Sunday, January 29, 2012

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Old Ideas

The songs of Leonard Cohen have been an important part of my life since 1968, when – like almost everyone in Montreal (or, at least, English-speaking Montreal) into music and/or poetry – I sat down with his newly-released first LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen, a masterwork of songwriting. I lost myself in Leonard’s voice, his music and his words on that album. Especially the words. I’ve been listening to those songs, over and over again, and to the songs on every album he’s released since, and I still find layers of meaning and new ways to interpret so many of them. A well-established man of letters, a poet and novelist, who was well into his 30s before recording that first album, Leonard has never been a simple singer-songwriter churning out ephemeral pop music.
Even the songs on Leonard’s minor albums like Death of a Ladies Man or the somewhat uneven Dear Heather have kept me enthralled. And I’ve stayed enthralled when listening, over and over again, to albums like I’m Your Man built around mechanical-sounding, programmed keyboards, an approach to music-making I generally loath and have no time for in the hands of almost anyone but Leonard Cohen.

Curiously, despite using variations on that programmed keyboard approach on much of his recorded work since 1988, his concert tours in that same period have featured ensembles of world-class musicians and harmony singers and impeccable arrangements.

This brings us to Old Ideas, the song-poet’s latest masterwork. Recorded in the wake of a two-year world tour, the sound of music played by real musicians – happily – outweighs the mechanical sound of programmed keyboards. It’s very intimate music-making. The arrangements, mostly, are quiet, and Leonard’s singing, mostly, is conversational; conversational and hypnotically mesmerizing.

I referred to the album as a masterwork and, indeed, it is. Like so much of his best work, there are layers and layers of meaning and understanding that I think will continue to reveal themselves over a period of years of repeated listening.

That’s already started to happen for me with several songs, perhaps most notably with “Amen,” a long, prayer-like song, perhaps a conversation with God. At first, when Leonard sings that he’s “been to the river” and then makes reference to the “Laws of Remorse,” I thought, perhaps, the song was inspired by the Tashlich ceremony of the Jewish New Year, when the sins of the past year are symbolically cast into the water. I still think that’s part of what the song is about. On second and third listening, though, piecing together the different images – “the horror,” “the victims,” the “night [that] has no right to begin,” “the filth of the butcher,” “the Eye of the Camp,” and several others – I now think the song’s major theme is a deep rumination on the Holocaust; perhaps an attempt to address the most difficult question of modern Jewish philosophy: how could God have allowed the Holocaust to occur?

Another song I’ve interpreted differently on subsequent playing is “Crazy to Love You,” which Leonard performs solo – just his voice and nylon-string guitar. On one level, it’s seemingly a song about craziness we go through – early in a relationship – in trying to mold ourselves into who we want the romantic object our desire to think we are. But, then, I thought maybe it’s about the craziness that performing artists – singers, actors, etc., even poets – go through in establishing the character or persona under which they perform.

Among my first favourites is “Banjo,” which seems to use an image of a broken banjo floating on the sea as a metaphor for something that is personal and important that has been lost. Maybe I’m over-interpreting here, but when the brass section comes in midway through the song with its echoes of a New Orleans second line march, I couldn’t help but think the broken banjo floating out there represents all the music-making that was lost to Hurricane Katrina.

Although much of Old Ideas ponders such major themes as love, human mortality and spirituality, it’s not an album bereft of humour. In the opening song, “Going Home,” Leonard sings about himself in the third-person. Is it his inner muse singing about his outer person, or, as Freud might have it, his super-ego singing about his ego and id? Or, is it just Leonard having some fun?

And speaking of humour, look at the album cover. Leonard, in his trademarked black suit and hat, sitting in a backyard in the sun. So much of his work suggests the hours of night, of darkness, but there he is, sitting in the sun.

I suppose one of the beauties of Leonard’s work is that it’s so open to interpretation. Every song on Old Ideas is layered with ideas – the ideas Leonard had when he wrote the songs, and maybe more that continued to grow; and certainly the ideas that each of us, individually, hears and develops from listening and endlessly re-listening to the songs. What I hear in these old ideas is not necessarily what anyone else hears, or, even, what the poet – part Jewish mystic, part Zen monk – might have intended.

Almost four-and-a-half decades after Songs of Leonard Cohen, at age 77, Leonard has produced yet another impeccable, compelling, masterpiece.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Folk Uke – Reincarnation

Folk Uke

I’m not sure how long they’ve actually been playing together but Folk Uke has been on my radar since 2005 when they released their first CD – just called Folk Uke – and it generated some significant airplay on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program. The duo of Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson blended their voices so simply and so beautifully, you’d swear they were sisters (I have heard Cathy singing with her real sisters and that sounds pretty great, too).

Although they’re not siblings, both Cathy and Amy do come from musical families. Cathy is one of several musically talented children of old friend Arlo Guthrie (and grandchildren of Woody Guthrie) and Amy’s dad is Willie Nelson. Both fathers have contributed some back-up playing to both Folk Uke CDs.

Folk Uke’s style is seemingly simple -- mostly built around their voices which harmonize and intertwine so closely it’s hard to really tell who’s who, and their ukuleles (with Amy also playing guitar). Most of the back-up arrangements are low-key keeping most of the attention most of the time on Cathy and Amy. But they simply ooze charm throughout most of the set, whether singing sweet love songs Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” and “Reincarnation” or put-downs and break-up songs like “My Little Singer,” “Quattro Momento” and “Filthy Floors.”

Cathy and Amy also show they can be artistically fearless by taking a bitterly ironic approach – which risks misinterpretation – to the subject of domestic violence in “I Miss My Boyfriend.” While they sing from the perspective of a woman missing her abusive boyfriend, Shooter Jennings speaks from jail as the violent boyfriend.

Folk Uke’s harmonies and stripped down approach is a delight to hear.

BTW, along with Cathy and Amy, some other progeny of musical parents contributed to this album. Cathy’s brother, Abe Guthrie, played piano and bass and co-produced the sessions; Shooter Jennings, who plays the role of the incarcerated boyfriend in “I Miss My Boyfriend,” is Waylon Jennings’ son; Casey Kristofferson, who co-wrote “Blessed and Cursed” is the daughter of Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge; and Gabriel Rhodes, who was one of the album’s recording engineers, is the son of Kimmie Rhodes.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Missy Burgess – Play Me Sweet

Play Me Sweet
Missy Burgess

I heard Ottawa-based singer and songwriter Missy Burgess for the first time about four years ago when she slipped me a copy of Lemon Pie, her second album. I liked it a lot gave it a nice – albeit brief – review in the Montreal Gazette.

As someone who turned to performing, and, particularly to recording as a fairly mature artist, you can hear the weight of experience Missy brings to her strong original material and to the interpretive voice she brings to standards and the gems from other writers she chooses to cover. Although her voice sounds like neither, she reminds me of Penny Lang and Rosalie Sorrels in that regard.

As good as Lemon Pie was, Play Me Sweet is a big step forward for Missy and I suspect producer-guitarist Keith Glass – of Prairie Oyster – has a lot to do with it. His superb musicianship is all over the CD, he co-wrote four of the songs with Missy, and contributed another two songs of his own. In addition to the co-writes with Keith – one of which Chris White also had a hand in – Missy also wrote two of the tracks herself and there are three more excellent covers.

At the top of my list of favourite tracks is Missy’s “Don’t Go to Cincinnati,” sung from the perspective of a woman whose man divides his time with her and with another woman in Cincinnati. The minor key arrangement is reminiscent of Brechtian cabaret songs filtered through Tom Waits. Speaking of Waits, Missy’s world-weary version of his “Time,” is one of the best interpretations of that great song I’ve heard.

Other favourites include Keith’s “Sundown Blues,” a classic country break-up song; Missy and Keith’s “Play Me Sweet,” whose portrait of a sad man on a train builds slowly and poetically over three verses; and a sweet version of “Smile,” the inspiring buck-up standard composed by silent film star Charlie Chaplin.

Although I’ve just mentioned a few of the songs, the quality of the material, Missy’s singing, and Keith’s spot-on arrangements, turn each of the 11 songs on Play Me Sweet to gold.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Lauren Sheehan – Rose City Ramble

Rose City Ramble
Wilson River Records

Six years ago, in a Sing Out! magazine review of her second album, Two Wings, I wrote that Lauren Sheehanis one of the best interpreters of the [blues] genre to step forward in the past several years.” I still think that but notice that she refers to herself, on her website, as an “American roots songster.” I like that description as it recalls great musical forebears like Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly, and Mance Lipscomb, who, though blues-based, drew inspiration and material from wherever they chose and were thus often referred to as songsters rather than blues musicians.

On Rose City Ramble, her third album, Lauren is very much in that songster tradition. Some of the material is, indeed, straight out of the blues tradition, but she also draws on bluegrass, country, Appalachian folk balladry, and contemporary folk, often combining strains of one influence or another. For example, she finds and brings out the blues inherent and at the essence of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” one of the greatest of all country classics, and also in “The Memory of Your Smile,” a bluegrass classic from the Stanley Brothers repertoire.

You can also feel the blues at the base of “Chilly Winds,” an original song based on the traditional Appalachian ballad, “Cold Rain and Snow,” and in her interpretation of the traditional “Black is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair).” And Lauren’s version of the latter song is very different from that of Nina Simone, who also turned the ancient Celtic song blue.

Among the other highlights on this excellent CD are “Oh, the Candyman,” a swinging variation on “Candy Man” that is very different from either of the standard versions associated with Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt; a rendition of Blind Willie McTell’s “In the Wee Midnight Hours” featuring sweet harmonies from Zoë Carpenter, Lauren’s daughter, and some haunting harmonica playing by Johnnie Ward; and “Louie’s Blues,” an original tune that draws inspiration and some lyrics from Howard (“Louie Bluie”) Armstrong.

Lauren has a lovely voice that she knows how to use to great effect, she’s an accomplished player whether on guitar, banjo or mandolin, and whether playing solo or with small ensembles, she’s crafted terrific arrangements well suited to each song.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Clarksdale Moan – Dewittville Blues

Dewittville Blues
Clarksdale Moan

One of the things I’ve always liked about going to folk festivals is discovering new – or, at least, new to me – artists that I want to hear more of. Clarksdale Moan, an acoustic blues duo from the Chateauguay Valley area south of Montreal was just such a discovery at the Ottawa Folk Festival in 2010.

Clarksdale Moan is singer and harmonica player Kevin Harvey and guitarist Kenny Pauzé. Their band name is a song title by Son House that refers to the Delta town in Mississippi, about 75 miles south of Memphis, which is so steeped in blues history. The crossroads where legend has it Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil is just outside of Clarksdale.

Appropriately enough, the album leads off with a Robert Johnson classic, “When You Got a Good Friend.” On this track, and most of the rest, Kevin and Kenny showcase their basic sound: Kevin’s relaxed vocals and harmonica fills and Kenny’s full-sounding acoustic guitar arrangements – many played slide style. Most of the songs are either traditional or drawn from familiar artists ranging from first generation blues masters like Johnson and House or more contemporary artists like Kim Wilson and Taj Mahal.

Among my favourite tracks are a sweet version of “Stack O’Lee” and an up tempo take on Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied” in which I don’t miss the fuller band sound I’m used to on that tune.

There are also a couple of Kevin and Kenny’s own songs, both of which use adapted blues melodies. “Someday,” is a positive, hopeful blues while “Dewittville Blues” – which I presume refers to the small village in the Chateauguay Valley near Ormstown, is cast in the familiar “Goin’ down to...” mode.

There are also three songs with an additional musician. Danny Bloom adds a second harmonica to two tracks and Terry Joe “Banjo” plays on one.

--Mike Regenstreif