Your March musical marching orders contain some things new and some things old.
Keith Johns gave up a job in a physics lab for the lucrative world of folk music! But that's the point of his album Grateful Fool, which is themed on the idea that oblivion is the ultimate fate of all things, so one should embrace life while you have it. The title track imagines a proud, well-to-do man when he falls from his lofty perch and faces his reckoning. Johns admonishes: Just take enough, more is a crime/Help me give it all up, nothing is mine/I'm a wayward grateful fool, and that's alright. Johns has a high tenor voice with a hint of a draw–he's from Florida. Though he's a folkie at heart, he flirts with an indie rock vibe on "Silver Strings," which is about the nature of things from the perspective of physics and astronomy, but isn't the least bit obtuse. "TheFall" opens with a bluegrass instrumental groove and evolves into a folk rock arrangement suited to a song about how autumn is both a season of endings and one that drops seeds of renewal. Johns is also unusual in that his lyrics are either quite extensive, or very short. Among the latter is "Drops of Water" with its onomatopoetic guitar and sentiments such as these: Ahead, a million threads/And yet a single braid behind/A million distant memories/With no way to rewind. You have to admire a man who can contemplate his own death in one song ("Aubade") and then repeat his grandmother's advice to never spoil a story by peeking at the ending in another ("Isn't It Grand?"). Smart stuff. ★★★★
Hayley Reardon is a name to watch, though I doubt her latest album, Good, will push her over the hump to stardom. She hails from Marblehead, is just 20-years-old, and has been hanging around with Boston music vets like Kevin Barry, Duke Levine, and Loren Entress. So much promise—but not there yet. She has a gorgeous voice that climbs the scales, plumbs a few depths, and has an attractive catch to it. In a nutshell, though, Good is an eleven-track release in which sameness dominates musically and thematically. Entress produced the record and he seems to be aiming at creating Daniel Lanois-like atmosphere. The tracks are drenched in sonics, but not all of them flatter Reardon. Hers are lovely tones, but as yet Reardon's voice lacks clarity and accentuation. This means that whatever poetry is embedded in her lyrics gets washed out in the rinse cycle. You should definitely check her out–she's simply too talented to ignore–but this might be a buy-a-few-tracks kind of release. For my taste, the best songs are those that chuck the formula a bit. "Paper Mache" has a tinge of Motown soul lurking at the edges; the guitar in "When I Get to Tennessee" bites with a bit of swampiness; and "The High Road" is a Western/pop blend with solid hooks throughout.★★
I'm not sure if Tara MacLean belongs in the "new" or the "old" category. Her new Noisetrade sampler is titled Evidence, which is also the name of a hit song she recorded in 1996, and has stuck on other LPs and EPs. Another song for which she is known, "Silence," was also first done in 1996, and a review of her backlist reveals she often records the same songs. Lots of performers do this, and I only mention it because sameness is also my biggest critique of her 8-song Noisetrade project. Like Reardon, MacLean has a lovely voice. I especially like the small husk she adds to her soprano to give it more grit. She also knows that a song should build rather than come at you Celine Dion-full bore style. I wish MacLean would express this with more variety than a straightforward soft-to-loud formula and pop diva-wannabe arrangements. "Evidence" is indeed a good song. A snappy rhythm emerges from a cacophonous opening and then MacLean settles into a moody wrapper. My favorite tracks, though, were the more controlled ones, especially "Scars" and "White Noise." On these we hear a uniqueness for which the flavor-of-the-moment pop world is seldom known. ★★ ½
Does it count as old if someone writes songs that sound like they came from an archive? Let's say it does! Dana and Susan Robinson draw just two songs on The Angel's Share from the traditional well ("Five Miles from Town," "Man of Constant Sorrow"), but each track has an old songs groove. Old songs generally references rural songs that have a timeless quality, often those from Appalachia. They differ from bluegrass in that the song gets priority over the instrumentation and the production is less showy. That's the Robinsons to a tee. This is unpretentious music that makes you long to sit by a fire and hum the choruses. Dana Robinson's voice is invitingly warm and both know their way around stringed instruments (acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle). You'll hear waltzes, some country blues, and songs about places and people. You'll even get contemporary ideas that sound ageless, as in Robinson's "RiverFlows On," which muses upon solar energy and living within limits, and "John Muir's Walking Blues," which expands upon environmental themes. New Englanders will enjoy "Loose the Ties," originally written in the Pioneer Valley, but apt for Vermont, where the Robinsons now reside. The title track, by the way, references a term used in distilling in which the vapors are declared "the angel's [sic] share." The Robinsons' version is also a lovely tune for dancing. ★★★★
Vic Chesnutt (1964-2009) made seventeen albums in his brief life–partly because he had prodigious flourishes of insight, and partly because he wasn't entirely discerning about what he recorded. Whatever you think of his music, he was an original. Raised in Zebulon, Georgia, the craggy-voiced Chesnutt was left a semi-paraplegic in a 1983 car crash when he was just 18. He slowly discovered a limited range of motion, could make basic chords, and could pick with two fingers. Chesnutt was mostly a local legend until Michael Stipe encountered his in 1996. The last thirteen years of Chesnutt's life involved NPR and PBS exposure, a documentary film, some movie work, and friendships with folks such as Stipe, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell, and Jonathan Richman. Chesnutt often gets dumped into the folk rock category, but his music is closer to the acoustic outlaw country of Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore–though he wasn't in their league. A new collection titled New West Hotel spotlights a dozen tracks culled from four albums he made on the Texas Hotel Label from 1990 to 1995, and two from the New West label in 2003 and 2005. At his best, Chesnutt sang with the pained honesty of Neil Young. Check out 1990's "Aunt Avis:" Help me mama, for I have grinned. Yet the same debut album, Little, has "Soft Picasso" and it's pretty awful. New West Hotel is that kind of uneven record. "Soggy Tongues" is simple and gorgeous, as is "In My Way, Yes." But some cuts are as rough as sandpaper soaked in coal grit, a category into which "Stupid Preoccupations" and "Sleeping Man" fall. What do you want to do with lyrics such as these from the latter: You are a freak of nature/You are a Siamese/You are in a pickle jar/For all the world to see. Or this from "What Do You Mean?"– Like a puppy on a trampoline (4x—followed by an angel/chipmunk mash of backup singers chirping the song title). Toward the end, Chesnutt had lots of help on the stage, which produced the intriguing "Virginia," a lush arrangement with Frisell on guitar, and Van Dyke Parks washing the song with organ wipes. It sounds like a Gothic surf song being played at a dangerous strip club. If you're unfamiliar with him, Vic Chesnutt is worth discovering–but be selective. I don't wish to be uncharitable, but without the tragic back story, his musical legend probably would have remained local. ★★