Mark Erelli’s latest project is multi-faceted. The production varies from solo acoustic to a fully electric 5 piece band. There are two very long songs, while others pass by in an instant. He writes about Iraq and personal failures, and features songs inspired by abandoned farms and Studs Terkel. His somewhat raspy delivery is full of insight as you discover new ideology and find yourself thinking twice about the things you previously believed in.
Take for example the album’s first song: “Hope Dies Last,” inspired by Terkel’s book of the same name from 2003. Mark lists examples of recent events in our lives, and wonders if we are NOT improving. It’s hard to disagree. He sings of blame in “Volunteers,” the story of a national guardsman who volunteered for duty but was among the first to be accused, along with other soldiers, when the war in Iraq became unpopular. The album’s best may be “Unraveled,” a road song full of angst, alliteration, and decision. The arrangement is a mix of contemporary and traditional, with guitar, harmonica, drums, and banjo.
There is a note on Mark Erelli’s one-sheet about a “change in direction.” Though Mark is now a father, the change is implied to be musical, but the same vision and savvy still emanates from him; I don’t think he can change that.
A few years ago I interviewed Pete and I was told beforehand that he would not sing or play. Yet, he brought his banjo to the interview. Ten minutes later he was singing and playing. He also said that he would refuse to participate in the three Appleseed Tribute albums — until they were being recorded. He’s on all three of them. Even though he claims he cannot sing anymore and that he struggles to play, he cannot stop, and we are all the more fortunate. He’s trying to be considerate, but I think he knows we still crave him.
He does have a lot of help, however. A large group of family and friends, likely unknown outside his Hudson River Valley, handle the bulk of the singing, and are often featured in choral sing-alongs. Sometimes these arrangements come off a little “stagey,” but they all have strong messages delivered with courage. Pete does play the banjo well and is featured on several solos.
On “At 89” he deliberately sings, plays, and talks. He is candid and as sharp as always. He is disturbed by what he sees, and though forever hopeful, Pete now has serious doubts about the future of the world. I fear that world without him.
Australian Kasey Chambers has fluctuated between rock, pop, folk, and, bluegrass. Despite these swings, she has drawn a different audience with each style presented, and remarkably kept another audience which favors everything she does. With “Rattlin’ Bones” she is at it again. Now teamed with partner (and husband) Shane Nicholson, we have an album of Americana duets. On top of that, they are all original, and they are all strong.
The album’s lead track offers and example of poetic personification with Nicholson talking to sorrow as if it was another person standing there. “Once in a While” is a bittersweet wish to be remembered positively despite falling short in a lover’s eyes and heart: “…If I’m not what you wanted, I hope I gave you a few smiles.” The song “Monkey on a Wire” separates a person from their desires, difficult for most of us to consider. “Wildflower” urges lovers who may be different in age not to give up: “She’s a wildflower; he’s an old man.”
All of these gems are acoustic with a full complement of players (mandolin, banjo, dobro). All of them are bouncy and fun, even the sad ones are a joy to hear because of the connections you make with them.
Years ago we thought it was strange when Johnny Cash recorded versions of his most famous songs in foreign languages. It was even stranger to hear of bluegrass bands from Japan, Italy, Russia, and the former Czechoslovakia. More recently, the Scottish band Shooglenifty recorded a live album in Mexico City. Perhaps it’s not strange at all. There are audiences everywhere who appreciate and enjoy traditions outside their own, and these same individuals realize that they have the power to refuse the pop-pabulum that is being served through conventional commercial broadcast. You can turn off the ordinary and search for the unique. Today the internet (including Folk Alley) makes those searches even easier.
That’s a long way of saying that having a Swedish group Vasen, (pronounced “VEH-sen”) record a live album in Japan may not be odd after all. The audience cheers them on like they were at a sporting event. The sound of the fiddle or viola (Mikael Marin) and the three row chromatic nyckelharpa (Olav Johannsen) is exciting and dramatic even if it is new to your ears. A whole album may be a little same-sounding, but a number of these tunes will really spice up our mix and yours.