Archive for the ‘CD reviews’ Tag
Jeff Black B-Sides and Confessions, Volume Two Lotos Nile Music JeffBlack.com
“They said, ‘We’re sorry son, you think too much: we don’t know what you mean and the tempo’s too slow…” (“True Love Never Let Me Down,” Jeff Black)
Here is what I love about troubadours, especially ones as astute and honed as Jeff Black: I may not always comprehend what they are singing about, but I always understand what they are singing about.
Like no one else so much as Darrell Scott, Jeff Black is that not uncommon breed of singer-songwriter who builds a career upon intelligence and perseverance rather than on the lure of glamour and notoriety. His songs have been infrequently recorded by others, most often by Sam Bush. Black’s “Same Ol’ River” has been a staple of Bush’s live set and is quite possibly the song with which most readers will be familiar, and Black co-wrote with Bush the title track to 2009′s Circles Around Me.
Black’s songwriting catalogue is extensive, but his list of cuts is less expansive. Jerry Douglas recorded one of his co-writes on last year’s Traveler, and Blackhawk took his “That’s Just About Right” to the country top ten twenty years ago.
This is the ninth album from the long-time Nashville (and Kansas City born) resident and serves as a follow-up to the release that originally brought Black to my attention, 2003′s B-Sides and Confessions, Volume One. Since that time, Black has inspired me to research an allusion or mysterious lyric on more than one occasion. I have purchased his early albums via the second hand and digital marketplaces (his debut Birmingham Road came out on Arista in ’98 and was recorded with most of Wilco) and his albums Tin Lily and Mining for Gold have long been favourites.
Black is a stronger, more confidently expressive vocalist today than when I first encountered him, and he was plenty impressive then. He inhabits his songs without reserve, giving Dave Alvinesque weariness to “All Right Now,” and clouded youthful wonder to “Impala.” Black is a paladin, accompanying (and sometimes championing) others on their poetic, musical journeys.
Black sketches characters with acute clarity, laying detail laden phrases upon softly hewn foundations. “Alice Carry” is given depth and strength through Black’s use of judicious lyrical phrases: rather than hitting Hollywood, she finds herself discovering love and a life- “some of us are lucky and some of us just make due”- and it is clear which perspective the protagonist leans toward.
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to care about the character within “An Evil Lesson Is Soon Learned” or hold more than head-shaking respect for the ill-advised, hapless hero of “Molly Rose,” but Black’s execution of his songs is all-encompassing. There are no half-measures here, each note played and every word sung with the same intensity found within Tom Waits’ finest work.
Gretchen Peters and Matraca Berg drop in to sing on “Avalon,” while Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas play most of that which Black doesn’t; the musicianship is unsurprisingly top-notch.
Jeff Black doesn’t appear to write with ‘a hook’ in mind; like the finest of writers, he allows the listener to identify that which will grab them…even if we don’t always grasp every nuance of what is being sung.
“I’m so sorry for all the pain I’ve caused, I don’t know of any reasons;
I just know the gasoline on it just made it worse, when water was all I needed truth be known.” (“Miss Me,” Jeff Black)
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Here is my review of B-Sides and Confessions, Volume One from a decade ago:
Featuring a Beatlesque opening that quickly moves into Chip Taylor territory, Jeff Black is an artist for those who are more musically comfortable with the ditches than the middle of the road. As a vocalist, Black is a terrific songwriter. His gravelly voice, which hints at John Hiatt and John Rebennack, has an appealing bleeding intensity. Adding jazzed blues nuances, piano accents many compositions where others might strum. The effect is a version of country music that is so far removed from the expected parameters as to contribute to that unnameable roots genre populated by Eric Taylor, Darrell Scott, and the late Mickey Newbury. Well worth considering.
Another one from the Who? and Damn! category. You know, you see the album and you say, “Who?” Then, you listen to it and you say, “Damn!”
My review of 1945 has been posted to the Lonesome Road Review.
Track down this one.
Ralph Boyd Johnson 1723 9 St SW http://www.RalphBoydJohnson.com
For those unaware of its significance, 1723 9 St SW may be the worst album title since 461 Ocean Boulevard. Ralph Boyd Johnson most obviously believed that this Calgary address had to be the title of his sophomore album.
You see, and as most anyone with a passing familiarity with the lore of the Alberta roots music scene will tell you, 1723 9 St SW was the home for a period of time of Billy Cowsill. Until his death in 2006, Cowsill was the (mostly) undisputed prince of the Calgary alt.country community, and his influence on RBJ and others has been apparent and lasting.
A decade ago- back when all things seemed possible and No Depression unified disparate singers and songwriters under a semi-cohesive banner- Ralph Boyd Johnson emerged with Dyin’ to Go, still one of the strongest roots music albums the province has witnessed. For a while Johnson worked the circuit, playing the festivals and the occasional club date, chasing a dream that seemed elusive.
His dream wasn’t Son Volt (or even Hayseed)-level success. Johnson always appeared to simply want the next gig to be better than the last, the next song to resonate with another listener. While I’m not familiar with details of his life since Dyin’ to Go received widespread praise, I’ve kept my ears and eyes open.
In the middle of the last decade, Johnson was a driving force behind Rivers and Rails, A Tribute to Alberta, a strong and diverse collection of original material celebrating the province’s centennial. I would occasionally see his name mentioned in the various free Calgary street papers, and once was very pleasantly surprised to catch him opening a show at the Ironwood. Still, considering the quality of Dyin’ to Go, and the promise it revealed, it was disappointing that few outside southern Alberta heard his name, let alone his music. RBJ was surpassed, at least commercially and familiarity wise, by a slew sowing similar ground- Corb Lund, Tim Hus, JR Shore, Leeroy Stagger, and others.
This past winter saw the release of 1723 9 St SW, and what an appearance it was.
[Insert long-winded and only semi-coherent, but almost relevant diatribe.] Some time ago, I was beginning to feel increasingly disenchanted with the abundance of pointless covers being released. I probably have more albums of cover songs than most people do, and obviously enjoy an inspired interpretation of both a standard and unfamiliar tune. I’m not sure when it happened, but it may have been around the time Doc Watson passed away. I’m not sure why.
I do know this. A few years ago, Steve Earle released his album Townes. In one of the interviews I read at that time, Earle- and bless him for his honesty- stated words to the effect that, as he was writing the novel I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive he knew he needed an album on the marketplace and decided to record the Townes Van Zandt album. (From a New York Times Anthony DeCurtis article, 2009: ”…The urge to complete that book, which he has intermittently been working on for eight years,led indirectly to the Townes project. ‘I’ve talked about doing it for a long time,’ [Earle] said about recording an album of Van Zandt’s material, ‘and since I didn’t have to write the songs, I thought I could make this record, turn it in and then finish the book.”) While that album is a pretty good- if unnecessary- one, it doesn’t touch the emotional impact of Earle’s own “Ft. Worth Blues,” written following Van Zandt’s death. The mercenary-like execution of the album tarnished it a bit for me, leading, in some large way, to my increasing dissatisfaction with ‘the tribute album.’ Too often, they appear to be the commercial stop-gap that Earle at least is bold enough to acknowledge.
Make no mistake, there have been some good tribute albums- the Guy Clark This One’s For Him, for example. Far more often, I’ve found ‘tributes’ to be less than satisfying. The recording that brought this to a head was Ricky Skaggs’ ‘tribute’ to Doc Watson. Now, Skaggs can cover any song he likes, and his version of “Tennessee Stud” is no better or worse than any other version I’ve encountered- they all pale next to Doc’s. So, when Skaggs released “Tennessee Stud” soon after Watson’s death, as well-meaning as it may have been, its inclusion on Music to My Ears left me cold and a little bothered. (Contrast that with a video of Elizabeth Cook covering “Columbus Stockade Blues” at Kansas City’s Knuckleheads, a bar I hope to visit this coming week to catch Amy LaVere, but I ramble, yet again.)
And, as others died and the requisite recordings emerged, I started thinking that a true and meaningful tribute needs to be something more than a ‘by the numbers’ cover of a favourite song.
A cover is a cover, and more often than not, I can find something appealing in covers of even my favourite songs; Hollie Cook’s interpretation of Rachel Sweet’s “It’s So Different Here” being a not so recent example. What I have tired of is the ‘tribute’ cover where someone or several someones pay ‘tribute’ to an artist by covering their music; I love Nick Lowe’s music, but Lowe Country mostly left me wanting. It wasn’t terribly interesting to hear others interpret Lowe’s music, simply because most of them couldn’t hold a candle to the original (not to mention, but I will, that I already own a couple different Lowe tribute albums.)
If an artist is going to ‘pay tribute’ to someone they admire, why don’t they take the time to actually write, to create, a true tribute to that artist? Ralph Boyd Johnson’s album (and you thought I had forgotten what I was supposed to be writing about today) is a perfect example of this. RBJ wanted to pay tribute to his friend and mentor Billy Cowsill. Rather than just covering a few of his songs- which he could easily have done- he took the time to craft something memorable, including the title track to his new album.
I’d love it if more artists went to the effort of pouring their admiration and appreciation for those who influenced them into an original creation, songs like Eric Burton’s “Guy Clark,” Jill Sobule’s “Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry,” The Steel Town Project’s “Leather and Bass (The Night Suzi Quatro Rocked Out ‘Can the Can’)” and Steve Forbert’s heartfelt ode to Rick Danko, “Wild As the Wind.”
Even songs that serve as indirect homage to artists, “John R and Me” (Radney Foster) or “Willie’s Guitar” from John Anderson, and “White Cadillac” by The Band, raise the ‘tribute’ bar. This is the reason Tom Russell’s “The Death of Jimmy Martin” resonates more than the many covers of his music (and some of them were great, including A Tribute to Jimmy Martin, The King of Bluegrass with Audie Blaylock, JD Crowe, Paul Williams, and Kenny Ingram) that were released following his passing.
Again, I love cover songs. To belabour my point, I’m just tired of them being labeled as ‘tributes.’ A tribute should be more, and I think a good place to start would be to create a song that captures the emotional and artistic impact the work of another has had on an individual. Take it to the next level, and then call it a ‘tribute’ as Old Man Luedecke does with “Song for Ian Tyson” and Mike Plume recently did with his ode “So Long Stompin’ Tom.”
Which is a long way around to stating, Ralph Boyd Johnson gets it right with his homage to Billy Cowsill.
Within the album, no fewer than four songs contain reference to Billy Cowsill. (And if you don’t know who Billy Cowsill was, Google him and purchase a Blue Shadows album. While you’re at it, consider Dustin Bentall’s “Ballad of Billy Cowsill.”)
Cowsill, who co-produced Dyin to Go and with whom Johnson wrote “The Fool Is the Last One to Know” from The Blue Shadows’ On The Floor of Heaven, was flawed: his troubles got the best of him. The genuine affection and honest regard Johnson held for him is apparent in every note and clever phrase contained within the fictional narrative “The Legend of Wild Billy C” and the reflective, more realistic “1723 9th St SW.” “Bill’s Pills,” despite its plea of “O, darlin’ don’t cry,” is simply sad.
Elsewhere, the themes are universal. “Holes in His Shoes” captures the intensity of a challenging friendship. Johnson displays his ability to drop gems worthy of Guy Clark singing, “I’ve got a friend threadbare button loose, through the eye of a needle found a hole in the noose…makes Keith Richards look like he just joined the band…” “Free of the flesh, and scared of our deeds, at the foot of the throne, we shall all be received,” Johnson sings in a song written with Cowsill (“Foot of the Throne”), in which they also manage to recognize TVZ.
The snappy “Cleaning House” has all the elements one looks for in a classic country-blues: an action-oriented woman and a no account fella; the clarinet fill is unexpected. While the Cowsill-oriented tracks are each meaningful, heartfelt and more than memorable, Johnson is at his best on “Adios Santa Rosa,” another song co-written with Cowsill, as well as ubiquitous Tim Leacock (whose The Wandering V’s I need to explore.) I never thought I would type ‘calypso’ in a RBJ review, but the lively “Blue Bird” fits that bill. Continuing the ‘feather’ theme, Johnson revisits “Ol’ Black Crow,” reworking and likely improving upon the spoken word, rap-influenced tale from his debut.
In an unexplained twist, a live rendition of Cowsill presenting his classic “Vagabond”- the first song of his I recall hearing, back in ’84 as he opened for John Anderson at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton- is appended to the disc. Culled from The Co-Dependents’ initial album, the track seems a fitting way to conclude an album over which his (blue) shadow is so prevalent: with Cowsill himself.
Ralph Boyd Johnson is his own man. Yes, he was fortunate to be ‘schooled’ by Billy Cowsill, but the path he has followed has always been his own. 1723 9 St SW is an album of which I am certain Cowsill would approve, and of which Johnson can be proud.
If you read all of that…I apologize. I worked on this piece for a long time, and I don’t know if I near got it right. I do know it is long, and I’m plumb certain it isn’t perfect. But, it’s done and I mean it all. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
My review of the recent release from John Driskell Hopkins & Balsam Range has been posted to Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. When I first received the album, I had never heard of John Driskell Hopkins, and to date I still don’t believe I’ve heard the Zac Brown Band; I hear they are a big deal. Based on this album, perhaps me should give them a listen. I’ve already checked down Levi Lowrey’s I Confess I Was A Fool based on his collaboration contained within Daybreak.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
I’m not sure how the album made its way to me, but I am certainly glad that it did. Cahalen Morrison and Eli West’s release of last autumn Our Lady of the Tall Trees is terrific. I’ve posted my review of the album at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. If you are open to acoustiblue music- stuff that in some ways reminds you of bluegrass but most obviously isn’t, you will want to consider locating this beautifully packaged set. Their website is www.CahalenandEli.com.
This video gives you a taste of what they are all about. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Just doing some housekeeping to help out the search engines. My review of Old Man Luedecke’s Tender is the Night is at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass here.
As always, I appreciate your interest in Fervor Coulee. Donald
Over at the Country Standard Time site, Jeff has posted my review of Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien’s recent live disc, We’re Usually A Lot Better Than This. I think it is a very excellent album. It was recently named Engine 145′s Best Bluegrass Album of 2012 despite not being a bluegrass album in any shape or form. Then again, neither is # 2, 4, 8… By the way, the best bluegrass albums released in 2012 were, in no particular order, The Special Consensus, The Steep Canyon Rangers, The Earl Brothers, the Bobby Osborne, and the Niall Toner albums. If you don’t agree, you are welcome to being incorrect. As am I.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Pete Seeger Pete Remembers Woody
Pete Seeger and Lorre Wyatt A More Perfect Union
both Appleseed Recordings
Even today, Pete Seeger records more albums of higher quality than many musicians a fraction of his 93 years. This autumn, Appleseed came out with two additional collections of Seeger material to complement their previous Seeger-focused tribute albums and Seeger’s own Grammy-winning set of a few years ago, At 89.
Pete Remembers Woody is simply amazing. For those of us who find ourselves under the spell of Seeger, there are few things more enjoyable than listening to the troubadour sharing his tales; in this instance, all are focused around Woody Guthrie. As the liner notes state, it would have made sense to record a collection of Guthrie songs recorded by others with the occasional anecdote from Seeger. Fortunately, project coordinator David Bernz realized the treasure he had in hand and opted for a set featuring “Pete Seeger telling us about Woody Guthrie, punctuated by music.”
What we are gifted here then is two hours of Seeger yarns accented by music from Bernz, Pete and Arlo Guthrie, Cathy Fink and Marnie Marxer, Work o’ the Weavers, and others. Mostly though, we have Seeger educating about Woody Guthrie- mentor, friend, enigma- through story. It would be a disservice to Seeger to tell his remembrances here because half the charm is in the delivery, the voice that is instantly recognizable. The parallels of history to modern politics, the flip-flops more specifically, are readily apparent. The elements of social justice, viewed now as then by many as a threat to the social fabric, are provided a historical context that appears both quaint- because, in hindsight, they don’t appear that radical- and scary: imagine a time with the merest hint of one’s beliefs could label one as a threat to the country. Seeger’s memory of his times with Guthrie appear clear and the stories roll off his tongue with both charm and vinegar.
The musical interludes that bridge the various experiences are spot-on. Work o’ the Weavers bring the folk sound of the fifties and early-sixties alive. Cathy Fink’s banjo is always welcome. David Bernz’s “Woody’s Ghost” is a three-part composition that captures the album’s over-arching spirit admirably. Guthrie is heard a couple times, once with Cisco Houston performing “New York Town” and with the Almanac Singers on “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” Seeger breaks into song throughout, providing his stories with additional colour.
Pete Remembers Woody is more than a recording documenting one man’s memories of a legend. It is a historical perspective on a movement that altered the course of the American story- and, more importantly for some of us, the American musical journey. Stunning stuff, this.
The second volume is A More Perfect Union which Seeger recorded with his long-time friend Lorre Wyatt. Several guests- most notably Bruce Springsteen, Dar Williams, Tom Morello, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris- add their voices to this collaborative recording.
Springsteen appears on the lead track, taking a couple leads throughout the sing-a-long “God’s Counting on Me…God’s Counting on You.” His phrasing when singing “It’s time to turn things around, trickle up, not trickle down” is impactful considering what he has done over the years to support many labour and social causes. One can be cynical of multi-millionaires singing for social change, but one needn’t be when the cause is true and heartfelt.
The album may be overwhelming to those not used to listening to music of conscience. The principles of social justice is woven into each note of each song: take it or leave it.
Wyatt’s signature song “Somos el Barco/We Are the Boat” is performed here with the songwriter joined by Seeger and Emmylou Harris along with a large choir of voices. “Howling for Our Supper” winks at the self-indulgent nature of songwriters while the following track, “My Neighbor’s Needs” is- like several of the songs- a call to action. Listening to “This Old Man Revisited,” one realizes that Steve Earle has based his cadence on the childhood staple more than once, and I don’t mean that in the smart ass way it sounds. Dar Williams joins in on “This Old Man Revisited” and does an even more impressive job on the Hurricane Katrina opus “Memories Out of Mud.”
Included on A More Perfect Union are fourteen newly written tracks from Seeger and Lorre. This freshness is palatable as each song seemingly reinvigorates the duo. There are those who will run from any collection of Seeger music, put off either by ones interpretation of his politics or by his voice, but those folks are missing something special. Like few others, Pete Seeger is a folk essential. And even as he slows down on his performance commitments, there is no shaking his commitment to the power of folk music.
While the guest vocalists will get more than their fair share of mentions- including here- it is Seeger and Wyatt who deserve the glory. Whether partnering with songwriters and singers who share their vision, or simply singing their songs together, the pair carry the album for more than an hour. They crack wise on “Old Apples” and reveal wisdom elsewhere, as in “A Toast to the Times,” the stark “These Days in Zimbabwe,” and “Bountiful River.” If he never records another song, Seeger’s “Somebody Else’s Eye” will stand as sentinel of his power as a writer and his prowess as a vocalist. As she does within “Bountiful River,” Sara Milonovich contributes violin accompaniment that is more than impressive.
A More Perfect Union, a recording fraught with challenge and perseverance as detailed in David Bernz’s notes, is a folk delight.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee; I hope you find writing and comment of interest and value. Donald
Over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, I’ve posted my review of Chris Daniels’ recent album Better Days. Not a bluegrass album, it contains a healthy dose of New Grass Revival-inspired music, including several tracks featuring NGR circa 1985. I had never heard of Daniels before hearing this album. While the NGR connection is what captured my attention, there is more than that within Better Days that appeals. He is definitely worth seeking out. http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=929 will get you there. As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2012/11/16/heart-of-the-country-by-chris-brashear/ will get you to my review of Chris Brashear’s new album. The album is very impressive, as one might expect from an artist of Brashear’s refinement. Great stuff. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Best, Donald