In the year and a half since her first solo release, Chimneys And Fishes, Susannah Weaver: Little Sue, has gigged incessantly— maturing both as a vocalist and a songwriter. While still sticking close to her traditional Country/Bluegrass roots, here she incorporates elements of Folk, Rock, Pop, Blues and Dixieland into her presentation as well. With the aid of producer/drummer Gregg Williams, she creates a distinctive mood and sound on nearly all of the ten tracks.
As was the case on the last record, Sue has enlisted the services of a plethora of local musical illuminaries, most of whom emanate from the Laurelthirst constellation; including among many others, violinist Marilee Hord and banjomeister Kevin Richey from Golden Delicious, mandolinist Mick Chegwidden, Mike Danner, here on accordion; bassist Phil Baker and Tim Ellis, here on mandolin; Warren Pash on keys; Nancy Hess and Lara Mitchell on backing vocals. Each artist adds a distinctive flourish to the highly stylized arrangements.
And, as with the first outing, Little Sue’s songs are simple affairs, without a lot of complex structures or elaborate constructions— that nick bits and pieces of old popular songs without being plageristic. There is a certain reverence in her subtle lifting of familiar melodic phrases and passages; although the possibility exists too that her references come from an unconscious muse rather than from some ulterior musical intention. Still, “Nilsson,” her tribute to he late great Harry, manages to capture a great deal of what was appealing about his music during his “Me And My Arrow” period of the early ’70s.
The album kicks off with the chugging train of “Down To You.” Over Williams’ insistently cheerful beat, regular band bassist Bill Rudolph and ubiquitous multi-instrumentalist Paul Brainard, here playing mournful pedal steel and jaunty dobro guitar licks, Sue joins in with her warm and friendly contralto and chortling falsetto, detailing the complex relationship she shares with longtime friend, Big Sue (see June ’97 TL review).
The dark majesty of the title track is enhanced by keen acoustic string textures. Sue’s dainty acoustic guitar, Brainard’s vaporous dobro, Hord’s ethereal fiddle and Baker’s Pastoral stand-up bass lines. Sue weaves a cryptic lyric, the clarity of which, over four verses becomes as focused as a spider web in the sunlight.
“I’ll grow weeds when the winds turn/And I’ll grow them tonight/In the dark with a spade/I will dig an early grave/In the candlelight.” This line of thinking is carried out to “You’ll eat crow when the truth is learned/And you’ll have crow tonight/And I will be set free/From the lies you put on me/When the wrong was right.”
The gently laid-back “Sweetie” benefits from a delightful bridge, replete with Beatlesque vocal harmonies snatched from “Octopuss’ Garden,” and instrumental elements reminiscent of “Wild Honey Pie.” And the lovely ballad, “Strong” which Sue co-wrote with Hess, calls to mind Shawn Colvin meeting Aimee Mann in the gorgeous choruses and well-wrought bridge. A hit song, with countless elegant instrumental flourishes coloring every turn and phrase. Simply wonderful.
Reminiscent of the song “Strength Of Strings” from the solo work of the late Byrd Gene Clark, “Warning Trains” also bears connections to Neil Young’s early work with Crazy Horse, as well as Mike Nesmith’s post-Monkee Country stylings, as Sue steers through with winsome weary vocals that bespeak the plaintive quality of the instrumental arrangement.
“In The Morning” cops directly from Donovan’s early hit, “Colours,” making a slight turn away from incrimination at crucial moments. “Ode To Lynnie Mae” is a ghostly little chanty, mandolin and accordion vying for the spotlight with Sue’s laconic vocal twang and rattlesnake male backup vocals in the choruses. Swampy. “Down” is a cleverly written piece of interpersonal analysis, with smart lyrical insights all along the way. The final track, “These Days,” begins with a strange and moody vocal intro, before evolving into a Dixieland blues send-up of the highest order.
Little Sue Weaver has made great strides in the past couple of years in carving for herself an intrinsic stylistic niche, which affords her an identity: albeit sometimes a tad wan and wistful. Still, her unerring melodic gift and her knack for occasional lyrical discernment and perceptive introspection gives life to an unique voice. This wonderfully produced album is deserving of radio airplay— KINK being the obvious choice there. Likewise, it is deserving of wide public recognition as being a finely crafted piece of work.
Tired Of Drowning
In the year since their five-song demo release, Elisabeth Ames and the Countrypolitans have firmed up their lineup while solidifying musically, achieving much of the promise they exhibited on the maiden voyage. Concentrating on a traditional Patsy Cline Country sound, with alt.country accouterments along the lines of the Cowboy Junkies. It’s an interesting mix, with producer Tim Ellis laying the slapback echo onto most tracks as if it were barbecue sauce being slathered onto a roasting rack of steer, culminating in a sound that seems lifted directly from mid-Fifties Carl Perkins albums.
Elisabeth has a voice as smooth and warm as a jar full of Southern Comfort. And the band exhibits a lot of Country pluck, while Rock sensibilities occasionally emerge from . The songs, mostly written by Ames, while always maintaining a proximity to classic Country structures and subject matter, nearly always get a wild hair and veer off into a 21st century perspective; giving the material a bit of a fresh (if often somewhat depressing) outlook.
For in this version of Country hell, the drunks attend AA meetings and find a sort of “religion” through introspection and self-actualization. Merle Haggard turf it ain’t. Yet it would seem that Elisabeth has walked through that neighborhood a time or two on her way to an uneasy sobriety. In all of her songs, she examines her relationships as if Tammy Wynette had a degree in Clinical Psychology: coming to the same conclusions, but from a specifically non-trailer trash standpoint.
The album kicks off with the title track, a lazy honkytonk number, fleshed out by Geoff Clarkson’s rubbery guitar lines and Pete Burak’s pedal steel musings, as Elisabeth confronts a relationship in the final throes of co-dependent entropy. “Tears’ll Be Pouring” shares its structure with “Six Days On The Road,” but slowed down. The tune benefits greatly from one of Rosie Flores several guest stints as backup vocalist. Hank Rasco and Jean Pierre Garau throw out Jerry Lee Lewis inflected piano riffs.
“The Lights Of Town” seemingly takes Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” and sets it on its ear, with satisfying results. Flores’ appearance on “Instant Love” makes for a pleasing sort of Everley Sisters effect. The “El Paso” flavored “I Took The Blame” and ” I Can’t Behave” seem like opposite sides of the same coin somehow, neatly illustrating Elisabeth’s ambivalence regarding relationships in general.
With Flores and guest lead vocalist Dale Watson adding a Haggard-like weariness to his parts, “Basic Information” stands as the best cut of the set, with some fine lead guitar work by Watson and Clarkson. Bassist Roger Conley steps up to the vocal mic on the final track with the somewhat predictable “Truck Drivin’ Daddy.” And Clarkson sits in the driver’s seat with the instrumental bonus track “Daybreak In Vegas.”
The Countrypolitans don’t exactly break any new instrumental ground on this outing. But they play well and play well together. Elisabeth Ames has an alluring voice, if somewhat lacking in real emotional connection with her material, despite the fact that her songs seem to have a great deal of personal flotsam floating around in them.
Still, the band shows improvement and cohesiveness over their initial effort. And they seem to know the direction in which they wish to go. There is every reason to believe that they will continue to improve as they mature.
One of several prime motivational forces behind the Treefrogs, singer/guitarist Bourke serves up five well-crafted tunes here that display a wider stylistic range than exhibited with his former mates. He is joined by several former Frogs, as well as an assortment of other Laurelthirst-affiliated musicians. The result is a finely wrought piece of Americana. Intelligent and heartfelt.
“Trouble” features former Crackpots, bassist Bill Rudolph and drummer Johnny Lambert and some wonderfully unusual solo slide mandolin work by the erstwhile Dan Haley, as John Henry moves through a sort of Fogarty/Creedence groove laid over the Stones’ “Dead Flowers.” Former Frog Bill Leeds tosses in gentle harmonies across John Henry’s pleasant tenor, as a tale unwinds of misplaced values and shattered dreams.
John Henry and Leeds are joined by Frog brothers drummer Jeff Duffy and saxman Rob Matthews on the rousing “Charlie Parker.” a loving tribute to the bedeviled saxman, and perhaps the spirit of artistic freedom that he represents. A strong chorus and a high level of musical energy throughout call to mind some of the better work of the Dave Matthews Band. A very cool number.
“Augustine” is a wayward riverboat of a tune, along the lines of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Crackpot Bobby Soxx contributes a drowsy lap steel, as Chris Kokesh lays down soulful fiddle fills and the peripatetic Wayne Thompson interjects artful accordion interludes. Another memorable chorus lodges itself in the brain of the listener, a sweet, gospel-tinged confection, with multiple tiers of rich background vocals.
Duffy kicks off “Backseat Driver” with a spirited, dashing beat as John Henry chimes in on the acoustic guitar, his voice ringing out, “I taught four and twenty blackbirds/to weave a crown of sonnets for your hair/And I fed them all my kind words/So they might sing you love songs while I’m not there.” Again, noteworthy vocal harmonies unite for an impressive chorus, the construction of which John Henry seems to have mastered. He consistently demonstrates a knack for solid turns and tuneful choruses.
The simple, straightforward, simply pretty “Your Belated Birthday Present,” Bourke combines the best traits of quality songwriters such as Danny O’Keefe, Kenny Loggins and Paul Simon, in expressing a complex ambivalence regarding a once and ongoing relationship. Leeds’ Garfunkelish vocal harmonies add just the right touch. A piquant little gem.
John Henry Bourke distinguishes himself as a talented songwriter and a satisfying purveyor of his material. His smart arrangements and assured productions cast each song in the best light. This is very nice stuff.
Acoustic Guitar Summit
Accent On Music
The concept of a guitar quartet, is a tradition in Flamenco music that is seldom elsewhere explored (outside of the occasional Jazz foray), and for very good reason. It is not at all difficult to imagine the wanking ego catastrophes that could possibly ensue, four riff mad six-string slingers dueling for the spotlight, lightning riffs falling off the fingerboard at a furious pace. But in the eight hands of true guitar masters, such as Terry Robb, Doug Smith, Mark Hanson and Paul Chasman, the concept receives renewed vitality. Through inordinately unselfish playing, they investigate style as varied as the backgrounds each of them brings to the picnic. The fact of the matter is that the four of them rarely play on the same cut, but rather split up into solo and duo configurations in a successful attempt at showcasing the highly diverse talents of each member.
The selection of material is equally manifold, ranging from original compositions in a multitude of forms, to Smith’s splendid arrangement of pieces such as Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” and his flawless rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars And Stripes Forever,” to Robb’s strength: Acoustic Blues transcriptions. It is no coincidence that each member of the AGS is a technician and teacher in his particular guitar realm. Any student of the instrument would find much to learn from this wonderful project.
The group begins with a four-way split on the standard “Bye Bye Blues,” taking up with the song where Les Paul left off with it in the early ’50s. Each of the guys takes a solo turn, with precise, pristine runs abounding; still allowing for the various subtleties of individual technique. Smith leads the band through a medley of the ’50s chestnut “Apache” and a smoldering version of “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.” Chasman’s beautiful slurred harmonic in the intro (just try that one out!) sequence adds to the delicate majesty of the former, Hanson adds slide mandolin (he and Dan Haley, from John Henry’s project must hang out in similar circles) in response to Smith’s lead line on the latter.
Smith is nicely supported by Hanson on his tune “Sunday Sonata,” which combines essences of Folk, Jazz and Classical into a pleasant potpourri. Chasman and Robb nail John D. Loudermilk’s “Windy And Warm,” suffusing it with a rich folk and delta blues flavor not explored as fully on other versions. Smith and Chasman team up on “Clair De Lune,” seemingly each playing either the left or right hand parts of the piano composition— something very difficult for two people to do precisely, with any synchronicity. This is a lovely excursion into color and tone.
Hanson’s “Sweet Rotunda” mirrors “Sunday Sonata” in many ways, while Robb’s solo efforts on “Gramma Jean” and “Cascade Lightning” allow him to demonstrate his chops as a fingerpicker. “Steel Guitar Rag” affords Robb the opportunity to trot out his best lap steel licks. Hanson’s solo expedition, “Drake’s Passage,” is a very pretty little ditty, a haunting modal sketch. Chasman’s solo ode to his grandson “Grandpa’s Boy, ” fuses Jazz and Blues idioms with a sterling technique, creating a happy, sunny mood. The boys unite again for a couple of rounds of rousing solos on the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” finding a lot of room to move within the tight strictures of the chord progression.
The Acoustic Guitar Summit is an entirely enjoyable and instructional undertaking, that offers rich rewards at every turn. The amassed years of knowledge this quartet shares must be far in excess of a century. The tributarial influences that are assimilated into this recording are practically incalcuable; but this group delineates each style with extraordinary poise and assurance.
The Starlings are fronted by vocalist Ms. KT Kincaid with able assistance from guitarist Mr. Joe Baker. These names seem vaguely familiar, like from the early ’80s scene or something: like the Neo Boys or Sado Nation, or in that circle of bands. And they sound as if they come from that era with their rough-hewn Western approach. They kind of sound like John Doe and Exene fronting Lone Justice. Not a bad thing, not at all. Authentic. And real. But different.
With Josh Kirby manning the bass and Dave LyBarger on drums, the Starlings are a tad on the sloppy side, a beat is dropped here, a chord muffed there. And some of the songs could use a little more development. But others, such as “Sinner Man,” which takes its cue from “Ghost Riders In The Sky” (with the solo taken from the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard”). As Kinkaid wails a plaintive plaint, Baker tosses in some fine guitar licks. “NE Morris” is an eerie Spanish flavored number with cool guitar parts. Very early ’60s Surf.
Along similar lines is “Dear Daughters” with it’s Gypsy Flamenco feel. Kinkaid’s voice recalls Joan Baez’ early days. A good song. “Right On” takes a swamp song and puts a Surf beat behind for interesting results. “You Say” doesn’t quite hit the slapback Country mark at which they aim, but it’s an interesting experiment. “Sentimental Girl” throws Kinkaid’s Country-driven acoustic guitar over Baker’s Soul-flavored riff. This almost works too.
“Brother” holds together fairly on an instrumental plane, but the Kinkaid’s vocals fall short in spots. “Kristen” is a way too predictable on a structural level. “Tim’s Song” is a little better, but suffers from some of the same maladies.
“Hallelujah” is more of a send up, but there’s no doubt where it’s going.
The Starlings have positive aspects. Baker’s guitar parts are usually inventive and engaging, if not always entirely on the money. Kinkaid has her moments, but her pitch has a tendency to wander. The rhythm section could use some tightening. The songs need work on a melodic level. Also the occasional “surprise” chord change here and there would be helpful.
But there are things to like about the band. If they were willing to commit themselves to some intensive rehearsal, to get their chops down, and to refine their songs to sound more original and less familiar— they could become a good little band.