Cliff Eberhardt,
500 Miles: The Blue Rock Sessions
(Red House, 2009)

Willy Porter,
How to Rob a Bank
(Weasel, 2009)

Singer-songwriters keep on chuggin' along into the 21st century. Though "singer-songwriter" as a genre got its name in the mid-1960s, performers who sang mostly their own material date at least to the 1920s. Probably not too many observers would cite Blind Alfred Reed as a pioneer of the genre, but unlike just about anybody else, one of his songs -- "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times & Live?" -- is still sung and recorded, most recently by no less than Bruce Springsteen. With the rarest of exceptions, songs by singer-songwriters get sung only by the songwriters. Too many have no business writing songs at all.

Guitarist Willy Porter is a music veteran and a pro, and How to Rob a Bank is a slick pop record that, if you didn't look at the credits, you'd swear was recorded in Los Angeles. It turns out, however, to have been cut and mixed in Milwaukee. From occasional references one gets the sense that Porter knows something of folk music -- "How to Rob a Bank," about corrupt capitalism today, expresses sentiments articulated by Woody Guthrie with comparably rueful humor -- but mostly, the intended audience seems to be listeners to adult pop radio. Porter is good at what he does, which is to integrate pop with rock and smooth jazz, to sing and play tunefully, and to fashion vocals out of a wistful high tenor.

To my ears, if perhaps not to yours if you are more attuned to modern pop than I am, the effect is generic. It's the sort of thing I am more used to hearing at my local supermarket than anything I am accustomed to listening to at home. It's certainly not for me, which is not to say that -- if you don't demand something raw in your musical stew -- it couldn't be for you.

Cliff Eberhardt's 500 Miles is sparingly and lovingly produced in a studio in Wimberley, Texas, though Eberhardt is ordinarily placed in the ranks of New York City's singer-songwriters. On the other hand, his last album, The High Above & the Down Below (which I reviewed here on 1 December 2007), was recorded in the Twin Cities. That CD was suffused with a late-night piano-jazz ambience, whereas 500 Miles is guitars, stand-up bass and drums, the stuff of acoustic folk-rock. But like its predecessor, it's moody, Eberhardt glumly ruminating on love's fortunes, mostly bad. As promised in the promotional material, it's "a deeply personal album," though why anybody would think that is a recommendation is beyond me.

Still and all, it's a decent record of its kind. Eberhardt, a strong singer, has the sensibility of the guy you know from his usual perch at the next barstool, the one who's always in a lousy mood but somehow makes his -- as opposed to your -- being bummed out seem more interesting than you would have thought. My favorite cut, though, is the title tune, a brilliant, bluesy recreation of the late Hedy West's version of a 19th-century American folk song known in countless variants. It's the first cut, and nothing afterwards resembles it, but it's more than welcome.

review by
Jerome Clark

31 October 2009

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