A day for those who often must go it alone.
I got terribly giddy when I noted a nice connection, despite the random selection of the reviews immediately following, between Sam Baker and Ellis Paul on their two latest albums. It was entirely serendipidous, synchronistic even. We’ll round out the day with short reviews of Jon Shain and Rickie Lee Jones.
[Music Road MRRCD104 (2009)]
Few musicians can claim to have overcome adversity in the way Sam Baker has. He survived a terrorist attack in Peru at the age of 32 that left him partially deaf and mangled his body and the language and memory centers of his brain. Baker had to learn how to play guitar left-handed, but, more importantly, had to learn a new way of approaching speech and singing. The result is an idiosyncratic vocal delivery that adds a sense of discovery and spontaneity to even the simplest of his lyrics.
Cotton, the third album in Baker’s trilogy, which includes 2004’s Mercy and 2007’s Pretty World, is a song cycle about forgiveness filled with beautiful arrangements and interwoven lyrics. Sometimes the connections between songs are obvious. “Dixie,” arranged as an a cappella round, starts off the album. It precedes the title track, about a cotton picker and his son. And the line “Look away” appears later in the album on “Moon.”
The centerpieces of the album, though, are “Palestine I” and “Palestine II,” which tell the story of a pulp logger and his wife (both 16) meeting the Nazarene at a tent revival. Their daughter, RoseofSharon, runs off with a bible salesman when she’s 16. She calls her mother from a pay phone across the state line, saying “It’s not exactly what I dreamed.” “Palestine I” (which appears second on the album) is the less narrative of the two, but is an excellent example of how well Baker’s hesitant delivery highlights small details:
A summer dress
He burns to save her soul
He burns to wash her clean
Behind the tent in Palestine.
Baker’s simple guitar playing throughout is bolstered by a somewhat unusual string section of pedal steel, cello, upright bass, octave violin, and violin and by some particularly affecting piano playing by Grammy nominee and veteran session musician Steve Conn. A quartet of backing singers provide some much-needed texture to the vocals.
It’s not necessary to know Sam Baker’s backstory to appreciate his music, but knowing makes the already impressive songwriting on Cotton all the more wondrous. [www.sambakermusic.com]
Times Right Now
North Carolina-based singer-songwriter Jon Shain has turned out a decade’s worth of excellent solo albums since his 1999 CD Brand New Lifetime. His latest project, Times Right Now, opens with a remembrance of things past—Shain’s arrangement of the traditional blues tune “James Alley Blues.” The track brings to mind Shain’s time in the ’80s backing Piedmont blues artist Big Boy Henry. Though Shain cannot rightly be characterized as a blues player, this genre is definitely a part of his musical foundation, and when he does cover a blues number, he does so convincingly. The track “Little Flower,” on the other hand, brings to mind Shain’s rock ’n’ roll days with his bands Flyin’ Mice and Wake. His elegant, uncomplicated cover of “Careless Love” touches Shain’s appreciation for traditional, acoustic folk tunes. The remainder of the record features a blend of Shain originals and several songs he co-wrote with producer Jackson Hall. One of the best tracks, “Spinning Compass,” is typical of Shain’s mature work. The song offers a wistful vibe underwriting an introspective lyric, propelled by a subtle, adroit guitar and Shain’s earthy voice. Another choice number, “Clementine,” is a remarkably tuneful waltz, featuring a poignant lyric and an inspired arrangement buoyed by Alan MacEwen’s stellar trumpet.
Times Right Now is the best possible way for an artist such as Jon Shain to embark on the second decade of his solo career. The album is superbly tight, and the songwriting is sincere and truly literate. Shain is working at a level of mastery that only comes from innate talent and years of dedication to his art. [www.jonshain.com]
—Philip Van Vleck (Cary, NC)
Rickie Lee Jones
Balm in Gilead
[Fantasy Records FAN-31760-02 (2009)]
Is it possible to have a retrospective album of songs that you’ve never released? Apparently that’s what Rickie Lee Jones has done here; she opened her drawer and either finished songs left undone for decades or finally recorded them. The opener “Wild Girl” didn’t make it onto Flying Cowboys, but it was about space or whim, not quality. “Old Enough,” a duet with Ben Harper, recalls a mellow moment on her debut 30 years ago. “The Moon Is Made of Gold,” written by her father, could be from the musical interlude of late ’40s romantic comedy. “His Jeweled Floor” is improbably tinged by Appalachian gospel, and “Blue Ghazel” will put on spell on you. There’s no belting here, just Jones’s inimitable phrasing giving just enough and letting you know it’s her and no one else. [www.rickieleejones.com]
—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)
The Day After Everything Changed
[Black Wolf BW0010 (2010)]
Reaching out to fans for the funds to record his 14th solo album, The Day After Everything Changed, Ellis Paul collected more than $100,000. With the realization of his most expansive outing, the Maine-born and Charlottesville, Virginia-based singer/songwriter more than repays the generosity. Recorded mostly in Nashville and produced by Music City producers Thad Beaty and Jason Collum, the album showcases Paul’s soft-toned vocals and light-as-air songwriting in a genre-hopping blend of folk balladry, modern pop, electronica, and hip-hop.
With most of the album’s 15 tracks written during the month and a half after the birth of Paul’s second daughter, including five songs written with Kristian Bush of folk-rock band Sugarland, the album is a musical treatise on change and impermanence. Whether it’s the falling in and out of love, the failure of the economy, a natural catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, or the ending of a war, the 14-time Boston Music Award winner sings of a world in turmoil. While he mostly uses a near-whispering tone as though letting listeners in on a secret, Paul steps beyond himself with a folk-rocking medley of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Sam Baker’s “Change.” [www.ellispaul.com]
—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)
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