Jan Bell & the Cheap Dates,
Songs for Love Drunk Sinners
(independent, 2007)

The Maybelles,
Leavin' Town
(independent, 2007)

Growing up in Yorkshire, Jan Bell discovered American country and old-time music and fell in love. Eventually, pursuing her dream of playing it, she moved to, er, Brooklyn.

Hers is not the only unlikely musical pilgrimage, of course, but this one proves to be a notably joyful one for the rest of us. Her commitment to American musical roots -- to which, ironically or infuriatingly, most Americans fall somewhere between indifferent and oblivious -- pays off on these two recordings. The Cheap Dates and the Maybelles are distinct entities, the latter more rooted in hillbilly song traditions than the former, but both document aspects of Bell's gift and also her talent for finding comparably inclined (and comparably able) singers and pickers.

Songs for Love Drunk Sinners isn't exactly a country album, not exactly a folk or a pop one, either. Even so, elements of all these genres show up in this collection of mostly Bell originals. Maybe "chamber neo-folk" is the genre we'll have to invent to characterize the approach, which manages at once to be airy and brooding. If the sound is slightly reminiscent of what you'd expect from the (currently in hiatus) Be Good Tanyas, that may be because Samantha Parton, a longtime member of that Canadian band, is the producer.

Except for pedal steel (Bob Hoffner), the Cheap Dates have a stringband configuration, with fiddle (Rima Fand), banjo (Hilary Hawk) and upright bass (Nathaniel Landau, Greg Schatze), plus occasional electric guitar (from nonmember Scott Garrison). But nothing particularly traditional is going on, just some well-crafted modern songs with downbeat melodies, dropping into musical territory with the Cowboy Junkies' early records at one boundary and the late John Stewart's last ones at the other. The songs and arrangements are smartly conceived and capably executed, and for all its gloominess this is a pleasing and at times unexpectedly moving album.

The Maybelles share two songs with the Cheap Dates ("Leavin' Town" and one called "Night Blooming Jasmine" by the former, "Across the Miles" by the latter), but Leavin' Town is more stripped-down and on the whole more cheerful, with a retro acoustic approach (Bell's acoustic guitar, Katy Rose Cox's fiddle, Melissa Carper's bass) able, for example, to conjure up the ghost of the supremely extroverted Patsy Montana. The charming opener "Cowgirl Blues" (written by Bell) is a dead-on send-up of the sort of tune for which Montana -- born Rubye Blevins, 1908-1996 -- could have claimed a patent: the Western-swingy celebration of the good life on the plains. The Maybelles' metaphorical home is the post-oldtime country music of the 1930s, when professional hillbillies were situated between their folk background and an emerging Southern mainstream commercial sound, though the Maybelles tip the balance more toward old folk than pre-rock pop.

The second cut, Samantha Parton's beautifully heartbreaking "Lonesome Blues," quotes the opening lines of the Carter Family's "Coal Miner's Blues," then goes on to capture with startling precision the spirit of an Appalachian lyric folk song. An actual Carter song, "Little Darlin'," joins the crowd a few cuts later. Among my favorite songs from that immortal musical family's staggeringly deep catalogue, it also boasts a melody that Woody Guthrie adapted for "This Land is Your Land."

Five of the cuts are Bell originals, including the title tune, a ballad with an edge-of-the-seat, cinematic narrative. Cox penned the traditional-sounding fiddle piece "Devil's Gap," and Carper the bizarre, disturbingly funny "Been Probed," an ostensible gospel song that improbably draws on images from UFO-abduction lore. Songs by Gillian Welch, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and tradition get covered, in each instance with freshness bordering on wonder. No complaints here, folks.

review by
Jerome Clark

21 June 2008

Songs for Love Drunk Sinners

Leavin' Town

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