Angel Band,
With Roots & Wings
(Appleseed, 2008)

Angel Band is not, as one might suppose, a revival group devoted to old hymns, spirituals and gospel songs. It doesn't even do traditional secular material, though folk music is an occasional inspiration.

At the core of the band are three women, Nancy Josephson, Jen Schonwald and Kathleen Weber, turning their voices and harmonies to -- mostly -- Josephson originals. Backing the Angels are the Chums, led by Josephson's husband, the well-known folk musician David Bromberg. Besides the five-member Chums, six other musicians -- among them the album's producer Lloyd Maines (with a deserved reputation as a studio genius) -- join to fill out the sound.

The best part of With Roots & Wings is the production, alternately sensitive and muscular, always precisely suited to the occasion. Rather less consistently attractive is the material, too much of which tends toward generic country-pop without significance or distinction.

Except for the largely acoustic arrangements, it's not much different from the stuff that now defines the Nashville mainstream. It's hard to figure out what it's doing here. Do the Angels think there's not enough of it already? What exactly, beyond the compilation of romantic and pop-psych cliches, is the reason for a song such as "Hold Me, Angel"? A particularly bewildering choice is Chip Taylor's ode to sexual mopery, "Angel of the Morning," which already has infested the airwaves twice in my lifetime in hit versions by Merrillee Rush (1968) and Juice Newton (1981). Are these two songs included simply because they have "Angel" in their titles?

On the other hand, the Appalachian-flavored "Cold Lonesome Down in Blackbird Creek," which elegantly incorporates avian images from antique folk songs, is affecting in the manner of a memorable Jean Ritchie composition. The peace anthem "We Are Shepherds," as close as the Angels come to the old-time hymn feeling, also moves. The album concludes on a happy note with the rousing, r&b/gospel-inflected "Jump Back in the Ditch."

The problem with With Roots is not the singing or the production. What the Angel Band needs is more robust, less anemic material or -- failing that -- a more inspired choice of covers. Country-pop in the right hands occasionally shows itself to be a not entirely witless or exhausted genre, but the Angels only remind me -- as I certainly do not need to be reminded -- of how listless it usually is.

review by
Jerome Clark

17 May 2008

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