Tunes for November 2016- Part One
An EP from Clare Dunn comes labeled "country," but don't you believe it–Ms. Dunn kicks butt and takes no prisoners on five muscular tracks that owe more to power ballad pop and down-and-dirty rock and roll. Its energy reminded me a bit of Bonnie Raitt on a coffee drip, except Dunn is a better singer. No little girl act here. Dunn's voice is full-throated and her songs kick up dust and danger. The EP opens with "Ferrari," and the namesake car is both literal and homage to life in the fast lane. Her voice is big and so are the arrangements—wailing guitars, booming drums, and steroid bass. When she sings about her taste in men, she has no time for refinement and polish. On "Tuxedo," the strong hands and dirty t-shirt of a workingman turn her on. It's the companion piece to the self-explanatory "Cowboy Side of You." Label this project sexy and strong.
Claire Lynch has been making some noise lately. She's bagged six International Bluegrass Music Association awards and has twice been nominated for a Grammy. Her latest album, North by South, is aptly named for a Kingston, New York lass that now resides in Nashville. It's a bluegrass album in style, but the instrumentation often has a Celtic flair, as befits an album that spotlights Canadian songwriters. It's hard to describe, but Canadian country and bluegrass music sounds different from that south of the border. Maybe the prairies and open vowel speech patterns give the music enough space that even a gritty song like David Francey's "Empty Train" seems to build up steam rather than fireball out of the station. For sure, Canadian music tends to honor folk roots more than studio tricks. Check out the simplicity yet quiet power of Lynch's cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Worth Believin'." Lynch lets us know right away she's going to blur borders. She opens with Ron Sexsmith's "Cold Hearted Wind," which features guest Jerry Douglas on dobro, but then follows with a J.P. Cormier song, "Molly May." Let's just say that in Nashville songs, men grow too old to drive truck or bust broncos; in Nova Scotia, tears flow when a man has to hand over the captaincy of a fishing boat to a young salt. And check out Stuart Duncan's fiddle on this one–complete with those small Scottish ornaments. Sometimes Lynch's voice–a meld of Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris–is too light and fragile for my taste, but when she's at the top of her game, she uses it like an added instrument. On "Milo," for instance, her vocals give a swingy backbeat to Jarrod Walker's mandolin; on the melancholic "Black Flowers" small voice catches enhance the fiddle.
Middle Western is another intriguing bluegrass act, a five-piece string band hailing from Wisconsin. Their new release Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, is a tasty stew of old time, bluegrass, and Western music that feels like The Old Crow Medicine Show, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos joined forces. "Short and Sweet" exemplifies the high-energy spirit of modern New Grass bands, while "For a River" seems to have snaked out from the mountain hollows, and "Prairie Chicken Queen" features Texas-style break out fiddle. The latter tune encapsulates what I liked best about this band: its offbeat sensibilities. "Old Man & Me," for instance, invokes a string band staple, remembrance, but in reverse–a young man imagining his inner old man. "Townes" will delight Townes Van Zandt fans with its tale of a man wiling away his prison sentence through music. Have fun decoding the Van Zandt song clues. There are few quirky little stop-brief pause tunes like "Stuck on Your Mind" that stamp Middle Western as more than the sing-segue-to-instrumental break down pattern of most bluegrass bands. My two favorites were "Ring Out," a railroad-themed tune, but sung with a Southern call-and-response gospel chorus; and "Imperfection," a sweet song that ought to come with a warning for Type-A personalities. It's about a guy who makes mistakes, but gives himself a break. When did you last hear a song imploring, "Let me be imperfection?" Mix it up and keep it real–sounds like a good combo to me.
The new album from Richard Bona, Heritage, is a start on the kind of album I've been waiting to hear: a Caribbean/African collaboration in which the mellowness of the former melds with the meatier hooks of the latter. The Cameroonian-born Bona (who now lives in New York) is comfortable with crossing bridges. In eight albums of his own and a dozen with others, Bona is a mainstay as a jazz bassist, but he's the sort that shares stages with everyone from Branford Marsalis, George Benson, Bobby McFerrin, and Harry Belafonte to world music artists, funk musicians, rock and rollers, and pop stars. The word "smooth" was invented to describe his voice. I was particularly enamored of some of the album's short a cappella songs such as "Aka Lingala Te" and "Ngui Mekon" in which Bona plays leader of the chorus–the boss in charge of synching gorgeous harmonies. The latter also features handclaps that, frankly, make a nice contrast to the redundant salsa beats of the more Cubanselections. Songs such as "Cubaneando" seem to drift, but ones suchas "Essèwè Ya Monique" jump as us with their call-and-response choruses and chunky bass lines. Other stellar tracks include the sweet "Eva," with its air of mystery, ambient seams, and gorgeous melody; and "Kwa Singa," in which dubs, electronics, and experiments create a genre-less sound. I confess that I tend to get bored by meandering jazz piano and endless salsa and soukous, so I look forward to a return collaboration that pushes the boundaries even further.