Sweet Relief III: A Track-By-Track Review
God, but you have to hate putting an album together because someone is or might be in dire straits, but that was exactly what happened back in ’93 when Victoria Williams put together the first Sweet Relief album. Drowning in debt from an illness, she asked friends for help, explaining her concept of them recording her songs and Sweet Relief was born. It did the trick, giving Williams enough breathing room to get back on her feet, financially. How could it not? Look at the lineup: Soul Asylum, Lucinda Williams, Pearl Jam, Buffalo Tom, Michael Penn, Shudder To Think, Lou Reed, Maria McKee, Matthew Sweet, Evan Dando, The Jayhawks, Giant Sand, and Michelle Shocked. Reads like one of them award shows, doesn’t it?
It worked so well, in fact, that Sweet Relief became a free-standing charity, set up as a non-profit to fill the needs of musicians struggling with debt or health problems. In ’96, another album was recorded and released, this one around the core of Vic Chesnutt’s musical legacy. Again, the musicians lined up to participate: Garbage, R.E.M, Nanci Griffith, Soul Asylum, Dog’s Eye View, Live, Smashing Pumpkins, Sparklehorse, Joe Henry & Madonna, Kristin Hersh, Cracker, Indigo Girls, Mary Margaret O’Hara, and they capped the whole thing off with a Vic Chesnutt/Victoria Williams duet. It was a music fan’s delight— music fans who lived by the popular bands of the moment, anyway.
Well, they’re back at it again. Or should I say he is back at it because Sweet Relief III is the brainchild of one man— one Sheldon Gomberg, by name. And it happened this way. Sheldon needed a hand up purchasing and having his van fitted for a wheelchair lift. He asked Sweet Relief for help. They gave it. Now, Sheldon isn’t the type of guy who just takes and runs. From the moment they said they would help, he was thinking of a way he could pay them back.
What he came up with is a ripsnorter. He proposed another Sweet Relief album. Why not? He had a recording studio and knows a number of topflight musicians. And he knows what he’s doing. So he talked it over with the head honchos at Sweet Relief, got the go-ahead and dove into the project with both feet. He immediately set about lining up artists. He contacted Ben Harper and Victoria Williams and Rickie Lee Jones and got commitments, then set about drawing in others. Then, the slow grind began.
The album was recorded over a long period of time, about two years. Each artist fit the project into their already busy schedules and made time to not only record but to prep themselves. I know writers like to make recording seem mystical but the truth is that 99% of it is work and you have to prepare, no matter what happens the other 1% of the time.
The album was released the beginning of September. Here is what you need to know to appreciate this album. One: This album is not as much about the artists as it is about the cause. Without Sweet Relief, they would not have been there. Without Sheldon, they probably would not have been there, either. Two: All proceeds beyond that needed to get the album to the market will go to the charity. All artists donated their own time and energy. This was truly a community effort. Three: Whereas the theme (Pennies From Heaven) is crucial to the concept, it was not ironclad. Sheldon came up with a list of songs which fit the theme and artists were given the option to choose from that list or to pick a song themselves, thus the odd tracks which fall outside the guidelines. You’ll know which ones they are. And who is going to tell someone donating their own time and energies that they can’t record what they want?
With those things in mind, the only thing left for you to know is who these musicians are. Let us delve into the magicians behind the magic. Listed in the order they appear on the album.
Ron Sexsmith: While “Pennies From Heaven” was not originally planned to be the album’s subtitle, when Sexsmith turned in his performance, Sheldon thought it a natural. It fit the cause and it fit the underlying thread. Think 1940s Hollywood and you get the picture, thanks to to light plucked and strummed acoustic guitar (Sexsmith), wire-brushed drums (the extremely talented Pete Thomas, ladies and gentlemen!), Sheldon himself on upright and electric bass, Will Gramling playing both Hammond C3 organ and Estey pump organ, and strings worthy of any upscale Hollywood production of a large upper-crust night club (The Sonus Quartet). One might expect the sound to be more majestic with such a lineup, but if the pros know anything, it is how to play within the context of a song. To bring it all together, Sexsmith turns in a superb performance as vocalist, channeling a mixture of the best Hollywood crooners, especially a toned-down Rudy Vallee. Beautifully recorded and a Hollywood film flashback, of sorts. The arrangement a big plus.
Shelby Lynne: “Brother Where Are You”. Jesus! Is this the same Shelby Lynne I knew from her early days in Nashville? It doesn’t sound like it. No twang. No Nashville cookie-cutter-formula vocals. Actually, now that I think about it, the voice is the one thing I do remember, and remember fondly. It works very well indeed within the framework of this soulful, bluesy song. Her backup band is none other than Jack Shit (I tell you, you just cannot make this shit up): The aforementioned Pete Thomas, once again holding down the drums, bassist Davey Faragher, and guitar wizard Val McCallum. She could not have chosen better. This is just plain good stuff.
Sam Phillips: “Big Spender”. We all know Sam Phillips, right? I remember her from her days as Leslie Ann Phillips, when she was bending hearts and souls on the Contemporary Christian circuit (called religious rock, way back then). She later went on to a semblance of fame and fortune on the secular side of things. I say semblance because while she gained a certain status, she was not really wired into the music industry and never took that big step to stardom, which was certainly within her reach. She instead followed her own path. She still does. “Big Spender” may at first seem like an odd choice to record, but she cloaks it in vamp clothing, letting Eric Gorfain (violin), Jennifer Condos (bass) and Jay Bellerose (drums) do a bit of the heavy lifting while she vocally ties it all together. Very nicely done.
k.d. lang: “How Did You Find Me Here”. How do people keep coming up with this stuff? I mean, plugging in two pedal steel tracks, one in each channel, and how the hell do you get two the stature of Joshua Grange and Eric Heywood in the same studio at the same time with all of the cries for pedal steel players echoing in the music canyons of Los Angeles? It is freakin’ genius, if you ask me. Toss a little Tony Gilkyson in on guitar, lay the always tasteful drum tracks of Don Heffington on the bottom, let kd what she does best and I’m sold. The names alone made my ears perk up. The result has me floored. There is one thing, though. Is it K.D. or k.d.? And is she really related to e e cummings? Probably not. She puts periods after her initials. Sometimes.
Ben Harper: “Crazy Love”. Anyone who knows Ben Harper knows that he can write and he certainly has a reputation as an instrumentalist, but what has made him a name in music is his unique voice. A bit higher on the register than most male voices, it has a texture which lends itself to tunes such as “Crazy Love”, the song he chose for this project. There is an interesting musical dichotomy going on in this track— Harper’s laid back, soulful voice and the more upfront backing vocals by Pebbles Phillips, Marti Walker, and CC White. The inclusion of vibes (Gary Mallaber) is a nice touch and you can’t go wrong with a band which includes Jesse Ingalls (bass), Jordan Richardson (drums), and the underlying and tasty guitar of Jason Mozersky. A stellar lineup.
Genevieve Toupin: “Heart of Gold”. She pronounces her name Zhen-vee-ev (thank you, Terrye) and is, I believe, French-Canadian (or would that be Canadien?). I know little about her other than what Sheldon has mentioned and what I have heard from her “Ocean Pictures Project” album which is very impressive (stream it here— it is worth it). Do not mistake the little written here for lack of interest. I will be watching and listening to her from this point on, for sure. Here, she takes a minimalist approach to “Heart of Gold”— just voice, piano and a little upright bass provided by Sheldon himself. This catches you unawares. The sleeper of the album.
Joseph Arthur: “If I Needed You”. This is the only song by either Don Williams or Emmylou Harris that didn’t drive me batty after the ten millionth listen and I don’t know why. There is something in the melding of the voices which intrigues me. So along comes Joseph Arthur to show me that it is not the voices but the voice. He sings the song straight out with no embellishment— one voice— and it sounds just as good. Go figure, I’m thinking. It must just be an outstanding song. And it is. The surreal fade-in sets it up and Arthur’s voice slips over the top while the song builds from the surreal to the real, the immediacy of lap steel and electric guitar exploding the bubble, the pace accelerating. Toward the end, it begins to race, volume punching the song home with shuffle drums and a beat. Again, arrangement carries this version, but it helps to have Will Gramling pushing the keyboards, Ben Peeler skating the slide on the lap steel and an exceptional rhythm section of David Piltch (bass) and Russell Simins (drums). Very well done.
Rickie Lee Jones: “Surfer Girl”. An early reviewer of Sweet Relief III asked what “Surfer Girl” had to do with helping anyone. First thought that came to mind was that if I had asked Rickie Lee to help out in a good cause and she said yes, I would let her record any damn thing she wanted. Sometimes you have to throw a plan out the window and Sheldon did just that. For Rickie Lee. For this one track. Why not? “Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys is awash in lo-fi harmony, slow and floating with just a tinge of surf. Rickie Lee approaches it from a sixties girl group ballad perspective. Same pace, same feel, whole other dimension. Again, a somewhat minimalist approach which works well. Sheldon holds down bass, Tim Young sits in on guitar, Pete Thomas returns for a run on the drums and DJ Bonebrake lays down background vibes— no, really, vibes— the instrument— with Penelope Fortier nailing down vocal harmonies. Again, who cares if the theme doesn’t fit the message? The action of recording for charity does.
Tina Schlieske: “With a Little Help From My Friends”. If you are going to lift an entire arrangement, you had better have it damn well down and I am happy to report that Tina and band does. I talked with her a bit when I first heard this track and mentioned that the sound was large (or something to that effect) which she considered a compliment because that was her hope. Hope realized. Thanks to the classic Leon Russell arrangement (erroneously referred to as a Joe Cocker arrangement by people outside the music business), Schlieske and crew must have filled the studio with sound and then some, channeling the whole Mad Dogs and Englishmen thing as best they could. The band deserves a mention and they will get it, but the real key to the song outside of Schlieske’s soulful performance are the background voices, more than ably presented by, once again, CC White with help from Laura Schlieske and Lisa Bourne, sounding like they had lifted the voices straight off the Joe Cocker album. I am always surprised at how little brass you need to fill out a brass section, this time just the saxes of Jerry Peterson and trumpet of Chris Bautista. Don Heffington is on drums again (does this guy ever sleep?) and Sheldon holds down bass. Of course, the sound always revolved around the impact of guitar and keyboards and Brian Ray (guitar) and Chris Joyner and Jeff Young (keyboards) did their jobs to perfection. Maybe this doesn’t have quite the punch of Joe Cocker, but it sure as hell bumps right up against it.
Victoria Williams: “Change Is Gonna Come”. Victoria Williams takes on an old Sam Cooke classic and turns it into a whole ‘nother song, almost. She leaves just enough of it there to allow it to take hold which it does about halfway through. Her voice carries the song with a little backwoods aura, but the key is the wonderfully understated band which seems at moments to be so far in the background, it almost doesn’t exist. Such attention to details is what makes a good song better and it works here. With Zac Rae on keyboards, Sheldon on upright bass, Dave Raven on drums, DJ Bonebrake on vibes, Dave Frankel handling the shaker, Don Heffington on tambourine and Scott Babcock on tympani. I know it sounds like a lot and it is, but it’s not. I love the way they recorded this song.
She & Him: “King of the Road”. I don’t care what you say about Zooey Deschanel. I saw her in “The Tin Man” and I liked it! And, yes, I watch “New Girl”. Call it a guilty pleasure. Her ability to deliver a dry sense of humor in otherwise chaotic comedic situations has a lot to do with her successful acting career. That delivery correlates into her music, too. Here, she gives a straight and simple take on “King of the Road” with “that guy”. You know. Who plays guitar and sings occasionally? Nothing spectacular here, but it wasn’t meant to be. Sometimes the best is the simplest.
Eleni Mandell: “I’ll Be Home”. Eleni Mandell is part of a group known as The Living Sisters. I heard of them because Sheldon brought them up when I asked for recommendations amongst the indies and I have to admit being fairly impressed. In fact, when I watched a video Sheldon recommended for a song titled “How Are You Doing?” I was impressed enough to pass the link to the video along to a number of friends. As a solo artist, she is more sedate, at least on the songs I have heard, and her version of “I’ll Be Home” fits seamlessly in the context of this album. Nice song, nice version. Keyboards and bass drum courtesy of Steve Gregoropoulus and a bit of help on background vocals by Penelope Fortier.
Jackson Browne: “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”. I don’t have to tell you about Jackson Browne, of course, but I will say that the first mention of this track I read was “I like Warren Zevon’s version better”. Which misses the point completely. The point is, Browne more than likely recorded the song as a tribute, of sorts. He does a good version, just voice and guitar, and, no, it’s not Zevon, but why should that matter? I personally applaud Browne being on the album in the first place. He has always been one of the ones to attach himself to causes and he has always been unselfish with his time and money. That should say it all.
There are thirteen tracks here. The lineup reads like a who’s who of L.A. music with a few outsiders thrown in for good measure. What’s not to like? The money goes for a good cause, the music is good, the names are huge. And released just in time for Christmas, eh? Or early enough for Christmas shoppers to take advantage, anyway. Yes, it does come on vinyl. Swing by either the Sweet Relief page or check out Vanguard Records for further info. Items available through most normal music channels, such as iTunes, and Amazon.