Album of the Year!

Anybody who tries to tell you that choosing a best of list is purely objective is a person who has access to various controlled substances. I won’t pretend that this list is scientific or that I carefully dissected each release and measured the musicianship in any sort of scientific fashion. These ten are, simply, the ones that knocked mu socks off. I don’t think you’d be disappointed by any of them, but if you want to quibble with my choices, that’s why there’s a reply option on this site!

Please note that the artists whose names are underlined have longer reviews on this blog. Clicking will take you to them.

1. String Sisters, Live. This album brings together six of the finest female fiddlers on the planet and they bow magic whose roots lie in American, Irish, Norwegian, Scottish, and Swedish soil. It is an unparalleled mix of passion, energy, and skill—my reasons for choosing it as Album of the Year.

2. Richard Shindell, Not Far Now. You’d get little debate from me if you insisted that this one was better than my number one choice. Shindell is a master storyteller, especially when it comes to capturing pathos, irony, and small tragedies. It’s dark poetry, but it’s glorious.

3. Fiona J. Mackenzie, A Good Suit of Clothes. If you think that an album about Scots emigrants sung entirely in Gaelic would be a snorer, you’ve not heard the magnificent voice of Fiona Mackenzie. She dwells in high ranges that lesser singers struggle to ascend and emotes in ways that reveal the full gamut of the immigrant experience.

4. Donna Hébert, In Full Bloom. Few things in life are as much fun as Quebecois music and Donna Hébert fiddles with pure joie de vivre. Find out why this music is some times called “crooked tunes.”

5. Sa Dingding, Alive. Technically a 2008 release, but what the heck? i didn't hear it until 2009 and it's too good to get lost in technicalities. This pop singer brings Chinese and Tibetan music into the age of electronica and the dance hall. She’s been called the Chinese Bjork for her moxie.

6. Wild Carrot, Live: Crowd Around the Mic. Bluegrass music that’s so fresh that it blows away all the stale air that’s been lurking for too long. Pam Temple’s vocals are a revelation, the music is swingy, and the arrangements novel.

7. Antje Duvekot, The Near Demise of the High Wire Dancer. This album is intimate, moody, honest, and fragile. Duvekot’s poetic writing, gentle and slightly nasal vocals, and Richard Shindell’s firm production make this a winner. (This was also reviewed--see acoustic archives.)

8. Warsaw Village Band, Infinity. Polish music like you’ve never heard it before. This driving mash-up of industrial rock, blues, world music, and psychedelia is Poland’s answer to Sweden’s Garmarna.

9. Cedar Hill Refugees, Pale Imperfect Diamond. Jack Clift and John Carter Cash wondered what they’d get if they combined bluegrass and Uzbek music. Now we know and we can thank them for a musical education! (See acoustic archives.)

10. Johnsmith, Gravity and Grace. Midwestern goodness and reflections on life from a guy who has kicked around a bit and lived to tell the tale. It might be schmaltzy it weren’t so damned true.

10. Sarah Bettens, Never Say Goodbye. This veteran of Europe’s punk scene turned to acoustic music in this pop/folk/jazz album. It suits her so well that maybe she should say goodbye to her old musical personae.


Note to Richie Lawrence: Just Play

Melancholy Waltz
Big Book Records 17
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Keyboard wizard Richie Lawrence has been a career sessions and side man who has shared stages with some of the giants: Bonnie Raitt, The Ramones, Willie Dixon…. He’s even been on stages on which polka king Jimmy Sturr and LSD guru Timothy Leary appeared. But being on the same stage with mega talent doesn’t mean it rubs off any more than standing in line with elves makes you Santa Claus. In Lawrence’s case, his brushes with fame have inured him to his own limitations.

Lawrence certainly knows his way around the ivories. Both “Le Milieu” and “The Melancholy Waltz (1990-2009)” contain resonant dark tones that are true to the album’s title. There are also two pieces that are stunners: the cascading-riff-laden “The Late Richard Lawrence” and the clever “Bee’s Blues (Für Elise).” The latter composition is Lawrence’s bluesy take on Beethoven, and it comes off as if the latter had snippets of “St. James’s Infirmary” stuck in his head.

If only Lawrence had stayed at the piano bench and away from the mic! He sings on six of the album’s dozen tracks and that’s precisely six too many. As a vocalist Lawrence not only lacks range, he lacks basic tunefulness. How a man with such a fine ear for instrumentation can be so utterly tin-eared when it comes to his own voice is a mystery. Several of the songs are downright painful to hear. One hopes that for his next release Lawrence will let his playing be all the spotlight he needs.--LV


Time to Say Goodbye to Democrats

A few weeks ago I did something I hadn’t done since 1971—there was an election and I stayed home. Prior to this I had a perfect attendance suffrage record. It didn’t matter whether we were electing a president or deciding whether to allocate town funds to dump gravel on a dirt road, I was there to cast my vote. So why did I sit out the Massachusetts statewide election to choose candidates to replace Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate?

I suppose part of it was that the candidates induced in me roughly the same amount of excitement I feel when I buy a box of cereal. Martha Coakley will head the Democratic ticket. Ho hum. She’ll easily defeat Republican Scott Brown because: (a) this is Massachusetts, and (b) Scott who? But it wasn’t boredom that kept me from the polls; it was my utter disgust with the Democratic Party. Is it too early to declare the Obama administration a failure? I don’t think so. Break out the t-shirts with Obama’s picture and the slogan “I Voted for Change and All I Got Was This Stupid Pandering Democratic.”

Sound harsh? My view of Obama isn’t nearly as low as that I feel for those who blithely follow him as if he’s the messiah. Where the %#$@*& is the outrage? Obama has been, in many ways, worse than George Bush. Think that’s an exaggeration? Bush’s final defense budget was $513 billion; Obama’s will be at least $534 billion (and perhaps a $100 billion more). George Bush touted the Defense of Marriage Act –signed into law by that faux liberal Bill Clinton, by the way–and Obama’s Justice Department is spending tax payer dollars to defend it from legal challenges. Bush set up the Homeland Security Administration; Obama invented the concept of “sovereign immunity” to declare thousands of Intel and CIA documents off limits from public scrutiny. Many of those documents relate to torture the likes of which occurred at Abu Ghraib and for which Bush was excoriated. Candidate Obama said he’d put Americans back to work and had a plan to do so; President Obama told a December 9, 2009 Brookings Institute gathering, “There is only so much government can do.” Candidate Obama said he’d pull troops out of Iraq within 18 months; President Obama says it will be longer and that we need to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Candidate Obama pledged to reverse global warming; President Obama’s administration contributed a parsimonious $85 million for a $350 million international initiative to develop green technology. At Copenhagen he pledged that the U.S. would cut greenhouse emissions by 17% by 2020; the Europeans pledged a 30% cut!

This isn’t the half of it. Health care reform is in such shambles that the best we can hope for is that nothing gets passed. And how about all those new laws to protect labor organizers, limit CEO salaries, limit access to assault weapons, and pump money into education? And can you even imagine how liberals would have reacted had George Bush gone to Oslo to accept a Nobel Peace Prize and used the occasion to defend war?

Many of my liberal friends who so desperately want to believe in Obama cast the blame on Congress. I see their point. If you’re a progressive thinker and you don’t live in Vermont, chances are good that you’re un- or underrepresented in the U.S. Senate. I never expected much from Republicrats like Harvey Reid (NV), Claire McCaskill (MO), Mark Pryor (AR), Ben Nelson (NB), or Arlen Specter (PA). And I have nothing but pity for my neighbors in Connecticut who must endure Chris “Love-those-Banks” Dodd and Joe “Allow-me-to-kiss-the-insurance-industry’s-Tush” Lieberman. The ones who really get me, though, are the poseurs like John Kerry and Dianne Feinstein and their say-anything-to-be-a-player morals. And don’t get me started on the deplorable Nancy Pelosi in the House.

This said, how do we explain the fact that Obama isn’t battling for what he says he wants? Ronald Reagan rammed his agenda through a Democratic Congress, and George Bush never had the “super majority” supposedly needed to pass important initiatives. Lyndon Johnson was willing to bust heads and butts to get the Civil Rights Act passed. Wake up people! The Democrats are frauds. Okay, so most of them aren’t Neanderthals like Jim DeMint (SC), James Inhofe (OK), John Cornyn (TX), or Mitch McConnell (KY). But let’s not kid ourselves.
Change isn’t happening because Democrats reside in the same corporate pockets as Republicans, something Ralph Nader has been trying to tell us for years.

Voting for Democrats is like continuing to go on dates with an attractive escort who repeatedly dumps you and sleeps with someone else. I’m done with the Dems. I’ve changed my voter registration to independent and I plan to vote for Greens and true progressives. If that means Republicans win elections, so be it. I’ll hardly notice the difference and my conscience will be clean.--LV