Music Reviews

Cash, Johnny – “American VI: Ain’t No Grave” – [Lost Highway Records]

Cousin Mary   2/19/2010   CD, Country

These were the last recordings Johnny Cash made before his death in 2003, but you’ll know that the minute you hear his voice – a bit husky and trembling, every bit as affecting as ever. This album is about the end of life and what lies beyond and more. Even the old chestnuts like Cool Water and Aloha Oe are stunning and moving.
PGM: Watch out for having a lump in your throat when you take a mic break right after one of these tracks.

Asylum Street Spankers – “Gods Favorite Band” – [Yellow Dog Records]

ArtCrimes   2/1/2010   CD, Country

Live recordings made in their hometown of Austin TX in 2006 are the source for this new release from the ever-changing Asylum Street Spankers, still led as ever by Christina Marrs and Wammo. Founding member Guy Forsyth is present here as well, along with longtime hipster Stanley Smith on clarinet, retired from the road but still making it to hometown gigs when he can. The group had done “Gospel Brunches” in its earliest days, and they have returned to that repertoire here. You gotta have big voices to belt out these classics, and they have that covered. Two originals by Wammo touch on other religious issues: “Volkswagen Thing” is a country pastiche about what God might drive in to avoid detection, and “Right and Wrong” is more blues-oriented and venturing outside pure Christian thought. But the core material here comes from country blues, spirituals, a neo-gospel selection by Gordon Gano, and one Gershwin classic, “It Aint Necessarily So”. Tune in to KFJC’s webcast of the Asylum Street Spankers’ LIVE MIC at KFJC on FEB. 23! ((( crimes )))

Wainwright, Loudon III – “High Wide & Handsome” – [2nd Story Sound Records]

ArtCrimes   12/8/2009   CD, Country

Loudon Wainwright III is not someone we usually associate with the performance of other people’s songs, but he’s long admired the songs of old-time banjo picker Charlie Poole’s catalog, which serve as the starting point for this collection of new and old songs, all songs either performed by Poole during his short (but at points, hugely successful) career in the 30s, or newly-composed songs by Wainwright and producer Dick Connette (who also sings & plays here) which are informed by Poole’s colorful, tragic life. Joining Wainwright are various singing members of his extended family (a sibling, three children, two ex-wives, and numerous ex-sisters-in-law) as well as session players from the folk, jazz, & bluegrass world. The new material here often comments on songs Poole himself did, or provides a narrative to incidents in his life. This is not so much a traditional music album as it is a soundtrack for a never-made docudrama about Poole’s life, with enough bumps and turns for a mini-series or two (and Wainwright confesses to having envisioned a screenplay for a film about Poole many years ago, in which he would take the lead role). ((( crimes )))

PGM: CD2 #6 instrumental

Muldaur, Geoff, and The Texas Sheiks – “Geoff Muldaur and The Texas Sheiks” – [Tradition & Moderne GmbH]

ArtCrimes   11/30/2009   CD, Country

Geoff Muldaur has a long, long history with the jug band sound, having been in Jim Kweskin’s jug band group 40 years ago, which was to spin off three or four future bandleaders after disbanding. (That’s where he met his ex-wife to be, Maria.) He’s got the right voice for this material (he sings about half of the leads here), understands the terrain well, and has a crackerjack band of musicians from Austin and beyond (including Berkeley old-timer Suzy Thompson). Steel guitar all-star Cindy Cashdollar is a standout, as well, and Jim Kweskin himself is here too, singing lead on “Fan It,” “Under the Chicken Tree,” and “Blues in the Bottle.” This project was built around giving support to Stephen Bruton, longtime lead guitarist for Kris Kristofferson and many others, during a period when he was suffering from cancer (he passed away May 2009). The sessions were pretty relaxed and exactly what this music needs in terms of polish. It’s all cover tunes, with jug band, hokum, & country blues sources. Skip James’ “Hard time Killing Floor” is as chilling as it ought to be, with a falsetto vocal from Johnny Nicholas. Between this and Maria’s new release, “Garden of Joy,” the jug band scene is in good health for another few years. ( (crimes) )

Muldaur, Maria – “and Her Garden of Joy” – [Stony Plain Records]

ArtCrimes   11/25/2009   CD, Country

Once upon a time, Maria Muldaur (then named Maria D’Amato) was a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band, along with John Sebastian in his pre-Lovin’ Spoonful days, and she also spent some time in Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band. Here we are some 40 years later and she’s once again playing with Sebastian, Kweskin, and a cast of other jug band enthusiasts (Taj Mahal, David Grisman, and Dan Hicks among them). With a mixture of covers from the jug band era and new tunes written somewhat in that style, as well as a couple of new swing tunes by Dan Hicks, it’s a bit of a way-back machine but a nice change of pace. Some of the topical tunes from the (first) depression are still relevant today. Muldaur has always had a great voice for this kind of music, and it’s clear she has considers this music, and American blues in general, to be a big influence for her. ((crimes))

Guthrie, Woody – “My Dusty Road” – [Rounder Records]

ArtCrimes   11/2/2009   CD, Country

Rounder has collected about 50 newly-remastered Woody Guthrie tracks from 1944 for this 4 CD box. The consumer version comes in a little suitcase full of paper ephemera as well as session notes, but we’ll make do with a single sheet of track titles! It’s not intended as a definitive set of Guthrie’s 1944 sessions… that would be the 100+ tracks on “The Asch Recordings,” which draw on the same set of sessions with perhaps slightly lesser sound quality. Woody Guthrie’s influence over a broad swath of American Folk, Country, Rock and even Pop music is undeniable… even if you can’t stand Woody’s monotonous voice and the rudimentary guitar accompaniment. But he knew how to deliver a story – or a call for social change – and that’s what will hold your attention, if anything. His original tunes speak directly, and his versions of traditional songs (several of them made popular by the Carter Family) are sometimes more detailed and coherent than better known versions. The discs here are sequenced with themes, grouping many of his best known songs on one disc, his topical songs on another, traditional songs on the third, and the final disc with songs arranged for the threesome of Woody, Cisco Houston, and Sonny Terry (although Houston and Terry do appear on the other discs as well)… some of these are instrumentals, party songs, and uptempo dance tunes, like “Guitar Rag” and a medley of square dance favorites which manages to insert yet another version of Woody’s own “Going Down the Road”. (((crimes)))

Last Kind Words [coll] – [Mississippi Records]

aarbor   10/14/2009   12-inch, Country

Old weird Americana from Mississippi Records. Deep, lost, or long buried blues and gospel records from the old days — creaky 78s that creep deep into the soul. Just as amazing as all the other releases from this label. These guys know how to collect and present the best of the most obscure. Don’t miss! AArbor

Rose, Jack & Black Twig Pickers, The – “Jack Rose & The Black Twig Pickers” – [Klang Industries]

ArtCrimes   9/22/2009   12-inch, Country

The Black Twig Pickers have been playing old-time traditional (and new songs in that style) for a few years. Although known for his solo work in improv-oriented expansions of John Fahey’s “American primitive” approach, Jack Rose has also played a more traditional repertoire with Twigs member Mike Gangloff for both recordings and gigs, and in this recording (made in 2008), he integrates himself into the Black Twig Pickers lineup, adding his solid fingerpicking (with some slide work). They do several trad. blues and old-time tunes here, along with a few new versions of Rose’s original instrumentals… but nothing too exploratory; they play his tunes largely as if they were traditional. Not all the songs are done with vocals, but the vocals that are here are very much done in an old-time style as well (although the first track has a somewhat distorted vocal sound that could have been intentional). Rose has always been a forceful player in his solo work, but it’s also interesting to hear him serve as the rhythm section much of the time here. (((crimes)))

Handsome Family, The – “Honey Moon” – [Carrot Top Records]

humana   4/10/2009   CD, Country

Country: This is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of love songs celebrating the 20th year of marriage of Rennie Sparks (who pens the amazing lyrics) and Brett Sparks (who composes the lovely music). Lap steel, dobro, violin, guitars, drums, and occasional keys accompany the rich deep voice of Brett (joined on some songs by Rennie). Exquisite nature images imbue the songs, making this an album as much about love of place (Albuquerque) as about love of another human being. Track 8 is the only anomaly in its vaguely electronic setting. Track 11 is a waltz about a preying mantis. All are worthy of a listen.
Picks: 2, 5, 12.
PGM: Most tracks end around :05.

Rodgers, Jimmie – “Train Whistle Blues” – [Rca Records]

ArtCrimes   1/28/2009   12-inch, Country

Jimmie Rodgers’ recording career was not long (6 years), and he was suffering from TB the whole time, so it’s a wonder he managed to cast such a huge shadow across a wide range of popular music, serving as an inspiration for country, folk, pop, jazz, rock and soul artists to this very day. He was certainly one of the first white artists to successfully adopt black blues idioms, bringing the “blue yodel” out of the minstrel tradition and into the mainstream. Ralph Peer discovered Jimmie on the same 1927 field trip to Bristol, Tennessee that brought us the Carter Family. Rodgers had already become a well-rounded entertainer as a young man on the medicine show circuit, so he was was ready for the big time when Peer found him, far more so than most of the hillbilly and gospel acts down in Bristol. He would soon find himself recording not only country, but pop as well, and jazz with no less a sideman than Louis Armstrong. This collection was put together by RCA in 1958 and serves as an overview of his career, with not too many overlaps with the other Rodgers discs at KFJC. Some, but not all, of his biggest hits are here, leaving room for lesser-known sides and recordings made shortly before his death in 1933. (crimes)

Chapman, Michael – “Time Past & Time Passing” – [Electric Ragtime]

ArtCrimes   1/26/2009   CD, Country

Born in Leeds, England in 1941, Michael Chapman’s musical career goes back some 40 years, but this release is the first of his to reach KFJC’s library. His early work covered a lot of ground, with folk, rock, and blues efforts performed both solo and with bands, but his current fascination now seems to be American places and styles, with tracks here featuring ragtime fingerpicking a la Rev. Gary Davis and post-Delta blues explorations like those of John Fahey, who gets an explicit nod here via the track “Fahey’s Flag”. Chapman’s rough singing is not his strongest card, and and so he wisely focuses on playing, with most of these tracks being either instrumentals or songs with long instrumental passages. His playing is precise and controlled, but not so much as to become a technical exercise. The production is intimate and close up, done in a small English studio, but the overall sound sometimes evoke the wide open spaces, especially on his electric work here. (crimes)

Lamb, Barbara – “Tonight I Feel Like Texas” – [Sugar Hill]

domitype   1/19/2009   CD, Country

Barbara Lamb is a country fiddling /bluegrass /western swing / jazz/ cowgirl
singer from such bands as Asleep at the Wheel and Ranch Romance. On this CD
she covers a lot of territory with some very nice playing and vocals, with a
lot of help from some Austin and Nashville types. There is NOT much
“Hot-Fiddle” pyrotechnics – but there is a lot of solid, very enjoyable music
from a variety of country and (mostly) western styles.
-David Richoux

Scruggs, Earl With Family & Friends – “Ultimate Collection Live At The Ryman, The ” – [Rounder Records]

Cousin Mary   1/11/2009   CD, Country

Live recording of 83-year-old (at the time of this concert) banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs with family and friends on guitars, fiddles, etc. to a very appreciative crowd. The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee was once the famous home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.

Watch out! Tracks tend to end with a pre-announcement for the next track — so prepare to pot down.

Your toe will tap.

Jones, Wizz – “Legendary Me, The ” – [Sunbeam]

ArtCrimes   1/7/2009   12-inch, Country

A reissue of a well-regarded 1970 LP by Wizz Jones, one of the several 1960s-era British acoustic guitarists who mixed traditional selections, some original material, and international influences into their playing. Wizz Jones might be the least known of those players in the US, compared to Bert Jansch and Roy Harper, certainly. For the traditional selections, he drew from American sources, Rev. Gary Davis among them. What’s somewhat unique in his case is that he did quite a bit of original material, but it wasn’t his own… he largely relied on songs written to order by his associate, the visual artist Alan Tunbridge (whose guitar appears on the front cover), and these songs aren’t so much folk as introspective explorations, a bit like what the Incredible String Band sometimes pursued. Jones’ voice is not terribly distinctive, but his playing is well considered and not so ornamental as the other British players. The spare production adds discreet electric guitar and bass from time to time, and fellow folkie Ralph McTell provides some atmospheric support on harmonium. Both Wizz and Alan are around today, but only Wizz is still making music. (crimes)

Plenty more on Wizz here: http://www.wizzjones.com/

Handsome Family, The – “Drunk By Noon ” – [Carrot Top Records]

lombard   12/9/2008   7-inch, Country

On this 2008 7″ single from the Handsome Family (husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks) we get some lovely country tunes, with a dark edge. Recorded in their home studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico, “Drunk by Noon” is a wonderful cowboy tune from their 1996 album “Milk and Scissors.” Its dour subject matter (beautifully written lyrics by Rennie) leaves the listener pondering inebriation, cancer, and mortality. (We actually have this track in our library on a “Little Darla” compilation, as well as a Sally Timms cover of it).

“Drunk by Noon” is a bit more upbeat and poppier (with male and female vocals) than the “AA” side’s “The Blizzard,” which is a cover of a 1964 Jim Reeves song.

“The Blizzard” is a heart-wrenching, depressing tale about a finding a man frozen on the plains “just 100 yards from Mary Anne.” You can hear the wind blowing, and sense the sadness of the lonesome, snowy trail and a lost love.

Anthology of American Folk Music [coll] – [Smithsonian Folkways]

ArtCrimes   12/8/2008   CD, Country

Commonly known among fans of traditional music as the “Harry Smith Anthology”, this collection originally was released as three separate two-LP sets by Folkways back in 1952. Smith was a true American eccentric, with a golden ear for recordings from the 20s and 30s and a knack for finding connections across a great expanse of folklore, mythology, politics and whatever else you got… bundling what seemed to be at first glance unrelated themes into this cohesive statement on America’s history. He was smart enough to group this music by function, not by style, so that any listener would have country, cajun, blues, jazz and gospel interchangeably entering the ear, rather than making some kind of studied path through each genre as if they existed independently from each other. Themes such as “Social Music” let you hear what people played for pleasure or purpose in their own communities… wherever they may have been… telling you as much about those folks as a photo or written account (and this package adds both of those resources as well). Smith’s own collection was huge, but he narrowed it down to these 84 selections for an overview of America’s recorded music from the pre-depression years. The results have been played by tradition-minded artists ever since, from Dylan throughout his career thru the folk boomers of the 60s to Beck and Nick Cave. (crimes)

Miller, Polk & His Old South Quartette – “Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette ” – [Tompkins Square]

ArtCrimes   10/28/2008   CD, Country

Not many acts that made recordings could claim to have Mark Twain as a fan, and even less of them featured white and black members back in 1909. Banjo playing storyteller Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette met both those requirements. As the first integrated group to record — and probably the last until the jazz age rolled in — Miller’s group brought stories and sounds of the Old South to the rest of the states until he grew weary of the bigotry his bandmembers faced in both the North and South. He then left the Old South Quartette to launch their own career. Both periods are covered here, with seven Edison recordings from 1909 with Miller and the Quartette and seven 1928 recordings with the Quartette on their own (there are a few new versions of some tunes from the Miller era, with little changed in 20 years). It wouldn’t be fair to say that Miller considered the Quartette to be equal partners — the liner notes explain how he hired and fired singers at will, and considered them his employees — but he did bring his audiences fairly authentic black ensemble singing in an era when white performers in blackface were still presenting a clumsy pastiche of the sounds of the old South. Thankfully, the sound is terrific given the source material here.

Rambling Boy [coll] – [The Decca Record Co.]

ArtCrimes   10/28/2008   CD, Country

Little did I know that Charlie Haden had spent much of his youth singing and playing country music on his parent’s “Haden Family” radio show, making his debut at age 2. A bit of that performance appears on this collection, but the rest of these tracks capture Charlie’s return to the music of his childhood, some 50 years later. Meanwhile his career as one of *the* great jazz bassists has kept him occupied, putting in time with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Keith Jarrett and his own high-concept ensembles like Liberation Music Orchestra. But family ties are strong and here he creates his own version of the Haden Family show, with his wife, triplet daughters, and son Josh, most of whom have followed their own musical careers. Three-quarters of these tracks are country or bluegrass classics, with guest vocals & musical cameos from the cast of thousands that Charlie can call close personal friends: Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Pat Metheny, and others. The other tracks could be said to have a jazz tinge, but let’s just say that Ornette might not take much notice. It’s a joy to hear this family man reflecting on times gone by, and the fact that Jack Black (track 16) is his son-in-law should not distract too much.

Baird Sisters, The – “At Home January 25 & 26, 2003 ” – [Laura and Meg Baird]

ArtCrimes   7/21/2008   CD, Country

You know Meg Baird from her solo release last year, and her work with Espers. But the Baird Sisters have been performing off and on for as long as Espers, probably even longer, and they are still gigging now and then. Meg & Laura Bairds’ home-made release is a casual session recorded by Dad. Despite the humble production, the sound is nice and clear as they run through a program of traditional favorites and a few of Laura’s originals. Although traditional songs are always welcomed by this reviewer, these performances don’t all capture the darker side of the story (and there always seems to be a darker side), with “Willie Moore” sounding so cheerful despite its tragic tale. But since the Bairds sing with that wonderful blend one finds with siblings, the result is undeniably a lovely thing. They accompany themselves on guitar, banjo, and cello.

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