Greg Brown : All Of Those Things on A Prairie Home Companion

Greg Brown, who recently turned 66, returned to A Prairie Home Companion a year ago to record this song. I do not know if it’s a newly written one or from one of his albums I haven’t yet bought. It’s not one of his most catchy songs but rather shows him at his most introspective, yet hopeful. And I haven’t got to mention that voice. Classic Greg Brown stuff.

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The Pines : Pasture (Folk Songs)

The Pines Pasture CD-cover jpeg2015 Red House Records

Pasture (Folk Songs) is yet another masterful release by The Pines, the first since 2012’s Dark So Gold album (review see here). It’s a 7-song EP, clocking in at just under 30 minutes. And mighty fine ones at that. Traditionals such as Wild Bill Jones and Banks Of The Ohio accompany well-chosen cover versions by artists such as Greg Brown, Iris DeMent, Mance Lipscomb, Mason Jennings and Joe Price.

The Pines are usually described as Gothic Folk, which in my opinion is slightly misleading, on here I only find it fitting to describe the Mance Lipscomb song Looked Dow The Road And Wondered. To be fair, the band is using that association quite often, e.g. in their cover artworks with a scarecrow on the front cover of Dark So Gold and an American Gothic-window on the back cover of Pasture. What I find much more adequate to discribe their music are associations with Dream Pop and even Shoegaze, as a variety of acoustic and electric guitars provide a dreamy background to almost all of their songs. Alex Ramsey’s piano and keyboards and Benson Ramsey’s lazy, sleepy vocals on most tracks adding the final flourishes making their music so engaging and memorable.

This is for the most parts, entirely calm and peaceful music, although it’s by no means always slow and quiet, as on airy and folky Greg Brown composition Are You Ready For The Fair? (which turns out wonderful, naturally), or the afore-mentioned Looked Down The Road And I Wondered.

Both traditional murder ballads Banks Of The Ohio and Wild Bill Jones are among the best songs on here (although it’s damn near impossible to pick the highlights on an EP is fabulous as Pasture), with both turning out utterly lovely in stark contrast to their violent lyrics. Joe Price’s Down On The Highway and (Greg Brown wife) Iris Dement’s He Reached Down, which is based on the biblical story of the good shepherd, are showing the Pines at their most gentle, dreamlike, and best.

I admit, I am an absolute admirer of The Pines’ music, and I belive they are one of the most singular bands in today’s Folk-Pop music scene and far ahead of most of their peers. This is music that’s good for the soul and mind, combining all the best influences and creating something wonderful with every single one of their releases.

Oh, and, happily Benson and Alex’s dad, Bo Ramsey, contributes his distinctive excellent slide guitar talents to Down On The Highway – nobody I can think of could grace a song quite so sparsely, yet soulfully.

The Pines : All The While (Live On 89.3 The Current)

A brand new discovery for me (they have been around for a few years though), The Pines totally enchanted me with this utterly fabulous and gorgeous version of their song All The While from their 2012 album Dark So Gold, which I don’t know yet, as I have only just ordered it. But if it’s only half as good as this track hints at, you probably will be reading about it on here soon. One of them is also the son of Bo Ramsey whom you can see talked/written about here before. Or here. And a few times more. If you also take into account that they are on Red House Records it’s perhaps no wonder they are this good. Anyway, here it is:

 

Danny Schmidt : Parables & Primes

DS_Parables

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

 

Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer : Seven Is The Number

Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer : Seven Is The Number

(2006 Tracy Grammer)

I hadn’t heard about Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer at all until a few weeks ago, when the album was recommended to me by iTunes (of all things, oh well, at least Apple is good for something). As (to my knowledge) it isn’t available on CD anymore, I had to make do with downloading it, which I normally try to avoid if at all possible as I greatly prefer CD’s/LP’s, old-fashioned as I am. They were only active together from 1998 up to his death at the too-early age of 49 back in 2002, but Tracy Grammer released Seven is The Number after his death and has by now found a home at Red House Records, as always one of the finest purveyors of fine Folk albums so that is a nice fit. In US American Folk circles they achieved quite a bit of renown and went on tour with John Baez in 2002 – but all of that hadn’t reached me, but better late than never.

If you, like I was, are new to their music, the album opener and title track is a good pointer to what you can expect, both lyrically and musically. Instead of some dumb 666 Satan crap as you find on stupid rock albums here seven is the number for mankind with all its weak and strong points that clearly was/is of great concern to them. I am not sure of there’s some direct lyrical connection to some religious or spiritual belief or work, from what I read on their Wikipedia page Dave Carter was very much influenced by spiritual and mystical works, so that might be the case. The track is also rather short, and therefore almost seems like a statement of intent to me.

The sound throughout the album is airy and light, (which isn’t meant in a derogatory way at all) and dominated by Carter’s soft, gentle voice, with him playing the guitar and doing most of the lead vocals with Tracy Grammer mainly playing the violin – very fine indeed, as on, what is possibly the most melancholic song on the album, Red (Elegy), although a certain downbeat, sad feeling is evident on most of the songs on the album. Pretty much the only exception being the Hillbilly sounds of Texas Underground, a song possibly not meant to be taken too seriously, about a daytime nightmare, the devil and ‘… a smokin’ little band with a Country sound…’, done in the Carter/Grammer way as Carter most definitely didn’t possess any of Steve Earle’s raucous tough guy image. With regards to the possible involvement of other musicians I can’t really be certain, as I haven’t got a booklet and so am short on more background information, but there’s various other instruments to be heard, such as the mandolin on Gas Station Girl.

Instantly my favorite track became The Promised Land (it also went straight onto my Desert Island Playlist). It’s slightly more uptempo than most of the other songs on the album and a tune that found its way straight into my heart and refuses to get out. That haunting organ in the background is just too beautiful. Lyrically, it’s touching story about people on the fringes of the American society ‘I’m just doing what I do best, running with the devil and the dispossessed, waiting on a mission trying to make a plan, chasing my angel through the promised land’. The lovely following Hey Tonya is a tad more relaxed and also permeated with a touch of sadness. Gas Station Girl was actually the first song I heard of theirs, I couldn’t resist checking out a song with a title like that, could I? Glad I did though, as it’s a excellent, relaxed Country waltz, complete with mandolin, lyrics about long interstate drives and ‘the lips of a gas station girl’ – (classic theme, isn’t it).

Words fail me how to adequately describe the beauty of next track Long Black Road Into Tulsa Town, it’s unremarkable enough stylistically, just another slow Folk ballad, but that chorus is just heavenly, full of emotion, meaning and, for me at least, it’s impossible to be utterly captivated by lines like ‘… states of misery, states of grace, trouble and joy on a young man’s face, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, take me down that long black road into Tulsa Town…’. Wonderful.

Working For Jesus is a gorgeous tune too, it’s about a couple probably not looking eye to eye when it comes to the religious beliefs. Gun Metal Eyes is yet another song made that good by the story being told about an Indian meeting his fate in a confrontation with a company of loggers and the police – very poetic from start to finish and a new spin on the old story of confrontation between white people and Native Indians, ending as you would expect.

One doesn’t have to think too hard about who Carter and Grammer’s sympathize with, and it’s also got a nice Southwestern touch which is very well suited to the song’s theme. The album closes with Sarah Turn ‘Round of which I can’t say much more than that it’s beautiful, it sounds rather optimistic and sunny, in contrast to most other songs on Seven is The Number.

As I said before, the album isn’t exactly easy to come by, but everybody into music steeped in 60’s Folk traditions (I am more than once reminded of Arlo Guthrie’s work), should definitely check this very fine album out. Let Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer calm your soul and make your day a better one – at least for the 47 minutes Seven Is the Number lasts and most probably even longer than that.