By Bruce Sylvester
OK, it's roundup time for a few cool, mostly rootsy, releases.
If any recent disc I've heard honors the maxim “less is more,” it's singer/writer Paul Kelly and pianist Paul Grabowsky's sublime Please Leave Your Light On (Gawd Aggie/Cooking Vinyl), an album that brings sophistication and maturity to Kelly's lyrics from over the decades as well as, for good measure, Cole Porter's “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and Shakespeare's double-entendre “Sonnet 138.” Here's a writer who'll present an Everyman's truth that few songsmiths would dream of telling. The two Australian Pauls' duet inevitably calls to mind Tony Bennett and Bill Evans' vocal/piano work. Says Kelly, “We chose the songs with a mind to their suitability for direct address, close concentrated performance, and room for silence to draw the listener in.” Grabowksy's a genius at framing Kelly. Would Randy Newman enjoy his whimsical approach to “God's Grandeur”? This isn't Kelly's first sparely arranged collaboration. (Check Death's Dateless Night with multi-intrumentalist Charlie Owen.) Here Grabowsky – a composer for film and theater – brings out Kelly's music as art song.
Back in hippie country rock's early-'70s formative period, up in northern California, the East Bay's New Riders of the Purple Sage and even more retro Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen rode the high way. Recorded live at a Temple Meadow festival in Veneta, Oregon, on August 27, 1972, the Riders' previously unissued Field Trip (Omnivore) – complete with era-appropriate stage announcements -- charms with singer/writer John “Marmaduke” Dawson's youthful innocence and Canadian newcomer Buddy Cage's bubbly pedal steel guitar. Wistful, post-pastoral “Last Lonely Eagle” shows Dawson's serious facet alongside effervescent “Rainbow” and “Louisiana Lady.” Yes, the audio's decent. (Minor historical note: The Riders' previous music let Jerry Garcia indulge his pedal steel interests apart from Grateful Dead. On the cross-Canada Festival Express tour, the Riders picked up Cage from Ian & Sylvia's Great Speckled Bird when Garcia shifted back to the Dead, while Ian & Sylvia came away with “Last Lonely Eagle” for a highlight on their next LP.)
Cody and the Airmen's substance-fueled songs (“Too Much Fun,” “Down to Seeds and Stems”) boasted hot instrumentalsists like Telecaster master (and songsmith) Bill Kirchen easily moving around rockabilly, western swing, boogie-woogie, and more. From Kirchen's impressive post-Airmen catalog, 38-track The Proper Years (Last Music) consolidates on two CDs his three 2006-13 discs on the Proper label: Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods, Word to the Wise, and Seeds and Stems. Word brings in folks who, like Kirchen, helped to make retro hip, with Maria Muldaur's and Dan Hicks's cuts totally capturing their unique styles. Kirchen can be both sideman and frontman doing his own “dieselbilly.” Here he revisits “Hot Rod Lincoln,” tragi-comic “Mama Hated Diesels,” and an updated “Truck Stop at the End of the World.” As for his droll fantasy “I Don't Work That Cheap,” the closer you listen, the funnier it gets.
Moving into a retro present, Rusty Ends & Hillbilly Voodoo's The Last of the Boogiemen (self-release) shares the Airmen's tongue-in-cheek “much fun” style and rock/blues/swing eclecticism. No big production here – Rusty's taut guitar plus bass, drums, and occasional tenor sax are all we need. Hedonistic humor abounds. “Cottonmouth Rock” imagines dance and romance among reptiles who don't quite have all the needed body parts.
Besides his years of horn work (notably with Roomful of Blues), New England's Al Basile has a second creative world – authorship, with a master's degree from Brown University's writing program. Last Hand (Sweetspot) is another of his concept albums. Whereas Me and the Originator created an imaginary bluesman, here his character is an aging guy who can't believe his good fortune when a much younger woman falls for him. Yes, his incredulity can be an obstacle in a relationship that takes directions he never expected. Basile's cornet occasionally joins the late-night jazz/blues backup of just keyboards, bass, and drums.
Turning serious – very serious – how do you feel about songs like Johnny Paycheck's “Pardon Me, I've Got Someone to Kill” and Shelby Lynne's “Heaven's Only Days Down the Road”? Born in the pain and anger of failed relationships, TheThread's House on Fire (self-release) brings together drummer Tyler Boydstun (formerly of Eskimo Brothers) and classically trained fiddler Caitlin Nicol-Thomas. As pure vengeance draws near, “I've got no problem making the front-page news,” Tyler sings. Caitlin – at times a pure, poised soprano – asserts “I don't recall making you the king of me,” on a rough-hewn rocker recalling Shovels and Rope's CD O' Be Joyful. Amid their own songs of domestic hell, there's one trad ballad – “In the Pines,” which Lead Belly, Joan Baez, and Nirvana among many have done over time. In a therapeutic way, House on Fire is a killer, but you need to be strong to listen to it.