt if a single listening session hasn’t revealed something new.
I write all the above to frame the context for Archie Fisher’s new album, his first in more than a decade. Archie Fisher is what Stan Rogers might have become had he not succumbed at the peak of his talents on a Kentucky runway.
For the uninitiated, Fisher is a Scottish folk master who has a voice that bears more than a passing resemblance to Rogers’ crisp baritone. The difference is that Fisher’s voice has been mellowed with time, with a warm whiskey quality that makes it more comfortable and lived-in than Rogers’.
The eleven tracks that comprise the core of this recording feature Fisher accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar with occasional mandolin and David Paton’s bass. The resulting sound is spacious and clean, lacking clutter that might otherwise get in the way of Fisher’s sounds.
These are love songs without doubt, love for country, women, sea, time, and horses. They are gentle songs, ones that require some effort on the part of listeners to give themselves over to the sketches Fisher creates. But the reward! Fisher fairly transports one to the Scottish Border country so impressive is his mastery of storytelling through song.
As a significant bonus, and well-worth the inclusion, is a set of eight songs Fisher recorded in the late-70s. These lost recordings- both originals and covers- are more elaborate in presentation with beautiful sweeping strings and flute, but every bit as engaging.
If you have a soft spot for Scottish folk singers, Windward Away should do you well.
Chris Cairns has been a mainstay on the California bluegrass scene for many years. Following several albums with Wild Sage, Cairns founded FireHeart Records in 2003, the same year he released his solo debut. Runaway Train was well-reviewed and garnered considerable bluegrass airplay. Hello Blue will find favor with those who enjoyed Cairns’ previous efforts, and should broaden his fan base.
Cairns’ approach to progressive bluegrass is accessible; his music is immediately recognizable as bluegrass while pushing some edges, stylistically if not lyrically. The title cut of this new disc is illustrative of this point. The lyrics are typical of bluegrass love-lost songs, which isn’t to take anything away from them. The instrumentation is where the true attraction lays. From a spirited Gabe Witcher fiddle kick-off, to the lopping rhythm established by bassist Tom Lee and mandolinist Tom Corbett, the song possesses a welcome brightness often missing in contemporary bluegrass.
“Hold Me My Darlin’” kicks off the album with an up-beat, radio-friendly bluegrass tune. This tune’s momentum is maintained through the disc’s thirty-nine minutes. “Cannonball Run” and “Another Rainy Day,” although very different from each other, individually rival songs on the bluegrass charts. “One Lonely Day” slides straight into honky-tonk country territory with John McFee’s pedal steel wail and Cairns’ ‘tear in my beer’ vocal approach.
While several originals provide the disc with its soul, Cairns also reaches to his influences for inspiration. Earl Scruggs’ “Groundspeed” is enlivened with originality and passion, while Larry Cordle’s and Ronald Scaife’s “Alabama Clay” appears to benefit as much from the Seldom Scene’s take as Garth Brooks’. “Mississippi Sawyer” is taken for a restrained ride, and Carter Stanley’s “Baby Girl” bounces along.
The most fun is contained in Cairns’ witty banjo reworking of the Inspector Gadget theme, “Go Go Gadget Boogie;” this instantly recognizable tune features Joe Craven and David West on mandolin and guitar.
Hello Blue is a welcome addition to the bluegrass landscape.
Keep on Walkin’
Slick but not over-produced, this third album from The Grascals doesn’t knock over the listener the way their debut did a few years back, but that is largely a result of rising expectations not diminishing returns. The sextet are reigning International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainers of the Year for good reason, and their lively stage presentation transfers well to recordings.
Despite personnel changes, The Grascals remain as strong as ever. They possess the instrumental chops of Blue Highway, have voices and vocal arrangements that are more interesting than IIIrd Tyme Out, and display the ability to sniff out songs of a quality that is almost unsurpassed in bluegrass. Yes, a couple songs feature pianer from Pig Robbins; get over it.
The band relies primarily upon Terry Eldridge and Jamie Johnson as lead vocalists. In a previous version of this review, I mistakenly attributed two lead vocals handled by Eldridge to Johnson. While embarrassing, remedial listening opportunities have not significantly clarified the two voices to my ears; yes, they are different from each other, but in a blind listening test, I’m pretty sure I would continue to confuse the singers. I’m guessing that if the band cared who received credit for which song, they would include song-specific vocal credits within the album packaging. No matter who is singing, it sounds darn good.
Guitarist Terry Eldridge is the band’s secret weapon. This time out he pays tribute to George Jones by making his rendition of Choices as memorable as the Possum’s own. He takes Waylon’s Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line for a stroll and pays more than a passing nod to the founding fathers of bluegrass by rolling in his sweet baby’s arms.
Jamie Johnson is one of the music’s most unassuming lead vocalists. He kicks off the album with Feeling Blue, a feel-good song that disguises the hurt as only the best bluegrass songs do. His voice is perhaps a bit more playful than Eldgridge’s.
With bassist Terry Smith also taking a turn on lead vocals, Keep on Walkin’ provides a variety of sounds for listeners. Compounding this is the impact of new banjoist Aaron McDarris’s energetic contributions throughout the album.
Most members of the Grascals have long been Nashville studio favourites. Their talents are obvious, and if they play more toward the country middle rather than the bluegrass fringes, so be it; I’m not going to criticize this band for trying to expand their fan and sales base.
The fact is, Grascal fans will be impressed by Keep on Walkin’; it isn’t a departure for the band, but neither is it simply more of the same. It is a well-crafted, full-realized modern bluegrass album that could also find crossover appeal with the country market.