Michael Reinhart – eCHO
Upon first listening to Michael Reinhart’s new CD “eCHO” I am reminded of the haunting acoustic songs of James Taylor and the first Simon and Garfunkel album that was bare bones folk before it was re-released two years later with studio musicians adding some muscle to make it more commercially viable.
But, this new Michael Reinhart album doesn’t need any muscle. It has strengths in its acoustic approach that come from form and substance. It’s also a new era where you’re not competing so much with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and there are radio stations that play well-written Americana-Roots-Folk music today. The Bob Dylan-era of folk music in the early 60’s didn’t really last very long. This is one of the reasons Dylan may have plugged in — realizing that if he didn’t — his brand of music would become a dinosaur again and it did.
But today, this music on “eCHO” is excellent late night listening or early morning music just before rising for breakfast. It’s relaxing, and it has its special moments of intensity. The lyrics are especially well-thought out and roam through your ears with details and places.
The opening track: “Horizon Line,” features lines like: “….there’s more miles behind me now… than are left up the road…” It’s a subdued, quiet introduction to the impeccable Michael Reinhart acoustic guitar. Alison Wedding — from Brooklyn, NY — weaves through Michael’s vocals with a soothing haunting background vocal that displays — if nothing else – a mood, an ambience that’s simply lovely, serious and imaginative.
“& You Said Yes,” displays intricate and delightful acoustic finger-style picking stitched into a beautiful melodic fabric. While Michael’s voice is smooth, sincere and is closer to a Townes Van Zandt comparison here I can’t help but hear echoes – no pun intended – of Cat Stevens when Cat (Yusuf Islam) wrote lyrics that were intense, provocative and filled with detail like songs on “Catch Bull at Four,” and “Teaser and the Firecat.” I am listening closely and “hear” that 1970’s Cat Stevens voice – maybe it’s the inflection or phrasing – but, this song is memorable the way Cat Stevens’ best songs were.
There are two other male vocalists that come close to comparisons with Michael and he is in great company because these artists are in a class of their own: I hear with Michael’s gentle touch and sincerity a strong similarity with Martyn Joseph and Marc Cohn. I could listen to these three men all day — their guitars, vocals, ability to tell a story through music are superlative. This is where Michael Reinhart belongs.
Maybe the only criticism that would righteously be leveled at this type of music is its sophistication.
It may be too sophisticated for the average listener. Too deep and personal. There is an audience for this music and it deserves to be heard by a wider one. Everyone, sooner or later, experiences some of the tales that Michael Reinhart relates to on this album. Maybe it’s just about being patient and hoping the album finds its audience. There’s just so many “hamburgers” out in the music world that sometimes we forget what a real steak tastes like.
If you’re a singer who likes to cover other musician’s work – “Bide My Time,” may be a bit too wordy. Lots to memorize and these are the types of lyrics that most other composers shy away from. Yet, whether you read the lyrics or just listen – it does work because it was in the hands of a true artist.
Michael manages to cleverly navigate through this river of words and it’s not choppy, it’s smooth as glass. I don’t pretend to know too much about acoustic guitars but it must be the wood or the finish, or the expensive strings – but, the sound of Michael’s guitar is warm and commanding. The notes that emanate from it find the words where the words should be. Support the words where they need the emphasis. This song is quite optimistic and lyrically — a piece of art.
Joni Mitchell comes to mind as one of those musicians who could write a wordy song and because she’s an artist in a class of her own – she makes the notes fit the syllables. Joni once said she wrote the music first and then she fit the words. That’s even more miraculous. It’s not easy fitting words to music already written. I am not certain how Michael writes but judging from his work — I have to assume the words come first.
Michael Reinhart does that here as well. “Spaghetti interstate turnpike toll road 94 – no time to stop and stare.”
Half way through the song a little accordion snakes its way into the song and suddenly words like “moonless slate black highway, too damn lonely to feel alone…” find their way so you can picture the scene vividly. For some, it may be too detailed but for people who appreciate a great story song in that Joni Mitchell tradition – this Michael Reinhart track gets four stars.
Alison Wedding’s gentle supporting vocal also lifts the large scale track that clocks in at 9:54 but somehow maintains a listener’s interest because it’s carefully arranged and never gets laborious.
“Break Me Into Little Pieces,” adds Sarah Frank’s violin – wisely. This allows the fourth track to take on a different flavor than the preceding songs. It’s more Americana focused than simply an acoustic tune. “…sad king in a homemade crown,” is among some of the clever lyrical twists in this song. Some composers spend as much time on their message as they do simply composing a catchy melody. This is usually where a Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits or a Leonard Cohen usually excel. Unlike so many singer-songwriters who write some brilliant melodies and hooks — their tunes lack any lyrical substance, originality or creativity. Not true here, the words can stand alone and when sung — the words can be heard.
This time, with “Broken Idea” — Michael dispenses with the violin and begins with a sweet European flavored accordion and harmonica taking center stage. Michael’s voice and approach is reminiscent of former King Crimson vocalist-turned-balladeer Gordon Haskell. This even sounds like the type of song Haskell would cover.
Deep, rich and most importantly sincere in its delivery. While this doesn’t sound like a Leonard Cohen inspired song there are lines in the song that I believe Leonard would have liked to have stolen when Michael wasn’t looking (“…you’re crying there in the bubble bath….”). The lead guitar solo is by Noah Zacharin.
The title track “eCHO” follows with a rich acoustic guitar strum and pick as Michael duets softly with Alison Wedding to great effect. This track is strictly a Michael Reinhart song – his personal style is evident here and it works very well in its jazzy presentation.
The song may be too long for some ears clocking in at 6:47 but many songs by other artists can quickly run out of anything interesting to say when other musicians and singers are lean in the over all arrangement.
Sustaining listener interest is not easy once that four minute mark is breached. Not all of us are The Beatles, Procol Harum or Tom Waits and even they gamble when they record long tracks. Nevertheless, “eCHO” is a compelling presentation — worth having patience for.
Here’s a surprise – “Sand Inside the Pearl,” features Michael with a little more vocal grit and Alison Wedding’s spare backup vocal compliments it nicely. At this point on the album I felt the songs started to shift into a more exceptional groove. The others were good, but these became special. As usual, the instrumentation is impeccable and this song is charming.
Musically, it still has a European feel but the vocal is a North American recipe. Anyone who enjoys the approach of Leonard Cohen through the decades with his dark, emotional, romantic and intense songs – will embrace this effort by Michael Reinhart. It has the relish and authenticity of that genre and it never sounds like an imitation but an equally polished gem.
It’s a tale of reminiscence, a second chance to dance with someone endearing, capture a special moment once again. Yet, it’s not mushy or pretentious – it’s just good the way a good ballad and story with a melody should be.
“….finding peace is like straining to hear the grain of sand inside a pearl….” You see? Not your average lyric but music set to poetry and it works in a way that Van Morrison would approve. Or, you could go ask Leonard Cohen….or, Michael Reinhart himself. You’ll probably get the same answer.
“Indian Road,” is an instrumental and it comes just in time. A nice strategic break in the album. Michael showcases his excellent finger-style guitar playing. It’s so well performed that fans of guitarists Leo Kottke and John Fahey would truly enjoy this work. When a musician places a poignant instrumental in the middle of their major works it’s like an intermezzo at a big holiday meal — the fruit cup and cheese before the main course. This is how “Indian Road,” works here.
“eCHO,” is Michael Reinhart’s fifth album – so he is not a novice but a troubadour, a musician’s musician, a poet and a remarkable survivor.
Robert Stagg brings the accordion to this song and now I can add John Prine to Michael’s respective comparisons. “Nola,” is excellent. “Nola, she’s no stranger to death….” What an opening line. It begs to make you want to know more about this woman. “She’s throwing firecrackers into the hurricane’s breath….”
That’s the line that motivated me to mention John Prine.
This tale is so well-written that most songwriters would admire it. I hear Leo Kottke himself covering this song with his deep vocal — it’s the right voice for it. That would be a great endorsement for Michael Reinhart. A concert with Leo Kottke and Michael Reinhart. How excellent would that be?
So many inspiring lines, so many clever twists of phrase, brilliant word play and it’s playful to boot. The accordion and acoustic guitar just play so well together. Some songs stand out and some songs slap you in the face – “Nola,” made my cheeks red. I love it.
“Take Me Away,” brings out some mandolin, violin, cello and accordion. A unique balance of melodic instruments. Nothing on this collection is overbearing. Sometimes you just have to leave the drums in the garage, the saxes and trumpets in the attic, and the Hammond organ and piano in the studio. The majority of these tunes focus on the lyrical aspect, the polished melodies, the details in the songwriting, the sentimentality, and vivid experience of feeling the messages that are intended to go through your ear, into your heart and for a moment — make you stop and listen.
As far as comparisons — I hear the excellent veteran singer-songwriter Phillip Goodhand-Tait. He had that talent for a beautiful melody and The Who’s Roger Daltry knew it when he covered Phillip’s “Ocean’s Away.”
There is a sadness in some of these songs but there is poignancy too. And there is a difference.
These songs are not Bob Dylan, they are not Steve Earle or Johnny Cash – they are cultivated in a different greenhouse, in different soil. This song is something John Mellencamp and Buddy Miller could appreciate and Emmylou Harris could cover. This is a remarkable song.
“Woman In the Window,” showcases a beautiful (not the singer) Peggy Lee cello. This has a warm Harry Chapin inspiration to it. The late-great Chapin used a cello to great effect many times in many of his best songs decades ago. It helps to make songs like this expressive and reflective. Many lines here Harry Chapin would have smiled at. I think Michael Reinhart would have enjoyed the company of Harry Chapin. They would have made a great team.
Acoustic guitar when played well has a way of just building nice interlocking melodies. It’s true writing on the piano may have more compositional possibilities but there will always be something special about the acoustic guitar and how it discovers the next set of chords, notes or tunings to build a song upon.
“You Alone,” is such a song. None of the songs in this collection are hippie oriented, sappy, preachy, or political. It’s just one big musical gift of pensive, well-thought out melodies with fascinating lyrics and stirring examples of fine musicianship and song craft.
Yes, the presentation on “eCHO” is spare, lean, economical and not as impacting as Bruce Springsteen, although Springsteen acoustic is not so distant from this fine collection by Mr. Reinhart.
This is an album meant for an evening spent listening to something humans can do that is a gift from God – if you want to be spiritual. And some of us can play with much imagination, verve and conviction that it may just be possible that what ails us can be remedied with some beautiful music and someone like Michael Reinhart may just be the only doctor you will ever need. I know that I came away from his music with a fresh, optimistic feeling.
My father passed away this week after a long bout of loneliness since my mother passed away in 2009. I guess 65 years of marriage can make us one with another. Michael Reinhart’s album was the perfect listening during this time because the album has hints of optimism and beauty that can sustain someone who needs some reinforcement. “Woman In the Window,” and “You Alone,” both came at just the right moment.
It’s worth repeating: someone like Michael Reinhart may just be the only doctor you will ever need. I know that I came away from his music with a fresh, optimistic feeling.
You will too.
Michael Reinhart’s CD comes with a beautiful lyric book so you can sing along and you should visit Michael’s website and definitely explore his other four albums. Upcoming performances — posted on his website.
Song samples on YouTube — Canadian TV Program performed live begins at 5:40 – “Broken Idea”– At 18:00 – “Break Me Into Little Pieces”: