june 2008

harrisAll I Intended To Be: There are interpretive artists, and then there are artists who interpret to the point of self definition. The former flit along the surface of a melody, touching down in no particular place but that of beauty itself, averting their eyes from life’s niggling complexities as if avoiding the sun’s unyielding glare at the height of Summer. At that point, you are a song and dance man, fine and dandy; it can be a worthwhile calling. Or you can be Emmylou Harris, whose I Intended To Be Be reveals itself as a work of superior interpretive artistry and compelling emotional depth, its songs and its ethereal, often minimalist soundscape (as sculpted by producer Brian Ahern in his first pairing with his ex-wife in a quarter century) suggesting a Tolstoyan backstory of a search for moral truths in an alien environment. It is, also, a testimony to the power of art to spring unannounced and unexpectedly from the unlikeliest circumstances.

washburnAbigail Washburn And The Sparrow Quartet by Billy Altman
If you've never heard Abigail Washburn, maybe the best way to start to talk about her and the Sparrow Quartet is to note what happens when you start to listen to her new CD on your computer. Look at the screen when the info comes up, go past the Track/Artist/Album/Title lists, and you'll see that under the Genre heading, every line says the same thing: "Unclassifiable." Then click on the track called "Sugar & Pie." On it, you'll hear a cello, a violin, and two (yes two) banjos, all grooving to a bluesy mid-tempo beat in an arrangement featuring tightly arranged interlocking parts but also solo interludes and swirls of jazz-tinged improvisation among all four instruments. Did I mention that this song is in Chinese?


The Last Country Album: If you’re going to a honky tonk, Heybale! is the band you want to find playing there when you walk in. But no one in their right mind would want this to be the last of anything we hear of Heybale!


chesnuttRollin’ With the Flow: The unfortunate irony afflicting the careers of country artists of Mark Chesnutt’s generation is that mainstream country radio has abandoned them as it did the generation preceding theirs (George Strait being a notable exception). No matter. A lot of those artists are still making wonderful music, Chesnutt included. In fact, Rollin’ With the Flow is so good it’s fair to say this smart, sensitive singer has rarely been better than he is here, or had a stronger batch of songs to work with.

kingGardens In the Sky: A stirring tribute to one of the most powerful gospel singers in bluegrass history, Rounder’s ample 18-track Gardens in the Sky retrospective is but a taste of James King’s rich catalogue, but it’s a taste that goes a long way and, properly, leaves a listener wanting much more. As such, and for his considerable acclaim as a gospel singer, this is King’s first all-gospel album. Savor it.

angel bandWith Roots & Wings: As impressive as was their 2006 debut, Beautiful Noise, Angel Band’s sophomore effort, With Roots & Wings, is doubly so. Some changes are evident and telling: original band member Adrien Reju has been replaced by Kathleen Weber, and Lloyd Maines is behind the board as producer. David Bromberg remains as the band leader and arranger, and his sure sense of roots and rhythm maps perfectly with Maines’s unerring feel for each number’s appropriate sonic texture. In the voices of Weber, Nancy Josephson and Jen Schonwald, and in Josephson’s humanist songwriting, Bromberg and Maines have all the substance they need to craft a compelling soundscape.

rhodesWalls Fall Down: Of all her many artistic gifts—playwright, actress, author, singer, songwriter—the latter has brought her the most acclaim and is the heart of Kimmie Rhodes’s legacy. She’s one of Emmylou Harris’s favorite songwriters, and one of Willie Nelson’s favorite duet partners, and that’s pretty good for starters. That her decade-plus of solo recordings haven’t brought her near to being a star in the country/Americana firmament isn’t for lack of compelling music, which keeps on coming on Walls Falls Down, yet another deeply haunting example of her singular musical vision.

brownsThe Complete Hits: This wonderful collection spotlights the enduring work the Browns did under the guidance of Chet Atkins, on some of the early, essential documents of the pop-influenced “Nashville Sound.” Starting out as a coed version of the Louvin Brothers, Jim Ed Brown and his sisters Maxine and Bonnie metamorphosed into the countrypolitan version of The Fleetwoods and made beautiful music together.

whiteDeep Cuts: Man, there are some bad doings down in Swampville, if Tony Joe White is to be believed. And why wouldn’t anyone believe TJW, who knows whereof he speaks when it comes to swamps? This is likely as close to art music as White cares to venture, with all the weirdness swirling about across the sonic spectrum, purposely dense and unsettling, an ideal backdrop for skullduggery. New and old, the songs are more suited for reflective moments when a listener can turn off the mind and float downstream, absorbed in the sunset mood, perhaps puzzling over the import of it all but appreciating, even luxuriating in, a veteran artist’s reconsideration of some of his best work and his own persona to boot. Maybe, finally, the gator got his Granny. Chomp, chomp.

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