Tim O'Brien,
(Sugar Hill/Howdy Skies, 2003)

One of the many wonderful things about Tim O'Brien is his unpredictability. You never know what musical genres he's going to bend, twist and combine next. Equally at home in bluegrass, folk, Celtic and jazz, he's brought elements of these genres to many of his previous projects, but this new one is the most successful yet. It's a blend of much of his previous work, but also steps more firmly into mainstream country pop -- the good kind, mind you -- to create an album with brilliant individual tunes that becomes even greater than the sum of its parts.

That's only right, since O'Brien wrote most of the songs on this CD, and they all deal with his travels, on the road and through life. They're serious and witty and wry, and though they may be autobiographical, listeners will find their own lives and experiences interwoven through many of these lyrics.

"Kelly Joe's Shoes" gets us walking along with O'Brien in a pair of black Chuck Taylors to the sprightly chorus, "Said take these shoes and be on your way/It looks like you've got travelin' to do/Come back and see me some other day/Tell me all about where they took you to...." It's a great opening song, and thanks to O'Brien's perfect enunciation here and throughout, every word is crystal clear. David and Olla Belle Reed's "I've Endured" is a backwoods anthem that brings the first serious note into O'Brien's odyssey, and it's followed by "Turn the Page Again," an effective song about the changes we meet in life.

"Let Love Take You Back Again" is a beautiful and melancholy song made more so by the presence of Jerry Douglas's lap steel. Douglas's presence is also strongly felt in the eerie yet tender "Restless Spirit Wandering," a ghost story filled with powerful metaphors of creativity. "Another Day" contains the classic line, "Let a new sprout grow from a fallen tree, this song will go on after me." It's a splendid evocation of the cycle of life, though dark at heart, and that darkness intrudes into "On the Outside Lookin' In," a moving depiction of heartbreak and uncertainty.

The mood brightens somewhat with "Forty-Nine Keep On Talkin'," a traveling song about how the road can "ease my mind," and "Family History" brings some humor to the mix with its clever and ironic look at family relationships. We enter the realm of true happiness with "Fall Into Her Deep Blue Eyes," a perceptive and joyous love song that leads us into the CD's highlight, "Travelers," a hauntingly beautiful song with rich chord progressions and melody. Things wrap up nicely with "Less and Less," a jaunty song in which O'Brien talks openly about the mistakes he's made and the lessons he's learned, a song that's universal in its blend of regret and contentment.

This album is O'Brien's masterpiece, and one gets the feeling that his heart was fully in it. He's joined by many old musical friends who are also some of the top players in new acoustic music, such as Douglas, Bela Fleck, Dirk Powell, Kenny Malone, John Doyle, Edgar Meyer and others, so O'Brien's splendid songs and performances are perfectly supported. If you're a Tim O'Brien fan, this is a must have, and if you're not, isn't it about time you joined the cognoscenti? Get travelin'.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 10 April 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.