Artist: Alison Krauss and Union Station
CD Name: "Lonely Runs Both Ways"
Record Label: Rounder
Artist Site: Alison Krauss
Critics and musicians alike consider Alison Krauss and Union Station one of the best contemporary bluegrass outfits around. Krauss's distinctive high lonesome voice and virtuoso fiddle playing have made her a star who has crossed over not only to the country charts, but she also appeals to rock and alternative music lovers as well. Krauss appeared on the televised broadcast of the Oscars with Sting and Elvis Costello and performed two nominated songs from the movie Cold Mountain. Union Station members have also achieved success on their own with their solo projects, especially guitarist and vocalist Dan Tyminski whose version of "A Man of Constant Sorrow" was featured prominently in the movie and soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou.
For all of the group's success, they have never released a great album-that is until now. Sure, the band has put out some marvelous songs, but its discs have seemed to be just that-a bunch of tunes, some much better than others. In fact Alison Krauss and Union Station's best disc had been their greatest hits collection. That's why Lonely Runs Both Ways is such a nice surprise. Although the material varies in style from straight ahead bluegrass instrumentals to gospel to story songs, and Krauss shares lead vocal duties with other members of the band, every cut sparkles as cleanly and crisply as fresh mountain dew on an Appalachian spring morning.
Lonely Runs Both Ways opens with a pair of Robert Lee Castleman's road songs, "Gravity" and "Restless." Krauss's plaintive vocals ardently capture the rambling spirit of one in love with traveling, yet who is also captured by memories of those one loves and left behind. The band chugs behind her like a freight train speeding down the tracks. The fact that barely a second elapses between the end of one cut and the beginning of the next one throughout the album creates an earnest intensity, as if Krauss and company can't wait to express their thoughts and feelings.
The band also covers Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl classic "Pastures of Plenty," David Rawlings and Gillian Welch's passionate ballad "Wouldn't Be So Bad," Sarah Siskind's airy lament "Goodbye is All We Have," and Sidney and Suzanne Cox's heartfelt "Borderline." The disc also contains a number of stellar original compositions, including dobro player Jerry Douglas's original instrumental "Unionhouse Branch," banjoist Ron Block's two gospel contributions "I Don't Have to Live this Way" and "Living Prayer," and Krauss's sorrowful "This Sad Song" (co-written with Alison Brown). Despite the different origins of the material, the band members seamlessly tie them together through their skillful pickin' and sweet harmony vocals.
Those worried that Alison Krauss and Union Station have lost site of their bluegrass origins only have to listen to their version of Del McCoury's "Rain Please Go Away." The superior quality of the performance showcases the band's sense of craft and tradition. The tight-knit playing reveals the ensemble's ability to mesh together as a unit and create high caliber Appalachian-style rural music that sounds as beautiful as the Kentucky mountains under an azure sky.
Artist: Billy Joe Shaver
CD Name: "Billy and the Kid"
Record Label: Compadre)
Artist Site: Billy Joe Shaver
Despite the name listed on the CD cover, this really isn't a Billy Joe Shaver record. As the title implies, both Billy Joe and his son Eddy created this disc. Billy Joe and Eddy made lots of music and recorded several great albums as Shaver, but sad to say this isn't really a Shaver release. Eddy died from a heroin overdose back on New Year's Eve 1999 while at work on this album. Billy Joe completed the project afterwards by overdubbing vocals, re-engineering the sound, and by writing and performing the autobiographical introductory cut "Fame" ("I look up in the stars/and wonder where you are"). Producer Tony Colton, who worked with Eddy on the original recordings, joined together with Billy Joe to make a record that purposely blurs the distinctions between Eddy's and Billy Joe's contributions. Billy and the Kid stands as a testament to the unification of the father and son's musical spirits.
Billy Joe has a whiskey-softened, aching voice with a slight Southern drawl. He knows how to drop and warble a note for emphasis, and when to raise the intensity by hanging on. Eddy plays electric guitar like a monster, Texas blues-style. Think of the chugga-chugga locomotive sound of early ZZ Top or Stevie Ray Vaughn as a common reference. Sometimes, like on the incendiary songs "Baptism of Fire," "Velvet Chains," and "If It Don't Kill You," Eddy will loudly play a clear high note and just let it linger and fade, before his fingers go flying again into a whirl of stringed lightning. On other songs, like the beautiful "Eagle on the Ground," Eddy plucks and slides the notes underneath the words to suggest the beauty and sadness of love.
More than half of the songs on the new release were recorded by Eddy, accompanied by a drummer and bass player, at several different locations in Tennessee including a friend's house, a recording studio, and a live gig. Eddy originally recorded four other cuts by himself in Waco, Texas. Colton and Billy Joe managed to make all these songs from disparate sources merge together into a unified whole. One would have to read the liner notes to guess the origins of these songs as they sound as if they were all taped during the same sessions, except for the first cut which is clearly all solo Billy Joe and the last one, the bluesy "Necessary Evil," which is clearly all solo Eddy. And every song kicks butt.
My favorite tune is the lively John Lee Hooker inspired "Step on Up." Apparently Billy Joe taught his own child how to boogie. As the rhythm of the drums and bass create an urgency, the electric guitar seems to slither like a snake while the narrator tells his girl to get her head out of the clouds and get down with her boyfriend: "That's how the cow ate the cabbage/Girl you know I'm shooting straight/That's how us farm boys do it/We don't swing on no one's gate." The silly lyrics only make the topic more heated. Their physical attraction is too strong for mere words to describe, it can only be hinted at as some kind of fertile force of nature. Billy Joe and his kid Eddy also seem like such a power. It's a damn shame Eddy's gone, but we should be grateful Billy Joe is still here to sing his songs.
Artist: The Tragically Hip
CD Name: In Between Evolution
Record Label: Zoe/Rounder
Artist Site: The Tragically Hip
For more than two decades, the Canadian band The Tragically Hip has made great music. Every year the critics say the same thing: this group is big in its native country and someday will win over American audiences with its hearty brand of electric guitar driven/soulful vocal-style rawk-and-roll (think early Faces or Led Zep III as models). And every year the same thing happens, The Tragically Hip put out some killer rock, play to exuberant Canadian audiences, and are criminally neglected by American listeners.
There may be several good reasons for this: 1) Canadians are cultural superior (i.e. compare the mainstream brews of Molson and Labatts to Budweiser and Miller; there's no contest). 2) Americans don't appreciate good straight-ahead rock and roll (i.e. except for maybe Credence Clearwater Revival, name one that's achieved any popular success). 3) Talent is never any guarantee to fame and recognition in the music business. The evidence for this is too overwhelming to even begin to offer an example. The list of no-talent stars and gifted nobodies would be longer than the Manhattan white pages.
The latest release from the five-piece combo from Kingston, Ontario should make them the darlings of the American rock underground. Recorded in Seattle with producer Adam Kaspar (Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age) In Between Evolution drips with sweaty urgency and sneered lyrics. The thirteen songs rage against war and the evils of modern society. Vocalist and lyricist (and published poet) Gord Downie pens sharp-edged ditties that reveal the meanness inherent in everyday life. Like fellow Canadian rocker Neil Young, he refuses to accept the hypocrisy of leaders who instigate global hostilities and paint the atrocities in colors of glory and honor. Canadians may have a crimson Maple Leaf at the center of our flag, ours may be striped in red, but real blood flows from our foreign policies. On songs like "It Can't be Nashville Every Night" and "Meanstreak," Downie identifies himself as belonging to the society that wreaks havoc on the globe as well as its own citizens. He doesn't stand as a Canadian criticizing the United States, nor does he take cheap shots. He just points out the nightmares in which we live and create for others.
Don't confuse these songs with propaganda. The Tragically Hip makes art out of the chaos that surrounds it. Consider the pounding poignancy of the aptly titled "Are We Family." Ably abetted by drummer Johnny Fay's steady beat, bassist Gord Sinclair's pulsating undertow, and the biting twin-guitar interplay of Robby Baker and Paul Langlois, Downie sings, "Are we family, when it's not if but when" and artfully illustrates his point with small portraits of our alienation and desire for community, " It's only human to want and have everything that you got/and more often than not, take it to the nth degree./Here we go, give me $10 and a head start/'cause where he goes the puzzle's pulling apart/ And here's the senior yelling calmly at the street, 'Are we family, or what?'" This ain't no "We are the World" or even "We are Family," it's a trancelike cry lamenting our suspicion and ill treatment of each other.
Whether American audiences will be smart or sophisticated enough to appreciate The Tragically Hip remains to be seen. The band has made another killer album. If you don't hear any good hard rock this year, at least you can't blame Canada.
Artist: Steve Forbert
CD Name: Just Like There's Nothin' to It
Record Label: Koch
Artist Site: Steve Forbert
Meridian, Miss. native Steve Forbert has a voice that sounds hoarse with world-weary experience and yet hopefully optimistic about the future. Think of a dog that's been beaten by it's owner but still wags its tail and jumps excitedly when the owner steps into the house. There is something touching, if pathetic, about it. The dog should know better, but then again, it's a dog. Forbert sings and writes songs about life's trials and tribulations. He understands what it's like to be down on his luck, but that doesn't stop him from being both knowing and upbeat. Forbert's got a keen sense of humor and appreciates the absurdity of life.
How else can one explain such lines as "I've seen some of the best minds of my sub generation/marry the same girl twice" in "The Change Song." This parody of the opening line of Beat poet Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" expresses the joy and sorrow of remarriage and connects the personal experience to the larger societal trends of divorce. Forbert also ironically cites Smokey Robinson ("said people can change") and Rita Coolidge ("said people don't change that much, Kris") when Smokey is still married to his first wife and Rita and her husband Kris Kristofferson are divorced. The point of Forbert's song isn't whether people change or they don't as much as he just contemplates the contradictory ideas. Forbert doesn't take a stand on the issue of change, he just chuckles at the fact that both sides believe they know the truth.
Forbert humorously straddles opposing viewpoints on several different songs, including "The World is Full of People," "Oh, Yesterday," and "The Pretend Song." However, the best songs on his new release are the most sincere, particularly "Autumn This Year" and "I Married a Girl." While Forbert addresses the topics from more than one point of view-the fall season has a bittersweet quality, he and his wife perceive their relationship differently-Forbert's feelings come out strong. He may express conflicting opinions, but his emotional responses to life and love are clear. Forbert reinforces these sentiments with his energetic acoustic guitar and harmonica playing.
Backing musicians on this album include such notables as string wizard Dan Dugmore on acoustic, electric, lap and pedal steel guitars, Viktor Krauss and Garry Tallent on bass, Bryan Sutton on banjo, mandolin, bouzouki and 12-string acoustic guitar, percussionist Eric Darken, and vocalist Edie Brickell. These musicians don't do anything fancy to distract from Forbert's lyrical stylizations, but they provide a framework from which Forbert can work his musical magic.
Forbert offers a strange tribute, "Wild as the Wind" to deceased former bassist and co-lead singer of The Band, Rick Danko. Forbert praises Danko's rock and roll spirit and wryly comments on Danko's voracious cocaine habit with equal concern. Forbert also includes a passionate love song, "There's Everybody Else (And Then There's You)," which reveals that he's a romantic at heart. Forbert delivers all of these songs with his inimical vocals. Whether he's commenting on the strangeness of collective behavior, observing the change of the seasons, or explaining the wonders of love, Forbert's funky vocals suggest his knowledge has been learned through intimate, personal experience.
Artist: Maura O'Connell
CD Name: Don't I Know?
Record Label: Sugar Hill
Artist Site: Maura O'Connell
Critics frequently consider Maura O'Connell a singer's singer. She's contributed harmony and background vocals on albums by such notable sweet-voiced songbirds as Dolly Parton and Nanci Griffith as well as providing a contrast to the more gruff soul stylings of Van Morrison and Rosanne Cash. While O'Connell originally hails from County Clare, Ireland, she's lived in Nashville for years and sings Bluegrass and country music with felicity and grace, popularly evidenced by her contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. She has become an American singer, although not a U.S. citizen, whose discs have more in common with artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Allison Moorer than with O'Connell's Celtic contemporaries.
O'Connell's newest release, Don't I Know, does much more than showcase her remarkable vocal talents. The disc reveals O'Connell's ability to recognize and select outstanding material from some of America's gifted singer songwriters like Patty Griffin ("Up and Flying") and Jim Lauderdale ("When Being Who You Are [Is not Enough]"). O'Connell makes the songs her own through her expressive phrasing and heartfelt vocals. When she sings lines like Griffin's "I should be free to leave the ground/With no dreams left to weigh me down," O'Connell knows just where to put the short pauses and lingering notes for emphasis so that the listener feels the character yearning for release but weighed down by emotions.
The disc also demonstrates that O'Connell has come into her own as a songwriter. Her self-penned contribution, the plaintive "There's No Good Day for Dying," is among the disc's highlights. From the song's expansive frame; the lines "Big blue sky, take my hand/Hold me in this promised land") opens and closes the tune, to it's hard won empathetic embrace of friends and family ("To the ones I love, you can lean on me/I'll be strong when you are weak"), O'Connell captures the dignified spirit of life in the face of death.
While Don't I Know is not a concept album per se, the songs are linked thematically together by their shared despairing view of the world and the consequent hope that tomorrow may be better. "And I would tell you I am happy/If I wasn't so damn sad," O'Connell sings on the stirring Mindy Smith composition "Going Down in Flames." But the narrator's ability to tell her story and of her search for love shows here is hope. The song ends as O'Connell sings, "Life's so hard/it's the little things that seem to be saving me today/And I'm doing what I can/And I'm doing what I can to keep from getting down." She hasn't given in or given up fighting, an idea she asserts on the rest of the cuts.
The master Dobro and lap steel guitar player Jerry Douglas produced this record and his instrumentals prominently grace almost every song. The use of a slide (on both musical instruments) gives Douglas the ability to deftly express nonverbal emotions by skillfully bending and sustaining the notes. Douglas also gives the various band members time to pick and trill their stringed instruments to their advantage, which is especially noteworthy on Bryan Sutton's bouzouki performance on the enchanting "I Love You in the Middle." Bassist Viktor Krauss's steady, soulful playing and drummer Shannon Forest beating heart tempos on almost every cut are also worth mentioning for their beauty and precision.