Robert Lee Castleman,
Crazy As Me
(Rounder, 2000)

Crazy As Me is an odd mix of an album. Robert Lee Castleman is a superb songwriter, more in the country tradition than the folk, although his use of language and metaphor is poetic in a way more typical of modern folk. His rough but melodious voice is a perfect match for his usually bittersweet lyrics. I would love to see him perform live.

This album's oddness comes with the instrumentation and mixing of the accompaniments. The only word that adequately describes them is "lush" -- and that make a peculiar blend with Castleman's hard-bitten lyrics and voice. Some of the orchestration is so elaborate that it sounds more suitable for a pop diva than a rugged man writing and singing about real life. It's all very well done, just misguided. And its effect is multiplied with mixing that sounds about as insensitive to the singing and songs as it possibly could be. The accompaniments are consistently too loud in the mix, distracting from the singing and frequently overwhelming it. The background harmonies, many provided by Alison Krauss, are also mixed in too loudly, although they are in themselves lovely and would have been excellent if moderated somewhat.

The strongest songs on this album are the ones least overproduced. "Kinda Like a Rainbow" focuses on Castleman's singing and guitar playing, and is a sweet, touching and extremely catchy love song with a beautiful metaphor. The song that follows it on the album, "Stay Here," is a love song that sounds almost like something Sinatra would have recorded, and the accompaniments here are at their most effective as they add to the crooner sound. Castleman's gravelly voice adds sincerity to this lovely song. "I Can't Believe You (Unless You Lie)" is a heartbreaker, and I wish the instrumentation hadn't gotten so lush as the song progressed; for me, it made the effect more studied and less sincere. "Like Red on a Rose" is similar; the song itself is gorgeous and I think the heavy accompaniment distracted from the beauty of the music, lyrics and singing. It's one I'd particularly like to hear in a more simple performance. "I love you like all little children love pennies" is a wonderful image from this song.

"Movin' Down (In the World)" and "Movin' On" depict the loss of love, the first mourning it, and the second more defiant.

It's interesting the way the orchestration can change the overall effect of a song. "Nobody Said That (It Would Be Easy)," "Crazy As Me," "My Life" and "You Can't Change Me" all describe feelings that everyone has: impatience with the various demands and expectations others have of us, and the loneliness we feel when no one seems to understand our idiosyncracy. With the orchestration, though, these songs take on more of the tone of a personal manifesto, and detract from the wryness these songs would otherwise have.

This is an album for which I would have greatly appreciated having included lyrics. The combination of Castleman's voice and the orchestration often make the lyrics hard to discern -- and they're good enough that they are well worth discerning. The biographical notes and complete listing of the musicians and vocalists who contributed to each individual track were nice, though.

I'll admit to a taste that generally prefers minimal elegance to lush elaboration, and I'm sure that's affecting my opinion here. If you admire extravagant music, yet are not put off by rough-hewn vocals and subjects, this is undoubtedly an album you'll love. The songwriting is superb. For myself, I hope to see Castleman perform live someday solo or with a small band, and I hope that his next album is just a little ... less. But I'll be looking forward to it.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]



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