Music Review: Rusty Belle – On a Full Moon Weekend

Hi again…

Music doesn’t have to be complicated. Far too often I listen to a song on the radio and wonder how much of it was engineered compared to how much was performed. When the electronics overwhelm the instruments and voices, sometimes it’s time to reexamine the music-making process.

Enter the simplicity of Rusty Belle, with a vibe that is difficult to nail down. It’s at times folksy, at times dramatic, and at times it seems they’d feel at home in a saloon somewhere in the late 1800s. But that’s part of their charm.

Comprised of brother and sister Matt (vocals, guitar, fiddle) and Kate Lorenz (vocals, washboard, glockenspiel, drums), Zak Trojano (vocals, guitars, drums), and Jazer Giles (keyboards, guitar, vocals), the group has recorded five albums as a quartet since 2006, with their latest being On a Full Moon Weekend. But again, it’s impossible to pin them down – there’s some country, some honky-tonk, dramatic folk, blues, even a bit of rock. The closest I can come to naming a similar artist is Mark Knopfler, but that only fits a handful of their songs.

What’s consistent throughout the album is the fact that the arrangements, voices, harmonies, and instrumental performances are real. Real people are singing. Real people are playing. And there are real emotions in every note of the eight songs on On a Full Moon Weekend.

One of my favorite tracks is “Rearview Mirror Sunrise” – the very first song on the CD. The subdued, mellow guitar intro strums into some simply gorgeous melodies. But once you listen to the words, you hear the story of two lovers on the road, working the memories from the drive into their relationship. Things as simple as stopping on the side of the road when it starts to snow – “catching the snow flakes one by one on our outstretched laughing tongues, the world feels fresh and new and young, I want to bring it all into my love…”

“Off and On” is another of my favorites and the one that seems to have a Knopfler feel to it. I can’t shake the mental image of this small band playing in the corner of a saloon in the wild west with their twang and caliope/merry-go-round feel. And by the time the steel guitar kicks in, I’m already sold on the picture of cowboys dancing with barmaids on the saloon floor.

When the drums and blues guitar of “Borderline Affair” enter the scene, I can’t figure out how a blues vibe and saloon band are working together, but damn – it works. “Don’t try to tell me nothing no / Don’t cheat me baby I love you so / It’s hard to see the world from this low; so come back to me as flies the crow…” The head barmaid is telling her beau not to treat her wrong or she may be tempted into someone else’s arms…

I’ve never heard anything quite like Rusty Belle. It defies categorization – and yet I enjoyed every note of On a Full Moon Weekend. If you are looking for something different, please give them a listen!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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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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