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In the first track of this album Rosanne Cash sings, “A river runs through me.” As a mother, wife, daughter of Johnny Cash and survivor of serious illness, she has a flood of emotional currents to channel into her art. She also has the skill and dedication to meaningful expression that transforms inspiration into resonant music. This is her first album since 2009’s The List, a Grammy nominated album of songs from a list given to her by her father. The Southern heritage of her family provides a roadmap for the stories of her past. It is not necessary to catch the references to all of the people and places the first time you listen, because the songs are as catchy as old-fashioned top-forty pop and country songs. One is immediately struck with how well the songs are put together and how one is drawn to the very sound of Cash’s voice. Repeated plays reward the listener with sweet turns of phrase and slowly deciphered details. The songs are simultaneously personal and universal, sophisticated yet accessible. “Etta’s Song” is from the point of view of Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s original bass player, who slapped the strings as the trio established their distinctive “boom-chicka-boom” sound. It is Cash’s touching tribute to a man who was playing music just days before he died. “I’ll make one last rehearsal/ With one foot in the grave.” “The Sunken Land” refers to a hard life lived in the area of Arkansas where Johnny Cash was born. “A Feather’s Not A Bird” is full of details of Cash’s travels, yet it is broad in its appeal. “When The Master Calls The Roll” is a song of newlyweds separated by the Civil War. Its archaic phrasing gives it the feel of a song written long ago, but as with the rest of Cash’s songs, it evokes a profound empathy in the listener. Production by Cash’s husband, John Leventhal, gives each song a unique sound and mood. The use of strings is very effective in the country tinged arrangements, particularly on “The Long Way Home,” where they remind me of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Whether it is the way the songs are linked by Cash’s emotional journey to her roots, or the time-tested skill of all who are involved, this album is more compelling each time you hear it. —Michael Devlin
Slaid Cleaves is not so much a throwback as he is something that comes around once every so often like a comet or a talent that skips a generation. The last couple of times he came around, perhaps his name was Hank, or Woody. He’s a troubadour with a dusty tenor, a couple of trusty chords and a way with a lyric. His website tagline, "Lives in Texas. Writes songs. Travels Around. Tries to Be Good," understates the demanding creed of a dedicated singer-songwriter who listens hard to find songs in the words and lives of ordinary people. Several years ago I remember him saying that he was experiencing a bit of writer’s block, but apparently all he needed to do was travel and listen long enough for stories worth telling. The title track, about a returning Iraq war veteran, is sung with straightforward earnestness to a hard-driving beat. “Hard times coming home now, can’t get your feet on the ground/ Got some issues, and no one wants you around.” “Rust Belt Fields” is from the point of view of an auto worker whose job disappeared when they “shipped the elbow grease/ Down to Mexico/ And off to the Chinese.” The songs are topical yet timeless, and the pared-down personal narratives connect with you the first time you listen. One could imagine him on a street corner singing, stopping people in their tracks to nod and see themselves in his words. Sometimes his inspiration comes from reflecting on his own life, as in “Without Her” inspired by the passing of his dog. If you have seen Cleaves live you will know how appropriate it is that he pays tribute to “God’s Own Yodeler” Don Walser, complete with Slaid’s own sweet modulations. He finds lots of rhymes for Texas in “Texas Love Song” (perplexes, Lexus, multiplexes, solar plexus, Tex-Mex is and text us). “Whim of Iron’s” catchy title whimsically captures the determined spirit of a woman who wouldn’t be told what not to do. His breakup song (presumably not his breakup) “I Bet She Does,” firmly asserts that it’s over while managing to subtly suggest regret. Slaid Cleaves is pretty much today’s answer to “what would Woody do?” —listening as he travels, writing great songs, keeping the sophistication of simplicity alive as an art form.—Michael Devlin
Responding to questions about themes in his music and playing older songs in concert (in an interview with the Music Matters Review when Rocking Horse Head was just released), Forbert said, “I'm just trying to write songs that I feel like I can sing, night after night. I have to feel strongly about them to say they are finished and then to sing them for people and certainly to record them.” I have no doubt that Forbert will be proud to sing the songs from this album for many years to come. —Michael Devlin
Annie Gallup and Peter Gallway have once again incited, inspired and nurtured each other’s muses to craft their third CD in as many years. Gallway is the man with the tall-cool voice and elegantly understated touch on the electric guitar and keyboard, Gallup the siren poet with the breezy voice and sure touch on guitar, banjo and lap steel. They share a passion for their art and the details of sound, word and the spaces in-between. It is hard to overemphasize the cumulative effect of the care and attention they give to every aspect of their music. The arrangements are sparse enough to hear every note of every instrument and the hidden shade of meaning of each word and phrase. Even as they share a profoundly similar musical esthetic, they express their own distinct personalities. Gallway gravitates towards a retrospective voice, and many of his songs have a gently yearning quality. “Just Think Back” looks back to the dawn of his love for music with cinematic detail, “Just think back to that very first tune/ Lights up bright in the living room/ And the TV news got your mama in tears/ And the song that played haunts you all these years.” The details illuminate the feelings that are too illusive to describe. “Up in the County” has an epic quality, celebrating the paradox of isolation and belonging under a big sky where “everyone’s family.” It is a place of extremes, where “It’s colder than Satan” and the river rises, “But up in the county you’re closer to heaven.” Gallup is more likely to explore a single moment or a singular reflection, patiently painting the picture with sensual details pushed to their limits by metaphors and musings. “The way she steps from the shower makes you think/ Of Scarlett O’Hara descending the stair.” Whether she is singing or dramatically reciting her lyrics, her voice draws you into her moment. Musically, Gallup and Gallway’s collaboration is elemental and harmonious in mood and voice. Their feel for each other’s rhythm and syncopation obviates the need for a backbeat. This abundantly talented duo seems to have a genuine and gentle regard for each other that makes this a sophisticated and warm listening experience. Once again, an extraordinarily fine and engaging album. —Michael Devlin
A new album from Patty Larkin is like catching up with an old friend after a couple of years, noting the changes in perspective brought on by significant events. When one has enjoyed her music for more than twenty years, one relishes the time to sit down with the lyrics and do nothing else but listen. Patty Larkin has gone through a few difficult years, losing her mother and father and dealing with her sister’s serious illness. The songs are not specifically about the events in her life, but follow the trajectory of her emotions. The fact that she selected from among forty songs has assured a variety of sounds and detailed spectrum of emotion. The album starts with “Best of Intentions,” sung in her unique rhythmic style, but sounding very much like she’s singing quietly to herself, searching late at night for meaning, “I wish there was something I could believe to belong." “Down Through the Wood” maintains a pensive mood, even with its processed guitar and multilayered production. “Soon as I’m Better” is easy to connect with for fans of Larkin’s wry sense of humor, as it acknowledges our expectation that she will again jest at life, "Soon as I'm better/ I'll be funny/ Soon as I'm able to laugh alone." She surely seems able to laugh in “Mando Drum” as she sings the whimsically staccato Patty Larkin lyric, "Double Double Mocha Mocha Grande/ That’s what I want.” Her guitar, as always an exquisitely rhythmic force, is a bit back in the mix, but the arrangements keep our feet tapping as her groove chameleon vocals tell tales of increasing spiritual momentum. The last song “Because of This,” leaves us quietly, yet hopeful with “I am tearful and grateful/ heart full and thankful and blessed." This is a beautiful album by immensely talented artist who after all of this time is still growing and expressing an ever deepening experience of life. —Michael Devlin
It’s clear from the first couple of bars... this music is real and really good! Lynch’s voice has the sweet high country twang of a teen singing on the porch, but also a deeper womanly tone to tell her stories and tug the heart. There are similarities to Dolly Parton, some in the timbre of her voice, a lot in the way she makes you believe as she sings the heck out of a song. Aside from Lynch’s singing, one is struck by the almost symphonic quality to the down-home instrumentation of the arrangements. This band has a lot going on among the fiddles, mandolins, guitars, upright bass and banjos—not just brilliant picking, but sophisticated, seemingly spontaneous composition. Compass cofounder Garry West surely gets kudos for getting the most out of the Claire Lynch band and guests (Alison Brown, Rob Ickes, Tim O’Brien and others) and making sure they sound great on the album.
It is not always easy to express what it is that makes a particular artist special, but by reading her dedication to her father, one can glimpse the seeds of Lynch’s passion for her craft. “This project is lovingly dedicated to my dad, Evan Lutke - who teared up at a beautiful song, was happy to sing at any given moment and who ‘did his dangdest’ to provide me with an understanding of Truth and Love, not to mention a grasp of the binary system. Two out of three ain’t bad Dad! Thanks for the uke.”
Song after song, one beautiful arrangement after another, you realize that Lynch and her crew are faithful to her father’s inspiration, making true and lovingly crafted music. Some of the lyrics cover subjects you will hear in pop country songs. These songs are immediately likable, catchy and brilliantly played. There are also songs, that while easy on the ears, are deeper and more thoughtful than typical pop. At the heart of this album is one such song, “Dear Sister.” It is a cowrite with Louisa Branscomb, whose great, great, great, civil war era aunt preserved letters home from her brothers. The lyrics are as wistfully plainspoken as those letters, simplicity being the best way to express profound feelings.
Lynch covers Al Anderson and Sarah Siskind’s “Doin Time,” a song that triggers its story with the memorable lines, “I was born with a fire in me, buried under coals/ I lit a match when I was seven, burned down our home.” The next verse reveals a broken romance then the chorus repeats three times (in part) “All that I know how to do is run away/ When I forgive myself, that will be the day.” She also covers Pierce Pettis’s “That Kind of Love” an emotionally soaring song that can be taken with equal grace as an ode to love or a prayer. It will fill your eyes with tears.
Claire Lynch can be claimed by fans of many genres, especially bluegrass since she is a perennial nominee and winner of IBMA awards, but the sound she makes with her band truly belongs in the ears of all who love heartfelt music by accomplished artists. —Michael Devlin
Although this album is a bit of a departure from her work with the Wailin’ Jennys, her syle has always been informed by her training at the New England Conservatory of Music as a jazz singer. Masse has admired Dick Hyman’s work since she was a girl and enjoyed performing with him on A Prairie Home Companion, and was even more delighted to collaborate with him on this album. Hyman is a legendary pianist whose six decades of performing, composing and arranging have proved that he is a master of everything from ragtime to classical. His lucid left and right hand technique coaxes every nuance out of the hammered strings of his piano. Masse’s voice is a beautiful instrument, soulful and earthy, yet effortlessly pure toned and rangy. Hyman and Masse anticipate each other mood for mood, and the way the dynamics of the singer match the touch of the piano is a source of constant delight. The recording captures the grand piano and equally grand Heather in a way that makes you feel like you are in the room with them. Classics like “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered,” Lullaby of Birdland” and “Love for Sale” sound fresh and new, and Masse’s own compositions are at home in their company. The album ends with a playful rendition of “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (and Throw Away the Key),” playfully channeling Lady Day with a girl just wants to have fun attitude. This cross-generational meeting of kindred spirits has given us an album for the ages! —Michael Devlin
Oddly, his voice sounds more or less like you would expect from someone with a name like Gurf Morlix. It’s kind of a cool laid-back rasp, very real and expressive. Also as expected, if you know of his work as a producer, the arrangements are an exquisite Americana blend of acoustic and electric instruments. The studio band is as stellar, as guests Ray Bonneville and Eliza Gilkyson. A glance at the album cover reveals a man with his head in his hands and a time-bomb on the table in front of him. Coupled with the album title, the visual becomes dryly humorous. You won’t find laugh-out-loud jokes in the songs, but there are certainly a fair share of wry turns of phrase. Although the sound is edgy and the lyrics are often from the point of view of people in pain, Morlix manages to elicit respect for the darkest of human moments and the power of the slenderest hope. Gilkyson provides the harmony vocals on the first track, a starkly haunting tale of desperate crime and tormented punishment. The dark mood continues through “Lookin’ for You,” an obsessive song of desire marked by images of blood in shark infested water in contrast with a jaunty slow-walking beat. Song after song, phrases jump out at you— “I slipped through a series of closing doors,” “It’s a small window I’m lookin’ through,” “I didn’t strike the match, but I was at the scene/ Pourin’ on gasoline.” The grooves of sound and twists of expression will keep you listening, even if you are left wondering why you enjoy strolling through these dark places. —Michael Devlin
The fact that this is an odds-against album is a small part of this story but worth mentioning. That Pete Seeger, in his early 90’s and Lorre Wyatt, coming back from a career halting stroke in 1996, still have the talent and strength to make music is inspiring. That they still have so much to say that needs to be heard makes this a vital work. The opening track, “God’s Counting on Me... God’s Counting on You,” sets the tone. The theme is about working together so that “We’ll all pull through.” There are af few specifically political references such as, “It’s time we turn things around/ Trickle up not trickle down.” The song title is also the refrain, reclaiming territory staked out by Seeger and others in the Sixties when progressive causes were expressed in religious terms. The style of this song is unabashedly singalong, with Pete trading verses with Bruce Springsteen and Lorre Wyatt, and with a children’s choir and a stage full of other singers. The duo of Seeger and Lorre gracefully comment on their own seniority and roles with songs such as “Old Apples” (“still can make good sauce”) and “Keep the Flame Alive.” Once again, these folksingers are way ahead of the politicians as they quote the preamble to the constitution in the title track and express optimism for the only sensible option for survival, “Our differences we can transcend.” In addition to Springsteen, notable guests Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Tom Morello and Dar Williams lend their voices. Pete Seeger’s a cappella rendition of “Strange Lullabye” may move you to tears when you think about what it may feel like to be over 90 years old singing this song to a grand- or great-grandchild. “How I prayed you’d be born in time that was calm/ To the trill of the birds not the roar of the bomb/ Though the world is atremble with sickness and fear/ Close your eyes rest awhile, I’ll be near.” “Bountiful River” closes the album, bringing to mind not only the Hudson river that Pete did so much to renew, but the lifetime of song he has given us, “O Bountiful River, we will never part.” What a gift of warmth, wisdom and wit. —Michael Devlin