Mark Olson & the Creekdippers,
December's Child
(Dualtone, 2002)

Mark Olson, co-founder of the Jayhawks with Gary Louris, left that critically acclaimed alternative country band several years ago, leaving Louris to take the Jayhawks in a more mainstream direction on Smile, one of 2000's best releases. Meanwhile, on December's Child, Olson's compositions, arrangements and vocals veer off the main road into territory that is not for everybody. Any resemblance to the Jayhawks on this CD is entirely coincidental except for the next to last track, "Say You'll Be Mine," which Olson co-wrote and sings with Louris. On that song you may actually think you are listening to vintage period Jayhawks. Don't expect to enjoy this disc because you are a Jayhawks fan. If you like this music it will be strictly on its own merits.

Olson's vocals and melodies, while adequate, tend to be similar sounding, so it is a good thing that many of the underlying, eclectic, instrumental arrangements set the songs apart from one another. "Back to the Old Homeplace" is piano-driven. "Nerstrand Woods" features a prominent wood block as the only percussion instrument, along with strummed acoustic guitars, and is presented in such a way that the wood block is almost the lead instrument on the track. "Cactus Wren" begins with almost 2 1/2 minutes of soothing instrumental music featuring a violin, trumpet and piano before Olson begins singing on this 4:41-minute track. The title track features a violin along with triangle accompaniment throughout the entire song. Other tracks feature Olson's wife, Victoria Williams, a major country-folk artist in her own right, on wah wah banjo.

Lyrically, the subject matter is diverse. Olson writes about an "old junkie sitting on a truckbed" on "Alta's Song." "Nerstrand Woods" is about wanting to walk with a lost lover in a favorite woods. "One Eyed Black Dog Moses" is about a very mangy mutt that still manages to be a best friend.

Fortunately, Williams is relegated to singing background vocals on most tracks so her poor vocals do not get in the listener's way too often. When she accompanies Olson's leads, I cringe. On the already rowdy and strange "Black Dog Moses," her screeching voice sounds like a hillbilly Yoko Ono. Note to Williams: some people are meant to sing, others are meant to compose and play. Not many excel at all of it. Maybe Olson can sing some of Williams' work on the next Creekdippers CD so we can listen to her songs long enough to decide if she really does have the songwriting talent many critics praise.

This CD is aimed at people who like lyrics and folk music but instrumentally it overwhelms everything else and attention is only paid to the music.

[ by Charlie Ricci ]
Rambles: 7 September 2002

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