Thursday, January 26, 2012

It’s In The Mail…: Recent CDs

Someone recently asked me about a comment I made in a previous review. In a rant about Bob Dylan, I let slip that sometimes it’s hard to listen to some of the music that people send me to review. I remarked something about how I had to force myself to listen to some of it. I still stand by that remark; sometimes it is hard. You really want to dig the new Little Willies CD (which I bought on Friday and haven’t even put into the CD player yet), but then there’s that large stack of CDs that other people have sent me for review. “I’d better get on it,” I think. So, today, I’m going to go through the last batch of CDs that have come in, and tell you exactly what I think about them.

Jim Allchin
Jim Allchin is a blues guitar player with a PhD in Computer Science. He used to work for Microsoft, but since 2009 he’s been a full-time musician. His new CD is called Overclocked and has 13 original blues and a cover design that celebrates his Fender Stratocaster. The guitar is celebrated throughout, in fact right from the very start of the title track you get the idea that this guy is a ‘guitar-player’! “Overclocked” is an IT term for souping up a computer to run faster than its original design. This can lead to burnout, and in Allchin’s hands the Strat does nearly melt. He calms down a bit for “Willow Tree” but only in relation to the sizzle of the first track. Over a solid rhythm section Allchin’s guitar is the star, and his lead vocals are serviceable. Keely Whitney takes over lead vocals on a two sultry numbers.

Gayke Ackroyd
Gayle Ackroyd lives in Guelph, Ontario where she gives music lessons when she’s not playing with her band. Give It All You Got arrived after an e-mail from a songwriting friend of mine who asked if I would consider reviewing an album by a friend of his. Hmmm. I said, “Sure.” Trouble is, now I have to do something about it. This is one of those albums where you listen and think that there’s nothing really wrong with it, but you’re just not sure why you want to listen to the whole thing. The band is good, they find the groove and hold on, but Ms Ackroyd’s vocals are just a bit soft. The whole impression is one of blandness. I can imagine sitting in a bar sipping a Guinness while they play and being able to carry on a conversation with no difficulty. And there’s a place for that, but when I finished this album I kept thinking that the best song was the last one … and it’s “Keep On Running” which was already done so brilliantly by Spencer Davis Group with Stevie Winwood singing. Overall, it just didn’t do it for me.

Casey Abrams
Casey Abrams is a Boston-based singer-songwriter who describes his new album as “a shoebox full of pictures and stories – summer afternoon postcards, sprawling stormy-night creepers, sad and rainy letters and bright, sunny country-road racers.” And that may not be hyperbole. Casey had read a review I wrote and sent me an e-mail asking if I’d listen to his album. I agreed, and when it arrived I dropped Oh, You Kid on the pile. When I finally got around to it, I was surprised by the sound. It came without the standard one-sheet, so I had to search the web for information about him. Turns out this is his third album and it’s produced by John Simon who had such a hand in shaping classic albums for The Band and Simon & Garfunkel. In fact, this one reminds me a bit of John Simon’s first solo album. It’s not afraid to take chances. There are echoes of The Beatles in the orchestration on the first cut, “Ghost Story,” and hints of a lifetime of listening to American music throughout the album’s dozen songs. Some dandy picking and Abrams’ pleasant tenor on a collection of catchy tunes makes this one a pleasure to listen to.

Oliver Schroer was a Canadian fiddler and composer who passed away in 2008. His indefatigable spirit and devotion to his music are shown by the number of albums that have been released since his death. He recorded with a variety of artists from Jimmy Webb to Great Big Sea. This most recent release is a duet recording from 2007, with Scottish singer/flautist Nuala Kennedy. Titled Enthralled, the album is a celebration of the interplay between the two artists, and the feeling they had for each other. It is essentially an instrumental piece, fiddle and flute, with piano, bass and accordion joining in at various points. This Celtic music is not the sort of thing I would ever choose to listen to, but I can certainly appreciate the skill of the players. There is, for me, a sameness to it all. Not unlike a soundtrack for a series of films, the pieces begin, create a mood, tell a story, and then moves on to the next one. The flute and fiddle interweave with the supporting instruments seamlessly evoking images hinted at by the titles: “Flowers,” “Healing,” “Miao, Miao,” “The Books in My Library” or “The Whispering Wind” are just a few examples of the directions this music takes.

This brings us to a 3-disc set by another Canadian act, The Cowboy Junkies. They have been releasing what they call The Nomad Series one disc at a time for over a year. You can find them at their website, and each one is a different ball game. They claim that “the idea was born in the tumult of a perfect storm of ideas, influences, inspirations and timing.” Partly to test their newly launched website, partly in response to a series of four paintings by Enrique Martinez Celaya (which serve as the CD covers), and partly because the band had so many ideas, the series is a mixed bag. The first disc, which appeared in June 2010, is subtitled Renmin Park and is a song cycle inspired by guitarist Michael Timmins’ three month visit to China. Disc two (from February 2011) is a collection of songs written by Vic Chestnutt called Demons. The most recent release is Sing In My Meadow which is described as “an album of Acid Blues.” The fourth disc is promised for any time now (Feb. 23rd), and will be songs the band has been playing live for awhile combined with songs yet to be written.

The “Acid Blues” are not unlike the “acid folk” of Tom Wilson’s band Lee Harvey Osmond (LHO). Not surprising, therefore, Margo and Michael Timmins both contributed to LHO’s A Quiet Evil. The sound on Sing In My Meadow is loud, heavy, and psychedelic. The guitar of Michael Timmins and guest Jeff Bird’s mandolin are on opposite channels, while Margo’s vocals swirl hauntingly over the solid bottom end provided by Alan Anton’s drums and Peter Timmins’ bass. The sound on Demons is not far removed from this Acid Blues model, or at least the album starts off that way. The loud guitars and heavy beat introduce Chestnutt’s “Wrong Piano.” There is an abundance of guests on Demons, including mandolinist Jeff Bird, as well as Joby Baker on keyboards, Dave Henry (cello), Tania Elizabeth (fiddle), Aaron Goldstein (guitar) and a handful of horn players. Chestnutt had a long relationship with the Cowboy Junkies, even appearing with them on 2007’s Trinity Revisited where they re-recorded the album that made them famous. Here they pay tribute to him as a songwriter, and a friend. It works because they treat his quirky songs in their own unique way. The first album of the Nomads series is perhaps the oddest. Renmin Park begins with what sounds like a radio broadcast of the band's music which then blends into some Chinese music and then an acoustic guitar strummed quietly. Margo’s ethereal voice describes the “ducklings gobbling bread” and quickly paints a picture of a place that is at once exotic and yet familiar. The supporting musicians this time feature a few Chinese folk playing instruments like the erhu (spike fiddle) and pipa (a Chinese lute). As always though, where the Timminses are involved, the sound is relaxed, at an easy pace, focused on Margo’s voice, and Michael’s guitar.

So, why do I have to push myself to listen to the music that drops through the mail slot? Because it’s not always like this. Often there are CDs of someone singing from the Great American Songbook accompanying themselves on the ukulele, or noodling pianists trapped by their dark moods. I have no idea of just how many Celtic bands there are, or singer-songwriters, or blues guitarists, and the harpists, the soloists … the people just like me who have a guitar and a MacBook with Garage Band installed. I was surprised by Jim Allchin; it's too bad I didn’t like Gayle Ackroyd’s album; I was bowled over by Casey Abrams; I wish I appreciated Schroer and Kennedy more. I wonder how often I’ll be drawn back to the spooky world of the Cowboy Junkies.

In the last year I’ve been truly captivated by only one or two things. I cannot stop playing Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What but nobody asked me to write about that. That’s why we do it though. That’s why we listen. We know that in that pile there will be something new that will captivate us, bring us back to it time and time again. Like Casey Abrams or … maybe there will be something in this new package the postman just dropped off. I’ll be in touch.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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