Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer, |
The Flower of Muscle Shoals
(Free Dirt, 2014)
The Flower of Muscle Shoals is a country record, but one very much on Cahalen Morrison's terms. It eschews current Nashville music (in any event, Morrison is a Seattle resident), and it visits true-blue honkytonk country only here and there. Its strongest number by far, "Cascabel Valley," is country only because it is performed in a style associated with the genre. It's hard, maybe impossible, to think of any country act, current or historic, conventional or adventurous, who would be able to tackle something like this.
I don't mean this will not be a problem for listeners. In fact, my observation is directed to the reach of Morrison's ambition -- long and considerable -- and to Flower's admirable qualities. On the other hand, it is easy to overpraise the result. Morrison brings to mind another young neo-country artist, Sturgill Simpson, a talented singer-songwriter who seeks to redefine the genre (and, one might add, upgrade its intelligence). For that commendable effort he finds himself at the receiving end of unsustainable critical hyperbole. Cahalen and Simpson, I think, will start hitting their strides a few miles, literal and figurative, down the road.
Prior to Flower, Morrison was teamed with Eli West. The two fashioned some beautiful and moving acoustic music out of, mostly, Morrison's songs, which sounded like hillbilly-duet Appalachian ballads in an alternate universe located in the cosmic neighborhood once occupied by The Band. (See my reviews in this space on 15 December 2012 and 26 April 2014.) In the move to a more updated, electrified country approach, sans West, Morrison seems a tad stiff; some of the performances feel more studied than lived. With the title song and "The Delta Divine" he demonstrates that Positive Love Songs (a music-industry term) defeat even the most accomplished songwriters. On the other hand, in "Through Your Window" he shows he can write a hell of an in-the-tradition Broken Love Song. All of us want to be in happy romantic relationships, but who wants to hear songs about them?
On occasion Morrison, who grew up in northern New Mexico, recalls, if dimly, the likes of the Sons of the Pioneers, Rex Allen, Wilf Carter and Ian Tyson, whose songs conjure up vivid Western scenes. Here and there, the lyrics, if read as words unattached to tunes and arrangements, could be Tyson creations. One can almost compose apposite cowboy-folk melodies. Elsewhere, Morrison borrows various forms of more standard country, including Western swing, Tex-Mex and Bakersfield Sound. This happens unevenly, sometimes working more persuasively than at other times. Not much of it rises to the level of brilliance I associate with James Talley, who like nobody else absorbed Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills and the blues into a stunningly original Southwestern roots music.
If you've heard Morrison before, you know he is a remarkable, razor-sharp vocalist. Beyond that, he's an unusually bright, literate guy with something, possibly a whole lot, to say. That Flower is only partially successful may mean simply that he's still working at what he wants to do in a country-music context. Next time, let us trust, will be the charm.
music review by
8 November 2014
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