Sunday, June 18, 2023

MOTU: “The Water Is High: Songs Of Love, Lies, And Freedom” (2023) CD Review

MOTU is the project and stage name of Richard Michelson, the acronym standing for Music Of The Universe. Michelson has put out more than twenty albums in the last twenty or so years, and his new one, his twenty-second, The Water Is High: Songs Of Love, Lies, And Freedom, features all original compositions. The music is in the blues-rock realm, but with other elements mixed in. Michelson plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, dobro, pedal steel, bass, mandolin, banjo and sitar on these tracks, and sings. Joining him are his wife Dee Michelson on vocals, Ed Modzel on drums, and Bob Rush on keyboards and harmonica.

The album opens with “I’m Just Here Playin’ In This Band,” a song title that of course reminds me of a certain Grateful Dead song. There is some really cool, somewhat jazzy work on guitar even before Dee Michelson’s vocals come in. This song acknowledges that there are troubles in the world, and then Dee delivers this line: “But got no power to command.” I think most of us can relate to that line. We see the troubles, want to do something about them, but feel unable to solve the problems. They’re just too great for us to handle. The next line, “I’m just here playin’ in this band,” might seem like an admission of inefficacy, but of course music is something that helps all of us deal with troubles, both personal and universal. Just think how horrible this world would be without music. And there is some more delicious blues guitar work in that instrumental section at the end. That is followed by the album’s title track, “The Water Is High,” which has more of a back porch vibe as it starts, but still with electric guitar, so an interesting combination of tones. Richard Michelson sings lead on this one, and Bob Rush plays harmonica. “I’m losing my balance/Look out below/I thought I knew my way/But then I lost the trail.” I particularly love that he sings, “Look out below,” a line I was not expecting, shifting concern from himself to whoever might be there. This is a cool song.

“That Last Summer Breeze” has a delicious groove, one that seems designed to raise our spirits, and that opening moment on keys feels like summer, making me think of being at the baseball park. Dee Michelson is back on lead vocals for this one. “The summer’s gone/It never lasts too long/Keep wishing it would stay/Even just for one more day,” she sings. Ah, but keeping music like this playing will help stretch that good feeling of summer far into autumn. This track is full of great stuff on keys, and in the second half there is a nice lead on guitar. The band switches gears again for “The Brotherhood Of Man,” which begins with more a laid-back acoustic sound. It does soon kick in a bit, addressing the fact that most of us have descended from immigrants, and yet treat new immigrants poorly. The song asks the question, “What is a country?” They then sing, “Borders were invented by man,” which of course is largely true (apart from the borders that are natural, like an ocean). There is a bit in Harold And Maude (my favorite film), in which Maude asks, “What sense in borders and nations and patriotism?” None at all, of course. Yet, there doesn’t seem a way to call an end to this ridiculous game that was started centuries ago. Except that we can individually decide to treat people from other places as friends, or at least not as enemies.

I absolutely love the way the keyboard gets “Are You The Man I’ve Been Waiting For?” going at the beginning. Delicious. In addition to that good stuff on keys, Bob Rush also delivers some wonderful work on harmonica. And here Dee asks us, “Are you the man I’ve been waiting for?/Will you be true, or just make me blue?” Well, we all do want to be the one who will make that special someone happy, who will rise to the occasion. It’s sad how often people fail. This is another cool song, and it is the work on keys in particular that has me loving this track. That’s followed by “Lovely Day For A Moon Walk.” The bass gets this one started, but it is the guitar that is the focus, as it soars and streaks across the sky, letting loose, all while a good groove plays beneath. This is the album’s only instrumental track.

The album’s next song is titled, “Can We All Rise Above?” That is a question I assume a lot of us have been asking in the last six or seven years. So far, the answer hasn’t been encouraging. The opening lines of this song are “Honesty is hard to find/When facts, they change all the time,” reminding me of that horrid lizard, Kellyanne “Bowling Green Massacre” Conway and her “alternative facts.” That creature clearly didn’t hold a monopoly on dishonesty, however. Check out these lines: “The truth is hard to see/When ethics take a back seat to money/Any lie can be spread for a fee.” These lines also stand out: “Hate becomes a tool/To gain the trust of fools.” Those lines provide a depressing and accurate commentary on our current political and social climates. “Division now rules the day/And the truth, it just gets in the way.” But the main question of this song is of course directed at ourselves too; it has to be. Can we rise above? I know I struggle with it, for I find myself filled with hatred for people like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ted Cruz. Do they deserve love? Honestly, I think not. So am I any better? Thankfully, MOTU doesn’t let us dwell on that too long, following that song with a more upbeat number titled “Don’t You Worry, It’s Gonna Be Alright,” in which he sings, “Keep your head up, the future is bright.” We need that sort of optimism. I just hope he’s right. I’m not sure, though it does seem like certain steps are finally being taken in that direction. That guitar will carve a path toward a brighter future.

The song titled “I’ll Fly Away” on this disc is an original number, not the classic gospel song. In this one, Richard Michelson sings, “We laugh together and hide that we’re blue/Pretending we know when we haven’t a clue/But I’ll fly away and open that door.” The album concludes with “Walk With Me For One More Mile,” which has a more intimate feel. This track is nearly a solo effort, with Richard Michelson on vocals, acoustic guitar, slide dobro and pedal steel guitar. The only one joining him on this track is Dee Michelson on backing vocals. The last line is “One more kiss and hold my hand,” a nice thought and image to leave us with.

CD Track List

  1. I’m Just Here Playin’ In This Band
  2. The Water Is High
  3. That Last Summer Breeze
  4. The Brotherhood Of Man
  5. Are You The Man I’ve Been Waiting For?
  6. Lovely Day For A Moon Walk
  7. Can We All Rise Above?
  8. Don’t You Worry, It’s Gonna Be Alright
  9. I’ll Fly Away
  10. Walk With Me For One More Mile

The Water Is High: Songs Of Love, Lies, And Freedom was released on May 2, 2023.

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