Don Chaffer,
What You Don't Know
(Hey Ruth, 2003)

Don Chaffer has produced a wonderful album about persevering after great personal loss, almost singlehandedly playing a variety of electric and acoustic guitars, bass, cello and synthesizer. His wife Lori joins him on vocals and fellow Waterdeep member Brandon Graves provides percussion.

Considering Chaffer composed the songs in the wake of 9/11, during the year his mother died of leukemia and his father was diagnosed with cancer, it is of little surprise that themes of loss, grief, personal change and challenge abound on this album. But more surprising still is the upbeat feeling of the record -- a blend of rock and folk. Though some songs are pensive or mournful, the anticipated downer never surfaces. Perhaps Chaffer's philosophy behind the record is best summarized in his own words: "These days, songs of tragedy seem particularly important. The grieved heart needs room to breathe, reel, and fall before rising again. We have found ways to meet most of our petty cravings, but nothing can replace time and space in the face of loss. Breathe deep and weep. That was one hell of a year."

Chaffer has divided the album into two parts, as illustrated on the CD's cover, which features the legendary figures of John Henry, the steel driver, who fought to the death to prove man's superiority to machines; and Lou Gehrig, whose courage against the illness that stole his life was perhaps best exemplified in his declaration that he was "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

With these paragons in place, the songs impart hope and courage. There is acceptance of the inevitable, yet not without thought and resistance. Don reminisces yet he also looks forward, musing that we have to keep swinging at what life throws at us. The opening song, the elegiac "The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth" already sounds like a classic and is to Lou Gehrig what "Candle in the Wind" is to Marilyn Monroe. "Man, I'm Gonna Sing" and "People Go By Like a Flame" have a pensive nonchalance: "you never even know their name / you might get warm / you might get burned / but either way a flame is not the sun / that rises every day... / it's true it ain't no sun / but it's pretty anyway."

The second half of the album ("John Henry") is more subdued than the first, but Don's clear faith and lyrics keep the album from becoming depressing or despairing. "Leave Me Alone" is beautifully contemplative: "leave me alone / not because I'm angry / just because I need to hear myself breathe / and be alive / and wonder why she's gone." Everyone needs quite moments to themselves. Don Chaffer has produced a vocal and musical guide for those who feel pressed and whirled in the frenetic pace of today's world. Listen to this, breathe deep and smile.

- Rambles
written by Jenny Ivor
published 23 October 2004

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