Best of 2009
Buddy and Julie Miller, “Written in Chalk.”
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, “Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women.”
Caroline Herring, “Golden Apples of the Sun.”
Tom Russell, “Blood and Candle Smoke.”Sam Baker, “Cotton.”
The Refugees, “The Refugees.”
Todd Snider, “The Excitement Plan.”
Sam Baker, “Cotton.”
Andrew Bird, “Noble Beast.”
Justin Townes Earle, “Midnight at the Movies.”
Son Volt, “American Central Dust.”
Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, “Here and Now.”
My blog is at Semi-Regular Raves ‘n’ Rants.
Buddy and Julie Miller – “Written in Chalk” (New West). The chuckle, hand claps, and Larry Campbell’s fiddle that open this record signal that it’s time to stop by the Miller’s front porch and have a little thoughtful conversation about life. Buddy and Julie and a bunch of friends — Gurf Morlix, Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris — sing about hard times with uncommon grit, soul, and grace. This is the sound of much of America today, from the nostalgia of “Ellis County” through “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and on to the harrowing story of “Memphis Jane,” the addict.
“Take me back when times were hard but we didn’t know it / If we ate it, we had to grow it / Take me back when all we could afford was laughter and two mules instead of a tractor / Take me back again,” Buddy sings on “Ellis County. But it’s clear those times are gone, never to return.; the song merely pays homage to what was. When Julie adds her little girl harmonies (reminiscent of Rickie Lee Jones), they mesh perfectly, sending the song soaring with loss. “Don’t Say Goodbye” opens with piano and devastating lyrics — “I’m drinkin’ rain and taking pictures in the dark/With some flowers in my hair and a hole inside my heart/And the hole you left in me is so deep and it’s so wide/ If you look I think you’ll see through to the other side.” With help from Patty Griffin, Julie takes the song to devastating depths.
The covers are inspired choices, especially the duets between Buddy and Regina and Ann McCrary on Dee Ervin’s “One Part, Two Part” and Buddy and Emmylou on Leon Payne’s “The Selfishness of Man,” a stunning album-closer. Julie wrote most of the songs while Buddy was on tour last year, but it’s Buddy, with his soulful twang, who handles the bulk of the vocals, fittingly so. One of the year’s best.
Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women – “Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women” (Yep Roc). Just hearing Dave Alvin and the greatly underrated Christy McWilson duet on rousing versions of “California’s Burning” and “Weight of the World” would be enough to make this one worth your scratch. Alvin’s resonant bass and McWilson’s rollicking tenor are a perfect match, among the best pairings in folk/rock. But those are just the top on a disc full of highlights, including a Cajun reworking of The Blasters’ classic “Marie, Marie,” Alvin’s nostalgic trip back to meeting Joe Turner on “Boss of the Blues,” and the appropriately somber “These Times We’re Living In.” Alvin’s has assembled a stellar band, including Cindy Cashdollar playing slide guitar, Laurie Lewis on fiddle, Nina Gerber on electric guitar and Amy Farris. McWilson is present throughout, her aching, emotional vocals matching Alvin note for note.
The impetus for this disc was the death of Alvin’s buddy, Chris Gaffney, of liver cancer last year. Gaffney had been a key part of Alvin’s rock band, The Guilty Men. Rather than continue without him, Alvin asked Cashdollar to assemble an acoustic backing band for a live show and she came up with an all-female group. It’s hardly surprising the ambitious Alvin has taken another twist in the road. He has fashioned a long and varied career, moving from The Blasters to X to The Knitters and to a solo career that includes reworking his own superb songs repeatedly (and to great effect) as well as covering classic folk songs and even his sublime disc covering California songwriters. He’s matured into a fine singer, a sort of rootsy Leonard Cohen, and his writing is consistently compelling. This may be his best yet.
(Caroline Herring was reviewed previously here).
Tom Russell says his latest album is an example of “desert noir” and he thinks we’ve beaten the Americana references to death. Call him an American composer, small c. He’s spent 30 years earning that title, chronicling the fading West and a cast of characters from Muhammad Ali to Mickey Mantle to Picasso. He’s not afraid to match his literary aspirations — there are references to moveable feast, darkness visible, Graham Greene, and a song inspired by a Joan Didion essay here — with his rich, weathered voice.
He’s always been a restless artist. “Blood and Candle Smoke” benefits from his searching for the next step, matching him with members of Calexico who lend atmospheric trumpet, keyboards, and a more solid bottom that his past efforts. It’s a richer sonic palette, well suited to the tunes. The tunes range from the autobiographical, including “Nina Simone” about the first time hearing her voice, “Criminology,” about his time in Africa, and the fine opener, “East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam,” contrasting Russell’s teaching in Nigeria in the late 1960s while men his age were going to war.
“Mississippi River Runnin’ Backwards” opens to “Old Man River” then surveys the devastation loosed upon the land. “Feast and famine, y’all. Fire and flood. Abominations you understand. Don’t need no Old Testament prophet to tell me we ain’t living in the promised land” to a southwest/New Orleans vibe. He explores river towns in “American Rivers,” visits Mexican believers in “Guadalupe” and a look at Native Americans dying literally and metaphorically in “Crosses of San Carlos.” There’s also a typically wistful picture in “Santa Ana Wind,” another fine duet with longtime collaborator Gretchen Peters. In keeping with recent albums featuring a song biography or two, Russell profiles Mother Jones in “The Most Dangerous Woman in America.”
Russell has released two dozen albums, many of them ambitious, over his career. “Blood and Candle Smoke” is one of the best in a canon that’s established him as a compelling chronicler and American composer. It’s one of the best discs of the year.
Andrew Bird – “Noble Beast” (Fat Possum). Bird may have earned a reputation as a hyper-literate songwriter who makes folk pop music with his virtuoso violin work over the previous four albums, but on his enchanting latest, it’s his whistling, hand claps, and easy melodies that step to center stage. “Oh No” opens the album with strings, whistling, and Bird’s inviting crooning, setting the stage for the catchy, easygoing listen to follow. Not that Bird is unambitious. Lyrical turns include words like radiolarians, Souverian, plecostomus, Lisboans, and onesies. Songs like “Fitz and Dizzyspells” and “Effigy” showcase his violin playing, but also offer modern roots twists. The environment, lost youth, and war are explored. But even if you don’t get lost in the wordplay, the music –the sound — of “Noble Beast” keeps you engaged. This beast is a charming record deep enough to reward repeated listenings.