Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Curtis McMurtry: “The Hornet’s Nest” (2017) CD Review

I am always excited and enthusiastic for cello and for good songwriting, and Curtis McMurtry’s new album, The Hornet’s Nest, delivers a healthful dose of both. The Hornet’s Nest is Curtis McMurtry’s second solo album, following 2014’s Respectable Enemy, and on it he is backed by some of the same musicians who joined him for that earlier release, including Diana Burgess on cello, Taylor Turner on bass, and Nathan Calzada on trumpet. Also joining him on this CD are Mike Meadows on percussion, Evan Kaspar on pedal steel and Claire Trowbridge on bass clarinet. All of the songs on this album are originals, written by Curtis McMurtry, and feature some excellent lyrics. Check out these lines from “Coward”: “We talk over and under each other these days/And every time I try to help, I realize I’m in the way/And I’m too fearless to be careful/Too fragile to be kind/Too stubborn to admit when I agree/So even when I know you’re looking down on me with love/You looking down is all I see.” And these from “Shot At The Title”: “Fall through the cracks, then claw your way back to the surface/Sharp as a thorn and certain you’re born with a purpose/Keep hold of the wheel, because you know even steel can shatter/Don’t be surprised if what you feel inside doesn’t matter.”

He opens this disc with “Hard Blue Stones,” a short and unusual bluesy folk song presented with just Curtis’ sparse work on banjo accompanying his vocals. The first lines are: “You stand forever over me/Without kindness or concern/I know I must look desperate here/With nothing left to burn.” But my favorite line is, “You’ll notice I still wear the bandage even though the wound has healed.” That’s an excellent line. I don’t want to compare Curtis to his father, James McMurtry, but clearly he has his father’s knack for writing a great lyric and creating compelling characters and tales. Curtis follows “Hard Blue Stones” with “Smooth As Thorns,” in which he asks, “Will you be all right if I fall to pieces?/Will you be all right if I don’t become the one you dream of?” Toward the end, the trumpet comes in like a lonely voice in the night.

“Loves Me More” is one of my favorites, and is one I saw him perform more than two years ago at The Hotel Café.  This rendition is quite different from the solo version I heard then. It has a cool, old-time vibe, thanks to the work of his band. This is a fun tune, and I love the lead on trumpet. It’s about a man betraying a friend with his woman. “I did it for myself, you know/I never meant to hurt you so/But I can’t say I won’t do it again.” Yes, it has a playful feel. Check out these lines: “It’s not a race unless I win/I know where her mouth has been/Believe me when I tell you I don’t care/And anyway, she came to me/I never made her do a thing/You’re a grown man, now, it’s time you learned to share.” And oh, that instrumental section led by the cello is absolutely wonderful. Sometimes a despicable character can make for a great song.

“Wrong Inflection” is another delight, and on this one Diana Burgess sings lead on certain lines. “I tell you everything/You still don’t trust me/Am I so easy to despise?/Sometimes you say the right words/With the wrong inflection.” Yet another favorite of mine is “Can’t Be Better,” in large part because of Diana’s work on cello, and I love the way that instrument sounds with the banjo. But this playful love song also boasts some good lyrics: “There’s nothing I prefer to being pressed against your skin/And no one can convince me feeling this good is a sin/I will get down on my knees if you want for me to beg/With your fingers in my hair, my mouth between your legs/Because I think you are perfection, I think you are divine.” Ah, yes! And then that horn! What a wonderful song.

“Together For Now” has a gentle, romantic feel, but its lyrics tell us more of the truth behind the couple of this tale. “No matter how hard I try to be careful/I still end up in the fire somehow/Your honey tongue dripping all over/And we’re still together for now.” And it ends with the line, “Together forever for now.” The album concludes with “Silver World,” which has an excellent instrumental section with the trumpet, clarinet and cello combining to create a compelling sound and atmosphere. “The dead don’t care if they’re forgotten/But the old, they surely do/Build your towers to the heavens/Nothing made is here to stay/Put up a stone to mark our bones/’Til the wind wears it away.”

CD Track List
  1. Hard Blue Stones
  2. Smooth As Thorns
  3. Loves Me More
  4. Wrong Inflection
  5. Bayonet
  6. Rebecca
  7. Can’t Be Better
  8. Coward
  9. If I Leave
  10. Tracker
  11. Together For Now
  12. Shot At The Title
  13. Silver World 
The Hornet’s Nest is scheduled to be released on February 24, 2017.

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