Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Beauty in Simplicity: Buddy Miller's The Majestic Silver Strings

Americana has become the fashionable label for music that's defined as too country for L.A. and too pop for Nashville. But long before the new definition entered the vernacular, Buddy Miller had already established a sound and feel to his music that was at once a blend of those two different musical sensibilities. On his new release, The Majestic Silver Strings, Miller (with fellow guitarists Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz) has re-imagined the music while still remaining true to its roots.

Miller's new album is his first since hooking up with Robert Plant a few years ago and it is a beautiful sounding work that defines "Americana" without paying lip service to the genre. Sure, The Decemberists put out a decent record last month (The King is Dead), but this is the real deal. An album equally at home in the traditions of American roots music, The Majestic Silver Strings sways from the traditional country heard in "Cattle Call," to the rockabilly of "No Good Lover," to cowboy songs such as a tasteful version of the Lefty Frizzell hit "I Want To Be With You Always," sung by guest vocalist, Patty Griffin. Like most of the music on this album, the song is long on charm and short on pretense. Everybody plays with a casual approach that brings out the considerable talent in the band.

That talent includes Marc Ribot, who played with the avant-pop group Jazz Passengers and was part of Tom Waits's Big Time band in the mid-80s. The line-up also features Bill Frisell, who fellow musician John Scofield once called "the Wizard." He's distinguished purely by the distinctly raw sound of his guitar. Five years ago, Frisell released several recordings that echo the country music roots that continue to influence him. Greg Leisz mostly plays pedal steel on this record. Besides collaborating with Frisell, he is also a featured player on Mose Allison's album from last year, Way Of The World. His sound is deeply rooted in the musical colours of the mid-western United States.

On top of all this talent is Buddy Miller, a guitarist, songwriter and producer whose work with Robert Plant on Band of Joy, shaped the lead singer in ways he probably never could have imagined. The heavy mix of Mississippi swamp and Celtic moors on that album are rarely in evidence on The Majestic Silver Strings. They get close though on their re-imagining of Roger Miller's "Dang Me," sung by Marc Anthony Thompson (aka Chocolate Genius). The New York born singer brings all the urban angst mixed with the blues in this remarkable version of the song.

But the kicker is a heavenly version of Dean Martin's classic pop hit "Return to Me," sung by Lee Ann Womack. A careful tempo supports a graceful vocal that is both romantic and soulful. It left me breathless after several replays. Recorded at Miller's house in Nashville, The Majestic Silver Strings is beauty in simplicity. Often that's what good music should be about: love, life and the pursuit of happiness.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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