Cliff Eberhardt,
The High Above & the Down Below
(Red House, 2007)

New York City singer-songwriter Cliff Eberhardt has been no more than a name to me till now. The High Above & the Down Below is, I learn, his sixth album, his third for the Red House label, headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., and home to a number of leading artists on the current folk circuit, among them Greg Brown, Robin & Linda Williams, Jorma Kaukonen, Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson.

As much as the songs, the production, which captures a kind of late-night, jazz-club ambience, is likely to strike the listener right off, and I would say as much if the producer were not Eric Peltoniemi, a pal of four decades' standing. With the sudden, tragic passing of Red House founder Bob Feldman in January 2006, Peltoniemi took charge of the label and in due course managed to find the time to oversee this impressive recording.

He called on three well-regarded Twin Cities jazz musicians -- Rich Dworsky (keyboards), Gordy Johnson (bass) and J.T. Bates (drums) -- to work with Eberhardt (acoustic and electric guitars) to envision and execute these dozen noirish songs and performances. Integrating Gershwin-style classic pop, piano jazz and folk-rock, the arrangements conjure up a moody, adult sound, mostly shadow-covered meditations on love's broken promise. The result sounds to my ears something like Frank Sinatra if he were Fred Neil, or vice versa.

Eberhardt is a superior if (or because) understated vocalist. These are not tossed-off lines; to the contrary, they're fully, at times disturbingly inhabited ones. I have no idea if they represent Eberhardt's actual experiences, and I don't care; what counts is that their sentiments will resound with any listener who's lived long enough to have taken a few spins around romance's block and to have felt not just the beating heart but the beaten one. Even when the lyrics are ostensibly happy ones (e.g., "Assembly Line"), Eberhardt sounds anxious and uncertain, as if persuaded from too much personal history that every silver lining has a cloud.

The clouds hang heavy over Eberhardt's world, but they also loom darkly over all of ours. The High Above is definitely not for the kids. Any adult listener who seeks perfectly realized grown-up music, however, will listen and weep, and play it again.

review by
Jerome Clark

1 December 2007

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