Music Review: Melancholy Waltz – Richie Lawrence

Hi all…

Tickling the ivories. Slapping the keys. Playing the piano. Modern pianos have 88 keys covering seven octaves and three pedals. And though I myself never learned to play well, some of my fondest memories are of my mother sitting before our old upright piano whiling away the minutes into hours as she’d stretch chord and note to chord again… Even now, nothing quite can match the expressiveness of a well-played piano.

Enter Richie Lawrence and his family’s 1917 Model AIII Steinway Grand Piano. On his latest release, Melancholy Waltz, he proves my point with twelve amazing piano and accordion instrumentals and songs. And though his Americana-themed lyrics and vocals weren’t my favorite tracks on the CD, there’s something powerful and joyful about his piano compositions that’s hard to explain. Melancholy Waltz cuts across a majority of his influences – from Americana, blues, and folk – while showing off his talents as not only a performer, but a composer and songwriter.

Lawrence was born in Oklahoma, but lived in Colorado for a time and now calls California home. He’s played everything from blues to Polka and along the way met a literal Who’s Who of famous musicians – Bonnie Raitt, Steve Goodman, Crystal Gayle, America, and George Thorogood as well as the Neville Brothers, David Lindley, Ladysmith Black Mombazo, Little Richard, David Byrne, and more.

Of all the tunes on the album, my favorite is the “Bee’s Blues”, which weaves the classic melody of “Für Elise” with a series of lively ragtime blues riffs that I can listen to over and over again. The joy as Lawrence plays with these melodies comes through loud and clear.

In contrast with the blues, the soft and steady strains of “The Melancholy Waltz” brings to mind a couple dancing through time and space. This is a piano composition I would hope that dance choreographers, television and movie producers take note of for their own shows. It’s impossible for me not to see the waltzing couple as I listen to this gorgeous melody, which ends in a happier place than it begins with a more upbeat/ragtime feel.

And lastly, I’ll talk about “My Oklahoma Hills,” which shows his love for where he was born. He explains in the lyrics that “I left my home behind me / My dreams do travel there still / Through prairie ocean grasses / My Oklahoma hills…” This is for Lawrence what “Country Roads” was for John Denver – a call home through song.

Richie Lawrence’s three decades of experience playing music professionally truly come through in this great album. If you have a love for original piano compositions as I do, be sure to pick up Melancholy Hills. Check out his website – www.richielawrence.com – for more information about the man and his music.

–Fitz

p.s. Look for this and other great albums at Amazon!

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Music Review: Chris Smither – Time Stands Still

I’m stunned…

After all these years, how could I have missed Chris Smither‘s music? Time Stands Still is Smither’s eleventh album in a career spanning four decades – a lifetime of playing live and playing music. And he’s still going strong!

I’d compare him to Bob Dylan, Peter Mulvey or Mark Knopfler style-wise, with a combination of storyteller and amazing guitarist rolled into a single package. And this album is no different, merging his acoustic guitar licks with a blues sensibility and his emotive, grainy voice. The feeling is in each and every guitar lick and each and every note to leave his throat.

Time Stands Still‘s intimate session was recorded in only three days and its songs ponder time’s mysteries. Included are eight original compositions and a song each from Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, and 1920s country-blues songster Frank Hutchinson. Recorded with producer and guitarist David “Goody” Goodrich and drummer Zak Trojano, this stripped-down recording session presents these folksy blues songs as they were meant to be heard.

What blows me away is the range of not only emotion, but how he assembles these songs. They’re simple arrangements, sure, but deep just the same with layered qualities found in those artists who know their fans and themselves very well. The lyrics are expressions of Smither’s view of the world, from the way people are dealing with the world’s current economic troubles to dealing with being the parent of an adopted daughter.

I absolutely love “Surprise, Surprise” with its unique guitar groove and almost sarcastic take on our economic slowdown. “Are you worried ’bout your money? ‘course you are – who wouldn’t be? you thought that you were rich and then you turned on your TV…” There’s truth there with a tongue-in-cheek attitude like you’re being scolded a bit and should have known better.

And “I Told You So” with its amazing guitar work and a touch of parenthood… “Where you as big as you are now when I was born? I been this big a long time, that’s why my face is worn / But were you ever little, and if so where was I? Yes I was, but you weren’t anywhere or anywhy…” The questions of a child that never stop. What’s the dumbest question? “The dumbest one’s the one you never ask of me.” This one hit me as a father who knows “I Don’t Know” is often the best answer to the best intended question.

One of my other favorites is Smither’s version of Knopfler’s “Madame Geneva’s”. I love the original, but have to say that Smither adds a different spin – slowing it down a bit and playing up the blues aspect. Knopfler hit the nail on the head in the days of yore when the plague was high and treason was in season… “Then you’ll find me in Madame Geneva’s / keeping the demons at bay / There’s nothing like gin for drowning them in / but they’ll always be back on a hanging day, on a hanging day…” Even today, I’m sure there are a few of us drowning our troubles in gin.

None of these songs sound over-engineered as I find all too often these days. Each recording highlights Smither’s world-weary, emotive voice and amazing finger-picking. Behind that, Goody adds layers with another guitar and Trojano does a great job keeping the beat and staying out of the way. If time stands still as the album title suggests, then this album gets it moving again.

If you, like me, were oblvious to the amazing musical talents of Chris Smither, then I would strongly encourage you to run out to your favorite retailer on September 29, 2009 to pick up Time Stands Still. I promise you that if you’re a folk/blues fan, you won’t be sorry. And if you already know Smither’s music, you’re ahead of the game!

–Fitz

p.s. Be sure to pick up this album and any of the other amazing albums available from Chris Smither at Amazon below!

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Music Review: The Sea, The Sea by Solomon’s Seal

Hi all…

Folk music is alive and well. Simon Petty has resurrected the sound of 1970’s English folk music by merging his smoky voice with strong piano licks and guitar. Each song seems to merge a melancholy feel with powerful melodies to evoke an emotional connection. Petty also uses unique sounds like the beat of windshield wipers in “Sleeping in the Car” to provide an organic quality to the tracks.

But at the heart of each song, is his lyrics and his voice. The voice is hard to describe without using words like “smoky” and “husky”, but I would most compare it to Peter Gabriel in some respects. Not that Gabriel ever did this style of music, but I think Petty has the same English-born quality that Gabriel has.

Add to that the amazing guitar work and I was in seventh heaven. As an amateur guitar player, I am always listening for picking patterns and transitions and Petty’s style evokes some of the mystique of folk legends like Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Simon and Garfunkel, and James Taylor.

Almost 10 years ago now, Petty came to America with the quartet Minibar to record an album with T Bone Burnett and Universal Records. Though that album, Road Movies didn’t do well commercially, Minibar stayed in California and made two more albums, touring with bands like Willco, Teenage Fanclub, The Jayhawks, and The Wallflowers.

The Sea, The Sea is Petty’s first solo album, produced by Seth Rothschild and recorded between Texas and Brooklyn. The CD includes eleven great songs, but I found myself gravitating towards tracks like “State of the Union Address” and “A Part of the River” for their strong guitar parts and stirring lyrics.

“State of the Union Address” is a beautiful song about letting a girl down easily, but contains some imagery about the cruelty of such an act. “I know it hurts like / Cigarette burns … but you’ll see / you’ll see / it’s all gonna fade / eventually…” The guitar work reminds me a bit of David Wilcox with the simple, yet moving baseline that keeps the song chugging along with a light feel even with the heavy subject matter.

“A Part of the River” tells the story of a man telling his lover that it’s not going to be an easy road if she stays with him. “And cruel, cruel as I am / I know there’s nothing to rely upon / But the weight of your hand” – it’s a pained love. And he’ll eventually come back to her, but “it won’t be an easy ride / if you try and stay with me / I’m a part of the river / that flows away from the sea” – but he may leave again. Their relationship is like the waves rushing in and out with the tides. With the melody, Petty adds to the simplicity of his guitar and vocals with some backing strings to provide some additional depth.

“Diamond in the Sand” features Petty alone with a guitar and is beautiful in its simplicity, telling the story of a man and woman trying to find a perfect relationship – like trying to find a “diamond in the sand”. Love is hard to find and in the end, he comes to realize that he has what he’s been searching for. “And it occurs to me that we’re wasting our time / I can’t believe what I hold in my hands / Why am I trying to find a diamond in the sand?” He’d already found his diamond in the sand.

If you, like me, are a folk junkie, I think you’ll find The Sea, The Sea by Solomon’s Seal much to your liking. You can take a listen to some of the tracks at Petty’s website – SolomonsSealMusic.com. But be sure to support this great artist by picking up his album at his website.

–Fitz

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