In the ten years I’ve been writing semi-professionally, I’ve received exactly one album and seven hundred, thirty-two emails from the folks at Light in the Attic. It was a hell of an album, that Karen Dalton disc released a few years back; spending time with In My Own Time introduced me to an artist I had never heard and never knew about.
I had a few gift cards from my birthday last month, and finding myself in Calgary for the weekend (part of my other professional life) I spent some time at a decent HMV store and bought the new Kristofferson album I read a bit about somewhere last week. Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends: The Publishing Demos 1968-1972 is a beautiful package. The cuts are incredibly insightful. I’m always fascinated to hear the genesis of songs, especially ones I’ve never heard (tunes like “Epitaph (Black and Blue),” “Billy Dee,” and “Border Lord”). For me there is no better introduction to a song than hearing it for the first time sung by the writer within an unadorned setting.
While I’ve always known about Kristofferson- and have bought a half-dozen albums over the years- I don’t think I’ve really known him- as much as one can know a songwriter you’ll never meet- until this collection. The liner notes- written by Michael Simmons- are among the finest I’ve ever devoured, and the packaging is artful, utilizing embossing and assemblage to dramatic effect; you can’t download this stuff, you have to hold it in your hands.
None of which would matter if the performances didn’t hold up. Hearing “Me and Bobby McGee” with just Kris and Billy Swan is just sick. Some tracks feature Swan, others Donnie Fritts, while a few are fleshed out with background singers and more complete bands. I hear echoes (or foreshadows) of Larry Jon Wilson in “Border Lord,” John Stewart elsewhere. My eyes (and ears) are wide open, now.
Listening to “Billy Dee”- and reading the liner notes- I had a bit of a revelation. Kristofferson is a hell of a writer obviously, but his songs and his softly sung performances here are every bit as good as Townes Van Zandt’s best. The lyrics have the same attention to implied detail that I find impressive. No doubt there were similarities in their lives- and I started to imagine what TVZ would have done had mental illness not been in the picture. Could he have been a survivor, like Kristofferson?
My introduction to Kristofferson was the (to my ears, at the time) cheesy stuff he did with Streisand when I was in junior high; I knew him more as an actor than I did singer until about 1996 when I picked up a disc cheap somewhere. Since then, I’ve developed an appreciation for his songs and his singing.
It is only with this album, this weekend, that I grasp the artistry behind the writing and performance.
Doug Cox & Salil Bhatt- Slide to Freedom 2: Make a Better World The initial collaboration between slide guitarist Cox and stavik veena master Bhatt was one of my favourite albums of the previous decade. It slapped me upside the head with its blending of sounds and genres. I missed out on this one- for some reason I wasn’t serviced with it- and I never bothered buying it, figuring I’d find it used somewhere, someday. But I didn’t.
With my weekly watching of Treme, I’ve been intrigued by the theme song and one morning this week recognized the singer’s voice when I heard a version of “City of New Orleans” played on CKUA- John Boutté. A Google search confirmed his connection to Treme and continued investigation brought up not only an album I downloaded from eMusic, but Boutte’s involvement with this collection. Yes, Vancouver Island meets up with India and New Orleans!
I recalled considering Slide to Freedom 2 on a previous visit to the downtown Calgary, so while there this weekend I searched it out. Not as immediately arresting as the first volume, but that has more to do with the lack of surprise this one holds. The addition of Boutté’s voice to the proceedings provides another interesting element. By the time they work out on “Freedom Raga,” I’m in another world.
Their rendition of “Amazing Grace”- Boutté’s soulful voice working with the unusual (in a gospel/soul context) sounds of the veena, brings down the house. (More about my strange affinity for gospel music later.) It is on the longer tracks when the music is most trance-inducing that the power of the Cox-Bhatt collaboration is most apparent.
Paid full price for it, dang it.
Elizabeth Cook- Welder and The Blue Album The occasional morning I’ll scan through the Sirius channels- when Kyle Cantrell gets on my nerves- and settle on Elizabeth’s show on the Outlaw channel. I enjoy her approach to hosting and this week- or was it last- was reminded how much I enjoyed her album of a couple years back. So I downloaded these two from eMusic. ‘Bout what I expected- top-drawer performances and interesting writing. Good stuff.
Barrence Whitfield Eta Petti & The Bloodyhotsak- Self-titled Caught sight of this new on eMusic and downloaded because a) my father-in-law, out of the blue a couple months back, asked if Whitfield had released anything lately and I gave the stock answer of ‘I have no idea’ and promptly forgot about it; I hadn’t even realized that the Whitfield/Tom Russell albums we bought in bulk from Stony Plain Records more than a decade ago (our second last, failed money-making venture) made an impression on him, and b) the sample of Russell’s “Veteran’s Day” I previewed; I think “Veteran’s Day” may well go down as Russell’s most perfect song.
Anyhow, I downloaded this one, and gave it a listen this weekend. I’m not sure I needed it, but I have it now. Lots of rock n roll guitar in spots, and then the next song is acoustic; a bit jarring at times. A cover of The Bottle Rockets’ “Thousand Dollar Car” jumped out at me as I was listening; the band sounds a bit like the Bottle Rockets, and not just on this cut. Whitfield’s voice remains appealing in its strength and Petti has a tortured soul that bleeds artistic pain, losing nothing to the language barrier. I’ll be buying Whitfield’s Raw, Raw, Rough.
John Boutte- Good Neighbor I’m really beginning to appreciate the sounds of New Orleans and find myself breaking into “The Treme Song” at the oddest times. This one has some great grooves, nothing deep or overly vital I suppose, but the songs serve their purpose. Some are dark and soulful, others light and irreverent. I didn’t even recognize “Southern Man” the first time through, so different is the melody from that I’m used to hearing. I really like Boutte’s voice and appreciate its supple qualities.
Danny and the Champions of the World- Streets of our Time Another CKUA, 6:15 a.m. discovery for me. Heard it once, went and found it. I’m attracted to the strength of the songs, the way the songs make me think of Springsteen without ever sounding like Springsteen. I didn’t even notice the sneakers on the cover until the Bruce reference was firmly in my brain; homage to Born to Run, perhaps?
Richard and Linda Thompson- I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight To my ears, the album sounds hopeful. Twisted, aren’t I?
The Tallest Man on Earth- The Wild Hunt I like this guy more with every listen.
Mark “Brink” Brinkman- On the Brink of a Dream I know Mark through his irregular posts to the BGrass-L and having read his name on every third bluegrass album over the past few years. I listened to the first half of this album on the way down to Calgary Saturday morning. Fine songs, nothing especially noteworthy about the performances although I appreciated hearing Dale Ann Bradley sing on “Littlest Guardian Angel,” although the song didn’t particularly do much for me. “Bluestone Mountain” got a couple listens because the story caught me and I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. “With Love from Normandy” will get played on Remembrance Day and Memorial Day theme-shows, and rightly so; it is a simple song with international appeal.
And then I heard “Lucius Gray.” From the opening lines (“Lucius Gray had seen a lot of trouble in his time, He was the meanest man to ever work down in the mine. If you valued your existence you’d stay out of his way, if the devil had a human form it would be Lucius Gray”) the listener’s imagination is on alert. By the time the coal mine collapses and only two men are left- the singer and Gray- I thought I knew where the song was going: a battle between good and evil for the failing supply of oxygen.
When Gray instead prays for the singer’s survival, the tears started flowing, blurring the highway in front of me. Seconds later, I was a wreck, bawling to a song like I haven’t since the first time I heard the Dixie Chick’s rendition of “Traveling Soldier.” “That was the day the Devil became a prayin’ man!” It is a devastating song of redemption, one that carries an emotional weight beyond that which is normally found on even the most impressive of bluegrass or country albums. Brink has written his “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
My friend Barb finds it funny that a person who is non-religious gets entirely tangled up in bluegrass gospel and songs of faith. Maybe I’m just hedging my bets and hoping that’ll be enough…just in case. I know my childhood experiences/mental manipulation at the hands of southern Baptists relocated to Edmonton caused my loss of belief. Nonetheless, it is stellar songwriting- like this song from Brinkman- that inspires me to see the glory in the faith others possess. Songwriters like Brinkman and songs like “Lucius Gray” make a case for religious belief like no man of God standing behind a pulpit ever could.
Fun Boy Three- Self titled and Waiting Back to the 80s again, for a little while. These two albums had just enough substance to support their pop. I’m probably the only fan of The Specials who was introduced to them through “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it” on the first of these two albums. First heard at Climax Records in Leduc, my initial record store job. Better than making cones at DQ or driving the newspaper truck.
The Who- Greatest Hits Live I caught sight of this online some time ago but didn’t see a physical copy until this weekend. Bought it although I need another live collection from The Who- or what is left of them- like a need another chin. But, being a completeist…
Disc One has some nice recordings of oft-bootlegged shows from the 70s, slices I’ve either not heard or only on late generation tapes (thanks to connections made through a tape swopping fan group in the early 80s). The second disc is mostly superfluous, coming from the LA stand of ’89 and a few shows in the ‘aughts. The most recent material, from 2007 and 2009, provide evidence that I didn’t miss much when I passed on paying $150 plus when they- Pete, Roger, and whomever else- came through the province a few years back. Embarrassing is a rendition of “The Kids Are Alright” where the crowd can’t sing along when encouraged to do so. Could have lived without the set, but Disc One makes it worthwhile, I suppose; with these vintage versions, one remembers how smart, fresh, and lively The Who once sounded. How did three musicians and a singer make that much noise? The 14-minute jam of“Naked Eye/Let’s See Action/My Generation” is the centerpiece.
Peter Ostroushko- When the Last Morning Glory Blooms I fell asleep listening to this one today. That should not be taken as a negative. I had the headphones on and obviously needed a nap after driving for a couple hours. The music allowed me to drift off and then filled my sleeping brain with lovely thoughts, images, and rhythms. Ostroushko’s mandolin playing- delicate and rhythmic- allowed me to relax and clear my head. I’ll have to listen to it again when I’m not so drowsy.
Echo & The Bunnymen- The Fountain I picked this up for five bucks a couple months ago and hadn’t got to it until this week. I couldn’t name three Echo songs, but they are a band I like reading about in the British mags and whose CDs I always look at when I come across them in stores. After listening to The Fountain, I still don’t know three Echo songs. But that doesn’t really matter.