JIM LAUDERDALE ~ Could We Get Any Closer?
Like black pepper to almost any dish, Jim Lauderdale’s voice and delivery seem to blend in well with whatever style of music fascinates him. Starting out as roots rocker, he graduated to country. He’s been a folk singer. He can bellow out the blues. Several years back, I saw Jim at a late night jam in Nashville following a Folk Alliance Conference. He was trying to follow along with Peter Rowan in a bluegrass session. He didn’t know the chords, but he was infatuated with the power of the music. His last three albums have focused on what he experienced that night.
The instruments behind him are what you’d expect, but the songs and arrangements are mostly his. “All She Wrote” is a frustrated look at the one sided-ness of relationship break up. And he’s right. It takes two to agree to marry, but if only one wants out, the result is usually divorce. On a happier note, in the song “Today,” Lauderdale reminds us to acknowledge our love out loud. His Hartford-esque string arrangement of fiddles and cello make the point even sweeter. In one of his first environmental discourses, he lashes out against strip mining and deforestation in “The Ghosts of The Ridge.”
His complimentary players are like a who’s who of bluegrass. Clay Hess (Mountain Heart) and Cody Kilby (Ricky Skaggs) play guitar. Adam Steffey (Dan Tyminski) and Jess Cobb (Infamous Stringdusters) are the mandolin players. Charlie Cushman and Terry Baucom share the banjo work. Tim Crouch and Aaron Till are the fiddlers. Bryn Davies is featured on cello and bass. With this library of talent and Jim Lauderdale’s growing confidence as a bluegrass singer and writer, look out. (JB)
CATIE CURTIS ~ Hello Stranger
Part of the Beatles success was that they went through phases. They were always one step ahead of their audience, attracting a crowd and then changing to keep themselves interested and their fans curious. Catie Curtis is not afraid to reinvent herself either.
Years ago she was a Kerrville folk singer, before adapting a very polished Triple-A sound. Folk Alley plays many of these contemporary songs because of their depth and polish and to give youth to our sound. In fact, her last album (Long Night Moon) was so slick we are looking forward to what was next. Hello Stranger was a surprise. It’s positively delightful, but this time it’s all acoustic.
The songs are mostly covers (Richard Thompson, Cat Stevens, John Martyn, The Carter Family…) though she has re-recorded a few of her own songs. One of those is “Passing Through,” co-written with Mark Erelli. Darrell Scott sings along this time, and Stuart Duncan plays fiddle. Both can be heard throughout the recording. Since Catie is on Compass Records she can use Allison Brown’s connections, along with Allison’s talents on banjo. Another is “Dad’s Yard” a touching recollection of fathers everywhere who could never throw anything away.
The covers are also a nice surprise. She tears up Richard Thompson’s “Walking On a Wire” and revives Yusuf Islam’s (Cat Stevens) “Tuesday’s Dead,” making us remember why we fell in love with so many of his songs. With recent releases Catie Curtis and her producers perfected a contemporary style. Hello Stranger is more traditional sounding. She does both with flair. The only question now is…..what’s next? (JB)
THE LOW ANTHEM ~ Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is named as a reference to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Becoming interested in Darwinism, singer Ben Knox Miller had grown to analyze situations and institutions outside of the natural realm using the ideological framework of natural selection to think about man-made institutions like academia, business, and politics. So, if this were applicable to music, then logically the best music would become the most popular. Too often, this is not the case. Too often, we’re forced to listen to music that is only popular because a business or a television channel or a radio DJ forces it upon us. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin gives hope to the idea that natural selection might be applicable to music.
The Low Anthem has steadily been gaining popularity since Charlie Darwin’s June release. They’ve been invited to play to play large festivals like Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival along with constant club dates. At each of these performances, the Low Anthem has always performed with ferocity and passion. This CD captures that live emotion in a very honed and masterfully produced way.
Upon initially hearing Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, the listener is introduced to the unhurried and legato title track by a gentle yet commanding alto voice. This elegant melody does not belong to the group’s only female, Jocie Adams, as an initial listen might suggest. Instead, it is the falsetto voice of Ben Knox Miller who sings the majority of lead vocals throughout the album. In contrast, songs like “Home I’ll Never Be” and “The Horizon is a Beltway” are dominated by his very gruff and raspy male lead that is, admittedly, very reminiscent of Tom Waits.
Moving past the vocals, there is an enormous depth and quality to the group’s instrumental musicianship. Allegedly, there are 27 instruments on the album which are indiscriminately distributed among the multi-talented band members.
Undoubtedly, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is incredibly polished, but never once sounds overproduced or over thought. With each listen, subtle aspects of each song become more prevalent and each work becomes more admirable. (DH)
GUY CLARK ~ Somedays the Song Writes You
Not one to rush his work, Guy Clark has a relatively slim catalogue when taking into account the years which he’s been playing. It seems evident that he puts out an album only when he feels it is truly ready, with only the songs that are the best he has to offer. His newest release, Somedays the Song Writes You, is no exception.
Clark is a songwriter’s songwriter. He’s a rare breed of musician whose work is primarily made famous by other performers, while he has still made a name for himself as a performer. Like his late peer, Townes Van Zandt, Clark isn’t known for his voice. He’s known for his lyrics.
Somedays the Song Writes You is an instrumentally sparse and obviously lyrically driven album in which Clark is backed by a more than capable group including Bryn Davies, Verlon Thompson, Shawn Camp, and Kenny Malone.
In the album’s second track “The Guitar”, Clark is a troubadour with a story to tell of an instrument that was made specifically for him – a metaphor perhaps for his life’s work. He is a balladeer in “All She Wants is You” and a social commentator in “Hollywood”. But throughout the entire album, Clark is a poet, crafting every word he sings.
A lyrical centerpiece which seems to define Clark’s outlook on songwriting is “Hemingway’s Whiskey”. Comparing the drink to language, Clark proclaims that it should be “warm and smooth and mean,” never “watered down,” and always “straight up.” That’s how this album is. It is simple, clean, harsh at times, and intoxicating. (DH)
By Jim Blum and Doug Hite