Guy Clark stands tall among a group of Texas singer-songwriters such as Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell and Lyle Lovett who write extraordinary songs that sound as simple as conversation, yet profound as poetry. The dozen songs on "The Dark" open and close with Clark's collaborations with another fine writer, Buddy Mondlock. These two bookends, "Mud" and the title song, define what is in between. Would you like to hear a first-person account of a Civil War soldier's leg amputation? You will find it in "Soldier's Joy." How about the time "some S.O.B. shot my dog?" Clark documents the event in "Queenie's Song." For something more upbeat, even a little silly, he collaborates with former Jimmy Buffett band member Keith Sykes on "She Loves To Ride Horses." It's neither as silly nor commercial as the song Sykes co-wrote with Buffett - "Volcano" - but it sounds positively lighthearted in this somber set. With a voice that grates like gravel and honesty that cuts like a razor, Guy Clark is not easy listening. Yet the same unflinching qualities have made him perhaps the most admired songwriter since the late Townes Van Zandt. In a nod from one legend to another, Clark covers his fellow Texan's confessional "Rex's Blues."
ALISON KRAUSS AND UNION STATION
Alison Krauss has taken a big step toward becoming a country star with "New Favorite" - a torchy collection of 12 songs and one instrumental. The intimacy and conviction of Krauss's vocal delivery is without peer in contemporary popular music. She might as well be whispering into your ear as she sings about mature reflections on the theme of love: hopeful she can rekindle the flame ("Let Me Touch You for Awhile"), wounded but feisty ("The Lucky One"), frank about needing to be wanted ("Take Me for Longing"), and resigned that the flame has flickered out ("New Favorite"). She again displays her gift for reframing songs from the 1970s in her unique style; this time it's "I'm Gone" by Wendy Waldman and Eric Kaz and "Stars" by Dan Fogelberg. The contemporary duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings wrote the title cut. Krauss gives space to guitar stalwart Dan Tyminski for three vocals, plus a vocal by Ron Block on his "It All Comes Down to You." Dobro master Jerry Douglas contributes "Choctaw Hayride" as well as many of the album's catchiest instrumental licks.
THE DESERT QUESTIONS
Singer-songwriter Bob Franke delves deep into painful personal experience and an enduring religious faith to assemble an excellent album of songs about hurt, healing, and hope. In his 30-plus year career, Massachusetts resident Franke has written songs such as "For Real" and "Hard Love" that have become contemporary folk standards. "The Desert Questions" is a departure from his softer side, brought on by a divorce. The opening "This Blank Page" rocks. Instrumental underpinnings provided by guitarist Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter) and drummer Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson) could support most singers in style. Franke has the voice and songs to match their musicianship. His tender side is still apparent in "She's Gone," "Love Bravely, Elizabeth" (to his daughter), and "Sleeping Hearts." A teacher of songwriting, Franke found inspiration in a workshop, too, instructing an overly zealous writer to "Go Heal Somewhere Else." The album transforms anger and forgiveness - laced with a trace of venom - into excellent listening.
ROBIN AND LINDA WILLIAMS
VISIONS OF LOVE
This CD combines the best of two worlds: the wonderful voices of Robin and Linda Williams and the fine-tuned sense of Americana of Garrison Keillor. The Virginia-based Williamses perform a baker's dozen of songs largely from the country and bluegrass traditions, yet concluding with Bruce Springsteen's "If I Should Fall Behind." Thanks to "A Prairie Home Companion" host Keillor's understated production, Springsteen doesn't sound all that out of place among songwriters like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. If the album has a flaw, it is that some of the customary passion and humor of the Williamses' own songwriting is absent in Keillor's low-key visions of love. Yes, all are love songs, though Robin Williams' brilliant rendition of Hank (no relation) Williams' "Ramblin' Man" is about love of the road and the traditional "Wash Me in Thy Precious Blood" reflects religious fervor. The Williamses first appeared on "A Prairie Home Companion" in 1975 and "Visions" is a worthy tribute to the love of traditional music they share with Keillor.
SACRED HEARTS & FALLEN ANGELS
This two-CD set from compiler Rhino captures both the brilliance
and abrupt unraveling of one of the pioneers of country-rock,
Gram Parsons. Too often the word "legend" precedes
references to Parsons, who attended Harvard College in 1965 and
formed his first recording group, the International Submarine
Band, from musicians he met while in Boston and New York. A major
plus of these CDs is that they allow Parsons' music to speak
for itself over almost the entire course of his career. All that
is missing are high school recordings available elsewhere. The
excellent notes by Holly George-Warren and Bud Scoppa in the
accompanying booklet offer an honest, definitive overview of
GP's all-too-brief recording career. Sadness comes from listening
to the energy of Parsons' 1967 single, "Blue Eyes"
backed by "Luxury Liner," dissipate into the weariness
of his 1973 live performances with the Fallen Angels, a group
that included Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals. The Parsons-Harris
collaborations on Parsons' two solo albums, "GP" and
"Return of the Grievous Angel," are timeless: two singers,
one vocal sound entwined in emotion and beauty. "Hearts
on Fire" can still burn a hole in the soul. In between first
single and later solo albums came Parsons' brief but influential
sojourn with the Byrds ("Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album)
and subsequent co-founding (with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman) of the
Flying Burrito Brothers. The latter's "Gilded Palace of
Sin" debut was the cornerstone of the country rock genre
that made the Eagles wealthy men. Parsons may never have enjoyed
commercial success, but his role in redefining American rock
music, while writing a handful of brilliant songs along the way,
is unparalleled outside of Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen,
and perhaps one or two others.
THE LAST ROMANTIC
What's wrong with easy listening? Woodstock, New York, resident
Artie Traum one half of the Happy and Artie combination
from those halcyon counterculture days has collected 13
original compositions and one cover into this eminently listenable
CD, subtitled "An American guitar story." With tune
titles like "A Day in Polizzi Generosa" and "Braziliana,"
the CD offers an international as well as domestic feel for guitar
music. As its title would suggest, "Braziliana" is
a samba. One of the most engaging tracks is the simple "Empire
Blues" that closes the album and it is indeed an album
in the way a collection of related photographs would be. Each
instrumental fits like a comfortable glove over the fine ensemble
playing of bassist Steve Swallow and Tony Levin, and percussionist
Dean Sharp. For those who might remember Artie Traum from his
association with Bob Dylan and hippie-esque "More Music
from Mud Acres" days, his ventures into mellow, new age
jazz are a relaxed revelation. Ease on, Artie Traum.
JEZ LOWE AND JAKE WALTON
TWO A ROUE
This excellent folk CD is an unusual blend of old and new
material recorded 15 years apart. British musicians Jez Lowe
and Jake Walton cut the original tracks in 1986 in a small studio
in Cornwall, England. This spring they returned to the studio
with two songs from the same period and an instrumental to bring
the out-of-print album to CD length. Like the pairing of the
musicians, the addition of old to new is seamless. Lowe and Walton
are fraternal twins in terms of vocals, both with light, mellow
voices. Lowe plays guitar and cittern (like a big bouzouki) while
Walton's instruments are the dulcimer and ancient-sounding hurdy-gurdy.
Four instrumental tunes provide interludes between outstanding
songs created from the richness of the British tradition. Two
among them are Walton's "The Reign of the Fair Maid,"
based on an Old English New Year's carol, and Lowe's "The
Bergen," about a sunken ship whose crew were buried in a
churchyard near where he lived. Maine's Gordon Bok and two dozen
others have covered this song. It's a pleasure to rediscover
the original in such pleasant surroundings.
CARRY ME ACROSS THE MOUNTAIN
Rutland, Vermont, native Dan Tyminski has capped a stellar
year by winning two Country Music Association awards for single
and album of the year both in connection with his singing
on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Best
known as a sideman to Alison Krauss in Union Station, the versatile
accompanist steps into the solo spotlight in typical workman-like
fashion on his debut album, "Carry Me Across the Mountain."
The title track includes Krauss on harmony vocal and fiddle along
with other members of Union Station. The familiar result received
considerable airplay in bluegrass markets, as did Tyminski's
recording of "Man of Constant Sorrow" for the "O
Brother" soundtrack. On his solo debut, Tyminski who
now lives in Ferrum, Virginia,
works toward a more individual identity in songs and tunes that
range from the classic ("I Dreamed of an Old Love Affair")
to stained-glass bluegrass ("Praise the Lord") to the
overly sentimental ("Please Dear Mommy"). Despite inconsistent
material, Tyminski's vigorous guitar playing and sincere, energetic
vocals unite the set. The contributions of stellar sidepeople
such as Krauss, dobro player Jerry Douglas, and guitarist Tony
Rice provide rich musical texture. All this talent backing one
of the hardest-working performers in roots music earned "Carry
Me Across the Mountain" best bluegrass album of the year
honors from the Association for Independent Music.
FROM THE ISLES TO THE COURTS
Beginning with the first stately notes of "Cantigas 7
and 338" from the court of Alfonso X of Spain, the members
of Ensemble Galilei set a tone of unhurried, indeed timeless
beauty that defines all 15 selections on "From the Isles
to the Courts." This is the Washington, DC-based ensemble's
seventh album in 11 years the second on Telarc. An audiophile's
delight because of Telarc's stringent recording standards, "Isles"
is all the more impressive because two-thirds of its "traditional"
pieces are original compositions. Fiddler Liz Knowles, Scottish
piper Deborah Nuse, Celtic harper Sue Richards, and viola da
gamba player Carolyn Anderson Surrick each contribute two or
more compositions. Oboist Sarah Weiner arranges "Sinfonie
and Musette from L'Isle de Delos" by Elizabeth Jacquet de
la Guerre (1664-1729). Outstanding originals include Nuse's nimble
"Home Fires," Richards' haunting "The Burning
of the Clavie" coupled with Knowles' reel on the same theme,
and Surrick's solemn, moving "The Lady of the Lake."
The sum of these carefully crafted parts is more than an hour
of elegant music played with professionalism and profound feeling.
COOL & UNUSUAL
Guitar and banjo player Martin Simpson won a 1998 Indie Award
(the Grammy equivalent for independent labels such as Red House)
for this understated synthesis. He combines the traditional musics
of the United States and British isles with more than a touch
of African accompaniment. A native of England, Simpson moved
to the United States in 1988. He has emerged from a wealth of
excellent acoustic musicians as an extraordinary talent. On the
haunting "Stole and Sold from Africa," he lays down
a steady banjo underpinning while "singing" on slide
guitar. Without words, the tune says much about sorrow and loss.
"Santa Cruz" becomes jubilant as members of the Madagascar
group Tarika Sammy contribute. The tunes range from the familiar
("Goodnight Irene," here called "Ramblin' Round")
to the exotic, at least in arrangement ("Swannanoa Tunnel").
Two Simpson originals complete this eminently listenable compilation
of acoustic music that is traditional without being stale, hypnotic
without being boring.
BLACKBIRDS & THRUSHES
This album from emerging star Niamh (pronounced "Neeve")
Parsons expresses the sorrow and longing of the Celtic soul more
deeply than any within recent memory. Parsons relies on simple
accompaniment and a lovely heartache of a voice to render a dozen
traditional songs, ranging from the obscure ("Flower of
Finae") to the well known ("The Water Is Wide").
A song and a half in Gaelic add to the authenticity that graces
this CD. Parsons performs with two bands, Arcady and her own
Loose Connections, but this is the singer's album, with the accompanying
musicians playing in understated fashion to serve the mood of
the song. On seven selections, Parsons sings solo or accompanied
only by another voice or single instrument. Such spare settings
allow every nuance of her splendid voice to shine through. Hard
to pick favorites on such a fine album, but "Kilnamartyra
Exile" gives musical definition to the word "haunting."
It's a recent song by the standards of this traditional collection
- written after World War I.
NO ANGEL KNOWS
Long a local hero along seacoast Maine and New Hampshire,
Slaid Cleaves has fulfilled his promise as a young singer-songwriter
with an album reflecting the sorrows of experience as well as
the exuberance of youth. Shortly after relocating to Austin,
Texas, Cleaves was one of six award winners at the 1992 Kerrville
(Texas) Folk Festival. Since then, he's played a heap of bars
and paid a hassle of dues, making regular summer trips to New
England to gig solo and with various incarnations of his Portland,
Maine, band, the Moxies. Regardless of format, Cleaves has been
a consistent performer of country-tinged standards and originals,
winning fans with his no-nonsense sincerity. Now he's put it
all together. Produced by Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams), No
Angel Knows blends elements of country, folk, and roots rock
into an emotionally rich and musically potent product. Highlights
are the defiant "Not Goin' Down," the mournful title
tune, and two romping country rockers, "The River Runs"
and "The Last of the V8s." The album closes with "29,"
about the death of Hank Williams as well as a friend of Cleaves',
conveying the power and honesty of the artist as a solo musician.
He's also learned to make the most of his slightly reedy voice,
phrasing like a veteran performer who can put over songs as well
as he writes them.
ROBIN AND LINDA WILLIAMS
DEVIL OF A DREAM
Among contemporary country performers, Robin and Linda Williams
shine like a diamond amid the rhinestones, hokey hats, and hyperbole.
When they perform songs of Hank Williams (no relation), as they
do in concert, their sound is so sincere as to give the listener
chills. This CD may not capture that magic, but it's a good introduction.
Together 25 years, Robin and Linda deliver a distinct blend of
country, bluegrass, and singer-songwriter. Too understated to
be stars and too spunky to be taken for granted, the Williamses
need to be heard live to be appreciated. Fortunately, they are
frequent guests on Garrison Keillor's radio program, "A
Prairie Home Companion." Of the two, Linda has the more
riveting voice. When it comes to the fore, as it does here on
"Green Summertime" and "While I'm Waiting for
You," the couple's special talents are most apparent: fine
songwriting, heartfelt vocals, and solid musicianship. For magic,
seek out their previous album, "Sugar for Sugar."
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