Folk sounds from different directions |

Folk sounds from different directions

Californian Dave Alvin has released "West of the West," a collection of songs from his home state. (Issa Sharp)

Bruce pays tribute to Seeger (“We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”). Neil nails President Bush (“Living With War”). Is there a folk-music revival in the upper reaches of the rock world?Following are reviews of recent CDs with folk roots.Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch & Fats Kaplan”Lost John Dean” (Compass)Last week in this space, I reviewed Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome,” the Boss’ tribute to folk icon Pete Seeger. On the surface, this album has little in common with Springsteen’s album. Most of the songs are newly written, and, where “We Shall Overcome” redefines folk for a 15-piece mini-orchestra, “Lost John Dean” sticks close to the basics; only the core trio of singers and string-players Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplan play the music.

But the mostly acoustic “Lost John Dean” puts me firmly in mind of Springsteen’s take on folk. The title track – about an escaped bank robber, and the lone traditional song on the album – like most of the tunes here, moves at the snappy pace that marks “We Shall Overcome.” The lyrics are filled with troubles and warnings that connect to an old, rural America: “Sister don’t go down that road / If you do I only pray you’ll return” goes the chilling “Satan’s Paradise.” The hard life is balanced by faith in the working man (“To The Harvest Look Ahead”) and a redemption somewhere over the horizon (“I Can’t Wait”).Seeger himself would recognize the lineage of these songs, and the way they’re performed.Dave Alvin, “West of the West”produced by Greg Liesz (Yep Roc)Another hallmark of the folk genre, in addition to addressing social causes and using timeless themes, is playing other people’s songs.Dave Alvin, former punkabilly singer-guitarist with the Blasters and X, actually has impeccable folkie credentials. His 2001 album “Public Domain,” featuring all age-old tunes, earned a Grammy for best traditional folk album. “West of the West” isn’t quite as rooted as that, in concept or sound. Instead, it focuses on Alvin’s fellow California songwriters, and generally their lesser-known output: Jackson Browne’s “Redneck Friend,” John Fogerty’s “Don’t Look Now” and the Grateful Dead’s “Loser.” Alvin mines at least one overlooked gem, Kevin Farrell’s “Sonora’s Death Row,” and finishes with a Beach Boys’ hit “Surfer Girl,” which gets a tender touch.

The roots-rock sound of “West of the West” isn’t 1962 Greenwich Village; a string -oriented version of Los Lobos’ “Down on the Riverbed” comes close. Staying near the SoCal theme, Alvin gives much of the album a tejano flavor. But it’s closer to folk than the vintage L.A. punk Alvin used to play.Guy Davis, “Skunkmello”produced by John Platania (Red House)Most of the tunes on “Skunkmello” are written by Guy Davis, but they are practically indistinguishable from the older songs – “Po Boy, Great Long Ways From Home,” “Goin’ Down Slow” – that the singer/guitarist/banjoist plays here. Davis’ song-writing taps into the old Delta way of doing it: creating mythical characters (“The Chocolate Man”); using thinly disguised sexual metaphors (“Shaky Pudding,” with the line “I like my pudding greasy, I eat it with a spoon”); and describing bad times (“Blues in the Midnight Hour”) while dreaming of better times to come (“Shooting Star”). Davis’ sound is folk blues, its purity broken up by the occasional electric guitar solo or organ part. And the history of black culture, especially its music, is something he cares about. “Skunkmello” ends with “Uncle Tom Is Dead,” a reworking of Davis’ own “Milk ‘n’ Cookies,” in which Davis rips on the flashy emptiness of rap culture, and the ramifications of disconnecting from the roots.

Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings, “Generation Nation”produced by Anger (Compass)Fiddler Darol Anger takes an expansive view of folk music on “Generation Nation.” His multi-generational Republic of Strings – Anger is 52; fellow fiddler Brittany Haas is in her teens – was formed with the idea that all music is folk music. As on their 2004, self-titled debut, Anger and company here take music from all the corners, and turn it into something that sounds old and rooted and long-lasting. “Lady Hamilton” is what people generally think of as folk, a tune whose origins can only be traced back to a Celtic heritage. “Bluebird” and “The Ramblin’ Barber” are not in the customary folk mold: the former is a string spin on the Buffalo Springfield classic, with a vocal by Terry Pinkham; the latter is by Ornette Coleman, the free-jazz pioneer. But both – like the tunes from Swedish rock bands, a take on “Chain of Fools” and a handful of originals – fit in well here.”Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman”produced by Steve Fishell (Sugar Hill)Randy Newman, best known for the humorous “Short People” and “I Love L.A.” and the more recent series of hits written for movies, may have the image of a lightweight jokester. But Newman has always been able to capture American populism in songs like “Louisiana 1927,” which, in itself, should have been sufficient warning about what a hurricane might do to New Orleans; and “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man).” On this tribute CD, Louisiana’s Sonny Landreth takes on the former; Sam Bush, the latter. Also on board are alt-country types and newgrassers like Béla Fleck, Tim O’Brien and Steve Earle. Newman’s nastier side shows in “Rednecks”; his romantic sensibility in “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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