CDs in the old tradition of performing covers
September 29, 2005
As made brilliantly clear this week in Martin Scorsese’s TV documentary “No Direction Home,” Bob Dylan changed the course of American music. But while Dylan’s going electric, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and during a tour of England the following year, got the lion’s share of attention, another revolution ushered in by Dylan was relatively overlooked. Before Dylan, a singer who wrote his own material was an oddity. Songs were written by writers, sung by singers. Dylan obliterated that model. Now, when an artist does an album not of his own material, that is the curious thing.Following are reviews of albums made in the old folk tradition, of looking to others for songs to interpret.
Cowboy Junkies, “Early 21st Century Blues” produced by Michael Timmins (Latent Recordings)The Cowboy Junkies turn out one of the finest examples of contemporary folk music here. It’s not that they abandon their signatures sounds – Margo Timmins’ low moan of a voice and their invariably unhurried tempos – in favor of acoustic guitars and old-style harmonies. (Though there are some banjos, and electric mandolin.) But inspired by the bellicose climate of the world, the Junkies assemble a chain of thematically linked songs about the pain of war and the promise of something better.”Early 21st Century Blues” opens with “License to Kill,” a fairly obscure tune about man’s penchant for destruction, and closes on a more hopeful note, U2’s “One,” though Timmins makes the call for unity more a wish than a likelihood. In between are old traditional tunes (“Two Soldiers,” “No More”), two by Junkies guitarist Michael Timmins, and little-known works by John Lennon (“I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier”) and Bruce Springsteen (“Brothers Under the Bridge,” “You’re Missing.”) It’s a moving collection, in the great folk tradition of using one’s own voice and somebody else’s words to make a significant statement about the times.
Tim O’Brien, “Cornbread Nation” and “Fiddler’s Green”produced by O’Brien (Howdy Skies Records)Singer and acoustic string-man Tim O’Brien has no problem making up songs of his own; check out his exceptional 2003 album of original material, “Traveler.” But O’Brien is also as good an interpreter of other writers’ work as anyone; his 1996 album “Red on Blonde” is an essential twist on Dylan himself.On this linked pair, O’Brien goes even further back, into the real roots. “Cornbread Nation” is Southern-inspired, with a rustic, stomping take on the spiritual “Moses,” a swinging go at “The Foggy Foggy Dew,” and a high, lonesome twist on “House of the Rising Sun,” a staple of the ’60s folk revival. (In “No Direction Home,” Dave van Ronk details the battle between Dylan and himself over the song.) “Fiddler’s Green” traces a different branch, the Irish side. On both CDs, O’Brien – joined by an all-star picking cast – is unafraid to mess with tradition, following his own feel for the songs.
The Jazz Mandolin Project, “The Deep Forbidden Lake” produced by Jamie Masefield (Lenapee Records)Jamie Masefield’s Jazz Mandolin Project breaks ground here. “The Deep Forbidden Lake,” with mandolinist Masefield joined by bassist Greg Cohen and pianist/accordionist Gil Goldstein, explores a new realm of folk jazz. “The Deep Forbidden Lake,” unlike the JMP’s past jam-heavy albums, focuses tightly on the melodies of jazz (Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave”), old-school rock (Neil Young’s title track, a pair of Tom Waits tunes), and modern rock (two Radiohead songs). Lovely and gentle music.Foghorn String Band, “Weiser Sunrise”(Nettwerk Productions)Oregon’s Foghorn String Band does it all old-style, from the old-timey sounds to the traditional material (only one song, “My Father Was a House,” can be traced to its writer), to their way of indicating whose version of the song inspired them (a habit Dylan never took a shine to).Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org