Beth Nielsen Chapman ~ Prism
Imagine for a moment that you’re not from here. By “here” I mean Earth. You decide to visit for the first time and because you’re curious you ask for an overview of all the world’s religions. You’re not looking for dissertations, rather, you’d like to sample brief but accurate moments of what these various religions are trying to offer. That is roughly what Beth has provided for us. There are Hindu chants, Tibetan singing bowls and Native American flutes. Cuban, European, and African traditions are represented. While some of the songs may be too rock or pop for you, none of them are dry histories and there are no sermons.
For example, Victor Masondo and No Limits joined Beth for “Masibulele Ku Jesu,” a Zulu hymn which they recorded in South Africa. It is positively joyful. Equally thrilling, but completely different is Beth’s own gift to us: “This Life That’s Lent to You.” This song is a wake-up call and a gentle reminder (make that a face slap) that you’re on borrowed time. Beth researched, co-produced, wrote, and sang on all songs and often played multiple instruments. This is not like many of her previous albums, and not all of this is folk music, but who cares. This is a monumental effort, comparable to those from Loreena McKennitt. We’ll be playing several selections and I suspect you’ll notice them as they jump out of your speakers.
The Polyjesters ~ Kitchen Radio
Listening to brothers Sheldon And Jason Valleau and their talented band brings to mind an old, old song title “Ragged but Right.” Except with The Polyjesters, it’s “Wacky but Right.” These guys use songs with a sense of humor to present extremely skilled violin (Drew Jureka) and guitar leads (Aaron Young). Riders in the Sky does the same sort of thing with cowboy music. The songs swing and cover all sorts of topics, such as insecurity, melancoly, and bad weeks. Yet, they are so fun to listen to. Perhaps that’s because we receive a moment of reprise from our confusing lives when we witness someone else’s struggles. In other words, these guys could impress you with serious jazz, but to keep you entertained at the same time, they poke fun at themselves. If you find any recording from The Polyjesters you won’t be disappointed,
I had the great pleasure of being given a CD from the group to hand-deliver to Dan Hicks, who I was about to see. Dan was very moved that this young quintet from Northern Alberta, who have never seen him, admired what he kicked off 30 years ago.
I’m betting you will too.
Caroline Herring ~ Lantana
Caroline Herring interrupted her music career for a few years to raise a family. With this album she is arriving as a professional poet who delivers in song. Herring’s stories ring of her native Mississippi and her years in Texas but she uses sophisticated city smart dialogue to tell these stories. The clearest example may be “Fair and Tender Ladies.”
She borrowed the old song title and delivers a new message and a new melody. Instead of women being painted as delicate, she tells us of three very tough ladies from her home state, a poet, a nun, and an anti-lynching activist. Clever.
“Stone Cold World” was inspired from a trip to Newfoundland as she was surprised by all the rocks and the lack of vegetation. She saw a simliarty to her own life as she was learning how to “exist outside myself.” She was trying to learn how to accept big changes and how to sacrifice. She also writes about the woman from South Carolina who drowned her children in a car in the song “Paper Gown.” Herring is not hesitant to uncover any story, even the ones most of us avoid. She would make a good reporter, except she has too much music in her. That’s our good fortune.
Blue Highway ~ Through the Window of a Train
Blue Highway has always been a slick and powerful contemporary bluegrass band. They’re just getting better and here’s why:
SUBJECT MATTER: This album covers such topics as war, the homeless, and mortality, not normal fodder for bluegrass bands. Familiar topics also surface (trains, lost love, wanderlust) but they are presented with new perspectives. The best one may be “Where Did the Morning Go,” as a man suddenly realizes that most of his life is behind him. Hats off to Shawn Lane, who is still young, for capturing this perspective.
ARRANGEMENT: Rather than verse, solo, verse, chorus, almost all the songs feature split breaks, often with 3 and 4 instruments. Tricky intros and endings indicate preparation (…and Doyle Lawson’s upbringing).
PERFORMANCE: On “Life of a Traveling man,” Rob Ickes jumps on his dobro solo with such passion, that the first notes fooled me into thinking Shawn Lane was starting to cry out another verse. Partly these surprises come from our ear’s trained expectations, but mostly they come because of Blue Highway’s balance – they all play well, and they feature three dynamic lead singers who all harmonize on the money. Speaking of money, go borrow some and buy this disc.