Sunday, October 29, 2023

Hannah Horton: “Inside Out” (2021) CD Review

Hannah Horton is a saxophone player and composer. She put out her first album, Forget Me Not, in 2012, and has performed on albums by Esther Bennett & Terence Collie and Charlotta Kerbs And The Strays.  Her 2021 release Inside Out features a mix of covers and original material. Joining her on this disc are John Crawford on piano, Nic France on drums, and Rob Statham on bass, all of whom also played on Forget Me Not, along with Ian Shaw joining on vocals on a couple of tracks.

The album opens with “Keep Walking,” and immediately there is the sense of movement forward, of strolling beyond the troubles, of perseverance. But it is not a heavy piece. There is a touch of funk to it, and a certain amount of joy. The tune is about not giving up, but it is not like defeat is close on our heels. Rather, it is more of a Can Do attitude heard in the playing. Most of its positive energy comes from the saxophone, but that rhythm is delicious, and in the second half there is a wonderful lead on piano that gets exciting as it progresses. Then “Surfing Thermals” has a cool opening. I particularly like the way the drums support the saxophone at the beginning. Here we get another totally enjoyable groove. Ah, to be able to fly, to glide along on the winds. Well, we may not be quite equipped for that, but we can certainly dance and sway to this music, and let it carry us, for again the music is about movement. This track features some great work on drums.

“Frozen Light” is the first of the two tracks to feature Ian Shaw on vocals. Shaw also wrote the lyrics, and the song’s opening lines continue that sense of movement, of gliding: “We float, we flow/Lighter than snow/In our life, where light is the only thing we know.” There is a very cool vibe to this track, a hip sound. This track feels like it comes from a world that is much cooler than what we’ve been seeing from humanity lately. The sound of this song is how things should be, how they should feel. I especially love Hannah Horton’s work on saxophone. “We come, we go/Longing to know/If it’s all an illusion – reflections on snow.” That’s followed by the first cover of the album, “Nardis,” written by Miles Davis. Hannah Horton does an excellent job with it. I love the flow to her playing. This track also features an excellent lead on bass halfway through. The music then starts to build in power during the lead on piano, before then relaxing a bit just as Hannah comes back in. The group delivers a gorgeous rendition of “The Peacocks,” a piece written by Jimmy Rowles (or, Jimmie Rowles, as it was spelled on the record The Peacocks). That work on saxophone is particularly good, and carries us through most of the track.

Hannah Horton also gives us a strong rendition of Chick Corea’s “The Windows,” a piece that was included on his 1973 double album Inner Space, as well as his 1975 double album Circling In. By the way, Chick Corea Elektric Band also put out an album titled Inside Out. On this track, John Crawford shines on piano, delivering some fantastic work. The mood is decidedly light for “Horn Dance.” I didn’t know Morris dancing still happened, but I am determined to get to England next year, so perhaps I’ll see this horn dance myself. For now, I’ll just enjoy this track, particularly that bass line. That’s followed by “Feed The Birds,” a song from Mary Poppins. I haven’t seen that movie since I was a child, and have no recollection of this tune whatsoever, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the version in the movie isn’t half as enjoyable as that on this album. This rendition has a strong groove, with drum work that feels different from much of the rest of the album. And I love the way the saxophone and piano interact in that section in the middle.

The band returns to original material with “Breathing Out,” which eases in, taking us gently in its arms. After a minute or so, this piece starts to get a bit looser and enjoy itself. It then relaxes again just as Ian Shaw comes in. This is the second and final track to feature his vocal work. Like the other track, Shaw wrote the lyrics for this one. It’s a song that uses music, musical terms, to remind us to relax, to let go, to heave a large sigh that says, Well all right that’s done. Hannah Horton then wraps things up with another original composition, “Escape.” After we’ve let out that big sigh and relaxed, it’s time to enjoy ourselves again, to take a break from whatever has been bothering us. And that’s where this track comes in. Escape has never sounded more appealing. Who among us hasn’t yearned for an escape, an escape from the news, from the struggles, from the divisiveness, from the stupidity of nearly half this nation? Turn off the television, put down the phone, kick off your shoes, and enjoy some of your time. That’s what this music seems to be urging, and it takes us a good deal of the way there. A perfect ending to an excellent album.

CD Track List

  1. Keep Walking
  2. Surfing Thermals
  3. Frozen Light
  4. Nardis
  5. The Peacocks
  6. Windows
  7. Horn Dance
  8. Feed The Birds
  9. Breathing Out
  10. Escape

Inside Out was released on September 22, 2021.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Ladies Sing Lightfoot (2021) CD Review

I saw Gordon Lightfoot only once in concert, and it was a really good show. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how many excellent songs he wrote, but that night I was reminded each time he started to play a new number. It seemed everyone in the audience knew every song. That was many years ago. And this year the world lost this tremendously talented songwriter. In 2021, a wonderful tribute titled Ladies Sing Lightfoot was released. Produced by Carla Olson, this disc features several talented artists saluting the man and his work by covering some of his beloved songs, including “Sundown,” “Early Morning Rain,” “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Carefree Highway.”

The album opens with a pretty rendition of “Sundown” performed by Darling West. They deliver a gentle, thoughtful, yet striking rendition. The band here is the core duo of Maris Kreken on vocals and guitar, and Tor Kreken on vocals and banjo. There is some excellent banjo work, particularly in the track’s second half. This song was the title track from Gordon Lightfoot’s 1974 record, and it was a big hit for him. What a beautiful way to open this tribute album. It’s followed by “Cotton Jenny” done by The Kennedys. This one has a livelier country sound, featuring some strong vocal work by Maura Kennedy. Gordon Lightfoot included this song on his 1971 album Summer Side Of Life, and Anne Murray had a hit with it. This track has a good, uplifting vibe about it.

Natalie Noone (Peter Noone’s daughter) delivers a sweet country rendition of “Steel Rail Blues,” a song from Gordon Lightfoot’s debut album. Here she is backed by a talented band, made up of Stephen McCarthy (of Long Ryders) on guitar, Johnny Lee Schell (known for his work with Bonnie Raitt) on dobro, Paul Marshall (of I See Hawks In L.A.) on bass, and Ben Lecourt (who has played with Chris Price and several other artists) on drums. Natalie Noone has one of those adorable country voices, and her performance here is excellent. This is one of my personal favorites. Then Shawn Barton Vach delivers a beautiful and haunting rendition of “Summer Side Of Life,” the title track from Lightfoot’s 1971 record. You might know Shawn Barton Vach from her work in Hazeldine.

Arwen Lewis chooses a song from later in Gordon Lightfoot’s career, “River Of Light,” which was included on his 2004 album Harmony. This is a touching and beautiful rendition. Arwen Lewis plays guitar, and is joined by her father, Peter Lewis (of Moby Grape), on guitar. Arwen’s delivery of “I won’t be looking up old friends ever again” is heartbreaking, particularly at the end. What a voice. Then The Textones deliver a strong rendition of “Early Morning Rain.” There have been so many good versions of this song recorded over the years that it would seem to be difficult, if not impossible, to record one that would stand out, but The Textones have done it, in large part because of Carla Olson’s excellent and powerful vocal work. That’s followed by another of Gordon Lightfoot’s big hits and most beloved songs, “If You Could Read My Mind,” this version by Susan Cowsill, who does a tremendous job with it. Her vocal delivery is so moving and honest, she has me close to tears. “I don’t know where we went wrong/But the feeling’s gone, and I just can’t get it back.” She is accompanied by Alex McMurray on guitar and by Rick G. Nelson on both cello and violin, both of whom deliver some beautiful work. This is another of the disc’s highlights.

Ilsey Juber delivers a gorgeous rendition of “The Way I Feel,” the title track from Gordon Lightfoot’s 1967 record. She is accompanied by her father Laurence Juber on guitar. You probably know him from his work in Wings, and from his own solo career, and he delivers some great work here, but it is Ilsey’s stunningly beautiful voice that makes this track stand out. There is something ethereal about it, but there is also an ache in her voice. She gives a wonderful performance. That’s followed by a thoughtful version of ”Beautiful” by Ana Gazzola. There is something soothing in her delivery. She is supported by Pablo Medina on keyboards and by Grecco Burrato on guitar. This song comes from Gordon Lightfoot’s Don Quixote, released in 1972, and was also released as a single.

“Canadian Railroad Trilogy” is a song from The Way I Feel. On that album, the song is a little more than six minutes. Gordon Lightfoot then included a different version of it on his 1975 compilation, Gord’s Gold, that version being just over seven minutes. Here Katy Moffatt gives us a version that is just over eight minutes. She does a wonderful job with it. She plays guitar on this track, and is supported by Gary Allegretto on harmonica. Then Sarah Kramer delivers a cool, bluesy rendition of “Cold On The Shoulder,” another of the disc’s highlights. She is backed by most of the musicians that backed Natalie Noone on her track: Johnny Lee Schell is on electric guitar, Paul Marshall is on bass, and Ben Lecourt is on drums. In addition, Gary Myrick delivers some wonderful stuff on 12-string guitar. That’s quite a band. “And you know that we get a little older every day.” Indeed. Ben Lecourt also plays drums on Kristi Callan’s rendition of “Song For A Winter’s Night.” Kristi is also joined by James Nolte on guitar, and David Nolte on bass. This is a pretty rendition, a track to make you feel good. “If I could only have you near/To breathe a sigh or two/I would be happy just to hold the hands I love/And to be once again with you.”

If I recall correctly, “Carefree Highway” was the first Gordon Lightfoot song I ever heard. I had it on one of those compilation cassettes that were common in the early 1980s. On this tribute album, Shayna Adler delivers an incredibly moving rendition, supported by Ed Roth on piano. A minute or so into the track, a string section enters. That’s Kaitlin Wolfberg on violin and Jean-Paul Barjon on cello. This is a beautiful track. Carla Olson then wraps things up with “Ringneck Loon.” This is a song from later in Gordon Lightfoot’s career, appearing on his 1998 album A Painter Passing Through. Carla Olson delivers a great rendition. On this track, she is supported by Todd Wolfe on electric guitar.

CD Track List

  1. Sundown – Darling West
  2. Cotton Jenny – The Kennedys
  3. Steel Rail Blues – Natalie Noone
  4. Summer Side Of Life – Shawn Barton Vach
  5. River Of Light – Arwen Lewis
  6. Early Morning Rain – The Textones
  7. If You Could Read My Mind – Susan Cowsill
  8. The Way I Feel – Ilsey Juber
  9. Beautiful – Ana Gazzola
  10. Canadian Railroad Trilogy – Katy Moffatt
  11. Cold On The Shoulder – Sarah Kramer
  12. Song For A Winter’s Night – Kristi Callan
  13. Carefree Highway – Shayna Adler
  14. Ringneck Loon – Carla Olson

Ladies Sing Lightfoot was released digitally on October 1, 2021, and on CD on November 26, 2021.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Joy Harjo: “I Pray For My Enemies” (2021) CD Review

I became aware of Joy Harjo when someone gave me a copy of her book She Had Some Horses back when I was in my late teens. I loved the book, and afterward read some of her other work, but somehow missed that she also released albums of music, though that did come later. In addition to being a celebrated poet (the first Native American to serve as U.S. poet laureate), Joy Harjo is a songwriter and musician. On her 2021 release, I Pray For My Enemies, she plays alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, bells, Tibetan bowls, flute, piano and percussion, and provides the vocals. She also wrote the material for the album. A few of these tracks began as poems published in her 2019 book An American Sunrise. She is joined by some other talented musicians, including Peter Buck (of R.E.M.) on guitar, Mike MacCready (of Pearl Jam) on guitar, Krist Novoselic (of Nirvana) on acoustic guitar, Rich Robinson (of The Black Crowes) on electric guitar, and Dave Carter (of Barrett Martin Group) on trumpet. Barrett Martin plays a wide variety of instruments on these tracks, including upright bass, 12-string guitar, drums, piano, organ, clavinet, vibraphone, marimba, and gong. Barrett Martin also co-produced this album with Joy Harjo. The album contains more than an hour of music.

The opening track, “Allay Na Lee No,” starts with a steady beat. “It’s a welcoming song,” she tells us at the beginning of the track. She then sings that title line over that beat. “We’re here to celebrate life, it’s so short,” she says in a spoken word section. Indeed. And so? “Let’s dance,” she says. Oh yes. That’s when the band comes in to provide something to dance to, an instrumental with a bluesy edge. It’s interesting, for you can dance to it, but there is something meditative about it as well. Mike McCready plays guitar on this track. Dave Carter is on trumpet. Lisette Garcia is on the shaker, and Owen Sapulpa plays the surdo drum. Near the end, the track return to that steady drum beat from the beginning, with some vocal work by Joe Sulphur. That’s followed by “An American Sunrise,” which features a seriously delicious groove. Great work by Barrett Martin on drums and percussion. Joy Harjo gets funky here, and Rich Robinson delivers some good work on electric guitar. The lyrics are delivered as spoken word. “We drove to the edge of the mountains with a drum/We made sense of our beautiful, crazed lives under the starry stars.” Lisette Garcia provides some nice backing vocal work here. This is fantastic. How often do we dance to poetry? Well, probably not as often as we should, right? “Forty years later, and we still want justice/We are still America.” She delivers a soulful, beautiful saxophone lead in the track’s second half.

“Calling The Spirit Back” begins with some wonderful work by Rahim Alhaj on Iraqi oud. I love music that transports me, and this track does so immediately. And to aid with our travel, Joy Harjo advises, “Turn off that cell phone, computer, and remote control/Open the door, then close it behind you/Take a breath offered by friendly winds.” Advice we ought to take to heart, particularly in these strange days of anxiety, these days when the world seems to want to shake us all off like some parasites. “Cut the ties you have to failure and shame/Let go the pain you are holding in your mind, your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet.” That rhythm seems to move through us. I like that she allows a playful aspect to enter her voice as she says, “And remember, keep the speeches short.” And toward the end, there is more excellent work on oud. Though many of this album’s lyrics are delivered as spoken word, Joy Harjo does sing on some tracks, such as “How Love Blows Through The Trees.” She also delivers some good work on alto saxophone on this one, and Krist Novoselic plays acoustic guitar. This track also features a warm and encouraging trumpet part by Dave Carter. Joy’s saxophone answers the trumpet, and that instrumental section is soothing and beautiful.

I love the percussion on “Earth House.” Barrett Martin plays metallophone, marimba and vibraphone on this one, as well as several other instruments. Joy Harjo plays pueblo drum, and Lisette Garcia plays bell tree. These words stand out for me: “She distrusted computers, said they stole people, kept their attention from what mattered.” How often are we distracted online by things that are of little or no consequence? Joy Harjo shows her talent as storyteller here, easily drawing us in, holding our attention. That’s followed by “Fear.” Peter Buck is on guitar for this one, and there is a tension to the sound from the start, helping to create a compelling atmosphere. I love that work on bass. Joy Harjo’s vocal delivery here is powerful. “I am not afraid to be angry/I am not afraid to rejoice.”  Her delivery is almost mesmerizing at times. “You have gutted me, but I gave you the knife.” Then “Running” has a funky, delicious bass line, and a seriously cool sound and vocal delivery. “I was afraid of the dark, because then I could see/Everything/The truth with its eyes staring back at me/The mouth of the dark with its shiny moon teeth/No words, just a hiss and a snap.” This poem was published in The New Yorker, and then included in An American Sunrise. And on this track, Joy Harjo plays flute. It is another of the disc’s highlights.

“We Emerged From Night In Clothes Of Sunrise” features some beautiful work on alto saxophone. Both Lisette Garcia and Barrett Martin play Balinese gamelans on this track. This is the album’s only instrumental track. It is followed by “Midnight Is A Horn Player,” another track to feature a great groove. Here each hour of night is represented by a different musician. “Two a.m. is a guitar player who is down on his luck.” And it takes us on into the morning, when it is time for the cleaning crew. Mike McCready plays guitar on this track, and Dave Carter is again on trumpet. Am I crazy, or at one point does Joy Harjo give a little nod to “My Funny Valentine” on saxophone? There is yet another delicious groove on “Once The World Was Perfect.” “We destroyed the world we had been given/For inspiration, for life,” Joy sings on this one. But don’t worry, there is hope here. “A spark of kindness made a light/The light made an opening in the dark.” And this track features some wonderful work on saxophone. That’s followed by “Rabbit Invents The Saxophone,” a great jazz piece. “The first thing a musician needs is a band, he said to his friends.” Well, here Joy Harjo’s band is just Barrett Martin, who plays drums, bass, piano, organ and vibraphone. All the instruments other than saxophone. I love the section where Joy sings of the power of the saxophone. “It made old woman dance and girls fall to their knees.” There is a playful ending.

Rahim Alhaj returns on oud for “Remember,” and both Joy Harjo and Lisette Garcia play Tibetan bells. Peter Buck plays tremolo guitar on this one. “Remember the wind, remember her voice/She knows the origin of this universe.” And there is something haunting in her delivery as she sings, “Remember the sky, remember the earth.” This is another of the album’s highlights. Peter Buck is again on tremolo guitar on “Why Is Beauty?” While in the previous track Joy Harjo urged us to remember, here she sings, “Do not forget this beauty, she was told.” This track features a strong and exciting rhythm. “One Day There Will Be Horses” also contains a prominent rhythm, and features Peter Buck again on tremolo guitar. Also on this one, Krist Novoselic plays acoustic guitar, and Dave Carter delivers some sweet work on trumpet. “One day I will be rich, one day I will be lucky, one day I will have horses.” That’s followed by “Stomp All Night,” a cool, fun track featuring some good work by Barrett Martin on bass. There is a playful aspect to this one, and Joy Harjo is joined by Marissa Sapulpa and Sandra Sapulpa on backing vocals and banter. Joy also delivers some wonderful stuff on saxophone. “We take care of the songs, the songs will take care of us.” This excellent album concludes with “This Morning I Pray For My Enemies.”  An enemy must be worthy of engagement,” Joy tells us here, and I realize I have no enemies. Marissa Sapulpa and Sandra Sapulpa again provide backing vocal work. “The heart is a smaller cousin of the sun.

CD Track List

  1. Allay Na Lee No
  2. An American Sunrise
  3. Calling The Spirit Back
  4. How Love Blows Through The Trees
  5. Earth House
  6. Fear
  7. Running
  8. We Emerged From Night In Clothes Of Sunrise
  9. Midnight Is A Horn Player
  10. Once The World Was Perfect
  11. Rabbit Invents The Saxophone
  12. Remember
  13. Why Is Beauty?
  14. One Day There Will Be Horses
  15. Stomp All Night
  16. This Morning I Pray For My Enemies

I Pray For My Enemies was released on March 5, 2021.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Swamptooth: “B-Flat Earth” (2021) CD Review

I used to think the Flat Earth Society was a joke, and a pretty good one. Later, when I discovered those folks were sincere, I realized there are some serious morons on this planet of ours (this was before people started worshiping a game show host and made it clear to everyone just how stupid people can be). And I couldn’t help but think of that when I picked up my copy of Swamptooth’s B-Flat Earth, an album title that made me laugh out loud. I sincerely hope someone creates a B-Flat Earth Society. That sounds much better. Perhaps someone already has? Anyway, this album contains all original material, including some fantastic instrumental numbers. The band is made up of Cory Chambers on guitar, bass and vocals;  Evan Rose on mandolin and vocals; Jay Rudd on guitar, bass and vocals; Jimmy Wolling on banjo and sitar; and Vito Gutilla on fiddle. There are also a couple of guests on one track.

The album opens with one of its instrumental tracks, “Space Base.” There is a brief moody moment before things are set in motion, and then that banjo starts rushing along, demanding our feet pay attention. A great, fiery pace is set and kept, this track featuring some absolutely delicious playing from each of the musicians. This is a tune that might even get the deceased and the forlorn up and dancing. And isn’t that what it’s all about, creating a race of dancing undead? Pretty sure. At any rate, it’s a wonderful way of opening the album. And things get a little crazy there for a moment just before the track’s end. Things settle down a bit for “I Lost My Soul,” a modern song of romance, or a song of modern romance. I still find it odd when modern technology and such are mentioned in bluegrass songs. It’s always a bit jarring, always unexpected, and perhaps that is the point. That being said, this song is delightful and catchy. It opens with these lines: “I married a bot one Tinder night/She was not real, and I swiped right.” I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about there, but we can all relate to these lines: “I’m angry now, I want to find my phone/I lost my soul when I started to scroll.” Oh yes, that sounds just about right. Soon he moves to a real girl: “I’m rejected, a real girl this time/I asked her out on dates online/And you could fill a book with all of my disgraces/All I had to do was ask her to her face.” Every day I am glad I met my girlfriend the old-fashioned way, in a bar.

“The Owl Theory” is an instrumental number, this one with a more serious edge, but still plenty of great playing. I looked up “owl theory” online (I’m not going to find a woman there, but information, sure, why not), and read all about a theory that an owl attacked a woman, leading to her death. It was a crazy story, but you don’t need to know anything about it to enjoy this track. That’s followed by “Platinum Blonde,”a song about seeing a woman at a venue, but then losing sight of her before talking to her. I wonder how many of those moments are there in a musician’s life, spotting someone from the stage. It certainly happens to those of us in the audience too. I like the way he speculates and surmises about her life, singing “You look like you attend art school.” There is a gentle humor to this song. This track features some nice work on fiddle.

When I first saw the title “Twelve Nights Of Drinking,” I thought it might be a Christmas song. But it turns out to be much more delightful and Shakespearean. Yup, it’s a bluegrass song about Twelfth Night, and I fucking love it. It is told from Sebastian’s perspective. Check out these lines: “The count’s in love with his employee/The girl that is identical to me/He calls to the clown to play a melody/Because he did not know his employee’s a she.” And of course this is another fun one, with some great stuff on mandolin, and again, that fiddle work standing out. There is even a cute play on the words “play” and “place” near the end, when talking about Feste: “Clowns have reasons for the way they act/They know what’s going on in this place.” The word at first sounds like “play,” with a bit of a pause before the word’s final sound is uttered. A nice joke. I am a huge Shakespeare fan, so it should be no surprise that this song is among my favorites of this album. I would love it if this band took to adapting a few more of Shakespeare’s plays this way. Heck, maybe a whole album of them. That’s followed by “The Fictitious Wild West,” a sweet, kind of laid-back instrumental tune. Each of the musicians gets moments to shine here.

Things start flying along again with “Made In China,” the pace fitting with its lyrics, the song containing phrases like “moving fast” and “ain’t no time to rest.” The music is a lot of fun, but the character of this song is certainly having none of that fun. This one is told from the perspective of an employee at an Amazon warehouse. Though Amazon is never mentioned by name, it is pretty clear just which company this song is about, with lines like “There ain’t no time to rest when you’re hooked to a timer” and “Sometimes I piss in a plastic bottle so they can get their T-shirt the same day/If I take a break and miss my quota, they’ll call me in and send me on my way.” The band then takes us to a totally different place with “Goa,” an instrumental track featuring sitar. This is an interesting piece, going through different sections. I love that lead on fiddle in the middle. This is the track to feature two guest musicians. Lynn Geddes Wolling is on tabla, and Eric Dunn is on upright bass. I love music that can transport me, and this track certainly does. I also like that these guys take their time with this one, allow it room to breathe, space to develop. It’s the album’s longest track, at nearly eight minutes.

We knew we’d have to lose our minds just to make it through,” they sing near the beginning of “Only Blue.” Oh yes, that sounds just about right. This song has a sort of sweet sound, but certain parts caught me by surprise, such as when they mention a lady singing and note, “she’s out of tune.” This track features great stuff on banjo, plus a really nice guitar part. And I love the way the mandolin lead drives into another section, the way that develops. That is another of the track’s little surprises. The music really gets exciting toward the end of the jam. “B-Flat Earth,” the album’s title track, is another fast-paced gem. See if your feet can keep up as you dance around your apartment or barn or whatever sort of building you find yourself in. This is a delicious instrumental tune. They then wrap things up with “That’s The Way It Is,” a mellower number in which they sing, “Well, it’s hard to go to sleep at night when you’re not next to me.” That is a line that rings true, though when I say that very thing to my girlfriend, she tells me not to be goofy. Hey, I can’t help it. And I can’t help but love that mandolin work and those harmonies.

CD Track List

  1. Space Base
  2. I Lost My Soul
  3. The Owl Theory
  4. Platinum Blonde
  5. Twelve Nights Of Drinking
  6. The Fictitious Wild West
  7. Made In China
  8. Goa
  9. Only Blue
  10. B-Flat Earth
  11. That’s The Way It Is

B-Flat Earth was released on September 17, 2021.