August 2020 Music: John Prine, Great Big World, The Dead South, Kevin Krauter, Rose Hotel


Sometimes being a music reviewer sucks. I’d love to tell you that The Tree of Forgiveness is a great album. Alas, it may be the worst album John Prine ever made. Prine–who died of COVID-19 on April 7–is in my list of top five favorite songwriters of all time. Few had his mix of wit, poignancy, and earworm melodies; he was a classic laugh-your-rear-off/cry-your-eyes-out guy who kept things simple on the surface so he could bore into your soul. The last song he ever wrote, “I Remember Everything” grabs onto that. Alas, it’s not on The Tree of Forgiveness. The album starts with promise, but doesn’t sustain it. “Knockin’ On Your ScreenDoor” both honors and mildly lampoons country music: I once had a family/But they up and left me/With nothin’ but an eight track/Another side of George Jones…. He goes for this vibe again on “Egg & Daughter: Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967,” but it’s more forced and relied upon a lot of backing instrumentation to cover the rasp in his voice. A calypso “I Have Met My Love Today” was not his métier and not even Brandi Carlile’s backup vocals help. “Summer’s End” is a sweet song, but linking metaphors appear to have been chosen because they scan rather than make sense. I liked the dark “Caravan of Fools,” though it’s more like something Townes Van Zandt would have sung. Likewise, you’ll hear echoes of Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” with Prine’s words in “No Ordinary Blue.” “God Only Knows” just isn’t a very good song. It’s an expression of Prine’s faith, which I respect, but comes off as a Christian camp singalong that probably would have sounded better around a camp fire. He ends with “When I Give to Heaven,” from which the album title derives, a combination of spoken word and a barrelhouse chorus. Prine’s wry comments bring a smile, but musically it’s run-of-the-mill. I wish Prine had left us with a bang instead of a gravely whisper.     


Epic Records’ A Great Big World is the New York-based duo of Ian Axel (keys) and Chad King (lead vocals, guitar). Many know of them because they recorded two singles with Christina Aguilera, “Say Something” (2013) and “Fall On Me” (2019). They recently visited Paste Studios to sing those two, plus “Darling It’s Over,” which will presumably be on an album scheduled to release soon. Maybe it’s heresy, but I like the first two songs better without Aguilera. “Say Something” is a gorgeous and deeply moving song anchored by Axel’s somber piano and vocals. It’s about letting go for various reasons (dead relationship, depression, impending death). Live, the focus is on the song; in the video version with Aguilera, she’s so busy vamping I thought she was going to make love to herself. The Paste version of “Fall On Me” is another tear-jerker with tight harmonies and a slow build that becomes lush and dramatic almost imperceptibly. It’s a plea to, fall on me with all your might, but tempered with the knowledge that, I want to believe in a world we can’t see. As for “Darling It’s Over,” the title says it all!


Sometimes social media works the way it’s supposed to. Back in 2014, The Dead South vaulted from obscurity to the limelight when its single “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company” went viral. In case you missed the party and think this black-hatted band pays homage to the Confederacy, members are actually from Saskatchewan and the costumes are affectations for a group they jokingly refer to as the “evil twins of Mumford and Sons.” That’s a great way to describe a style we might call “darkgrass.” You can see them in a short Paste Studios concert. The first song is “Black Lung,” and if you know anything about mining, you know this one will be tinged with tragedy. It’s soulful, bluesy, has hints of gospel, and is paced by Colton Crawford’s banjo. He’s most prominent on the breakdown “Blue Trash” in which Nate Hilts’ baritone vocals are essentially the bridge to instrumental flourishes from Crawford’s banjo, Scott Pringle’s mandolin, and Danny Kenyon’s cello. (Kenyon often plays the cello as if it’s a guitar.) The set rounds off with “Broken Cowboy,” a bluegrass tragedy of a man slowed by age, regret, and the passing of an era. Good stuff from a fine band.


Kevin Krauter began his career as an indie pop performer, but his recent Paste set was an acoustic one with folk flavorings. He’s adroit in either genre, as you can hear in “Surprise,” both live and on the official video of the studio recording. As a solo act, Krauter keeps things simpler and allows his light tenor voice to dance amidst his guitar’s higher tones. This is gives it a fragile feel that fits the song’s themes of self-discovery. (He was raised in a Christian home and was home schooled, but recently came out as gay.) His new CD is called Full Hand, and features a jangly title track. With lines such as It’s time to reveal my full hand, it too plumbs the personal. “Pretty Boy” is a rare song in which the male gaze is toward another male. I really like Krauter’s voice, but it must be said that his set could have used more variety; the four songs were pleasant, but needed contrasting color.


There’s a Biblical parable often paraphrased as don’t hide your light under a basket. I admire the voice of Atlanta’s Jordan Reynolds aka/ Rose Hotel. I’m less enamored with the production on her debut full-length album I Will Only Come When It’s a Yes. There’s way too much going on, and it overwhelms Reynolds’ voice. “10 K” has a retro romantic ballad feel, though the song’s lyrics are about not knowing herself, the future, or what’s right. Reynolds has a big voice, but not big enough to punch through “Write Home,” which has a chanteuse feel but with too many layers. The guitar in “Running Behind” has kick, but again if the mix was punched down, Reynolds wouldn’t have to try so hard to provide mystery and ambience. “Honestly” is what Reynolds could become. We can hear clear vibrato and marvel at how long she sustains notes and how easily she shifts pitch. It’s just she, an acoustic guitar, and a song that sounds as if it was lifted from an old-style crooner such as Connie Smith or Kitty Wells (sans the twang).  


Rob Weir


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