Music Reviews

Niles, John Jacob – “My Precarious Life In The Public Domain ” – [Rev-ola]

ArtCrimes   1/30/2008   CD, Country

John Jacob Niles ???My Precarious Life in the Public Domain???

A collection of traditional songs performed by American eccentric folklorist, John Jacob Niles, this time looking at his recordings for RCA from 1939 to 1943. These songs are selected from the ballads documented in the late 1800s by Harvard song collector Francis S. Child, who traced the path of traditional songs from the British Isles to the Appalachians, where the Scots-Irish had brought them when they had first settled in the US. The American versions of these ballads in some cases retained more of their original character than the contemporaneous British versions, subject to constant revision over many years, while Americans had unwittingly preserved the ballads in isolated rural areas, safe from the influence of the world at large. The Child ballads reference a lost world of kings, great battles, and faeries, quite different from the Kentucky hills where Niles first heard these songs, and he responded enthusiastically to them, with the unorthodox singing and dulcimer playing that cannot be mistaken for any other folk singer, past or present. These songs may have been performed more faithfully to their traditional past elsewhere, but Niles was more intent on making the songs live again, not as mere museum pieces, but as vehicles for his own dramatic vision.

Jones, Glenn – “Against Which The Sea Continually Beats ” – [Strange Attractors Audio]

Jawbone   1/13/2008   CD, Country

Acoustic steel-string fingerstyle folk, American Primitive Guitar, Takoma School, whatever you want to call it, John Fahey, first in the 50???s, Robbie Basho in the 60???s and Peter Lang & Leo Kottke in the 70???s, forged a style of solo instrumental guitar playing that has been mimicked by many and taken to many different levels. Michael Hedges took it into outer space. William Ackerman took it to the bank. Sir Richard Bishop, James Blackshaw, Ben Chasny have dabbled in it and served it well, but Cul de Sac???s Glenn Jones with ???Against Which the Sea Continually Beats??? distills it to its very essence. Honoring his predecessors and fallen friends (Jones befriended both Fahey and Basho before their premature deaths), he nails it on the head and drives it home. A perfect balance of light and dark, fast and slow, short and long, slidin??? old-timey and hypnotic raga style, wedding songs and requiems, it???s all here. Jones takes 30 years of practice and refinement and delivers it where needed.

This is Jones??? second release of solo 6 & 12 string guitar music, the first being 2004???s darker ???This Is the Wind That Blows It Out???. He could just stop right here, because it???s hard to imagine a better one. Let???s get one thing straight, though, Jones is a capo man, and proud of it. Not just any capos. He hacksaws ???em, making his own custom 1/2 and 2/3 size capos, leaving some strings open (he sands them while watching old episodes of Sgt. Bilko). This allows him to come up with all kinds of unusual tunings that he incorporates on ???Against Which the Sea Continually Beats??? with welcome results.

Jones delivers as fine an example of (insert genre here) as you???ll likely find. Try it today. It???s fingerpickin’ good!


Niles, John Jacob – “I Wonder As I Wander ” – [Tradition]

ArtCrimes   12/19/2007   CD, Country

John Jacob Niles ???I Wonder as I Wander: Carols and Love Songs???

Niles had a long career, some 30 years or more, devoted to the discovery and transformation of traditional song, mostly from the Appalachians, but also drawing on British and French sources. Using his eerie, wailing voice and his homemade mountain dulcimer, he ends up sounding very little like the plain folk that he learned some of these songs from, and more like something he???d invented all on his own ??? something a bit like what Tim Buckley would be doing much later, with his expressive, jazzlike phrasing. The highly stylized vocals make it difficult to tell a traditional song from one of his own compositions, and in some cases they are hybrids, with new verses written to expand a fragment of traditional verse. This would prove to be influential for folk artists to come, including Bob Dylan, who often used traditional song as raw material for his own inventions.

Brass Kings, The – “Brass Kings, The ” – [Dream Horse Records]

Jawbone   12/17/2007   CD, Country

Steve Kaul & the Brass Kings are a Country Blues Americana minimalist trio, featuring resonator guitar, washboard and washtub bass. All that???s missing is the laundry soap. Seriously though, released in 2006, this is first full length from the Minneapolis, Minnesota trio. It starts out with a serviceable version of ???Muleskinner Blues??? that picks up steam as it goes. Luckily, Kaul doesn???t attempt a yodel with his dark, growling voice.

???Rural Methlab Blues??? (track 2) brings an interesting perspective to cooking crank. An educated loser and his aimless girlfriend catch word that the law is on its way to their little hideaway, so they decide to blow the shack sky high on their way out.

There???s a couple of nice instrumentals (tracks 4 & 13) and a lot of dark, brooding songs about the American experience. The sound is akin to Kevin Welch and the stories are along the lines of James McMurtry???s, but Kaul doesn???t quite have the talent of those two gentlemen. He does, however, add some Middle Eastern flourishes to the music, which gives the trio a unique sound. Not to mention that washtub bass, washboard and resonator guitar is not a very common lineup these days, either.


Sacred Steel Instrumentals [coll] – [Arhoolie Productions]

sailordave   4/17/2007   CD, Country

This is a collection of spiritual steel guitar recordings. 14 pieces done by 10 different artists.This is a much needed spiritual break and will make you stand up and praise your Higher Power. Beautiful pieces heard traditionally and primarily in Southern churches what was a single recording released in 1995 has spawned many soulful spiritually uplifting pieces.Known to mostly the attendee’s of the churches; the beauty of the spirit in these predominantly African American churches is caught so perfectly in these recordings. I highly recommend any and all of these.

Coe, David Allan – “Penitentiary Blues ” – [Hacktone Records]

sailordave   3/9/2007   CD, Country

Growing up I heard the country legends. Cash, Haggard, Jennings, Nelson, Porter Waggoner,Patsy Cline,Twitty, and many more. Of all the legends I heard none made an impression on me as much as David Allan Coe. Peniteniary Blues is an incredible song. Death Row , Little David both are soulful deep meaning tunes. A true American Icon.I recommend all of Coe’s library to any one who is interested in country music. His brand of country is seen through the prism of a hard knock life.

Art of Field Recording Sampler [coll] – [Dust-To-Digital]

ArtCrimes   3/7/2007   CD, Country

Art of Field Recording Sampler [coll]

As a teaser for an upcoming multi-disc box set, this sampler covers a lot of ground with many fairly short examples of country, bluegrass, blues, gospel and a field holler or two. Art Rosenbaum is an archivist, as well as an artist and banjo picker, and he’s made field recordings for 50 years, from Iowa to Michigan to New Hampshire and all through the south. His approach is simple and effective, along the lines of the great John & Alan Lomax recording trips in the US that are still revered today. But whereas the Lomaxes sometimes viewed their subjects through a scholarly lens, Rosenbaum clearly puts his subjects at ease, as you hear in the bits of dialog that appear on some tracks. The result is a lot of great music played by regular folks, including Ollie Gilbert, who Alan Lomax previously recorded in the late 50s. And the late Rev. Howard Finster, who once painted folk art record covers for R.E.M. and Talking Heads, is here playing banjo and singing.

I Belong to This Band [coll] – [Dust-To-Digital]

ArtCrimes   1/31/2007   CD, Country

[coll] ???I Belong to This Band Country

The “Sacred Harp” is a collection of religious songs written in “shape note” notation, a simplification of standard musical notation that was developed in the US about a hundred years ago to facilitate untrained singers. This collection presents versions of those Sacred Harp songs over an 85-year span. Although often recorded commercially in the ???20s (as you will hear on this collection), it???s now usually heard only live (or via private recordings) made at singing conventions throughout the US. Shape note singing is every bit a truly American musical tradition as jazz and bluegrass are, but shape note remains a lesser-heard side-route due to its purely religious focus and its lack of commercial exposure.

The shape note sound uses a limited number of musical notes, giving the music an angular quality, with rhythms that are almost martial, and a vocal approach best described as ???unrestrained???. The singing is typically split between 3 or 4 distinct parts which interlock in unusual ways. The performances here range from simple quartet settings to a large contemporary group at a singing convention recorded in 2006. The older tracks show more regional flavor in the singing, especially the quartets where the singing parts are more distinctly heard. Try tracks #12, 13, 22, 24 to get your feet wet. Let us UNITE in SONG!

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