FolkFire Reviews

September/October 1996 Issue
  • Notes on New Releases
  • "American Fogies, Vol. 1" (Rounder CD-0379)
  • Two Folk Gems
  • Reviews Index
  • FolkFireHome

  • Various artists: Notes on New Releases
    by Rich Simmons

    This month I'd like to do a bit of housecleaning and update you on several new (and some not-so-new) and notable releases:

    Shawn Colvin, Live '88 She burst onto the neo-folk scene in 1989 with her major label debut, Steady On. Working with producer John Leventhal, Shawn helped create a fresh and influential "sound" using her Joni Mitchell-like guitar work combined with a tasteful use of synthesizers and drum machines. Critics nationwide sung her praises.
    Unfortunately, those same critics found her "sound" to be less than endearing on her two follow-ups, Fat City and Cover Girl. As if to answer those critics, Shawn has now released Live '88.
    This recording has been floating around for several years as a bootleg and features Shawn's songs in a context previously unavailable to her fans. The songs are mostly from the Steady On era and are completely stripped down to acoustic guitar and voice. Her peformance shows that Shawn doesn't need all the buzzers and whistles to shine. Rather, this disc shows a complex yet ambient quality that the production value of her most recent releases may have lost.
    This is an outstanding introduction to those who have not yet discovered Shawn Colvin and a welcome re-affirmation of Shawn's talent to those who have.
    Loudon Wainwright III, Grown Man Yes, this is the same guy who gave us "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road". And he's been doing just fine, thank you very much, recording and performing primarily in England and Europe with occasional US dates. And he's been successful in many respects.
    A series of albums in the mid to late 80s were well received by critics and fans alike. Loudon began to more successfully mine the rich veins of ore that his interesting and tumultuous life has given him during this period. He also found a way to balance his pathos with a large dose of humor. Yes, indeed, middle age has been good to Loudon. And Grown Man is evidence of it.
    His most recent disc is Grown Man. On it he holds true to the formula he has established on his last few releases. That is, expect some heartbreaking songs, a bit of humor, and at least one song that may disturb you.
    Highlights from this release include the title cut on which he confirms what women have said for years: men may seem to be all grown up, but we really still believe we're 18. In "Housework", Loudon works very hard at getting his long-suffering lover to come back home. While in "1994" he examines just whose fault it is (It's genetic!).
    Be forewarned! The pleasure of Loudon Wainwright's music is in wordplay. His tongue in planted firmly in cheek as he sings about such subjects as fatherhood, male/female roles, and relationships. His lyrical viewpoint can sometimes be harsh or even cruel (especially to himself), but as he sings in "Father Daughter Dialogue", The guy singing the songs ain't me... Give Loudon a listen.
    Lyle Lovett, The Road to Ensenada Lyle Lovett loves irony. He plays with words, he causes you to move in a direction you didn't expect, and then doubles back on you. That's a large part of his charm.
    Before he formed his Large Band, even before Julia Roberts, Lyle Lovett was known as a formidable country songwriter. On the Road to Ensenada, he happily returns to his Texas songwriter roots. Doubled back on you again!
    Highlights of this work include "Don't Touch My Hat", "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)", and "It Ought to Be Easier". Lyle writes in classic Lovett form. On "Don't Touch My Hat", he's more concerned for his hat than his girlfriend. "That's Right" tells of the supposed advantages of being a native Texan. "It Ought to Be Easier" is a classic portrait of a relationship barely clinging to life. His reading of "Long Tall Texan" brings the same smiles as "Stand By Your Man" did on Pontiac.
    Lyle's use of language and phrasing continue to be the facets that make him shine. His songwriting continues to grow. Surely, this collection of songs will serve to establish him among the elite of songwriters working today.
    His backing band includes such studio luminaries as Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Dean Parks, and Matt Rollings. Many of the songs are simple, 4- or 5-piece arrangements augmented with harmonies. However, this actually allows Lyle's songs to breathe and seem bigger, just like Texas.
    If you're a fan of intelligent, well-crafted songs, this collection is for you! Enjoy it and spread the word!
    Several Artists: "American Fogies, Vol. 1"
    (Rounder CD-0379)
    by Paul Stamler

    Several years ago, traditional music enthusiast Ray Alden recorded a pair of CDs entitled The Young Fogies, presenting music from the living tradition of old-time music. As he was recording the "revival" bands and soloists who have followed in the footsteps of the pioneers of traditional music, he realized that by limiting himself to the Anglo-American string-band tradition, he was missing some of the most vital threads in American music - the African-American, the American Indian, and European-American ethnic traditions. In 1994, he set out to fill the gap by travelling across the country and recording active performers in other genres, along with performers of Anglo-American music he'd missed on the first trip.

    American Fogies is the result, two CDs of fine music, superbly chosen and recorded. (I'm reviewing Vol. 1 only, as I haven't yet heard Vol. 2. However, judging by the list of performers, it's every bit as good.) The record kicks off with an example of American Indian fiddle tradition, takes in Hispanic-American songs and tunes, country blues, and Cajun music, along with superb takes on some less-well-known Anglo songs and tunes. My favorites include the Pastatones' "Chitarra Romana" (traditional Italian-American music), Brian Marshall et al's "Pija Kuba" (Texas-Czech polka), and the Corey Harris/Paul Kemnitz "Jinx Blues". (I could have done without the dorky drummer on the Clayville Strutters' tune, though.) Two Anglo pieces were worth the price of the CD all by themselves. The first is a version of "Blue Tailed Fly" played in early-19th-century style by Dan Gellert, with breathtakingly good banjo work; this performance casts this too-familiar song in a different and disturbing light. And the master work of the album, ironically, is Dan Foster and (ex-St. Louisan) Christy Palumbo's a capella "Louisiana Earthquake", about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1809-1810. This song is as terrifying as the quakes must have been; the harmonies will chill you to the bone.

    With all the variety, this could easily have been a dry, academic compilation. It isn't; Alden has chosen his material carefully and presented it with an eye to variety and accessibility. This is as good an introduction to the breadth of America's musical tradition as I've heard in years, and it's great driving music too.

    Hunter Moore and Todd Snyder: Two Folk Gems
    by Gene Bertram

    Maybe I'm just never satisfied. I've often made the comment about folk CDs that they sound a little too "basementy." You know, one guy and a guitar, mediocre sound quality, no backup, stuff like that. Then along comes Hunter Moore with his CD Delta Moon. With several background singers, piano, organ, percussion, pedal steel and bass in addition to two acoustic guitars and an electric lead, great sound quality, and Hunters mellow tenor voice, you'd think I'd be happy. But I find myself wondering where the passion is in this music.

    Don't get me wrong, the songs are nice. From the opening title song all the way through the ending "Prodigal Song" there's barely a beat missed. In fact, there are several songs I'd like to learn to play. Songs like "Just Because We Do," about how love can last hit a tender chord. With lines like
    He looks at her at eighty-three like she was twenty-two,
    Romance doesn't have to get old just because we do,"

    Hunter strives to sing what's right with the world. Whether he's writing about love not quite working out "Condition of the Heart", unsolved mysteries "Lost Train", uncomfortable situations "I Should Be Gone", or the town he grew up in "Oleana", you never feel uncomfortable. It's like sitting around a table telling stories that never quite touch you; fun, but fluff.

    Passion in songwriting is a funny thing. When was the last time James Taylor wrote a song that grabbed you by the gut and made you think, but you still love his stuff, don't you? Hunter Moore often reminds me of Taylor, not so much in style as in the fact that you'd like to sit down and talk to this guy after he finishes playing. Bet he'd be a nice guy to know. (Actually, you could, as Hunter Moore is going to be playing at the Border's Books on Watson Road sometime in September.)

    If you want passion, though, get a copy of Todd Snyder’s Songs for the Daily Planet. From the opening cut My Generation (Part 2) (Who does that remind you of?), Todd grabs you with energy, raw and powerful. This isn't a loud rock and roll CD, though the electric guitar comes through a lot more than on Delta Moon, but the power of Snyder's writing makes you sit up and notice.

    "That Was Me" is a song that could be played at the Democratic National Convention as an answer to the sugary tribute to "Ronnie" shown at the GOP (Gipper's Old Party) Convention. A quiet song, it points out how hard things are nowadays for the generation just discovering the folk style.

    "I'm the face you've seen a million times, the one who never seems fit in between those lines,
    I'm every broken dream this world has left behind."

    "Easy Money" and "This Land Is Our Land" sound like they might be derivative, but this is no copycat or mere updater. Todd has a voice that cuts to the quick and he tells it like it is now. "You Think You Know Somebody" is one of the most powerful songs I've ever run into, partly because it blindsides you. You know from the start that he's going somewhere with it, but till he gets there, it sounds like another "ain't small town life wonderful" kind of song John Mellancamp would write. But watch your gut, 'cause he's aiming for it with this one.

    Mellow songs like "Spoke as a Child" and country-blues ones like "Trouble" highlights Snyder's range and adaptability, and keep your interest, wondering what's coming next. Even "Turn It Up," which sounds like it was written for that gig in the country brawl bar in "Blues Brothers" works.

    These two albums are almost on opposite ends of the spectrum. Hunter's voice is smooth and silky, and his songs are pleasant, mellow, and generally happy. Todd's voice has a lot more Camel Un-filtered in it, and his songs tend to get in your face. It's not so much a difference in style, as one of content.