Stuart Whitford, |
Vertical Land is self-produced by Stuart Whitford, a singer-songwriter from Virginia. On the CD sleeve, he thanks his family for their patient support as he "takes time at mid-life to pursue his musical dreams." The pursuit has been worthwhile, and if this is anything to go by, we can hope he continues to dream.
Overall, the album has good lyrics, strikes a happy balance between instrumental and vocals, and is a gentle listening experience -- somewhat reminiscent of the Eagles but with acoustic instruments. It opens well with "The Mexican Sky" -- heightened by Kent Ippolito's playing of the mandocello, its undeniable Mexican flavour sets the scene for much of the CD. Whitford's vocals are unfortunately rather nasal on this opening track, but the rhythm of the song and its evocative lyrics more than compensate; don't be put off! A love song for that land, it insinuates itself into your memory and you will find yourself humming the mellow tune weeks later.
"Out on the Oregon Trail" is a folk/country period traveling song, easy to sing along on the chorus. It is followed by an instrumental, with guitar picking which reminded me of early Chet Atkins and a soaring fiddle like a pale shadow of Stephan Grappelli. You still think you're on the trail, resting the wagon and team, taking a break in the sunshine.
The mood alters with the title track, "Vertical Land." On the one hand, it is stated that he's traveling "On a lonely dark highway / in New Mexico," but the pleading love song makes one think the "vertical land" may also be a metaphor for the difficulties of a relationship. Jennifer Peart's clear and lovely harmony vocals are more obvious on this ballad than in the previous two songs, rather to Stuart's detriment. The next track, a soft yet bright instrumental retains shades of "Vertical Land" in its harmonics, with Ed Snodderly's capable hands on mandocello and Ippolito, somewhat Django Reinhart in style, on the guitar. The theme continues with "Borderland," one of three songs with solo vocals. Stuart's voice, without Jennifer's harmonising, seems to emphasise the estranged theme, and with the comparatively bare accompaniment of only guitar and mandocello, the atmosphere of unease is pervasive. His voice cuts across the instruments, much like the "wind in the borderland," and the words whip and swirl like dust in the dark.
The pace and mood lighten with "In The Hands Of Time," which has more of a country feel to it. Another love song, the input of fellow musicians on the score gives it a subtly different style. Its quiet optimism is welcome after the preceding song and continues into the next instrumental to contrast with "Dark Whiskey Dream." He sings alone again, and this lyric differs from his others in that the last couplets never rhyme; this unexpected discordance creates awareness of the song's tragic theme. One could dismiss this as a trite, typical country & western-style tale of alcoholism and disastrous love, but although it does indeed paint a sorry picture, its original lyrics deny predictability.
"Lisa Janine," a quirky little ballad evidently composed with love for his wife, lifts the spirits again, leading into the guest feature "Going Home" by Roger Rasnake, whom Stuart joins as first lead and then harmony vocal. After luxuriating in Stuart's own refreshingly poetic lyrics, Rasnake's repetitive chorus seems very commercial. Stuart's more "folksingy" tones contrast and harmonise in surprisingly pleasant counterpart to Roger's dulcet singing voice.
"Kingston Market" abruptly swerves the album away from its pervasive Mexican influence on song tracks, and although "traditional," it is the square peg in the round holes of the folk style Whitford has established with his listener. British folk devotees may find a similarity between this and "Won't You Come Down to Yarmouth Town." The accompaniment has shades of Atkins and Grappelli, previously present only in the instrumental tracks. Peart's rich second lead vocals overwhelm Whitford's thinner voice, and I felt this track was an inexplicable error in an otherwise subtly linked grouping. The following instrumental is the most unremarkable on the CD, fading away as if uncertain, and introducing the final track, "Farther Along," with a sense of relief at finding firmer ground. It restores the end of the album to good order, with strong singing and playing and its familiar lilting tune. I did wonder why he chose not to end with a song of his own, but then, when playing live, it is customary to round off the evening with a well-known traditional, sing-along song.
I advise you to listen to the CD before looking at the cover sleeve. The cover design is fairly intriguing, but the photos of the collaborators regrettably do them no favours! The diction is clear on the songs -- you don't need to read the words, so let the music speak first! It is a lovely album to listen to, with many tracks causing impromptu bursts of song in the following weeks. I would actively encourage the golden-voiced Peart to make a solo album, and I look forward to future work by Stuart Whitford and his fellow musicians.
[ by Jenny Ivor ]