Psychedelic Pill by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (2012. Reprise Records)

OK. I blasted Neil’s ill-conceived and poorly written memoir, Waging Heavy Peace a few reviews ago. That’s in the past. Here’s the present: Psychedelic Pill is as good an album as Young has crafted since Prairie Wind back in 2005. My third son Chris, knowing how much I love Young’s music, did an awesome watercolor of Young’s face superimposed over the Wind cover all done, as Young’s finest efforts are, in sepia tones. That’s the kind of vibe Neil and the Horse have put together here. Harkening back to the long, slow jamming of Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, one of Young’s earliest solo efforts, Pill has it all: long, twisted jams, short catchy tunes, and an oddity or two. (He’s Neil Freakin’ Young, what did you expect!) My favorite of the jammers is “Ramada Inn”, a tune that captures all of Young’s guitar and songwriting talents in a very simple, catchy refrain buttressed by the steady thump of Billy Talbot’s slap happy bass and Ralph Molina’s simplistic drumming. It’s a close cousin to “Down by the River”, also recorded with the Horse, and “Southern Man” off the CSNY Four Way Street concert disc. Those who are more into the “Cinnamon Girl” aspects of Young’s songwriting won’t be disappointed either. For you, there’s “Born  in Ontario”. It’s not “Helpless”, probably one of the best songs ever written by a Canadian, but it’s a noteworthy ditty in its own right.

Whether or not Young has been influenced directly or discretely by his American buddy, The Boss, “Walk Like a Giant”, a very weird tonal experience of great length, seems derivative of Springsteen’s “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)” from The Boss’s 2012 album, Wrecking Ball. I have no idea if Young is emulating his American pal here but “Walk” is one weird tune, akin to “Number 9” by the Beatles. It’s worth a listen if only to try to fathom what, if any, secret message Neil is trying to impart on we mere mortals.

What’s interesting is that, when I first plopped this CD into the changer in my Pacifica, I was a bit miffed. I thought that Disc One, with only 4 tracks, was it. Didn’t realize, until I looked closer, I’d only played half the CD. After listening all the way through both discs at least five times, I am sold. This is a great Crazy Horse collection and I am happy that I looked further and found the missing half of the album.

4 and 1/2 Stars out of 5. A perfect CD for a summer drive along Highway 61. (No offense, Bob).

If You Look for My Heart (Novel, eBook) (2012. CreateSpace. ISBN 978-1451564754) and If You Look for My Heart (CD/MP3) (2012. sonaBlast Records.) Both by Ben Arthur.

I came across New York based musician Ben Arthur through my subscription to Poets and Writers Magazine. Arthur wrote a wonderful piece of acoustic guitar music set to Minnesota essayist Paul Gruchow’s words (see my blog about Paul and another fine Minnesota writer, “The Good Stuff” by using the search engine at the top of this page) that appeared in a recent P&W issue. I was intrigued by Arthur’s skills as a musician and also by the fact that he had apparently married his music to a novel he’d written, If You Look for My Heart.

The premise of the merger of the two art forms (prose and song) is an overt attempt to provide the consumer with an enhanced literary experience. The eBook version of the novel uses  embedded hyperlinks to the novel’s 12 songs so you get both words and music in one package. But if you buy the paperback or hardcover versions of the novel, you are required to buy the CD/MP3 through a separate purchase.

Being a failed (actually, never attempted) musician myself (like Minnesota musical icon, Leo Kottke, my voice is a bit like a goose fart in a snow storm and my piano playing died a slow and agonizing death years ago) but a somewhat successful regional novelist, I was intrigued by the idea of merging words and music, especially if technology allowed seamless navigation from story to song. So let me take on the technology first: It isn’t all that smooth. Whenever I came to a hyperlink to one of the songs connected to the story, I clicked the link and was sent to YouTube where the music was waiting. The “not so smooth” part of this equation isn’t that the links were slow or broken, but that I found jumping from the very monkish act of reading fiction straight into music a bit disconcerting and distracting. A wonderful concept but, for an old guy who grew up reading in solitude and relishing the peace that comes from such an individualized experience, the leap was simply too wide for me to negotiate.

To the novel. I disagree with the pundits on Amazon.com

(see http://www.amazon.com/If-You-Look-My-Heart/dp/1451564759/ref=sr_tc_2_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1369839671&sr=1-2-ent)

who rated the novel as “great” (5 stars) or “terrible” (2 stars). The writing isn’t bad and the action carried me along. But there wasn’t a character in the book who grabbed me by the heartstrings or slapped my in the face to make me take notice of his or her lot in life. Despite the emotionally charged issues tackled by  the tale (betrayal, adultery, longing, isolation), I felt like I was reading a script for Sex and the City or some other self-absorbed New York story even though the setting isn’t the Big Apple. Despite this mild criticism,  I don’t agree with the two-star Amazon.com review faulting  the book’s editing. Heck, as a self-published author, I’ll cut anyone trying this gig some slack! The minor errors in the text don’t distract a bit from the tale, such as it is.

All the same, there are many other novels out there more deserving of your reading time than this concise, predictable, fairly flat effort. But I give Arthur an “A” for ingenuity in his attempt to create a new art form. That takes guts.

3 1/2 stars out of 5 for the novel.

The music? Well, that’s a much different story (pun indeed intended!) Arthur is, so far as this non-musician can tell, the real deal. He is courageous in his eclectic use of genres on the novel’s soundtrack  including orchestral (“Prelude”), contemporary folk/pop (“If You Look for My Heart”), country/bluegrass/Americana (“Where I Belong”), and rap (“Love Your Enemy”) in the mix. There’s really not much to criticize on this fine album, one that stands on a higher plain of artistry than the companion novel.

41/2 stars out of 5 for the album.

Edible Darling by Ben Arthur (2004. Bardic Records)

Having read and listened to If You Look for My Heart and experienced the quality of Arthur’s musicianship, I ordered a second CD, an older effort, Edible Darling.

With a bit more electric “pop” than the soundtrack to the novel, this collection really rocks. There are tunes that remind me of Jude Cole (“Mary Ann”), the Wallflowers (“Tonight”), and Snow Patrol (“Broken Hearted Smile”). Arthur also displays a great sense of humor in the lyrical twists embedded in “Edible Darling” and “Keep Me Around”. There’s also a nice acoustic guitar number (“Instrumental #3) and a fine, fine ending tune, “Jesus”.

Add to this great harmonies, great musicians, and solid songwriting and this CD will make you wanna dance. It’s one of my favorites of 2013. My teenage son is trying to get me to stop playing Edible Darling in the Pacifica because it’s been playing non-stop for a month. In response, I just turn up the volume on “Mary Ann” and smile at my kid.

Hear’s (again, pun intended) what I mean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7gOEx-RhKI

5 stars out of 5.

 


Americana by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (2012. Reprise Records)

Mmm. Now, here’s the thing: I love Neil Young. As a guitarist. As a songwriter. And even, occasionally (“Helpless” and “Old Man”) as a vocalist. In some ways, Young is the Canadian Bob Dylan: A quirky, talented, hard working artist whose words and music have impacted young men and women for decades. Some critics just plain don’t like Young’s backing band, Crazy Horse. There have been countless reviews of Crazy Horse-driven Young albums over the years wherein commentators pointed to the weakness of the musicianship of the band members. Bullshit. I love Crazy Horse. It is, collectively, what it is: A hard driving, simple force of nature, at the center of which is a now very old but still, very rocking, guitarist.

That having been said, this strange collection of old American folk tunes (“Clementine”), 50s rock (“Get a Job”) and simply weird (“God Save the Queen”) isn’t one of Young’s best efforts, at least in terms of the material presented. I get the sense that, after Springsteen put together We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions to some measure of success, Neil tried to duplicate that effort without the sweat and toil it took Springsteen to pull it off. By that I mean, nowhere on this album does Young or his band try to recreate the heart and soul of the old music that Pete Seeger has worked a lifetime to preserve, something The Boss tried very hard (and was at least partially successful at) to do with We Shall Overcome. There’s a glimmer of what Young could have achieved, had he played it straight, put down his ax and picked up a twelve string, on “This Land is Your Land”. But that’s a fleeting glimpse of what this album might have been.

It’s been nine years since the last Young-Crazy Horse album. And it shows: Not in the playing (which is straight on, hard rocking grunge on most cuts) but in the material. I won’t say this collection was a waste of my son’s hard earned money (it was a Father’s Day gift) because even average Neil Young and Crazy Horse is better than about 95% of the crap on the radio today. But this isn’t one of my favorite guitarist’s better efforts.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

 

Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen (2012. Columbia Records)

Wow! With only occasional help from his E Street Band mates (including the last recorded saxophone solo by the Big Man), and guest artists including Tommy Morello of Rage Against the Machine, this is quintessential angry Boss at its best. You get full throated chorales, brassy horns, thumping bass and drums, wailing guitars, Celtic fiddle and mandolin, and just about every other musical genre or influence you can think of in one album. There isn’t a weak cut on this effort. And, if you’re smart enough to pay an extra two bucks and make sure you buy the copy that includes two bonus tracks, the eery “Swallowed Up” and the history and hope laden “American Land”, you will be amazed.

Sure, some of the music seems, at first listen, as if you’ve heard it all before. When you’ve written and played as many original tunes as Springsteen has over the course of his luminous career, you’re bound to repeat yourself here and there. But honestly, if you listen to this collection with the volume up and the top down (or in my case, with the moonroof open), well, you will come to admit: “He is indeed The Boss”. With a lyrical ability approaching Dylan, the social attitude of Neil Young in his prime, and the uncanny skill to bring disparate musical traditions together in a rock album, Springsteen has attained the apex of American, if not international, music stardom. And yet, behind every tune, behind every angry (“We Take Care of Our Own”) or touching (“This Depression”) song, we still hear that punk kid from New Jersey who captured our hearts and minds with music four decades ago.

A classic, up there with Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska.

5 stars out of 5.

Red Horse by Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky (2010. Red House Records)

First off, these three are three of my favorite folk singer-songwriters of the modern era. All three of them are great vocalists and hugely creative talents on their own. One would expect that the combination of such ability would exponentially increase the beauty and power of their music. And, on some tracks, including “Don’t Mind Me”, “Sanctuary”, and “Walk Away from Love”, the individuals achieve collectively what they couldn’t attain if they were singing on their own albums. The harmonies are great. The instrumentation is perfect. The phrasing and sound amazing.

That having been said, I was mildly disappointed. These three are a more powerful collective, if one takes a look at their individual talents and output over the past twenty years, than another project that involved Kaplansky a few years back, Cry, Cry, Cry. That amalgamation included Kaplansky, Dar Williams, and Richard Shindell in its brief but powerful configuration. Williams and Gilkyson have a similar, breathy romanticism to their voices. Kaplansky is Kaplansky. But Gorka and Shindell are dissimilar artists. For what it’s worth, Gorka is the better of the two in terms of songwriter and performer. And yet, as a collective, Cry, Cry, Cry seems, in my humble opinion, to be a better grouping. Can’t definitively say why. It just seems so.

But here’s the thing: If you don’t have CDs by all of these fine artists, or are missing a CD from any one of them, this album is a good place to start. There really isn’t a weak track on the disk and you’ll have plenty of great music to consider as you work around the house or drive to work.

4 stars out of 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beautiful World by Eliza Gilkyson (2008. Red House Records)

I’ve only seen Eliza once in concert. It was about five or six years back, with my third son (and aspiring guitarist) Chris at Duluth’s iconic coffee house and folk music venue,the Amazing Grace Cafe. Eliza, her son, and a guitarist were crammed onto the Grace’s tiny stage that evening as nearly 100 fans listened, clapped, and were awestruck. She’s a fine songwriter. An adequate guitarist. And a captivating vocalist, with a languid, liquid texture to her voice that would melt most men’s (or women’s) hearts. It was during her “Land of Milk and Honey” tour, promoting the album that took on G.W. Bush’s deployment of Americans to Iraq (and chastising the Neocons and Colin Powell (“the black man hidden in the white man’s skin”) to boot) when we took in the concert and it was indeed a fine evening. I’d heard the song “Highway 9” (the one lambasting the Prez) on KUMD and fell in love with the lyrics and Eliza’s voice. I own a half dozen of her albums and much of her music is as good as it gets in the world of folk music (including my sentimental favorite, “Lights of Santa Fe”).

As my wife and I wandered around that quintessential tourist town Ely, Minnesota and stopped in at Mealy’s (a local furniture and variety store) on a recent weekend, I was in need of new music for the ride back to Duluth. I kept coming back to the music bin where Beautiful World was displayed. On impulse, I bought the CD. I wasn’t disappointed.

There are some classic Gilkyson tracks on this 2008 effort from this fine Austin, Texas artist. “The Party’s Over” and “Dream Lover” in particular offer some fun and poignant lyrics. “Unsustainable” is a jazzy number unlike any other Gilkyson tune I’ve ever heard before.  The instrumentals are tight and, as with all Red House productions (thanks to Iowa folk giant, Greg Brown who started this little label decades ago in Minneapolis), well produced. My only complaint, and it’s more of an observation, is that Eliza, a very independent and authentic artist in her own right, seems to be channeling another of my favorite “girl singers” from Texas: Lucinda Williams on this album. This comparison doesn’t approach mimicry but comes awfully close on “Dream Lover”. As stated, that’s not really a bad thing given the power of Williams’s art. But it does suggest that the steam of Ms. Gilkyson’s creative engine is a bit thinner after a whirlwind decade of creating new and original new music.

Still, a great listen from a great folk artist.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Dance by Teague Alexy (2012. Consider It Correspondence Music.)

So my twenty-four year old son Chris buys me a great locally produced (home-grown if you will) CD by The Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank. I write a review and post it on this little blog. One half of the Nephews emails his appreciation and asks me to give a listen to his new solo CD. I agree. And here we are.

There’s much to like on Teague Alexy’s This Dance. First off, if you’re like me, and you enjoy the whimsy of say, Randy Newman, with a bit of Greg Brown growl thrown in for good measure, than you’re gonna love Teague’s voice. If not, too bad. Why? Well, because this new release is so chock full of great guitar licks and well constructed songs, that if you don’t like Teague’s voice (as I said, I do), you might make a mistake and tune out. That would be a shame because, as the title to this review says quite plainly, this is music that even old men will like.

“The Raggedy Hat of John Henry” kicks off this assortment of blues and folk tunes (all originals, which is another damn reason to buy the CD: folks who do their own dirty work deserve to be rewarded). It’s a fine song standing on its own but as a lead in to the rest of this musical adventure, it’s a great choice. You see, making albums (yes, even in these days of MP3’s, I still consider a release by a musician to be, in the parlance of old hippies, “an album”) isn’t just pressing tunes into pieces of plastic and hawking them at your next gig. It’s about pulling out all stops to say something, to create something lasting. That’s the thing: Alexy’s latest effort does that with seamless effort.

This isn’t to say we’re talking vintage Bob Dylan here, though, given the breadth of the playing, writing, and singing on this release, it’s a comparison that could be made. Such praise might not hold up to close scrutiny but, given the strength of most of the cuts on this CD, there are similarities to be noted between the bard of Hibbing and the ongoing development of this young singer-songwriter. A good example of the level of musical prowess that weaves its way through the songs in this collection can be found on “Mainline” where a jangly banjo adds a bluegrass flare to a nice little ditty that, while it won’t change the world or start a revolution, is pleasing to the ears.

All in all, this is a good, solid bit of songwriting and music making from one of Duluth’s up and comers. You can catch Teague live, at the CD release show for This Dance at the new saloon in town, Tycoons, on April 28th. The time hasn’t been set (at least as of the writing of this review) so keep an eye out for updates and head down to Old Downtown to get your bogey on.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traveling Show by the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank (2009. Consider it Correspondence Music.)

Little Duluth is on fire when it comes to music. I’ve already profiled the latest album by that Duluth-based icon of slow rock, Low (see review archives for a full review). Next up will be my take on Duluth roots musician and guitarist, Charlie Parr’s 2010 effort, When the Devil Goes Blind. But today, I’ll let you in on a secret: The Hobo Nephews can write and play authentic roots music, pulling out all stops in a musical compendium that includes aspects of John Prine’s vocals, Wilco’s musicianship, and The Band’s grit. Really. These guys are that good.

My son Chris has talked quite a bit about both the Nephews as a band and Teague Alexy (one of the two Alexy brothers who make up the trio know as the Hobo Nephews) as a solo act. Chris has tried (without success) to drag me to see Teague at Beaner’s or other local venues. For whatever reason, I haven’t made it out to see Alexy or his brother, Ian, who joins Teague in the Hobo Nephews. Now I know what I’ve been missing: The two Alexy brothers play some mean guitar and write some mighty fine songs. Add percussionist Paul Grill to the mix and you’ve got a fine, fine trio. Filling out the album is also a fine constellation of players, adding pedal steel, strings, mandolin, banjo, horns, and keyboards when the songs demand.

From the opening cut, “Traveling Show” to “Daddy’s Coming Home”, this disc is full of lyrical genius and just plain home-cooked playing. “Old Friends and Rent Checks” is such a spot on tribute to John Prine (including the mandolin playing of Erik Berry) you’d swear it was Prine himself behind the lyric and the voice. “Memphis in Your Head” brings to mind Levon Helm and The Band, especially with the Wurlitzer adding texture to the driving beat of the song. The country flavor of “A Long Time to be Gone” makes the grade as either a terrific road or country song: you decide. And “In the Morning” has got that toe-tapping feel of the best of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco.

The production of this album doesn’t match the lushness of Low’s latest, but given the rockabilly leanings of the Nephews, one wouldn’t expect the same level of sonic artistry. My only criticism? At times the vocals twang a too much and thin out some. But that, in the end, is part of the charm of the group.

The CD comes with a DVD which is a bit odd in pace and direction but has one great scene of the band busking on a stairway in Brooklyn. That cut is worth sitting through the rest of the video and redeems the project, in my eyes. For those of us who don’t know much about the Nephews, a more straight on documentary of their touring and their recording sessions would have been welcome.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. One of the best out of Duluth I’ve ever listened to!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C’mon by Low (2011. Subpop Records)

Lush. Elegant. Original. Ethereal. Orchestral.

These are adjectives that come to mind when listening to the latest studio effort by Duluth’s beloved home grown slow rock group, Low. I’ll be honest. I’ve always liked Low: Years ago I watched them do a live radio show for KUWS at the Marshall Performing Arts Center on the UMD campus and I knew the group was special. But I also realized, given my native Duluth fatalism, that Low was likely too good for us. And until I bought the group’s current CD at the Fetus, I didn’t own any of their music. Maybe I was skeptical of their loyalty; convinced that they would leave us for bright lights and a bigger paycheck. After all, Duluth ain’t the Twin Cities and whenever someone with talent begins to make a name for himself or herself as a writer, musician, artist, athlete, or whatever, they rarely stick around. Oh, folks not from Duluth, now they’ll move here and put down roots and keep making music or art or dancing in the Duluth Ballet. But native Duluthians with talent? The legacy of such folks has been a constant migration to places where the weather’s warmer and the money’s better. Not so with Low. They, along with our other truly national musical talent, Trampled by Turtles, still call Duluth home. So it’s with a certain amount of chest-puffing pride that I proclaim: This album is the best of 2011. Hands down. Any genre. Any language. Anywhere.

Mimi Parker, Alan Sparhawk, and Steve Garrington have cobbled together as good a musical moment as you’re going to experience. Comparing C’mon to another album by another artist just doesn’t do the effort justice. From the opening strains of “Try to Sleep” to the closing bars of the Wilcoesque “Something’s Turning Over”, the vocals, arrangements, and musicianship on this effort shine through. The lyrics are simple. There’s nothing about the words on C’mon that will have Dylan or Young or Chapin-Carpenter (or any other noted lyricist) shaking in his or her boots. But you know what? It doesn’t matter a lick. A great example of this is “Nothing but Heart”. There can’t be more than twenty different words tops used in the tune but Sparhawk’s guitar work, Parker’s background vocals, and Garrington’s bass playing create a sensory experience that more than makes up for the sparseness of the lyrics.

I couldn’t find a weak link in this chain of original, well-crafted music. Not a one.

I always try to imagine which ten albums, CD or vinyl, I’d want with me if shipwrecked on a desert island. Mountain’s Flowers of Evil is an easy pick. Blond on Blond by Dylan is another. Live Rust by Neil Young is a likely “yes”. I’m pretty sure C’mon is now on that list.

You can learn more about Low’s music at: http://chairkickers.com/.

5 stars out of 5.

 

 

 

 

 

Ride On by Ring of Kerry (2011. Ring of Kerry Music)

Wow. That’s the only word that I can use to describe the impact of this new effort from the boys (plus one girl) from the Cliffs of the Mississippi (the bandmates call the St. Cloud area of Minnesota home). Ring of Kerry has always been a personal favorite of mine because I consider their “utility player” Paul (aka The Stringman) Imholte to be a friend. This Celtic band’s prior releases (check out http://www.ringofkerry.us/ for details) were musically appealing, well-crafted efforts. But the addition of female vocalist-flutist Karie Oberg has lifted the band from the merely good and brought it into the realms of Celtic musical glory. Oberg’s polished, yet home-spun voice is just what the band needed to bring it to the next level of performance.

When I heard Oberg sing (with the band in complete unity behind her) the title track, “Ride On” at the Duluth Home and Builders Show earlier this year, I knew Ring of Kerry was on to something special. The texture of Oberg’s solo voice, mixed with the gruff vocals of the male band members, is spot on. Most times, hearing a tune live can’t be replicated in the recording studio: That’s not the case here. “Ride On” shines through as a stellar track on the disk, just as it did in concert.

The male members of Ring contribute ably to the totality of the work as well. Charlie Roth’s version of “Utley Mill Song” and “Holy Mother of God” (a hauntingly beautiful piece) also hit the mark as does Paul Blondell’s effort on “Ordinary Man”. And, as with the prior Ring of Kerry albums (to use an old term from my days of spinning vinyl), the instrumental pieces and the musicianship behind all the cuts on Ride On are top notch.

If you’re a fan of Celtic music, don’t miss this one. You won’t be able to put Karie Oberg’s rendition of the title track out of your mind. I hope Garrison Keillor is reading…

5 stars out of 5.

 

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