Pieta Brown : Mercury

Pieta Brown Mercury Cover

Pieta Brown : Mercury

(2011 Red House Records)

 Pieta Brown is Greg Brown’s daughter and married to Bo Ramsey, a longtime musical partner of Greg Brown. So you could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the stem, listening to Mercury. It’s released on Red House Records, the label Greg Brown releases his albums on as well (and that he founded back in 1981) and does feature Bo Ramsey, who delivers his always outstanding and tasteful guitar work throughout the album. In contrast to Ramsey’s fine 2008 album Fragile (see my review here: http://wp.me/p3wknx-4t) he’s accompanied by another guitar player, Richard Bennett, on most/all tracks. Another (rather more prominent) guest on the album is The Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler who is playing another guitar on So Many Miles.

It’s the first album by Pieta Brown I bought (but it won’t be the last) – and I like it a lot. The sound is a bit more contemporary than on either Greg Brown’s or Bo Ramsey’s albums, but that’s of course completely natural, given she does belong to a different generation. It doesn’t mean though that she doesn’t sound like a young women very much informed by her upbringing and (thankfully) possessing none of the hip big city vibes you could expect.

The sound is both modern and rustic at the same time, her voice the most defining characteristic on the album, at once a bit childlike and clear as well as self-assured and a tad raspy, hard to describe for me, but easy to love.

Naturally for me, the tracks with the least musical accompaniment are the ones I like best, namely I Don’t Mind or No Words Now (which isn’t THAT stripped down, but extremely lovely nevertheless). The album starts with the life-affirming and up-tempo Be With You, the next track Butterfly Blues is a fine showcase for Bo Ramsey’s trademark economic, bluesy lead guitar work – but it’s more than that, as it’s also an excellent song. Title song Mercury and the following How Much Of my Love are some of the more dreamy songs very well suited to her voice. I’m Gone and I Want It Back are lyrically, and in the case of I’m Gone musically, some of the more muscular and self-confident songs, the first one a fast(ish) Blues-Rock song and the second a slow, gorgeous Blues-Pop-Waltz song with a lovely string accompaniment.

Night All Day is the only track I find quite hard to like, a bit too bluesy for my taste. Closing Time is somewhat disappointingly not the Tom Waits song (would have loved to hear what they could have made out of that) but it’s a splendid song nevertheless. I rather like Glory to Glory a lot too – its fun, with a number of varied guitar parts, one of it sounding slightly old-timey, and I love the simple drums/percussion work on it too.

Mercury is a brilliant album and Pieta Brown well above most the other female Country-Folk-Pop artists of her generation, both as a songwriter and as a singer if you ask me.

 

Slaid Cleaves : Rust Belt Fields

Ever the songwriter for thoughtful songs about people who possibly don’t quite get what they deserve, but try hard one way or the other nevertheless, Slaid Cleaves has written yet another of his beautiful, melancholic songs.

It also shows that , even in 2011 (or 2013 for that matter), you don’t need anything else than an acoustic guitar if your songs are good.

John Prine : Souvenirs

JP_Souvenirs

 

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.

 

Greg Brown : If I Had Known (Essential Recordings, 1980 – 1996)

Greg Brown : If I Had Known

(2003 Red House Records)

Greg Brown (b. 1949) has been releasing records for a very long time (his first album Hacklebarney was released in 1974), how I managed to miss all of his (most probably) fine records all those years is a mystery to me, but better late than never, as they say.

When I finally made up my mind to buy one of his CD’s after paying his home state Iowa a visit in March of 2013, I stumbled upon this collection. Being a visually oriented person it didn’t take much convincing to buy the CD/DVD combo, containing the 1993 documentary, Hacklebarney Tunes The Music Of Greg Brown. So when it arrived in the mail, watching the 46-minute DVD was pretty much the first thing I did after opening the package. Having watched it a few times since, it still fascinates me as much as it did the first time I watched it. Sure, the visuals feel a little bit dated, having been filmed in the early 1990’s/late 1980’s, and the clothes being worn by the people shown in the film are slightly cringe worthy, (I’m not trying to make fun of anybody here, I, like mostly likely you reading this, wore the same styles back then, regrettably).

But what is shown and especially to be heard here, is anything but. I can’t really think of a documentary about a musician that inspired and enthralled me half as much as Hacklebarney Tunes (I am thinking about the very boring one about Gram Parsons and the rather touching one about Townes Van Zandt which I would very much recommend to anybody reading this, but I can’t remember the title, sorry) does.

It shows first and foremost a first-rate singer/songwriter well versed in a number of styles, all firmly within the Folk/Roots music field, with Folk being the most prominent, but unsurprisingly for somebody that has released a lot of records (his Wikipedia page lists about 25), there also have been other styles creeping into his recordings (as far as I can tell at this point in rather moderate doses though). It also shows a person being firmly rooted in his native Midwest/Iowa and seemingly at ease with his place in the world and his musical career (at one point sitting in his car on the way to go fishing he states ‚I’ve got so low ambition nowadays, it’s amazing to me’), there’s none of the depression of the likes of T. van Zandt on show, and no self-destruction in evidence – which I like a lot (although his is certainly no happy-go-lucky music and is thematically often quite serious).

Being produced by the University Of Iowa it starts of with some nice shots of the Southern Iowa countryside accompanied by a splendid version of Folk standard Pretty Boy Floyd with him, Bo Ramsey on guitar and a bass player, (an equally excellent version of Hank Williams’ Lost Highway from the same session can be seen later in the film).

His dad being a minister, the family moved quite a few times in the Midwest in Greg’s childhood and youth (as being recounted by his dad in the film). When he grew up he (like a lot of people) left to live in places away from his roots, but his love for the areas he grew up in is obvious as is the respect and love for his family. There’s a sequence of the older generation of his family and including his uncle Roscoe Brown (who’s interviewed in the film too), making music together in a living room with (what I believe to be) his grandma on the pump-organ and his granddad on the banjo, Roscoe Brown on the guitar and a fiddle player  – very old-timey and lovely. Apparently he bought his grandparents farm around the time the documentary was filmed, although he seems to be living in Iowa City now with his second wife, fellow singer-songwriter Iris Dement.

Interviewed too is his childhood-friend Jimmy Chapman, telling the story of the catch they did in Earlville, Iowa’s Plum Creek while out fishing, told about in the compilation’s title-song If I Had Known. Also shown are some of the various places in Iowa he lived in growing up, small, rural farming towns with all their attendant problems, a theme recurring in a number of his songs. Ample room is given to various live versions of his songs – indicative of his recording style is perhaps the fact that these live versions often don’t vary all that greatly from the recorded versions that can be heard on the CD, (with the exception of Canned Goods which I like better in the faster and more stripped-down version in the film). Evidently he’s very entertaining live (haven’t seen him playing live, sadly), just note the live rendition of Poor Back Slider (from 1992’s Down In There) about guys trying to stay away from booze after visiting church – but ending up drinking even harder after a couple of months abstinence.

I also love the scene where standard Will The Circle Be Unbroken is sung by a church congregation – a true insight into, what I as a European at least, believe to be small town religious US-American life. As mentioned before, the struggle of people living in these small towns face is a theme of many of his songs, for example what is at the moment, my favorite of his songs Our Little Tow’ (from One More Goodnight Kiss) which can be heard here interspersed with photos from Earlville, IA (where his dad was a minister at one point). It’s a simply arranged song with just his deep, resonant voice and an delicately strummed acoustic guitar – all he needs in fact to stun you/me – very beautiful, if troubled, you simply cannot make Folk music any better than this.

Our Little Town is also featured on the 17 track CD. Unsurprisingly the songs on the CD vary quite a bit stylistically and one or two of them don’t work that well in my opinion, especially arrangement-wise, for example Good Morning Coffee (although the unusual pan pipes are not without a certain charm), and I am not too fond on the clarinet in Downtown either, a quite dark song in theme and sound also featured on the DVD in an acoustic guitar and harmonica version which I prefer, mainly for the haunting harmonica.

But the songs to be loved are by far in the majority, starting with the compilation’s title tune If I Had Known. Another highlight for me is Ella Mae an acoustic-guitar-and-voice-only live recording from 1982, originally released on the One Night album (1983), it’s an ode to his grandmother and not one bit mushy or overly sentimental – it’s honest and all the better for it. Canned Goods is bemoaning the fact that said canned goods haven’t got the sunshine in them like his grandma’s used to have – it certainly IS sentimental (and maybe arranged a tad too sweetly for my taste) but I love it nevertheless.

Laughing River (which can also be heard in the documentary in a scene where we see Greg Brown fishing) is another song much to my taste – folky, slightly up-tempo and showing Greg Brown at his best. The song is dealing with an artist longing for a place after spending a long time on the road – so it is tying in nicely with the documentary and one can assume is rather more autobiographic. As is clear for a Brown-novice like myself from watching Hacklebarney Tunes, he can make almost any song work with only his voice and acoustic guitar (which is of course a sure sign of any exceptionally talented singer/songwriter)

Worrisome Years is probably the most pessimistic song on the compilation, about a guy living in a small town, clearly not happy with his life and in some sort of economic tight spot ‚ …can you please tell me when does the good part start?’ clearly he’s run out of options ‚I think about leaving, but where would I go? How would I get there? I don’t know…’. Actually it doesn’t really sound that depressed, it’s a rather lovely folk-tune with a beautiful fiddle and backing vocals by Shawn Colvin.

I also like The Train Carrying Jimmy Rodgers Home a lot, it’s an old-timey Country tune with the sound mimicking that of Rodger’s era and of course featuring some yodeling – good fun. Spring Wind is amazing too – an acoustic guitar, some wonderful background vocals, a little bit of bass and harmonica and understated yet highly effective percussion and a gorgeous tune. The Poet Game is another song I have to mention, the thoughtful, intelligent lyrics recalling various people and situations in his life, both sad (a good friend he doesn’t talk to him anymore) and nice (a particularly happy time with a girlfriend) coupled with a melancholic melody and a lovely electric lead guitar by Bo Ramsey.

Where Is Maria is only very slightly marred by a in my opinion somewhat inelegant chorus, but otherwise a very fine, understated, acoustic Folk song too. Boomtown is the one track on here standing apart quite clearly stylistically from the rest, being a sort of all-electric and slightly bluesy up-tempo R’n’R/Pop song, I like it very much, especially the oh-so-true lyrics. The two last tracks on the compilation Two Little Feet and Driftless do round up the album rather nicely, the first one a midtempo Folk track and the album closer another melancholic song with Bo Ramsey on both electric and a Weissenborn lap guitar – Roots music at its best.

Now the only question left to answer is which Greg Brown albums to get next first. I guess I will either be going for The Poet Game or One More Goodnight Kiss (mainly because it’s got Our Little Town on it), well, most probably both.

Backroad Bound: An Introduction on Mixcloud

blog_header_03.jpg

This is the first post on my newly created blog – a mix I did showcasing some of the artists you can expect to be covered on here in the near future:

http://www.mixcloud.com/ThatContainerGuy/backroad-bound-an-introduction/

Tracklisting:

Moonshiner : Uncle Tupelo

Tom Ames’ Prayer :  Steve Earle

Daddy’s Little Pumpkin :  John Prine

Border Radio : The Blasters

Luke the Drifter : Dan Bern

Indianapolis : The Bottle Rockets

Her Eyes Dart Round : The Felice Brothers

Sault Sainte Marie : Joe Henry

Looking For Lewis & Clark : The Long Ryders

Arkansas Traveler : Michelle Shocked

Thanksgiving Waltz :  Molly Mason & Jay Ungar

Big Whiskers : Otis Gibbs

Down To The River : Dave Moore

Mickey Of Alphabet City : Rave-Ups

Throw Another Cap On The Fire : Sam Doores + Riley Downing & The Tumbleweeds

Breakfast In Hell : Slaid Cleaves

Bus Station : Dave Alvin

Looking at the World Through a Windshield : Son Volt

I Hear Them All : Old Crow Medicine Show

If The Brakeman Turns My Way : Bright Eyes

Gracefully Facedown : The Devil Makes Three

Round Here : Counting Crows

Barroom Girls : Gillian Welch

American Hearts : AA Bondy