Bill Morrissey : Birches

To celebrate the occasion of ordering my first CD by Bill Morrissey (who I wasn’t aware of until a few weeks ago), his collaboration with Greg Brown titled Friend Of Mine, here’s his track Birches (not on Friend Of Mine).

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Bruce Cockburn : Nothing But A Burning Light

Bruce Cockburn Nothing But A Burning Light album cover When Nothing But A Burning Light was released, way back in 1991, I liked the music I was listening to have a bit more punch and drive, so I didn’t give him and his music the attention it definitely deserves. Having left the ‚Rock’ period more or less behind the past few years, I can see now that he is an amazing guitarist, an extraordinarily gifted songwriter and politically on the ‘right’ side, which for me is the left. He’s long been active and supportive of humanitarian and ecological causes, as well as a supporter of Native American causes (he was, for a time in the 1960’s, a member of Abundance To Revolution with Duke Redbird, whose song Silver River (with Shingoose) can be heard on Native North America Vol. 1 (read my review here). Which neatly brings me to one of the standout tracks of this record, Indian Wars. Fittingly, it’s a somber, sparsely produced song with only him on acoustic guitar/vocals and Jackson Browne on a resonator guitar together with violin/mandolin player extraordinaire Mark O’Connor. The result is a dignified, slow and gorgeous songs with touching, poetic lyrics such as this: ‘treaties get signed and the papers change hands but they might as well draft these agreements on sand’. O’Connor’s contributions can’t be praised enough, on here, as well as on One Of The Best Ones, his graceful violin/mandolin accompaniments are simply wonderful. Also exceedingly excellent is Child of the Wind – a song with  a title like this could be very much kitsch in lesser hands, but on here it’s utterly beautiful (this time with Cockburn on a resonator guitar, having one of those played on a song is always a plus). Speaking of arrangements, the album is produced by probably the best man for this kind of music, T Bone Burnett. Burnett contributed his skills to many of my favorite records such as Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, as well as albums by The Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan and Gillian Welch (just to name a few). In the recent past he’s become legendary of course with his musical directions for The Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?’ and Inside Llewyn Davis. On here you hear a sound which is, for that time period, outstandingly good, a bit thinner than nowadays maybe, but there’s mainly acoustic instruments and the sound is both rustic and naturalistic – just as I like it. There’s also two lovely instrumental songs, one, Actions Speak Louder is the theme to a documentary called The Greenpeace Years. The slightly too commercial for my taste Great Big Love most probably was intended as a hit single (the album was released on Columbia Records after all), but for me is the least convincing song on the album. Album opener A Dream Like Mine which sounds similarly catchy (it’s one of the few slightly more uptempo songs) fares much better in comparison. Second track Kit Carson and Mighty Trucks Of Midnight sound exactly like the titles suggest, breathing the spirit of empty North American trails and highways, with the latter touching on problematic issues such as US American companies leaving the country to do their manufacturing down in Mexico. Soul Of A Man, a song by Blind Willie Johnson sounds exactly like you would expect it to (which is a good thing, naturally). Somebody Touched Me in contrast, sounds light and airy with a rather nice organ by Booker T. Jones. I’ve just been rediscovering this CD among my records a few days ago, I didn’t even know anymore I had it. I am very glad I did, it’s an amazing record by an artist at the prime of his career, with a producer on board that knows exactly how to produce this kind of music, a match made in heaven. And, most importantly, a bunch of great songs. Here’s a rather beautiful video/slideshow to ‘ Indian Wars’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9t1a5DLmR8U

Native North America Vol. 1 (Review)

Nartive North America Vol. 1 cover jpeg

This is a release both commendable and highly recommended. The 2-CD set gathers material by Native American (most of them Canadian) songwriters and bands hardly known or remembered nowadays, certainly not by me, I hadn’t heard of a single artist on here before. It also was a conscious decision to focus on more little-known artists, so people like Buffy Sainte-Marie are missing.

The most widely known artist probably is Willie Dunn. He seems to have been something of a forerunner for many Native American artists and bands during that period. The background notes in the booklet for him introduces the reader to a highly prolific songwriter, filmmaker, coffee shop owner and painter. His amazing album opener  I Pity The Country was chosen to accompany the video trailer for this release which you can see here. It’s a highly loveable Folk-Rock song with captivating, acute and poetic lyrics and a fabulous melody.

The above mentioned, accompanying excellent 120 page (yes, 120) booklet not only provides extensive background info on each of the 20+ Artists/bands featured, and also shows the original album artworks (incl. the record labels) as well as providing the lyrics to all songs. In case of non-English language songs the original lyrics and their English translations are also included. I for one enjoy browsing through the booklet almost as much as I do listening to both CD’s, the life stories being told of most artists are utterly fascinating.

I assume the fact that a lot of songs on here were recorded on a rather limited budget contributes to many of them being somewhat sparsely arranged and acoustic guitars abound, which is of course absolutely fine by me. The time span these songs were recorded in and the places the artists hail from, also contributes to a large amount of Folk-influences found throughout the 2-CD’s

The simplicity of many of the arrangements suits the nature of this compilation of songs from the far reaches of the Canadian wilderness and places such as The Northwest Territories (Willie Thrasher), Nunavut (Alexis Utatnaq) and Nunavik in Northen Quebec (Sukluk) very well. It’s also worth bearing in mind the function these songs primarily served. None of the artists on here came out of a hip student scene such as the ones found on cities such as New York City or Boston. A lot of the people in these bands went to boarding schools, oftentimes far away from home, which for many of them must have meant a troublesome and difficult experience. If they stayed in or returned to their own communities, they could often be found playing social gatherings – which, considering many of them were deep in the bush or close to the arctic circle, certainly is a far cry from some arty music club.

Said simplicity however isn’t evident all too often when it comes to most songs’ lyrics. Sure, there are fun and rather light-hearted songs on here too, such as Sugluk’s Fall Away and I Didn’t Know or Sikumiut’s Utirumavung and Sikumiut (the latter is especially catchy and cute). The afore mentioned I Pity The Country might be the most eloquently realised indictment of all that’s been wrong when it comes to relationships between Native Americans and non-natives. But a whole lot of other songs on here touch on similar themes which also penetrate deep into the music and mood of the songs. Alexis Utatnaq’s Maqaivvigivalauqtavut and Ernest Monias’ Tormented Soul are prime examples for this. Added are a host of excellent examples of the Native American way of storytelling and crafting dreamlike lyrics. The deep spiritual sensibilities palpable on all three songs by Willie Thrasher, Winds Of Change by Lloyd Cheechoo, Silver River by Shingoose (poetry by Duke Redbird), just to name a few, make for a haunting listening experience. The sound of Neil Young from that time period is also not far away on a number of tracks, such as Silver River and especially the brilliant Dreams Of Ways by Brian Davey.

Other highlights for me are Groupe Folklorique Montagnais’ (incl. Philippe McKenzie whose melancholic and mysterious Mistashipu, sung in his native Innu-aimun language opens CD2 in convincing style) song Tshekuan Mak Tshetutamak, which is an amazing blend of a Folky guitar strum-along and tribal drums. Both of John Angaiak’s songs on here Hey, Hey, Hey, Brother and I Rock You To The Rhythm Of The Ocean are pieces of pure introspective singer-songwriter magic with his melancholic voice making them crawl deep into your heart. Peter Frank’s Little Feather is another especially fine Folk-Country hybrid with a lulling, affecting tune. Excellent stuff.These songs are just some examples of tracks on here I find noteworthy, I could list a whole lot more.

As mentioned at the beginning, I can’t recommend Native North America Vol. 1 highly enough. With 34 tracks it’s cock-full of mostly excellent songs, both varied in style and unified by a strong sense of musical enthusiasm and connection to the land these artists stem from. This altogether makes for a captivating listening experience, conjuring up images (in my mind at least) of stark Northern American landscapes and the people who have been inhabiting them for a long time and the challenges they have been facing for the past 150+ years.

 

 

Chad Elliott : Same, Old Way

I don’t really know all too much about Chad Elliott’s musical work and don’t own his latest album Redemption Man which this track is taken from (yet), but I do know that he’s also a very talented visual artist. Judging from this splendid, relaxed and downright lovely song it’s hight time I rectify that (I will soon). The fact that it also features background vocals by Pieta Brown, who I also admire greatly, as you can tell from checking out this post or this one and was produced by Mr. Bo Ramsey, further add to the appeal this song holds for me.

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