I always enjoy discovering something special about any new music. So, with this new CD – “Caravan,” I am treated to the refreshing voice of Terry Burns – the youngest sister of the Burns Sisters – a trio that recorded two albums with Columbia Records in the late 80’s and continue to release great music independently - and Ron Kristy – composer of music for many major television shows including PBS documentaries. The duo provides a full rich sound on this collection -- with their harmonies and memorable melodies. It reminded me of the delight my ears were treated to when I listened to Lowen andNavarro years ago. A duo that always produced intense and beautiful songs throughout their career.
The songs on “Caravan” were excellently recorded. It pays to have a good stereo system because the separation of instruments, the voices coming in from one speaker and then the other all added to the haunting sounds of the title track. I’m not even certain if this was planned, but this is the impression my speakers allowed me to experience. Now, while Burns and Kristy are not a dark, moody and mysterious duo their title track “Caravan” did remind me of the finest work of Dead Can Dance. The instrumentation is antique world, the interplay between Terry and Ron Kristy’s vocals are endearing – the vocals are a little mystical – and, sound just a little like a page torn from the songbook of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry – and that’s a compliment. I doubt this was their intention. Music has that ability to summon up reminders and influences in strange ways. I’m sure others will not understand my comparison but I write it here because I listened more than once and that was solidly my impression.
The mandolin anchors this song in an area the other tunes rarely explored. I thought that was quite daring and good – deserving of the title track because it has that seriousness many listeners sometimes prefer over mindless repetitive songs written by so many artists. This song wraps around your ears and with it -- atmosphere.
Atmosphere? Yes, atmosphere. I think that after decades of songs tagged country-folk-Americana-roots – the genre has come to a crossroads where it can be sugar coated pop-country songs that are as popular as yesterday’s peaches and cream or you get this: atmospherics – like the one here in “Caravan.” Something that simply won’t age over the next decades but become something that will be worth coming back to – like a good novel.
The lead track from this well-recorded collection is “Blue Paper Boat,” -- a finalist for the 2012 International Acoustic Music Awards. Vocalist Terry Burns pushes her vocals into high registers here -- yet keeps the flow of honey in her sound perfectly balanced. The song seems to want to take off but remains grounded in the beauty of the melody and clever words: “mending old wounds, sewing up seams.” There’s an old world quality to this song – which helps to remind listeners that there are songwriters and singers who continue to mine something of value rather than bombastic over the top cliché riddled disposable pop-country. This is a nugget.
If it’s late at night, the whiskey is down to the last ¼ of inch, the katydids are singing along with you, and the back porch light is playing host to every flying critter in the yard, your special girl is miles away and the morning is uncertain -- it’s time to play this song again.
Songs don’t always resolve problems – but may shed light on a reality you don’t at first see. There was a similar song years ago by folk singer Melanie – “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love.” These are brave songs that have a tradition all their own.
“Everything” is an upbeat excursion through the ears. A good segue from “Blue Paper Boat.” I hesitate to call it ear-candy but that’s what it really is and it’s delicious. Ear-candy without too much sugar and we’re allowed those rare flavorful moments only our ears can enjoy.
“Peace In My Heart,” is a beautiful piano lead song with Terry Burns’ vocal pouring like syrup. Each new song explores new territory – whether this was intentional or just the way I am interpreting it – this exemplifies the duo’s fine diversity. A peacefulness is threaded throughout this tune and it borders on being “commercial” and standard but it doesn’t cross that line. It never does. Instead, the arrangement is far above that style song. I appreciate it when the words seem to go along with the melody in a meaningful, well-thought out manner. The song with the word “peace” in it may suggest a heavy-handed religious, spiritually oriented direction. But, it’s never imposing in that manner -- just gratifying in a soulful way.
“If I Fly,” is more aggressive. Clever lyrics sung once again by Terry in a clear drift over the percussion like a bird gliding fast across the waves of the ocean kind of way. Ron Kristy’s acoustic guitars surround the song like a breeze. Cool and tight.
This album is peppered with fine songs by first class writers too. Pam Rose wrote several with Terry Burns and Cathy Majeski. Pam, once a member of Kennedy-Rose has had songs covered by Martina McBride and Patty Loveless. Kim Richey has a consistent successful solo career and Leslie Duncan writer of “Love Song,” performed it with Elton John way back in 1974 and Elton included this one on his Tumbleweed Connection album. Since then, the song has been covered by many well-known artists through the years. Leslie also contributed vocals on several classic albums.
Then there’s Julie Miller who continues to sing and write with her husband the ever reliable Buddy Miller.
“Seventeen Again,” is a mandolin driven tune with sentimental lyrics. Younger people may not “get it” because they haven’t lived long enough to understand reminiscing or digging through memories that were cherished long ago and perhaps – taken for granted.
Songs like this can be campy, sappy and melodramatic but Terry Burns’ vocals have strength and her approach is prominent. She stretches the line of words “some…..things…..never….change” and for me it’s impressive because an average singer may not have interpreted that way. This line could have just been sung straight -- but it wasn’t. It was sung by someone who must have known, could have known -- the value of the impression these words would leave in a listener’s ears. Am I right? Who knows? It may have just been cosmic that it was done this way. But, it works.
Life today is lived fast and in a chaotic world -- we don’t always realize where our memories are being stamped in our memory. We are sometimes lucky we are able to recall anything of value at all. But, wishing you were 17 again – when you’re actually 17 you don’t realize that importance. Or, even the treasure of those first friends that started out in life with you.
It is said that the people you go to school with early in life are your real friends – and that everyone that follows is actually just acquaintances. If a kindergarten friend from decades before passes away, that death will hit you harder than if your every day best friend should pass away. Those first people – those are the lifetime friends.
Terry’s version of “Love Song” with Ron’s finger-picking guitar is a new version worth hearing. I listen for sincerity in a voice. Many people sing well – but they usually just sing words, hit the notes, stay in tune and follow the melody and do a credible job. But, a professional needs to take this to another level to make it special. That level of singing must have an understanding of the words and provide a sincerity in the voice. Terry’s vocal surrounded by Ron’s melodic tones on his acoustic and his gentle supporting vocal just under the surface – render this old song -- new life.
This is a song requiring vocal maturity to convey poignancy in each word – it could only be sung by someone who must be wise. Terry certainly succeeds here.
Julie Miller’s song“All My Tears,” is a wise follow up to “Love Song.” I enjoy how Terry is able to vocalize every word clearly without falling prey to mumbling a little for “art’s sake” – especially since many of the greatest singers in this genre resort to some stylistic mumbling, rushed pronunciations, running words into each other for effect. Terry’s perfect diction with a lyric like “All My Tears” actually generates a song that is much more an interest to listen to. Terry doesn’t possess that deep Celtic vocalizing of a June Tabor – but she somehow reminds me of Ms. Tabor as she sings these penetrating words that is folk-country-roots at its masters’ degree level. This music simply could not have been scrawled off on some grocery list but must have been a well thought out piece of work by Julie Miller that no doubt gave country-roots-Americana the respect it rightfully deserved. Terry and Ron have a Picasso song here that Julie Miller would be proud of.
“Standing Like a Tree,” is another hauntingly beautiful song that teeters on that Dead Can Dance mysterious musical approach. Written brilliantly by Betsy Rose -- from her album “In My Two Hands,” this song offers Terry a heavy subject. On first listen you may even mistaken it for a children’s song like Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game,” but this has roots in a different dirt. Very poetic, deep and woven into a tapestry of images that like “All My Tears,” is country-roots-Americana of a mature form. Terry’s version is framed in gentle acoustics and percussion – quite compelling.
Terry’s vocals also are reminiscent on “Standing Like a Tree,” of the late Judee Sill – writer of the classic “Jesus Was a Cross-maker,” a song Terry Burns’ vocals would certainly embrace and embellish very well. (Hint).
As a former disc jockey I always listen to songs and wonder how I would book-end them if I played them on the air. What should be played before it, and after it? Judee Sill would certainly be important here. Her song would be the logical choice and in choosing the right songs to book-end an equally fine tune is building on those songs importance. They belong together like a fork and knife. Their messages mesh. They don’t even have to have the same “subject” just the same atmospherics.
There are many contributors to this fine album “Caravan” – Pam Rose and Cathy Mejeski themselves play acoustic guitars along with Ron Kristy. All supporting musicians turned in fine performances and nothing was overbearing. Some songs will impress immediately, and some will take a few listens to appreciate. That’s human nature. But the work as a whole is ambitious. Not all music has to be challenging with guitar solo flourishes and drums banging away like a thunderstorm. This is fine songwriting, married to excellent singing and performing with thoughtful arrangements. An entire program of Burns and Kristy could only be one that would satisfy the soul. If you’re angry, upset, concerned, anxious – the medication may just be Burns and Kristy music. And the pharmaceutical companies have nothing to compare to it.
One of the wonderful aspects of this CD and the work of Terry Burns and Ron Kristy is their generosity. I am told that 5% of all proceeds from "Caravan" will be donated to Mira's Movement, www.mirasmovement.org (which helps raise awareness and support for families who are facing the challenge of childhood cancer) and to support groups working toward the healing and restoration of the environment.
It seems musicians are always the first to step up to the plate when the needy require help.
Please read more about Burns and Kristy at their website:
Burns and Kristy have six California shows scheduled beginning January 26th – full schedule is on their website. Following this in March there will be a Wellsville, NY show.
John Apice / No Depression / January 18th 2013