Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Stone Hill All-Stars: “Wilson Comes Home” (2017) CD Review

The country is a mess, and once again I am turning to music for sanity, for joy, for reason, for relief. Today I turn to The Stone Hill All-Stars, a band I’ve been enjoying for several years, a band I can count on to provide excellent, well-written material to lift my spirits. Wilson Comes Home, the group’s latest release, features all original material, written or co-written by Paul Margolis. The Stone Hill All-Stars are John Shock on accordion, piano and vocals; Paul Margolis on guitar, bass and vocals; Dan Naiman on saxophone and bass; Hoppy Hopkins on drums and percussion; and Tim Pruitt on guitar. On this release, they are joined by a few guest musicians.

The album opens with one of its best tracks, “Just These Things,” which has a delicious Latin rhythm, and lets that rhythm develop into something wonderful, for a moment making me think it might be an instrumental track. But then a minute into the song, the vocals begin, and then the song just gets better. I love the straight-forward vocal delivery here. “Let the road run a little longer/It doesn’t have to run forever/That I could go back and say things better/Answer each and every one of your letters/Unfettered, time suspended/Just these things and nothing more.” I love that work on guitar in the second half of the track, and of course the horn. Saxophone and accordion are a great combination, don’t you think? What a delight this track is. It’s followed by “Hammer In Her Hand,” a more serious song which tells a story, creating vivid characters and a relationship through some strong, key images, like “And sweat stung both her eyes” and “He spent a month in rehab in a wheelchair” and of course “She had a hammer in her hand.” Check out these lines: “She had slowly come to fear/The worst of it was drawing near/Maybe he grew tired of hearing/The list of all her grievances/Spent more time on fishing/And his periodic binges.”

“The Mark Of A Man” immediately announces itself as more fun, with elements of ska, a rhythm to get you moving. And yet, it still has something to say. “What keeps us from going under/What keeps us from going numb/He’s well aware/He’s halfway there.” But perhaps the best part of this track is the saxophone over that rhythm. That’s followed by “To Be Her Man,” one of my favorites. I love the sweet folk rock vibe established right at the beginning. There is another well-defined character here, with details like “She leans backwards when she dances” and “She slouches when she stands” creating a clear image of her in the listener’s mind. Some of the lyrics are delivered almost as spoken word, putting those lines and details into stronger focus, and these sections segue naturally from and back to the other sections. I just completely love this song.

“Soft As A Sponge” has a lighter, fun tone, emerging brightly from the previous track (several of the tracks flow into each other), with some breezy work on drums. Again, this band delivers well-crafted characters, with charming details like “But she won’t see a doctor or try medication/Her eyes the most beautiful dilated hazel.” Yeah, this album features some excellent songwriting. “Viscous Meniscus” is another delight.  This is the second song with the word “meniscus” in the title that I’ve heard in the last week or so. Was that word always used in songs, and I just missed it? I am much more aware of the word these days, after tearing the medial meniscus of my left knee several months ago. But so many other words and lines stood out to me the first time I listened to this song, such as “He’d have more elbow room in the next town over” and “Like overripe fruit in the stink of a boot” and “If you see some way that we can uproot him/Other than shoot him.” This one has an unusual vibe. And is that a kalimba? Yes, that’s Jim Hannah on kalimba. The CD then ends on a more serious note with “Wilson Comes Home,” the title track. I love that moment when the saxophone rises above the action, echoing down the street, followed quickly by guitar. Wonderful stuff.

CD Track List
  1. Just These Things
  2. Hammer In Her Hand
  3. The Mark Of A Man
  4. To Be Her Man
  5. A Hundred Answers
  6. Alexander Grothendieck
  7. Soft As A Sponge
  8. It Weighs Nothing Against Her Neck
  9. Viscous Meniscus
  10. Wilson Comes Home
Wilson Comes Home was released on August 15, 2017.

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