Monday, December 8, 2014

Top 14 for 2014

Here are my picks for the Top 14 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2014 (including reissues). As in past years, I started with the list of more than 400 albums that landed on my desk over the past year and narrowed it down to a short list of about 30. I’ve been over the short list a bunch of times and came up with several similar – not identical – Top 14 lists. As I’m about to take a break from blogging until January, today’s list is the final one. The order might have been slightly different, and there are several other worthy albums that might have been included, had one of the other lists represented the final choice.

1. Jesse Winchester – A Reasonable Amount of Trouble (Appleseed). My late friend Jesse Winchester wrote most of these songs in the wake of his first bout with cancer and finished recording the album just a few weeks before he passed away after the cancer returned. As I noted in the Montreal Gazette, there is a sense of mortality to many of the songs and the “album ends with ‘Just So Much,’ a beautiful and deeply affecting reflection on faith in God, on love, and on coming to terms with approaching death. A sad but perfect finale to a brilliant songwriting career.”

Click here for my full-length review of A Reasonable Amount of Trouble.

2. Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (Columbia/Legacy). The most mythologized bootleg recordings of all time are finally released in their (more or less) complete form in a beautifully packaged 6-CD set. Old folk, country, blues and rock ‘n’ roll songs, covers of songs written by contemporary peers like Ian Tyson, Utah Phillips and Johnny Cash, lead into early versions of many Dylan classics and obscurities. As I noted, it is “endlessly fascinating” and “a great addition to the old weird Americana that is so much a part of what folk music is.”

3. Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems (Columbia). As I noted, “it occurs to me as I’ve listened and re-listened to the songs on Popular Problems that it is Leonard the poet as much as Leonard the songwriter that we’re listening to. Many of them are sung in a way that suggests recitation as much as singing and some of them have musical accompaniments that bolster the singing/recitation with pulse or heartbeat rather than melody… Popular Problems is yet another compelling masterwork. These are songs I fully expect will continue to reveal more layers of meaning with every hearing.”

4. Dave Van Ronk – Live in Monterey (Omnivore). The late, great Dave Van Ronk was at the peak of his form when this unreleased-until-this-year set was recorded in 1998. The set list includes many songs from the standard Dave Van Ronk canon but ends with a beautiful version of Ian Tyson’s classic “Four Strong Winds.” Dave recorded “Four Strong Winds” on To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places, but I don’t recall ever hearing him do it live.

5. Tom Russell – Midway to Bayamon (Frontera). A collection of rarities recorded between 1982 and 1992, most of them are from a pair of cassette-only releases from 1985 and 1987, as well as several demos, 45s and unreleased live cuts. An essential set by the artist I regard as the finest songwriter of my generation.

Also noteworthy are two other Tom Russell compilations released this year: Tonight We Ride: The Tom Russell Cowboy Anthology (Frontera) and The Western Years (RockBeat).

6. Eric Bibb – Blues People (Stony Plain). “As I’ve said before, Eric Bibb is one of the most inspired and inspiring of contemporary blues (and folk) artists. Blues People is yet another offering from the prolific singer, guitarist and songwriter that reinforces that opinion… There is a concept to Blues People as its songs – 11 of which were written or co-written by Eric while four were drawn from other sources – capture snippets of the lives of musicians who have played blues over the past century or so and place them in the context of the times and changing times in which they’ve lived.”

7. Garnet Rogers – Summer’s End (Snow Goose Songs). “Seven years on from his last album, and after years of thinking he was done with recording, Garnet Rogers has released Summer’s End, a collection of beautiful heartrending songs about memory, grief, hope and love… A quietly subdued tour de force.”

8. Catherine Russell – Bring It Back (Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi). Another in a series of great albums by my favorite present-day jazz singer. Catherine Russell fully understands the roots of early jazz and classic blues while bringing a contemporary sensibility and swing to her performances. On Bring It Back, Cat draws on such sources as Duke Ellington, Ida Cox, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday and her father, Luis Russell.

9. Various Artists – Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie (Compass).

Jean Ritchie, who turned 92 today (December 8), is one of the great links between traditional Appalachian folksongs and contemporary folk-rooted songwriting. “On the two CDs of Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, a remarkable group of artists – some very famous, some relatively unknown – pay tribute to Jean’s legacy with loving, joyous performances of 37 songs, many of them Jean’s own songs, others traditional folk songs from her repertoire.”

10. Chris Smither – Still on the Levee: A 50 Year Retrospective (Signature Sounds). Chris Smither “is one of those musicians who has continued to mature and become more compelling with time and on Still on the Levee, a superb 2-CD set, he returned to [his hometown of] New Orleans to re-imagine and reinterpret 24 songs” he’s written over the course of his 50-year career.

11. John Gorka – Bright Side of Down (Red House). John Gorka writes and sings beautifully crafted songs that capture the lives, feelings and turning seasons of real, believable people. Along with 11 of his own songs on Bright Side of Down, John also includes a lovely version of the late Bill Morrissey’s “She’s That Kind of Mystery.”

12. Anne Hills – Tracks (Hand & Heart Music). “On the appropriately named Tracks, Anne Hills turns her beautiful voice and highly skilled songwriter’s pen to songs about trains and people whose lives are affected by them. Like almost all of Anne’s solo albums and her many collaborative efforts, Tracks – with nine of Anne’s songs and four well-chosen covers – is filled with gorgeous singing and seemingly simple yet elegantly perfect acoustic arrangements.”

13. Shari Ulrich – Everywhere I Go (Borealis). A lovely and lovingly-produced collection of songs that deal perceptively with themes of nature, love, loss, and life’s choices. Having heard just about all of Shari Ulrich’s group and solo work dating back to the ‘70s, I think Everywhere I Go represents her best work yet.

14. Notre Dame de Grass – That’s How the Music Begins (Notre Dame de Grass). With That’s How the Music Begins, Notre Dame de Grass, the finest pure-bluegrass band to ever come out of Montreal, offers “a textbook example of everything a traditional bluegrass fan would want in an album. There’s some excellent original material, some traditional standards, some outstanding instrumentals, and some gospel, all played and sung within the standard bluegrass instrumentation and vocal styles defined by Bill Monroe and other first-generation bluegrassers like the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs.”

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Various Artists – The Only Folk Collection You’ll Ever Need

The Only Folk Collection You’ll Ever Need
Shout! Factory

Well, honestly, I’ve got some very mixed feelings about The Only Folk Collection You’ll Ever Need, the latest entry in Shout! Factory’s The Only – insert genre here – Collection You’ll Ever Need series.

The best thing about this 2-CD set is the music. Without exception, every one of these 30 tracks can be found on my CD shelves and I absolutely love most of them and quite like most of the rest. There are tracks representing pioneering artists, traditional folk songs, blues, bluegrass, gospel, commercial folk-era groups, the explosion of contemporary folk-rooted singer-songwriters that happened in the 1960s, and folk-rock.

The vast majority of these tracks are essential components to any good folk music collection. Presented chronologically, it begins with the Carter Family’s 1935 recording of “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” – the “Can” became “Will” some years later – and moves on to classic 1940s recordings by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, ‘50s recordings by the Stanley Brothers, the Weavers, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and the Kingston Trio, then 22 tracks from the ‘60s before finishing in 1971 with “Angel from Montgomery” from John Prine’s first LP. (The final track, Odetta’s fabulous version of “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” labelled as a 1973 release, is actually from 1963 and misplaced in the chronological order.)

Among the other 1960s recordings are tracks by Dave Van Ronk, Peter, Paul & Mary, Ian & Sylvia, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Doc Watson, Phil Ochs, the Byrds, Pete Seeger, Fred Neil, Donovan, Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, Mississippi John Hurt, Eric Andersen, Tim Hardin, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, and Fairport Convention.

About the only group from the ‘60s I would have dropped is the Springfields, a mediocre folk-pop group whose minor hit, a remake of the country song, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” is included (British pop singer Dusty Springfield was a member of this family band). If it were me assembling the set, I would dropped this track in favor of something from the New Lost City Ramblers, Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, the Greenbriar Boys, or one of dozens and dozens of more significant artists from the period I could have easily thought of.

So while this is hardly the only folk collection any serious music aficionado will ever need, it is a solid collection that would a nice introduction or starting point to someone becoming interested in the music and is an enjoyable listen even for folks like me who know how superficially the set just scratches the surface.

And let’s not forget that folk music did not end with the 1960s. There continues to be vital and vitally important folk-rooted music being made today.

But, as someone to whom music history is important, I would be remiss in not pointing out several serious errors in the annotation and chronological sequencing.

“Rock Island Line,” the track by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter is magnificent and is one of my very favorite versions of the song. However, it is actually a collaboration of Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Quartet. The Golden Gate Quartet was one of the greatest African American gospel groups of that period and the recording is a true collaboration. They should have been recognized in the track listing.

The version of “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie is identified as having been originally released in 1944. While it was recorded in 1944, this particular version of Woody’s best known song was first released in 1997. Furthermore, the first of Woody’s recordings of the song, while recorded in the early-‘40s, was only released in 1951.

The version of “Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season)” by Judy Collins is identified as being originally released in 1969 and is sequenced as such. In actual fact it is from Judy Collins #3, released in 1963.

And, as I’ve already mentioned, the version of “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” labelled as a 1973 release, was actually from a decade earlier. This track was on Odetta’s 1963 album, One Grain of Sand.

So, truth be told, while I enjoyed listening to the album, and will continue to, the album title is too pretentious for my liking and there were just too many annotation and sequencing mistakes that could have been avoided by a little fact-checking.

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--Mike Regenstreif