C. Daniel Boling,
The Old International
(Perfectly Stable, 2003)

The Old International is unquestionably a modern, very American folk album, owing more of its sound to the protest tunes of the 1960s than the traditional ballads that fill Renaissance fairs. While borrowing from the acoustic tradition of the modern folk classicist, C.Daniel Boling picks out a songwriting ground of his own, based less in societal observation than self-help.

It's not especially uncovered ground, advocating self-control, appreciation of others and forgiveness over anger. These insights are nonetheless valid, but the strength of their expression comes from finding a new, true way of sharing them. The echoing, somewhat haunting "Shay," about a rare afternoon treat for a boy ostracized by Down's syndrome, is a far more layered and powerful picture of acceptance than the preachy "From Your Side." Boling does well when he can mix his earnest therapies with a dose of humor. "Mama's Words" acknowledges the tensions of familial relationships along with Mama's immeasurable value, and "What Might Be In It" offers a lesson in overconsumption safely hidden in a plate of wry buffet observations.

Unfortunately, Boling sometimes succumbs to the urge to tell, not show, and delivers a few heavy-handed morality tales. "I Dreamed I was Dead" offers a rather predictable and self-loathing look at life from an the angry half of a partnership, and the title song -- an otherwise effective history of an old car -- kills the message it tries to carry by spelling it out in an unneeded chorus.

The songs may be sometimes unapproachable, but Boling himself never is. He has a pleasant but limited voice, high and a bit rough around the edges, and clearly not "trained." Without forcing himself beyond his range, he carries the emotional weight of even his weaker songs through a storyteller's vocal quirks. His choked, resolved attitude turns "Flight 93" from a simplistic bit of storytelling to a real tearjerker, and his defiant self-defense in "It Can Be This Way Always" enables the song's protagonist to seem more human and less antagonistic.

The Old International offers a mixed bag of songs, and most listeners will pick and choose their favorites. But Boling has a real treat, the smooth, jazzy "Upbeat" waiting in an extremely hidden treat at the end of the album. It covers approximately the same territory seen in the earlier songs, condemning anger and encouraging self-improvement, but does so with a sly self-knowledge and a devilish flair that give the message a much sharper sting. It's a strange wake-up call after a mostly relaxed album, and makes Boling's previous choice of tone seem peculiar.

Hopefully Boling will explore his rowdier nature more in upcoming albums. In the meantime, those looking for a calm moment in their day could do worse than get behind The Old International.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 17 July 2004

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