CD Review – Geoff Union – Cold As Steel
Austin, Texas singer/songwriter and guitarist Geoff Union sent me his new solo CD “Cold As Steel,” and my first impression was that instrumentally, this music was some of the best “front porch pickin’” I’d heard in a while. Surrounding himself with some of Austin’s finest musicians, it’s relaxed and comfortable, but still tight and energetic. Geoff used to be a member of Austin’s hot “Two High String Band,” that at one time included banjo super star Alan Munde. Billy Bright, producer and mandolin player on this project, was also a member of THSB. This recording was done at Billy’s Mando Cave Studio in Wimberley, TX.
Geoff wrote all of the songs here, including “Devil’s Card” and “Water In The Well,” which he co-wrote with Jim Harris. Two are instrumentals, “Half Past Zero” and “Fannie At The Front door.” Besides Billy Bright on mandolin and mandola, Geoff has Ricky Turpin on fiddle, Mark Maniscalco on banjo and Steven Crow and Dom Fisher sharing the bass duties. Christina Union contributed all the harmony vocals for Geoff.
“Half Past Zero” is a jazzy number that Geoff states he modeled after the early David Grisman bluegrass/jazz “Dawg” sound. Geoff plays big fat staccato chords on his rhythm tracks and precise octave licks on his lead lines that sidle right up to Ricky Turpin’s stinging fiddle lines. The song has more of a Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli feel to me. Mandolin and bass solos also get a chance to sparkle on this one. The songs “hook” lines held the arrangement together beautifully, and all the players echoed that hook to keep it memorable. But the song was about a minute too short….. I kept waiting for Geoff to just let go and let his hot licks fly! Geoff’s name is on the CD cover, he wrote the song, and this would have been a perfect vehicle for him to pull out all the stops, throw himself front and center and kick this song right in the behind! It could have gone from being a good song to a tour de force if he had been more aggressive and adventurous.
The other instrumental, “Fannie At The Front Door” DID take off! Geoff and Ricky’s parallel guitar and fiddle lines are super tight, and Mark’s right hand banjo rolls are especially good, too. The entire band was cookin’ on this one, and I think it’s the best song on the CD. Geoff played marvelously on it. The band obviously spent a lot of time working up strong, original and musically articulate arrangements on each and every song.
I admire an artist who has the gumption to record an entire CD of original material. But, Geoff seems content being a member of the band. He doesn’t seem to relish the self promotion needed to take the spotlight with this “solo” CD. Maybe I took the entire emphasis wrong from what Geoff had in mind….. maybe he wanted it to be a band excursion. Either way, I don’t think Geoff was ready for this project.
Geoff’s writing is uneven. Both songs he co-wrote with Jim Harris are good, solid and well presented songs. Both instrumentals are well written also. Three others are just representations of Geoff’s writing style. I would not have included “Lewis Redmond” on this record. More time should have been spent on the lyrics, editing redundancies and custom fitting those lyrics to the timing of the song. If that extra work had been done, the vocal would have been stronger and not so hesitant. The story line itself would have been more understandable. Too many words can stifle the vocal and ruin the flow of the entire song. The song felt a long way from being finished. The best way to check if your lyrics are working, is to read those lyrics aloud without the music. If the writer can make his words conversational and naturally roll off the tongue without having to change up the timing to accommodate the lyrics, then they are going to sing just as easy.
Geoff’s vocals are either hit or miss….. the faster the song, the more engaged and focused he seems to be. The vocals sound neglected, like not enough time was spent recording them. In order for the vocals to be as strong and vital as the instrumentation, the time in the studio has to be spent on each phrase and note. To make the weaker parts of a CD shine, they sometimes just require more effort. Killer instrumental tracks don’t make up for weak vocals. Just like killer vocals can’t carry weak instrumentalists. What you end up with is only 50% of what you set out to accomplish. For all it’s good points, there are equal and opposing weak points that keep this CD from being a complete success.
Nothing pleases me more than when I get to hear new music! I ALWAYS feel I get more OUT of doing these reviews than I put INTO them. Geoff is a very talented guitarist, and his song-writing is only going to get better as he hones his craft. He knows how to tell a story, he just needs to learn the art of simplification with his lyrics. Sometimes less adds to the mystery and the nuances of the story line. NOT telling all the details can be the difference between a song and a HIT song!
The studio should be his experimental home until he figures out just how to turn his voice into a one-of-a-kind, unique instrument all it’s own. Try everything! Softer….. louder…..different keys….. talk/sing the story….. whisper the lyrics….shout the lyrics! Keep trying until you stumble onto YOUR VOICE!
Thank you Geoff for letting me get the chance to hear who you are…..
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