By Lee Zimmerman
Barrett Martin is an extreme multi-instrumentalist with a penchant for assertive instrumental forays, soundscapes of a sort that come across in the guise of strictly melodic mood music. Although many of the tracks on Stillpoint, the Barrett Martin Group’s striking new album, place an emphasis on percussion, each is imbued with a sound that finds a distinct compromise between a progressive jazz palette and the allure of new age embellishment. The majority of the offerings — “The Roaring Sea,” “To the Sea We Return” and “Rainshadow” in particular — are mesmerizing and majestic in equal measure, while certain songs, especially “Fierce Hawk” and “Pineapple Express,” are, at first, more complex, all part of the intrigue, exploration and invention. The music mostly tends to be both cerebral and sublime, thanks in large part to the articulate arrangements and its supple finesse. Ultimately this fusion leaves a lingering impression, a sound that’s as intriguing as it is inventive.
Credit Paradiddle Records with an array of outstanding independent releases, including several that focus on tributes to specific artists as varied as the Kinks and Willie Nile. While the participants aren’t necessarily marquee names, all do an admirable job of carrying out their duties. That’s certainly the case with Bob Dylan Uncovered Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Each album finds a varied array of the Bobster’s songs, some well known as in the case of Vol. 2 (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Love Minus Zero,” et. al.), and others that tend to be a bit more obscure (“Hazel,” “New Pony,” etc.). Regardless, each set is uniformly excellent and all the contributors do an admirable job of putting their own imprint on their assigned offerings, and, in many cases, transforming them entirely. Dylan’s always offered interpreters an opportunity to transform his material, but here the musicians go above and beyond in terms of craft and creativity, making the music both moving and memorable. It’s no exaggeration to say these are two of the best collections of Dylan songs ever offered.
When guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, and all-round utility player Neal Casal took his own life on August 26, 2019, we lost a brilliant and creative musician who departed the world all too soon. He left behind a dozen remarkable solo albums as well as a sprawling catalog that included essential efforts alongside such bands as the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Gospelbeach, and the Hard Working Americans, among the many. It’s fitting, then, that this new three disc tribute, Highway Butterfly, managed to attract such a distinguished list of contributors eager to pay homage to the man and his music. Over the course of more than 40 songs, notables such as Aaron Lee Tasian, Steve Earle, Marcus King, Phil Lesh, Shooter Jennings, and Hiss Golden Messenger interpret tunes that Casal was chiefly responsible for. In the process, they bring out the richness of his melodies and the indelible impact that his efforts still allow. The booklet included with the box sheds further light on Casal’s core creativity as well as lyrics and liner notes that delineate each track. Ultimately, this is more than a perfect primer; it’s an illuminating introduction to an artist whose legacy lingers on.
A seasoned troubadour in the truest sense, Abe Partridge was accorded immediate recognition with the release of his debut release, Cotton Fields and Blood For Days in 2018. It was clear even then that he was an able and expressive singer and songwriter. Nevertheless, his latest effort, Agony Is Alright, recorded live in the U.K., finds him at the peak of his prowess. Armed only with an acoustic guitar and a droll vocal delivery which brings to mind a cross between Bob Dylan’s caustic commentary and Loudon Wainwright’s witty repasts, he shares a series of introspective yet informative anecdotes that detail both his own life story and an ongoing series of astute observations. Partridge is candid and confessional, but that doesn’t detract from his affable and entertaining delivery. He’s clearly comfortable in the live setting, one that allows him to demonstrate an intimate yet casual approach that’s clearly and consistently engaging. He possesses the essence of true folk finesse, and indeed, with Agony Is Alright, Partridge demonstrates the fact that he's a superb storyteller as well.
Some 15 years in the making, Baby Stars/Dead Languages by Cleveland-based troubadour Brian Straw, reflects Straw’s ongoing struggle with alcoholism and determined efforts to find sobriety. Clearly, it was therapeutic in a very real way, given its sobering sound and confessional approach. At times, Straw sounds like a cross between Gordon Lightfoot and Gene Clark in terms of the music’s darker demeanor, but there’s not a single song here that isn’t deeply affecting, even on first encounter. His ache is palatable throughout, but he also retains a singular sincerity that suggests the fact that every note and nuance is spawned from heart-tugging real-life experience and singular emotion. Clearly, Straw is an artist that emotes with honesty and conviction, and while his music eschews any sense of joyfulness or jubilation, it does connect completely and cohesively through honesty and intent. Straw’s willingness to share his vulnerability is indeed admirable, and the sentiments that he conveys are as touching as they are tattered. A melancholy but memorable debut, it heralds the arrival of an important new artist.
Tributes to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are nothing new of course, and nor should they be. After all, it goes without saying (although we’ll say it anyway), Brian and the boys were responsible for some of the greatest music ever written and recorded. Happily then, several of the esteemed artists on the revered Jem Records label have banded together to create an album that spotlights 15 classic Brian Wilson and/or Beach Boys songs, doing so with the reverence and enthusiasm that’s so clearly deserves. The Grip Weeds (whose latest album Dig also features a number of classic covers), the Weeklings, The Anderson Council, and Richard Barone are among the artists making appearances here, each retaining the exuberance of the seminal versions while adding a verve and vitality of their own. While the familiarity factor weighs heavily in this superb set of songs, it’s refreshing to hear these classic imbued with such stunning interpretations. Tender and touching, sweet and celebratory, Jem Records Celebrates Brian Wilson does justice to both the artists and all the artists and ensembles involved.