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: Steaćn Hanvey РSteaćn Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies

Hi all!

As a child of the 70s with parents who listened to folk songs, I often fall back that musical orbit. And lately I’ve been encouraged by the new artists who bridge the gap between traditional folk (even down to some of its Bluegrass and Blues roots) and rock-and-roll. With artists like Wes Kirkpatrick, the Indigo Girls and Matt Duke, I’m able to enjoy folk music while not giving in completely to my folkie roots. (Yes, it’s a minor rebellion but I’ll accept that!)

But let me introduce you to Steaƒán Hanvey. Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, he brings a gift for rich arrangements, storytelling, and a voice you want to believe has lived those stories. As I listened to Steaƒán Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies, I was reminded of other artists such as James Taylor and Donovan as well as more modern folks like David Gray and Matthew Mayfield. His easy style with lyrics and guitar make him seem very genuine. I suspect that if I get a chance to listen to Hanvey live, I’m not going to want the concert to end.

Steaƒán Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies was released in Europe a while ago, but is just now coming to the U.S. Hanvey has even moved here to focus on building an audience while traveling back and forth to Ireland occasionally. Over the last 3 years, he’s also been working on his sophomore album called Nuclear Family that is due out in 2012. But don’t let that stop you from checking out Honeymoon Junkies.

What caught my attention while listening to the Honeymoon Junkies is the effortless way Hanvey tells his stories and finds just the right musical style to go with it… It starts with a simple rhythmic guitar intro in “Rooms,” transitions to the upbeat ballad “My Woman (Ode To You),” moves to the anthem-ish “Love’s A Decision,” flows through the hard-edged “Desperation,” and eventually ends with the James Taylor-ish “Show Me”…

And as I listened, there were more than a few that I’d have to tag as favorites, the first of which being “Love’s a Decision.” This one should be required listening at any couple’s therapy session. “Love’s a decision between you and me / not some half-baked scene from a movie screen… if you want it to last / you’d better let go of the past.” And I don’t know who’s singing in the background, but she has an amazing voice that completely complements Hanvey’s with the anthem guitar riffs and solid bass/drum beat.

“Fair Weather Friend” on the other hand feels like something from Colin Hay and I love the guitar riffs. This one tells the story about a guy who lost his way, finds his way back again, only to wonder how others see him. I interpret the story as someone coming back from alcohol or drug use and finding that some folks don’t like who they see when someone is sober. But I’m thankful whatever Hanvey’s story is for this song, that he came back with a “head full of songs” as he says. And I hope when something happens to me or someone else I’m not a fool or a fair weather friend… sticking through thick and thin.

In “Desperation,” he breaks the song mold a bit and it works. It starts with a vaguely Australian/digeridoo-ish funky beat that leads to a story about a relationship gone wrong. This is a darker tune telling the story of a man who knows it’s over, but she’s the one pulling away. “You will blame me and you’ve tried to shame me / What more could I do…” It’s interesting to me that it feels vaguely uncomfortable to listen to this one, like we’re voyeurs in some lover’s quarrel.

Check out the video for “Desperation”:

Then he turns it completely around with a tune you can’t help but smile while listening to… “Everything’s Happy” shifts to everything bright and cheery, but it has a hidden message. The rhythm of the guitar along with the acoustic bass in the background keeps it light and moving along quickly where you hardly have time to think anything but happy thoughts… “The sun changed it’s mind / decided to shine on my day / The girl on the street never misses a beat and she smiles as I catch her eye…” And a bit later there’s the dark side: “Everyone’s happy / Everyone’s ok / Everyone’s looking for someone to blame.”

Steaƒán Hanvey has a way of making the music fit the lyrics that isn’t forced or created by some crowded room of movie producers. Every song on Steaƒán Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies tells a story and I for one enjoyed the ride. I’m already looking forward to his next album – Nuclear Family – sometime next year! For tour news and everything else Hanvey-related, be sure to check out his web site SteafanHanvey.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Indigo Girls – Beauty Queen Sister

Hi all!

What seems like a lifetime ago, I discovered the Indigo Girls at the tail end of college. Rites of Passage and Nomads Indians Saints started off my love of this folk music duo made up by Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. I wore out my Swamp Ophelia tape in an old Walkman tape player when I was regularly walking around the Denver Tech Center near Fiddler’s Green Ampitheatre (which has since gone through a few name changes and is currently Comfort Dental Ampitheatre). I saw them perform at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, and at least one other venue in Colorado.

But like many easily distracted music lovers, I kind of lost track of Amy and Emily after a while. I have picked up most of my favorite albums on CD over the years and every once in a while have checked in to listen to their latest releases. And though occasionally I heard glimpses of some of what made their earlier albums amazing, through the tinted lenses of experience – both theirs and mine – I was never as caught up in the melodies, words, and harmonies as I was with songs like “Galileo,” “Closer to Fine,” “Pushing the Needle Too Far,” “Prince of Darkness,” “Strange Fire,” “Ghost,” “Mystery,” and “Kid Fears.”

Fast forward to this year – 2011 – and their 14th studio album Beauty Queen Sister. Featuring thirteen new songs in their signature storytelling style. They definitely haven’t lost their touch in creating simple yet complex arrangements, melodies, styles, and harmonies to suit whatever topic they choose to focus on. And those topics vary widely on the album, including my favorite on the CD – “War Rugs,” written about the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Their attention to causes both here and abroad hasn’t let up in the slightest, including support for saving the environment, the rights of Native Americans, and the LGBT rights movement. So support for the Egyptians’ brave stand against a corrupt government fits right in with their strong support for equal rights for all.

Though they’re just as capable of rocking the house as singing a gentle song, I tend to like their softer side. On Beauty Queen Sister there are three songs that fall into that category with different styles.

I already mentioned “War Rugs,” which is about the mostly non-violent revolution in Egypt that began in January 2011 and whose efforts continue today. Seeing the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square on the television news this past January and February was amazing. And obviously it wasn’t just those in the Middle East who were affected, with the continuing revolution in Libya ousting Qaddafi and the other areas affected by the “Arab Spring.” Amy and Emily’s song highlights the lasting effects…

“We’re all growing up together / We’re all making a mark on it. / We’re all damning the consequences. / I want to understand / the soul you have in there / Young Egypt seized the moment / and brought that bastard down / You’ve got technology / And you’ve got archeology / We treated you like punters / until you kicked the goal / now we’re claiming you for our team / ’cause what do we know?”

Freedom is one of those things we have to all tend to or it gets taken away in dribs and drabs until it’s gone. I think that’s the “team” we’re all on. And that struggle for freedom is happening even within our own country. Just ask the people with lifestyles not “sanctioned” by certain parts of the population. Couldn’t we all do with a bit more tolerance and brotherly love?

Also among the softer songs on the album is “Birthday Song.” And it’s a sentiment I often have. “I couldn’t think of a thing to write / on your birthday card / considered the poets / they didn’t know what lay quiet inside my heart / thought of Atlanta / thought of Toronto / all of the places we’d been…” But nothing comes to mind to write down. Instead, I hope my actions speak louder than words and we can share those together. What a wonderful sentiment. Words sometimes seem so hollow and given the chance we should all be happy to share time with one another.

“Damo” is sort of halfway between soft and loud, with its Celtic feel. And it makes me want to get up and jig. Nobody wants to see that, but it’s impossible not to feel like dancing. I think it owes that dancing spirit to Eamonn de Barra’s whistles and flute and the full-throated backing vocals of Irish singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey in the background along with the spritely rhythm guitar and the beat of the bodhran (Irish Drum).

Beauty Queen Sister mixes the soft, loud, and energetic sides of the Indigo Girls and should make fans sit up and take notice. It’s available at your favorite music store now, so I’d encourage you to give it a listen. If you want more info about the album or anything else you want to know about the Indigo Girls, you should also check out the Indigo Girls home page for biographical info, tour details, albums, and more!

This article first appeared in a slightly different form at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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