blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Richer and Darker
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Natalie Merchant has become more of a rich singer as the years have gone by. Her voice has become more full, her alto voice breathing a deeper mood to her new music on "Natalie Merchant." While deeper moods will likely come as no surprise to her fans (I've been one since seeing 10,000 Maniacs three times), the introspection might be. Gone are the days where she sang poetic socially agitated lyrics atop the Maniacs' new wavish pop, instead, she sings her straightforward poetry in a mix with some truly gorgeous instrumental players.

She's not totally devoid of socially conscious songs, as "Texas" could easily been seen as skewing a certain former president. But it's more mood than anything else she's aiming for. The fork tinged "Seven Deadly Sins" is a perfect example. Stripped to a fairly bare boned structure that slowly builds from acoustic beginnings to slide guitar and ultimately to a martial drum and tastefully played french horn ending, it's adult contemporary music that's for contemporary adults. It's finally at "The End," where Natalie once again touches on the wishful thinking of liberals, that she sings for the final laying down of arms against a 'sea so wide and treacherous,' all while backed with another gorgeously played string section. She may have a touch of grey in her hair as the CD cover depicts, but the elder spokeswoman of "Natalie Merchant" delivers pretty songs that are filled with the most distinct of emotional weight.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
From a Whisper
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Mike Rosenberg (a.k.a. Passenger) hit the jackpot last year when the whispery break-up ballad, "Let Her Go," hit escape velocity (thanks in no small part to being used in an emotional beer advert showing a bond between a dog and a Clydesdale), towing his two year old "All The Little Lights" to stardom along with it. Passenger had already spent a few years before this success playing and writing, so there isn't much worry about a sophomore slump when it comes to "Whispers," his fourth album over all. If success has given him anything, it's a bit more of a kick to his step, as many of the new CD's songs give that whispery voice of his some more uptempo backing to play around.

There's a more percussive bent to the opener, "Coins In The Fountain," with a sinuous beat trundling under happy lyrics that proclaim that "Love is the only song I'll sing." It's a far cry from the heartbreak of "Let Her Go," but by all means there's plenty of sad goodbyes to be found throughout "Whispers." "Heart's On Fire" even addresses it from his role as singer-songwriter; "you know those love songs will always break your heart." All done to a tasteful folk accompaniment, of course. And then there's Rosenberg telling everyone that he doesn't care what you think, because at "27," he feels no need to just churn out songs that will put him on "a video screen."

What has set Passenger apart from most of the singer songwriters popping out of the woodwork of late is that he really can turn out an ace story. No where on "Whispers" is this more evident than the emotionally touching "Riding to New York," allegedly based on a real encounter Rosenberg had on tour. In it, he meets an old man dying of cancer who just wants to get closure.

"I wanna see my grand-daughter one last time,
Wanna hold her close and feel her tiny heartbeat next to mine.
Wanna see my son and the man he's become,
Tell him I'm sorry for the things I've done,"

It's his most moving and poignant song to date, and the best thing about "Whispers." After four albums and a move into the spotlight, Passenger shows that he's got the goods to make his career more than a break-up ballad from a sappy commercial.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
A Civil End
5 Out Of 5 Stars

It's enough to make you wonder what was going on in the studio during the recording sessions. Joy Williams and John Paul White recorded "The Civil Wars," this delightful sophomore album, then announced they were breaking up just as the album was being released. An “irreconcilable difference of ambition,” the statement reads. Williams even went as far as saying that she and John Paul weren't even on speaking terms. Which is a darn shame because "The Civil Wars" is a graceful, mournful album that gave light to the idea that this duo could have been capable of even greater things.

I also think this was a huge leap forward from the debut, "Barton Hollow." I found that album to be too homogenous. "The Civil Wars" tries several new things (although I could have done without the programmed drums) and the harmonies, like the peaking voices on "From This Valley" are spun gold. They effortlessly mixed Appalachian folk, Smashing Pumpkins and Etta James unto one seamless whole. I never thought of Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm" as something that could be considered a high lonesome folk song, but they pull it off. It's easier to think of Etta James' "Tell Mama" would work in this setting, and it really is a beautiful reclamation.

The originals are quite good, as well. "I Had Me a Girl" uses a slightly distorted guitar and John Paul's voice to open up a can of worms about the one that got away. Which happens to be the title of the opening song on "The Civil Wars." There's a lot of that to go around on this album. The album closes out with a crystalline "D'arline," which was recorded "on Joy's porch" directly into an I-Phone. It's a farewell song ("if I only knew/where to send this letter to") and a fitting end to a band whose final act was to pull the curtain on such promise.

One can hope that Joy and John Paul can mend the burnt bridges over time, but the breakup sounded pretty acrimonious. Which is probably one of the reasons "The Civil Wars" debuted at number one. Everyone loves a good drama, but the music here carries the day. Combine the two and you have an album that will carry clout over budding folkies everywhere for a long time.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
From Billboard Magazine: (The picture is one I took at The Newport Folk Festival's 50th Anniversary.)

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage, died on Monday at the age of 94.

Seeger's grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson said his grandfather died at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he'd been for six days. "He was chopping wood 10 days ago," he said.

Seeger - with his a lanky frame, banjo and full white beard - was an iconic figure in folk music. He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and marched with Occupy Wall Street protesters in his 90s, leaning on two canes. He wrote or co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." He lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his banjo strapped on.

"Be wary of great leaders," he told The Associated Press two days after a 2011 Manhattan Occupy march. "Hope that there are many, many small leaders."

With The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group - Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman - churned out hit recordings of "Goodnight Irene," "Tzena, Tzena" and "On Top of Old Smokey."

Seeger also was credited with popularizing "We Shall Overcome," which he printed in his publication "People's Song," in 1948. He later said his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from "will" to "shall," which he said "opens up the mouth better."

"Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger," Arlo Guthrie once said.

His musical career was always braided tightly with his political activism, in which he advocated for causes ranging from civil rights to the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River. Seeger said he left the Communist Party around 1950 and later renounced it. But the association dogged him for years.

He was kept off commercial television for more than a decade after tangling with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Repeatedly pressed by the committee to reveal whether he had sung for Communists, Seeger responded sharply: "I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American."

He was charged with contempt of Congress, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.

Seeger called the 1950s, years when he was denied broadcast exposure, the high point of his career. He was on the road touring college campuses, spreading the music he, Guthrie, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter and others had created or preserved.

"The most important job I did was go from college to college to college to college, one after the other, usually small ones," he told The Associated Press in 2006. " ... And I showed the kids there's a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio."

His scheduled return to commercial network television on the highly rated Smothers Brothers variety show in 1967 was hailed as a nail in the coffin of the blacklist. But CBS cut out his Vietnam protest song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," and Seeger accused the network of censorship.

He finally got to sing it five months later in a stirring return appearance, although one station, in Detroit, cut the song's last stanza: "Now every time I read the papers/That old feelin' comes on/We're waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says to push on."

Seeger's output included dozens of albums and single records for adults and children.

He also was the author or co-author of "American Favorite Ballads," "The Bells of Rhymney," "How to Play the Five-String Banjo," "Henscratches and Flyspecks," "The Incompleat Folksinger," "The Foolish Frog" and "Abiyoyo," "Carry It On," "Everybody Says Freedom" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone."

He appeared in the movies "To Hear My Banjo Play" in 1946 and "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon" in 1970. A reunion concert of the original Weavers in 1980 was filmed as a documentary titled "Wasn't That a Time."

By the 1990s, no longer a party member but still styling himself a communist with a small C, Seeger was heaped with national honors.

Official Washington sang along - the audience must sing, was the rule at a Seeger concert - when it lionized him at the Kennedy Center in 1994. President Clinton hailed him as "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them."

Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as an early influence. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honored him with "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," a rollicking reinterpretation of songs sung by Seeger. While pleased with the album, Seeger said he wished it was "more serious." A 2009 concert at Madison Square Garden to mark Seeger's 90th birthday featured Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder and Emmylou Harris among the performers.

Seeger was a 2014 Grammy Awards nominee in the Best Spoken Word category, which was won by Stephen Colbert.

Seeger's sometimes ambivalent relationship with rock was most famously on display when Dylan "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Witnesses say Seeger became furious backstage as the amped-up band played, though just how furious is debated. Seeger dismissed the legendary tale that he looked for an ax to cut Dylan's sound cable, and said his objection was not to the type of music but only that the guitar mix was so loud you couldn't hear Dylan's words.

Seeger maintained his reedy 6-foot-2 frame into old age, though he wore a hearing aid and conceded that his voice was pretty much shot. He relied on his audiences to make up for his diminished voice, feeding his listeners the lines and letting them sing out.

"I can't sing much," he said. "I used to sing high and low. Now I have a growl somewhere in between."

Nonetheless, in 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album, "Pete."

Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, into an artistic family whose roots traced to religious dissenters of colonial America. His mother, Constance, played violin and taught; his father, Charles, a musicologist, was a consultant to the Resettlement Administration, which gave artists work during the Depression. His uncle Alan Seeger, the poet, wrote "I Have a Rendezvous With Death."

Pete Seeger said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16, at a music festival in North Carolina in 1935. His half brother, Mike Seeger, and half sister, Peggy Seeger, also became noted performers.

He learned the five-string banjo, an instrument he rescued from obscurity and played the rest of his life in a long-necked version of his own design. On the skin of Seeger's banjo was the phrase, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" - a nod to his old pal Guthrie, who emblazoned his guitar with "This machine kills fascists."

Dropping out of Harvard in 1938 after two years as a disillusioned sociology major, he hit the road, picking up folk tunes as he hitchhiked or hopped freights.

"The sociology professor said, `Don't think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,'" Seeger said in October 2011.

In 1940, with Guthrie and others, he was part of the Almanac Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other causes.

He and Guthrie also toured migrant camps and union halls. He sang on overseas radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information early in World War II. In the Army, he spent 3 1/2 years in Special Services, entertaining soldiers in the South Pacific, and made corporal.

Pete and Toshi Seeger were married July 20, 1943. The couple built their cabin in Beacon after World War II and stayed on the high spot of land by the Hudson River for the rest of their lives together. The couple raised three children. Toshi Seeger died in July at age 91.

The Hudson River was a particular concern of Seeger. He took the sloop Clearwater, built by volunteers in 1969, up and down the Hudson, singing to raise money to clean the water and fight polluters.

He also offered his voice in opposition to racism and the death penalty. He got himself jailed for five days for blocking traffic in Albany in 1988 in support of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager whose claim of having been raped by white men was later discredited. He continued to take part in peace protests during the war in Iraq, and he continued to lend his name to causes.

"Can't prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa," Seeger told the AP in 2008 when asked to reflect on his legacy. "There's not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. ... The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place."

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Peace, Love and Banjos
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Barely a year after releasing the acclaimed "The Carpenter," The Avett Brothers make a quick turnaround and issue "Magpie and The Dandelion." Along with producer Rick Rubin, The Avetts have mastered a style of folk-rock that many other bands of this ilk are just trying to grasp. Other than Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers have no one else that even come close to matching their own kind of American Roots rock, which makes it all the more interesting that Mumford and Sons are Irish, while the brothers hail from North Carolina.

That's not the only difference. Where the Mumfords typically strive for the bombastic crescendo, the Avetts deal in a more gentle style. Piano melodies intermingle with the banjos, and they have long ago learned that a silence can speak more than an amp turned up to 11. They're also not as preachy, even if the music speaks to universal love and faith. They sing of having an "Open Ended Life" and delicately contemplate "Souls With Wheels" (a live version of the song originally from the EP "The Second Gleam"). Sometimes doubt creeps in, like the long distance affair "Apart From Me," where Scott and Seth Avett question if they can keep love alive while out on the road. Same with "Skin and Bones," but this time with more spunk.

If I have any grumps about "Magpie And The Dandelion," it's that there doesn't seem to be much of a growth in the band. The songs here sound like they were very good, but not so good as to end up on "The Carpenter." Why else tease everyone with an older live song in the middle than to be a song or two short of a totally new album? But then, you'll hear the piano copping from The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" on the midtempo ballad "Good To You," and you can forgive them the lateral move. Also, as previously stated, no other band can keep up with the new folk movement the way The Avett Brothers do. If you prefer, think of "Magpie" and "The Carpenter" as a double album. Play them in tandem. Together, they're a delight, and even with my few misgivings, "Magpie and The Dandelion" is an excellent album.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Every Journey Starts...
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Blessed with a voice as roughly hewn as crushed walnut, Cliff Eberhardt took a journey to Texas to record "500 Miles: The Blue Rock Sessions." He's a singer songwriter in the classic mold, delving into songs of introspection and the trials of live. Whether it's with his definitive originals or covering a chestnut like "500 Miles" (probably most likely remembered as done by Peter, Paul and Mary), he also takes a minimalist's approach to the recording process. In at least one instance, just Cliff and a guitar, in another, Cliff's guitar accompanied by bass, percussion and accordion. It's amazing just how much resonance he can get with just a few slight touches. Although he often appears with a full combo, best heard on "When The Leaves Begin to Fall."





There's also a great cover of John Hiatt's "Back of My Mind," transformed here into a waltz. But the best is saved for last, as Cliff revisits one of his earlier songs, "The Long Road." I have to admit that I am unfamiliar with the original, but this is a wonderful version. As Cliff states in his liner notes after "20 years, it has changed as I have...I decided to take a new look at an old friend." With its questioning look at the people and places that surround your life, it turns from a song about a young man's look at the future to a rumination of how you've lived your life. It's a great song and alone, is worthy of your listening to "500 Miles."


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Richard Thompson's Best Live Album
4 Out Of 5 Stars


Recorded for the "Austin City Limits" program, "Live From Austin Texas" is Richard Thompson playing in a trio setting (drummer Michel Jerome, upright bassist Danny Thompson). Spare as that sounds, Thompson's muscular guitar cuts to the front of the line every time. Released in 2005 on the NewWest label, it boasts a clear sounding mix, a great selection of songs and Thompson is fine form.

You'll get songs that range back to "Shoot Out The Lights" to material from the then new "Mock Tudor." Some of the songs I kind of thought were lesser bits on previous albums, like "Al Bowlly's In Heaven" - terrific bass solo by Danny) - sound great in this context. Of the newer material, the ballad "Persuasion" (written by Split Enz's Tim Finn) and the ripping opener, "Cooksferry Queen" are stand outs. But my favorite is (and likely forever will be) the magnificent "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." It is one of the few songs that consider to be a flawless bit of writing and playing, and on "Live From Austin, Texas," it again fails to disappoint. The outstanding version of this song alone would rate the album three stars, and here it and his band give it due justice. Simply put, "Live From Austin, Texas" is the best of Richard Thompson's many live solo albums.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
No Better, Really
2 Out Of 5 Stars

Back in 2008, I gave John Mellencamp's "Life Death Love and Freedom" a four star rating. He mixed up his styles enough to keep the disc from becoming flat, and added a few hopeful songs like "My Sweet Love." A few years later and that hope is sucked clean out of "No Better Than This." Recorded in mono at several classic locations (mainly Sun Studios in Memphis), Mellencamp is going for a starker sound than before, even more bare bones that "Life Death" or his madly underrated "Big Daddy." It's just that, as spartan as the CD is, the songs aren't all that memorable or inspiring. He may want to be a classical folkie, but it just isn't there. You can record in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, where Robert Johnson recorded "Stones in My Passway" in 1936, but that doesn't mean you've been to the crossroads.

The idea of the CD is interesting enough; Mellencamp recorded "No Better Than This" while touring with one microphone, directly onto a vintage Ampex 601 tape recorder, no remixing or overdubs. It does give the album a sense of immediacy, but not warmth. Just because you're making an album the way Johnny Cash or the rest of the Sun studio cats, he's still Mellencamp. Some of the songs are vintage lyrical Mellencamp, like "No One Cares About Me," the closing "Clumsy Ol' World" and the bar brawl that he narrates in "Easter Eve." It's just me, but I really yearned to hear Mellencamp do "Clumsy Ol' World" and maybe "Save Some Time For Me" with a full band and in a modern setting.

As it is, "No Better Than This" can't elevate itself to more than a curiosity in Mellencamp's storied discography, and you have to hand it to the man, he's long ago decided he's going to follow his muse to any place it leads him. Having pretty much given up on rock and roll, "No Better Than This" will likely only please die-hard Mellencamp followers, extreme folkies, or lovers of what T-Bone Burnette does to artists when he turns his producer's cap towards stripping his subjects musically naked.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Default)
No Better, Really
2 Out Of 5 Stars

Back in 2008, I gave John Mellencamp's "Life Death Love and Freedom" a four star rating. He mixed up his styles enough to keep the disc from becoming flat, and added a few hopeful songs like "My Sweet Love." A few years later and that hope is sucked clean out of "No Better Than This." Recorded in mono at several classic locations (mainly Sun Studios in Memphis), Mellencamp is going for a starker sound than before, even more bare bones that "Life Death" or his madly underrated "Big Daddy." It's just that, as spartan as the CD is, the songs aren't all that memorable or inspiring. He may want to be a classical folkie, but it just isn't there. You can record in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, where Robert Johnson recorded "Stones in My Passway" in 1936, but that doesn't mean you've been to the crossroads.

The idea of the CD is interesting enough; Mellencamp recorded "No Better Than This" while touring with one microphone, directly onto a vintage Ampex 601 tape recorder, no remixing or overdubs. It does give the album a sense of immediacy, but not warmth. Just because you're making an album the way Johnny Cash or the rest of the Sun studio cats, he's still Mellencamp. Some of the songs are vintage lyrical Mellencamp, like "No One Cares About Me," the closing "Clumsy Ol' World" and the bar brawl that he narrates in "Easter Eve." It's just me, but I really yearned to hear Mellencamp do "Clumsy Ol' World" and maybe "Save Some Time For Me" with a full band and in a modern setting.

As it is, "No Better Than This" can't elevate itself to more than a curiosity in Mellencamp's storied discography, and you have to hand it to the man, he's long ago decided he's going to follow his muse to any place it leads him. Having pretty much given up on rock and roll, "No Better Than This" will likely only please die-hard Mellencamp followers, extreme folkies, or lovers of what T-Bone Burnette does to artists when he turns his producer's cap towards stripping his subjects musically naked.


     


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blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
In a voice both pure and crooked
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Ian Matthews got a surge of creativity after the success of his Jules Shear tribute album Walking a Changing Line. Shortly after, this album of mostly new folkish material was released, and it is, in my estimation, one of his best solo albums. "Pure and Crooked" (which happens to be a line from one of Shears' songs on the prior album) is a richer sounding set that WaCL, in as much as the instrumentation no longer favors the keyboards that dominated. "Dominoes" kicks the CD off with a poppy number, something also missing beforehand.

He also sounds deeply entwined to the material, be it the nostalgic mourning of "Busby's Babes," the snarling lyric of "New Shirt" or even a terrific cover of Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street." I even thought he outdid Gabriel's original. Given that Matthews was usually heavy on outside songwriting in the past, it makes the eight self-penned numbers here all the more exciting. This is great stuff, lost when the Gold Castle label went out of business. While Amazon only offers downloads at this page, used CD copies are going cheap. I can recommend putting "Pure and Crooked" in your library.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Default)
In a voice both pure and crooked
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Ian Matthews got a surge of creativity after the success of his Jules Shear tribute album Walking a Changing Line. Shortly after, this album of mostly new folkish material was released, and it is, in my estimation, one of his best solo albums. "Pure and Crooked" (which happens to be a line from one of Shears' songs on the prior album) is a richer sounding set that WaCL, in as much as the instrumentation no longer favors the keyboards that dominated. "Dominoes" kicks the CD off with a poppy number, something also missing beforehand.

He also sounds deeply entwined to the material, be it the nostalgic mourning of "Busby's Babes," the snarling lyric of "New Shirt" or even a terrific cover of Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street." I even thought he outdid Gabriel's original. Given that Matthews was usually heavy on outside songwriting in the past, it makes the eight self-penned numbers here all the more exciting. This is great stuff, lost when the Gold Castle label went out of business. While Amazon only offers downloads at this page, used CD copies are going cheap. I can recommend putting "Pure and Crooked" in your library.



     

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Another Hit for Heartbreak Radio
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Australian Brett Every crossed my radar a few years ago when I made a post to a blog asking why we still had not found a gay Bruce Springsteen. Which is funny, because Brett isn't anything like The Boss. But he also isn't anything like your typical "gay musician," where everything is in hardcore dance electronica or is some sort of dance diva. Which makes Brett something of an outcast in gay music circles. He writes more in a personal style, and "Tales of Ten Men" is exactly what it's title implies, complete with an extra four songs. Heartbreak, separation, new love, getting back together, and even desperation (a bluesy live cover of Concrete Blonde's "Joey") are all on a first name basis.

Recorded rather spartanly, with sometimes nothing more than his strummed guitar or a piano and maybe a muted trumpet or chorus, "Tales of Ten Men" takes on fellows of many stripes. Some of the songs are new takes from previous discs. Two of them better their originals, especially "Mr Smith." Sung by the young lover to the upset father of his lover, it has a pain to it that the first version on "Fairy Godmother's Gone to Vegas" didn't. Then one of the 'bonus' tracks pays homage to Blanche Deveraux, his "Golden Girls" hero. Originally on "Camping Out," this live version seems a bit more tongue in cheek. But there's nothing cheeky about "Sydney," a heartbreaking look at a relationship that's drifted apart. With Every's bar-soaked voice, there's a certain desperation in the recognition that, while the love hasn't gone bad, it's just gone away.

The best is saved for the first of the first of the 'bonus' tracks. "It's a Beautiful Day" is a wonderful song that celebrates a pair of men getting married.

"And the Prime Minister said
by this beautiful law that
whatever beliefs,
we believe in love more."

It's enough to make a grown man pull out the Kleenex, I tell ya. "I hear music from the neighbors. Tom Waits, Bette Midler and they're singing the same song..." kind of sums the guy up in his own words. If you haven't found your way to Brett's music, this is a good primer.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
"I'm sad as a proud man can be sad tonight"
4 Out Of 5 Stars

That line comes from "Waltzing For Dreamers," the most melancholy song on Richard Thompson's 1988 album, "Amnesia." His first of several albums for the Capital label, it's also the second of Thompson's to feature then red hot producer Mitchell Froom. I'm not sure if it was the promise of some heavier promotion for the album or that Froom kept the album to a complimentary production job, but Thompson delivered a consistent batch of songs for "Amnesia," one of his better and certainly more mainstream efforts.

As for Thompson, he kept his stature as one of rock's great undiscovered geniuses, once again providing stellar songwriting, impassioned vocals and searing guitar work. One can forgive "Gypsy Love Song" for being one of "Amnesia's" weaker tracks for the incredible guitar solo, and wait for the politically biting "Jerusalem On The Jukebox," taking its aim at the uncomfortably cozy relationship between televangelists and politicians. That's also a track that showcases Thompson's dry humor, as well as "Yankee Go Home."

The songs are buoyed not only by Froom's sympathetic production, but a series of musical pros like Tony Leven, Jim Keltner and Jerry Scheff among others. The only thing missing is the kind of classic song Thompson typically had per record, the previously mentioned "Waltzing's For Dreamers." "I Still Dream" and the somewhat feisty "Don't Tempt Me" also comes close. But on his superb follow-up, "Rumour And Sigh," arguably one of his all time best albums, that the unforgettable songs reappeared. "Amnesia" is a great start to a productive few years for Thompson, and nit a bad album to have in the collection.


     
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All the Best, Remastered and Remembered
5 Out Of 5 Stars

What this "Best of Simon and Garfunkel" collection does is, simply, lay out all their amazing singles on one hour-plus CD. It outshines the original "Greatest Hits" by not overlapping songs and by having a much improved quality of sound. Sure, you've probably heard half (or more) of the songs in high rotation on classic pop radio stations, but hearing them in digital clarity really does - and I hate to use the cliche here - bring them back to life.

More than anything else, the best of these singles highlights the exquisite harmonies these men had together as well as spotlights the strengths of Paul Simon's and Art Garfunkel's singular voices. Garfunkel's young, angelic choirboy voice still elicits chills on "Bridge Over Troubled Water," while Simon's leads often show a potency that can be unexpectedly forceful ("Hazy Shade Of Winter"). Yet they are still at their best when the voices blend as they do so beautifully on "Scarborough Fair" or the 70's reunion hit "My Little Town."

The non-hits work in the collection's favor. Short of buying the complete collection box set, the pickings here are choice. "The Only Living Boy in New York," "Old Friends/Bookends" (the song they opened their concert with when I saw them a few years back) or the live version of "For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her" will please the curious who are looking for more than just the hits. Some of the songs are a bit goofy/dated ("At The Zoo" and "The 59th Street Bridge Song"), but they can be forgiven when something as magnificent as "The Boxer" or as joyous as "Cecelia" play. For the value per dollar, "The Best of Simon & Garfunkel" is as good as you're going to get.


     


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Love is a Bitter Mistress
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Richard Thompson is an amazing guitarist, a passionate singer and a terrific songwriter. He's also a man who views love with a cynical eye. "Across a Crowded Room" is one of his albums that followed in the backwash of a nasty breakup with his wife and musical partner Linda Thompson. As such, Thompson's idea of a love song is to sing "love letters you wrote are pushed down your throat, and leave you choking." While this is a stunning musical achievement of an album, it's not a feel good collection.

Thompson's ruminations of love gone sour extend to the song titles; "Love In a Faithless Country" and "When The Spell is Broken" leave little doubt to where their loyalties lie. Even the perky "You Don't Say" turns itself on its head as Thompson listens to friends telling him about all the nasty things the ex is saying, but the moondog in Thompson answers all these accusations back with "you mean she still cares? You don't say?" Then a stunning guitar lead takes over. Which is the best thing about any given Richard Thompson album. Despite the way he looks at the world, you're in the presence of one of the world's most incredible guitarists. He can sting like he does on "Little Blue Number" or fill the room with atmosphere as he does on "Ghosts In The Wind" and "Faithless Country."

"Love In A Faithless Country" may be one of my personal top ten Thompson songs (this coming from a guy who's seen Thompson live five times, from 1986 to the present). Under a haunting guitar figure, he describes a love affair in terms of warfare and espionage. Claiming that "always make your best moves late at night, always keep your tools well out of sight," before breaking into the twist of the chorus's "that's the way we make love." The ghostly background singers and martial drums contribute to an overall sinister feel.

Thompson has written some songs that are folk classics ("Beeswing," "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" both spring immediately to my mind), but "Across a Crowded Room" is one of his best albums. I'll also recommend "Rumor and Sigh," "Front Parlor Ballads" and "Shoot Out The Lights" for some of his most enjoyable work.


     



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Gems by Jewel
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Jewel's story could be an album unto itself. She started out in Alaska, came to California when her parents divorced, then began living out of a van and playing wherever she could find a gig. It made her debut, "Pieces of You," a huge album in 1995, with collegiate poetry and sensitive soulful singing, That kicked off a near two decade career that fills this first Greatest Hits with everything from singer-songwriter folk to Nashville country, from children's albums to a flirtation with dance pop.

Her sincerity carries each twist of her career and makes the songs sound legitimate, even if the stylistic contortions may have occasionally let her fans feel bewildered. But Jewel was the kind of artist who would dabble in whatever tickled her fancy, including writing books of poetry and issuing a spoken word album to accompany them. Like Tori Amos and Natalie Merchant from roughly the same period, Jewel would follow wherever her muse took her.

So you get the earnest "Who Will Save Your Soul" and "Foolish Games" from the debut, setting the template for much of her career. Clear and pure vocals over pleading lyrics, which was much of what "Pieces of You" was made of, and propelled it to over 10 Million in sales. While that album was a rough, unpolished recording, Jewel got better fast and the slicker but still true to her roots on "Spirit," using Madonna's producer Patrick Leonard. Despite that slickness, "Hands" and "Down So Long" became substantial hits. "This Way" followed in the same footsteps, yielding "Standing Still."

Then came the big U-Turn of "0304." Appears Jewel also had a thing for Brittany Spears, as the techy dance pop of "Intuition" shows in all its big beat glory. It was a move that didn't last long, because the next record was the autobiographical concept album, "Goodbye Alice In Wonderland." The sensitive singer songwriter confessions were back with "Good Day." And as so many of the 80's and 90's female folk singers were wont to do, Jewel also discovered country on "Perfectly Clear" (repped here by "Stronger Woman"). basically, it still sounded like the same Jewel, but this time with steel guitars. She also recorded the more folk than country "Sweet and Wild," which felt more like a folk record but still held some of the twang. However, her first album of Children's music gives this collection its only dud, a recording of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."

Finally, there are the bonus tracks. Taking obvious aim at both contemporary pop and modern country, Jewel takes tow of her best known songs and recreates them. First the Pistol Annies add some countrified harmonies to an elongated "You Were Meant for Me." Then she gets Kelly Clarkson to add some windpower on "Foolish Games." The duet doesn't really better the original, but given the time expended between the first and the current version, it isn't a stretch to think they might get another go-around on their respectively aimed formats. Plus one brand new song, "Two Hearts Breaking," which has her smooth voice over a contemporary beat but is still very much Jewel.

Collected together, you can follow a path that is decidedly oddball but most certainly commercial. Jewel's "Greatest Hits" is a perfect summary of 80's and 90's sensitive singer songwriters wrapped into one very succinct CD and captures just about all the biggest songs in a career that still took on its share of left turns along the way.



   
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A Night So Dark
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Folk artist John Gorka has been offering great music since the late 80's, but has not broken out of the folk circuit. "So Dark You See" is an example of singer-songwriters at their peak, yet few will hear this. That's a darn shame, because this CD measures up to his best works.

The songs on "So Dark You See" are emotionally packed. "Where No Monuments Stand" is an anti-war song in a world where few exist because artists fear it will quash their commercial viability. "The Dutchman" paints a touching story of a wife who must care for her ailing, Alzheimer's riddled husband. Gorka also explores social strata on "Ignorance And Poverty." But ha can also be a happy camper as he exalts in "Trouble In Mind," where it's just John and his guitar.

The playing is a strong part of "So Dark You See." Both "Fret One" and "Fret Not" are little instrumental bridges that serve theit purposes as bridges into other songs, while his warm baritone glides atop the songs. Sometimes with full band treatments or just Gorka alone with his guitar telling stories, "So Dark You See" is a strong record. For readers of my reviews of Slaid Cleaves, John Gorka is in the same league.



     



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Light My Way
4 Out Of 5 Stars

The Lumineers debut album rides the folk-rock wave currently being popularized by the likes of The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons. But unlike either of those two bands, whom I love, The Lumineers eschew polish and production for a defiantly low-fi souns and a great dependence on "Ho Hey" choruses. To that extreme, their calling card is that title. A hook filled sing-along called simply "Ho Hey."

The Lumineers are heavily dependent of catchy choruses and chants that a footballer could love. At the same time, they know the pain of loss resonates well in this sort of context, as "Stubborn Love" exhorts "The opposite of love is indifference." This trio can do both the depth and the easy and filter between the two with ease. Lead singer Wesley Schultz holds is own with the Avetts and Mumfords for the rootsy delivery, and can even claim Denver CO as their home.

These are the kind of songs that do a barn-stomper proud. Made for beer chugging and glass slamming ala "Ho Hey" and other irresistible choruses. Step back in time with "Flapper Girl" or "Charlie Boy," or get a little deeper with "Slow It Down." Get past the hollow sound (like I said, this is a low-fi production) and you'll find a lot to enjoy with The Lumineers.





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Horseshoes
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Luka Bloom goes back over the many years of his storied career to reinterpret some of his best songs. A little older, a littler wiser, maybe a bit more articulate, his remakes hew close to the originals with a few subtle differences on Dreams In America. So I'll lay it out front: as a man who's followed Luka's career since his Warner Brothers' album 1990's "Riverside," the originals are better. These are all great songs, one and all, and there's a new recording of a standard, "Lord Franklin." But it's still playing a game of horseshoes. Close barely counts.

If you're new to Luka's talents, and they are profound, this might be a decent place to start. I'll also recommend the import Platinum Collection, covering his first three CD's (and including his novelty almost hit cover of LL Cool J's "I Need Love"). I'll recommend this to the newly initiated and those who may only have heard a few of Luka's songs. He's a dynamic performer (I can testify to this from three occasions to see him live), and his music is worth hearing. Just heed that this is a series of re-recordings plus three live versions.


     

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Epic Avetts
4 Out Of 5 Stars

I was lucky enough to catch the Avett Brothers live at the 50th Newport Folk Festival, where they were previewing songs from the forthcoming "I and Love and You." I was immediately taken by their range and scope, as well as their impact as a band. I thought I&L&U was one of the best albums of the year, and it's taken them since 2009 to create this follow-up. "The Carpenter" takes those intense, acute moments of the last album and gives them a glossier sound without losing any of the emotional wallop. In fact, if the longing and sadness of "A Father's First Spring" doesn't tug your heartstrings, you're reading the wrong review.

The Avett Brothers are into making epic music. There's not as much bombast here as there is on, say, Mumford and Sons' "Babel," and "The Carpenter" might be better for it. "Live and Die" plucks Scott Avett's banjo while swinging on a sing-along chorus. They also make great use of their harmony singing, with an almost doo-wop go at "Pretty Girl From Michigan" (the latest in a series of "Pretty Girl..." songs) or the oddly rocking "Paul Newman Vs The Demons." (The most unsubtle song here, and proof that these men have no issues with their eccentricities.)

The meat of the album remains the brothers' folk-band style, the stuff that got them and Mumford and Sons behind Bob Dylan. Rick Rubin adds the polish but doesn't make things run outside the album's limits. You can get "Down With The Shine," take a roll on the 90 second "Geraldine" or wax philosophical on the title song, but you'll never miss out on some tasty licks and lyrics. I don't feel "The Carpenter" quite measures up to the previous album, however, you'll not walk away dissatisfied. If you're one of the trendy folkies that snapped up "Babel" the first week out, "The Carpenter" should be in your playlist, too.


     


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