Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Andy Baker: “North Country Sky” (2020) CD Review

Andy Baker is a singer and songwriter based in Michigan. His new album, North Country Sky, features all original material, covering several styles and moods, and includes some beautiful and effective songs. On this album, in addition to providing the vocals, Andy Baker plays acoustic guitar, octave mandolin, dobro, keys and hand percussion. Joining him on this release are Jeff Moehle on drums and cajon, John Austin on bass, Will Walker on guitar, Drew Howard on pedal steel, and Mike Lynch on accordion and organ, as well as special guest on certain tracks.

This album gets off to an excellent start with “Second Wind.” The opening lines speak strongly to those of us who are of a certain age: “Well, half my beard has turned to grey/Oh, half my years have flown away.” A depressing thought, certainly, but immediately after that, he offers this positive and optimistic outlook: “But I don’t look back on where I’ve been/I’m chasing down my second wind.” And the song sounds strong and bright enough that I believe that it’s possible for all of us. Perhaps it is right around the corner. If we are still above ground, it’s not too late. “I got a bunch of stuff on my bucket list/And an open road that I can’t resist.” Oh yes, that sounds so appealing. This song features mandolin, banjo and accordion, which add to its cheerful and optimistic sound. That’s Mark Schrock on mandolin and Ian Gorman on banjo. At the end of this track, Andy Baker reaches out and addresses us directly: “So when your hair starts turning grey/Well, don’t think your life has flown away/But the best of days come ‘round again/Oh once you catch that second wind.” That’s followed by “Skywriter,” a song told from the perspective of a skywriter. At the beginning of this song, a man runs up to him and asks, “Can you write I’m sorry/So big that she’ll believe/And can you do it all before the six o’clock train leaves?” Yes, it is a love song about a desperate act. And when listening, you can’t help but hope it works. These things can work in songs, in films, in books, when in real life they probably wouldn’t. Is it any wonder that we’re turning to music even more these days? With reality in a horrible downward spiral, no one can blame us for wishing to live within art.

I was feeling down the first time I listened to this album, and “Sixteen” basically wrecked me. This song is about a teenager who is hoping to just make it to her next birthday. “Mom cries about the things that I’ll be missing/Dad cries about the daughter he can’t save/And they tell me when it’s time/Baby, run into the light/Oh, but what if all I want to do is stay?” God, life is so bloody cruel, though that is not the message of this song. There is actually something incredibly positive about this song. “And thank my lucky stars/That I have come so far/Celebrate the gift of another day.” Something all of us could stand to keep in mind, eh? “Next Right Thing” has a strong country sound. Andy Baker is able to create such vivid characters in his songs, this song being just one good example. “I Know” is a beautiful song about dealing with past mistakes and current troubles. “And you said, baby if you can’t let them go/The weight of this regret will crush your soul.”  The response, “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,” has a different delivery, a lighter sound, which is interesting. At one point he sings, “I know I’ve got a lot of work to do.” Indeed, most of us do. These days it’s hard to keep from letting anger overtake us. Again, there is the sense here that it can be done, that we can work through our troubles and improve our outlook, improve ourselves. And I certainly appreciate that.

“Tsunami” is a song about death and grief. “I did not tell you that I loved you/I did not kiss your lips goodbye/I thought that you’d be home for dinner/You weren’t supposed to leave this life.”  The song suddenly builds in power as the person lashes out, singing, “Last night I ran headlong into the ocean/And begged that cold dark water, please just swallow me.” It is a forceful and moving moment, one of many on this excellent album. “Tsunami” is followed by “Crossroads,” which has a brighter sound. “Now here I stand, staring at a crossroads/Wondering what my next step’s going to be.” Are there portents? Are there signs? Can we be guided? He isn’t certain, saying “The only thing I know for sure is I won’t be coming back.” Then in “Running After You” he sings “And we are, just laughing in this moment/And that’s why I keep running after you.” Yes, it’s a love song, and one that is so sweet, so true. It ends with the lines, “If you go first, I’ll hold onto this memory/Of you standing there, laughing like you do/Waiting at the end of this long dirt road/For me to come running after you/For me to come running after you.” How can anyone remain unaffected by such moving lyrics?

Andy Baker then delivers a more rocking, and less serious number, “Fixer Upper Blues.” This one features some good work by Peter “Madcat” Ruth on harmonica, plus some nice work by Mike Lynch on organ. That’s followed by “Fall To Pieces,” a beautiful song, its first verse taking place after the end of a relationship. “Held it in for the lawyers, held it in for the kids/Held it in so that bastard would never get to see the damage that he did/But now this house is dark and empty/And this old couch won’t tell a soul/So you should fall to pieces/Go on and fall apart.” He tells us, “it’s good to let it go.” Don’t you sometimes just want to fall apart? In the second verse, there is bad news from the doctors. Is it a different character with different troubles? Hell, I hope so. If it’s the same person, that is just too much, too much for one person to handle. This song is like a comforting hand on our shoulder, something we could all use. Mia Rose provides some nice backing vocals.  “Fall To Pieces” is followed by “Love & Gravity,” a sweet song. Check out these lyrics: “A trace of what we used to be/But that’s the deal with time and space/The key is laughter and a little grace/For though our bodies turn to dust/What can’t be lost in each of us/Is love and gravity.” The album concludes with its title track, “North Country Sky.” This one too deals with death, and again in a positive way, in lines like “But when I have come to the end of my days, lay me down in the new fallen snow/Of the north country sky.” Is this album preparing us for the end? It feels that way at times, doesn’t it? And in doing so, it is helping us, perhaps, live a little better.

CD Track List
  1. Second Wind
  2. Skywriter
  3. Sixteen
  4. Next Right Thing
  5. I Know
  6. Tsunami
  7. Crossroads
  8. Running After You
  9. Fixer Upper Blues
  10. Fall To Pieces
  11. Love & Gravity
  12. North Country Sky
North Country Sky was released on June 10, 2020.

America: “Heritage II: Demos/Alternate Takes 1971 – 1976” (2020) CD Review

Record Store Day was originally scheduled for April 18th and then was moved to June 20th because of the pandemic, and then moved again because of the continuing pandemic. Now it is scheduled for three different days. One of the records scheduled to be released on August 29th (the first of the three days) is America’s Heritage II: Demos/Alternate Takes 1971 – 1976, an album full of previously unreleased material, the follow-up to the 2017 release Heritage: Home Recordings/Demos 1970 – 1973. (which was also later released on vinyl as part of 2018’s Black Friday Record Store Day). While you wait for your vinyl copy of the new release, the CD is now available. The CD, by the way, contains a couple of tracks that are not on the vinyl release. The tracks are presented somewhat in chronological order, and the disc contains liner notes by Gerry Beckley.

The CD opens with a demo of “Cornwall Blank,” a song that would end up on the group’s second LP, Homecoming. There is a bit of banter at the beginning of the track. This demo has an undeniable power, an intensity that is striking. Plus, I dig that guitar part. This was recorded in 1971. It is followed by the track that will likely be the biggest draw for America fans, “Jameroony,” a seriously great acoustic guitar jam, also recorded in 1971. There is a bit of talk at the beginning of the track, and then a whole lot of great guitar playing. Nearly thirteen minutes of it, in fact. Sometimes they are moving at full force, and then will relax slightly as they change directions, but the track is never dull, not for a moment. Then we move to 1974 with a demo of “Mandy,” which at first features just piano and vocals. “Mandy, don’t you think it’s kind of sad/The way good things must go bad/Like the love we used to have.” This song really draws us in.

This disc includes a track mix of “Tin Man” with the “Ooooh” backing vocals, as well as a few other lines. Obviously, this sort of thing is for serious fans. It is also one of the tracks that won’t be included on the vinyl release. “Tin Man” was included on America’s 1974 LP Holiday, and was also released as a single, becoming one of several hits for the group. That’s followed by a demo of “What Does It Matter,” another song from Holiday, and then “You,” also from Holiday. This is an interesting track, vocals and strings, giving us a sense of how the song is constructed. Again, this is for serious fans, and is just under two minutes. “Mad Dog” is a delightful song from Holiday, and on this release we get a demo of it, with backing vocals. There is a hesitant start, with some studio banter. That’s followed by an alternate mix of “Simple Life,” a song that was released as a single and also included on Highway: 30 Years Of America, a three-disc box set. This is a full band track, with David Dickey on bass, and Willie Leacox on drums. Ah yes, the simple life does sound appealing, doesn’t it? This track is from 1975.

We then move to songs from the band’s 1976 LP Hideaway, basically skipping the 1975 LP Hearts (though apparently “Simple Life” was included as a bonus track on one version of that release). The first of the Hideaway songs is a demo of “Lovely Night” that was recorded in 1974, with Gerry Beckley on vocals and keys. That’s followed by “Today’s The Day,” with a false start on the first take, so the bulk of the track is the second take. This also features the full band, including David Dickey on bass and Willie Leacox on drums. This song has a sweet sound, and some instructions are given to the musicians at various points, again giving us an idea of how the song was created. We also get an alternative mix of the third take of “Amber Cascades.” “How does everybody feel?” is asked at the end. That’s followed by an alternate mix of “Letter.” I love the bass line of this song, which begins this track and is prominent throughout. This track features a full band, which includes, in addition to David Dickey and Willie Leacox on bass and drums respectively, George Martin on piano. George Martin also produced the Hideaway album. This is a seriously cool mix, and is one of my favorite tracks on this disc. The last track listed on the CD case is an alternate mix of “Jet Boy Blue,” one of the tracks not included on the vinyl release. But there is actually one more track. The disc’s final track is a commercial for America’s Gold, a greatest hits compilation, “a superb collection of the greatest hits from their nine best-selling albums” for only $9.98. And indeed, this ad reminds you of just how many great songs this band has had.

CD Track List
  1. Cornwall Blank
  2. Jameroony
  3. Mandy
  4. Tin Man
  5. What Does It Matter
  6. You 
  7. Mad Dog
  8. Simple Life
  9. Lovely Night
  10. Today’s The Day
  11. Amber Cascades
  12. Letter
  13. Jet Boy Blue
Heritage II: Demos/Alternate Takes 1971 – 1976 was released on CD on April 24, 2020, and will be released on vinyl on August 29, 2020.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Westmoreland: “Cast Fire” (2019) CD Review

Westmoreland is a band led by singer and guitarist John Westmoreland, and based in Durham, North Carolina. In addition to John on lead vocals, guitar and charango, the band is made up of Lance Scott on bass, Kevin Timmons on keys and Kobie Watkins on drums. Last year they released a phenomenal album titled Cast Fire, featuring mostly original material with a focus on the lyrics and the mood, this band adept at creating an atmosphere that is strong and vivid. Several guest musicians join them on various tracks.

From the moment the opening track, “The Sparrow,” begins, it is clear that John Westmoreland has taken some inspiration from the later work of Leonard Cohen. The near-spiritual tone and the style, including some of the vocal delivery, as well as some of the imagery, seem influenced by him. John Westmoreland creates a place where death and life seem intertwined. Check out these lines: “Did you know the world is hollow, just a shell of what’s beneath, and the soul became a sparrow, longing to crack open the seed/And though she be a bird of sorrow, let there be healing on her wing.” Diali Cissokho is on kora, and Pattie Hopkins Kinlaw provides backing vocals on this track. That is followed by the “Cast Fire,” the album’s title track, a song that makes great use of backing vocals on the chorus. Tamisha Waden and Elizabeth A. Jackson provide those backing vocals. Will Ridenour plays kora on this track. There seems to be a prayer spoken by the various instruments, which sometimes are in conversation. This song includes a Shakespeare reference in the line “I see the masters have let slip the dogs of war, across the earth they plunder and feast upon the poor.” In Act III of Julius Caesar, Antony says “Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice/Cry 'Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

“Land Of The Living” features a beautiful string section. Jennifer Curtis is on violin, Suzanne Rousso is on viola and Paula Peroutka is on cello. After the line “Arise from the ashes,” the strings seem to respect that command, rising then. This track also features a prominent beat that holds things together. “And in the fields of repentance, I beg forgiveness for the lies I believed and the truths I deceived.” And again, this is a world where death walks hand in hand with us, where the veil is thin, and crossing seems not only possible but likely. “There is no end or beginning, what was is and shall forever be, adrift upon the endless sea.” That is followed by “All Saints Day,” a gorgeous instrumental track with a moving lead by Alan Thompson on saxophone. We then get the album’s only cover, an unusual rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.” This version is prettier than most versions I’ve heard, and has a lightness to it. The vocal delivery makes everything seem inevitable, which is interesting, almost like reporting on events.

“Come To Me” begins with a beautiful instrumental section. Then some of its lyrics are striking, and are delivered so plainly, without force, that you might almost miss them: “Take this pain, all the love I never gave and make me an instrument from this writhing knot of clay.” This track features more good backing vocals from Tamisha Waden and Elizabeth A. Jackson, adding a soulful, comforting element. That’s followed by “Something Hopeful,” another beautiful instrumental track with an uplifting power. Something hopeful, indeed. This is music to help you get through another moment, another day, and it features more wonderful work from that string section. In addition to the three string players already mentioned, Jim Westmoreland plays violin on this track. Things then turn jazzy with “By And By,” which has a delicious groove and good work on both guitar and keys. The backing vocalists contribute some wonderful stuff here, like helping us dance our way to life’s conclusion. And the line “dance me to the sound of falling memories” reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love.” Then toward the end, the song grows quieter, more introspective, more lonely. Because we each face the end alone, don’t we?

On “Open Your Eyes,” John Westmoreland’s voice is deep and intimate, as if to offer some comfort, and we feel that the “soft voice you’ll hear say, ‘do not fear death’” that he sings of is, in fact, his own voice. “Open your heart for love is all that you are/The pain and confusion that tear you apart truly are only a dream.” We can drift away on those words, can’t we? Wrap ourselves in light and thereby dispel the darkness that surrounds us. Then “Thomas” features some beautiful work by Eric Heywood (from Son Volt) on pedal steel. The album concludes with “Waltz In A Mirror,” another instrumental piece, one that I find both soothing and sad, lost in memories, a past that is so close but can’t quite be touched. This track features moving work from the string section. Partway through, the piece turns a corner and it is like it is no longer memory, but has helped us pass through to the present. Or has it managed to bring the past to us? This is a gorgeous and gripping piece, a beautiful ending to a remarkable album.

CD Track List
  1. The Sparrow
  2. Cast Fire
  3. Land Of The Living
  4. All Saints Day
  5. All Along The Watchtower
  6. Come To Me
  7. Something Hopeful
  8. By And By
  9. Open Your Eyes
  10. Thomas
  11. Waltz In A Mirror
Cast Fire was released on April 12, 2019.

TJ George: “Fragmented Soul Vol. 2” (2020) CD Review

In 2015, singer and songwriter TJ George released Fragmented Soul Vol. 1, a title that promised a follow-up. Now he is making good on that promise, with the release of Fragmented Soul Vol. 2, a six-song EP featuring all original material. TJ George, who is based in Columbus, Ohio, plays keyboards on this release. Joining him are Ric Hordinski on guitar, Byron House on bass, Joshua Seurkamp on drums, and Shiloh Hawkins on backing vocals.

This CD opens with “Can’t Move Fast Enough,” a good pop song that has a gentle and warm feel, with a vocal delivery that is light but yet touching and soulful. “I need to kiss your face/And do whatever it takes/To get that rush/Can’t move fast enough.” And near the beginning, the line “As I paint these trees on my canvas of life” might make you think of Bob Ross, with his happy little trees. Kenny White plays keys on this track. That’s followed by “Clayton Jones Is Gonna Be Big,” which has more of a folk and country vibe, particularly in the guitar work. I love the backing vocals by Shiloh Hawkins, and the way her voice interacts with TJ George’s lead vocals. “We are gold/If gold means getting into a Starbucks bathroom/I’m not old/But I’m not young enough to make the same mistakes.” Yeah, there is a humorous touch to this one.

“Skin” is a mellower, slower tune, a love song of sorts, about the physical aspect of a relationship, and how those needs persist even when other things end. “But I need skin/Pressing my body up against your skin/I need skin/Wanting to fall in love with you again/And again and again.” This track features some nice work on both keys and guitar. That’s followed by “Gonna Be Good,” the lyrics at first delivered almost as spoken word with an odd intensity that you end up questioning. Something about that delivery doesn’t seem quite right. It is about seeking that rush from a needle in the arm, looking for oblivion. Then when he begins to sing, he tells us “It’s going to be good, it’s going to be real good.” Interestingly, it is then that the intensity and his desire are more believable. And the guitar matches it at times, which is nice.

“Cookie Jar” has a good groove, and I like the work on electric guitar, which at times is kind of bluesy, even taking on a jazzy quality at moments. “Feels like I’m falling/And I can’t steady myself/It feels like lava flowing uncontrollably/To fill in your emptiness/How far are we going/And is there a way to bliss/The heart has nothing to do with what we need from this.” The EP concludes with “Call Of The Wild,” which has a darker vibe from the start. “It’s too late to change my stripes, this is who I am/This is where the story begins, or is it where it ends/I don’t want to break your heart, but you know that I might.” This song creates an interesting character, someone who offers excuses for questionable behavior before he’s even done it. That leads us to wonder just who is prepared to be with that person, to take that risk? “I’m the hunter, and you’re the prey.” It feels like a pose, the way he is bragging. Is it an attempt to seem sinister? For it seems he certainly wants to be thought of as sexy and exciting, even if he’s not. It’s an intriguing song.

CD Track List
  1. Can’t Move Fast Enough
  2. Clayton Jones Is Gonna Be Big
  3. Skin
  4. Gonna Be Good
  5. Cookie Jar
  6. Call Of The Wild
Fragmented Soul Vol. 2 was released on June 26, 2020.