Archive for July 2009
In my July 17, 2009 column in the Red Deer Advocate, I was pleased to review two remarkable new albums: Vieux Farka Toure’s fonda and Todd Snider’s The Excitement Plan.
Vieux Farka Touré
Son of the late Ali Farka Touré, Vieux continues the rich tradition of guitar-based, West African music. Loose and freewheeling numbers enable the musician to seemingly improvise his way around sweeping melodies, providing a compelling listen.
Touches of the blues are apparent, especially on numbers such as Souba Souba and Paradise. Most assuredly, this is an African album. Recorded in Mali, the album has a consistent sound, one that is complementary to the western and African styles that meld into a fresh, coherent mixture of influences.
A remarkable collection of original music, the album features the traditional tune Walé, a song from Timbuktu. This track, and two others, feature vocals from Afel Bocoum. Elsewhere, Vieux takes the lead vocal spot and his words, while not understood by those not speaking his language, connect with the listener through inflection and intensity of phrasing.
For most of us, “world music”- that which includes lyrics we don’t understand- is about the groove, and Fondo succeeds in this area like few others. Song after song- Sarama, Diaraby Magni, and the aptly titled Slow Jam- pull listeners into complex but accessible rhythms.
Vieux Farka Touré knows that heartfelt music requires no translation, and Fondo speaks to all who are willing to listen.
The Excitement Plan
In which everyone’s favourite bar-stool philosopher goes uptown with Don Was producing. While a studio A-team is present- Jim Keltner on drums, Greg Leisz on steel and Dobro, and Was himself on the bass- Snider acerbic wit and cutting couplets prevail.
“The number one symptom of heart disease is sudden death” Snider sings on Greencastle Blues prior to asking “How do you know it is too late to learn?” Honed by countless performances in hundreds if not thousands of dives, Snider maintains interest through the use of a charming “Ah, shucks” persona while skewing the very hands that feed him.
Back to back- on Barefoot Champagne and Don’t Tempt Me- Snider captures the strain and dark humour of marital discord. On the latter, honky-tonkin’ song, Snider duets with Loretta Lynn; the legend drops lines like, “You’re stoned as a rock” with aplomb. Lighthearted as the tone may be in many places, Snider pulls no punches on Bring ’em Home, an anti-war protest song that could be forty years old, but unfortunately isn’t.
His tribute to Dock Ellis’s No-No (America’s Favourite Pastime) differs greatly from Chuck Brodsky’s previous, novelistic approach. Snider succeeds because of what he leaves out; cutting to the core of the accomplishment- pitching a no-hitter while on LSD- by capturing staccato images of the day.
Clocking in at just over forty minutes, Snider knows how to quit while ahead. The Excitement Plan, with its straight-ahead approach and uncluttered arrangements, contains nothing extraneous. It should appeal to all long-time fans and, for others, may serve as a gentle introduction to a singer who takes some getting used to.
I’ve been away on vacaction, but will be posting several reviews shortly as I was able to do a bit of listening while away. Thanks for checking in, Donald
Originally published in the Red Deer Advocate July 3 2009
My Walking Stick
Over the past several years, Vancouver’s Black Hen Music label has established itself as the premier western roots imprint. From adventurous string music to blues and gospel, the Steve Dawson-headed outlet has produced an unbroken string of exquisite, challenging releases.
Jim Byrnes, elder statesman of the West Coast blues community, delivers an album of incredible quality. I first heard Byrnes almost thirty years ago, and didn’t quite know what to make of him then. Fortunately, my ears have caught up and I can now appreciate his assured, efficient vocal approach.
The album includes a few Byrnes originals including the satisfying opener Ol’ Rattler; like many of the tunes, this one has a 60s Muscle Shoals-vibe with what could be Hammond B3 floating about the melody. The Band’s Ophelia has its tempo taken down a notch, and the effect simmers. Oh Susanna’s Three Shots- similar in theme to Stagger Lee- is the album’s centerpiece and is imminently memorable.
Black Hen-mates The Sojourners lend the album a soulful presence, with deep rhythm & blues harmony and background vocals. Their contributions make songs memorable and intensely appealing.
Producer Dawson is very hands-on and features his guitar talents on all cuts. Additionally, the album package is artful, with time-tinged photos housed in a digipak. All together, a class set and one should feel comfortable investing in such a project.
Likely found in the Blues section of shops, the album retains a roots aesthetic that defies narrow genre-labeling.
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women
Featuring a cavalcade of California and Texas- based female instrumentalists and singer Christy McWilson, Dave Alvin has again realigned his approach and songbook.
As always, emotion and experience drip off every syllable Alvin sings. A collaborative musician and producer if ever one existed, Alvin is the core of this project; but the ladies- all nine of them- take (excepting on the twin-fiddle numbers) second fiddle to no one.
Laurie Lewis, who is slated to again visit Red Deer this September with Kathy Kallick, is distinctly heard throughout the album, and Nina Gerber’s fiery electric guitar work bridges any gaps that may exist between the favoured styles of her bandmates.
Maria Marie is rejiggered as a swampy Cajun stomper, California’s Burning has all the hallmarks of an Alvin classic, and Potter’s Field is darn lonesome. Karen Carpenter, Big Joe Turner, and Jimi Hendrix populate the songs.
The Gibson Brothers
Ring the Bell
Recorded with a revitalized touring band, the brothers from upstate New York are nothing if not consistent. With their third impressive collection in a row, the formula remains true.
Strong original material is their forte, while a few well- known tunes are provided the distinctive Gibson Brothers’ treatment- not hard core or even traditional, but definitely bluegrass through and through. Their classic country influences are always apparent. Every Gibson Brothers album has a familiar tone, one that somehow simultaneously brings to mind Tom T. Hall, The Band, The Osbourne Brothers, and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.
Eric and Leigh Gibson are bright bluegrass vocalists, and Eric’s five-string shines through their unembellished arrangements. The album opens with long, mournful fiddle notes that soon pick up into something deceptively upbeat. From descriptions of the past (Farm of Yesterday, Bottomland) to songs of a future (Forever Has No End, I Can’t Like Myself), with a bit of a stop at the church of bluegrass (Ring the Bell), the Gibson Brothers have emboldened their reputation as one of the finest contemporary bluegrass bands.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Doyle Lawson has been operating a most successful school of bluegrass for thirty years; no matter who is in his band, Quicksilver remains precise and fresh, capturing the instrumental, emotional, and sacred intensities imperative to the bluegrass sound.
With Lonely Street Lawson introduces yet another Quicksilver line-up, one that has already changed with the departure of vocalist Darren Beachley. And while such turnover must be frustrating to one of the music’s guiding minds, Lawson always presents stellar recordings featuring unbelievable three-part harmonies. Lonely Street is no exception.
Lawson is especially adept at providing country songs with a bit of bluegrass panache. He does that here with not only the title track, previously recorded by Patsy Cline, George Jones, and others, but also with a great little song from Marty Robbins, Call Me Up and I’ll Come Callin’ On You; this one features some nice mandolin from Lawson and fine fiddling from Brandon Godman.
New songs including When the Last of Our Days Shall Come, Monroe’s Mandolin, and the instrumental Down Around Bear Cove provide listeners with additional reasons to seek out the latest from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
Lonely Street may not go into the books as a DL&Q classic recording, but there is much to recommend it to those who appreciate the finest in bluegrass trio harmonies and smooth bluegrass instrumentation.
Appalachia: Music from Home
Recently, I have spent my Monday evenings watching Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People. A beautifully assembled documentary of the Appalachia area, the four-part series captures a region of the Americas too often portrayed in stereotype. And if the geography and people of the region are central to the story, the third pillar of the series has to be the music serving as soundtrack.
Appalachia: Music from Home is a 20-track collection of largely old-time mountain tunes that fleshes out the history of the region through song with a bit of blues, folk, and bluegrass mixed in. It is an impressive collection featuring music from varied sources. Naturally, it works as a companion to the PBS series, but it also stands on its own as a summary of the importance of music to the people of Appalachia.
While many of the songs are familiar (Soldier’s Joy, Roll On Buddy, Shady Grove) the performances are not necessarily ones most will have in their collections. Highpoints are a live take of Darrell Scott’s Banjo Clark, Dock Boggs’ Coal Creek March, and Jean Ritchie’s Pretty Saro. Ralph Stanley delivers Gloryland and the Traditional Sacred Harp Singers perform Weeping Mary.
Beautiful arrangements place focus on instrumentation, capturing the sense of place that cannot easily be duplicated by those not of Appalachia. In a few words, singers capture generations of family and community history.