CD reviews: Greene, Ritter and more
July 15, 2010
Twenty-nine-year-old Californian Jackie Greene has spent much of his time recently as the ersatz Jerry Garcia, singing Grateful Dead tunes with former Dead bassist Phil Lesh. There’s not even a whiff of the Dead on “Till the Light Comes,” but there is also something of a break with the smart, rootsy singer-songwriter who emerged on past Greene albums like “American Myth” and “Giving Up the Ghost.”On “Till the Light Comes,” Greene spreads far and wide, and occasionally he is also spread thin. On “Grindstone,” on which he sings “I want something new/ … I need something fine to distract my mind,” Greene moves into breezy pop, reminiscent of ’70s AM radio. Odder still, even jarring, are the ’80s sounds and beats on “Medicine” and “Spooky Tina.” Maybe he just needed to get all that out of his system. Seven songs into the album, Greene gets back to fundamentals, with the stripped-clean, acoustic story-song “1961,” which is followed by the rollicking, infectious country-rocker “Take Me Back in Time.”
Compared to Greene, Josh Ritter, at 33 years old, seems more certain of where he stands. He’s not fishing around for sounds, but seems to know that his album will stand on the songs and his voice. And stand they do on “So Runs the World Away” – tall, self-assured, elegant and distinctive. Where the sounds and beats on Greene’s album call attention to themselves, Ritter sings with a soft, casual delivery that is wondrous in its naturalness. Listen to the gorgeous “Southern Pacifica” – it is the sound of someone completely at ease. So when Ritter does stretch out into more complicated terrain – the relatively chaotic “Rattling Locks,” the noisy “Remnant” – they come off as brief departures rather than a mode.It could be said that Ritter saves his restlessness for his lyrics, and a song like “The Curse” does cram a lot of words, narrative and imagery into its five minutes. But Ritter balances that with the focus of “Lantern,” and the Simon & Garfunkel-esque “Lark,” on which Ritter sings, confidently, “I am assured, yes/ I am assured peace will come to me.”
Steel guitarist Robert Randolph titled his last album “Colorblind,” a nod, perhaps, to the fact that Randolph, raised as a church musician, had branched out from black gospel to embrace rock, funk and jam sensibilities. “We Walk This Road,” however, has a distinct color palette, purposefully treading through and distilling a history of African-American styles. On original tunes like the powerful “Traveling Shoes” and “Dry Bones,” and covers of Bob Dylan’s “Shot of Love,” John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama” and Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk,” Randolph and company (producer T Bone Burnett, drummer Jim Keltner, and guests Ben Harper and Leon Russell) take soul, gospel, blues and funk to make a new black stew. To hammer home the point, the album includes a handful of “segues” – scratchy old scraps by Blind Willie Johnson and Mitchell’s Christian Singers. By traveling back through history, Randolph has managed to find his own path. “We Walk This Road” may be short on Randolph’s scorching steel licks, but it is long on soul and originality.Robert Randolph & the Family Band play Aug. 10 at Belly Up Aspen.
Armed with a narrow-ranging voice and minimal backing (the band behind him is just bass and guitar), John Prine wouldn’t figure to spin out a gem from the live stage. But Prine knows how to get the most out of his strength – nearly incomparable songwriting. On the improbably magnificent “In Person & On Stage,” the 63-year-old Prine never goes more than a few songs before introducing another guest duet vocalist – Iris Dement on “In Spite of Ourselves,” Josh Ritter on “Mexican Home,” Emmylou Harris on the signature “Angel From Montgomery” – a tactic that elevates the overall singing enormously. But give Prine his due. Even on “She Is My Everything,” which features no guest singers, he gives a solid performance, knowing just how far to stretch his email@example.com