Monday, December 31, 2018

Reed Foehl: “Lucky Enough” (2019) CD Review

Joining Reed Foehl on his new album, Lucky Enough, is Band Of Heathens, and it was this group’s participation that first sparked my interest in this release. But Reed Foehl’s voice and his songwriting are what made me completely love this disc. This album, his fifth solo effort, contains all original material. I fell for this album just a few moments into its first track, “Stealing Starlight.” There is something so sad and yet oddly comforting in Reed Foehl’s vocal delivery that worked on me immediately and pulled me in, so that I wanted to pay closer attention to every word, to see what this voice had to tell me. “It leads you out into the deep dark sea/Where everything is out of reach/Yes, everything is out of reach/Someday you may hold it in your hand/Because you can.” Ah, yes. An absolutely wonderful opening track.

“Stealing Starlight” is followed by “American Miles.” There is something incredibly pretty about this folk song. It has an uplifting sound that I just want to wrap myself in, right from its start with that rhythm on acoustic guitar and those beautiful backing vocals. Certain lines and phrases stand out for me, such as “Haunted by the skyline/Blinded by the sunshine.” I also really like the work on percussion. This track was released in advance of the album. Then “If It Rains” has something of a cheerful vibe once it kicks in, especially because of that drum beat and the way the chorus is delivered. This song also provides the album with its title in the line “We are heartbroken but lucky enough.”

There is a delicious slow country vibe on “Long Time To Make Old Friends,” and this song actually has the feeling of being with old friends, with that relaxed, loose, sweet, honest sound. And I love that work on keys. “It’s a hand-me-down/It’s been all around/Feels good on my skin/When that cotton wears thin/It takes a long time to make old friends.” That’s followed by “Carousel Horses,” which has a wonderfully sad and intimate sound as it opens with just piano and vocals. “There’ll be girls for the flowers that bloom on the hill.” It then kicks in, becoming a gorgeous and moving tune, one of my favorites of this excellent album. I think this track has the best vocal performance of the disc. Check out these lyrics: “On the carnival ride/Watch the moon pull the tide/Fall and rise with the sun/And fill up the can/For the traveling band/It’s your turn to sing me a song.” And I love the sweet futility and ease of “Charting the courses/On carousel horses.” There is more great vocal work on “He’s On An Island,” a song with a strong country vibe, with some nice stuff on pedal steel. “And all his heroes belong/In a Townes Van Zandt song/Finding love in the sorrow and the pain.”

Reed Foehl’s voice is friendly and comforting, particularly in a song like “Running Out Of You.”  I’m running from the dreams we made/Running from this day to day/Running from running into you/Running out of words to say/Running out of games to play/Running out of nothing left to do/Running out of you.” Toward the end there is some good work on harmonica. That’s followed by “Wish I Knew.” There is more of a playful and catchy pop vibe driving this country number. I seriously dig that bass line. Yeah, you might find yourself moving to this one. Plus, it has some nice work on keys. And of course there are some excellent lyrics. “Like where you go when you go from here/On the day we just disappear/From the earth into the atmosphere/Only wish, I wish I knew.” Then “Hello My Dear” is a quieter, more intimate folk song. “Love is a letter we write along the way.” There is wisdom and experience and hope in this voice. Yes, this entire album is really effective. It concludes with “Color Me In,” another beautiful and moving tune. “Snow on the sidewalks and dust on the blinds/Just waiting it out, this old wintertime/Well, honey come closer/It’s going to pass like some dream.”

CD Track List
  1. Stealing Starlight
  2. American Miles
  3. If It Rains
  4. Long Time To Make Old Friends
  5. Carousel Horses
  6. He’s On An Island
  7. Running Out Of You
  8. Wish I Knew
  9. Hello My Dear
  10. Color Me In
The musicians on this album are Reed Foehl on vocals and acoustic guitar, Gordy Quist on guitar and vocals, Ed Jurdi on guitar and vocals, Richard Millsap on drums and electric guitar, Trevor Nealon on keys, Jesse Wilson on bass and guitar, and Geoff Queen on pedal steel.

Lucky Enough is scheduled to be released on February 1, 2019 on Green Mountain Records.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Henry Townsend: “Mule” (1980/2018) CD Review

Are you in need of some good honest blues? Omnivore Recordings has re-issued Henry Townsend’s 1980 album Mule, with a lot of bonus tracks. Henry Townsend started recording in the late 1920s, as a lead and as an accompanist, and was given the nickname Mule apparently because of his reliable character. Mule was originally released in 1980 on Nighthawk Records. And 1980 was certainly a time to have the blues. That was the year the country went sideways and elected a total rat bastard to the highest office in the land. Can you imagine? Well, it’s an excellent album. Every second of this album is honest, real and pulsing with the blues. Henry Townsend plays both piano and guitar on this album, and on most tracks performs solo. However, he does have a few guests joining him on certain tracks. This special re-issue contains newly updated liner notes by Leroy Jodie Pierson, who wrote the original liner notes in 1979. These liner notes give a good deal of biographical information and make it clear that Henry Townsend lived the blues from a very early age, having to run away from an abusive home life at the age of nine. Interestingly, though the liner notes have been updated, they do not continue Henry’s story past the original release of this record. According to a portion of the original liner notes, most of the tracks on this album were improvised in the studio, which is incredible. All of this re-issue’s bonus tracks were previously unreleased.

The disc opens with “Bad Luck Dice,” with Henry Townsend on piano and vocals. This is some pure, damn good blues, with Henry rocking those keys. “I’ve lost all I had,” he tells us as the song begins. And what better line is there to start a blues album? That’s followed by “Nothing But Trouble,” a perfect blues title. He is on piano on this one too. He sings, “You stand by my side and tell me you’re not going to treat me wrong.” Even before he finishes that line, you know he’s about to divulge how she did him wrong. These things don’t end well, not in the blues. “I see the world of trouble right now,” he says. Hell, so do we all. But he makes some changes, as the blues allows you to do that, and he tells her “I ain’t gonna let you worry my life no more.”

Yank Rachell then joins Henry on mandolin on “Things Have Changed,” with Henry on piano, a completely delicious combination of sounds. Henry starts this one off saying he was doing all right as long as he was in his woman’s arms. Ah yes, what a great feeling. But of course the song’s title is “Things Have Changed,” so you know things are going to go wrong. And indeed, damn, he discovers she never loved him. Yet the song has something of a cheerful vibe, and I dig those instrumental sections. And I love Henry’s work on piano on the following track, “The Old Man’s Soul.” And what is it that makes the women of blues songs treat their men so poorly, especially when the men are trying so hard?  Well, in “Tears Come Rollin’ Down,” we get to hear the woman’s side. The vocals on this song are provided by Vernell Townsend, Henry’s wife, and she delivers an excellent performance. “He kissed me good night/And I knew this meant goodbye.” This track also features some great, loose guitar-playing.

There is some interesting guitar work on “Talkin’ Guitar Blues,” with a staccato style at certain points. And check out these lines: “Yes, I want to tell you, baby, I want to tell you what it’s all about/Well, you’re locked up in my heart, and I really don’t want to let you out.” Both Henry Townsend and Yank Rachell play guitar on this track. Henry is back on piano for “Alley Strut,” a groovy instrumental number. That’s followed by “Can’t You See,” one of my favorite tracks. Henry plays guitar on this one. After a moment it becomes a duet with Vernell Townsend, and when she comes in, it is a wonderful surprise. She reminds him he’ll never find another girl like her. It’s a sweet blues love song.

Henry is on piano for “The Train Is At The Station,” a totally enjoyable tune in which he sings “As bad I hate to leave, I know I’ve got to get rid of you.” Ouch. He tells her he’s at the station and has to get away from her. But of course, he’s singing this to her, so you have to doubt whether he really wants to go. Clearly his mind is still with her. And indeed he then sings, “Well, I know it’s going to hurt me because tears began to come down from my eyes.” I love the piano, by the way. It feels like he’s playing right in my home; it has the loose kind of feel, which I suppose comes from being improvised in the studio. The original album then concludes with “Overstayed My Time,” with Henry again on piano.

Bonus Tracks

This re-issue includes eight bonus tracks, none of which were previously released. The first is “The Other Night,” which features some cool work on piano. It is a song about troubles in a relationship, about a dishonest woman. Yank Rachell joins him on mandolin for “Broken Home Blues,” a song about a breakup, and the results. “Since that time, a whole lot of things have gone wrong.” Then Norman Merritt joins him on guitar for “Going Back To My Baby.” Henry starts this one by telling us, “I’m going back to my baby and I’m not going to leave no more.” It doesn’t seem like the strongest relationship, but perhaps it will work out anyway. It’s interesting how many of these songs are about relationships. But isn’t that where the best of life comes from? After all, what’s more important? So when it goes wrong, it means more to us and affects us more strongly, more acutely than if some other aspect of life goes shitty.

“Going Back To My Baby” is followed by “Nice And Kind,” with Henry performing solo on piano and vocals.  This is a good song in which he tells us of a decision to attempt to be nice and kind. “Well, I don’t want to worry, don’t want to worry my life anymore/I don’t want to waste my life, people, like I did one time before.” Both Henry and Yank Rachell play guitar on “Goin’ Back Down South.” These tracks are so good, I have to wonder why they were left unissued until now.  On “Turned On And Off” he sings “I’m going to find my way/And I don’t know where I want to go.” That sounds just about right, being optimistic amid some personal chaos. “Look Over Yonder” features some delightful work on keys. He even seems excited about it, commenting “Oh yeah” at one point. “I know the man couldn’t take you, darling, if you didn’t want to go.” The disc then concludes with “Since You’ve Come Back To Me,” which features Norman Merritt on guitar. Henry cuts loose on the keys at certain times, which is wonderful. This song contains a nod to one of the other bonus tracks in the line “You don’t treat me nice and kind no more.” But then things seem better, as he tells us “My heart’s beating real hard and strong/Well, I feel all right, baby/Since you have come back home.”

CD Track List
  1. Bad Luck Dice
  2. Nothing But Trouble
  3. Things Have Changed
  4. The Old Man’s Soul
  5. Tears Come Rollin’ Down
  6. It’s A Hard Road To Travel
  7. Talkin’ Guitar Blues
  8. I’m Just An Ordinary Man
  9. Alley Strut
  10. Can’t You See
  11. Dark Clouds Rising
  12. The Train Is At The Station
  13. Overstayed My Time
  14. The Other Night
  15. Broken Home Blues
  16. Going Back To My Baby
  17. Nice And Kind
  18. Goin’ Back Down South
  19. Turned On And Off
  20. Look Over Yonder
  21. Since You’ve Come Back To Me 
Mule was released on December 14, 2018 through Omnivore Recordings.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Alan Simon: “Excalibur: The Ladies Of The Lake” (2018) CD Review

I often look to music these days to transport me away from our questionable reality, if only temporarily. There is only so much I can take of the news of gun violence and fascism and stupidity before I’m ready to scream. How can a third of this country still support the current administration? Is a third of its citizens really that horrible, that cruel, that moronic? Music can provide a way to move beyond it all. And certain music is able to transport us to another land, another time, a journey I am eager to take. Such is the case with Alan Simon’s Excalibur series, what was intended to be a three-part Celtic rock opera and eventually expanded beyond that. Now a new volume in the series has been released. Titled Excalibur: The Ladies Of The Lake, it is a compilation of the tracks with female vocals from the previous four volumes as well as Tristan & Yseult. These tracks, to my ear, are among the very best of the series. We could all use a strong dose of female energy these days to combat the rampant sexism of those currently in power. And yes, this music also appeals to that same part of me that enjoys playing Dungeons & Dragons so much, and might be a good disc to play before an adventure, to set the mood and whatnot. All the tracks on this release were written by Alan Simon, and feature several different talented vocalists, including Moya Brennan and Sonja Kristina.

This compilation opens with “The Origins,” a track from Excalibur III: The Origins, which does feel like the beginning of a journey into the unknown. This track features vocals by Moya Brennan. Then Maddy Prior provides the vocals on “Secret Garden,” a song from Excalibur II: The Celtic Ring. This is a beautiful folk song, and has a comforting effect. “Oh my love, keep on dreaming/Dream your dreams away/And then come to me at dusk beneath the Star of Taliesin.” This is one of my personal favorites.

“Calling For You” is another of the disc’s highlights. This is a powerful, energetic number from Excalibur IV: The Dark Age Of The Dragon, and it feels able to transfer that power to the listener. As vocalist Moya Brennan urges, “Change your way/Before tomorrow/Change your mind/Forget your sorrows,” you feel it can be done. The music has brought out from within you that capability. I love the strong percussion of this track. By the way, you probably know Moya Brennan from her work with Clannad. “Change your life forever/Be yourself as you never show it.” That’s followed by “The Last Lament Of A Fairy,” which features beautiful, ethereal vocals by Siobhan Owen. There is magic in her voice, in this music. I still wonder sometimes if music like this could actually defeat the heartlessness of certain politicians. Would hearing these songs shift something inside them, fill their hollow hearts, change their outlook on their fellow man? Sometimes I believe it would. “You shared my tears/You shared my fears/You shared the feelings of my heart.” This song is also from Excalibur IV: The Dark Age Of The Dragon. “And the world will never be the same.”

Siobhan Owen also brings her considerable talents to “Yseult,” a song from Tristan & Yseult. “Like winds across the oceans/I felt his breath against my skins/Today I felt the flame of love/Today it was a dream/A dream.” This is another beautiful track, with some wonderful work on strings and keys. Also from Tristan & Yseult comes “A Prayer For My Lover,” a gorgeous song with Siobhan Owen again on vocals. This one also features excellent stuff on piano and strings, the instrumental sections as moving as the vocals. Everything about this song is beautiful. “Can’t I see when the sunshine will be back again/Back again in your eyes/Can’t I see when the moonrise will dance again/Dance again in my heart.” This is one of my favorites. Another of the disc’s best tracks is “The Passion,” which features Sonja Kristina on vocals. This track is from Excalibur IV: The Dark Age Of The Dragon, and Sonja Kristina included it on her 2017 compilation Anthology. It is a gorgeous folk song with a moving vocal performance. “I need your love/I need your light/I need your dreams/I need your hopes.”

CD Track List
  1. The Origins
  2. Secret Garden
  3. The Girl & The Demon
  4. Skye
  5. Calling For You
  6. The Last Lament Of A Fairy
  7. There Is Someone
  8. Silver Moon
  9. Yseult
  10. Sacrifice
  11. A Prayer For My Lover
  12. Morning Song
  13. The Passion
  14. Dreaming Again
  15. Dun Angus II
Excalibur: The Ladies Of The Lake was released on October 5, 2018.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Fernando Perdomo: “Zebra Crossing” (2018) CD Review

Fernando Perdomo is a singer and songwriter originally from Florida and now based in Los Angeles. He plays several instruments, and his work can be heard on albums by artists like Cait Brennan, Chris Price, James Houlahan, and Emitt Rhodes. He also has his own solo career, and his new album, Zebra Crossing, features mostly original material. All but one of the disc’s tracks were written or co-written by Fernando Perdomo. Though he plays a good deal of the instruments on this release, he does have some guests joining him on certain tracks.

Two of those guests are Kaitlin Wolfberg and Ruti Celli, and you can hear their wonderful work on violin and cello respectively on the disc’s opening track, “I’m Here.” The song begins with strings, setting a beautiful tone. And when the song kicks in, it has a sweet vibe that I appreciate. The lyrics express perhaps an uncomplicated idea, but one we can easily latch onto: “I’m here/Won’t you open up the door/I’m here/There’s so much we can explore.” It’s a song that reaches out a hand, or wants a hand extended to it. It ends with the lines “I’m here/There’s no place I’d rather be/I’m here/It’s just you and me.” Yes, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? This song was written by Fernando Perdomo and Cyndi Trissell. It’s followed by “Sometimes I Feel Like Nothing At All,” a title I really like. So many of us are down these days, exhausted by the troubles and hatred in the world, and feeling powerless to stop it all. This song seems to offer comfort simply by being there with us, expressing some of that weariness, some of that confusion. “I am what I am/What am I not/Am I here?/Am I there?/Am I really anywhere?” And the repeated title line “Sometimes I feel like nothing at all” will a strike a chord with a lot of us. This song also features Kaitlin Wolfberg on violin and Ruti Celli on cello. It was written by Fernando Perdomo and Stephen Kalinich.

Then Fernando Perdomo delivers a rock and roll song to lift us up a bit. Titled “Find Love (Hold On),” the vocals to this one have a sweet sound. Danny Ayala joins Fernando on vocals and keys on this track. I really dig his work on keys. “Somehow” is one of the album’s most powerful and moving songs. This one was co-written by Zak Nilsson, who clearly possesses some of the songwriting talents of his father. This track has a sad, beautiful, hopeful vibe. “But I guess it just doesn’t matter no more/I find myself floating with you.” That’s followed by “Not Meant To Be,” an instrumental track. There is something loving about this sound, like a voice promising to help ease our troubles, which seem to surround us. We’ll make it through, right? There is also something familiar about the sound of this one. The only other instrumental track on this release is its title track, “Zebra Crossing,” which has kind of a cheerful feel at the start, and goes through some changes. Toward the end, it develops something of a Beatles vibe.

Perhaps my favorite track on this album is “Smile,” a beautiful track featuring some absolutely gorgeous work on strings. Something about this song feels like it could break me, even as it encourages us to smile. “Sadness don’t look good on you/Smile, smile, smile/Even if it hurts.” This song feels like a friend. You know? Another of the disc’s highlights is “Crown Of Stars,” written by Fernando Perdomo and Zak Nilsson. This is a beautiful song about the end, and about not being ready for it. It is moving, yet also has catchy elements. And that cello gets right to my heart. “Taking life day by day/Watching you steadily fading away/You were brave/We fought back/Knowing that nothing we fought for would last.” Oh god, how are those for some heartbreaking lines, expressing the futility of everything. Yet we can’t give up.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I need to make a mix CD of songs titled “Home.” Something about the concept of home draws out some of the best work of many songwriters. Fernando Perdomo’s “Home” is a gorgeous track. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “And even if I lose my home/It will be standing tall/’Cause every time I close my eyes/Home would be there in my mind.” And if you’re looking for other good tunes with the title “Home,” check out songs by Ellis Paul, Erica Blinn, Michelle Malone, The Evangenitals, The Spongetones, The Ides Of March, Joe Walsh, James Houlahan, Janiva Magness, Iggy Pop and Anton Fig. The album’s final song is a cover of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the only cover on this release. This album was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, on the fiftieth anniversary of the recording of the first version of this song. On this track, Fernando Perdomo is joined by several guests, including Dave Bainbridge on piano, Dave Kerzner on organ and mellotron, Mark Murdock on percussion, Paul Stacey on bass, and Andy Mapp on drums. Diane Birch, Shawn Lee, Jason Rowe and Daphna Rowe join Fernando on vocals. It’s a really good rendition.

CD Track List
  1. I’m Here
  2. Sometimes I Feel Like Nothing At All
  3. Find Love (Hold On)
  4. We Were Raised With Headphones On
  5. Somehow
  6. Not Meant To Be
  7. Smile
  8. Sundays
  9. Crown Of Stars
  10. Home
  11. Zebra Crossing
  12. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Zebra Crossing was released on November 9, 2018.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Focus: “Focus 11” (2019) CD Review

Since I first listened to Focus’ 2017 release, The Focus Family Album, I’ve been looking forward to the band’s new release, Focus 11. That’s because that double album, which was an odd compilation of sorts, included a little tease of what was to come, with each of the two discs concluding with a track from Focus 11. Both tracks – “Clair-Obscur” and “Winnie” – were intriguing and got me excited for this new release. Now that I’m getting to enjoy the full disc, I find that basically the entire album is engaging. All of the tracks here are originals, most of them written by Thijs van Leer. Most tracks are instrumentals.

The album opens with “Who’s Calling?” which begins like a hard rocking song with that steady guitar. But what sticks out for me about this track is Pierre van der Linden’s impressive work on drums. It’s a decent track, but for me, the following tune, “Heaven,” is when things begin to get really good. This is a playful and delightful tune, with different sections, beginning with a kind of funky rhythm which I dig, and some great touches on keys. Then approximately a minute in, it takes on something of the joy and merriment of an old-time festival, and completely raises my spirits. I love this. The tune then builds from there, and there is more excellent work on percussion. Toward the end, there is suddenly some playful vocal work as well. This track just gets better and better as it develops and moves through its different sections. Heaven, indeed!

“How Many Miles?” is a good, solid, driving rock song, with some great stuff on flute rising above that rhythm. This is the only track on the album to include lyrics, and it turns out to be a love song of sorts. Check out these lines: “Let me reflect your energy/That moves my soul to ecstasy/Let me become your melody.” Toward the end, some of the lines are delivered basically as spoken word, and that turns out to be really effective. “How Many Miles?” is followed by “Mazzel.” I really dig the unusual rhythm here, which moves this jazzy tune in interesting directions. This is one that might get you dancing, but it is going to be a delightfully odd dance.

“Winnie” is one of the tracks that I first heard on The Focus Family Album. It has darker, unsettling feel at first, then rises out of that haunted land to a prettier realm when the flute takes over. The flute has a gentle, comforting sound. But we’re not out of the woods yet, as they say, as we still have to find our way through the maze. But at the end, that electric guitar escapes, and takes us all with it. Then “Palindrome” begins with some cool work on drums. This one is really driven by the drums, and includes a drum solo, which of course helps to make it one of my favorite tracks. That’s followed by “Clair-Obscur,” the other track that was included on The Focus Family Album. This one has an unusual mood, feeling introspective at moments, then reaching out and upward. It is quite pretty at times.

The only track not written by Thijs van Leer is “Mare Nostrum,” which was composed by bass player Udo Pannekeet, the newest member of the band. This one begins slowly, then partway through it changes gears and takes on a wonderfully frantic feel, and features some excellent playing. The album concludes with its title track, “Focus 11,” which also happens to be the eleventh track. This is another of my favorites. It has something of a sweet vibe at the start, and picks up at moments, feeling joyful. It is a kind of warm tune to leave us all in a good place.

CD Track List
  1. Who’s Calling?
  2. Heaven
  3. Theodora na na na
  4. How Many Miles?
  5. Mazzel
  6. Winnie
  7. Palindrome
  8. Clair-Obscur
  9. Mare Nostrum
  10. Final Analysis
  11. Focus 11 
Focus 11 is scheduled to be released on CD and vinyl on February 8, 2019 on In And Out Of Focus Records.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

John McCutcheon: “To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger” (2019) CD Review

There are some people I wish were around to help us make sense of what this country is going through these days. One of those people is George Carlin. I would love to hear him dissect Donald Trump and his followers. Another person I wish were still alive is Pete Seeger. What would he sing about our current troubles? Whatever he’d sing, you can be sure the song would unite us rather than further divide us, and that’s precisely why we need him. John McCutcheon’s new album, To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger, reminds us what an important and passionate and unifying voice Pete Seeger was and is. His songs may have felt to be of a certain time, associated as they were with certain movements, but have proved themselves to be of lasting value and significance and power. We need these songs. John McCutcheon has been performing Pete Seeger’s music since his very first album, which was named after a song he heard Pete Seeger play. And now with To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger, he gives us an album full of songs that Pete Seeger either wrote or performed. The disc’s liner notes contain some thoughts on each of the songs selected for this special album.

Speaking of celebration, this wonderful disc opens with a cheerful, sweet version of “Well May The World Go,” a track which feels like a celebration of life, of all the good things in it. Immediately my spirits are raised. There is some great playing here too, and I particularly like that guitar part halfway through. And check out that fiddle toward the end. John McCutcheon keeps our spirits up with a nice version of “If I Had A Hammer,” with a full band sound including interesting use of percussion, plus a lead on accordion. This is likely the first Pete Seeger song I ever heard, though it was the version by Peter, Paul And Mary (my parents had several Peter, Paul And Mary records in their collection, and I listened to them quite a lot in my childhood). That’s followed by “God Bless The Grass,” a song that Pete Seeger didn’t write, but one which he used as the title track to an album in the sixties. John McCutcheon delivers a powerful rendition here. “God bless the truth, the friend of the poor/The wild grass growing at the poor man’s door.” I absolutely love the work on fiddle.

When I was in my teens, I had the song “Guantanamera” on a 1960s folk compilation cassette that I listened to a lot. On that tape, it was the recording by The Sandpipers. The version here by John McCutcheon has a bright, lively island sound with some nice work on percussion. It is sung as a duet, the female vocals provided by Katia Cardenal. Plus, this version has a horn section, helping to make it one the best versions I’ve heard. That’s followed by “Sailing Down My Golden River,” this one too  performed as a duet, this time with Suzy Bogguss. What a beautiful rendition of a wonderful and moving song. I really like John’s work on hammer dulcimer. Then John McCutcheon gives us a cool jazzy rendition of “Letter To Eve,” one of Pete Seeger’s most powerful songs, and one that will likely affect anyone who listens to it now. “If you want to have great love, you’ve got to have great anger/When I see innocent folks shot down, you want me to just shake my head and frown.” There is a lot of great playing on this track, including some wonderful stuff on keys and some excellent touches on the horns.

There is more pretty work on hammer dulcimer on John McCutcheon’s version of “Living In The Country,” the only instrumental track on this CD. This tune has a pleasant, cheerful, almost magical vibe, and features some good stuff on fiddle. John then delivers a decidedly funky take on “Talking Union,” the lyrics delivered as a rap. That makes sense, right? After all, this song is one of those talking blues numbers, a form which has more than a little in common with rap. Corey Harris joins John McCutcheon on vocals. And check out that bass! That’s followed by the album’s title track, “To Everyone In All The World,” on which John plays banjo. This is one of those folk songs that we learn as a child, but the significance of which strikes us again in our adult years. It is simple and straightforward and wonderful.

“Turn, Turn, Turn” is one of Pete Seeger’s most famous songs, thanks largely to the version by The Byrds, but its lyric was mostly written hundreds of years earlier, appearing in The Book of Ecclesiastes. This version begins softly on piano, then picks up in energy and power. John shares the vocals with Trent Wagler. It’s a really good rendition. The album concludes with “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a traditional number, a hymn. John McCutcheon has recorded this one before, using it as the title track on his 1975 debut release. He’s performed it a cappella. On this new rendition, the instruments backing him are only a Tibetan singing bowl and organ. This is a perfect way to end this remarkable release.

CD Track List
  1. Well May The World Go
  2. If I Had A Hammer
  3. God Bless The Grass
  4. Die Gedanken Sind Frei
  5. Guantanamera
  6. Sailing Down My Golden River
  7. Letter To Eve
  8. Mrs. Clara Sullivan’s Letter
  9. Living In The Country
  10. Talking Union
  11. To Everyone In All The World
  12. Turn, Turn, Turn
  13. The Spider’s Web
  14. Waist Deep In The Big Muddy
  15. How Can I Keep From Singing? 
To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger is scheduled to be released on January 11, 2019.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Andrew Durr: “Time Frame” (2018) CD Review

Migrant Mother is the title of a famous photograph by Dorothea Lange. That photo and its subject and its creator inspired a play of the same title written by Ken White. The play debuted in January of 2017 (though apparently a shorter version was put on in 2014), with music performed by Andrew Durr. Now that music is available on Time Frame: Songs From The Play Migrant Mother. This is a folk album sort of in the original folk tradition, covering some well-known and beloved songs, songs from the Dust Bowl era. But Andrew Durr delivers some unusual, intriguing takes on the familiar material. Joining him on this album are Ray Vazira on percussion and keys, Janet Baltzo on keys, Steve Ashman on electric bass, John Ady on acoustic bass, Kevin Pallotta on drums, Narayan Baltzo on trumpet, Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson on cello, Patrick Durr on harmonica and backing vocals, Alexandra Durr on backing vocals, and Melissa Dawn on spoken word vocals. The disc’s liner notes were written by Ken White.

The album opens with “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a song that predates the Dust Bowl years. This version by Andrew Durr is delivered honestly without adornment, and features some nice work on harmonica. There is also some excellent, passionate vocal work, and I love the backing vocals. “Many days you have lingered around my cabin door/Hard times come again no more.” That’s followed by a lively, fun number, “Are You making Any Money?” This playful tune features some delightful work on piano, as well as more good work on harmonica. “Make fun when you could make trouble/Make mistakes, but they pay double/Say, honey, are you making any money?/Because that’s all I want to know.” Then we get a good rendition of “Pastures Of Plenty.” Any album of material covering this time and subject must include at least one Woody Guthrie song. It just wouldn’t be right otherwise. This rendition of “Pastures Of Plenty” has a more serious, somber tone, and a power. Toward the end, the snare drum takes on the feel of a march for a time.

“Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” is one of the most famous songs of the Great Depression. It was written by Jay Gorney and E.Y. Harburg. As presented here, it has a darker folk vibe, which is quite fitting for the lyrics. I really like the way Andrew Durr tackles this one. He starts to belt out the lyrics toward the end, giving a passionate and raw performance, fully invested in the song. Another well-known song from that time is “Pennies From Heaven,” written by Artie Johnson and Johnny Burke. The version here begins with some vocals delivered basically as spoken word, and sounding like an old recording, or like they’re on a radio or perhaps even from over a phone. Then the musicians come in, and the song takes on a sweet, warm folk vibe, with more good work on harmonica. That’s followed by “Who’s Been Polishing The Sun” a fun, bouncy, peppy folk number, with yet more lively, wonderful work on harmonica.

“The Way You Look Tonight” is a song that gets in my head quite often. I’ve heard a lot of different renditions over the years, but I’ve never heard a version quite like the one on this album. It is sort of folk, but has a strange, cool jazzy feel. I like it a whole lot, especially the work on piano. Andrew Durr follows that with an equally unusual rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side.” He establishes a darker, more serious vibe, fitting the song’s first line, “There's a dark and troubled side of life,” much more than its second, “There's a bright and sunny side too.”  I’ve never heard the song approached this way before. It has more of a “House Of The Rising Sun” vibe, or perhaps even “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Listening to it, you get the feeling that it is probably impossible – or at least incredibly difficult – to do as the song says and “Keep on the sunny side of life.” Then “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” begins a cappella, before the guitar comes in. This version is folk, with a gospel element in the backing vocals, and sounds wonderful. The album ends with “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries,” a fun, playful version that even includes some whistling and then kazoo and then horn. So there! I love it.

CD Track List
  1. Hard Times Come Again No More
  2. Are You Making Any Money?
  3. Pastures Of Plenty
  4. Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
  5. Pennies From Heaven
  6. Who’s Been Polishing The Sun
  7. The Way You Look Tonight
  8. Keep On The Sunny Side
  9. Will The Circle Be Unbroken?
  10. Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries
Time Frame was released on CD on November 9, 2018 through IAC Records.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Ina Forsman: “Been Meaning To Tell You” (2019) CD Review

Ina Forsman is a talented Finnish singer and songwriter, whose music is funky, bluesy and jazzy, with an incredible amount of soul. Her new album, Been Meaning To Tell You, features all original material, written or co-written by Ina Forsman. And it’s fantastic. There isn’t any filler here. Every song on this album is excellent. Joining her on this release are Red Young on keys, Brannen Temple on drums, Laura Chavez on guitar, Chris Maresh on bass. Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff on tenor saxophone and backing vocals, John Mills on baritone saxophone and flute, Al Gomez on trumpet, Randy Zimmerman on trombone, Jay Stiles on keys, and Alice Spencer on backing vocals.

As the opening track, “Be My Home,” begins, I am immediately taken by Ina Forsman’s voice. There is something seductive about it, sexy and passionate and vulnerable and human. “And I guess I don’t have much to give/But I wanna give it all to you/I know you must be tired, your load is heavier than mine/But if I take half of it, we could leave the bad days behind/We could leave it all behind.” Her voice draws us in, and then, holy moly, toward the end it bursts open, like her voice is flying up to the heavens. It’s a surprising and glorious moment, and it’s over all too soon. But before we can catch our breath and process what we’ve just experienced, the next song is taking us in a totally different direction. Yes, things turn funky with “Get Mine.” This tune is so cool, coming straight out of a club in the 1970s, featuring a delicious groove to get you loose, and some seriously cool work on guitar. But what also strikes me is her voice, the way what she does here is so different from what she does on the first track, how she just completely inhabits these different songs, different worlds. This track has a really nice instrumental section, with a lead on keys. “I’m having a good time/Time/I came to get mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine.

There are some 1970s vibes to “All Good” too, but with a very different feel. This is more in the pop realm, with a cheerful, almost cheesy bent, but is totally enjoyable. “All the things that I took for granted/I’m finally grateful for/And I’m believing in myself/Just the way that I should.” That’s followed by “Genius,” a song with an excellent classic groove and a great deal of soul, with those horns and backing vocals. It feels like a party, one you want to attend. There is also more good work on guitar, particularly during that instrumental section in the middle. And then I love when Ina belts out the lyrics toward the end. Oh yes! Then she gives us a song titled “Whatcha Gonna Do.” The first time I played this disc, when this one started, I wasn’t that into it. The opening bit about the six-inch heels, delivered a cappella, didn’t do much for me. But the moment the song kicked in, I totally fell for it. Here we get another good groove, and another marvelous vocal performance.

“Why You Gotta Be This Way” has a kind of sly, slinky opening, and becomes a fun track. There are some things that Ina Forsman does vocally that remind me of Holland Greco’s work with The Peak Show, particularly that first album, the one with “Go Back” and “Junk Drawer.” If you’re familiar with that album (and you should be, because it’s fucking great), I think you’ll hear the similarities. Ina then gets good and bluesy with “Miss Mistreated.” Ah, there is something sultry and yet powerful about her approach here. She is a force, to be sure. “Oh, did you ever put some makeup on your face just to fade/All the scars and bruises, all the lies and abusing/Thrown at your face?” That’s followed by another powerful and moving vocal performance in “Figure.” The focus is really on her vocals here, as she is accompanied mainly by keys for a good portion of it.

The horns then are what make “Who Hurt You” so enjoyable. And I can’t help but appreciate the honesty of lines like these: “Well, I’ll take care of you/I’ll stay by your side forever and ever/But as much as I love you I have to say/Girl, you need to get your shit together.” There is also some nice work on flute in the second half of this one. “I love you/Probably more than you do.” That’s followed by “Every Single Beat,” which is very cool right from the start, with those horns and a Latin rhythm. There are some great funky little touches on keys. This is a song that celebrates music itself, at one point calling out individual instruments and giving different musicians opportunities to shine. The beat is at the fore from the beginning of “Chains,” the beat feeling like it’s inviting us to join in, to join the musicians. It also gives the song a raw power and vibe. And I dig that horn over it. “If you wanna control me/Hold all the ropes/Make sure you hold on tight.” The disc then concludes with “Sunny,” which is delivered a cappella, giving us a chance to really appreciate Ina’s voice. Not that we haven’t had plenty of opportunities to do so throughout the entire album, of course, but here there is nothing else to focus on. “I just hope when you’re lost and lonely/You’ll always have your dreams.”

CD Track List
  1. Be My Home
  2. Get Mine
  3. All Good
  4. Genius
  5. Whatcha Gonna Do
  6. Why You Gotta Be That Way
  7. Miss Mistreated
  8. Figure
  9. Who Hurt You
  10. Every Single Beat
  11. Chains
  12. Sunny
Been Meaning To Tell You is scheduled to be released on January 25, 2019 on Ruf Records.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Napa Valley Duo: “A Soft Message To You” (2016) CD Review

After thoroughly enjoying the new album from the Napa Valley Duo, An American In Paris, I went back to listen to the duo’s previous release, A Soft Message To You. While they cover more modern material on their new release (including the Star Trek theme and a song from The Who), here they deliver mostly classical pieces, including music by Debussy and Chopin. There are also two original compositions, both of which the duo revisit on the new album.

This album opens with one of those original pieces, the title track, “A Soft Message To You,” written by cellist Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson. This is a pretty, emotionally engaging piece with a sound that is gentle, even soothing at times. I love the sound of a cello, and that instrument is the focus of this piece, with Terry Winn’s piano supporting it. As with the Napa Valley Duo’s new album, this one contains one Gershwin composition. I can never get enough Gershwin, and on this disc they perform “Sleepless Night.” This version is wonderful. I particularly like the way the cello seems to speak to us as clearly as any voice could. You can almost feel both instruments reaching out to you.

“Sleepless Night” is followed by another of my favorite tracks, a beautiful rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Terry Winn begins this one on piano, using a gentle touch at first. This track is so moving and gorgeous. The Napa Valley Duo performs several other pieces written by Claude Debussy on this album, including “Beau Soir” and “Romance,” the two separated on this album by a one-minute piano piece titled “Intermission,” arranged by Terry Winn. My favorite of the Debussy tracks is “Nuit d’ Etoiles.” It has the feel of a fairy tale, particularly because of that piano part right at the beginning. It reminds me of the ending to the film version of The Hotel New Hampshire, which had a decidedly fairy tale vibe about it. This track lifts us up into the air, seemingly making all troubles and cares fade below. I love this piece. They also deliver an engaging version of Debussy’s “Page d’Album.”

They also do a couple of pieces from Chopin, both of which were written for solo piano. The first is “Etude Op. 10 No. 3,” and the two instruments work together from the start. It is a fairly short version, but is powerful and might bring a tear to your eye. The second is “Etude Op. 10 No. 6,” which is also short and compelling, and should affect you provided you are not built of stone.

“Chimera” is the album’s other original composition, written by Jeffrey McFarand-Johnson. I’ve listened to this piece several times now, both this version and the version on the duo’s new CD, but it feels like it’s been in my life longer. There is something familiar about it, something that connects to my past as well as present. It features some really nice work on cello. Another of the disc’s highlights is the duo’s absolutely beautiful rendition of Maria Theresia von Paradis’ “Sicilienne.”

CD Track List
  1. A Soft Message To You
  2. Zion’s Walls
  3. Quiet Now
  4. Prelude – Sleepless Night
  5. Clair de Lune
  6. Etude Op. 10 No. 3
  7. Beau Soir
  8. Intermission
  9. Romance
  10. Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore
  11. Pagliacci –Canino’s Lament
  12. Chimera
  13. Etude Op. 10 No. 6
  14. Nuit d’ Etoiles
  15. Vocalise
  16. Page d’ Album
  17. Vocalise
  18. Sicilienne
  19. Valse Triste
  20. A Tender Time
A Soft Message To You was released on May 2, 2016.

Betty Bryant: “Project 88” (2019) CD Review

Does music keep us young? Does it keep us active? Maybe so. Vocalist and pianist Betty Bryant’s new album is titled Project 88 because she turned 88 last year (as well as because there are 88 keys on the piano), and this album is pulsing with excitement and joy. It is vibrant and fun. Joining Betty Bryant on this release on various tracks are Tony Guerrero on trumpet, Thomas Gargano on bass, Richard Simon on bass, Hussain Jiffry on bass, James Gadson on drums and vocals, Kenny Elliott on drums, Quentin Dennard Sr. on drums, Robert Kyle on tenor saxophone and flute, Ryan Dragon on trombone, Jeff Driskill on alto saxophone, Jay Mason on baritone saxophone, Casio Duarte on percussion, and Kleber Jorge on guitar and vocals. The songs chosen for this CD are a mix of originals and covers.

Betty Bryant opens this release with an original composition, “Love Came And Went,” a totally enjoyable number, the horn section giving it a big band flavor. “He was funny and charming/But it was alarming/How quickly it turned to ennui/Love came and went/And nobody noticed but me.” This is a song that Betty has recorded before, with a different arrangement. It was included on the album What’s The Point? by the Betty Bryant Trio. That’s followed by a wonderful, lively instrumental rendition of “Oh, Lady Be Good” by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Once again, you can never go wrong with Gershwin. This trio version features a delicious bass solo followed by a cool drum solo. Then comes my personal favorite track of the album, “Catfish Man,” an original composition. This tune is seriously cool, and has a bluesy edge and a good groove. There is something delightful and adorable about a woman who is close to 90 singing about editing images on an online dating service, particularly as she also wrote this song. “You looked so fine/When I saw you online/Then I found out it was just Photoshop.” I love her vocal delivery and I love Robert Kyle’s work on saxophone. On top of all that, Betty delivers a marvelous lead on piano in the second half of the track. This tune is just so bloody cool.

I’ve always enjoyed “Just You, Just Me,” and it’s difficult to think about it now without images from Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You popping into my head (if you haven’t seen that film, you should certainly check it out). Here it is performed as a duet with James Gadson, who also plays drums on this track, and it’s a delight. This rendition also features some wonderful work on trumpet and flute. There is also some nice stuff on bass. This track ends with James Gadson saying, “It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful.” I agree. Another of the disc’s highlights is “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” That horn that starts this one off is just perfect, and makes this track a favorite of mine within its first twenty seconds. This is a wonderful rendition, with a great groove. And the lines “Because I’m three times seven/And that’s almost twenty-two/And it ain’t nobody’s business what I do” have a certain playful humor to them, considering her age. And there is a playful quality to her delivery of other lines as well. I also love that moment when her piano takes control halfway through, some fantastic stuff there. Plus, this track features some cool work on drums. But that trumpet is really the star here.

The album concludes with two more original compositions, the first being “My Beloved,” a pretty and romantic instrumental number featuring some nice work on flute. Betty Bryant had previously included this song on Just Us. Quentin Dennard Sr. and Cassio Duarte are on percussion for this one. Then “It’s Hard To Say Goodbye” is a romantic yet playful song, mentioning “cinnamon toast” and “ice cream at midnight.” But the lines from that opening section that really stand out are: “You’re ooh, you’re ah/You’re baklava.” After a minute or so, it kicks in. This is a delightful number with a full horn section. Betty Bryant previously included a different version of this song on Iteration.

CD Track List
  1. Love Came And Went
  2. Oh, Lady Be Good
  3. Catfish Man
  4. Just You, Just Me
  5. But Beautiful
  6. Ain’t Nobody’s Business
  7. Cho Cho
  8. They Say It’s Wonderful
  9. My Beloved
  10. It’s Hard To Say Goodbye
Project 88 is scheduled to be released on January 11, 2019 through Bry-mar Music.

Random: Music You Can Trust

In the early 1990s, I had a band with a guy named Kevin Kemper. I played drums, and he played guitar and sang lead on most songs. I did sing and play guitar on a few tunes, but usually stayed safely behind my drum kit. We tried a few different bass players, but none stayed much past a rehearsal or two, so we were usually a duo. We played mostly original material, though I do recall us covering Bob Dylan’s “Quinn The Eskimo,” Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and (once) Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.”

We had to create our own gigs, and just the other day I was reminded of one of them. I live in an apartment the size of a personal storage unit, and so I’m constantly trying to create space by tossing out shit I’m fairly confident I won’t want later (I’ve made a few mistakes). Lately I’ve been going through old videocassettes, some of which aren’t labeled, with the intention of tossing them after viewing them. The other night I popped in a tape and saw a 21-year-old version of myself playing drums. The footage was shot by my friend Stacey Wallace, and on the tape I could hear her telling two police officers that she wasn’t in charge of our little concert. I don’t think we had permission to play there. I had just gotten into acting, and thought the theatre would be a great place to put on a concert. I even made up fliers advertising it, and encouraging people to bring their own instruments. That was something we did, encourage people to join us if they wished, sometimes with awful results, usually with no results, and once with a fantastic result. We also encouraged general weirdness, perhaps even suggesting people take hallucinogens, as we sometimes did ourselves. We wanted it to be a memorable night. And it was. We were shut down after only like five or six songs, and we moved the party to Stacey’s house. Somehow we picked up a larger audience on the way, and had a great time. Anyway, that is one video cassette I won’t be tossing out.

I also recently found a box of T-shirts. Our band was named Random. We tried coming up with a second word, toying with the idea of Random Universe at one point, but not liking it. My favorite was Random Surgery. We could never settle on it, though, and so remained – for the band’s brief life – Random. A friend in another band thought we were named after a character in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. That was fine. We had T-shirts made up. On the front it said, “Random: Music You Can Trust.” On the back, it said “Like us or die trying.” I still think that’s funny. I’m not sure we sold a single shirt. If I remember correctly, we broke up soon after the shirts were made.

By the way, the one time our inviting people to join us resulted in something excellent was at another party at Stacey’s house. At one point, Kevin and I started a groove, and Stacey and our friend Mara began improvising lyrics. The resulting song was “Sex In The Morning,” probably the best song we ever performed. All of us were on acid that night, but fortunately we had the whole show on audio tape, which we needed to reconstruct the song later so we could perform it again.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Napa Valley Duo: “An American In Paris” (2018) CD Review

The Napa Valley Duo is made up of Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson on cello and Terry Winn on piano. Their new album is An American In Paris, out now on IAC Records. While, as the album’s title indicates, the duo covers some well-known material, this release also includes several original compositions, written by Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson. Interestingly, both of these talented musicians have had careers as teachers. An American In Paris follows their 2016 release, A Soft Message To You.

The album begins with a short piece, “Hotel,” written by Francis Poulenc for voice and piano. Here, Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson’s cello takes on the vocal line. It has a somber beauty. That is followed by a playful, wonderful, lively rendition of Gershwin’s “An American In Paris,” the title track. I believe I’ve mentioned this once or twice before, but you can never go wrong with Gershwin. And certainly the Napa Valley Duo proves that here. The piece was written for many instruments, and sometimes versions have a full and busy sound. Here played with just two instruments, the approach and sound are different, though the excitement is still there. The cello and the piano feel like two characters, engaged in a tale, and taking some joy in the telling of it. In addition to being the album’s title track, it is also, at fifteen minutes, the longest piece of music on the disc. There are different sections, with different vibes, different themes, as the tale progresses, as these two characters venture to different places. This version once again shows just how excellent Gershwin music is. Plus, well, I suppose I should mention again that I am a sucker for cello, and my love for that instrument must certainly be a part of my love for this rendition. Now I want to hear Napa Valley Duo tackle “Rhapsody In Blue,” my favorite Gershwin composition. There seems to be a hint of it on piano on this track.

Napa Valley Duo delivers a beautiful, gentle rendition of “It Never Entered My Mind,” a piece written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Their version takes its inspiration from the 1954 recording by Miles Davis Quartet heard on Vol. 3. Then we get into some of the original material, beginning with “Prelude Perfume.” There is something a bit unsettling, fanciful and even eerie about this piece. That’s followed by “A Soft Message To You,” another original composition, though perhaps owing a bit to “An American In Paris.” This one has its own beauty, and is a piece that was included on the duo’s 2016 release, functioning as the title track to that album. We then get the most surprising track of the album, “Star Trek Anthem/I Love Lucy.” This medley is one of the oddest pairings I’ve heard. And yet this piece combines them well, particularly at the end. I completely love this. Yeah, I’m a fan of both shows (particularly Star Trek), but you don’t need to be one to enjoy this track.

“Meritage Estate” is an original composition that begins rather gently, but has some intense and startling moments. Then “Preparing For The Day” comes in with a bright, lighter, pleasant and uplifting vibe. The moment it starts, I find myself smiling. If this is the start to the day, then the day is bound to be a good one. That’s followed by a more somber and thoughtful piece, “Vesper For Janelle,” and then by “Chimera,” an interesting tune that was also included on A Soft Message To You. We then get another unexpected cover and combination of material, “See Me Feel Me/I Will Fight And Never Slack.” Yes, “See Me, Feel Me” is the song from The Who’s Tommy, the vocal line beautifully performed on cello. The track suddenly changes gears as it shifts into “I Will Fight And Never Slack,” which has something an insistent tone and a surprising power. The track then returns to “See Me, Feel Me.” The disc’s final three tracks are beautiful pieces, beginning with Giacomo Puccini’s “Moderatamente,” and followed by “Romanza,” from Mozart’s “Piano Concert No. 20 in D minor.” This magnificent and moving piece is one of my personal favorite tracks.  The album concludes with “The Lady Caliph,” a gorgeous piece composed by Ennio Morricone for the film La Califfa. This is an excellent rendition.

CD Track List
  1. Hotel
  2. An American In Paris
  3. It Never Entered My Mind
  4. Prelude Perfume
  5. A Soft Message To You
  6. Star Trek Anthem/I Love Lucy
  7. Meritage Estate
  8. Preparing For The Day
  9. Vesper For Janelle
  10. Chimera
  11. See Me Feel Me/I Will Fight And Never Slack
  12. Moderatamente
  13. Romanza
  14. The Lady Caliph
An American In Paris was released on November 9, 2018 on IAC Records.

Ynana Rose: “Tea Leaf Confessions” (2018) CD Review

Singer and songwriter Ynana Rose’s new album, Tea Leaf Confessions, features some wonderful folk and country music, also using elements of soul and jazz on certain tracks. The album contains mostly original material, written or co-written by Ynana Rose. Joining her on various tracks of this release are Damon Castillo on guitar and bass, Dominic Castillo on guitar, Dorian Michael on electric guitar, Kenny Blackwell on guitar and mandolin, Dylan Johnson on upright bass, Paul Griffith on drums, Daryl Vandruff on drums, Erin Inglish on banjo, Duane Inglish on accordion, Bill Flores on dobro and pedal steel guitar, Joel Tepp on harmonica, Kristian Ducharme on keys, Larry Kim on piano, Bob Liepman on cello, Tammy Rogers on fiddle, Brynn Albanese on violin, and Holly Ann Lewis on backing vocals.

The album opens with “Stardust Firefly,” an excellent and compelling song. There is a steady rhythm at its base, and some wonderful work on dobro over that. Of course, it is her vocals that are the main focus, and she gives an honest, passionate delivery. “I can see forever in your eyes/To the heavens I will speak your name.” I also really like that “La-la la-la la” part, which is catchy. This track also features some nice touches on harmonica. That’s followed by “Hard Work Of Love,” a beautiful and moving track with a lot of soul, both in Ynana’s lead vocals and in the backing vocals (which are performed by Ynana Rose and Holly Ann Lewis). There is also some good work on electric guitar here. “And I don’t give a damn/About a shower of diamonds/Or a pocketful of gold/Oh but baby, when I’m falling/Give me a steady hand to hold.” Then “Sugar On The Vine” has a lively vibe, due in part to that percussion and in part to her bright vocal delivery. Also, this song features banjo. “When the world’s gone crazy, I need simple things.” Oh yes. And, yes, the world has gone crazy. But maybe, just maybe, we are finally nearing the end of the Donald Trump disaster, and we can begin to put the country back together.

“Mendocino Sunrise” is gorgeous and somewhat haunting at moments, a song to pull you into another realm, something that is more and more desirable these days. And check out these lines: “I come to the ocean with my sorrow in the dark/I hear your voice in the motion of the tides.” Part of the beauty of this song comes from the presence of Bob Liepman on cello, an instrument that I always find incredibly effective and touching. “Mendocino Sunrise” was written by Ynana Rose and Damon Castillo. That’s followed by the album’s only cover, a delightful rendition of Lefty Frizzell’s “I Want To Be With You Always.” We are now obviously firmly in country territory, and this rendition features some wonderful work by Tammy Rogers on fiddle. A very different type of fiddle-playing graces the cool “Impossible,” a tune with a delicious old-time jazzy European vibe. That’s Brynn Albanese on violin. Duane Inglish plays accordion on this track. This tune also features some excellent lyrics, such as these lines: “My foolish heart serenading the stars/Writing love letters to the moon/I lost and yet I’ll never regret/My impossible dream of you.” And I dig Dominic Castillo’s work on guitar. This is my favorite track.

“Leave Me Lonely” is a sweet-sounding country tune of heartache, featuring more good work on fiddle by Tammy Rogers. Bill Flores is on pedal steel. “When you wrap your arms around me, no place I’d rather be/But you’re keeping your love locked away, and I can’t find the key.” The album then concludes with “Thin White Line,” a more serious number that begins with Ynana’s vocals prominent in the mix, pulling us in, the guitar somewhat deeper in the background, softly backing her up. Then the band comes in. It is a song of pain and forgiveness. “The world will let you down/But as long as it’s spinning ‘round/You can choose which way to turn/And cross that line when you learn.”

CD Track List
  1. Stardust Firefly
  2. Hard Work Of Love
  3. Sugar On The Vine
  4. The Gift Of A Song
  5. Mendocino Sunrise
  6. I Want To Be With You Always
  7. Impossible
  8. Lillian
  9. Love Song To A Hummingbird
  10. Leave Me Lonely
  11. Thin White Line 
Tea Leaf Confessions was released on November 16, 2018.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Sugaray Rayford: “Somebody Save Me” (2019) CD Review

As certain people become more irritating and horrible, with their racism and their dishonesty and their devotion to the NRA and their complete lack of driving skills, the rest of us turn more and more to music for a taste of humanity. Somebody Save Me, the new album from singer Sugaray Rayford, delivers some really good soul and blues sounds, with a voice that is earnest and human. The material is original, though not written by Rayford. All the songs on this disc were written by Eric Corne, who also produced the album and plays guitar, harmonica and percussion on it. Corne is also founder and president of Forty Below Records, the label that is releasing this album. Also joining Sugaray Rayford on this release are Sasha Smith on keys, Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Eamon Ryland on guitar, Taras Prodaniuk on bass, Matt Tecu on drums, Mark Pender on trumpet, Ron Dziubla on saxophone, and Richard A. Rosenberg on trombone. There are also several guests playing on various tracks.

The disc kicks off with “The Revelator.” This song is bluesy, it is funky, it has soul, and it is seriously cool. There is a strong, prominent bass line to latch onto, to get you moving. I also dig those backing vocals. Eric Corne, Brittany Gael Vaughn, Brittney S. Wheeler, Gabriel M. Newman, J. Blake White and Terika Jefferson provide those backing vocals. And then the horns come in, taking the tune to another level of cool. Ah, this is just what I need. And if all that isn’t enough, this tune also features violin and cello. “No, I ain’t your preacher/No, I ain’t your preacher.” That’s followed by “Time To Get Movin’,” a bluesy rock song with a good groove. Here Sugaray Rayford addresses some of the troubles we’re facing, both from without and within, such as the hatred and social division. “Everything’s not black and white, there are different shades of grey/We need to come together now before it’s all too late/It’s time to get movin’/You’ve got to get behind the wheel.” Rayford belts out the lyrics, and man, he isn’t messing around. He means every word here; his is a voice of honesty and power. There is some great stuff on harmonica too. “It’s about to get real.”

The horns play a delicious role in “You And I,” giving the tune a classic vibe. “When we’re apart, it’s an awful crime.” Oh yes, that’s how I feel about being away from my girlfriend. This one too has a nice groove, and I enjoy what Sasha Smith is doing on organ. Carol Hatchett and Roberta Freeman provide backing vocals on this one. “Everywhere all the people are fighting/I just think of you, and I feel all right/You and I/Hand in hand, and side by side.” Yes, that’s what it’s about. That’s what makes it all right. And in “I’d Kill For You, Honey,” he sings “I’d even kill for you, honey/Baby, would you really do the same for me?” Good question, because if you would, I have a list of people prepared. Now, this is going to involve a trip to Washington, D.C.  I like the rough and wild vocal delivery, and the overall raw vibe of this track. Plus, it contains some more good work on harmonica.

“Sometimes You Get The Bear (And Sometimes The Bear Gets You)” has more of a fun groove. Yeah, I dig that kind of classic rhythm. Then suddenly, like halfway through, the groove changes, with the horns almost giving us a big band feel, while the guitar over it delivers some fantastic blues. It’s a cool section, an unexpected and delightful digression, functioning as a bridge between this world and the next. When the song returns to its original vibe, the next line is “Made it to heaven by the skin of my teeth.” That’s followed by “Somebody Save Me,” the album’s title track, which has a whole lot of soul. This is a wonderful tune, with a passionate vocal performance. “Somebody save me/I can’t make it on my own.” Eric Gorfain plays violin, and Richard Dodd plays cell on this one. It is one of my personal favorites. The CD concludes with “Dark Night Of The Soul,” which has a good blues groove. David Ralicke plays saxophone on this one. “How come you always take more than your share/Best beware, dark night is coming for you.”

CD Track List
  1. The Revelator
  2. Time To Get Movin’
  3. You And I
  4. My Cards Are On The Table
  5. I’d Kill For You, Honey
  6. Angels And Devils
  7. Sometimes You Get The Bear (And Sometimes The Bear Gets You)
  8. Somebody Save Me
  9. Is It Just Me
  10. Dark Night Of The Soul
Somebody Save Me is scheduled to be released on March 1, 2019 on Forty Below Records.

Balsam Range: “Aeonic” (2019) CD Review

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but there is something about bluegrass that works so well to raise our spirits. With its natural sounds, generally talented players and good blending of voices, bluegrass at the very least puts us at ease, and often gets us smiling and dancing. Aeonic, the new release from Balsam Range, does both, and it features some excellent vocal work. The band is made up of Tim Surrett on bass, dobro and vocals; Buddy Melton on fiddle and vocals; Caleb Smith guitar and vocals, Marc Pruett on banjo, and Darren Nicholson on mandolin and vocals. These guys have been putting out good music for more than a decade now, and this new release has some excellent tracks. And yes, the band explains the album’s title in the liner notes.

The CD gets off to a great start with “The Girl Who Invented The Wheel,” an energetic tune that should bring a smile to your face. There is a lot of great playing on this track. “A real fast song with a lonesome feel/’Cause there goes the girl who invented the wheel.” There is something about that banjo that makes me remember how good life can be. We could all use a reminder like that, eh? That’s followed by “Tumbleweed Town,” a pretty song written by Milan Miller and Beth Husband. The lines that stood out for me the first time I listened to it are: “Searching for a sign of the man I hope to be/Now the dreams I didn’t find are another casualty.”

Rambling is a one of those topics that finds its way into a lot of bluegrass tunes, and on this disc Balsam Range gives us “The Rambler,” a slower, mellower, sweeter tune that features some wonderful vocal work. And check out these lines: “You’re making twenty, you’re saving ten/’Til you get that ache again/To spend whatever you have to spend/To take away your blues/Thirty days is awful long/When the road you’re riding on/Makes you weak instead of strong.” This song is gorgeous and moving, and is one I like more and more each time I hear it. “You’ve seen too much, and not as much as you thought you’d see.” They then pick up the pace with “Get Me Gone,” a fun, lively, joyous song. “Get me gone like a shooting star/Just as fast, and just as far.” I love it, and I certainly appreciate these lyrics. I have a feeling we’ll be singing them a lot, as they express a desire that many of us have these days.

“Let My Life Be A Light” is another jubilant number, a bit of bluegrass gospel. It has a positive attitude that I would love to adopt. “Help me do some good deed while I live/Let my life be a light/Shining out through the night/May I help struggling ones to the fold/Spreading cheer everywhere/To the sad and the lone/Let my life be a light to some soul.” Even though the religious aspect of the lines doesn’t speak to me, I do appreciate the idea of being an example and trying to help one’s fellow man. Plus, I love that mandolin. There is also some really nice work on guitar. Another of the disc’s highlights is “Graveyard Blues.” This is a seriously cool number, bluegrass blues, with a strong vocal performance. They follow that with a thoughtful, gentle cover of Paul Thorn’s “Angel Too Soon.” The album then concludes with a Beatles cover, “If I Needed Someone.” It is a lively, fast-paced rendition. This is what it’s all about, and is exactly what I want from a bluegrass album, including excellent vocals and some good jamming.

CD Track List
  1. The Girl Who Invented The Wheel
  2. Tumbleweed Town
  3. The Rambler
  4. Get Me Gone
  5. Hobo Blues
  6. Help Me To Hold On
  7. Let My Life Be A Light
  8. My Cross To Bear
  9. Graveyard Blues
  10. Angel Too Soon
  11. If I Needed Someone 
Aeonic is scheduled to be released on January 4, 2019 through Mountain Home Music Company.