Kendel Carson,
Rearview Mirror Tears
(Train Wreck, 2007)

John Platania,
Blues, Waltzes & Badland Borders
(Train Wreck, 2007)

There can be few figures on the independent-music scene possessed of more energy than Chip Taylor. Besides touring (usually with fiddling/singing partner Carrie Rodriguez), Taylor is as prolific a songwriter as you're going to find anywhere, putting even the effusive Steve Earle to shame. His songs are not for himself alone; they're all over the recording projects he's "merely" produced. In addition to performing artist, composer and producer, Taylor heads a small record label. Now, having signed with the American distributor RED, he launches his first two domestic releases. If these two CDs are any indication, lovers of contemporary roots music have something to look forward to.

Unsurprisingly, Taylor's fingerprints are all over both projects. One has the impression that ideas burst inside his head like explosions in a minefield, and he is forced to seek relief by sharing them with other artists, even if he has to start a label and sign them to do it. Not only does Taylor produce Kendel Carson, an Alberta-based fiddler and vocalist in her early 20s, he also wrote all but two of the songs on Rearview Mirror Tears, and those two he co-composed with her.

An exceptional writer (if at times perhaps a shade too prolific for his own good), Taylor considers himself a folk singer, though his most famous compositions are the cloying pop hit "Angel of the Morning" (first charting for Merrillee Rush, later for Juice Newton) and the salacious garage-rock favorite "Wild Thing" (The Troggs). Mostly, his latter-day writing suggests a more clear-headed, less angst-ridden Townes Van Zandt, whom Taylor frankly acknowledges as a seminal influence. A Taylor song comes with evocative lyrics and, at least when he's singing in his own voice, the point of view of a mature romantic. When he's of a mind, he writes topical songs of rare power and nuance, for example the almost overwhelmingly moving environmental hymn "Him Who Saved Me" (on his and Rodriguez's 2002 Lone Star release Let's Leave This Town).

Carson handles Taylor's material adeptly. Her voice is a young one, yet a rich one, calling up melancholy or humor, good or bad times, regret or hope, as the occasion warrants. Mostly, however, she seems to be walking on the sunny side, celebrating erotic desire ("Especially for a Girl"), motor vehicles ("I Like Trucks," a barroom singalong if ever there was one) and the delirium of love at its onset ("Gold in the Hills"). Not all of the songs are exactly profound, but neither do they feel like throwaways. The emotions rise above sentimental pap; they're real enough, and Carson sings them warmly and convincingly. This is what commercial country-pop music should sound like.

Older and a whole lot more experienced than Carson, guitarist John Platania has a long-running association with Van Morrison, both in the studio (playing on the classics Moondance and Domino) and on the road (he's in Morrison's touring band). He's also performed with Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Judy Collins, Natalie Merchant, Taylor himself and others. No boring guitar exhibitionist, Platania is a player of range, subtlety, and taste, his musical knowledge far broader than most. He is not a singer, but Blues, Waltzes & Badland Borders is only a sort of instrumental album. Taylor, who co-produced the album with Platania and (of course) either wrote or co-wrote the bulk of the cuts, enlisted narrators (including his brother, actor Jon Voight, who speaks at points through the opening "Runnin' with the Dogs") and singers (including Lucinda Williams on the English-language corrido "In Memory of Zapata," with dialogue by Alejandro Escovedo).

The narrators and singers show up here and there, but the focus, as it ought to be, is on Platania's distinctive approach to his instrument. He handles both acoustic and electric guitars, assisted by a small group of players, among them Rodriguez (fiddle), Anton Fig and Brian Doherty (drums), Tony Mercadante (bass), Taylor (guitar) and a handful of others. As the title indicates, the music is meant to evoke the spirit of the Southwestern border, calling up the region's various sounds (country, blues, tejano, Mexican folk, elemental rock 'n' roll). It's the sort of musical exploration that brings to mind some of Ry Cooder's early albums, and it easily holds its own. Nor will it soon outwear its welcome. To the contrary, it's the all too infrequently encountered album that's built for the long haul and the repeated listening.

review by
Jerome Clark

26 May 2007

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