Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer,
Little Blue Egg
(Red House, 2012)

Drew Nelson,
(Red House, 2012)

Dave Carter died well before his time in 2002, after recording three CDs with partner Tracy Grammer. Two posthumous releases were issued in 2006 and 2008. As the first release of theirs to appear on the St. Paul-based folk/singer-songwriter label Red House, Little Blue Egg is culled from tapes that Grammer found in a Portland, Oregon, basement a couple of years ago and subsequently cleaned up and remastered.

The 11 songs -- Carter originals except for an amiable banjo-backed arrangement of "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" (Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Billy Bragg) -- are placed in skeletal arrangements focusing mostly on solo acoustic guitar with occasional fiddle, accordion or harmonica. Grammer adds harmonies while taking lead on "Amazon" and "Till We Have Faces." Carter had a talent for simple but memorable melodies, and he was versed, unlike some of his contemporaries, in traditional music, quotes and sounds from which he inserts here and there into his material. "Three-Fingered Jack" bears some resemblance to an actual folk song, and the closer "September Sea" owes an undisguised and unapologetic debt to those other Carters, namely the celebrated Virginia singing family by that name.

The only song that doesn't entirely work for me is "Hard Edge of Living," a truck-driving piece for which Carter's earnest tenor lacks the vocal heft (testosterone may be a better word) to render plausible. Still, you can't complain about the tune that accompanies it. There's also the exquisite "Gypsy Rose," which I recall from the Kennedys's fine version a few years ago. Clearly, Carter had the gift, and it's sad that he didn't have more years to exercise it.

Tilt-A-Whirl is Michigan singer-songwriter Drew Nelson's first Red House release. It opens, rather startlingly, with roots-rock more than passingly akin to Bruce Springsteen's, and I don't mean just in theme (blue-collar Iraq veteran laments a decaying nation). The song is titled "Promised Land," the same as used on a cut on Springsteen's 1978 Darkness at the Edge of Town. (I suspect, I might add, that Springsteen borrowed the title from the Chuck Berry composition of the same name.) Even more jarringly, Nelson sings like the Boss.

He alternates between rock and acoustic arrangements whose unmistakable Springsteen touches may or may not interfere with your enjoyment of them. "Dust" has the feeling of Springsteen's occasional channeling of Woody Guthrie. In fairness, as some of you may remember, there was a time when the world seemed flush with new Dylans (and for that matter, not long before that, a young Dylan seemed no more than a Guthrie imitator), and some (e.g., John Prine) went on to establish distinctive musical identities. Perhaps by his next album Nelson will have moved forward in that direction.

In any event, if their inspiration is usually apparent, these are not bad songs at all, and the album makes for thoughtful, intelligent listening. Besides, inasmuch as Springsteen is back these days to thundering stadium-rock, Nelson will call to mind how his mentor did it when he wasn't beating you on the head with it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 April 2012

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