Bob Cheevers, |
On Earth As It is in Austin
(Private Angel, 2014)
Hobo Jungle Fever Dreams
(Local Rascal, 2016)
There is no end to singer-songwriters, just as there's no shortage of singing acoustic-guitar players. In fact, the two often appear to have become synonymous. We've come a long way from the 1960s folk revival and the halcyon days of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. Sadly, I suspect that the typical 2016 singer-songwriter would stare blankly back at you if you mentioned the latter two to him or her. The original singer-songwriters were called "folk singers" because their proximate influence was centuries of tradition. By now, alas, singer-songwriters amount to their own tradition. Asked who their influences are, most can be counted on to point to other singer-songwriters.
I'm not sure how good this is for any of us. Two of the finest in the trade, Dylan and Richard Thompson, have expressed the belief that you should study actual folk songs before you begin writing your own approximations of them. Of the three CDs up for review, only one, no surprise, features a traditional song. The other two highlight the influences of fellow singer-songwriters John Prine and Willie Nelson.
Canadian troubadour Corin Raymond is the Prine guy, to the extent of imagining, in "Morning Glories" (itself a kind of parody of Prine's "Donald & Lydia"), a "drunken John Priner" singing "Muhlenberg County," i.e., "Paradise." This can only be deliberate, but much, albeit not quite all, of Hobo Jungle Fever Dreams feels at varying levels in debt to Prine, once in a while ("Good News") to Prine's onetime running partner Steve Goodman. Then there's "Under the Belly of the Night," which barely bothers to hide its roots in Don McLean's "American Pie."
On the other hand, almost against the odds, Raymond is pretty good, and as I've found, his appeal expands with each successive listening. If there is to be a Canadian Prine, the continent could do worse than Raymond, especially when one considers that the American one hasn't issued a recording of newly written material in 11 years.
It bears noting, too, that Raymond handles rock-oriented songs more comfortably than Prine did when he indulged in loud electric guitars, with little distinction, during his late-early career. Witness Raymond's "Best Demented Cowgirl Face," which spirals out of a concept one could imagine Prine's pulling up: the free-ranging ruminations, not exactly erotic, of a traveler who finds a pornographic magazine in his hotel room. The folkish stuff, which is most of the disc, is exceptional, in particular "The Law & the Lonesome" (the wreckage of a cocaine-ravaged life) and the lovely, uneasy "Take Me to the Mountain" (musings on the finiteness of mortality). However it came to be written, "Under the Belly" is a more convincingly crafted and sharply focused song than McLean's pretentious would-be generational anthem. You could say Raymond demonstrates how "American Pie" should have been done the first time.
Though presumably the title On Earth As It is in Austin is put forth with tongue in cheek, one imagines more impressionable souls falling all over themselves in genuflection. Such is the inflated reputation of the Austin music scene -- in common with just about everything else in Texas, hyperbolized beyond reason. Bob Cheevers, who labors amid Austin's large population of singer-songwriters, is, however, better than most, a serious, grown-up artist who writes in a language suited to acoustic country-folk.
By far my favorite Cheevers composition, "Drivin' That Mercury," appears on his 2005 recording Texas to Tennessee. A perfectly constructed song with a simple but evocative story to tell, it's never quite left my memory. If I don't hear anything comparable on the current CD, there's still plenty to like, especially -- to my hearing anyway -- the ballads based in the frontier Southwest ("Snake Oil Man," "Hey Hey Billy"; coincidentally, I was reading a new biography of Billy the Kid when the CD arrived in the mail). Cheevers will remind you in some blatant ways of Willie Nelson; if you miss them, he lets you know in "You Sound Just Like Willie." Three other songs, one of them the title number, tip the hat to that most celebrated of living Texas musicians. "Blue Eyes Always on My Mind" lists titles to Willie songs without doing much else. Cheevers' vocals, though, lack the jazz intonation that makes Nelson's so striking.
No review should fail to mention Cheevers' first-rate production. He's assembled a gang of wonderful pickers and set them to work on some remarkably vivid, consistently tasty arrangements. The man clearly knows the nuts and bolts of making records.
Gathering Time, a Long Island-based trio, will give you something of an idea of what Peter, Paul & Mary would be like if they were still around. Like PP&M, Gathering Time consists of two men (Gerry McKeveny, Stuart Markus) and one woman (Hillary Foxsong) who traffic in soft folk harmonies. The settings are acoustic with occasional electric flavoring. Mostly originals, the songs are mid-tempo, the tunes ballad-like. There's a fairly decent reading of the surpassingly strange "Silkie" (aka "The Gray Selkie of Sule Skerry," Child #213). Storm also tackles the late Sandy Denny's classic "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," which I hadn't heard in a while and which is always to be welcomed.
Overall, if you like this sort of thing -- and if you miss PPM's particular approach -- you'll likely enjoy this one. But as with PPM, an occasional song, however well meaning, falls on the mawkish side and doesn't exactly encourage a second visit. My feelings about this kind of folk-pop approach are mixed on my best days; thus, honoring varying tastes, I refrain from judgment. Keepsake certainly isn't the hard stuff, but then, not everybody desires a stiff drink.
music review by
26 March 2016
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