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American Back Roads blog spotlights unique songwriting

OK, it's time for another roundup of cool recent releases – five CDs and (for Stones fans) a movie. The CDs' shared strength is unique writing – each in its own way.

By Bruce Sylvester

OK, it's time for another roundup of cool recent releases – five CDs and (for Stones fans) a movie. The CDs' shared strength is unique writing – each in its own way.



The Internet having made the recording process global, one of my earlier new-release roundups spoke of bluesy Sunnysiders' intercontinental The Bridges. Now here's quiet cross-generational folk/pop trio The Burnt Pines's self-titled and self-released The Burnt Pines mixed from tracks laid down 3,000 miles apart in Lisbon, Portugal, and near Boston. Lead vocals and some writing are by Kris Skovmand (a Dane living in Lisbon), guitars, guitar banjo, tambourine, and some writing by Cambridge, MA-based Aaron Flanders, and piano, keyboards, and melodica by Portugal-born Miguel Sa Pessoa. Comparisons with Simon & Garfunkel are inevitable for both the vocals and the almost enigmatic writing. The opener's title, “Diamonds,” augurs jewels to come. The disc is simultaneously charming background music and, for people listening closely, thought provoking. You can check the lyrics for yourself at


Something Wonderful- Peggy Lee Sings the Great American Songbook

Among the Big Band era's songbirds who were solo stars by the '50s, North Dakota-born Peggy Lee (1920-2002) stood out for a style described as “sensuous, elegant, bluesy, sly, hip, alternately sizzling hot and icy cool” in the notes to two-CD Something Wonderful: Peggy Lee Sings the Great American Songbook (Omnivore), 1951-52 transcriptions from her radio show with individual writers' songs sequenced together. As her guests, several (including Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, and Frank Loesser) joke with her along with their duets. Among the era's singers, Lee herself was a singularly talented songsmith. A cowrite with guitarist Dave Barbour (her first husband), “It's a Good Day” made a perfect program opener and, now, CD opener. Here their “Manana” enjoys a more free-wheeling arrangement than its single release had. Her radio transcriptions' audio isn't as bright as on her Decca and Capitol records, but they've got a playful congeniality. All but two of these 40 tracks are previously unreleased.


13 women

Next comes a concept album, Susan Anders' 13 Women (Zanna Discs) singling out 13 women in history (all real-life except World War II's symbolic heroine Rosie the Riveter). She mostly avoids predictable choices while (writing in their voices) going into elements of their lives that aren't widely noted – like expatriate chanteuse Josephine Baker spying for the Allies during Hitler's occupation of France. Rather than give people's names in her lyrics, Anders leaves that to the brief liner notes – a nice touch. She grew up seeing architect/civil engineer Julia Morgan's work in her Berkeley, CA, hometown. Does “Castles” get its title from her masterpiece Hearst Castle in San Simeon? “Spell” concerns a condemned witch in 1692 Salem. On a lighter side, “Under Your Skin” is in the voice of Maud Stevens Wagner, reportedly America's first female tattoo artist. Digging into the disc enhances its cover art.



San Francisco-based Liberation Hall is reissuing assorted late-1970s/early-'80s punk and new wave albums on the area's bygone label 415. Besides discs by SVT, The Uptones, and The Readymades, there's an expanded (13-song) version of local Pop-O-Pies' six-track 1982 The White EP. The band began with only one song – different covers of local Grateful Dead's “Truckin',” here done as punk and dance music. Cult fave “The Catholics Are Attacking” enjoys a cheery pop delivery of not-so-cheerful ideas (an irony-enhancing technique Warren Zevon maxed on “Excitable Boy”). Despite its candor “Timothy Leary Lives” wound up used by LSD guru/government informant Leary as an intro in his late-career stage show. Ozzy Osbourne and future members of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle appear amid the seven bonus tracks. (Minor note: The label name 415 referred to San Francisco's area code as well as the state's penal code's section for disturbing the peace.)



WARNING: Squeamish people shouldn't read this paragraph's review of The Dead South's crimson-dripping two-CD Served Live (Six Shooter). Since we can't go to concerts amid the plague, the western Canadian quartet compiled 17 songs from as many shows on their 2019-20 tour supporting their then-new Sugar & Joy. A bluegrass rock band without fiddle, bass, or drums? OK. Guitar, mandolin, banjo, and (yes) cello do the job just fine. Their usual cover art – animal skeletons -- hints at songs' plots. Some characters receive their just deserts (even becoming dessert in the case of a fat kid's bullies). For balance, there's an innocent victim – a man whose wife kills him after dreaming that she caught him cheating. Culled from North American, UK, and Irish shows, some cuts' intros mention the city they're in, making the CDs all the more fun for people like me who were in an audience.



Lastly, the film: director Allen Farst's adulatory three-pronged doc Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man (about 100 minutes), Leavell — a co-producer of the movie — being a keyboardist for rock royalty (since 1982, The Rolling Stones) as well as a concerned environmentalist/tree farmer and devoted husband for more decades than he's spent with The Stones. He seems warm hearted and down to earth. Concert footage includes Eric Clapton, Eric Church, and Blackberry Smoke. Keith Richards, Dickey Betts, and John Mayer are among the talking heads who've worked with low-key Leavell. Fellow arborist David Gilmour gets specific about trees.

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