Kasey Anderson,
Harold St. Blues
(Resonance, 2001)

Kasey Anderson's Harold St. Blues is music cut from the course-woven cloth of a young man's life. Unlike so many highly-massaged studio efforts, this CD retains the vitality (and occasionally some of the compromised acoustic properties) of a live coffeehouse performance. Although I listened to this CD in my living room, there's enough atmosphere built in that I felt like I had a front-row seat at the Bottom Line in New York City.

Anderson credits the likes of Steve Earle, Townes VanZandt, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits as influences for his story-telling style of songwriting. His songs are twined from strands that range from bittersweet tales of rejection, discovery, disappointment, despair, love and hope -- the very raw materials of life itself. When I listened to Harold St. Blues, my first impression was of hearing the first steps of a long journey, one that had just begun but was destined to cover a tremendous distance.

This debut CD comes from a singer-songwriter who's got the goods. Although Anderson cites Earle, VanZandt, Dylan and Waits as influences, and his strong story-telling is a tribute to each of these artists, I actually find as much similarity to the works of Slaid Cleaves and Greg Brown -- and that is no mean compliment. Anderson's evocative story-telling is accompanied by guitar, bass, harmonica, mandolin and banjo. His voice is twangy, but with a rootsy rather than a country feel. I was reminded of one of the originals in this genre, perhaps the greatest story-telling songwriter of them all -- Woody Guthrie -- although truth be told, Anderson's voice sounds more like Arlo's than Woody's. But while I personally find Arlo Guthrie's singing to be nasal and strident in the extreme, Anderson's similar-sounding voice is warm and friendly to the ear.

Anderson's Fender acoustic guitar was replaced by a Gibson since this CD was released, but the Fender he used here sounds just fine. It is nicely miked and provides steady rhythm backup on all cuts. Bassist Dan Friesen lays down a solid groove in the basement of the sound spectrum, while the high-end accents are covered by Bruce Shaw on mandolin and banjo (with Friesen adding harmonica on one cut). I particularly appreciated Shaw's deft mandolin stylings and the unique old-timey tone from his old Gibson "A" mandolin, but I thought that the banjo tracks, while musical, were a bit too hot in the mix.

The CD kicks off with "Blvd.," a bittersweet lament over a lost love that takes us to "the boulevard," a strip-mall in the purgatory that trails in the wake of a lost love. The song is filled with the yearning of one who has been left behind: "forgive me if I don't smile when I'm thinkin' about you walkin' away." At the same time (like so many of us) this poor soul seems unable to move on just yet: "And when you finally figure out that I'm the one, I'll be waiting, girl, you know just where to run...."

Next is "Oxford," a lament about a man who seeks his fortune but finds himself yearning for home after finding nothing but disappointment, whether it's as a gambler, as a Nashville musician or in New York City. Everywhere he goes, he remembers how much better things were back in Oxford, Mississippi, and promises that he's going to follow every river and travel every highway "till I find a road that leads me back to you."

"The Ballad of Joseph Brown" contains the narrative that reminded me most of Woody Guthrie's story-telling. Unfortunately, this cut, about an outlaw, his lover and a couple of killings, is the one I enjoyed the least. Anderson and Bruce Shaw are capable instrumentalists, but when they back up the vocals on this song, they sound like amateurs. Anderson's boom-chuck rhythm on the guitar lags behind the beat, and Shaw's work on the banjo, while mistake-free, sounds like he only picked up the instrument and learned to play it an hour or two before the song was recorded. In contrast, the instrumentals on "My Last Apology" are an example of simple, spare accompaniment that strikes the mark square. A driving bass-line accompanies this song about a relationship that's gone wrong. This time, the questions of who was right, who was wrong and who should be apologizing to whom is up for debate. This song echoes real life so strongly, it's scary.

I particularly liked Anderson's guitar work on "Division Street," a song in which the protagonist just can't keep his promise to himself to stay away. He's a goner for sure. "Gamblin' Man" describes a moment of honesty as a self-professed dice, card and horse-track addict offers a woman the opportunity to "take me down to the races, gal, and watch me lay my money down" after warning: "There may be nights I don't come home and you might have to sleep alone." It's an odd juxtaposition of a toe-tapping, lively tune, perhaps representing the eternal hope of the compulsive gambler, contrasted with the sad reality in the lyrics and a woman whose low self-esteem draws her to that man.

Tears make up the rain in "Raining in Hattiesburg," a heart-wrenching confession of an abused child whose mother has left to find a new man, and whose sister lives "a million miles away." Grandad keeps telling him that it's all for the best, but he knows better, philosophically observing: "They say that angels have passed this way before, shining god's undying light. But the angels, they don't come round here no more, and it's raining in Hattiesburg tonight." "Goodbye NY" might be sung from the gutters of The Bowery by an alcoholic junkie who swears he'll stay awake "'till there's something worth dreaming for. Then I'll say goodnight, New York." Still, there's hope mixed in with the hopelessness: "I dream of fairytales, I dream of sleep, I dream of promises I'll never keep. I dream of the day when I pick myself up off the floor and I say goodnight New York." This song captures the desperate fatalism of the substance-abuser at the end of his rope about as well as it can be done.

"Outlaw's Lament" tells of an outlaw whose run of luck has played out. This cut has the same unfortunate guitar and banjo stylings as "The Ballad of Joseph Brown," but they work much better here, perhaps because Anderson appears to have used a capo to change keys and he approaches the guitar with a slightly lighter touch.

Anderson saves the title cut, "Harold Street Blues," for last. I'm not sure if this is a lament about a heartless woman who leaves a slew of emotionally bereft souls in her wake, or an allegory for the lure and the reality of drug addiction. The accompaniment for this cut is particularly nice, with a lonesome harmonica mixed in with bass, guitar and mandolin. The song works so well, both literally and figuratively: "I know you think you're tougher than the rest. And she looks like an angel in that dress. But say her name, boy, that's your dyin' breath. She'll treat you right that night, but once she's through she'll leave you lost and lonely with the Harold Street Blues."

I heartily recommend this CD. Harold Street Blues is a rough cut gem. And although its lyrics are often dark, speaking with uncompromising familiarity about many of the most painful aspects of life's steamy underside, there is an inherently hopeful message nonetheless. Like it says in the title cut: "find the strength to walk away somehow. I tried, but by heart would not allow. So listen, boy, 'cause what I say is true. It's too late for me but it ain't too late for you." Don't walk away from this CD. By embracing the darkness, Anderson leads the listener into the light.

[ by Tim O'Laughlin ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002