Archive for the ‘2008 Releases’ Tag
Another from the Fervor Coulee, pre-blog archive.
Originally published in The Red Deer Advocate, April 18, 2008.
Abraham Lincoln in Song
An album of old-time music from and inspired by the times of Lincoln; there’s a commercial bonanza just a-waitin’!
Within detailed liner notes, Illinois songwriter and musician Chris Vallillo outlines the connection each track has to Lincoln, whether a personal favourite of the sixteenth president of the U.S., an artifact of the time, or a contemporary piece reflecting a historical perspective. Anticipating the bicentennial of his birth, Abraham Lincoln in Song present thirteen tunes and songs from the familiar- Lorena, Hard Times, and Dixie’s Land- to the less known- El-A-Noy and Let the Band Play Dixie.
Vallillo has a pleasant, masculine voice that is fully capable of carrying the nuance of a popular sentimental melody while bringing a bit of bombast to more inspirational numbers. Vallillo’s guitar arsenal is large, and he is accompanied by mandolin, fiddle, bass, and harmonica.
Those interested in the aural tradition and historical basis of familiar songs within a stunning acoustic context are well advised to investigate Abraham Lincoln in Song.
This weekend I made the decision to revamp Fervor Coulee a bit, so you’ll notice a few tweaks. I also realized I hadn’t dug into the non-posted archive for a long time. I dug out this review of Carlene’s ‘comeback’ album originally published just before this blog was born. I’ll make an attempt to update a few older reviews as the weeks pass.
Originally appeared in The Red Deer Advocate, August 1, 2008
Fans can be forgiven for believing they were unlikely to hear new material from June Carter’s first-born.
On her first album in over than a decade, Carlene Carter displays the passion that has consistently been present in her country-rock hybrid while instilling depth that was frequently missing from her chart hits. Stronger has more than a little of the spirit of her Carter family ancestors woven within the tracks.
Having spent years out of the spotlight, Carter’s voice is huskier than it was on Little Acts of Treason, her major label swan song. But she displays control and sensitivity throughout, never over-extending her voice.
Her honest treatment of On To You signifies that at fifty-plus, Carter can give those half her age something to consider, and the mid-tempo, country shuffle To Change Your Heart would fit nicely on any of Carter’s mid-90s albums.
While Carter exposes herself emotionally throughout Stronger, the album’s mood isn’t dense or bleak. I’m So Cool is as lively as when she first recorded it almost thirty years ago. Attention to phrasing and delicate instrumentation allows the gentle love song Spider Lace to stand out as a highlight.
But Carter saves the best for last. The album’s intense title track doesn’t mince words, and Carter’s mature performance of what could be a clichéd lyric (“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”) elevates the song. When one considers from where Carter was for much of the last thirteen years- addiction, career bankruptcy, criminal charges, family losses- June, Johnny, sister Rosey, ex Howie Epstein- “this hell-raising angel” is entitled to look back with contented perspective. Stronger should become Carter’s signature song.
Without apologizing for her past, Carlene Carter has documented the challenges, celebrations, and lessons of a hard-lived life on Stronger. Not only Comeback of the Year, Stronger is a candidate for Comeback of the Decade.
2009 update- I just listened to Stronger again, and while it holds up quite well, it isn’t the remarkable ‘comeback’ I perhaps thought it was. In too many places lush overwhelms lust, and that can’t be a good thing for a singer with Carter’s vocal traits. Still, I’m glad the album got made, and I’m just as happy that it brought Carlene Carter some positive press after years of less than stellar news.
Good day, roots music fans,
In this week’s column, I advance several area shows and festivals as well as highlight the five albums I am placing on my ballot for this years Polaris Music Prize: the latest from The Great Lake Swimmers, Maria Dunn, The Swiftys, The Wooden Telegraph, and Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko. More information about the Polaris Music Prize is available from http://www.polarismusicprize.ca/
Thanks for dropping by- Donald
(Written first week of June, 2009) This week I’ll be submitting my first ballot nominees for the Polaris Music Prize. Awarded annually, this prize amounts to $20 000 for the album deemed by a panel of Canadian music writers and broadcasters as ‘best’ of the (June to May) year, regardless of sales or genre.
I’m honoured to be among the jury members from across our country. While my rootsy nominees seldom make it to the ‘short list’ of finalists, I usually place a couple on the ‘long list’ of 40 nominees. So, here they are- the five albums I consider the ‘best albums of the year!’
In no particular order-
Great Lake Swimmers- Lost Channels (Nettwerk) Existing on the fringes of roots music, Tony Dekker’s Ontario-based Great Lake Swimmers are, in my opinion, a perfect listening choice for those tired of Blue Rodeo, ready for challenging sounds that bring to mind Bon Iver, The Black House, Blue Oyster Cult, and XTC. Lost Channels enraptured me from first listen, and Pulling on a Line may be the singular finest new song I’ve heard in six months.
Woodland Telegraph- Sings Revival Hymns (Northern Folklore) Woodland Telegraph comes out of Lethbridge via Kananaskis Country, where Matthew Lovegrove spent the winter of 2007 writing the music that became Sings Revival Hymns; his intention was to re-create the Canadian Rockies and their history in song. Lovegrove’s deep, melodic voice takes some getting used to, but once one accepts it the magic flows from the speakers. The music is charged, and sweeps away musical inertia through challenging melodies and time signatures.
The Swiftys- Ridin’ High (Self-released) Not hearing new material for several years from The Swiftys, I had to reacquaint myself with Shawn Johnson and Co.’s approach to rootsy, country rock. Ridin’ High is a more engaged, mature collection of songs, not as immediately welcoming as their previous material but every bit as attractive. If these guys were from Austin, they might be just another band; since they are ours- well, at least western Canada’s- they ‘ride high’ in my esteem.
Maria Dunn- The Peddler (Distant Whisper) I must stand behind Edmonton’s Maria Dunn and advocate one final time for The Peddler. An album of rare acuity, this disc is populated with characters historical and imagined. Joined by long-time collaborators Shannon Johnson and The McDades, Dunn’s sweet and gentle manner tempers the darkness that shades many of her songs. Her voice and phrasing, as well as her blending of Scots-Irish folk sounds, are immediately and appreciatively identifiable.
Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko- Africa to Appalachia (Self-released) Released last summer, this one was almost forgotten, but the intense exploration of the Malian roots of the 5-string banjo will not be denied. Stone, Sissoko, and their collaborators successfully amalgamate African sounds- kora, percussion, ngoni, and vocals- with the fiddles and banjos of the Appalachia, producing a unification of rhythms that is lively, memorable, and awe-inspiring.
As I am limited to five nominees, I couldn’t put forth terrific albums released by The United Steel Workers of Montreal (Three on the Tree), Rae Spoon (Superioeyouareinferior), David Baxter (Day & Age), Annabelle Chvostek (Resilience), One Hundred Dollars (Forest of Tears), Romi Mayes (Achin’ in Yer Bones), and The Deep Dark Woods (Winter Hours,) all of whom released music worthy of mention and listening.
(For the record, I ended up dropping Maria Dunn’s album-knowing full well it had no chance of making the long list- in favour of David Baxter. That didn’t work out either; as things progressed, only one of my five nominees made it to the long list of 40 albums- Lost Channels. In baseball, hitting .200 is called, I think The Mendoza Line. In nominating albums for the Polaris Prize, it means being out of touch with the ‘mainstream!’ Oh, well. Maybe next year I’ll be able to convince more writers and broadcasters from across Canada of the value held by roots performers. Or, at least, the ones I value! Donald)
This one has taken much too long to review; I’ve been enjoying it for months.
An East Tennessean now calling Alabama home, Jay Clark is one of hundreds of singer-songwriters producing quality music, offering insights into the way he perceives the world. Like John Prine, whom he vaguely recalls, what separates Clark from others in the roots world is his willingness to turn the focus away from himself while maintaining an integral intimacy with his subjects.
An ambitious album, I’m Confused takes its title from a song subtitled A Christian’s Lament of How the Right Wing of the Republican Party Has Distorted My Faith. Clark is unabashedly a Christian man, one that has seen his country split along religious and political lines that appear counter to common sense. And while the climate and mood of the United States appears to be changing, Clark’s exploration of paths down which Americans have wandered for eight years is astute.
Not everything is maudlin. A trio of drinking songs- Another Round, Free Beer Tomorrow, and Lifetime of Drinkin’- allow Clark to stretch into a lighter arena, although the latter song is as lonely as anything Guy Clark (no relation) has written. Third Shift in the Coal Mines delves deep into Clark’s rural roots; with its stark images and mournful moan, this number recalls Darrell Scott.
Over the course of three albums, Jay Clark has displayed a consistency of performance and songwriting that is staggering. I’m Confused is well deserving of the effort it will take to track down; with songs of the quality of Anna Lee and Reflectors, Clark remains in my Top Five of contemporary singer-songwriters.
Lluís Gómez Quartet
International bluegrass is no more consistent in sound and influence than the familiar North American variety. No surprise then that Spaniard Lluís Gómez’s Quartet recording is an eclectic album that will either challenge listeners- again- as to ‘What is bluegrass, anyway?” or be embraced by those who celebrate acoustic instrumental virtuosity.
Barcelona-resident Lluís Gómez is comfortable playing his 5-string banjo in a number of musical settings including one devoted to traditional Irish music. On Quartet, Gómez is joined by three like-minded musical compatriots to explore original bluegrass, jazz, and newgrass sounds.
Entirely instrumental, Quartet features Gómez with longtime friend and musical mentor Ricky Araiza (guitar), Joan Pau Comellas (harmonica), and Maribel Sánchez (bass.) Joining the quartet on mandolin is American Tom Corbett, who also contributes some guitar, Tim Carter and Jose Mari Pulido (banjo), Bernard Molloy (fiddle), and Victor Estrada (theremin.)
The album’s initial track “Doctor’s Tune,” an ode to Gómez’s friend Pete Wernick, wouldn’t be out of place on any Alison Brown album, with mandolin-inspired images of waterfalls and other natural elements forming in this listener’s mind. Comellas’ harmonica breaks are especially appreciated within the confines of this light tune.
Elsewhere, upright bassist Sánchez is allowed to take a prominent role on the bass-rich “Forget the Fiddle,” an Araiza original that features a tapestry of mandolin notes that is quite remarkable. Araiza’s guitar fills and breaks are breathtaking in numerous places including on “Hutnik’s” and “Russtheny,” a tune inspired by two of Gómez’s favorite guitarists, Russ Barenberg and Pat Metheny.
The sounds Gómez coaxes from his 5-string are both exotic and comfortable; he can play it fast (“Stop the World”), he can play it slow (“Desestres”), and always he plays it in a manner that is completely jaw-dropping. On “Moving Cloud,” the most traditionally folk sounding tune on the album, Gómez- and Molloy’s fiddle- remind us of bluegrass’ Celtic origins.
And stick around for the eerie interlude within the album’s final track, “Walkin’, featuring a possible first- a banjo and theremin duet- as well as shades of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
Quartet is an inspiring collection of acoustic, instrumental music rooted in the sounds of bluegrass but reaching out tendrils to a place where genre labels are inconsequential.
Robin & Linda Williams
The venerable folk and acoustiblue duo return with their, by my count, 20th album; it is another that will undoubtedly become cherished by their legion of followers.
Little new ground is broken here, and little does that matter. As they have for thirty-some years, the Williams’ sing of love, family, their environment, and whatever else strikes a fancy. “Tied Down, Home Free” takes an irreverent look at long-term commitment, while “I’m Invisible Man” almost moves me to tears. It’s lonesome.
“Maybelle’s Guitar and Monroe’s Mandolin” (“standing there together like they were next of kin”) perfectly captures my exact feelings- but so much more eloquently- upon seeing the legendary instruments amongst the gaudy suits, faded pictures, and modern-day memorabilia in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
The long-married couple always sounds fresh and lively, no small part due to the inspiration received from their accompanists. Regular readers will know the names- Tim O’Brien, Tim Crouch, Jerry Douglas- but what is more important is the sound they collectively capture. It is like listening to the perfect living room jam, so natural and unfettered is the music.
Linda and Robin have done it again, releasing another seemingly perfect album of contemporary folk music.
I’ve never really ‘got’ what others saw and heard in Toronto’s Paul Reddick. Not his fault, not mine either. Sometimes, things just don’t click. But now, I believe I’m coming around.
On Sugar Bird, and with the assistance of producer and album mainstay Colin Linden, the blues troupe leader strips things back a bit and finds a sound that is refreshing and fully developed. This is closer, to my ears, to the music one expects from Michael Jerome Brown- a bit of traditional folk and country are mixed in with Reddick’s blues- only more elaborately presented.
Reddick is not young by any stretch, but his vocal presence has now matured to the point where I think he could carry an album with minimal accompaniment. The always interesting Linden does the heavy lifting throughout the album, playing his usual complement of guitars- and in at least one spot- some banjo.
Utilizing four distinct musician configurations, the album contains as many apparent atmospheres; there is a bit of big band, an intimate trio, and some spooky country blues. It is wonderful to hear Garth Hudson on a few tracks, and John Whynot’s piano on John Lennon in New Orleans is beautiful.
With something for everyone, Sugar Bird is that rare album that successfully cuts across multiple genres.
Poison On Your Mind
Upon listening to this second album from Brooklyn, NY-based Copper Kettle these past weeks, three thoughts kept returning.
The first is Del McCoury; lead vocalist Fred Skellenger has either worked hard to sound more than a little like our Del, or is one of the most fortunate fellows around. Now, his voice doesn’t have the richness or depth of Del’s voice, and neither has it the seasoning that Del has acquired while traveling the miles, but they do share similar qualities including common phrasing preferences. And that is a good thing.
The second thought that came into my head was that Copper Kettle seems to favorably compare to James Reams & the Barnstormers in their approach to bluegrass. They possess a natural, earthy bluegrass sound, one that captures the listener’s attention and makes one scoot just a little closer to the speakers. Again, that is a good thing.
Now, Copper Kettle isn’t primed to be placed on a pedestal anywhere close to Del and the boys, and I suspect they aren’t yet ready to teach ol’ James any new tricks. But they have started to craft a foundation that is prepared to take on some substance. And that is a very good thing.
When it comes down to it, Copper Kettle appears to be Fred Skellenger and whomever he happens to be making music with. Since their very pleasant debut of a year ago, the entire band has been reworked leaving only Fred and his mandolin consistent. As strong as a calling card Coal Rabbit was, Poison on your Mind is most definitely a great leap forward.
Joining Skellenger on this album are David Stephens (banjo), Mike Gerbec (guitar), Jason Hogue (bass), and Melody Berger (fiddle). It appears Stephens and Berger provide the harmonies to Skellenger’s lead, but individual credits are not provided.
Skellenger wrote the eleven songs comprising this very pleasing album, and his lead voice seems perfect for his songs of woe-begotten circumstances. The title track has some sass to it, and unexpectedly recalls “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” “Wicked Heart” and “You’re His to Keep” explore similar themes in artful ways.
“Mourning Grave” is disturbing as only the finest songs can be; filled with regret, but not remorse, a murderous man rejoins his loved one in a common grave.
In the finest of bluegrass traditions, the album’s happiest sounding song begins with what appears to be a loving request: “Lay your head down.” Skellenger doesn’t go the easy way, instead revealing a telling of a man’s life and legacy; finally, he’s laying his head down in a “long pine box going deep in the ground.” Turns out, “Long Pine Box” is a beautiful song.
Stephens proves himself to be very capable on the five, and his breaks are executed in a dynamic fashion while his support work is unobtrusive. Gerbec doesn’t take too many noticeable lead breaks, but his rhythm playing works within the band context. Hogue’s contributions are apparent, and he has captured a nice bass sound on this recording.
According to the band’s website, Copper Kettle is relocating to Asheville, NC. Such a move is a bold one, and one wishes the band success as they settle closer to the bluegrass heartland. Poison on Your Mind demonstrates that the band has the substance to make a go of it as bluegrass professionals. Now comes the hard part.
The Hager’s Mountain Boys
A Better Way
Based in Roxboro, NC, The Hager’s Mountain Boys are a fun-loving and relatively heralded quartet producing bluegrass music in a manner that brings to mind the sounds perfected by groups such as the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Rock County, and J.D. Crowe’s New South over the past few decades. That is, the band has no difficulty laying down forceful bluegrass drive on a tune while next comfortably slipping into a very clearly articulated, harmony-laden song; all the while, bluegrass and country traditions and influences are balanced.
The Hager’s Mountain Boys are Ricky Stroud (mandolin), Blake Johnson (upright bass), Cliff Smith (banjo), and Cliff Waddell (guitar). A Better Way is their second album.
Johnson confidently and capably handles the majority of the lead vocals. His phrasing is undoubtedly effective, and he is able to deliver both up-tempo (“A Better Way”) and reflective (“A Granny’s Love”) material. Most impressive may be Johnson’s performance of the often recorded “He Died A Rounder at 21” on which he displays his lower register mastery.
The elder statesman of the group, Stroud’s mandolin playing is both riveting and supportive. In places, as on “New Memories,” one may not immediately notice Stroud’s instrumental contribution; however, it is always there as part of the impressive ensemble. Elsewhere, as on the aforementioned “He Died A Rounder at 21,” Stroud uses his 1986 Jennings Chestnut to ideally complement Waddell’s picking, taking and maintaining the lead midway through the song. It is a nicely executed arrangement.
Collectively, The Hager’s Mountain Boys present strong lead singing, tight harmonies, and well-executed instrumentation. Mixed among the familiar songs, including “Tennessee Blues” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” are several refreshing covers including Kevin Welch’s “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young,” Merle Haggard’s “Red Bandana,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Home From the Forest.”
Fully half of the album is strong, original material including Johnson’s insightful lament “The Bottle” and Stroud’s “New Memories,” a tune that may have relevance to many.
Generously timed, A Better Way is an engaging recording. As our world becomes electronically smaller, the definition of a regional bluegrass band is becoming less precise. Sounds produced in a relatively unheralded Chapel Hill studio are available at the touch of a few keyboard buttons.
For a band such as the Hager’s Mountain Boys, this is a boon. While they continue to play area churches, schools, and festivals, their recorded music reveals that they are capable of holding their own with bands of greater repute. Give A Better Way a listen, and see if you don’t agree.
Kenny & Amanda Smith Band
Live and Learn
Seemingly bluegrass music’s happiest couple, Kenny and Amanda Smith return with another in a line of impressive bluegrass albums.
“Live and Learn” has a companionable vibe about it, very comfortable and confident. Kenny Smith is one of bluegrass’s finest flatpickers, and he demonstrates his abilities throughout, including on an otherwise staid rendering of “I’d Jump the Mississippi.” The traditional “Cruel Willie” fares better and Kenny admirably stretches himself vocally on “Icicle Canyon.”
Amanda Smith’s pleasing voice carries the album, and fans of the group should find themselves fully satisfied with their fourth Rebel disc.