Archive for October 2008
The Future of the Blues, Volume 3
Consistently an impressive label releasing superior blues albums of all intensities, Northern Blues further cements their position by collecting selections from their recent and upcoming releases.
Anchored by a terrific pair of previously unreleased cuts from Watermelon Slim & the Workers, this bargain-priced compilation is a no-brainer for blues fans. With Eddie Turner and JW-Jones laying down electric licks, Samuel James holds to a more traditional approach. Mason Casey, one of the freshest voices to emerge in recent years, is well represented by “Chesterfield County Jail.”
To hear 15-year old Ryan Perry of the Homemade Jamz Blues Band sing like a man thrice his age is a rare treat; his voice has echoes of Phil Lynott in it. Among the dozen artists included, Mem Shannon, The Twisters, Carlos del Junco, and Paul Reddick stand out. Of greatest interest is a sneak peak at the soon to arrive sophomore album from Doug Cox and Salil Bhatt; “Make A Better World” picks up where the brilliant Slide to Freedom left off a year ago.
At less than ten bucks, The Future of the Blues, Volume 3 showcases a selection of mostly warm and light-hearted blues.
10 Years of European World of Bluegrass
Strictly Country/CD Baby
Collecting 48-live performances recorded at the annual European World of Bluegrass, America’s high lonesome sound is provided a continental twist. While several North American performers are included and their music is certainly appreciated, it is the thirty or so European bands giving bluegrass their own spin that is of most interest.
The music on this two-disc set is as tight as one would expect to hear at any area bluegrass show. Bands from Slovenia, the Slovak and Czech Republics, France, Belgium, Holland, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands demonstrate on well-known standards and original material that they have the instrumental chops and vocal harmonies to stand on the same stages as some of bluegrass’ best known performers including Chris Jones, Dan Paisley, Laurie Lewis, John Reischman, and the Country Gentlemen.
Some of the accents are distinctive but collectively the release demonstrates that not only is bluegrass music as healthy as it has ever been, it is being played to a level internationally that too few realize.
The majority of acoustic music fans may be entirely unaware of Dan Tyminski. Tyminski not only gave voice to George Cloony in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he has been the guitarist and vocalist for Alison Krauss & Union Station for more than a decade. His second solo album, one that features a very strong complement of instrumentalists and harmony vocalists, doesn’t reach the heights one anticipated, but is still an enjoyable album; perhaps, this listener’s expectations were simply unrealistic.
Wheels succeeds as a modern bluegrass album, and listeners should find themselves attracted to the themes explored and the music Tyminski and his band have created. The problem with Wheels, if one wishes to view it as a problem, is that Tyminski is such a relaxed and confident vocalist that he never seems to be stretching himself. It almost sounds too easy, bringing to mind Blue Highway or Tony Rice’s mid-80’s albums.
The band is astonishing with Adam Steffey (mandolin) joining his former Union Station mate Barry Bales (bass) as the rhythm section; Ron Stewart handles the banjo, and Justin Moses fiddles. The songs are memorable, the performances precision-like in their execution, but not stiff. The only misstep is the ill-advised “Who Showed Who,” a frivolous song of domestic violence.
Wheels didn’t grab me the way Tyminski’s Carry Me Over the Mountain did some years back. It’s still well-worth a listen.
Luke Doucet & the White Falcon
Blood’s Too Rich
I’m not sure how many great songs need be on an album to deem it ‘classic,’ but I’m willing to say that four is a fine start. Add in nine more without a stinker in the bunch and a cover of The Cure’s “The Lovecats,” and you have a collection of roots rock that will stand the test of time.
Released a few months ago, I only encountered Blood’s Too Rich in late spring while considering albums for the Polaris Music Prize; regrettably, Luke Doucet’s album didn’t make the cut for final consideration. A shame because it combines the country and indie rock worlds better than anything else I’ve heard of late. Thoroughly Canadian, Doucet manages to create a sense of geographical space without singing of fields, streams, and the Canadian Shield.
Luke Doucet would go over well with the Corb Lund fans who don’t really like country music. Roots music combined with power pop, as much in common with Shoes and Phil Seymour as the Sadies and Wilco; that’s what Doucet and his combo bring to the table. Big riffs, giant hooks, and summer friendly sing-a-long choruses combine in a mix of city and country that is rare.
“Long Haul Driver” could be off the new Tim Hus album, while “It’s Only Tuesday,” “The Day Rick Danko Died,” and “The Comandante” have classic rock, The Band, and Dylan overtones. The title track features one of the finest lines of discord: “When I die I will leave no shadows of regret, I’m too tired to make amends that cannot go unsaid.”
The first time I listened to this album, I was driving through the south-central Alberta countryside, driving past farms and forests. The sounds of Doucet and his compatriots ideally suited the sun-soaked morning.
Luke Doucet & the White Falcon have created a modern Canadiana classic.
The City that Care Forgot
Less flamboyant perhaps than previously, the voice of New Orleans, Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) has redefined his power, returning with a call to arms for all concerned with the state of the world.
Not limiting himself to ruminating on the shortcomings of the Katrina response, Dr. John compels listeners to become politically active, geographically and ecologically aware, and challenge the status quo. While capturing the sound of New Orleans, the diverse nature of the album encompasses energetic hip-shaking songs with moody, almost evil sounding ones.
A number of guests appear including Eric Clapton on three tracks; his guitar contributions are worth the purchase even without the considerable power of the rest of the album. Most numbers feature a full brass section, and all boast Dr. John’s trademark lowdown and dirty voice.
The album’s shortcoming is a single song featuring Willie Nelson; as has occurred on other albums this decade, Nelson seems a bit lost here and does nothing to complement Dr. John’s groove.
Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands
Spruce & Maple
When performed at its highest level, bluegrass music is emotional, evocative, and spot-on in its precision. Such is the recent live album from California-based Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands.
While some of the splices are apparent to those preferring unedited concert recordings, the strength and breadth of the music contained within the eighty-minute set more than compensates for minor blemishes.
Lewis is revealed as a sensitive, intuitive fiddler, one who is more interested in supportive interplay with band mates than showboating flashes of speedy sawing. Blend her dexterity within a powerhouse five-piece bluegrass lineup, and one has a winning combination.
This album provides a comprehensive overview of the band’s repertoire. There are a few barn-storming bluegrass numbers, including Tall Pines, Curly-Headed Woman, and Diamond Joe, as well as several introspective songs such as The Rope, Val’s Cabin, and the ecological lament The Wood Thrush’s Song. A Lewis standard, and one of the greatest bluegrass songs of the past two decades- Who Will Watch the Home Place?- is also included.
Shaver’s Live Forever as sung by guitarist Scott Huffman is a highlight, while O My Malissa/How Old Are You? is not only one of the most meaningful bluegrass songs written in the past few years, it features as identifiable guitar intro as exists within the genre.
Featuring nimble-fingered instrumentation, passionate lead vocals, and gripping vocal trio and quartet numbers, the audio on this album is best experienced on quality stereo equipment. I found it a little flat on my portable machine and even in the car, but the sounds truly ‘came to life’ once I played it on the home system. Unexpectedly, I was transported to the Pacific Northwest halls in which Live was recorded last spring.
With Live, Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands confirm what astute bluegrass listeners have known for years: few bands present as complete a vision of bluegrass as this band of west coast professionals.
New Songs of Freedom
Many roots and Americana pundits wondered aloud what Chip Taylor would do when long-time musical partner Carrie Rodriguez ended their association to move out on her own.
I’m guessing those who doubted Taylor were not among the long-time faithful. The man seldom, if ever, disappoints.
I found New Songs of Freedom on iTunes for less than four bucks, and still can’t believe my good fortune. This is a brilliant album!
Those familiar with Chip Taylor do not require a primer. But, allow a moment for the rest of the class to catch up. Chip Taylor:
a. songwriter- “Wild Thing”; “Angel of the Morning”; “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)”; “Son of a Rotten Gambler”; “Must Be The Whiskey”
b. professional gambler- he gave up a very successful songwriting career to bet the ponies
c. brother- to Jon Voight, and therefore…
d. uncle- to Angelina Jolie
e. watcher of the world.
Chip Taylor is most obviously not the latest alt.folkie to come down the pike. He’s been around, and then some.
But I only became familiar with Taylor as an artist when he appeared at the Calgary Folk Music Festival somewhere around 1997. His lengthy song introductions (captured in one spot to excellent effect on this new disc) revealed the slightly twisted nature of his personality, as well as providing a context for his songs. And then he sang, and not just the hits. “Grandma’s White LeBaron” became an instant favourite. Each new album has been searched out and enjoyed.
Back to this new collection- New Songs of Freedom- a sampler of sorts that stands entirely on its own. This is a very American collection, but one that should be appreciated by all who support the ideals of democracy and responsibility.
The central song to the album is “Dance With a Hole in Your Shoe,” a tune that calls out those who would bully those weaker than themselves while encouraging an atmosphere of cooperation, understanding, and appreciation. The fact that it is a corker of a song shouldn’t be overlooked.
The highlight of the disc is the album’s closing cut revealing 25 minutes of Taylor working through “Dance With a Hole in Your Shoe.” He sings the song seven or eight times, encouraging his drummer to get just the right sound in just the right places. I do not recall ever having the opportunity to hear a song be built up within the recording session; sure, lots of albums include demos and out-takes as bonus material. But this is different, with Taylor struggling to communicate a sound that escapes his vocabulary.
You can hear in places the songwriter becoming weary of his own words, and you suspect he may be ready to pack it in for the day at any moment. And then he finds a new spark as the sound meshes…at least for a moment, and just enough to keep him reaching for the next bit. Slowly, the song takes the shape Taylor was searching for, even if he wasn’t sure it was there.
As well, midway through this process the ongoing influence of “Walk on the Wild Side” on contemporary folk music is revealed. (And, since listening to this album, I hear “Walk on the Wild Side” shades in every second song I hear, including on the latest Robyn Ludwick album.)
Also included are a couple tracks from Taylor’s Black and Blue America album from 2001. The introduction to “Black and Blue American” is comprised of samples from radio and television broadcasts from another point in American history, and provide a frame for Taylor’s lament. A new song (at least I think it is new) “Former American Soldier” documents the plight of Lao soldiers who fought alongside Americans in Vietnam, but were abandoned when the pullout occurred.
It’s a heavy EP-sampler-album, one made even weightier given the economic woes and political ineptitude we are exposed to as we (as North Americans) head toward November 4th. But the album never casts a preachy tone. Taylor is simply dropping in his thoughts for consideration, giving those open to his messages an opportunity to do some reflection.
At times, Taylor reminds me of Dan Bern. Of course, a mature Dan Bern, but one who hasn’t forgotten how to poke the bear.
New Songs of Freedom isn’t likely to change the world in any meaningful way. Music seldom has, if ever. But, perhaps it will encourage someone somewhere to look a little deeper, to consider the actions that are taken on their behalf. To agree with those actions, or to take a stand in opposition.
Or, maybe it is just a damn fine album from one of the unique voices of modern folk music.
Americana Masters Series/Best of the Sugar Hill Years
Sugar Hill Records
Every fan of folk, bluegrass, and country music has to eventually discover Doc Watson. No doubt, many have done so through a compilation package from Smithsonian Folkways, Rounder, or Sugar Hill.
While Doc Watson has been anthologized as frequently as any folk or Americiana artist of the past forty years- more than twenty compilations are easily searched out on the Internet- this fresh collection is worth considering.
The oldest recording, “My Little Woman, You’re So Sweet”, comes from 1964 and the most recent is “Whiskey Before Breakfast” from Bryan Sutton’s Not Too Far From the Tree. Within this span, Watson’s mastery of flat-picking is repeatedly demonstrated. The man’s style is immediately identifiable and well-deserving of its legendary status.
You can’t help but smile listening to this album. There’s something here for everyone- a bit of blues, a touch of rockabilly, slivers of folk, country, and bluegrass, and more than a little old-tyme.
The Best of the Sugar Hill Years is not an all-encompassing volume of classic Watson music. It is a more than competently compiled single-disc set. Within those limitations, it is highly recommended.
Longtime Watson devotees are likely to discover something previously unheard, while those new to Deep Gap, North Carolina’s most famous son will hear much to encourage further listening.
Rollin’ With the Flow
Outside of Dwight Yoakam, I’m not aware of a traditional country singer who has recently put out a finer string of albums than Mark Chesnutt. He delivers honky tonk shuffles and teary barroom misery in a manner that is reminiscent of Gene Watson at his peak, and never fails to unearth quality material.
Chesnutt may not have had a Billboard top ten since 1999, but the strength of his performances has not declined. The material is strong, with the majority of the songs catchy enough or significantly impressive to stand up to repeated listening. True, “Live to Be 100″ doesn’t develop either lyrically or instrumentally, but it is definitely the exception among the dozen tracks.
Backed by a crew of Nashville instrumental heavyweights, “When You Love Her Like Crazy” and “Rollin with the Flow” are a cut above typical country radio fare, and while “(Come On In) The Whiskey’s Fine” is a throwaway number, it is no less enjoyable to drive along to when the windows are down. While embracing his Waylon Jennings and Hank Jr. influence, Chesnutt is his own singer and has a well-developed, easily recognizable style of singing that serves him well. He’ll never be George Jones, but he seems comfortable being Mark Chesnutt.
The autobiographical “Long Way to Go” name-checks Waylon as Chesnutt describes his country music ride. “Man in the Mirror” is a reflective song and reminds the listener a little of Vern Gosdin.
Rollin’ With the Flow is a darn fine country music album. Nothing pretentious here, just fine country music.