Music Review: Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer – Seed of a Pine

Hi all!

Why did it take so long to come to my senses and discover Americana and Bluegrass? Now in my forties, with a childhood where my father and I would play old folk songs on guitars at home, you’d think there would be a natural progression from those days to an appreciation to the folk- and country-infused traditions of these musical styles. But until the last decade, I thought Americana was Country and I didn’t want to listen to that Country “twang”…

I’m older and wiser now, which is why I was thrilled when Mandy Fer contacted me and asked if I’d mind listening to her new album, a collaboration with Dave McGraw called Seed of a Pine. So I checked it out online and listened to a few tracks. I think before I was done listening to the first song I sent an e-mail back saying I’d love to listen to the rest of the album. And it didn’t disappoint.

The stripped down arrangements – minimal guitars, piano, fiddle and voices – works beautifully to share the feel of a particular track without over-engineering any song. Each tells a story that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as it does in much of the pop and R&B music played on radio stations nationwide. These songs manage to intertwine a deep passion between the notes of the harmonies composed by McGraw’s baritone and Fer’s soaring and sultry vocals. Accompanying the duo are acclaimed musicians Peter Mulvey, Po’Girl songstress Allison Russel, and Chicago’s JT Nero (of JT and the Clouds).

What’s funny is that I usually find it easy to pick three or four songs to focus on, but no matter how many times I listen to Seed of a Pine, it’s impossible for me to choose. The tracks run from more traditional folk with simple melodies (“Seed of a Pine”) to more Blues-influenced (“Serotiny (May Our Music)”) to the Spanish-infused (“Comin’ Down”) and many that defy categorization. But that’s part of the Americana tradition – weaving styles as suits the story.

“Waking the Dreamer” has to be one of my favorites. It reminds me a bit of some of the songs from The Swell Season (duo Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) on the Once soundtrack. There’s a rise and fall, and a hope about the lyrics “Waking the dreamer / for you for you…” amidst the steady drum beat and the pairing of electric and acoustic guitars.

Within the melody and hopeful words of “Western Sky” there are some echoes of Bruce Springsteen‘s “I’m on Fire.” A simple guitar strum pattern with the entwined voices of McGraw and Fer tell a story of love and support. “This time I’m really coming home.” You know that feeling when you know you’re going home to stay for a while? Or when you find the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with? “For you took this heart of mine and you placed it in your eyes / you gave me peace of mind and with it I’ll decide / that you will be the one when I lay my body down…” I’d be surprised if this didn’t become the wedding song for more than a few people in 2012.

And “Serotiny (May Our Music)” starts with a Blues beat that wormed its way into my head while talking about the landscape of the heart and memory. Though I’m not sure if the couple in the song are playing music to the gods as an offering or the offering is between the pair of them, but they want to be heard. As they play guitars in the field, “play for me your favorite song, pull me up into your sky / where the thunder speaks in crazy tongues / and the gods do not decide.” The melodies soar through this one, tugged along by the steady guitars.

I could talk about all of the songs on this album until the cows come home. Honestly this is one of those Jerry Maguire albums which “had me at hello.” If you’re a fan of modern folk and Americana, you can’t go wrong with Seed of a Pine. The album releases tomorrow – February 15, 2012 – so keep your ears open. For more information, check out the album website, plus Mandy Fer’s website and Dave McGraw’s website.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Billy Joel – Piano Man (Legacy Edition) (2011)

Hi there!

Let me start this review by explaining a bit of my eclectic music tastes and how Billy Joel fits into things. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, but didn’t start listening to the radio much until the mid- to late-1980s. Instead I was raised listening to a variety of folk, Broadway, and jazz music at my house. So even though Joel’s career started to take off in 1973 with the album Piano Man, somehow I managed to avoid hearing much of his music until I started seeing his video for “Tell Her About It” (An Innocent Man) in 1983 or 1984. And I really didn’t dive head first into his back catalog until after falling in love with Storm Front when it was released in 1989.

By the time I saw Billy live at McNichols Arena in Denver in 1990 or 1991, I was a rabid fan of his Greatest Hits Volume I and II album, The Stranger, and An Innocent Man. But over the years I never went back to some of his early albums like Piano Man. Thankfully the recent release of Piano Man (Legacy Edition), the 30 year anniversary of Billy’s debut album on Columbia Records, features the original 10 songs remastered as well as a CD featuring his performance at the Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia a year prior.

It was that performance in Philly that really started opening doors. Apparently WMMR, one of Philly’s top-rated radio stations, had been playing “Captain Jack” from that live show and their listeners were going crazy. That opened the door for a New York audition, major label interest, and eventually a contract with Columbia Records.

When asked about Piano Man billy said “I never sat down and said I’m gonna write a hit record. I wouldn’t know a hit record if it bit me. I just wrote songs. I wrote them for me, I wrote them for the band, or I wrote a song for the women in my life. I was just writing songs for me. It’s music that I wanted to hear. If I didn’t hear certain kind of music on the radio, I realized, ‘Well, if I write and record this it’ll probably be on the radio and that’s what I’ll hear.’ That’s what I was thinking. Not so much about having hits, but about making music that I liked. I only really ever did it for me. That may sound selfish, but I’m the only person that I really know all that well.”

The Legacy Edition includes two CDs with rich, clean, and crisp remastered tracks. Piano Man was remastered from the original recordings. And the Sigma Sound performance was re-mixed from the original studio recording and features three songs which don’t appear on any of his albums — “Long, Long Time,” “Josephine,” and “Rosalinda” — as well as that door-opening performance of “Captain Jack.”

Of the songs on Piano Man, the album’s signature song is still my favorite and sounds great even after 30 years. There’s something about Billy’s style of passionate performances and storytelling captured in this classic about the regular crowd shuffling into a bar, from the old man to the real estate novelist. It’s believable without being over the top and who wouldn’t love to have Billy Joel playing piano at any bar they might happen into?

And “Captain Jack”‘s anthem to self destruction seems to be timeless. Joel himself has had several bouts with depression and alcohol-related issues over the years, so the song’s message of using alcohol “to get you by tonight / just a little push, you’ll be smiling” seems just a bit auto-biographical. With the rock-guitar behind Joel’s piano melodies, it really makes this song take on a life of its own, vacillating between slower moments of reflection and the full anthem sound with volume.

Between the songs (new to me) like “The Ballad of Billy The Kid” and “Stop In Nevada” and the live performance CD, I look at this as an important addition to my music collection. Plus after seeing Billy live on the Storm Front tour with 20 years of recording and touring experience, it’s truly amazing to listen to the purity of an early live performance from 1972. His voice is strong, emotive and very young!

If you are a fan, young or old, of Billy Joel’s music, Piano Man (Legacy Edition) is a must-have for your collection.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Hi all!

Somewhere, the music gods are smiling over the holidays. The stars aligned and brought classical music together with Bluegrass, achieving some truly astounding results. But let me take a step back.

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-class cellist who has made a career not only out of gorgeous classical music, but for pushing boundaries and collaborating with musicians of any and all genre – from A Capella maestro Bobby McFerrin to one of the pre-eminent violinists of the last century Itzhak Perlman – not to mention working with orchestras around the world and helping out with music education efforts worldwide. Thankfully, the world has recognized his efforts and he’s been awarded multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, and serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and on the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities.

And now he can add a collaboration with Bluegrass artists Chris Thile (mandolin – member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). The result is a collection of songs in The Goat Rodeo Sessions that not only debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass, Classical, and Classical Crossover Billboard charts, but has made it to #18 on the Billboard Top 200 and at #11 on Soundscan’s Digital Album Chart. And if all that attention isn’t enough to get you to listen this album, I encourage you to watch this video of their performance on The Colbert Report:

Though I’ve listened to my share of classical music over the years, one of my more recent discoveries has been the life and energy in Bluegrass music. Groups like Crooked Still and the Greencards have brought a new joy to my ears in recent years. So I think I was on a collision course with this album from the first time I heard the quartet play in the videos on Colbert.

What blows my mind is the control of these musicians and the dynamic passion that ebbs and flows through every note. Sure, there are some slower songs – but damn if these folks don’t fly across the strings. Chris Thile sums it up nicely – “The arrangements on the record are ‘like a reverse game of Jenga‘” he says, “trying to get all the players to land at the same place at the end of the songs.” It’s rare these days that I’ll find that a song is so quiet that I need to turn it up to hear the beginning, and yet with songs like “Here and Heaven,” I had to just that – and then to have it build to such a satisfying crescendo with the vocals and harmonies of Aoife O’Donovan and Thile… I literally am in heaven every time I hear it.

“Quarter Chicken Dark” has a groove that just sticks in my brain long after the song is done, forcing me to go back and listen to it again before too long. Meyer’s bass merged with Ma’s cello drives this song from the bottom up. And it’s one of those grooves that rises and falls and I swear they could just keep playing this one song from sunset to sunrise and I’d still be listening. “Less is Moi” has the same addictive quality with a different riff that uses Duncan’s plectrum banjo and Thile’s mandolin to drive things forward.

So just what is a “goat rodeo” you may ask… Mr. Ma puts it like this – “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.” I don’t know about you, but this album proves that sometimes you can put lightning in a bottle. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is now among my favorite albums to listen to for no reason at all but the sheer pleasure of doing so. I can only hope that the success of this album will lead to more collaborations in the future!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.com here.

–Fitz

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