Saturday, February 25, 2012

Anne Hills & David Roth – Rhubarb Trees

Rhubarb Trees
Wind River Records

I’ve come to think of Anne Hills, who has been high on my list of favorite singers for about three decades, as the queen of collaborations. Anne’s first LP, The Panic is On, released in 1982, was a collaboration with Jan Burda. Since then, in addition to a bunch of superb solo recordings – click here for my review of Points of View, Anne’s most recent solo album – she has recorded collaborations with Cindy Mangsen and Priscilla Herdman (Herdman, Hills & Mangsen); Cindy Mangsen and a bunch of guest stars; Jay Ansill; Michael Smith (one of my favorite memories from the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show was a live performance of Michael and Anne singing “The Dutchman); Tom Paxton; Steve Gillette, Cindy Mangsen and Michael Smith (Fourtold); Tom Paxton and Bob Gibson (Best of Friends); and, now, with David Roth.

Before developing into a superb songwriter in her own right, Anne first established her reputation and as an interpretive singer. David Roth was a songwriter I was first introduced to via several of his songs that Anne recorded many years ago. A new duet version of one of those songs, “May the Light of Love,” opens Rhubarb Trees, a lovely, often thought-provoking, occasionally humorous, collection of excellent material written or co-written by Anne and/or David.

There are new versions of several other excellent songs already familiar through previous recordings by either Anne or David. Among Anne’s are “The Child Within,” a reflection on the passage of years in rural West Virginia; “I Am You,” a universalist anthem, co-written with Michael Smith, which describes people of all races, religions, genders, and orientations as part of the same human family; and “Orphans,” a devastating reflection on children of war.

In addition to “May the Light of Love,” another of David’s songs which I recognize from one of his earlier albums is “That Kind of Grace,” actually co-written about 20 years ago with Anne, which connects events of the civil rights movement with the then-current Rodney King case.

Among the highlights of the newer material are Anne’s “Nightime Falls,” a poignant reflection on the circle of life inspired by the final illness and passing of her father; and David’s “Everything That Happens Makes Me Stronger,” a song he put together based on poems written by young people whose families have been caught up in the recent economic crisis.

Although many of these songs deal with heavy topics, there are also songs filled with humor. Among them are “Rhubarb Trees,” co-written by Anne and David, which was inspired by the Mary Hills painting they chose for the cover of the CD digi-pak; David’s “Neuroplasticity,” a three-part a cappella round inspired by speakers at a psychology conference; and “The Strange Meanderings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama Down to Nashville, Tennessee,” a hilarious country music parody co-written by Anne, David and Michael Smith, which imagines the Dalai Lama’s adventures writing country-and-eastern songs in Music City.

The arrangements on this lovely album are kept simple. Some tracks are just Anne and David, with bassist Mark Dann joining them on others.

--Mike Regenstreif

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