Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Good News X 3: Steph Cameron, Loudon Wainwright III & Jesse Winchester

With the recent news that Bob Dylan has two upcoming releases, The Complete Basement Tapes in November, and a new album for later this year, it's hard for me to contain my enthusiasm for the former and my interest in the latter. Dylan continues to be an important artist regardless of his failing voice. He writes, tours and reaches people through his songs no matter how jaded one might feel about the music business in general. Even at this stage in his career, some critics can dismiss Dylan, but he certainly cannot be ignored. Which brings me to a young singer-songwriter from Winlaw, British Columbia, by the name of Steph Cameron. Considering the thousands upon thousands of singers with guitars looking for the grail of artistic and financial success, she is a standout for her turns of phrase and first-rate guitar playing on her debut album, Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady.

Like Dylan, on his debut, her first album on Pheromone Records is simply her voice and her guitar beautifully captured over 3 days of recording sessions in Toronto in 2013. It's a bold debut featuring 13 original songs, including one instrumental. The album is rich in musical textures and styles, as Cameron seems most at home in the country-blues styling of Lightnin' Hopkins, but she isn't trying to mimic anybody. She sings and plays with great confidence with a self-assured delivery that is refreshing to the ear. Cameron’s album was originally intended to be a demo CD, but the studio environment was right and she ended up recording her roster of songs all based on her observations while busking across the country. In tribute to Bob Dylan’s third album, the cover of Cameron’s record is graced with the same font and sepia image [sans Dylan’s face].

I always find the songs of Loudon Wainwright III rich in character and humour. At the age of 68, he can still turn a phrase and shape a musical lick easily and his 23rd album, Haven't Got the Blues (Yet) (Proper Records), is a first-rate recording. With its jump-blues opener "Brand New Dance" celebrating "the new smell...called The Old Man" to the beautifully personal, "In A Hurry," written from the point-of-view of a beggar in a train station, Wainwright sings with a lot of heart and soul. It’s the perfect follow-up to his recent recordings over the past ten years. His self-deprecating point-of-view is well on display, but his poignancy is equally sharp. A jilted lover never sounded more satisfied on Wainwright’s witty tune, "The Morgue," where "the coroner told me you died from natural causes: a guilty conscience and a broken heart."

The album's most dynamic feature is the fine mix of Americana, Country-blues and Klezmer music, as heard effectively on "Spaced." On another song, Wainwright invited his daughter, Martha to sing on "I Knew Your Mother," a lovely tribute to his son, Rufus, who turned 40 last year. But Wainwright's skills as a poet are perfectly on display on the satiric "I'll Be Killing You This Christmas." It's a song that takes issue with the NRA along with the gun culture of the United States. He sings, "Armed and dangerous this Xmas/ It's an oxymoron I know how it sounds/But you won't pry my fingers from it/My precious 2nd Amendment guarantees a clip that holds 100 rounds." In a recent interview, Wainwright states that he used to try and write a hit song but over the years, with limited success on the charts, "I realized that I was never really going to sell a lot of records - that I wasn't Billy Joel or something like that - then I just focused more on making records that felt right to me and had the correct production values." I’m pleased to report that Wainwright’s formula for success, calculated all those years ago, works beautifully on this record.

When Jesse Winchester died last April from cancer, the music world lost one of the most beloved songwriters on the planet. His sweet angelic voice matched the tender lyrics he often penned for others. As Bob Dylan once said “you can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.” Like Loudon Wainwright III, he, too, wanted to write a hit record but settled for a different level of achievement, as he stated in a 2009 interview with Country Music Television. “I wanted to do what my heroes did — which was to write and record great singles that everybody liked to hear on the radio and dance to and fall in love to. That’s always been the idea," he said.

Winchester’s last studio recording, released September 16th, achieves everything the artist loved about music making. A Reasonable Amount of Trouble [Appleseed], features nine new songs and two delightful covers, all geared to the artist’s idea of success. The album opens with the timely song, “All That We Have is Now” a mid-tempo Winchester tune that is bright, positive and not the sound of a dying man. The three covers include the classic “Rhythm of the Rain,” which was a hit for The Cascades in 1962. Winchester makes it his own by simplifying the arrangement as if he’s in your living room, an intimacy only he could bring to performance.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's currently writing a book about Frank Zappa for Backbeat Books.

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