Monday, September 04, 2006

CD REVIEW: Wayne Hancock's "Tulsa"

Label: Bloodshot Records

Listen to the jingle, the rumble, and the roar! A familiar Train is coming up around the bend. Ladies and gentlemen, the King of Juke Joint Swing has returned after five long years since his last studio record… and he’s better than ever.

2006 has been a tremendous year for real country music. More new, solid country records have been released this year than any in recent memory. Artists who have released new albums this year range from underground powerhouses like Hank Williams III, Dale Watson, and BR549 to bona fide legends like Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. As the year comes to a close, it becomes more and more difficult to find a noteworthy artist that does not have a new record in stores. For the fans of one such noteworthy artist, the wait for a new album ends on October 10th. This is the day when Wayne “The Train” Hancock’s fifth studio record Tulsa hits the shelves. In case anyone forgot who Hancock is (and I doubt anyone has), he is one of the most outstanding country songwriters in this or in any era. However, he has not had a new album since 2001, and many were likely wondering what exactly had happened to him. Well, for those worried about Wayne Hancock, Tulsa will ease their weary minds with a sound that is equal parts country and jazz. The Train is back to swing listeners to their own personal hillbilly heavens.

Even though many compare Hancock’s musical style to Hank Williams, Sr., he has just as much Bob Wills in him as he does Williams. This Wills side of The Train’s music has a strong presence on Tulsa; one that is stronger than on any Hancock album since his sophomore effort That’s What Daddy Wants. His country and jazz influences blend together perfectly to create an incredibly smooth sonic experience, whether it’s the fast, lively swing of the title track, or the mellow sway of “Ain’t Gonna Worry No More.” Helping Hancock create this sound is longtime producer Lloyd Maines and Wayne’s always-phenomenal touring band. As usual, they are on top of their game, helping to record Tulsa in only two and a half days, which explains its loose, live feel. Eddie Biebel, Dave Biller, and Paul Skelton take turns on lead guitar, while Chris Darrell maintains an always slap happy doghouse bass. Eddie Rivers’ steel guitar whines mournfully, while Bob “Texaco” Stafford and John Doyle cook up just enough jazz on trombone and clarinet, respectively, to create Hancock’s unique musical style. After almost ten years of constant touring, Wayne and the boys have perfected that style on Tulsa.

Since Wayne Hancock is country’s ultimate road warrior, playing over 200 shows a year, it should not surprise anyone that Tulsa is filled with great songs about life on the road. The first half of the record features songs about hitting the highway, while the second half explores the reasons for heading back home. Numbers like “I Don’t Care Anymore” and “Goin’ Home Blues” are tales of escape from the memories of a broken heart, and tunes such as the toe-tapper “Gonna Be Flyin’ Tonight” and the horn-fused “Goin’ Back to Texas When I’m Through” find Hancock excited for a rest from the road. Tulsa’s standout road songs are the country singer’s seemingly autobiographical “Shootin Star From Texas,” the lyrically outstanding “Back Home,” and the dark, desperate “Highway Bound.” The latter track is particularly interesting for while most of the road songs on Tulsa are “wild, free, and reckless,” “Highway Bound” finds Wayne on the edge of quiet madness. A ghostly feeling surrounds the creaky voice, as though the highway has trapped the spirit of the lonely troubadour. It is haunting as hell, and damn wonderful.

Of course, no flawless country album can be without songs about booze and broken hearts, and Tulsa is no exception. Hancock delivers listeners a tremendous bluesy number entitled “Drinkin Blues,” which finds the singer trying desperately to avoid the temptation of alcohol, only to fail in the end. There is plenty of heartache to go around too. Whether it’s the lounge jazz lament “This Lonely Night” or one of the best Hank Williams-like songs in years “Lord Take My Pain,” Wayne proves he is a master of serving the lovesick blues. He can even make those blues fun, as he proves in the Johnny Horton/Hank Williams hybrid “No Sleep Blues”: a song anyone can relate to, and one that begs folks to sing along. Hancock has always been a master storyteller, but he’s never told better tales than those found on Tulsa.

A few days away from the five-year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, we will be reminded more times than needed in the coming weeks about the dangers of today’s world. However, Wayne Hancock is here to help us escape from our worries. “There’s a band across the way, everything will be okay,” and “when you hear these folks playing, there’s no point in feeling down,” he says in the song “Brother Music, Sister Rhythm.” Finally, The Train is back to give old fans another ride and pick up a few new passengers as well. His timing could not be better. With the quality of his juke joint swing at its all-time high and some of the best songs that he has ever penned, Tulsa is Wayne Hancock’s strongest album of his distinguished career... and the country record of the year.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

CD REVIEW: William Elliott Whitmore's "Song of the Blackbird"

Label: Southern Records

Imagine you are a Plains states farmer in the early twentieth century. Scorching summer hits, and horrible drought ensues. Dependent on the dead or dying crops, hard times rush towards you and leave you helpless and faithless. And yet, you are still hoping for a miracle, a rainstorm, to heal your own personal Great Depression. This is the world presented by singer/songwriter William Elliott Whitmore with his 2006 release Song of the Blackbird. Whitmore tells this tale of survival both through his sparse, traditional musical arrangements and excellent lyrics for any era. As good as any concept album in recent years, Blackbird is sure to be a hit with anyone that loves traditional music, deep, growling vocals, and superb songwriting.

Even though Whitmore is a 28-year old white man from Iowa, he sings with the soul of an elderly black man moaning the blues on his porch under the hellish 1930s Alabama sun. His Tom Waits-like vocals have never sounded better than they do on Song of the Blackbird. As with his previous two albums, Whitmore keeps his musical arrangements small, effectively playing most of the instruments himself, including guitar and banjo. On a few tracks, however, Whitmore gets a hand from drummer John “Crawdaddy” Crawford and Dave Zollo on piano and Hammond organ. Piano hasn’t been a staple of his past releases, but it adds a great deal of quality to two featured tracks. Indeed the music is solid, but Whitmore chose wisely to keep it from dominating his incredible voice, for it truly is Blackbird’s most noteworthy instrument.

With the exception of a couple of songs, musically, Song of the Blackbird is almost identical to Whitmore’s previous albums. What makes it his strongest record is the songwriting. Whitmore has always been a great lyricist, but this time, the entire album is one long, complete story. This sort of concept record isn’t tried often, and for good reason because most of the time, the effort falls flat on its musical face. Not so with Blackbird. The tale begins with the banjo-and-vocal song “Dry,” which sets the stage for the deadly drought. This simple arrangement gives away for the piano-and-organ filled “The Chariot”: an album standout that finds Whitmore questioning his faith. “The Chariot swung low and sweet, but it could not carry me home,” he howls. The now faithless voice then concedes that he is “not bound for glory, but for flames” in the eerily quiet banjo number “One Man’s Shame.” The banjo is replaced by guitar for the mournful “Rest His Soul,” where the voice reflects on the journey he’s shared with a departed loved one, whom he seems content to let rest in peace rather than suffer along with the dying land.

This could have been the end of a terribly sad, but solid EP. But then, something happened. The rain came, and it came in hard musical sheets. After a two-minute instrumental intermission that ends with the sound of heaven’s blessed teardrops, the “Lee County Flood” begins. Whitmore’s driving banjo simulates the rain, which sounded like “a thousand horses’ hooves.” Even though the rain is harsh as it floods the land, it is welcomed with open arms. As a result of the watery miracle, the remaining songs are used for lessons and remembrance. “Take it on the Chin” finds a father using the horrible drought experience to teach his son about the nature of life. The next number, “Red Buds,” brings the piano and organ back to give the song a religious feel. For Whitmore, nature and spirituality are synonymous, and his gospel-like delivery of such lines as “when the rain beats down on a poor man’s head” drives home his message. The song successfully gives listeners the same feeling of new life as the people who suffered in this musical story. The final track, “Everyday,” wraps things up well, as a survivor remembers a loved one who wasn’t so lucky, regretting the pain he had put that person through. It is an appropriate way to end Song of the Blackbird: an outstanding musical representation of nature’s life cycle.

In today’s world, where soulless, lifeless pop music dominates radio stations across the country, we are lucky to have artists like Whitmore who can tell powerful tales like Blackbird. The collective musical voice of the working man is quickly disappearing, with its most influential artists either already dead or aging. However, so long as life continues to thrive inside the body of William Elliott Whitmore, the American farmer will always have that strong voice to get behind. If he were alive today to hear Song of the Blackbird, Woody Guthrie would be proud.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

CD REVIEW: Old Crow Medicine Show's "Big Iron World"

Label: Nettwerk Records

On August 29th, 2006, a certain singer/songwriter by the name of Bob Dylan released an album entitled Modern Times. While the album title is largely ironic since nothing is modern about its musical arrangements, the music does not resemble anything like his early folk sound either. So what is the pre-electric Dylan fan supposed to turn to in these “modern times?” Well… how about to another album released on August 29th? Big Iron World by the punky-folky-bluegrass outfit Old Crow Medicine Show is just what the doctor ordered. In many respects a concept album, Big Iron World is a lyrical and musical picture of a harsh, cold world… one that largely contradicts OCMS’ irresistible upbeat sound. Yet, somehow, this combination ultimately proves to be the band’s strongest effort to date.

Produced by the great David Rawlings, the music of Big Iron World is solid. OCMS has always been a musically strong group, and they surely do not disappoint here. Each member of the band delivers, and delivers well. Joined on some tracks by the light drumming of songstress Gillian Welch, the tight-knit group of Critter Fuqua (banjo), Kevin Hayes (guitjo), Morgan Jahnig (bass), Ketch Secor (fiddle), and Willie Watson (guitar) deliver listeners an old-timey sonic blast that is sure to please… and on some occasions, make them want to dance. While their previous two albums were a little more raw and gritty, Big Iron World is OCMS’ most consistently impressive musical record.

In addition to their outstanding musicianship, four members of OCMS contribute lead vocals to songs on the album as well, and all four handle the duty well when called upon. The laid back voice of Critter Fuqua works on both the boatman’s hard time lament “James River Blues” and the lively “New Virginia Creeper,” while the “rocker” of the group, Keith Secor, proves he can be sorrowful as well on the murder tale “My Good Gal.” Even though Kevin Hayes doesn’t have the strongest voice, he still uses it well on a cover of the traditional “Let it Alone.” However, providing the most memorable vocals on the album is guitarist Willie Watson. His haunting, howling vocals on songs like “Don’t Ride That Horse” send chills down one’s spine. A band that has multiple members who can deliver effective lead vocals is rare, but Big Iron World proves that OCMS is one of them.

Yet, what makes this album such a great listen is the cover and original song selection that creates this Big Iron World. Beginning with the twangy, bluesy cover of The Coasters’ “Down Home Girl” and the Dylanesque “Bobcat Tracks,” there is plenty of musical goodness in between for listeners to experience. While many of these songs are fast-paced, they often feature just as much of a dark undertone as the sad and haunting numbers. Some of these are stories of addiction (“Cocaine Habit”), some are stories of infidelity (“Minglewood Blues”), and some are stories of the working man doing what he can to survive (a blistering cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid”). Hard times define the album, and it is evident that some of the hard times discussed are those that we face today. One of the album’s standouts, “God’s Got It,” sounds like a southern gospel song on the surface, but hints at the irony of wealthy evangelists selling Christianity to the poor. Another very memorable song, “I Hear Them All,” finds OCMS protesting against tyranny in the world in the name of the suffering. In times when such songs are a dime-a-dozen, this is as good as any song of the kind that has been released in recent years, and manages to deliver its political message without bashing listeners over the head with it (are you listening Neil Young??). From start to finish, each song on Big Iron World is a winner.

With all respect to Mr. Dylan, perhaps the greatest musical statement about modern times released on August 29th was Big Iron World. In discussing the darkness around each of us, OCMS has delivered their best album. And in a world where we face the horrors of war, terror, and mediocre noise on mainstream radio, thank heaven for Old Crow Medicine Show!