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Glen Herbert's Photo I'm a volunteer music writer living in Canada.

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Album review: Heidi Talbot glides through ‘Angels Without Wings’

Heidi Talbot
“Angels Without Wings”
Compass Records

Here’s how every review of Heidi Talbot opens: Talbot is from County Kildare, Ireland, and famously was a member of the Irish-American all-female supergroup Cherish the Ladies.

“Super group” seems to be an important term, and is so often used that it seems like part of the band name. And County Kildare seems a very big deal, for whatever reason. The reviews for her new album, “Angels Without Wings,” likewise will all tell you in the first paragraph that Jerry Douglas and Mark Knopfler play on this disc, so there now I’ve done it too.

More importantly, though, is that it’s a really nice collection of new songs from a seasoned performer and writer. While Douglas and Knopfler are the big names that guest here, their presence is so mild as to be non-existent. Better is the inclusion Dirk Powell’s fiddle and banjo on “Dearest Johnny,” and Tim O’Brien who lends his voice in a very noticeable and lovely way on “Wine and Roses” and “When the Roses Come Again.”

And, indeed, the wealth of the material here is lovely. Talbot’s voice is a draw, one that is both strong and delicate, often impossibly at the same time. Her phrasing comes from traditional Irish music, the genre within which she has made a career, though here she branches out. The guest musicians too hearken to the transatlantic sessions O’Brien and Douglas have taken part in at the request of the BBC, and Talbot’s goal seems to be the same as well: to shift the focus a bit from the highly traditional sounds of Ireland and to tease out the commonalities between that music and traditional North American music.

This is her fifth album as a solo artist, though just the second that includes only original material. It also presents a broader range of sounds than her previous albums have, from Parisian accordion on “Angels without Wings” to a feel that echoes ’50s pop on “I’m Not Sorry.” There are many arching melodies that we associate with Irish singing, though “Will I Ever Get to Sleep?” has a bounce that is more US than UK, though with a beautiful pipes part played by Michael McGoldrick that reminds us what we are listening to. That song stands out, as does “The Loneliest,” a sparse vocal piece that will rightly get a lot of attention.

But, really everything here is a strength, and if you haven’t been familiar with Heidi Talbot, this album makes the perfect introduction to an impressive talent. (And did I mention she’s from County Kildare? Apparently, she really is…).

Album review: Old Man Luedecke proves himself on ‘Tender Is the Night’

“Tender Is the Night”
Old Man Luedecke
True North

“Tender Is the Night” is the fifth solo collection from Old Man (Chris) Luedecke, and it feels like some of the musical ideas he’s been working with are really beginning to gel. His writing has always been very strong, remaining true to the roots of American folk and country music, though dealing with modern themes and ideas.

The production on some of the earlier releases, however, often sounded as if he was trying to find his footing. In some instances the settings for his songs were overly sparse; in others, it was overly rich, as with the fuller band numbers that were included on 2008′s “Proof of Love.” He was ranging across the spectrum of arrangements in order to find a home, not entirely successfully.

But with “Tender Is the Night” he’s clearly found what he was looking for thanks in large part to the involvement of Tim O’Brien who produced and plays on this album. O’Brien’s mandolin, fiddle, octave mandolin, guitars and harmony vocals are the perfect accompaniment to Luedecke’s quirky, unique and delightful lyrics and hooks. The production has granted a confidence and clarity to Luedecke’s writing, especially on songs like “I’m Fine (I Am, I Am)” which are tougher to pull off solo, just him and his banjo, which is the typical approach of his live gigs.

All of the great things that Luedecke has been doing so well are also utterly intact here, in particular the way he brings traditional sounds and structures to modern ideas. On “A&W Song,” he laments the awkward feelings of holding up a line while the debit card reader rejects your pin. It’s an idea that could come dangerously close to novelty, but he’s a skilled enough writer to give the idea real poignancy.

The material has a nice range: Luedecke can be old-time mournful, as on “Little Stream of Whiskey,” and cunningly funny on “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Throughout is the charm that comes through so well in his live shows. If you haven’t given much thought to Old Man Luedecke in the past, this is the album that you might want to give a good listen to. It has the feeling of a true arrival, and I suspect that that’s exactly what “Tender Is the Night” will prove to be.

Album review: Nothing better than Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott on ‘We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This’

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
“We’re Usually a Lot Better than This”
Full Lights

In 2000 Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott released “Real Time,” a gorgeous album of duets by two complete masters of instrumentation, arrangement and performance. Beautiful.

Then the duo toured it and pretty much immediately demonstrated that there was a dimension to their playing that the recording lacked; it was a studio piece, and didn’t entirely capture the energy, spontaneity, camaraderie and humor that both O’Brien and Scott share. In a live setting, the pairing of these two performers — who can be absolutely commanding of an audience on their own — was pure unadorned fireworks.

Since that tour, I’ve often had discussions that began “Weren’t Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott fantastic at that show…” and then devolved into the kind of conversation you’d hear between grade-schoolers when discussing Pokemon cards — your basic immature enthusiasm.

This album, “We’re Usually a Lot Better than this” comes from just after the period in which they toured “Real Time.” The tracks are taken from two shows they did in 2005 and 2006, and if anything they are even more infectious than the music they created together when touring “Real Time. What really shines here is the sheer, unbridled confidence that they have in what they are doing. Neither one wants for confidence on his own, to be sure, but together it’s as if they are each pushing each other further. They take what, for others, might be real chances, but they just pony up and let fly. Their voices dance around each other, and their instruments do too.

The performances here sound spontaneous — something of a pure lark — and that’s because, to a lesser or greater extent, they really are. In the liner notes Scott writes, “Some songs we’d played [together] hundreds of times over the years, some we just did on the stage on this recording for the first time.” Gutsy, to be sure, but it’s a reminder of just how good they are at what they do.

One of the things they do so well is bring new energy to old songs and old ideas. There are some standards here, including “House of Gold,” though on this album they do it a cappella and with a kind of force and authority that raises the song from dirge to field holler. O’Brien’s delivery of “Mick Ryan’s Lament” is a stand out, as is a song that he wrote early in his solo career and which was later a hit of sorts for Garth Brooks: “When There’s No One Around” (a song that many people have covered, including Darrell Scott on his 1999 release, “Family Tree”).

The album is also a reminder that, for some people, it’s more about the performance of the songs than it is the recording of them. Yes, O’Brien has some great recordings, including “Away out on the Mountain,” and the more recent “Chameleon.” But he’s a performer, and to go to see him live is more than worth the effort. Darrell Scott is cut from entirely the same cloth. I hope that this album prompts them to head out on the road together again. Fingers crossed.

Album review: Mark O’Connor conducts a fiddle-music clinic on ‘American Classics’

Mark O’Connor
“American Classics”
OMAC

It’s probably safe to say that this album won’t appear on many year-end best of 2012 lists, likely because it’s really a kind of teaching tool: a presentation of the pieces that Mark O’Connor included in his fiddle method books.

O’Connor is interested in building a sound fiddle-teaching method based in the cadences and tunes of American music, and this album is ancillary to that project. And, yes, there are pieces like “Rubber Dolly Rag” that perhaps don’t bare repeated listening for those without an interest in the curriculum. Nevertheless, there are other pieces that are breathtaking, such as, believe it or not, “Old Folks at Home.”

But it seems that there is something else going on here as well. It’s as if O’Connor is taking a look back at the American canon of fiddle music in order to provide some new answers to an eternal question: “What is American music?”

His answer, as the selections here make clear, is that just like America itself, it’s varied, conflicted, important and worthy of our respect. “Hava Nagila” sits alongside “Congress Hoedown” and “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down.” There’s something powerful in that. All the pieces are played with grace, poise and reverence, no matter that many of the pieces here are the very definition of chestnuts — songs that have been played seemingly to death and which are no longer seriously considered part of the popular repertoire.

O’Connor reminds us that these are indeed songs to be taken seriously, even if they are part of his curriculum. This recording in particular shows us that all can be played as performance pieces, and that all aren’t to be considered childish or rudimentary — even if they work as teaching tools for the young and for beginning fiddlers.

But the bottom line is this: Even if you have no knowledge or care for what O’Connor is doing with his fiddle method, this is simply a beautiful recording of — without a doubt — the best fiddler alive today, and by playing simpler pieces, we see better perhaps the depth of his skill and interpretation. This recording is about the exact opposite of what O’Connor did on “Midnight on the Water,” which can be a difficult album to crack, intellectually, as much as it is a technical tour de force. In contrast, with “American Classics” he’s offered a great resource for a young student, and, just as significantly, it’s deceptively grand for a mature listener.

The last track is a live one taken from an episode of the public radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” In introducing the song “America the Beautiful,” Garrison Keillor says, “Here’s a tune you all know, but you’ve never heard it played the way it’s played here by Mr. Mark O’Connor.” High praise, and true, and something that could be said for each one of these American classics.

Album review: Dave Gunning mints new, earnest folk on ‘No More Pennies’

Dave Gunning
“No More Pennies”
Wee House Music

Sometimes with new albums, as is the case with Dave Gunning’s “No More Pennies,” it’s as much about the packaging as it is the music.

First the music: Gunning is very much a songwriter of the Canadian Maritimes, and in this release he revisits so many of the themes we commonly see from that part of the world. In “Living in Alberta” we hear about the displacement of the young people to travel west to look for work. “A Game Goin’ On” is another anthem to the joys of hockey. Hard work, hard times and coal are the themes of “Coal from the Train.” Gunning also covers homesteading (“The Family Name”), rootlessness (“All Along the Way” and “Too Soon to Turn Back”) and the lone musician (“The Weight of my Guitar”).

The production is fine, the instrumentation is lovely, and there are some very nice moments here. But “nice” is a word that cuts both ways, and it’s hard to get past the studied earnestness of it all. “These Hands” includes a chorus of fifth graders, a bold decision given that it can backfire quite spectacularly. Gunning is hoping for moving, but the result falls closer to Hallmark.

The challenge that Gunning doesn’t quite meet is that it’s not only that we’ve heard these themes and concepts before; it’s also that we’ve heard them done more ably.

Allister MacGillivray’s “Song from the Mira” does what “Living in Alberta” does, but the former lets us see the tragedy, even if we’ve never been to the Maritimes, and imagine it for ourselves. Hockey is a common theme in the Canadian songbook, and it’s hard to add anything to what has gone before, including Jane Siberry’s “Hockey,” which in many ways provides both the first and last word as far as pond hockey goes.

And now the packaging: As CDs are poised to go the way of gramophones and 8-track tapes (CDs are oft rumoured to be on the way out, possibly sooner rather than later), one thing we’re going to miss is the kind of jacket design that “No More Pennies” has. It was created by Michael Wrycraft, a brilliant designer based in Toronto. He has had a long, celebrated career as an album designer, in part because his work is so varied, so beautifully adapted to the projects that he works on (for fans of cover art, you can waste quite a bit of time looking through Wrycraft’s archive).

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Album review: Caroline Herring creates a rich and detailed world on ‘Camilla’

Caroline Herring
“Camilla”
Signature Sounds

I’m not certain that this is Herring’s best album to date, and then again I’m not sure that it isn’t. But what I am sure of is that it continues, beautifully, what she has been up to since her first solo release, “Twilight,” in 2001.

Herring writes, it would appear, because of a desire to say something, to investigate something and to engage her listener. That’s uncommon in the world of popular music, which is one of the reasons that it is has been so distinct from the other arts, such as painting, sculpture, dance, writing. Popular music for a large part of the 20th century was about commerce; “good albums” were the ones that sold. Getting signed was an end to itself — as brilliantly skewered in the Cameron Crowe movie “Almost Famous” — not the desire to say something, or affect listeners, or to turn over ideas.

There was great music, I suppose, but there wasn’t a lot of room for people to behave as artists have traditionally done. Personality, wealth, drugs, egos, money, rebellion and numbers were all a part of it. Pop music often had other motives and uses, and creating something of real artistic worth wasn’t essential.

Herring, from the get go, has been different in large part because her writing is so richly literary. Working within the folk/acoustic idiom, she’s a writer in exactly what that term means, one that doesn’t think of her work, I would go so far as to guess, in strictly structural terms –chorus, verse, hook — but as something more fundamentally creative and expressive. In her writing she continually reaches out and engages with a truly literary tradition. “Wise Woman” is rich, beautiful and full of ideas that Herring is turning over and over, seeing them from different perspectives and letting us see them too.

The literary allusions aren’t called out, but there are a lot of them, and they provide layers of interest, things to learn. (This as distinguished from so much literary allusion in pop songs, such as Sting name dropping as if the only message is wow!, he’s smart!, he reads books! he quotes Shakespeare!) Herring’s companion discs of 2010, “Silver Apples of the Moon” and “Golden Apples of the Sun,” gain their titles from a Yeats poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” You don’t need to know that, but if you do, it’s delightful. It opens up all sorts of thoughts, both directly and also simply through juxtaposition, such as including a version of the Carter Family’s “Dixie Darling” and Kate Wolf’s “Here in California” on “Silver Apples of the Moon.” It’s the kind of stuff that just takes you to new places, both literally and figuratively.

Herring is an adult who speaks to us as if we are adults, and that’s especially true in this latest album, “Camilla.” The people in her songs toil with the complexities of life, aging (“Travelling Shoes”), protest (“White Dress”), tragedy (“Black Mountain Lullaby”), relating to others (“Until You Go”). In the lush “Maiden Voyage” we feel the full range of thought and emotion that a mother and child from the South have when traveling to attend Obama’s inauguration. Herring doesn’t shrink from the fractures and fissures of life, but engages them, explores them and lets the loose ends fall wherever they may.

“Can’t you feel the aching in your shoulders,” she asks in “Summer Song.” “It’s been a hard summer in these hills.” Those hills, at least conceptually, are found in and around Camilla, Ga., a real town that gives this album its title and its setting. But the hills could be anywhere, and the town is as much a geographic place as it is a fictive setting not unlike Updike’s Brewer, Penn., Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. “To me,” Herring has said, “Camilla is about grief and injustice. Deep love and hope. Perseverance. Heroes.” There she’s speaking about the town, but already in her mind it has become a character of the work.

The selections here are nicely varied, and include a lush a cappella piece with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Aoife O’Donovan, “Traveling Shoes.” Elsewhere we move from the raw acoustic blues of “Fireflies” to the gorgeously-haunting “Until You Go.” Throughout, Herring’s achingly-honest vocals lead us through these stories of longing and hope. The capstone of the work is “Joy Never Ends (Auld Lang Syne),” where we are granted a larger view (literally, with the song suggesting a vantage point of 76,000 feet, where the atmosphere of the earth becomes outer space). There are some great guests here too, notably Americana A-listers Fats Kaplin (on a variety of stringed instruments) and Bryn Davies (on bass), a turn by Leonard Podolak (of the Duhks) on “Fireflies” and Andrea Zohn on “Joy Never Ends (Auld Lang Syne).”

“Camilla” isn’t a novel, and it doesn’t tell a story, but it is nevertheless novelistic in that it presents a single, crafted work rather than being a collection of songs. Herring deals deftly and compellingly with a range of ideas with wit, skill and depth. She has said that “I feel braver on this album,” and it shows. It’s simply a beautiful, chilling and hopeful piece of writing and performance.

Album review: Chris Smither proves the blues are priceless on ‘Hundred Dollar Valentine’

Chris Smither
“Hundred Dollar Valentine”
Signature Sounds

As I listen to this new collection, which is just as good as anything Chris Smither has done in his career if not better, I can’t help wondering why he isn’t better known.

In 2006 Smither released the glorious “Leave the Light On,” with a title track that feels like an instant classic (though, in a real head-scratcher, Rolling Stone chose another track, “Diplomacy,” for their list of top 100 songs of the year). Smither has got star quality, magnetic presence and A-list chops — and he can write songs like, well, “Leave the Light On.” Again, it’s one of those songs that simply should have a larger life than it does.

That gap between quality and a larger visibility is one of the things that Smither himself touches on from time to time, including last year in a piece he wrote for the New York Times Business Section “Frequent Flyer” series titled “The Drawbacks of Modest Celebrity.” There he recalls that he’s been recognized a few times, once as Sam Sheppard and another as a friend’s landlord.

He touches on his relative obscurity a bit on “Hundred Dollar Valentine” when he sings “it ain’t what it is that’s such a sin/It’s what might have been.” As I put that down here, it looks like nothing on the page, but when Smither sings it with his bluesman’s growl, it sounds so utterly authentic and true that you ache right along with him. It just hurts.

There’s reason for that. Smither’s career — and I think this is something that he’d say, too — hasn’t followed the arc that it might have under better circumstances. He’s a blues singer, so lost opportunities and regret all come with the territory. But unlike Bruce Springsteen who sings about blue collars from a mansion, Smither knows intimately of what he speaks. Louis Armstrong once said of swing that “If you don’t feel it, you’ll never know it,” and that’s something that could as aptly be said of blues music. Chris Smither feels it, and he knows it. He’s had good times, though the hard times have had a disproportional representation in his life.

So there’s all of that, but as an entity to itself, this album is just outrageously good. Smither handles the material with such ease, such cool, that it’s simply riveting. His guitar playing is outstanding — Bonnie Raitt has called Smither “my Eric Clapton” — not through shredding, but through the way he states the rhythm.

He uses the guitar like a tool, the steady rhythm of his thumb pick marking seconds as they pass inexorably by. It’s a study in Travis picking, and an absolutely perfect accompaniment to the material on tracks like “What They Say” and “Make Room For Me.” The arrangements are varied and unique, thanks to long-time collaborator David Goodrich, using feet, tympani, violin, cello in addition to more typical blues sounds, such as the soulful harmonica of Jimmy Fitting.

While Smither has had a decades-long career, this album is the first he’s released that doesn’t include any covers. It’s hard to tell, as everything here is so indelibly authentic that each song sounds as old as Moses (though that’s wonderfully broken at times by lyrics like “I had a lighter in my carry-on/but the airline took it away”). There isn’t a misstep, though we wouldn’t expect one. Smither is just that good.

I realize reviewers aren’t supposed to drool, so I’ll stop now. But good lord this is an utterly compelling album. Only saying.

Album review: Steve Spurgin mixes up just the right ‘Folk Remedies’ (plus MP3 download)

Steve Spurgin
“Folk Remedies”
Blue Night Records

You never know, but Steve Spurgin’s “Folk Remedies” might be the best album of 2012.

We could probably argue at length, if we wanted to, about what makes good music good. Despite the fact that we all have different tastes, different opinions, we feel in our bones that we can recognize good music when we hear it.

We think we can recognize the other kind, too, though we’re all probably wrong in that belief. Frank Zappa once famously called the Shaggs “better than the Beatles.” For most people, I think it’s safe to say, their “Philosophy of the World” is a touchstone for how bad recorded music can yet still attract fans. Pluperfect awful. Zappa may have been joking (or commenting more on the Beatles than he was the Shaggs) but he may not have been.

Still, I can’t help but wondering what Zappa saw in it that I don’t? Could you even say? And in a way the question is about as meaningful as wondering whether ossobuco is better than pasta puttanesca. If both are prepared with the same skill, maybe it’s less a question of quality than it is a question of whatever you’re in the mood for at that moment.

The reason I say all of this is because I’ve been listening to Steve Spurgin’s new album, “Folk Remedies,” which is, I think, simply brilliant, and I feel pretty confident in saying that. The guitar work is breathtaking, the writing stellar. At least I think so. For me, this is the best album I’ve heard this year. I can’t stop listening to it in the car, in my iPod when walking downtown. I’m listening to it on my computer right now.

Still I know that there are lots of people who won’t think that way. It’s a quiet album that doesn’t intend to break any land-speed records. The material here isn’t going to grab anyone by the throat; it doesn’t shout and you can’t dance to it. You have to sit down and listen to it.

To be honest, I’m not really a fan of Spurgin, and none of his earlier records have really caught my ear that much at all. But this one is different. I think it’s up there with the best of Gordon Lightfoot, a person that is clearly an inspiration to Spurgin, and to whom I suppose he’s compared from time to time.

I also like that it goes places. Spurgin is from Texas and has made a career as a writer in Nashville, but this album has thoughts of Nova Scotia, Texas, Ireland; the desert, the ocean; booze, gambling; praise, complaint and comment. People do good things, people do bad things, but in a quiet way like you and I do. There’s a folk instrumental (“Sunset on the Sierra”) and a blues (“God Bless Those Desert Rats”); yet the collection is beautifully even, with the inspired bass of Missy Raines.

But I’ve been thinking about why it is that I think this is such a good album, what I feel that it does well. And ultimately I don’t think it has to do with the chops, but rather it’s the honesty with which the whole thing is delivered.

Spurgin is experienced enough and wise enough to know that this album is not going to get him on Letterman, it won’t sell a million copies. But he made it, and he sings about things that are important to him. It’s quiet, but the thoughts cut very close to the bone. At it’s best moments, this album is like an exhalation, a sigh. It’s a chance to pause and think about some things that are important to us.

I love that and, at the moment, perhaps that’s just what I need. And who knows? You might need that, too.

“Whiskey Town” – Steve Spurgin

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