As pandemic albums go, Boston’s Susan Cattaneo’s latest, All Is Quiet, is an assured reflection on those (these?) troubled times. Recorded early on as lockdown was at its height, Cattaneo recorded these songs, some referring to the strangeness and isolation, others suffused with a sense of hope for the future. As with so many other albums emerging from the darkness, remote working allowed the songs to be fleshed out, creating a gentle, multi layered comfort cushion with Cattaneo’s crystal clear voice quite captivating. There’s so much temptation here to compare Cattaneo to Joni Mitchell’s early work so, rather than resist it, we’ll say here and now that All Is Quiet is an album which could sit quite comfortably between Clouds and Ladies Of The Canyon.
While the focus is on Catteano’s voice and well tempered acoustic guitar, graceful waves of electric guitar and muted harmonies feature throughout, allowing the album to flow from song to song, all the while remaining engaging. When she mildly erupts into a slight sense of defiance on the song Hold Onto Hope, it fits seamlessly into the ebb and flow which surrounds it. While never despairing, nevertheless, several of the songs reflect the isolation and uncertainty of being told to stay at home. The opening title song, delivered quite brilliantly with a sense of trepidation, bustles with a Pentangle like folkiness to it as Cattaneo sings with a restrained fury against the Groundhog Day like repetitiveness of lock down. Time + Love + Gravity finds her in a relationship limbo, reaching out but unable to meet.
A withdrawal from society, forced or not, leads to introspection and several of the songs here find Cattaneo musing on subjects which seem more personal. Borrowed Blue is a lovely song that examines the relationship between mothers and daughters, especially when the daughter is essentially passed on to another, a husband. Blackbirds, graced with a quite glorious guitar arrangement, is more contemplative with memories of nursery rhymes evoking the past and the past also features on the gossamer like Broken Things.
At the heart of the album is the quite magnificent Diamond Days, a song which equals the likes of Joni or Janis Ian in its quiet and simple beauty. Ambient guitars hover and hum as Cattaneo essentially distills the essence of a life, the hopes, expectations and disappointments which shape us all.
It’s getting so that there’s a lot of cosmic vibes seeping into Americana these days. Hints of psychedelia, bucolic landscapes and guitars, lots of guitars, especially gliding and keening pedal steel guitars, seem to abound. A lot of folk blame The Grateful Dead and their jam band successors and they may be guilty as charged, but when you have the likes Billy strings, Israel Nash, Gospelbeach, Rose City Band and Pacific Range bringing out superb albums then I guess we have to at least forgive the culprits.
The above is a long-winded way to mention Jon Chi, late of a band called Rainmaker, who has a bit of a history with jam bands and members of The Dead. River Of Marigolds, his third solo album, is a fine addition to this new cosmic Americana, and yes, it has some swell guitar. The album was actually released on Earth Day, back in April, a nod to some of the environmental concerns raised by several of the songs and Chi is supported by an excellent host of Bay area musicians, the main band being Dave Schools (bass), Dave Zirbel (pedal steel), Jeremy Feinstein (keyboard), Jeremy Hoenig (drums) and Mike Emerson (keyboard, harmony vocals). Together they have created an album which does glide and soar with several of the songs melting into one another via superb segues. This is most apparent on the 12 minute combination of Bring On The Rain and Up In Flames which, despite their apocalyptic subjects, positively shimmer like a heat haze rising from the speakers with plenty of space for some incredibly groovy solos on guitar and organ. The overall sensation on listening to this is quite glorious.
While there is room for a funkier approach (with horns added by The Monophonics) on Give The Devil His Due which slinks along like Lowell George in his prime, the majority of the album cleaves to the cosmic vibe. Cold Clear Winter is a gentle yet brittle chug with shards of guitar and that keening pedal steel set against an urgent bustle from the rhythm section and the title song unfolds initially like a Grateful Dead jam winding down before Chi rides in with his gentle voice gently buoyed by another hazy flow of guitars and keyboards. Sweet Surrender is a lovely song with a killer outro as the band slow almost to a halt before swelling into a glorious coda. There’s some fire and brimstone on the fiery Road To Revival which rocks along with more than a hint of Tucson desert rock in its make up while Dannemora Blues (Don’t Lose Your Head) is cinematic desert noire as Chi recounts the true tale of two prison escapees. Here he approaches the story telling heights which defined The Drive By Truckers’ epic Southern Rock Opera.
The album closes with a reprise of River Of Marigold delivered as a cosmic campfire song with a dream jam band playing off in the distance. A fine close to what is quite a magnificent album.
We’ve mentioned before on several occasions that we are huge fans of the irreverent Phil Lee. While his albums are always a pleasure to listen to, he adds his impish sense of fun to much of what he records, giving them an added sparkle. In addition, he has a fascinating back story and so it’s not too much of a surprise to read that his latest album, a smashing collection of songs done in an old-fashioned country style, was influenced by his tenure (aged 12!) as the drummer for Homer A. Briarhopper’s band on an early morning TV show back in the 60s. Sounds made up? Well, according to Google it’s true.
It’s a lockdown album, recorded with just Lee on guitars, harmonica and drums with producer David West adding electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, keyboards and a wealth of other instruments. Most of the songs are Lee’s own with a couple of traditional numbers thrown in for good measure. They’re all short and snappy with Lee saying he wanted to make an album his mother would like and which “white people could dance to.”
The album kicks off with a classic country two stepper, Did You Ever Miss Someone, with West’s Dobro and mandolin already demanding attention while Lee sounds just perfect as he relays his loss. Coming in at under two minutes it’s a perfect opener. When’s The Lovin’ Coming Back has more of a trucker’s feel to it with West laying down some fine humbucking guitar licks and I Like Women digs into Western swing with Lee getting away with not being too salacious. He does however inhabit the lyric with fervour on a highly infectious song which, one again, is greatly energised by West’s numerous guitar parts while he also provides the backing vocals.
Might As Well be Me slows the pace down as Lee sings a brilliant down at heel story of a luckless musician on the road. While it’s not exactly Nashville countrypolitan in its delivery it is classic country and is up there with the likes of Charley Crockett and Joshua Headley’s reclamation of classic country sounds. Next, there’s a dive into the real old Americana as Lee tackles a Child ballad on The Devil And The Farmer’s Wife and again, he does it brilliantly with banjo and mandolin bravely plucking away. Forever After All retains the mandolin as Lee almost gets sentimental on a tremendous number which follows a couple from their wedding day to the twilight of their years. It tugs at the heartstrings while having an unalloyed heart of gold at its centre. There’s also a great degree of sentiment on the tale of a broke up family on Where Is The Family Today which finds Lee touching on John Prine territory.
Daddy’s Jail is a fine shit kicking slice of rock’n’roll and apparently recalls Lee’s youth when he was a bit rambunctious while his father ran the Durham County jail in North Carolina. Wake Up Crying appeared on Lee’s previous album, Phil Lee & The Horse He Rode In On, recorded with his old buddies, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina of Crazy Horse. There it was given a vintage 1960s Who like charge, here it’s delivered as a rollicking banjo driven bluegrass number with West magnificently parrying with himself on the various solos. The album closes with an excellent version of Just A Closer Walk With Thee, a song Lee says he has wanted to do since seeing Harry dean Stanton sing it in Cool Hand Luke but sung here in an Elvis and The Jordanaires gospel style. It brings this excellent album to a handsome close.
Drunken Prayer is the vehicle for Morgan Geer’s wistful and slightly skewed version of Americana. Geer, an occasional member of Freakwater and sometime player with The Handsome Family, has released several albums under the Drunken Prayer banner but this is the first one to have flown our way. We might be late to the show but thoroughly enjoyed this sixth album and fully intend to seek out its predecessors.
It’s tempting to class Drunken Prayer along with The Handsome Family given their link and the fact that Geer occasionally inhabits a similar world to that of the Handsome Family – dark, slightly whimsical, sometimes dreamlike. The delightful childlike naiveté of God Of The Sea certainly has more than a touch of The Handsome’s to it while Crazy Alone, a gorgeous paean to hopelessness, has a similar feel to Weightless Again. But whereas the Sparks tend to stick to their tried and trusted template, Geer roams further afield with his country and folk influences much more evident while several of the songs on show here pack a fine country rock crunch.
The album kicks off with Geer sounding almost like Guy Clark on the handsome stroll of Sweetheart Of The Picket Line. A political song but somewhat opaque, it seems to this listener that Geer is on the side of peaceful demonstrators facing the thuggery of armed right wing militias, out to kill the peace loving mockingbirds who oppose them. He returns to this theme later on the fiddle strewn crunch of The Judas Table which, again, is quite opaque with lyrics which might or might not relate to Jagger’s dilemma on Street Fighting Man. Digging the lyrics is a great part of the enjoyment here as Geer seems to enjoy being both playful and somewhat baffling. Oasis In The Yard is a fine mash up of Beatles and Stones like raunch as he recollects his youthful pursuits including listening to Oasis and riding go-karts. Landlines And Rabbit Ears (Nachos For One) is a fine ode to loneliness, inspired apparently by a menu encountered in an English motel and tinged with a melancholic air one associates with Neil Innes.
Myna Birds, another song which has some slight similarities to The Handsome Family, is a gorgeous swoon with gliding guitars while Sunderland finds Geer wandering into Band territory on a fine pedal steel soaked ballad which contemplates the opioid epidemic in Appalachia where, “the flags forever fly at half-mast.” It’s followed by the title song, a short repetitive lament with the dread of the lyrics backed by a glorious mix of spaghetti western mood and soaring cosmic country guitars.
Snuck in midway through the album, two songs are downright humorous country tributes. I Wouldn’t Change A Thing is a duet in George and Tammy style (with Christa de Mayo singing the Tammy part) which finds the pair squabbling brilliantly over their misdemeanours. Country Music Ball of Flame meanwhile is a wearied honky tonk number with the singer (probably in his cups) complaining about his lack of stardom. He’s never had a number one hit but has “polished up a couple number twos,” which, if it’s a pun, is quite brilliant. Anyhow, they just add to the variety of this excellent album.