First listen reviews: Darrell Scott, Toh Kay, and more
It’s been a while since I dug into my review stacks and came out with a round of first listen reviews for you folks, so I decided to have at it this morning. I had to rip myself away from Paul Simon’s Songwriter collection, mind you – probably one of my favorite “greatest hits” releases in some time.
As you read, know these were literally my first impressions. I listened to each disc only once. Should I decide to write more in-depth reviews of any of these, they’ll come after at least six or seven more spins. In the meantime, some new music to love (and some about which you might feel ambivalent at best):
Darrell Scott – Long Ride Home (Full Light Records, due 1/31/12)
Darrell Scott is a remarkably gifted songwriter. I know that going into this, so I suppose that makes me a little biased. There’s always a certain amount of rainy melancholy to his songs. Not the kind of melancholy which comes with heartbreak, but the kind that’s a little more cyclical, like you can just crank it up and watch all the beautiful, bounteous trees shake off their dead leaves. Of course, by the time this disc drops in January, we’ll all be holding our breath for spring…
Anyway, he’s got an all-star cast together for this one: Patty Griffin, Guy Clark, his dad Wayne Scott, Tim O’Brien, Charlie McCoy, Mickey Raphael, Lloyd Green, John Cowan, Rodney Crowell. Sold yet? The music’s good. The kind of stuff you’d expect from that kind of bunch. “It Must Be Sunday” is sad heartbreak. “Hopkinsville” is a rollicking hoedown that sounds like it came straight off a summer porch. Sixth track test lands me on “You’re Everything I Wanted Love to Be.” It’s a dancey parlor tune that sounds like it surely was written long ago. Even this one is a little melancholy, if only in a nostalgic sense. (“There’s a sadness and I’ve heard it in the breeze / there’s a sorrow in the falling of the leaves / there’s an emptiness when you live your life alone / I’m so glad my lonely days and nights are gone.”)
There are 16 songs here and I’m going to have to give them a lot more time and room than is available in these first listen reviews I do. Let’s just say Darrell Scott is consistent, and this record follows the same reliable creative arc you’re used to, if you’re familiar with his work. There’s a lot of piano, a lot of guitars and mandolins, a lot of voices. But, let’s face it – Scott’s work is about stories, and this disc is full of them. It’s pulled from the past three decades of his songwriting life, including a couple he wrote with his dad when he was 16. It’s a lot to digest, which is a good thing. Means the disc will have some staying power on my speakers. I’ll leave it at that and come back to it when I have more time.
GRANT DERMODY – LAY DOWN MY BURDEN (Self/Hearth Music, 2010)
You may know, if you read this site frequently, I’m writing a book about Zilphia Horton – the overlooked-by-history teacher from the Cumberland Plateau who introduced songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” to the labor and civil rights movements. The former was originally a hymn titled “I’ll Be Alright Someday.” Zilphia got a hold of it in 1946 when some food and tobacco workers came to the school and sang it for her. She loved the sentiment of a later verse in the song, which asserted, “I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome someday.” She worked with a couple of her students, and got it down to three solid verses which could be easily adapted to any situation of struggle – “We will organize / god is on our side / we will overcome.” She taught it to Pete Seeger in 1947 and he changed the lyric to “We shall overcome” from “We will.” There’s a lot more to that story. Stuart Stotts wrote a great book about it (titled, appropriately, We Shall Overcome), and of course I’ll be going into more detail in my book about the humanity around the song…
Anyway, all this to say I’m beyond pleased when this disc kicks off with the original folk song, “I’ll Be Alright.” I wasn’t familiar with all these verses, and it looks like maybe Grant added a few of his own. Regardless, it works, and it appeals to me on that personal level, because of what I’m working on. There’s a lovely rendition of “Amazing Grace” on harmonica with a little lap steel in the background, faintly. He’s pulling from deep in the American songbook. There’s even a little Stephen Foster in here (a guy whose work I have kind of a love/hate relationship with because of the abhorrent racism of the minstrelsy tradition, but that’s another issue for another time). Grant does “Hard Times Come Again No More” entirely a cappella. It’s missing some swing for me and comes off a little devoid of any actual sense that the people singing have survived hard times. It sounds a little Salvation Army Band-ish to me, which is maybe not fair, but that’s my first impression. That leads to the final track – a Vajra Guru Mantra, feels a little incongruous and jarring, though it is decidedly well-delivered. Maybe the sequencing on this disc shouldn’t be taken as a rule. For the sheer fact this disc is full of old folk songs, I’ll give it another whirl sometime, but upon first listen my sense is it may have been a much stronger effort if held back to 10 tracks.
MACEDO – FLAGS & BOXES (Moon Gold Records, 2011)
There are definitely some interesting sonic landscapes being built here. Atmospherics. There’s some synthesized tunes stuck up against acoustic piano and various stringed instruments (cello, viola, guitar, bass). Michelle Macedo’s vocals are interesting and lovely. She has that same affect Amanda Shires nails so well – kind of a tremble, but it’s not weakness in that tremble. There’s a knowing strength to it. I’ve never figured out how to describe that vocal affect the way Shires employs it, but here it is again with Macedo.
I’m not sure this album fits into the realm of Americana. There are some interesting pop elements that remind me of Kelly Clarkson’s My December album. A combination of Amanda Shires and Kelly Clarkson, if you can imagine such a thing.
Lyrically, I’m left wanting. Except for “Caught,” whatever these songs are about is buried below that interesting instrumentation I was talking about. Now and then, the instruments drop out and leave room for the song to be a little more vulnerable, but by then it’s too late. Much like that Grant Dermody disc, this one seems like it could have withstood a few cut tracks. I understand the impulse to record every song you’ve written lately that you like (I’ve done it too), but that doesn’t always make for a solid final product. Sometimes the real project, if it’s going to hit hard, is better served as an EP. If most of your record is filler between the couple of good songs, it’s better to save your money and focus hard on the strongest tunes, save the others for a future project, or let them go.
The Macedo twins look like nice girls, and I bet they put on a good live show. There’s enough real music happening here that I can’t write the duo off altogether. But, this record misses the target.
TOH KAY – STREETLIGHT LULLABIES (Pentimento, 2011)
The guitar part that kicks this disc off grabs me immediately. It’s just an intro – sort of an up-front cadenza – but it leads into things nicely. This is not a politcally charged record at all, but it feels like a Phil Ochs disc. Very simple, direct story-telling. The singing isn’t brilliant, the melodies are familiar enough that they’re almost predictable but not quite. Yet, it all holds together tightly through the strength of Toh’s guitar playing and storytelling. I’m surprised and impressed enough that I read every word inside the case and want to listen to this record start to finish.
Not for nothing, but there’s a photo on the cover which shows simply a streetlamp shedding light on cobblestones. It’s not a brilliant photo, but the story of it on the inside captures a lot of the spirit of this disc. Looking at the photo now and then as I type this and the music plays from my speakers feels like a full experience – one of those old timey things connecting physical presence to intangible music – the way we used to listen to music before downloads made purchasing an actual physical album unnecessary.
This disc didn’t come with a press release, just a one-paragraph note from the label saying they like it and hope I do too. The whole experience is so simple and straight-forward, I love it. It strikes me the same way the Milk Carton Kids did. In fact, a double bill of MKC and this guy would be a formidable bill. I predict this record will get a lot of mileage in my life. How wonderful and rare, and unexpected! I even used an exclamation point.
CAROLANN AMES – LAUREL CANYON ROAD (Self, 1/17/12)
I think Carolann might be of interest to anyone who appreciates Claire Lynch, although her songs are decidedly not bluegrass (or anything else, for that matter, which makes it solidly Americana). Carolann’s got a nice band together and they seem to know each other’s impulses pretty well. That, or the record is wonderfully rehearsed and produced (both?). Their presentation is very crisp and clean. I usually like a little more dirt under the fingernails, a little more rust in the voice. But, this disc will probably hold up well on road trips. There’s a lot of sunshine in it.