“I’ve heard it all.”
How many times have I had this thought rattle around inside my brain as I reach for the next troubadour’s album? Trust me, it has been a few hundred times.
Almost as frequently, I’ve been reminded—upon listening—that there is always another way to approach subjects favoured by singer-songwriters of the country-folk ilk. Most recently, I was impressed by the individual talents of Dan Weber and Dana Cooper, two gents whose acquaintance I had not previously made but by the time only a couple of their songs had played, I knew I had found new favourites to champion.
Dan Weber’s third album The Way the River Goes is hands down one of my favourites of 2022. Song after song Weber reveals for us a series of situations, characters, and reflections that move the listener in a variety of ways.
A ‘change of life’ album, this new release finds Weber at a crossroads. A divorce and a move to the southwest, and a bundle of songs that just kept getting thicker results in a 14-track recording without a moment of filler. Still, it is tough to improve on the album’s initial burst of three songs.
The title track reveals the story of small-town life, the innocence of childhood and the challenges of adulthood. “While You Were Sleeping” imagines passing lives while “Ever Since Columbine” reflects on the never-ending string of mass shootings that have plagued the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Canada) over the last few decades. Any one of these songs would be a standout on another album. Here they are simply the introduction to seemingly unending string of songwriting and singing highs.
Weber has a strong, full voice, one that might be called resonant. He reminds me more than a little of John Wort Hannam (high praise from me) in how his voice modulates to suit the needs of the song. The album was recorded with producer Rob ‘Berto’ Stroup handling drums, organ, electric guitar, and a bit of bass, while also singing harmony and Michael Henchman playing the majority of the bass parts. Weber sticks to acoustic guitar.
Several guests appear including Jenny Conlee-Drizos (The Decemberists) playing accordion and Tim Connell on mandolin. Tony Furtado adds Dobro to “While You Were Sleeping” with Paul Brainard (electric and pedal steel guitars), Kathryn Claire (fiddle), and David Lipkind (harmonica) contributing their parts in a socially distanced manner.
Additional favourites include “Never,” “Farewell Maggie Valley,” and a co-write with Lynn MCCracken “You Make Me Wanna Dance.” Without exaggeration, every song makes the listener lean in a little closer to more fully appreciate a clever line, a heartfelt fiddle trill, or a mood-altering realization.
If folk-country is your thing, if you have albums from Tom Russell, Nancy Griffith, and Robert Earl Keen on your shelves, and if you just want to be danged impressed by a singer-songwriter you may not have previously encountered, I can’t think of a better place to start than Dan Weber’s The Way the River Goes.
Unless you want to go in Dana Cooper’s direction.
Up to an hour ago, beyond listening to I Can Face the Truth, I had never heard of Dana Cooper. Wikipedia filled me in, and let me know that he has been around for a long time, and has worked with many familiar names including Kim Carnes, Lyle Lovett, and Thomm Jutz.
Without doubt, Dana Cooper can sing and write. He looks a bit like Lovett, sounds like no one I can bring to mind (okay, Marshall Crenshaw finally came to mind), and writes like Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, including on the album’s lead track “Always Old Friends,” which comes with the lyrical gem, “you can’t make old friends.” Clark could have written that line; hell, maybe he did. This is a bold, country meets rock in the right place song that lingers long after the album has played. A keeper, as they say.
I Can Face the Truth is filled with lasting songs, songs whose sound and message circle back once the album has been removed from the stereo, and good luck keeping it out of the music machine.
In places, Cooper writes like a person many years his junior. The title track allows its narrator to rediscover himself, the traits and characteristics that make him the flawed creature we all remain. Elsewhere, the wisdom of time and age is revealed. A song co-written with Kim Richey is one of the album’s most beautiful creations. “Flower and the Vine” captures the truth of true love:
Always hello, never goodbye
Forever our lives are entwined
We turn to the sun together as one
Close as the flower and the vine.
Lovely sentiment, that. Additional brilliance in appreciating the beauty of simple things is found within “Ours For a Little While” (a co-write with Elva Jones-Hahn), “Humankind,” and “Laughing and Crying.” Simplicity is usually best when it comes to putting together a song. Co-writes with Tom Kimmel (the allegorical “Bluebird”) and Rebecca Folsom (the metaphor rich “Walls”) also standout.
Cooper, along with his co-producer Dave Coleman, successfully explore power pop on “Upside Down Day,”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9Zt3HnrXgI “I Know A Girl,” and “Laughing and Crying” with the album’s sole cover being a reworking of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that sounds a bit like a well-considered studio jam.
As on the previous Weber album, the rhythm section here is vital to the album’s feel. Drummer Chris Benelli and bassist Paul Slivka impress. Waterboy Brother Paul Brown adds Hammond B3 to “Bluebird” while several folks add vocals including Jonell Mosser, Maura O’Connell, and co-writers Folsom, Jones-Hahn, and Kimmel.
Dana Cooper knows his way around a song and performance. I’m just embarrassed and regretful that it has taken me this long to catch up with him. And I will be doing some catching up.
I Can Face the Truth. We all should. Another outstanding album that will appear on year-end favourite lists. Guaranteed.
And I’m glad, again, to have been wrong thinking “I’ve heard it all.” Not even close.