Danny Schmidt : Parables & Primes

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Danny Schmidt : Parables & Primes

(2005 Live Once Records)

 

Danny Schmidt is a singer/songwriter based in Austin, TX. He’s received tons of  good press – and rightly so! I don’t want to drop the D-comparison (that has been done too many times before in the last 40 years or so), but I see him more in line of songwriters such as John Prine and Greg Brown, as he’s considerably younger than either of them it wouldn’t be wrong to call him the next generation.

The earliest of his 7 albums I bought to date, this beauty of an album enticed me because of the haunting and delicate violin part in album opener This Too Shall Pass that I knew from YouTube. This Too Shall Pass is quite dark in theme, and the violin does complement it to very fine effect indeed.

But as very soon became obvious, this track isn’t the only highlight on the album, far from it! Neil Young sounds a lot like, well, prime Neil Young (of the Harvest era, his finest period if you ask me), complete with a relaxed and somewhat sleepy acoustic guitar as well as a lovely steel guitar.

Dark Eyed Prince is prime Danny Schmidt, mainly him, his (as mostly is the case) fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a captivating, memorable story, in this case about a prince that has got it all in a material sense, but behind all that wealth he’s hiding his deeply hurt soul, by a princess long gone – as Danny Schmidt is quite often speaking in metaphors and allegories this probably has a universal meaning, but being able to package a thought and idea like this in a story so imaginative and memorable, is what makes a (song)writer as good as he clearly is (which is evident in most of his work).

Other fine examples of this ability are Stained Glass and A Circus Of Clowns. Stained Glass is only accompanied (like This Too Shall Pass) by violin and his acoustic guitar and the story does concern a stained glass church window being damaged by a storm and being only rudimentarily restored by the 90 year-old dad by the master glazier – upon seeing the finished product the church congregation is sceptical at first, but quickly recognizes that perfection isn’t what counts most, but being able to pour your heart and soul into something is much more meaningful and, in this case, beautiful than doing something perfectly – that’s my interpretation of the story at least. Plus that violin between the verses is amazing – it’s mixed somewhat into the background, but it kind of floats around in your room (provided you listen to the record on a proper stereo, not on your computer or those cheap in-ear headphones) – hard to explain that effect adequately, but it sounds simply wonderful.

Riddles And Lies and Esmee By The River are both simple, straightforward Folk song and only accompanied by lovely mandolin and accordion parts respectively (and acoustic guitar, naturally), which is actually all they need to be from a first-rate songwriter of his ilk.

Ghost became something of my favorite on the album (as far as it is possible to name one from an album with so many excellent tracks on it), maybe for the Wild West imagery (‘…swing swing, gallows swing…’) but most probably for the somber mood and stripped-down arrangement with only an acoustic and an electric lead guitar.

In contrast to this are the next two songs Beggars And Mules and A Circus Of Clowns, which are both, for his standards I should add, lavishly arranged. The first one with a nice, relaxed 70’s Country-Rock beat and arrangement with a soft lead guitar and female backing vocals (some of Arlo Guthrie’s work springing to mind) and A Circus Of Clowns, suited perfectly to the circus theme of the song with trumpets and marching drums, which I am quite fond of, when it’s done in moderate doses (it’s probably all the church visits in my childhood that did that). Lyrically it’s a political allegory and a slightly madcap story about a circus coming to town and the townspeople, after much fanfare in the beginning, slowly coming to realize that maybe the clowns aren’t really up to any good, but by then it’s too late and they aren’t really able to get rid of them all that easily.

The title track and album closer is quite unfinished intimate acoustic guitar only track and more of an afterthought than a fully finished song, which isn’t to say it’s not worth listening to at all – more reminiscent of a live recording.

If you don’t know his work yet and are into Folk-based singer/songwriter fare telling and imaginative storytelling you could do much, much, worse than checking Parables & Primes out. This is top stuff (as are all of his other records I know to date – keep checking back here for more reviews of his other albums). His website is http://www.dannyschmidt.com

 

Terry Allen : Bottom Of The World

Terry Allen Bottom Of The World Cover

Terry Allen : Bottom of the World
(2012 Terry Allen)

To be honest I hadn’t heard about Terry Allen at all until a few weeks ago, when a review on http://www.glitterhouse.com made me take notice and thinking ‘What the hell? I’m gonna buy that record.’ So it’s fair to say that I listened to Bottom Of The World with an open ear and only had a vague idea what’s in store. What first struck me was the electric piano he is playing, which is fairly uncommon in a musical field where Singer/Songwriters usually play the guitar.

Which is not to say that there are no guitars to be heard on the album. Far from it, as Lloyd Maines who has been playing with Terry Allen for a long time, and whose guitar work I have been admiring before (most notably on Richard Buckner’s outstanding debut album Bloomed which has been a firm favorite of mine since it was released back in 1994), delivers plenty of exceptionally beautiful guitar parts, I especially love the steel guitar, on here too. The songs are mostly slow, and leisurely paced to mid-tempo, with only occasional (synthesized) drums, and Allen’s vocals (and Maines’ steel guitars) mixed far into the foreground. Which is as it should be, as his rich, weather-beaten (he’s 70 after all) and resonant voice is ideally suited to lyrics full of sarcasm, wit and the occasional (well, let’s say frequent) swearword. My favourite lines are found on Queenie’s Song (which is also excellent musically) whose title sounds quite nice – but don’t let that fool you, the lyrics are anything but: ‘Some SOB shot my dog I found her under a tree if I hadn’t loved that dog so much it wouldn’t mean nothing to me But you Son Of A Bitch I tell you what I will not be deterred I’ll find you out and track you down on that you have my word’. Throughout the whole album, the rather nice and beautiful music merely sets the listener on the wrong track when compared with the often biting lyrics.

Most lyrics are also quite obviously informed by the American Southwest too (he’s living in Santa Fe, NM), for example Four Corners, presumably named after Utah/Arizona/Colorado/New Mexico area of the same name, Wake Of The Red Witch with numerous John Wayne references or Emergency Human Blood Donor which mixes morbid imagery of a red, ‘beat-up Detroit Dodge Dart’ speeding towards Mexico to deliver blood badly needed in the drug war raging there, with acute social observation.

Another highlight is the title track, one of the slightly more up-tempo tracks on here, it’s equipped with a crackin’ tune. Angels Of The Wind is extremely beautiful too with some rather Celtic-sounding influences amongst the Country ones.

Other instruments adding nicely to the rather sparsely arranged (but beautifully produced, the sound is great) songs are violin and cello (used to beautiful effect on the lovely solo of Do They Dream Of Hell In Heaven), mandolin, cello and accordion (on a number of TexMex influenced numbers such as Bottom Of The World or Queenie’s Song). Female background lyrics are provided by Sally Allen (don’t know if there’s a relation). Sometimes the music reminds me of (a more relaxed) Giant Sand and even of Leonard Cohen (especially on brilliant slowly winding along and utterly captivating Dark/Gothic-folk song The Gift) as well as John Prine (mainly the voice). Sidekick Anthem has the most reconciliatory lyrics on the album ‘if you need me I’m just a call away, if you’re grieving I’m just a call away…’ (although he can’t resist to stick some swearwords in them too: ‘Turn your back on the bastards, liars and the kiss-asses too, just gimme a call and tell ‘em to screw it all…’).

Fascinating stories abound and wonderful music. He’s also a visual artist and trained Architect. Hats off to Terry Allen.

John Prine : Souvenirs

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John Prine : Souvenirs

(2000, Oh Boy Records)

 ‘Fifteen new recordings of classic songs’ – that’s what the front cover states, so far, so good. What it doesn’t say is how excellent these new versions are.

Recorded in ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement’s The Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa in Nashville the sound is excellent. What we get is mainly John Prine and his finger-picked acoustic guitar at his best, augmented by a select cast of uniformly accomplished musicians (just listen to Angel from Montgomery) on the usual instruments in that Singer-Songwriter/Folk/Country context (electric guitars, bass, mandolin, fiddle and accordion and so on). All very well and nice to have, but that wouldn’t count for much, wouldn’t he write such damn good songs. I don’t own all of his records (yet) so I can’t say which songs he left out I would have loved to have on here as well – apart from one and that is Daddy’s Little Pumpkin (from The Missing Years), given that that version is already so perfect maybe it’s better it isn’t done here again. As far as I’m aware, it’s note one of his most popular songs, but it is my favorite.

The album starts with Souvenirs (from Diamonds in the Rough), setting the course of the album nicely, his gravelly voice, a lovely acoustic guitar only backed by an electric guitar and a little bit of bass and mandolin – the sound as pure and clear as a fine winter morning. Next song Fish And Whistle (from his 1978 album Bruised Orange) features some fine accordion backing, and is one of the more Country-influenced songs on Souvenirs (together with Grandpa Was A Carpenter and Please Don’t Bury Me).

Far From Me (from the first, self titled album) which was also recorded by Justin Townes Earle on Broken Hearts And Dirty Windows in a mighty fine version, but the version on here is far more melancholic, which suites the lyrics of the theme better. It’s about a couple going through something of a rough patch (‘…. Well. Ya know, she still laughs with me But she waits just a second too long…’), but the way the song is set (with him picking her, a waitress, up at the end of her shift) is one of the best examples of Prine’s songwriting capabilities – it just begs to be given a cinematic treatment, at least I can imagine a short film/music video version perfectly well. Next track Angel From Montgomery, which I was familiar with from a radically different, but excellent version by Canadian outfit The Leslie Spit Treeo (anybody remember then?), is a slow ballad, augmented by the lovely interplay between pedal steel guitar and mandolin.

The following Donald & Lydia is another prime example of why Prine is regarded so highly as a songwriter, the lyrics mirroring American small-town life perfectly, it’s about a would-be couple that tragically never meet in real life although they only live a few miles apart and are both dreaming about finding love (‘They made love in the mountains They made love in the streams They made love in the valleys They made love in their dreams But when they were finished there was nothing to say ‘cause mostly they made love from ten miles away’) – how touching is that?

Grandpa Was A Carpenter is an old-timey Country tune with a prominent fiddle and suitably rustic, old-style lyrics (‘Well he used to sing me ‘Blood On the Saddle’ And rock me on his knee And let me listen to the radio Before we got T.V. Well, he’s drive to church on Sundays And he’d take me with him too Stained glass in every window Hearing aids in every pew…’) – proving that he can do both sad, melancholic and upbeat, good-natured songs equally well.

The Late John Garfield Blues is another highlight for me – slow, quite melancholic and with a lovely tune, one of his finest songs if you ask me.

But it’s next song Blue Umbrella, which I probably love best on here – just John Prine, his voice and a picked acoustic guitar – actually pretty much the only things he needs to sing his songs write into my heart.

Six O’Clock News is one of the saddest songs on here, telling the sad story (‘… The Whole town saw Jimmy On the six o’clock news His brains were on the sidewalk And Blood Was on his shoes…’) of young James Lewis, son of Wanda, and it’s also one of the loveliest arranged one, I very much like the interplay between the electric lead guitar, accordion and piano.

Well, what’s to say about Sam Stone? Another, and probably, if I am informed correctly, one of his best known songs (covered by the likes of Johnny Cash) about a war veteran (most probably from the Vietnam war), coming home with military accolades, but also an addiction to morphine which ends with his overdose – not very surprising it was/is so popular in the US, very sad indeed – I am especially moved by the line (‘… While the kids ran around wearing other People’s clothes…’), a great song, that.

Next to last song Please Don’t Bury me is another slightly faster and good-natured song with a ueber-catchy chorus. I have to admit that I actually like the version on his first album of album closer Hello In There a tad better – an excellent song and the lyrics are a very good example of his maturity in both outlook on life and as a songwriter, even at an early stage in his career (he was only in his mid-twenties when that album was released in 1971).

A lot of catching up for me left to do I guess, when it comes to his work, as I only own this album, The Missing Years and the first album so far.