Sunday, March 15, 2015

Then Came the Morning, by the Lone Bellow (Album of the Week)

The Lone Bellow’s sophomore album, “Then Came the Morning”, is an earnest effort that annoys more than it hooks.  By the time they start rhyming “Telluride” with “hell you ride”, it doesn’t matter how much you enjoy harmonies and guitar work – you want this album to end.  It doesn’t.  It limps on for three more songs, and extinguishes itself with a lifeless, plodding ditty called “I Let You Go” which wastes some really nice guitar work in a song that doesn’t deserve it. 

This album has every trick in the Americana playbook.  In “Fake Roses”, you get a character study of a jilted woman living with fake roses (OMG, the rich SYMBOLISM!!) and postcards of Elvis.  And she watches TV.  The whole tedious exercise ends with the instruments dropping away for a virtually a cappella ending.  It’s like a satire of the Americana genre.

“Watch Over Us” starts out with humming over an acoustic guitar.  It kind of makes me retroactively go back and hate the Cowboy Junkies because it makes their techniques seem heavy-handed now.

“Call to War” is a generic anti-war piece that hints at a Confederate sympathy, but it’s hard to assign hard meaning to “’til the southern wind puts me six feet down/my feet will march to holy ground.”  The whole thing is strung together like that – images that don’t really add up to anything, but sound like they ought to.

This album would probably be a lot better if you didn’t listen to it as an album.  Taken as a whole, its lapses in judgment and phrases of ludicrous lyrics accumulate and lead to eye-rolling.  Taken individually and freed from guilt by association, I can imagine that several of these songs would sound fine. 

David Allan Coe famously performed a song written by John Prine and Steven Goodman that described the perfect country-and-western song:

I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick'er up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a damned ol' train.

The Lone Bellow’s “Then Came the Morning” might be considered the perfect Americana album in the same satirical light.  Torturously slow vocals, check.  Steel guitar, check.  Ham-fisted imagery, check.  Harmonizing everywhere, check.  Forced rhymes, check.

At Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin is much more kind than I am, though she finds herself confused by the multiple styles represented.

In closing, I should reiterate that the songs of this album are not as bad as I’m making them sound.  Individually, you will probably like a few of these songs.  But this is a review of an album, and it’s simply not a very good one.

Next up: New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City, by Liberty Brass Band, Treme Brass Band, Hot 8 Brass Band

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tangier Sessions, by Sir Richard Bishop (Album of the Week)

As the circle of my musical knowledge grows, so does the circumference of my ignorance.  Chancing upon a thumbnail description of Sir Richard Bishop’s Tangier Sessions expanded my knowledge by introducing me to an apparently famous (?) guitarist I had never heard of, formerly a member of a band I had never heard of, playing a middle-eastern style of guitar sound to which I had never listened.

Listening to this acoustic, solo, instrumental album raised a whole lot more questions than it offered answers.  Fortunately, the music was beautiful, and the absence of lyrics allowed my mind to wander on paths both productive and idle.  In the first few listens, I had no choice but to listen without prejudice – I couldn’t compare it to prior work, I couldn’t compare it to competing artists, I couldn’t assess its fidelity to tradition.  Just me, my ears, and my wandering mind.

I loved it – it presents a smoothly enjoyable range of melodies that meander easily without lapsing into predictability.  While most of it is calm enough to serenade a dentist’s waiting room, it’s no lullaby.  “Safe House” has a heart-racing urgency that suggests danger or romance.  “Mirage” has a tension that could serve as background music for a spaghetti western draw down in Dodge City.

Having done a touch of Googling, I can report that Sir Richard Bishop is not some pampered Brit aristocrat.  He’s a globe-trotting guitarist originally from the USA.  The story behind this album is that he happened upon this guitar in a shop in Geneva, decided he couldn’t afford it, but ultimately needed to have it.  He returned, bought it, took it to Tangier and recorded this album over a week in an apartment in the old section of the city.  It’s a good story, and I hope it’s true.

Now for the ignorance part.  I’ve never been to Tangier.  I’ve never played a guitar, except when my Dad taught me to pluck out “Taps” on my older sisters’ guitars.  I’m not informed enough to rank this album in terms of guitar virtuosity.  I know he packs a lot of notes into each song, and he doesn’t make his guitar strings squeak like a glued mouse the way lots of other acoustic guitarists do.  I know that he somehow gets rich-sounding deep notes and treble sounds that make my lip twitch. 

Here’s what I do know.  This is a completely enjoyable album that could serve as the background to a great conversation with someone you love.  I know that it makes me want to go to Tangier and write in a notebook with a fountain pen.  That’s pretty good work for one guy with one instrument, I think. 

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin agrees that this album transports the listener to a different place, with wondrous musical talent.

Up Next:  Then Came the Morning, by The Lone Bellow