Tim O'Brien,
(Proper American/Howdy Skies, 2008)

Though I have never met Tim O'Brien -- not to be confused with the novelist of the same name, who grew up a few dozen miles south of where I live -- I do have a relationship, at least of sorts, with the musical T O'B. He once recorded a song ("Don't Let Me Come Home a Stranger") that I co-wrote, and I am told in his current project he will cover two more. I say this to ensure that in the deeply improbable event you know as much, you will not be able to complain I have not disclosed fully what some might judge to be an interest conflict. To which I retort: Well, I liked O'Brien's music long before any of the above happened, and none of those songs are on Chameleon. And also, I'm not all that enamored of his Dylan tribute, Red on Blonde (Sugar Hill, 1996). See? I can be objective.

Born in West Virginia, O'Brien rose to prominence in the 1970s with the well-regarded, Colorado-based Hot Rize, a bluegrass band with a tradition-oriented approach leavened with a modern sensibility. On the side, Hot Rize's members were Red Knuckles & the Trail Blazers, a hilarious -- if musically serious -- parody of a hard-core honkytonk-country group. In those years O'Brien worked on his songwriting skills.

With the break-up of Hot Rize (which isn't quite dead; there are the occasional reunions, and one suspects another HR album is no impossibility) he moved on to Nashville. A deal with a major label fell through -- just as well; O'Brien is not cut out for Music City's cookie-cutter style. He has had success, on the other hand, as an occasional supplier of hit songs to the stars. He's released a string of albums, variously in solo, duo (on occasion with sister Mollie) and ensemble configurations, and generated praise and affection all around.

Perhaps it helps to know that in 2005 O'Brien released two albums, Fiddler's Green and Cornbread Nation (the latter of which I reviewed in this space on 5 November 2005), of traditional and might-as-well-be trad material. Fiddler's Green won O'Brien a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Chameleon, his first release since then, can be heard as the third in a trilogy, only this time the songs -- a generous 16 -- are all originals. But there is no question that this is a folk album, not just because the instrumentation is as spare as it could be -- each cut consists of vocal and one-stringed instrument: guitar, banjo, fiddle, bouzouki or mandola), but also because the songs showcase musical and lyric references to both old tunes and later folk-revival reinvention.

Chameleon succeeds because O'Brien needs no more than what he brings. Anything else would have felt beside the point. He's been at this long enough not to waste time and space with second-rate compositions, though perhaps the closing cut, "Nothing to Say," comes closest to filling the promise (or threat) of the title. Of course, O'Brien means to assert that having said everything he has to say this time out, he's bowing and heading for the exit. I'm not sure this was as inspired a notion as it might have seemed in the moment, but never mind. Nothing that came before is likely to disappoint.

Each time I hear this record, another song, overlooked the last time, leaps to my attention. There's a commendable range of themes and melodies in evidence, from unmopish love songs to food celebrations to light-handed but barbed political commentaries (especially the satirical depiction of an America oafishly full of itself "This World Was Made for Everyone," which resounds with Woody Guthrie's mordant sense of topical humor), plus plenty more. There are songs, too, that could pass for old-timers, such as the banjo-driven "Red Dog in the Morning" and the fiddle-flavored "Phantom Phone Call." Suffice it to say, if you're looking for favorites, prepare yourself: the competition is stiff.

review by
Jerome Clark

24 May 2008

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