Sunday, July 12, 2020

Cinder Well: “No Summer” (2020) CD Review

Cinder Well is the project of vocalist, guitarist and fiddle player Amelia Baker, who was raised in California and traveled to Ireland, where she seems to have soaked up the ghosts, the beauty and the magic of the place, and put it all into her music. Her new album, No Summer, is a fascinating and wonderful mix of traditional and modern, personal elements, and the line between the two has blurred beyond recognition. In addition to guitar and fiddle, Amelia plays organ on this album. Joining her are Marit Schmidt on viola and vocals, and Mae Kessler on violin and vocals, both of whom you might know from their work in the group Ekstasis.

The album opens with a gorgeous traditional number, “Wandering Boy,” the first lines delivered a cappella. This track features a strong and moving vocal performance, with some new lyrics added at the end. That’s followed by “No Summer,” the album’s title track, which begins with a kind of sweet and sad folk sound. But what is striking is Amelia’s stunning vocal performance. There is something raw and open about it, yet it also seems to come to us from a deep and shared past. “Spent the whole year staring at the ring on your finger/Looking for summer in the slight of a glance/I’ll take you round to the side of the bar/And show you there is no summer here.” “Our Lady’s” is another intriguing track, with traditional sounds and a haunting vibe. It tells the story of Our Lady’s Hospital, an asylum, no longer in use, and is from the perspective of the asylum itself. A sort of if-these-walls-could-talk scenario of a different color, and the track features some seriously haunting work on fiddle. The music gets right into you, and it takes its time with you, that instrumental section building in power, without hurry, the track being more than nine minutes. “There is something cold/A blank wall can destroy you/It made everyone so quiet/And I dream of crumbling/So strongly my pipes burst.” The ending is surprising, the way her voice becomes so naked, so bare. “There is joy there.” Then when she begins the next track, “Fallen,” with the lines “Fallen, you have fallen/To the ground,” perhaps we are still thinking of that building, in a state of disrepair. It is hard to shake that asylum from our thoughts. But this song has quite a different feel, and features a spirited vocal performance.

Amelia Baker delivers a good rendition of “The Cuckoo,” a song that I believe I first heard on a Big Brother & The Holding Company album. This rendition moves more slowly, and features some oddly compelling guitar work. That’s followed by “Old Enough,” a song with vivid imagery and a powerful vocal performance. “I am golden in the evening/We are bolder in the morning/And the long grass, it is grown over the steps of the door.” It ends with some beautiful a cappella vocal work. Amelia Baker then plays fiddle on “Queen Of The Earth, Child Of The Skies,” an instrumental piece that is based on the Irish song “The Blackbird.” That is followed by “The Doorway,” a short instrumental track that sounds like a storm moving through, winds whistling and howling and shaking chimes. The album concludes with “From Behind The Curtain,” in which she describes the town where she is living. Interestingly the asylum is mentioned here as well: “There are three corners that encompass it all/The asylum, the pub, and the Catholic church.” The song is a letter, and at first it seems that we are its recipients. But then we get some startling details of the person she is writing to, the person we have already aligned ourselves with, so the information comes as a jolt. “I know your father shot himself and you were not told.” The song grows in power from there. “The hills are not on fire tonight, but the sky is/After the lavender ends/From behind the curtain.”

CD Track List
  1. Wandering Boy
  2. No Summer
  3. Our Lady’s
  4. Fallen
  5. The Cuckoo
  6. Old Enough
  7. Queen Of The Earth, Child Of The Skies
  8. The Doorway
  9. From Behind The Curtain
No Summer is scheduled to be released on July 24, 2020 on Free Dirt Records.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Jenny Reynolds: “Any Kind Of Angel” (2020) CD Review

Jenny Reynolds is a singer and songwriter from Massachusetts who is now based in Austin, Texas. She creates compelling songs filled with interesting characters, songs that connect with listeners on that crucial human level, touching on a sense of shared experiences and shared concerns, and with a voice of beauty and honesty and compassion. Her new album, Any Kind Of Angel, features mostly original material. Joining her on this release are Scrappy Jud Newcomb on guitar; Andre Moran on electric guitar; Mark Hallman on organ, bass and drums (Hallman also produced the album); Nate Rowe on upright bass; Warren Hood on fiddle; BettySoo (from Charlie Faye & The Fayettes) on accordion and backing vocals; Jaimee Harris on backing vocals; Jenifer Jackson on backing vocals; and Oliver Steck on cornet.

The album opens with a strong and intriguing song, “There Is A Road.” There is something gorgeous about it, but also something intense, something to put you on edge, even while you’re pulled in by its beauty, by that guitar work. In part, it is the song’s lyrics, and the danger it describes, with lines like “Does your hope bloom like roses or sting like a thorn/Guns rule our cities, and we have been warned/To believe in a road/Running north, so I’m told.” And those backing vocals by BettySoo and Jenifer Jackson are wonderful. That is followed by “Any Kind Of Angel,” the album’s title track. This song has a strong sense of place, with details like “When there ain’t nothing in the well/Hasn’t rained out here for years/The creek is dry, the cattle’s gone/The bank says we are overdrawn.” And so by the time she sings “Send me any kind of angel/When I’m crying, I want someone to know,” we feel that need ourselves. And can’t we relate to that sense of wanting someone to know our distress, and to that desire to reach out for comfort, regardless of our particular set of circumstances? And these lines I know a lot of people will relate to: “There ain’t no love like a mother’s love/No matter what her child has done/Love your own and keep them near.” This track features some nice work by BettySoo on accordion and by Warren Hood on fiddle, adding to the song’s beauty.

“The Way That You Tease” has a cool, jazzy vibe and style, in that guitar work and Jenny Reynold’s vocal work. This track also features a groovy, catchy bass line. And then toward the end, the cornet rises up, taking over with a bright force, somewhat in contrast to her vocal delivery, which has a bit of a smooth, intimate quality. “Say what you want, but don’t hurry/I might like the way that you tease.” Then “Dance For Me” has a delightful sort of gypsy sound, which fits with the subject of a traveling dancer and lines like “My life means leaving people wanting more and more/Every scene, there’s a step, a turn, a one-two-three.” This song also touches upon aging, and forced retirement from something she has a passion for, and something that has defined her. “Company says I’m retired/My soul makes them a liar/Should I now begin to feel my age?” And ultimately there is something positive and empowering, rather than sad, in the song’s main line, “But I only dance for me.”

“The Trouble I’m In” begins with a good instrumental section. Then when the vocals come in, we are brought to a confessional booth and put in the place of the priest, hearing her confession, all over a catchy and delicious rhythm. And the line “Next was a lawyer, I enjoyed him the most” makes me laugh, as does “The lord made him thick, so I showed him thin.” This track also features some really good work on guitar. That’s followed by “Love & Gasoline,” which has a jazzy vibe and features more good backing vocal work from BettySoo. “The bill is high and the lights are low/Don’t ask for truth, you don’t want to know.”

“The Way We Say Goodbye” is told from the perspective of a person who is alone at an airport, watching other people. “Watching other stories and inventing some of my own” is a wonderful line, and one we can probably all relate to. Yet this is a song about human interaction, the connection we have to each other. That’s followed by “Before I Know You’re Gone,” a beautiful and powerful song featuring some gorgeous work on fiddle and an excellent vocal performance. This is one of my personal favorite tracks. Check out these lyrics: “Tell myself I can rise above it/Walk around, thinking nothing of it/Too much to be guessing, too much to assume/Catch me when I’m dreaming that I’ve done nothing wrong/And I’m afraid of letting go before I know you’re gone.” Then in “White Knuckle Love (Didn’t I Know),” Jenny Reynolds sings “I tell myself there’s nothing wrong/And fall asleep with the light on/Somebody save me, say it ain’t so/She’s out with my baby and didn’t I know.” The album concludes with its sole cover, a pretty rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a perfect song for these days of isolation and worry, and a moving ending to this excellent album.

CD Track List
  1. There Is A Road
  2. Any Kind Of Angel
  3. The Way That You Tease
  4. Dance For Me
  5. The Trouble I’m In
  6. Love & Gasoline
  7. The Way We Say Goodbye
  8. Before I Know You’re Gone
  9. White Knuckle Love (Didn’t I Know)
  10. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
Any Kind Of Angel was released on June 19, 2020.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Paul Kelly/Paul Grabowsky: “Please Leave Your Light On” (2020) CD Review

Singer and songwriter Paul Kelly has certainly kept busy during this crazy and unsettling time of the pandemic, offering solo performances and some new songs to his fans online, and thus helping us all get through it. The new recordings even resulted in an album titled Forty Days, an online-only release. He has also finished a project with jazz pianist Paul Grabowsky, songs that were recorded last August. Most of the material they tackled on the album, Please Leave Your Light On, is not new, but has quite a different sound from the earlier recordings due their approach. These tracks feature just vocals and piano (along with harmonica on a couple of them). No other musicians support them on this release. And so the songs have a beautiful and intimate quality and sound. Paul Kelly, one of the world’s most talented songwriters, never ceases to surprise and impress me.

The album opens with “True To You,” the only original song on it that had not previously been included on any of Paul Kelly’s releases, and right away we get a sense of the way that delicious jazzy work on the piano is going to play a prominent role, guiding the path the music takes. And as you’d expect, the song features lyrics that speak to us, that connect with us: “But our love will live through the hurt and the hate and the hurricane/Just like the Parthenon/Under the stars and sun/We’ll keep on keeping on/Because I’m true to you.” There is a very cool piano solo too.  That’s followed by “Petrichor,” a song that was originally included on Paul Kelly’s 2017 album Life Is Fine. There is a wonderful and beautiful intimacy to this performance, to this rendition, giving it a stronger sense of honesty. “I don’t need you/I don’t need you/I don’t need you/But I sure want you.” And then at one point toward the end he basically whispers “I don’t need you.” It’s effective and moving. I love this approach to this song, and this version has a stronger impact than the original rendition.

Then in “When A Woman Loves A Man,” there is something romantic about the piano work right from the start, and it brings to mind a warmth, a large chair on which you cuddle with your love beneath a blanket, looking out at the night while she sleeps. Is there anything more wonderful than that? That’s what this track feels like. The original version of this song was included on Spring And Fall, an album of love songs released in 2012. They follow that with a different take on William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 138.” In 2016, Paul Kelly released an CD of Shakespeare’s work titled Seven Sonnets & A Song, and this sonnet was chosen as the lead track. That recording of it had a cool, jazzy and totally delicious groove. On this new album, he somehow delivers an even cooler rendition. Seriously, this one really surprised me. It comes on strong, with a sort of sly vibe. That piano work is so damn good.  I love how Shakespeare’s words can still sound completely new to us, no matter how many times we’ve heard them before. “Oh, I lie with her and she lies with me/In our faults by lies we flattered be.” Absolutely fantastic. That’s followed by another song from Spring And Fall, “Time And Tide,” perhaps that album’s best song. This new version begins gently, almost sweetly on piano, then takes on the song’s groove just as Paul Kelly’s vocals come in. This is a beautiful rendition. I’d like to hear more of Paul Kelly’s work performed in this manner.

Another of my favorites is “Young Lovers,” a song that was included on Paul Kelly’s double album Ways & Means. It is a delightful and playful song, and this rendition works perfectly. You can almost see Paul Kelly’s smile as he sings. As on the original version, he delivers a certain section as spoken word, but here it has a different vibe, and you can imagine him in a small jazz club playing to a small, appreciative and thoroughly inebriated crowd. “Young lovers, they don’t have very long.” That’s followed by a cover of Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” a song that of course feels right at home on this album. It’s wonderful hearing Paul Kelly tackle this standard. He and Paul Grabowsky deliver a rendition that is beautiful and gentle and sweet. Then, “Please Leave Your Light On,” the song chosen as the title track for this release, begins with some pretty, almost delicate work on piano. Paul Kelly’s vocal performance is passionate and heartfelt, one of the best of this album. “Don’t give up on me just yet/Well, I got no excuses for you/But I sure got some regrets.” And he repeats that line, “I sure got some regrets.” This is such a moving rendition. It would be difficult to remain aloof and unaffected, particularly when he sings these lines: “Please go easy when you see me, mama/‘Cause I just might fall apart/I know I’ve tried your patience/I know I’ve stretched your heart.”

“You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed” is a song from early in Paul Kelly’s career, included on his 1985 album Post, where it features saxophone. A different version, with harmonica, was included on Goin’ Your Way, the 2013 release from Neil Finn and Paul Kelly. This new version also features some sweet work by Paul Kelly on harmonica. It’s a beautiful track. And don’t we all long to hear someone tell us “You can put your shoes under my bed/Anytime, anytime you’re passing by this way/Remember, you will always have a place to stay”? To know that we have a place in the world, that we have someone who will take us in? That’s followed by “Winter Coat,” a song from Comedy, a 1991 album from Paul Kelly And The Messengers. The sense of the past is so strong in this new rendition. I can feel the chill when he sings “up in these cold, cold hills,” and Paul Grabowsky’s work on piano seems to add to that chill. There is also a lonesome feel to this track, that sense of being warmed by a coat, by an object, rather than by a person. Then there is something delightfully cool about this rendition of “God’s Grandeur,” quite a bit different from the version included on Paul Kelly’s 2018 album Nature. It made me smile the moment it began. The album concludes with “If I Could Start Today Again,” a song from …Nothing But A Dream, which was released in 2001. On this new rendition, the heartache is almost palpable, as is the regret. You just want to hold out your hand to him. The line “Please give me back today” has me nearly in tears, and that is before that harmonica begins to blow mournfully. This is another highlight of the album.

CD Track List
  1. True To You
  2. Petrichor
  3. When A Woman Loves A Man
  4. Sonnet 138
  5. Time And Tide
  6. Young Lovers
  7. Every Time We Say Goodbye
  8. Please Leave Your Light On
  9. You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed
  10. Winter Coat
  11. God’s Grandeur
  12. If I Could Start Today Again
Please Leave Your Light On is scheduled to be released digitally on July 31, 2020, and on CD and vinyl on August 14, 2020.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Peter Karp: “Magnificent Heart” (2020) CD Review

Peter Karp is a singer, songwriter and guitarist working largely in the blues realm. His new release, Magnificent Heart, features all original material. On these tracks he plays guitar, slide guitar and piano, in addition to providing the vocals. Joining him on this album are John Ginty on organ, Paul Carbonara on guitar, Niles Terrat on bass, Michael Catapano on drums and percussion, Jacob Wynne on trumpet, David Kasper on tenor saxophone, and Eyrn O’Ree on backing vocals, as well as some special guests on certain tracks.

The album opens with “Sitting On The Edge Of The World,” and that’s how it often feels these days, doesn’t it? Fires and hatred and violence, and a sociopath occupying the White House who does his best to ignite more fires with his racist vitriol. It seems like we are on the edge of destruction, and could all easily topple over into oblivion. Or have we already? Kim Wilson (of The Fabulous Thunderbirds) joins Peter Karp on harmonica on this track, which is sort of a love song, taking place at the end. “Lifeless, limbless trees silhouette the horizon line/A lone bell tolls a distorted, chortled chime/A tattered flag waves limp where once unfurled/Here we are, sitting on the edge of the world.” Of course, the fact that there might be love after all the destruction is enough to give me a bit of hope. That’s followed by “The Letter,” which features some good work on guitar. Check out these lines: “Now I walk this world alone haunted from the ground/Memories taunt me as I drift from town to town/Got a crumpled up letter in my pocket/Got a crumpled up letter in my pocket/And no one to mail it to.” The line about drifting from town to town reminds me of the sad ending to each episode of The Incredible Hulk television series, though this song has a full sound. I like those backing vocals at the end.

As “She Breaks Her Own Heart” begins, it announces itself as a more playful track with that count-off, and then those horns and that good groove. Its opening lines are “I loved her to death, I couldn’t say why/Still as much as I loved her, I didn’t want to die/No matter how it was or how good it got right from the start/It was just a matter of time that girl, she’d break her own heart.” It seems like the beginning of a good short story, or perhaps voice over at the start of a film, and I’m pulled in by those lines. This song ends up being one of my favorites. “She walks away with a laugh, but if you listen close, it’s really a cry.” I like that instrumental section, especially the horns, which seem to be having a conversation, telling us more about this woman. And I love those backing vocals toward the end. Then “This World” has a bright sound, a sound that works to unite us, which makes sense, as it’s a song about life, about the world and about how “This world is hard to define,” something we are all noticing and experiencing. “We’re living in a mixed up and shook up world/Falling down, we get lost in the swirl/But it’s love and understanding and a little amen/That picks us all up to get back on our feet again.” I often wonder why there are so many problems; after all, we really are all basically in the same situation, struggling through and using what little time we’re given, and none of us knows what the hell is going on. I am digging those backing vocals echoing “This world.” This song is another highlight for me. Jim Eingher plays piano on this track.

Kim Wilson joins Peter Karp again on harmonica for “The Grave,” a song with a steady, slower, meaner blues groove. “And while talking to a preacher might get you saved/You know some things are best taken to the grave.” And in the verse where his woman wants him to open up to her, it is clear he is not the trusting sort. No, he is more guarded, and perhaps for good reason. “Well, you can’t take no money or earthly possessions/None of that stuff can help in hell or heaven.” During the instrumental section, there is some seriously cool work by Kim Wilson on harmonica. Then in the very next track, “Scared,” he does open up, singing at the beginning, “I am scared/So very scared/And for so long/Seems like forever/I’ve longed for you.” There is something beautiful and soulful about this mellow tune. It is based on a poem by Mary Lou Bonney Karp, and then re-written by Peter Karp, but keeping the female perspective. James Otis Karp plays guitar on it. That’s followed by “Chainsaw,” a playful, fun song with a loose sound. “I’m out on a limb, I’m out on a limb/I’m out on a limb, and baby’s got a chainsaw.” Jason Ricci adds some great stuff on harmonica. And then when the backing vocals come in, echoing the main lines, well, things can’t get much better. I absolutely love this song.

“Let It On Out” has a cool vibe from the moment it starts, with that delicious groove and that excellent stuff from the horn section. Peter Karp delivers a vocal performance with a wonderfully relaxed and composed style. But when he sings, “Let it on out, let it on out, let it on out,” well, you get the sense that anything could happen. And we’re eager to see just exactly what will be let out. The band keeps the cool vibes alive with a song so cool that the very word is in its title twice, “Cool Cool Thing.” This one too has a relaxed, kind of mellow vocal delivery. Hey, no need to shout, no need to brag, just deliver it straight and know you’re in control. However, the track does include an energetic keyboard part. That’s followed by “The Last Heartbeat,” a soulful number with something of a classic sound and some nice country elements. “When it’s over, it’s really done/Don’t be afraid/Taste the bittersweet/Because you’ll never hear the last heartbeat.”

“Going Home” has a great raw, back porch sound, and features some excellent work by Jason Ricci on harmonica. As I’m getting older, these lines certainly strike a chord with me: “This old body is full of rust/And my mind is all a fuss/I’ve got to go polish the chrome/I’m going home.” Then “Compassion” begins by asking several questions, such as “What helps us understand when we look back?/What makes us fight, forgive and forget?” And the answer is “Compassion,” something that is completely lacking in the scoundrels pretending to lead this country now, which is why we are in such deep trouble as a nation. This song has a certain power, and it kind of sneaks up on you. Edward Williams plays bass on this one, and Jim Eingher is on piano. The album concludes with “Face The Wind,” a track that comes as a surprise when it begins with the sound of strings. It also features some nice work on keys. “The world has gone mad outside/While all the time you and I/Stand side by side and grin.” And I love these lines: “The game we find ourselves in/Only a fool plays to win.” I think a lot of people need to hear those lines. There is an honest, rough quality to the vocal performance, his voice even breaking at one point. “But in the end we’ll know when we meet again/We were born to face the wind.”

CD Track List
  1. Sitting On The Edge Of The World
  2. The Letter
  3. She Breaks Her Own Heart
  4. This World
  5. The Grave
  6. Scared
  7. Chainsaw
  8. Let It On Out
  9. Cool Cool Thing
  10. The Last Heartbeat
  11. Going Home
  12. Compassion
  13. Face The Wind
Magnificent Heart was released on May 8, 2020.