CD reviews: A fall soundtrack
October 22, 2009
A soundtrack for a quiet, slow autumn. Some folk, some jazz, some rock, some bluegrass, some hip-hop. Two Dianas. And a lot of blood.
Growing up in New York in the ’80s, Diana Jones found herself attracted to country music, with a preference for the rootsy stuff: Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris. Unusual, but not unheard of. But it turns out Jones had been adopted, and as a young adult, she found her birth family. In Tennessee. Among which was Robert Maranville, her grandfather, who had played with Chet Atkins and had an encyclopedic knowledge of old Southern songs.Which goes a long way toward explaining why Jones sounds so unforced and genuine on “Better Times Will Come.” Her songs, all originals, speak of God, guns, hard times and death in a language and style that recalls something as ancient as the Civil War. The backing – including unobtrusive contributions from guest vocalists including Nanci Griffith and Mary Gauthier – is plain but elegant; the tempo is slow. Which leaves all the emphasis on Jones’ affecting voice and uncanny grasp of song-craft.
The combination of a collection of Great American Songbook standards, the big string section and the title “Quiet Nights” left me so excited that I let Diana Krall’s new album sit on my desk for a few months before opening. And Krall herself doesn’t get my blood pumping – too made-up and calculated.The music confirms all my preconceptions; it was as if I had already heard this before. In a sense, I had: “Quiet Nights” can be considered volume two of “The Look of Love,” Krall’s 2001 album of standards. All the elements – the breathy vocalizing, the oh-so-tasteful arrangements, the selections of “Walk On By,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” “The Boy From Ipanema” – are … well, standard. There are no surprises here till the first bonus track, a nice take on the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”I am open to the suggestion that I complain too much. Krall’s voice is warm, her piano-playing is tasty, these are songs worth revisiting. But damn, scrub off some of that make-up, lose the fancy dress and cut loose.
Over the past decade, Joe Henry has produced records by Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette, Loudon Wainwright III, Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello; scored the soundtrack to the comedy “Knocked Up”; and released five albums of his own. Every bit of it has been excellent. (If you want to know where to start on the Henry oeuvre, I recommend Burke’s “Don’t Give Up on Me,” the film “Knocked Up” – not really Henry’s creation, but the best work yet by the Judd Apatow crew – and “Civilians,” Henry’s 2007 album.)Two of his most recent projects were bluesy albums, by Allen Toussaint and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the blues seem to have gotten inside Henry. Not that “Blood From Stars” would be considered mainstream blues; Henry never paddles in the mainstream. But the emotion of “All Blues Hail Mary” is nothing but the blues; and “Bellwether” grinds along on bluesy piano and New Orleans horns. Consider this a raw but expansive twist on blues, with Henry aided by such modernists as pianist Jason Moran and guitarist Marc Ribot.
More blood. Lots of blood. “Blood on the door” in “Black Wind Blowing”; “blood in my mouth” and “blood on my hands” in “Ain’t No Friend of Mine.” “Blood of man” shows up not only in the title track, but also in “Sing Out.” There’s also an overdose, screams and shootings. Mason Jennings wrestled with issues of spirituality and religion on 2007’s “In the Ever,” but now it seems that life has pinned the low-key Minneapolis-based folk-rocker to the mat. While he may be down, he’s not completely out. On “Ain’t No Friend of Mine,” he trades the acoustic guitar for a strutting, nearly Hendrix-like guitar groove, and the song of human distance becomes defiant rather than defeatist.
Sam Bush’s “Circles Around Me” is backward-looking. There are traditional songs with old-sounding titles (“Midnight on the Stormy Deep,” “Apple Blossom”); even the new songs have a musty scent, like “The Old North Woods.” There are old friends (John Cowan, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas), and a friend who is old (septuagenarian Del McCoury, who adds vocals to two tunes). There’s even some genuinely old music: the fiddle tune “Apple Blossom,” a duet with the late banjoist Courtney Johnson, was recorded in 1976.Most of all, and best of all, the approach is back-to-basics – an adventurous take on string music, with a pronounced emphasis on acoustic sounds. And, at least on record, Bush has never been better. The picking is hot (check out the burning “Blue Mountain”), and old-fashioned doesn’t mean a lack of sophistication (try the elegant “Junior Heywood,” co-written with bassist Meyer, and featuring the Meyer Family Strings: Meyer and violinist Cornelia Heard, his wife and fellow Aspen Music Festival faculty member, plus their son, violinist George, in his recording debut).As far as I’m concerned, Sam Bush doesn’t need to play another reggae song again. To go further, he never needed to play one in the first place.
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