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Archive for the ‘CD reviews – country/ folk’ Category

CD review/ Paradise Valley — John Mayer


Paradise Valley/ John Mayer

Genre: Folk/ country-rock

Sony Music/ Rs 499

Rating: ****

HE first hit the headlines a little over a decade ago, with his Grammy-winning pop-rock song ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’. His debut album ‘Room for Squares’ became a hit, and he quickly gained international fame.

Today, John Mayer has turned out to be one of the most prolific singer-songwriters and talented guitarists of modern times. He has matured as an artiste, moving from pop-rock to a soul-meets-blues-rock sound on the albums ‘Continuum’ and ‘Battle Studies’, to more folk and country-driven music in the 2012 release ‘Born & Raised’. On the live circuit, he formed a blues-rock group John Mayer Trio, and on his own played with hip-hop stars like Kanye West and Common, blues biggies Buddy Guy, BB King and Eric Clapton, and jazz guitarist John Scofield. That’s some versatility.

On his latest album ‘Paradise Valley’, Mayer continues from where he left in ‘Born and Raised’, sticking to tunes reminiscent of Crosby Stills Nash & Young, the Byrds and early Grateful Dead. The sound is a neat blend of country, folk-rock and the California sound of the 70s, with ample use of pedal steel guitar and dobro. What’s really creditable, of course, is that he’s created such brilliant songs after two throat surgeries.

Like ‘Queen of California’, the opening song of ‘Born & Raised’, Mayer begins with a number that’s pretty inspired by the Grateful Dead. ‘Wildfire’ has an infectious hook, and the catchy lines “Say, say, say, Ain’t it been some kind of day, You and me been catchin’ on, Like a wildfire.” Charming work on the pedal steel and a smart, extended blues-rock guitar climax add to its beauty. The song has a shorter version, with singer Frank Ocean, used more like a filler in the middle of the album.

‘Dear Marie’ takes a nostalgic look at a past relationship, with incredible lines like “From time to time, I go looking for your photograph online, Some county judge in Ohio is all I ever find.” This is followed by a pleasant, optimistic ballad ‘Waiting on the Day’, which has a burst of melodic slide guitar.

‘Paper Doll’ is a rejoinder to ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift’s dig at him in ‘Dear John’, as Mayer sings, “You’re like 22 girls in one’, an obvious reference to her single ‘22’. Next up is a crackling version of the late JJ Cale’s classic ‘Call Me The Breeze’. It’s played marvellously, though one wonders why it comes to such a sudden end.

Mayer’s on-off girlfriend, Katy Perry co-writes and does a guest singing appearance on the ballad ‘Who You Love’. She sings soulfully, but this is probably the only weak song on the album, thanks to a hackneyed tune and mundane lines like “You’ll love who you love who you love.”

Mayer, however, gets into reflective mood on ‘I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea)’, where he sings, “I’m a little lost at sea, I’m a little birdie in a big old tree, Ain’t nobody looking for me, Here out on the highway, But I will be found, I will be found, When my time comes down, I will be found.”

The last three tracks are absolute beauties. With its country pedal steel backdrop, ‘You’re No One Till Someone Lets You Down’ talks of heartbreak and breach of trust, as Mayer sings, “You believed that all people are kind, And that you’d never mess with your mind, You gave her your trust, And she busted your crown, You’re no one ’til someone lets you down.”

‘Badge and Gun’ has a wonderful melody, and the opening lines “Give me my badge and gun, Give me the road that I may run, Give me that peaceful, wandering-free I used to know” brim with nostalgia. The album concludes the folk-driven ‘On The Way Home’, with Mayer singing, “But just remember on the way home, That you don’t ever have to feel alone.”

Like ‘Born & Raised’, ‘Paradise Valley’ is co-produced by the veteran Don Was. If the earlier album had more diverse orchestration, using keyboards and harmonica too, this one concentrates mainly on guitars and basic rhythm back-up. The songs are never long, and use just the right amount of orchestration. Most important, they sound better and better on repeated hearing, winning you over with their simplicity.

The only question is: Now that he’s released two marvellous country-based albums, what sound will Mayer choose in his next album?

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding


CD review/ Privateering – Mark Knopfler

Privateering/ Mark Knopfler

Genre: Singer-songwriter

Universal Music/ Rs 395 (double-CD)

Rating: *****

THOUGH he’s best known as frontman of the brilliant rock band Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler has released a string of commendable solo albums during the past 16 years, exploring the rootsier side of his music personality. In contrast to the Dire Straits brand of guitar rock, he has used a lot of Celtic and country influences, charmingly mellowing down his tunes.

Knopfler’s latest solo effort ‘Privateering’, released last month, sees him explore these genres once again, but what’s really evident is his increasing fondness for and dependence on the blues. Add to that a dash of old-school jazz and southern American rock, and what we have is a set that simply grows on each listening.

Clearly, ‘Privateering’ showcases Knopfler’s phenomenal talent as a singer and songwriter. But what’s really creditable is that the Britisher has released a double album at a time when the trend is not only considered passé, but risky too. It’s difficult to write 20 good songs at a stretch, but he manages that quite smoothly and stylishly.

Most numbers talk of working class heroes like van drivers, farmers, daily wagers or sailors. Lines like “What made you think there’d be a living in sheep; Eat, work, eat, work, sleep” and “You don’t ask questions when there’s nothing in the bank; Got to feed the kids and put the diesel in the tank” make the songs more accessible and realistic.

The real difference, however, lies in the smoothness of the sound and in the quality of singing. Knopfler’s magnificent guitar ― acoustic, electric or slide ―  appears in short but swift bursts, unlike his Dire Straits work, where the instrument dominated the songs with lengthy trademark solos. Here, one also finds a strong contribution from the piano, organ, keyboards, violin, accordion, whistles, harmonica, mandolin, pedal steel, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and even the Uillean pipes and stringed rarities like the bouzouki , cittern and tipple, besides the standard bass-and-drum rhythm section.

While the compositions are versatile and charming, Knopfler’s crystal-clear, honey-rich and ocean-deep voice is in super form here, as he varies his delivery according to the song’s style.  From the album’s very first line “Hunted down, I came upon, a piece of ferns and grass,” it’s vocal magic all the way.

Curiously, Knopfler mixes up genres randomly, instead of having all the blues material and all the country together. He starts with a folk mood on ‘Redbud tree’, and gets into a Celtic ambience using whistles and Uilllean pipes on ‘Haul Away’. Then, he switches to the blues on ‘Don’t Forget Your Hat’, a song that reminds you of Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, but embellished by marvellous piano, harmonica and slide guitar.

After that, it’s all mix and match. The title track is a very Scottish folk tune, with a stunning acoustic guitar line. ‘Miss You Blues’ is anything but the blues ― it’s a folksy take on the traditional song’ Deep Blue Sea’. For a more Dire Straits flavour, ‘Corned Beef City’ boasts of a sizzling guitar backdrop and words that talk of daily struggle.

‘Go Love’ gets into a sad farewell mode, and ‘Hot Or What’ gets back into blues territory, with some jazz-laced piano and horns. The first disc concludes with ‘Yon Two Crows’, a Celtic tune with strong violins, and the pleasant country-folk piece ‘Seattle’, which has a soothing guitar-violin interaction.

If you thought the quality would drop on Disc 2, don’t worry, be happy. The opening piece ‘Kingdom of Gold’ is a Celtic charmer, with Knopfler’s voice shining on the powerful lines “His axes and armour will conquer these devils, The turbulent raiders will falter and fall; Their leaders be taken, their camps burned and levelled, They’ll hang in the wind from his citadel walls.”

‘Got To Have Something’ and ‘I Used to Could’ have a distinct JJ Cale stomp, and ‘Gator Blood’ moves swiftly in the Eric Clapton ‘Lay Down Sally’ mould, with a crackling slide guitar wail. For variety, the beautiful jazz-meets-Celtic, trumpet-laced ‘Radio City Serenade’ boasts of smart lines like “Every wounded soldier needs a lady with a light, to help him through the night” and “Oh you are so pretty my beautiful Rockette; You’ve got my arms and the crosstown horns; Going on ― we’ve got it going on.”

The album slows down with the rustic and bluesy ‘Bluebird’, which has an intricate guitar climax, and the melancholic ‘Dream of the Drowned Submariner’, which has the lines “Your hair is a strawflower that sings in the sun, my darling, my beautiful daughter; So went the dream of the drowned submariner, cast away on the water.”

‘Blood and Water’ gets into a country mode, and ‘Today’s Okay’ gets into southern blues, with Knopfler paying tribute to musical legends with the lines “Well, we like to have some friends around; Do the twist to Ray Charles and James Brown.” The album concludes with the foot-stomping sing-along folk-blues ‘After the Beanstalk’, which makes excellent use of harmonica, mandolin and piano, and has fun lines like “A hen can lay a golden egg but she still can’t sing; Well, the hen’s alright but the harp is everything.”

The biggest plus point of ‘Privateering’ is its total consistency ― something that characterised his debut solo album ‘Golden Heart’, but which didn’t figure in many other solo efforts despite individually outstanding songs. Though this is a double album, there isn’t a weak moment, and each time you hear each song, you discover something new. It’s a clear indication of Knopfler’s genius when it comes to songwriting. In every way, ‘Privateering’ is perfect hearing.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

CD review/ We All Raise our Voices to the Air – The Decemberists

We All Raise Our Voices To The Air/ The Decemberists

Genre: Indie folk/ folk-rock

EMI Music-Capitol Records/ Rs 395

Rating: ****

THOUGH they’ve been around for over a decade, I had my first exposure to the music of The Decemberists early last year, when they released their album ‘The King Is Dead’. What impressed me immediately was the earthy folk-rock sound which flowed consistently through all songs. The appearance of REM guitarist Peter Buck on three songs lent an interesting twist.

Marketed under the ‘indie folk’ genre, The Decemberists hail from Oregon in the US, but seem to have been influenced by a lot of British folk music too. Songs like ‘Down By The Water’, ‘Calamity Song’, ‘Rise To Me’, ‘June Hymn’, ‘All Arise’, ‘This Is Why We Fight’ and ‘Rox In The Box’ effortlessly blend both folk cultures, using electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums along with violin, bouzouki, mandolin, cello and banjo.

Before I could lay my hands on the earlier Decemberists albums, I checked out their latest venture, which is a two-CD live compilation called ‘We All Raise Our Voices To The Air’. Culled from various concerts held in the US last year, this 20-track collection is a must for anybody who enjoys live albums. In fact, it’s one of the best live albums to come out during the past few years, complete with pre-song announcements and crowd response.

Much of the credit to The Decemberists sound would obviously go to singer-songwriter-guitarist Colin Meloy, who’s been influenced as much by REM, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Morrissey, as he has been by 60s British folk revival acts like Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins and Nic Jones.

However, there’s some equally commendable support from Chris Funk (guitar, mandolin), Jenny Conlee (keyboards, Hammond organ, glockenspiel), Nate Query (bass) and John Moen (drums). Though REM’s Buck doesn’t play here, guest appearances by violinist Sara Watkins and the Portland Auxillary Brass Band on saxophones and trumpets lend variety to the sound.

The emphasis on this live compilation is on the newer songs from ‘The King Is Dead’. Yet, there is a fair representation from the earlier recordings too. The opening song ‘The Infanta’, a perfect example of the Decemberists sound, is followed by the brilliant ‘Calamity Song’ and ‘Rise To Me’ from ‘The King Is Dead’. One of the band’s earliest recordings ‘Leslie Ann Levine’, which was the opening song from their debut album in 2002, the more recent ‘Down By The Water’ and the 16-minute opus ‘The Crane Wife’ add to the charm of Disc 1.

The second side has crisp renditions of the pleasant ‘Oceanside’, the sing-along beauty ‘Rox In The Box’, the moving ‘June Hymn’ and the hard-hitting ‘This Is Why We Fight’. With its catchy riff and smooth pianos, ‘All Arise’ is one of my favourities. But the last two songs — both over 10 minutes long — add a new dimension. While ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ has clear progressive rock influences, ‘I Was Meant For The Stage’ starts off with outstanding vocals, before getting more psychedelic, using some brilliantly orchestrated trumpets, tenor and baritone saxophones.

Clearly, The Decemberists are one of the front-runners in the ‘indie folk’ movement, which encompasses 90s-and-thereafter acts blending alternative and modern rock with folk and country influences. The Net mentions a lengthy list of such artists, with Lou Barlow, Jeff Buckley and Beck being named as among the early practitioners. More recent names are Bon Iver, Kings Of Convenience, the Avett Brothers and the Civil Wars, with Blur’s Graham Coxon also experimenting with ‘indie folk’ on occasions.

It’s an exciting-sounding genre, on the one hand very reminiscent of the 60s and 70s music we grew up on, and on the other, having a distinct contemporary feel too. As for the Decemberists, their live shows are said to be out-of-the-world, with full-on audience participation and lots of stage effects. Though they have released a DVD called ‘The Practical Handbook’ in 2007 (which I’ve yet to watch), one hopes a new one is on the way.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

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