November 2010

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Living Room Songs — Track 14: “Buckin Horse Rider” by Corb Lund from Five Dollar Bill

Corb Lund is someone whom I will try to promote whenever I have a chance. I think he’s great and, in general, I like his songs better the more I listen to them. His songs are frequently immaculately crafted and often clever, but that never gets in the way of them feeling true.

This is definitely an example of that, a song written from personal experienced, but one in which every line is perfectly constructed but in an understated way.

This song was actually important in helping me clarify my sense of this mix. Very early on I knew that I wanted to include something by Corb (of course) and probably something off of Five Dollar Bill. As I was listening through the album to select a song I realized that several of the songs that I liked, such as “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots”, had drums on them and that just didn’t feel right. So I went with this track partially because it didn’t have any drums and then, thinking about it, I realized that, of course people don’t generally bring a drum kit when they’re going to play music at somebody’s house, and that was when I really started thinking of this as “living room songs.” The irony is that the person who’s invitation got me to put this mix together is a drummer, so I feel slightly bad about then making a mix with no drums on it.

This is a good opportunity to say that I recently found a complete Corb Lund house concert on youtube starting here. It isn’t necessarily his best performance, the setting is very casual, it can feel low-energy rather than intimate, and some of the songs suffer from the absence of a band. But I really liked hearing him perform earlier material next to more recent songs and it made me like the newer stuff better than I had. It also brings the anti-war elements of the songs from Horse Soldier to the surface in ways that I appreciate.

Appropriately for this track his performance of “Buckin’ Horse Rider” is great and very personal and if you watch the video to the end he introduces the next song, from Horse Soldier, “Student Visas” and both the introduction and the song have more raw emotion than the album version. His singing on the chorus, “There ain’t no fun in killing folk and I don’t want to do no more.” is heartbreaking.

Living Room Songs — Track 13: “I’ve Always Wanted to Sing (In Renfro Valley)” by Mac Wiseman & The Osborne Brothers

This track is a guilty pleasure, so there’s not too much to say about it.

The song has obvious flaws; the lyrics are hokey and somewhat blandly nostalgic (except for the line that I’ve quoted as the title of the post, which seems like a weird thing to say).

But the singing and playing are so gorgeous and have such energy that I can’t complain. I took this track off a greatest hits compilation and from that CD it was, by far, the song in which the performances were most lively and full of pleasure.

It’s sort of irresistible.

Having just encouraged everybody to buy an album in my last post, I have another one to recommend.

I have mentioned before that, when I get a new album, my general approach is to listen the first couple of times in very general way. I try to get a sense of the mood, themes, and high points of the album so that gradually I learn what I should be paying attention to, and figuring out both the best mood and perspective to appreciate the album, and also how it works.

I just got “Blood and Candle Smoke” by Tom Russell (not to be confused with Tom Rush). It’s the first album of his that I’ve heard, and it’s great and one of the things that most impresses me about the album is how brilliantly sequenced it is, and how the album progresses. Listening to it felt like one of the most surprising, involving, and emotional first listening that I’ve had in a long time, because the album took me through the process that I described as it progressed. Listening to it I felt like, without me working at all, it was teaching me as the album progressed how to listen to it.

Putting it on for the first time, the first couple of songs were good, but felt just a little bit obvious. The told stories — interesting ones, and well crafted, but they didn’t surprise much. I found myself feeling a little bit disappointing, at that point, that it seemed well crafted but not as smart as it could be, it seemed like it just lacked the extra effort that takes a song from competent workmanship to a performance. Little did I realize that that they were just setting me up.

The most important way in which the album progresses is the relationship between Tom Russell and the band. AMG describes the production on this album as being different from anything he had done before and so it’s particularly impressive that it succeeds so completely:

Co-produced with Craig Schumacher, and cut at Wave Lab Studios in Tucson with members of Calexico and others, it sounds like nothing else in his catalog. Russell played his guitar and sang live with the band, providing little direction and allowing the musicians to open up a natural space around him. Instrumentally, this collaboration employs everything from mariachi and jazz horn sections, reverbed electric guitars, organic acoustics, and miniscule drum kits to hand percussion, marimbas, accordions, talking drums, Vox organs, and Rhodes pianos. The backing and duet vocals by songwriter Gretchen Peters add warmth, depth, dimension, and presence to Russell’s songs.

However it was that Russell invited the band to be willing to take creative authority on some songs they more than rise to the occasion. In the first half of the album they provide excellent backing for Tom Russell with plenty of power on “Santa Ana Wind” and drive on “Criminology” but as you go deeper into the album they feel more and more like full creative partners, and the songs become less story-like, less linear, and more directly emotional.

Take, as an example, “Mississippi River Runnin’ Backwards” the song almost exactly at the mid-point of the album. You can hear some of the progression that I’m talking about within the course of the song. The song is about New Orleans after Katrina. It starts with a quotation from “Old Man River” and a scene-setting opening verse which work but, again, feel constructed (and make me think back to Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927″) but the song really lands (like a punch) when it gets to the chorus for the second time, when the backup-vocals answer his call of “everybody sing” and the band plays with so much energy and so much ache at the same time, it pays off the emotional promise of the verses. At that moment the song is great, with no qualifications necessary.

I will warn you that, for some reason, the .mp3 conversion isn’t kind to the song. The texture and depth of the music are lacking and, in particular, the piano is rich sounding in the original recording and thin and slightly tiny in the .mp3. But, really, buy the album — it’s worth it. It’s good and it’s surprising. What more can you ask for?

As one last note, I was realizing that it would be convenient for me to try to finish up the Living Room Songs post by Thanksgiving. So I will pick up the pace on that, so I encourage everybody to keep checking in.

Update: Link to song added.

Pure

Living Room Songs — Track 12: Leather Britches by Wayne Henderson from Made And Played.

I’ve mentioned Wayne Henderson once before, and I will recommend this album to anybody who thinks they might be interested. There are a couple of things that impress me about Wayne’s playing. The first is that it’s so relaxed, there is never any sense of effort impeding the sound. Secondly, an related, he can play quickly without being rushed. This track doesn’t particularly show off that aspect of his playing, but it sounds like he can fit as many notes as he wants in a line, without any of them being cramped. There’s always plenty of time for each note, however short, to be complete, fully formed, and precise. Finally, his sound is so clean and pure.

As the title of the album implies (and the associated book explains) Wayne Henderson is famous for his ability as a guitar builder, and is playing a guitar that he made. I don’t know whether to give more credit to his ability as a craftsman or a musician for the tone, but listening to it, it seems impossible to imagine that this sound could be in anyway something other than exactly what he wants.

Nothing more to say, really, except that the whole album is that good, and worth getting a copy of.

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