Mention of marrying rock or pop music with the classical world tends to conjure up versions of caped and costumed prog rockers playing at demons and dungeons with strings attached. however there is a more refined strain that has a fine pedigree and which ditches the pomposity for a genuine desire to build bridges twixt the two, witness Phillip Glass’s album Song’s From Liquid Days or Elvis Costello’s link up with the Brodsky Quartet. Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m not aware of many Americana styled artists dipping their toes into this rarefied world but Tift Merritt has taken the plunge with Night, an album in collaboration with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The pair met in 2008 and over the years have built up this collection of songs that feature some classical compositions (by Schubert, Purcell and Bach), Merritt originals and some specially commissioned pieces. The end result is a brave and on the whole, successful, listening experience that leans toward the classics while Merritt’s offerings are gracefully adorned by Dinnerstein’s impeccable playing. Merritt sings wonderfully with Dinnerstein on occasion abandoning the keys to hammer at the piano strings adding a dulcimer type effect. The glacial purity of these songs reminds one of Joni Mitchell at times while their version of an old Billy Holiday number, Don’t Explain has Merritt invoking the spirit of Holiday and Lotte Lenya on an arrangement that could have come from the pen of Kurt Weill. Merritt’s vocal contributions to Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament and Schubert’s Night and Dreams are hushed and reverent and if one was unaware of their provenance you could assume that she penned the lyrics. Dinnerstein has the opportunity to shine on the brief instrumental Prelude In B Minor from the Clavier Buchhlein (something I never thought I would type here) by Johann Sebastian Bach while her performance of The Cohen Variations, a solo piano piece based on laughing Lenny’s song Suzanne is, quite simply, sublime. They add a very fine version of Wayfaring Stranger and an excellent rendition of the traditional song I Will Give My Love an Apple that is so fragile that the listener is afraid to breathe in case it breaks. This sense of fragility pervades the album but it avoids being a clinical exercise or a demonstration of musical technique. The closing song, a cover of Johnny Nash’s I Can see Clearly Now is the only let down, perhaps because of its familiarity but it’s a song that cries out for some abandon and here it’s tightly reined in.
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Gene Clark was the first Byrd to fly the coop, long before the band became a byword for ever-changing line ups. Back then he was considered the primary songwriter and front man of the band by many eclipsing the ringing Rickenbacker and nasal tones of Roger McGuinn and the caped (eventual super star) Davis Crosby. He was well placed to take pole position in the late sixties singer songwriter grand prix and got off to a flying start on his collaboration with the Gosdin Brothers and then revved up a pace with The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, perhaps the best of the early country rock albums. Critically acclaimed the albums were commercial failures and Clark never again troubled the headlines despite the spectacular albums he released in the seventies, White Light (aka Gene Clark) and No Other. Even a much anticipated Byrds reunion album turned out to be a damp squib although general opinion is that Clark once again overshadowed his companions with his contributions. Although he continued to record (with and without fellow ex Byrds) Clark’s hard drinking took its toll and he died of a heart attacked aged only 46 in 1991.
Clark’s first album as a solo artist was White Light, released in 1971. A printing error left the title off of the cover art, another example of the bad luck that dogged his career. Composed after he left the pressure pot of L.A. for the serenity of Mendocino it featured another significant pairing (following that with Doug Dillard), this time with guitarist Jesse Ed Davis who produced the album. An introspective, poetic singer songwriter styled album it is perhaps the highlight of Clark’s work but once again it sank almost without a trace (apart from in Holland where it was voted album of the year). To listen to White Light today it has one failing, that it is firmly rooted in its time with the burbling bass of Chris Ethridge in particular sounding somewhat dated on the more upbeat songs such as the title track. However some of it is timeless with the soul tinged organ ballad Because of You standing out while the simple acoustic guitar arrangements of With Tomorrow and For a Spanish Guitar allow Clark to do what he does best as his mournful voice rings clear and uncluttered and his lyrics rival Dylan, stripped of symbols and allusion.
News that Omnnivore recordings were releasing Here Tonight, a collection of demos for the White Light album created a frisson of delight amongst the myriad Gene Clark sites on the old interweb thing and now that it’s arrived we can confidently state that the anticipation is matched by the delivery. Naked and unadorned, Clark sings and accompanies himself on guitar and harmonica allowing the essential beauty of the songs to shine through. Six of these songs appeared on the original release of White Light while two others turned up as bonus tracks on the 2002 CD reissue. The title song eventually saw the light of day with Clark backed by The Flying Burrito Brothers on the Dutch Roadmaster album and three of the songs are previously unreleased in any form. While the guitar work is fairly rudimentary, the harmonica Dylanesque, the voice and lyrics are mesmerising. Those steeped in Clark lore will spend hours comparing these songs to the final versions but anyone with an ear for good music should be able to engage with and be bewitched by Clark’s intimate version of Cosmic American music.
Of the songs that made it on to the album Because of You is the only one to suffer in comparison missing the superb arrangement of the official release. For a Spanish Guitar stands up on its own two feet and remains one of Clark’s masterpieces while The Virgin is stripped of its poppy arrangement allowing the Dylan like lyrics to come to the fore. White Light itself is taken at a brisk pace but again benefits from the stripped down sound. Here Tonight remains a beautiful song, proof, if needed, that solo or with a band he was up there in the pantheon and here one is reminded of his authorship of the magnificent Train Leaves Here This Morning which was covered so successfully by the Eagles.
Of the unreleased songs Please Mr. Freud is a (very) Dylan like dream song, Jimmy Christ is a short vignette that recalls Townes Van Zandt and Clark’s own The American Dreamer. For No One is the major find however as Clark picks gently at his guitar on what is presumably an unfinished song and his melancholic voice rises eventually with a brief two verses that encapsulate his poetic style, somewhat like a Zen version of Tennyson or Byron. Lovely.
Overall this album is a must have for any Gene Clark completist but it does stand up on its own. After listening to it several times there was a thought that if Clark had gone on the road and continued in this vein he would have rivalled Townes Van Zandt as the last doomed troubadour and be mentioned as such as opposed to being known as the Byrd who couldn’t fly.
Who exactly is Phil Lee and why does he matter? Well, if you read his biography he’s been a “Zelig” type figure on the “scene” for several decades now. Drumming, roadying for Neil Young, throwing knives, bootleg running and God knows what else. He’s invariably dressed as a cowboy dude, looks scary enough to scare the pants off of Phil Spector , kind of a cross between Killer Bob in Twin Peaks and Phil Kaufman, raconteur extraordinaire, the man who scared Charlie Manson and stole Gram Parson’s corpse and set it on fire in the desert.
So now we know a little bit about Lee, why does he matter? Well, over the course of several albums he’s captured what may be the true sense of Americana, able to toss songs off with just an acoustic guitar that stand alongside the likes of John Prine (see the title song to You Should Have Known Me Then), hit the honky tonks with tremendous truck driving stories, dig a southern soul groove or get deep and dirty with the blues. He does all of this and he does it with style. Irreverent, profane (radio stations beware) and above all laughing at the cosmic irrelevance of it all, Lee is a Maverick who , at the end of the day, simply makes fantastic records and thrills audiences at his live shows.
The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love showcases Lee’s love of the Americana idiom with a brace of songs that embrace country, folk, blues and soul while his self mocking humour is apparent from the start with the cover art featuring him seated with the splendidly tattooed Ruth Buckler. While he scatters this self same wit through some of the songs it’s in no way a comedy album. While Every Time , an old fashioned folk skiffle of an anti love song has the immortal line Every time I see you nude, I wanna give your number to another dude and others of a similar ilk it’s a fine number that one could imagine Dylan carrying off when he was a bit of a joker in his early NY folkie days. Speaking of Dylan That’s All You Need is a dead ringer for the man circa Infidels.
Lee kicks the album off with the gospel tones of I Hated To See You Go, co-written with Barry Goldberg (another Dylan connection there) before shifting into the infectious chicken strut that is Blues In Reverse sounding like The Fabulous Thunderbirds with an insidious sexy slink in their walk. Cold Ground’s harmonica playing roots the song in 70’s songwriter territory as Lee sings convincingly of bereavement as his character desperately seeks for ways to turn the clock back and return his lover. It’s almost back to the fifties for the swoonful drama of The Hobo’s Girl although the excellent band playing gives the song a punch with George Bradfute’s slide guitar standing out. I Like Everything harks back to the past as well with cheesy organ giving it a 60’s feel as Lee runs through a salacious list of his girl’s attributes with undisguised glee. A little bit mambo, a little bit Tex-Mex describes the excellent ditty that is She Don’t Let Love Get In The Way and again the guitars shine with producer Richard Bennett excelling on Raquinto. Overall Lee has picked a fine bunch of musicians here with Ken Coomer on drums and Dave Roe on bass in addition to Bennett and Bradfute. Together they easily inhabit the different styles on show while Lee himself is no mean singer.
The album closes with a taste of Lee unplugged and live as he entertains a crowd with It Can’t Hurt, a fine example of his uproarious live show. Good news is he’s coming over in the summer so keep an eye open for a chance to catch him. And while you’re waiting mosey over to his website where he gives a song by song rundown of the album that truly captures his essence.
Wanting some sultry southern slide driven gumbo to start your weekend with? Look no further as the opening song, Around The Bend on Susan Kane’s excellent album A Word Child should satisfy anyone reared on Little Feat and early Bonnie Raitt. Sliding into view with Billy Masters’ superb guitar slink buttressed by Mark Addison’s soulful organ Around The Bend grabs the attention even before Kane starts singing. And when she does the contract is signed, sealed and delivered with her voice strong, and effortless, an equal to Raitt back in the seventies. Add some fine harmonies from the ever excellent Jess Klein and you have the best opening song of the year so far.
Kane is a NY based singer who’s recorded this, her third album, in Austin, Texas and it’s certainly far removed from the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle. Instead we have the aforementioned southern blues style along with some sweet country best exemplified by the fiddle laced Buffalo Jump. Aside from her voice Kane is a fine writer with Buffalo Jump‘s jauntiness for example offset by the lyrics which appear to be a valedictory from an elderly woman preparing for her end. Elsewhere she uses a classic country sound to bemoan the life of a woman who considers herself invisible in the shadow of her partner on the heart tugging I Know About Your Broken Heart while Paulita’s Lament is a great narrative on the life, crimes and death of Billy The Kid as seen by his lover. Kane sounds great on all of these however she turns in her best performance on Aquamarine , a homage to a friend which flows as sweetly as a mountain stream. Here as elsewhere the playing is excellent with Masters (who also produced the album) dripping some magical notes from his guitar.
There are four cover versions. A fine twangy rendition of Stephen Ray Kirkman’s Black Roses which is energetic and engaging while an adaptation of Irish poet, Lady Augusta Persse, Lady Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theatre’s Donal Og takes Kane into Richard Thompson territory temporarily. Again Masters’ guitar is, well, masterful. Intriguingly the other two covers are both penned by the late Jerry Garcia in partnership with Robert hunter. The classic gambler’s tale Loser is given a fine reading while the more obscure Row Jimmy (from the Dead’s Wake of the Flood album) returns to the opening song’s organ and slide guitar groove and slides down as easily as honey.
Decades after his death Nick Drake ploughs on. After several years as a cult artist he was given a posthumous push courtesy of, of all things, a car ad. Alongside a relentless reissue programme that recycled and recollected his small oeuvre, by the mid 2000’s he was a hip name to drop with the value of the original vinyl albums on sites such as Ebay soaring. Thus it was that his sublime, fragile and unique songs found a new audience and influenced a new generation of artists and this album showcases a selection of his peers and new found followers celebrating him.
Way To Blue captures concerts in London and Melbourne that were curated by Drake’s chief torch bearer, Joe Boyd, a legend himself who has produced so many influential albums over the years. Boyd had long toyed with the idea of a tribute to Drake and eventually the idea came to fruition with a moveable feast that over several years performed fifteen shows. Boyd selected the artists stating “Selecting singers has been one of the most rewarding parts of this exercise. One criterion was that none of them should sound like Nick.” With a core band featuring the legendary (sorry about so many legends here but this is deserved) bassist Danny Thompson ( a man who played with Drake, Martyn, Buckley and Jansch, part of his legend), Zoe Rahman on piano and drummer Martyn Barker, alongside a string section with Kate St. John managing Robert Kirby’s arrangements Drake’s sound is effortlessly captured in a live setting.
There are 15 songs, all by Drake, interpreted by a fine line up of singers. Their various takes on the originals adds a to the album. Some are reverential, cleaving to the blueprint, others take off on a tangent imposing the interpreter’s viewpoint. Of these the most successful is Lisa Hannigan’s Black Eyed Dog which transforms the song into a vibrant sea shanty while retaining the original angst of the song. Vashti Bunyon, alongside Thompson the one performer who knew Drake, offers a fragile take on Which Will which perhaps comes closest to most folks vision of Drake as a wounded troubadour. However all of the performances have merit with Australian Zoe Rendell capturing Drake’s vocal mannerism’s excellently while Krystle Warren adds a gospel touch on her offering. While Teddy Thomson, Shane Nicholson and Scott Matthews all pass muster the listener is perhaps more intrigued to hear Green Gartside’s (of Scritti Politti) version of Fruit Tree which he delivers delicately with his reedy voice surrounded by sumptuous strings and Robyn Hitchcock’s Parasite , a wonderful, spectral and spooky offering. Both of these are excellent with the Hitchcock song the standout on the album, a pity he has only the one opportunity to shine.
For a live album the sound is excellent and there is no audience applause throughout allowing one to wallow in the songs without interruption. A great document of what is a fine enterprise from Mr. Boyd, always striving to keep Drake’s memory alive which is what this disc does.
Here’s three albums we’ve received for artists who have previously graced Blabber’n’Smoke.
Larkin Poe & Thom Hell The Sound of the Ocean Sound
Larkin Poe have over the course of five E.P.s gradually transformed from a bluegrass outfit into a slinkier, slightly smouldering country and soul tinged folk rock band. The Sound of the Ocean Sound is their first full length release and here they’ve teamed up with Norwegian, Thom Hell, with the album recorded in two sessions set a year apart. Hell and the two Lovell sisters are accompanied by bass, drums and organ achieving a full band sound while the production sets out to achieve a glossy radio friendly sound that is aided and abetted by some of the writing. The soaring harmonies and driving beat of P.S. I Love You seem tailor made for the airwaves although Hell’s falsetto cries let the song down somewhat. Leave has a touch of the Nicks/Buckingham era Fleetwood Mac about it while the opening song I Belong To Love opens with a nice bass thump before some fine sounding resophonic guitar licks remind you that Larkin Poe have their roots in country. It’s a pity therefore that the remainder of the album pursues the route that the Lovell sisters seem determined to follow, a relatively innocuous FM sound that would sit well on daytime Radio Two.
Rebecca Pronsky. Only Daughter
Rebecca Pronsky on Only Daughter is another one who has moved on from a countrified sound to a fuller fleshed rock approach. Again some of this approaches the sound of Fleetwood Mac circa Rumours (as on Honesty) however Pronsky’s powerful voice and her husband, guitarist Rich Bennet’s production ensure that she remains her own woman. Bennet’s command of his guitar and the sounds he produces have a huge impact on the album with his best contribution coming on the layers that swoon throughout Pronsky’s cover of Mark Kozelek’s Glen Tipton. The ominous dark pounding Big Demands and the bustling opener Rise Up are powerful songs that engage the listener however Pronsky has her upbeat moments with the wonderful rippling guitar of Better That Way capturing a sense of innocence. A fine album and there’s an opportunity to catch Pronsky live as she appears in Glasgow at the Woodend Club on Wednesday 20th March.
Rob Lutes. The Bravest Bird
Rob Lutes’ The Bravest Birds is our introduction to his studio work having only heard his fine live album recorded with long time collaborator, Rob MacDonald. MacDonald is on board here along with a selection from the cream of Montreal musicians. Live we thought Lutes came across in the tradition of American storytellers such as Townes Van Zandt. Studio bound he is less the folksinger and more the cosmopolitan blue-collar sage, a touch of Randy Newman, Tom Waits and even Springsteen peeking through the curtains at the back of the studio . Lutes has a great voice. Husky, reeking of experience, wise and learned, effortless for the most part. His performance on The Ithaca Waterfall is tremendous on what is a fine song, evocative and moving with some fine guitar interludes from MacDonald. MacDonald shines throughout with his sinuous playing evident from the opening The Ship That Sails Today. Things We Didn’t Choose is a song that reminds one of Bob Seger’s Night Moves, no bad thing indeed as Lutes captures a moment in time and the band imbue it with a fine sense of grandeur. Lutes repeats this on Glory, a powerful ballad that has the emotional draw of Mickey Newbury’s American Trilogy. Pick of the songs is Still Dark, a song that shimmers and shivers with a latent menace.
Forget Nashville. Austin, maybe, Portland, perhaps but Tucson is the city that really gets Blabber’n’Smoke salivating when it comes to fine music. We’ve mentioned several artists who are based there including Giant Sand, Naim Amor, Marianne Dissard (thanks to our friends at Vacilando ’68) and Calexico and regularly dip into the likes of Al Perry, Rich Hopkins and Tasha Bundy when we’ve a moment to spare. With honorary citizens such as the legendary Dan Stuart and Steve Wynn the Tucson connections spread far and wide and although there isn’t such a thing as a “Tucson” sound it’s fair to say that the city has been a hot bed of talent for the past few decades, Fish Karma included. So when the tickertape on our foreign affairs desk spewed out the news that the recently launched music label Tucson Music Factory was to showcase two events at the forthcoming SXSW Austin music festival we waited with baited breath for the details of our flight, sadly these were not forthcoming however we did feel honour bound to mention this.
Tucson Music Factory along with the Tucson Weekly newspaper and community radio station KXCI-FM are promoting two nights at the festival, the first on Wednesday 13th March at the Brass House, 115 San Jacinto and then on Saturday 16th March at the Speakeasy 412 Congress Av. Details of the line-ups are below and while it’s Giant Giant Sand who might be the attention grabbers we’d urge you to have a listen to the others especially the mighty Gabriel Sullivan & Taraf de Tucson who should be first in the queue for the next Tarantino soundtrack. These promise to be two fine nights of the finest south west/border music around with dusty trails and Mexican exotica leavened with a European sensuality and it’s with envy that we can only sit here in the old UK and listen to the records at the moment. If any readers do manage to attend do let us know and send a review in.
Brass House 115 San Jacinto Wednesday March 13th
Marianne Dissard & Budo http://www.mariannedissard.com
Sammy Decoster http://www.myspace.com/sammydecoster
Transcription Of Organ Music http://transcriptionoforganmusic.bandcamp.com
Naïm Amor http://naimamor.com/
FB event : https://www.facebook.com/events/252994248143719/
Speakeasy 412 Congress Av. Saturday, March 16th
Giant Giant Sand http://giantsand.com/
Y La Orkesta http://www.myspace.com/ylaorkesta
Gabriel Sullivan & Taraf de Tucson http://gabrielsullivanmusic.com/
Chicha Dust http://hotelcongress.com/music/chicha-dust/
Andrew Collberg http://andrewcollberg.com/
FB event : https://www.facebook.com/events/130849980389037/
And just to whet the appetite here’s a slice of Gabriel Sullivan & Taraf de Tucson
The Desoto Caucus are the Danish contingent of Giant Sand comprising Anders Pedersen(guitar, vocals), Peter Dombernowsky(Drums, percussion),Nikolaj Heyman (bass, keyboards) and Thøger T. Lund (guitar, vocals). They’ve basically been Howe Gelb’s sidekicks for the past ten years since Pederson, Lund and Dombernowsky first backed Howe Gelb on his solo release The Listener. When Gelb decamped to Canada to record his acclaimed gospel album Sno’ Angel the trio used the downtime to record an album under the name of The Desoto Caucus. Reconvening with Gelb, Heyman came on board the Sand line up and he now comprises the fourth part of the fully formed Caucus.
While their first release, EliteContinentalCustomClub slipped under the radar Offramp Rodeo is getting a proper release (via Glitterhouse in Europe) and certainly should be high on the listening agenda for anyone who is moved by the magisterial Gelb and his ever widening circle. While it would be unfair to categorise The Desoto Caucus as Giant Sand sound a likes there’s no doubt that these Danes have had the opportunity to marinate in Gelb’s unique sensibilities before finding inspiration for their own flight. While they have that loose limbed sense of ambling through a song, stumbling on shards of jagged guitar and tripping over unexpected sonic blips that characterises much of Gelb’s work they also find inspiration from the likes of Vic Chesnutt, Mark Linkous and Bill Callahan and manage to forge their own identity with Pedersen, who wrote all of the songs (two co written with Heyman) rising to the occasion with some fine lyrics.
Recorded in Denmark the album has a warm intimate close up feel, the percussion gently thumps and sparkles while the vocals and guitars slowly burn like the dying embers of a log fire that occasionally sparks and sputters. Live In The Stream is a strong opener with a propulsive throbbing beat and a hypnotic vocal from Pederson which manages to recall Sparklehorse and ends with a short burst of clanging guitar. OCB is the most Giant Sand like piece here as Pederson and Lund sing in very close harmony about Offbeat Circuit Breakers but the following title song is a much airier affair with pedal steel adorning a strummed guitar and Pedersen crooning like Bill Callahan from Smog. With snippets of marimba, glockenspiel and African percussion there’s a sweet undercurrent to this very pretty song. The kpanloko drum from Africa makes another appearance on the evocative Full Moon, a dreamlike affair with a great percussion track and fine supporting vocals from Sille Krill.
Fine as these selections are the band pull out all of the stops on a brace of songs that up the thrill stakes and demonstrate that this is a band and not just a side project. Despite Pedersen’s claim in his fine liner notes that they find straight forward rock songs difficult Here’s One disproves this from the start as guitars fizz and explode over a driving drum beat that is embroidered by piano, organ, glockenspiel, tubular bells and trombone ending up in an veritable Smörgåsbord of sound. Leaving Odessa is an impressionistic take on images of Texas and life on the road that flies high with some fine stratospheric pedal steel and some very impressive percussion from Dombernowsky. Firesale is another collection of lyrical impressions where the band attempt to capture the feel of being “European explorers in the new world.” The song starts off gently before building up to a cinematic wide screen sound with echoes of Morricone with muted tubular bell and softly shimmering percussion adding a faded grandeur. The short Even So slouches into view and out again briefly but it’s a fine gnarled effort showcasing Heyman’s guitar. Closing the album, Last Call just about sums the band up as Dembernowsky employs numerous percussive devices to drive the song while guitars snake in and out, snapping at the heels of Pedersen’s slow drawl on a song that would not be out of place on Jim White’s Wrong Eyed Jesus album.
Overall this is a strong collection of songs that is improved by the musical dexterity of the band as repeated listens unveil little sonic quirks and embellishments. Well recommended of course for fans of Giant Sand but well worth a listen for anyone interested in the slightly offbeat side of Americana that steers clear of Nashville and finds inspiration in the less travelled roads.