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.
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.