Welcome to Issue 26 of MMReview!
Slipcrackers: (Quick reviews of albums that almost slipped through the cracks, but are way to good to let pass without comment.)
Bearfoot is an Anchorage, Alaska-based band that met while they were counselors at a bluegrass camp for children and teens. They do not consider themselves to be a bluegrass band because as they somewhat jestingly say, they could not find a banjo player among their Alaskan contemporaries. Like many of youthful bands influenced by bluegrass, they have taken some of the sensibilities and spirit of the music and blended it with traditional music and their own perspective as songwriters. The vocals are mostly handled by the newest band member, Odessa Jorgensen. Her voice has a sultry cheerfulness, but if she sang the blues she would sound a lot like Lucinda Williams. The other men and woman provide backing vocals rather than strong harmonies. Garry West’s production showcases the band’s charisma and musicianship, adding Larry Atamanuik on drums and a touch of banjo from Compass Records’ co-founder Alison Brown. If this album is any indication, Bearfoot is a band to seek out and see live! —Michael Devlin
On first listen, without research, this sounds like a first album by a new artist. The songs have the fresh quality of a writer sharing his thoughts and feelings for the first time. He sings about treasured memories and things that are near and dear. He is unabashedly spiritual and casually reflective. He has the knack of saying a great deal in a few words. His voice is pleasant and familiar, like Dan Fogelberg in a quiet mood. The playing and production of the album is sensational in a non-sensational way. As I listened, it began to dawn on me that Brickhardt is no beginner. It turns out that Craig Bickhardt is a well-respected Nashville songwriter who has been recorded by such talented famous musicians as Johnny Cash, The Judds, Ray Charles, B. B. King and others. He is joined on this album by fine studio musicians and headliners including Beth Nielson Chapman, Janis Ian, Maura O’Connell, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott and others. Bickhardt treats us to songs from a mature perspective, such as “A Day Well Spent.” “All my days were numbered from the moment of my birth./ It’s taken me ten thousand just to know what one is worth. If I gain this wisdom from each casual event/ Then every day it cost me was a day well spent.” “This Old House” is written from the perspective of a house being left by the family that grew-up in it. “I remember where the hammer and the band-aids used to be.” My favorite song is “Donald and June,” about a couple who seemed struggling through a life that was not exactly what they wanted. But the point of the song is profound. “If things were different for Donald and June, then things wouldn’t be what they are. Where did they go right and how did they ever come so far?” Fine stuff from a man who is not a newcomer at music or life! —Michael Devlin
Susannah BlinkoffLets Pretend
Dale Ann Bradley has been the IBMA’s female vocalist of the year for two years running. In terms of notoriety and real talent, that’s the inverse winning on an idol-search reality TV show. Bradley is too real for a reality show, with a voice and style as timeless as the “backwoods holler” she grew up in. Bradley’s singing is all about the songs, be they spirituals, Carter Family country, bluegrass originals or classic rock. She does not merely do these various songs in “her style,” but gives each of them their own musical space. Bradley covers a few Louisa Branscomb songs and co-wrote two. (Branscomb is a well-respected songwriter who has been recorded by some of today’s most prominent musicians including Alison Krauss.) Bradley takes Christie McVie’s “Over My Head” to the country with help from Alison Brown on banjo, and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” has never sounded better thanks to lively harmony singing from Bradley, Steve Gulley and Roscoe Morgan. Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Tim Laughlin on mandolin and Mike Bub on upright bass round out the top-shelf band. This is a fabulous album, start to finish, deserving of whatever awards are given for such fine things. —Michael Devlin
Catie Curtis has always been one of the singer-songwriters most likely to break through to popular success. Her songs are catchy and frequently topical. Her voice has always had the sultry octave flip that recently was de rigueur for platinum-selling pop divas. She’s been popular with the Lilith Fair audience and her albums are radio-friendly. She’s even had her songs featured on popular TV shows and independent movies. After two albums for Compass Records, Curtis has finally taken advantage of the musical opportunities of working with producer Garry West and company. This New England woman sounds right at home with the likes of Alison Brown, Stuart Duncan, George Marinelli and other fine studio musicians who gravitate towards the bluegrass side of Nashville. Some of the promotional material on the Compass website refers to the sound of this album as being stripped down, but that misses the mark. The first track, “100 Miles” makes a strong statement musically with distinctive, innovative contributions by Alison Brown on banjo, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Todd Phillips on acoustic bass. The sound is refined, but there is a storm of melodic exploration going on here!
The A.P. Carter title track, “Hello Stranger,” features a duet with Mary Gauthier—a nice contrast of styles and Northern and Southern accents. Darrell Scott lends his ample talents on several tracks with guitar and backing vocals. Don White’s “Be Sixteen With Me” is lots of fun and Jon Martyn’s “Don’t Want to Know (No Evil)” (you may remember the Richie Havens version) has never sounded better or more apropos. Similarly, Richard Thompson’s “Walking On a Wire” sounds great in Curtis’s voice and West’s arrangement.
I’ve had Catie Curtis songs stuck in my head since the mid-nineties, but this album, with its combination of excellent material and virtuoso backing musicians, is in my opinion, her best yet. —Michael Devlin
Anthony D’Amato—Shades of the Prison House
I usually don’t like it when relatively young people with nice guitars assume the identities of old weathered blues musicians. And I’m generally not interested in hearing rehashes of songs that have dozens of definitive versions and hundreds of OK ones. I’m also not fond of people taking it upon themselves to teach me about the blues like it was required reading. So, why do I love every bit of this (and every other) Guy Davis album? Davis approaches the blues with passion, both as a performer and man who believes it is an important part of his culture that needs to be kept alive and vibrant for the next generation. It’s his passion that takes him past just sounding like the hard-living originators of the blues. He plays a role he believes in. When he takes the stage, he inhabits the style he is playing and he’s not shy about playing a wide variety of styles and moods. Off-stage he sounds like a guy who grew up in the New York area, but with the sensibility of one who grew up in a house visited by the leading figures of the civil rights era. He is committed to the blues as a way of connecting to the emotional history of his ancestors. He plays, writes and sings the blues like it means something to him personally. Being so grounded in the music, he is confident enough to highlight Bob Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You” as the title track. He also covers classic tunes that crossed over to the rock audience, such as Hoochie Coochie Man and “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Guy is joined by his son, Martial, who brings hip-hop vocal percussion and attitude to “Words to My Mamma’s Song.” His own compositions range from songs that sound like blues classics, to “The Angels Are Calling,” a spiritual R&B ballad. No matter what you like, or don’t like about the blues, Davis’ spirited vocals and brilliant playing on guitar, banjo and harmonica, combined with his total dedication to his craft, make this an album for all to enjoy. —Michael Devlin
Ani DiFrancoRed Letter Year
2008, Righteous Babe Records
Much of DiFrancos catalogue is autobiographic, so being a fan of Ani is somewhat of a serial experience. Teen fans have quite literally grown up with her, blogging every beat of the heart on her sleeve, while the folks in my somewhat older generation have been cheering her on as she matures. For a restlessly creative artist such as Ani DiFranco, there will be some albums that are interesting transitions and experiments, but make no mistake, Red Letter Year is an arrival! Its not hard to connect her biggest arrival, daughter Petah, with the changes in her music. The teen who started her own record company is now a woman with a one-year-old boss, and a world of love that was previously inaccessible. Ani has always had the tools, the ferocious guitar playing, bunk-defying lyrics, openness to influence and total commitment to her music. Now she has a deeper well of joy in which to base her talent. The songs visit many of the same themes as she has on previous albums, politics, relationships, feminism and self-definition, but shes doing it all from a fresh perspective. Co-produced with partner, Mike Napolitano, the songs are crafted with as much or as little backing as they demand, drawing from indie rock, electronic, acoustic, R&B and even the New Orleans sound of the Rebirth Brass Band. There are many satisfying, beautifully conceived songs to enjoy, but it is hard not to be most charmed by the songs that deal directly with Petah and her birth. In particular, Landing Gear is a song Ill want to share with friends expecting a child. Red Letter Year is a very special convergence of a reason to sing and an artist ready to do so! Michael Devlin
The Gibson Brothers—Ring the Bell
2009, Compass Records
The Gibson Brothers have brotherly harmonies that may remind you of the Louvins. Eric and Leigh are originally from New York’s farmlands, oddly their vocals have a twang that reminds me of Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They sing in the midst of a full bluegrass band, the brothers on banjo and guitar accompanied by upright bass, fiddle, mandolin and resonator guitar. Although the playing and singing is excellent, the Gibsons keep their focus on the songs and lyrics. Whether they are playing a rousing bluegrass tune, or a touching country ballad, Eric and Leigh bring something special with their genetically tuned vocal chords. This is a special sound! —Michael Devlin
Eliza GilkysonBeautiful World
Pierce Pettis has been releasing albums every few years since 1984, and has had many of his songs recorded by popular artists. He has earned acclaim from fellow musicians and reviewers and especially from other songwriters. Although he occasionally tours nationally, many of his shows are in the Southeast, so it is not surprising that many people have not heard his music. If you have, you can’t wait to hear the slightly restrained yet intense vocals and another bunch of great songs. His ability to make his finger-picked acoustic guitar set the mood has often made him the subject of discussion among guitarists. He is not only a preeminent songwriter and performer, but he also makes sure that the songs are explored live and ready before they are recorded. When brilliant players like Stuart Duncan, Byron House, Garry West and others add their talents to fully formed songs, the resulting tracks are spare and perfectly textured. Pierce Pettis exudes a sense of decency as his songs keenly observe the things that make us human. He is a master at crafting his songs, knowing well the secret of taking a simple lyric to another level by combining it with music and melody. “I Am Nothing” is spiritual, with a slowed and smoothed reggae beat. The lyrics reveal a great deal about the struggle between doubt and belief without being didactic. “I am nothing/ But the angels sometimes whisper in my ears/ Yeah, they tell me things/ And then they disappear/ Though I am nothing/ Sometimes I like to make believe/ I hear.” “Lions Eye,” inspired by C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales, could be a huge pop hit with its built-in familiarity and catchy chorus. “To Dance” could have been written on a songwriter’s dare, yet here we have a gorgeous song about nothing more than dancing. The album closes with a fierce and unusual love song, “Something for the Pain,” which he dedicates to his wife, Michelle. This is a fine album from a man who has a thoughtful and passionate perspective on life and the skill to turn it into accessible and relevant music. —Michael Devlin.
Kimmie RhodesWalls Fall Down
Austin based Danny Schmidt seems to have absorbed the essence of roots music—blues, mountain, rock, as well as picking up something from the great ones who have tread this path before, Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, Greg Brown. The songs often sound familiar the first time you hear them, but as in “Swing Me Down,” a swaying fiddle-dance ode to the footloose, he always seems to head off in a slightly different direction than is anticipated. Musically, the tunes are based on Schmidt’s wonderful fingerpicked guitar, at times bluesy, old-timey or folky. With a light touch, Schmidt and co-producer Mark Hallman add Tex-Mex accordian, horn and fiddle. Backing vocals by Carrie Elkin and Joia Wood are a perfect counter to Schmidt’s unique voice. He explores everything from the mostdelicate shades of love to the simmering dark heart of “Firestorm.” The language can go from crude to lofty in the same song, as in “Grandpa Built Bridges,” describing him when he got old as a man who “wets his own britches if he’s not told,” but also a man who “built bridges like mountains and birds.” It is these polished phrases, like gems on the restless paths Schmidt takes you down, that make this album one you will want to listen to closely, even as the music makes you want to listen frequently. This debut on Red House should make Schmidt an essential artist for a whole new audience! —Michael Devlin
Thom Schuyler is a songwriter for the common man—without the fanfare. His voice is friendly and his lyrics sometimes have the mildly salty air of a neighbor shooting the breeze over the fence. He wears his hurts on his sleeve, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of them. Mostly he sings about things that are near and dear to him, simple and real things like family and faith. His approach to everything is fresh and unaffected, and because of this he seems like a talented newcomer with a fine first effort, touching upon his most important themes. The fact is that Schuyler has been a professional songwriter on Nashville’s Music Row for decades, writing songs for popular country artists, working for record companies and being a leader in the music industry. Schuyler’s ability to write and perform with sweetness and simplicity sets him apart. You may have heard songs about first guitars, awkward dancers and lost loved ones, but his songs are special because they don’t try too hard to be different, they just try to be genuine. The last song on the album combines Schuyler’s most endearing qualities. “Starting To Go” is a song about aging parents that acknowledges the history that shaped their lives, appreciates their sacrifices and laughs at their foibles, all with disarming sweetness. “They fed us and clothed us and sent us to college/ And somehow they met every need/ Now they come for a visit—we hug ’em and kiss ’em/ And count every hour till they leave.” It’s very easy to like this man and his music. —Michael Devlin
Michael SmithLive at Tales From the Tavern TooLove Letter on a Fish
The Waifs—Live—From the Union of Soul
Lucy Kaplansky—Folk Music Society of Huntington, NY
It seems like Lucy Kaplansky has always been a “star” among singer-songwriters. She is much sought-after by the best of her contemporaries as a harmony singer and her albums have offered outstanding versions of their songs. Her own songwriting, usually in collaboration with her husband Richard Litvin, has blossomed over the years. Considering all of her success, it feels odd to say that Kaplansky is a much more compelling artist now than she was several years ago. One might say that her music has deepened in step with her life. She was a downtown New Yorker in 2001, and shortly thereafter a new mother. She has recently lost loved ones, especially her father, and now is experiencing the changes of her relationship with her aging mother.
Kaplansky performed solo, playing both guitar and piano. She opened with a stunning acapella version of the hymn-like “Over the Hills,” a song that could be seen as referring to her role as a child or mother. She frequently told stories and sang songs about or related to her daughter, Molly, who is now six. Kaplansky’s sense of sense of wonder at the love she feels for her is disarming, and the glowing details struck a chord with the parents in the room. Singer-songwriters are often criticized for writing “songs about themselves,” but even though Kaplansky sings about her life, she connects to the part of life that we all share that is bigger than ourselves. Songs about her parents and grandparents balance their losses with remembrance, taken from a perspective that is longer a single generation. Her father’s whimsical song about pi has been in her reparatory for many years, but she is still girlishly proud to sing his song. Joy and mourning are very comfortable next to each other in Kaplansky’s sets because most of her songs find a way to say, “I love.”
Kaplansky asked for requests early in the show claiming that she doesn’t plan-out her shows. I was particularly pleased when she complied with someone’s request to sing “Ring of Fire.” From the first time I heard that song on her CD I was impressed with how she approached the challenge of singing a song so definitively recorded by Johnny Cash. Kaplansky took to the piano to sing Leonard Cohen’s often covered “Hallelujah.” Her daughter’s recent fascination with the Beatles probably had something to do with her covering “Let It Be.” If ever there was a song I thought I had heard every nuance and interpretation of it is this one. Kaplansky’s phrasing and personal emphasis takes this song to a profound new place, curiously appropriate for the current troubled-yet-hopeful state of our world.
As someone who has been blessed with children, and lived long enough to lose loved ones, I feel a deep appreciation for the things that Kaplansky shares with her audience. These are her precious things she is gifting us with, the most poignant things she has come to recognize and understand a bit of. To receive these gifts from such a talented performer is truly sublime! —Michael Devlin