Photo by Susan Wilson

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Lui Collins

Lui Collins
Leaving Fort Knox
2000, Molly Gamblin Music

I have been a fan of Lui Collins for a while, so it is hard to be completely objective, but as I try to listen to this CD with fresh ears several things jump right out at me. The first is how at home she is with her voice. It is strong and pure, yet distinctively her own and never forced. With it, she makes agile melodic twists and antique turns of phrase seem as natural as conversation. Another is the wonderful less-is-more production of this album. To be sure, there are fiddle, banjo, mandolin, acoustic bass, and drums (on just a couple of the songs), but it’s a tasteful mix in which you can hear every note.

The songs are of the highest quality in both melody and lyric, but it is here that my attempt to fake objectivity completely breaks down. I am familiar with six of the songs. They are on two of the finest records I have ever heard, Paired Down and Paired Down Volume 2. These albums were the result of Collins’ collaboration with Dana Robinson, just the two of them and their instruments, recorded live in studio. When I interviewed Collins and Robinson in the past they indicated that they would soon be pursuing solo careers. I thought to myself, "Fine, as long as you include each other in everything you do!" They are off to a fine start apart with this album—Robinson’s made-for-Lui harmony singing and sensitive instrumentals enhance most of the songs and he also produced the record. (Robinson’s own triumphant solo release, The Trade, is similarly enhanced by Collins’ presence.) Not only do Collins and Robinson sound good together, but they share a common vision about producing a distinctive music that draws from a broad range of mostly American folk music.

The CD starts with the contrarily bright-sounding "Things to Do," [RealAudio clip from] an ode to the personal organizer ruled lives too many of us seem to lead. "Me? Compulsive? Gimme a break,/ I have to work this way." Two songs later we have the yearning "Saudade," [RealAudio clip from] sung in Portuguese and English to a Brazilian melody. This is followed by "Rarest Rose," a triumphant song of reaching beyond one’s own walls, in imagery that could have sprung from an English garden hundreds of years ago. "Leaving Fort Knox" [RealAudio clip from] again covers the theme of personal escape, but this time in terms of the early days of the American fort. "Song of the Waters" is about divorce and leaving children behind, again in imagery and language that would not be out of place many years in our cultural past. Songs with modern references such as "Mystery Play" do not seem out of place, but rather are the logical update of the musical traditions.

Dana Robinson is not the only extraordinary musician Collins has attracted to her fine work. Peter Sutherland and Johnny Cunningham are superb on fiddle. Jenny Hersch and Andrew Kinney alternate on acoustic bass and Gideon Freudmann guests on cello. Rose Sinclair provides accordion and Doug Plavin adds just the right touch of drums and percussion. Collins herself is not the least among these fine players, as her guitar picking is slidey and supple.

There are many sophisticated singer-songwriters plying their trade and there is a strong community of people who are keeping old songs alive. Yet, there are relatively few artists who are bringing a traditional sensibility to modern songwriting, and in the process creating new traditional music. Lui Collins is among the barefoot royalty of this group, even when she wears her All Star hightops!—Michael Devlin

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