Short Cuts: Summary Reviews #9
Centred largely around the spritely fiddle of Cara Kelly, the music is simple homespun stuff you might expect to hear in your granny's kitchen or on your uncle's porch. While possibly influenced by guitarist Jamie O'Brien's Irish roots, the songs on this release have a decidedly American feel. Launie Tunes is not, however, so simple to define.
What makes this especially interesting is that behind the veneer of traditional songs lies the tension of a rock and roll sensibility attempting to break out. This is most obvious in some of O'Brien's guitar work. "The Orphan/Cliffs of Moher" starts with a bluesy guitar riff reminiscent of "Black Velvet" that rides under Kelly's more traditional fiddle, driving the song forward. The hidden thirteenth track provides a similar contrast, with O'Brien playing a rocking hambone rhythm ("Bo Diddley"/"Not Fade Away"/"Hand Jive") while Kelly plays a rollicking Appalachian style fiddle.
Don't let me mislead you that this release is all instrumental. Both O'Brien and Kelly sing on several of the tracks. Kelly has a sweet voice well-suited to the traditional material she's singing. Here is the soft hillbilly sort of voice we all grew to love in Dolly and Emmylou. With some growth, Kelly could aspire to such heights. O'Brien seems to have two singing styles. When he is singing backup for Kelly, he sings in a laid-back country manner that provides her a base over which to soar. When he sings lead, his voice becomes sweet and sentimental, like a folkified Gilbert O'Sullivan.
While there is probably no hit material here, Launie Tunes is an enchanting and even refreshing exercise in Irish-American folk traditions.
The Kiss Before the Calm
I'm not sure Sohmer even knows that he's doing country music, let alone that he's doing it so well. His publicity includes references to his music as "singer-songwriter" and "folk and roots music with a country twang" and "New Orleans rhythms, jazz consciousness, a taste of the blues and a beatnik cool" sound. When I received this release, I rather expected to hear music somewhere in the jazz/blues genre.
"Murder in the Air" quickly cured me of that notion. A cowboy song with just a bit of a Cajun flavour, "Murder in the Air" has a lyric fraught with impending doom and the sort of edge one might expect if "High Noon" had been written by Neil Young.
A sweet country waltz, "Marielle" begins like a love song but quickly becomes a story of unrequited love and potential suicide. There is no happy ending here. Those who love tear-jerkers will love this song.
"Heaven Calling" is a special favourite of mine, but I must say that there's not a bad song on this release. I'll be very surprised if at least some of these tracks don't get substantial airplay.
It doesn't at all hurt Sohmer's sound that this recording includes some of Canada's finest musicians, including such folks as Willie P. Bennett and Terry Tufts. Sohmer does well to live up to the high quality of musicianship represented by the twelve players he bills as the "Jazzed-Up Hoodlums" in the liner notes.
The Kiss Before the Calm ends on a slightly different note. While "Fool for You" retains the county feel that pervades the rest of this CD, it introduces a sort of Paul Simon African rhythmic element that sets it apart. Perhaps, since it's the last track on this release, "Fool for You" is predictive of Sohmer's next.
The strongest song on this release is the only instrumental and the only song not written by Breen. "Corrs Medley" features three traditional tunes played in a style influenced by versions released by The Corrs. "Erin Shore" features an almost bagpipe sound built around an interesting and melancholic blend of violin and guitar. "Carraroe Jig" and "Toss the Feathers" conjure visions of those lovely lasses step-dancing their way across the stage. Here is a vitality mostly missing from the rest of the songs on Past Lives.
This is not to say that the playing, the writing, or the writing on Past Lives is not good. It is. However, there's not much here to raise this music above the flood of releases by so-called singer-songwriters. A polished singer and player with passable songwriting skills, Breen presents himself with little flair or confidence. A more assured, individual approach would certainly raise his work to a new level.
Breen's picking on guitar, banjo, and mandolin seems flawless, and he has assembled a band of skilled professionals to back him up. Often his voice and his singing style resonates of early John Denver, a comfortable folk-country style. The result is music that, while sometimes bland, cannot be faulted technically.
Perhaps not strongly enough emphasized in his arrangements, Breen's lyrics are tightly written stories, mostly sentimental love stories, that work better sometimes than others.
Those who want some well-crafted, relaxing music for background while having dinner or reading will enjoy Past Lives. Those who expect more from a songwriter who happens also to be a storyteller may want to wait for Mike Breen's next release.
The Best of Broadside 1962 -1988
The Best of Broadside 1962-1988 is a must-have for anyone with an interest in the history of modern folk music and its roots in the folk tradition. In fact, I'd also strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the roots of contemporary pop and rock music.
Here are songs by many of the seminal influences on folk and rock music in the last half of the Twentieth Century, often in raw, early versions. More than forty years on, these recordings have the same vitality that originally drew audiences to them. Many of today's so-called singer-songwriters would do well to listen closely to this release from beginning to end, and more than just once.
As might be expected, some of the songs are dated by their political content, but others stand up as well today as they did when they were written. Some issues just don't go away quickly, and these songs are still relevant commentary on those issues.
Quality of performance, and even of some of the writing, is at times uneven. Any listener will feel some songs are not quite as good as others. However, with the patina of age, all of these songs shine. Hearing them again (and, frankly, some for the firtst time) carries with it the warmth of comfortable retrospect.
This box set also includes a full-size spiral bound book: more than 100 pages of songs, extensive notes, graphics from the original Broadside magazine, and much more.
Over the Moon
While Over the Moon has the unity one expects of any well-crafted work of art, it is also a broadly eclectic collection of songs. Bennett's style ranges broadly from Sarah McLachlan to Loreena McKennitt, from classic folk sounds through cool blues to slow Alannah Miles rock. It's a strange, delightful stew that's sure to enchant the listener.
Bennett tells the story of "Irene" with all the passion of any Sixties folk singer. A gentle orchestration fills out the background without ever being intrusive or taking away from the story. "Irene" more than holds its own as a traditional folk song and as a contemporary ballad. It's effect is potent and moving.
At the other end of the spectrum, "Home" is a slow rocker with a solid bluesy backbeat and sultry vocal reminiscent of Alannah Mile's "Black Velvet." Featuring tight production and concise, almost mystical lyrics, "Home" is perhaps best among the excellent tracks on this release.
Another folky sounding song, "Indigo Blue" illustrates that Bennett, as much as lyricist is a poet able to paint pictures with her evocative imagery and concise language. Her lyrics are as enjoyable to read as to hear sung.
The final song on Over the Moon, "The Harvest" is well placed. When the music has ended, the melody remains echoing in the listener's head long afterward, a reminder of the songwriting skill of Kate Bennett.
Listening to J. C. Porter, it quickly becomes apparent that here is a man whose music is influenced by an eclectic range of sources and whose lyrics reveal the poet inside. While their quiet feel and comfortable tempos will make the songs on Fall disarming background music, they really deserve a closer listen.
One nice touch is that this release includes a sixteen page booklet with Porter's lyrics set up as poems. Like Cohen's, these are lyrics that read well off the printed page as poetry. Much of the imagery, especially the Christian allusions, tends also to remind the reader of Cohen, but the phrasing leans more toward the writing of Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and other country lyricists.
Unlike many so called singer-songwriters, J. C. Porter actually is able to sing. Mostly presented in pared down guitar and singer arrangements, these songs highlight Porter's evocative interpretations of his own songs.
Porter has a solid history as a songwriter and performer, including stints with The Cropdusters [a folk-rock group that especially impressed me] and Motherfunction. Even with his extensive background, Porter still tends somewhat to wear his influences on his sleeve. His work is not at all imitative or derivative, but the echoes remain and are easily identified.
Even with these apparent influences shining through, J. C. Porter's writing and performance is original and interesting. It might even be said that these allusions to other artists strengthen Porter's work and give it depth it might not otherwise have.
Back To Jerusalem
Featured prominently on the back cover of Back To Jerusalem is a comment by Hugh Blumenfeld which likens this release to Leonard Cohen's The Future. While this analogy is not [in my opinion] entirely valid, there are certainly points of similarity between the two. By placing Blumenfeld's comment on the jacket, Jones makes it difficult for the listener not to consider his work in the light of Cohen's.
Certainly Jones' writing is fraught with Christian imagery, some obvious and some subtle, that parallels Cohen's use of the same source material. Jones lyrics, however, don't have the depth that Cohen creates by grafting images from widely varied sources onto the Christian stem of his words. This is not a negative but only a difference. Jones writes powerful lyrics that support and are supported by the images he chooses to use.Like The Future, this release is built loosely around a theme of our spirituality and humanity in a world grown hard and cold. Here are stories and images both individual and universal that make it worth taking the time at least once to listen to the words. Back To Jerusalem is a much more unified and consistent work of art than was his 1999 release, Ashes.
In the writing and in the execution, all the songs on this release stand up well. Those who enjoy music that has a spiritual edge but never preaches, those who enjoy lyrics that are poetry and that actually say something, those who enjoy well crafted performance, all will enjoy Back To Jerusalem.
As a selection of twelve artists, each with her own distinctive style, Indiegrrl Compilation 2 is exceptional for its unity and its quality. Often a compilation to benefit some cause becomes an uneven pastiche of varying quality and style. On this release, the quality of writing and performance is uniformly high and the songs sound as though they were meant to be together.
Created to benefit Washington, D.C.'s Men's Rape Prevention Project, this release shows remarkable restraint in not preaching to the converted but simply presenting a dozen women's perspectives on life. Although she is not one of the artists on this release, Washington songwriter Holly Figueroa deserves credit for the excellent job she has done in assembling this collection of songs.
The music is indie-pop, the lyrics approximating today's alternative mainstream. This is music meant not to shock but to tell stories and inform. For those who may not be familiar with the women featured on this CD, the performances range stylistically from Sheryl Crow through Jennifer Warnes to Sarah McLachlan. The music is pleasant without becoming boring and the lyrics are worth a listen.
Each song on Indiegrrl Compilation 2 is a well-formed work of art and communication. While each stands on its own, together they form a unified whole that makes excellent listening. As a sample of the various artists or as a release in its own right, Indiegrrl Compilation 2 is definitely worth owning.
The Right Way On
The production quality of this release is exceptional. The sound is full and rich, yet even when many instruments are playing, each can be heard. This is a full-bodied production that fills every corner of the room without leaving that feeling common to digital recordings that there is an empty space behind it all. In making this music, Lawson has gone first class all the way. And still I am not moved by this very beautiful music.
Tim Lawson is a Canadian troubador along the lines of Gordon Lightfoot. Indeed, his sound reminds me most of Lightfoot during his early middle period when he leaned toward a lushly orchestrated MOR pop sound. At times, Lawson's singing also has a David Clayton Thomas sound to it, but always without that emotional edge Thomas brought to his music. In his lyrics, Lawson sometimes wanders away from Lightfoot to sound more like Bruce Cockburn, but again with a facility that suggests the writing is more about making art than a sincere need to speak out.
With its safe approach and beautiful middle of the road sound, The Right Way On should have no problem getting airplay on the CBC and commercial stations across Canada and the United States. All things going well, with the right promotion and airplay, this release should sell very well. There is no denying that everything about The Right Way On is very well done. But is that enough? I would have preferred the songs here to have been recorded, as the old directors would say, "Once more, with feeling."
There is a humility about JP Jones that comes through in his work. Jones refers to his music as "secular...with a spiritual goal." Like the early Cat Stevens, Jones writes songs that have a rich spiritual content but never harangue his listener. Jones' songs bear repeat listening. The message that might have been lost by preaching at an audience is reinforced each time the songs are played. As with Stevens, these songs may be specific to one faith but their message is universal.
It's hard to pin Jones down. His sound tends toward roots rock. His raw vocals and rocking folk backup give him a sound similar to John Mellenkamp, with an occasional slip toward the harder-edged sounds of Bruce Springsteen. A couple of the songs, however, have more of a pop or folk sound. Others feel more like the old country music of artists like Doc Watson, and in songs like "Some Sunny Day" there's even a touch of the blues.
Jones does not have a great singing voice, but what his voice lacks he makes up for in conviction. There is an emotionality to his singing that breaths life into his stories. Jones could give heart to even a poor lyric. His own lyrics are far better than that, making their point simply and unobtrusively. What is strongest in Jones' songs is their apparent honesty.
Jones' ninth release since his debut album in 1973, Ashes demonstrates that this fine songwriter still has a lot to offer. Those who enjoy hearing a songwriter who has finely honed his craft will enjoy the songs of JP Jones.
More than a decade old, the recordings on Up-To-Date stand up as well today as when they were made in 1987 and 1988. This is music outside the constraints of time or fashion. "The Bleacher Lass o'Kelvinaugh" establishes a decidedly folk ambience which, while quickly unseated as the primary focus of this release, remains as an undercurrent throughout. Rod Paterson is not, however, so easily pigeon-holed and catalogued. While this is a very cohesive release, the performances here are diverse and musically interesting.
Although there is a certain folkiness to Paterson's style, he reminds me less of a balladeer than a crooner. Listening to him brings to mind such past artists as Tommy Edwards, Dick Haymes, or Don Cherry. [For younger readers, this is not the same Don Cherry who does colour for Hockey Night in Canada.] While it's difficult to box this music into a specific genre, if pressed I would say it is popular jazz. This is suggested not simply by Paterson's choice of songs but by the instrumental mix that pervades the music.
The three songs written by Paterson establish him as a fine lyricist and eclectic composer. "Roll That Boulder Away" is a religious piece that manages to avoid the cliche and preachiness that often infects such songs. With its semi-spoken intro and it's show-music swing, this song suggests what Jesus Christ, Superstar might have sounded like had it been written in the thirties. The melody and lyrics of "Pierre le Bateau" also bring the Thirties to mind, but the rich backing guitar comes back to Jobim and Sixties Brazilian jazz. "Smiling Waved Goodbye" brings the sound fully into the realm of Sixties middle of the road pop, enriched with warm "Baker Street" sax and some exotic whistles.
While stylistically it seems to span much of the last century, this music manages not to feel old. Very aptly named, Up-To-Date should find a warm and comfortable home in any CD collection.
On first hearing this collaboration by Scotland's Gill Bowman and Karine Polwart, one is reminded of the Indigo Girls. There are many similarities: the well-matched female voices, the twin guitars carrying most of the instrumental load, the folky lyrics and spare presentation. On closer examination, however, there are also many characteristics of macAlias that set this duo apart and even make them unique in the pop-folk music field.
Take, for instance the Indigo Girls comparison. Certainly both the Indigo Girls and macAlias are, at root if not entirely, rooted in folk traditions. And both tend to work around and even stray from these traditions. The Indigo girls often seem to be playing acoustic rock, driving the music forward with their strong guitar licks and vocals. Bowman and Polwart, on the other hand, lean more toward older and sometimes even traditional styles of American country music. Their sound is decidedly country.
Where the Indigo Girls' harmonies tend to be hard-edged, with a very indie feel, Bowman and Polwart bring a sweet, soulful Sixties folk sound to their harmonies. At times, the listener can wonder if these two are related, so much do these sound like those much vaunted blood-harmonies.
While macAlias include their own self-penned works, they also include two songs ("The Gowden Locks of Anna" and "The De'il's Awa Wi' Th' Exciseman" by Scottish bard Robbie Burns, a tune by Derek Hoy ("Rantin Dog"), a very Indigo Girls song by Allie Fox ("The Moon Above The Rooftops"), and a very traditional sounding song ("The Violet And The Rose) written by some of America's finest country songwriters.
The tracks on this release range from stone trad to contemporary (so long as you consider contemporary to be anything up to 1962), yet they all stand up well in today's eclectic folk music environment. I think we're going to hear a lot more from macAlias or, if not, then from the two already successful artists who came together to form this collaboration.
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