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George Scherer / Blog

Review of "Closer to the Bone" and Ryman Show by Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson “Closer to the Bone” and Live at the Ryman Auditorium, 1-27-09

This is a combination piece. It’s both an album and concert review, since I got a copy of the new Kris Kristofferson album, “Closer to the Bone”, on the day before I went to see him at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville TN. I found both to be outstanding.

The album is in the same vein as 2006s’ “This Old Road” and shows Kris can still write a great song and that his voice and delivery are better than ever. Working with longtime compadre Stephen Bruton on guitar (Bruton has worked with Kris since 1972, and died in 2009 after completing work on “Closer to the Bone”-Kris dedicated the album to him-, and other albums, including the soundtrack to “Crazy Heart”), the great Jim Keltner on drums and Don Was handling the production. Songs like the title cut, “From Here to Forever”, “Starlight and Stone” and “Tell Me One More Time” may not be as great as the tunes off those first two albums, but they’re as good as any, most songwriters in Nashville will ever write. “Holy Woman” and “The Wonder” are beautiful love songs to his wife Lisa, to whom he’s been married for almost 30 years, and “Hall of Angels” is a touching story about love and loss and learning to live with both. Even “Sister Sinead”, though it’s almost dated now, processes a few of those classic Kristofferson lines like, “maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t/but so were Picassco and most of the saints/and she’s never been partial to shackles and chains/she’s too old for breaking and too young to tame.”

The album is intimate and personal, and that’s the way he came off when he took the stage on this January night. He opened with “Closer to the Bone”, whose chorus says “Comin' from the heartbeat/Nothin' but the truth now/Everything is sweeter/closer to the bone.” At 73 years old, Kristofferson seemed like the ol’ sage, satisfied to have followed his heart all these years and slightly amused by the legend he created in the 1970’s. Although he played a fair amount of the newer stuff, he concentrated on the old standards and he did them justice. In the final chorus to “Me and Bobby McGee”, he mentioned Janis, and then when he was finished said “Bobby Bare sang that so much better than me.” He did all but two songs from the first album and did rousing versions of “The Silver Tongued Devil and I”, “The Pilgrim-Chapter 33”, “Shandy” and “Here Comes that Rainbow Feeling Again”.

Although Kris mostly left politics out of the concert, he did mention his support of the Veterans Against the War in Iraq and that the US had more people in jail than any country in the world. He seemed both proud and humbled to be playing to a full house at the Opry, recalling his first meeting Johnny Cash in the wings when he was on leave from the Army. Later he pointed out where he sat in the balcony when he first heard Cash sing “Sunday Mornin Comin’ Down.” He kept saying, “I’ll remember this night forever,” and I think the audience felt the same way.

Profile of T-Bone Burnett

George’s Musical Ramblin’s George Scherer www.georgescherer.com, www.facebook.com/gscherer, www.myspace.com/georgescherer Questions and comments to Gscherer@bellsouth.net

Pop quiz: What do the following albums have in common? August and Everything Else-Counting Crows, Bringing Down the Horse-The Wallflowers, King of America-Elvis Costello, Raising Sand-Alison Kraus & Robert Plant, One Kind Favor- B. B. King, all three Gillian Welch albums, three Roy Orbison albums, and the soundtracks from Walk the Line, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou, Cold Mountain, and The Big Lebowski,

The answer: All were produced by T-Bone Burnett.

I think it’s fair to say that much of the best music of the last three decades has Burnett’s handprints on it. And these are just the most recognizable ones. My record collection is full of records by artists like Bruce Cockburn, Natalie Merchant, Ralph Stanley, John Mellencamp, Peter Case, John Hammond, and Sam Phillips (his ex-wife) that were produced by T-Bone. And that doesn’t include his solo records, like “Criminal Under My Hat” which is one of my all-time favorites. All told, I own over 30 albums that Burnett has produced.

Burnett began his career at the age of 17 when he and two friends bought a recording studio in Ft Worth, TX and began recording and producing records. He toured with several acts, including Delaney & Bonnie, before joining Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975.

He came to my attention with an EP he released in 1982, called “Trap Door”, which not only contained the powerfully dark title track, but also a stunning reworking of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend”. With a pounding drumbeat behind him, Burnett turns a cute Broadway song into a cynical rock epic.

Burnett hit his peak as an artist in 1992 with the “Criminal Under My Hat” which featured masterful, yet subtle production and excellent songwriting. Two of the best are “Humans From Earth” where pioneering astronauts “out here in the universe looking for real estate” tell the new planets inhabitants: “You’ve got nothing at all to fear/I think we’re gonna like it here,” and “Primitives” with a chorus that says “Primitives dress in feathers and masks/To scare away their enemy/ . . . Scientists guess which is worse, we will ask/The medicine or the disease/The frightening thing is not dying/the frightening thing is not living.” Backed by exceptional musicians like Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Marc Ribot, Jim Keltner and Mark O’Connor to name a few, the entire album sizzles with great musicianship, songwriting and production.

After this record, Burnett retired from making his own records for 14 years and concentrated on producing, movie soundtracks (winning all kinds of awards for them) and working to get the record companies to develop higher standards of sound for digital music. He opposes the bright, compressed sound of most pop records and in 2008 he started a project called Code that is suppose to improve the sound quality of musical recordings. Recently, he has released a 40-song retrospective of his career (“The Essential T-Bone Burnett”), as well as two albums of new material. He also wrote all the songs, and produced the soundtrack to the new Jeff Bridges movie “Crazy Heart”, which seems destined to win him more awards.

Review of "Hold Time" by M. Ward

George’s Musical Ramblin’s George Scherer www.georgescherer.com, www.facebook.com/gscherer, www.myspace.com/georgescherer Questions and comments to Gscherer@bellsouth.net

Best Album of 2009 M. Ward-Hold Time

If you’re unfamiliar with the name, don’t feel alone. Although Ward has released 6 albums since 1999, and has received outstanding reviews (2006’s “Post-War” showed up on most Top 10 lists), he continues to fly under the radar of Top 40 radio, mainly, because his music is so hard to categorize. I’ve heard him referred to as alt-country, folk and indie rock, and he really fits well into all of those, but not one in particular. He seems comfortable writing country, folk, or rock tunes, then placing them into very, un-slick, pop productions.

This is one of those albums that starts out good and just keeps getting better. The duet between him and Zooey Deschanel on “Never Had Nobody Like You” should be blaring from every car radio on the street. His understated (Ward is nothing, if not understated) remake of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” is excellent, but the first six songs don’t prepare you for what’s about to happen. Beginning with the acoustic country of “One Hundred Million Years”, this album builds toward a fantastic finish”. This includes a version of “Oh Lonesome Me” (with Lucinda Williams) that is even more lonesome than Neil Young’s 1972 remake.

Also in that group is “Epistemology”, which is the best song on the record. It begins with a line that says; “I learned to keep my head/From something that Paul said/About keeping the fruit and the spirit from the chorus down to the hook”. Now, I’m not sure what that means, but it makes me wonder if he means St Paul or Paul McCartney, or both. The production of the song is great with vocals upon vocals, each one a little further back in the mix. His writing hints at the poetry of Dylan, the isolation and loneliness of Townes Van Zandt, with the pop sense of Lennon-McCartney and the brevity of Paul Simon, (who once said the secret to writing good songs was to “say what you’ve got to say, then get the hell out.”).

Ward’s songs waste no words; like Dylan writing Haiku. Usually, they consist of a verse and chorus. The secret is, he says more in that verse and chorus than most songwriters say in a whole album. “Blake’s View” is a beautiful song about death, which offers a comforting, yet un-dogmatic version of the afterlife. “Birth is just a chorus, death is just a verse/In the sweet song of spring, that the mockingbirds sing.” This song is followed by the vaguely religious “Shangri-la”, which contains some beautiful guitar work by Ward, and the line “First stop Jackson, next stop Shangri-la/And I can’t wait to see the expression of my sweet Lord,” is absolutely perfect. The rhythm feels like a train and the way his hobo-sounding voice growls out “Shangri-la”, as though in ecstasy, makes you hope you’re next stop is Jackson, as well.

This is the album Ward has increasingly worked toward over the last decade. His voice and guitar still have that low-key, archaic sound they had on Transistor Radio, but his productions have gone from bare bones to broad sweeps. If this is the first you’ve heard of M. Ward, one listen to Hold Steady, will make you want to hear more.

Review of "I and Love and You" by the Avett Brothers

George’s Musical Ramblin’s George Scherer www.georgescherer.com, www.facebook.com/georgescherer, www.myspace.com/gscherer Questions and comments to Gscherer@bellsouth.net

I and Love and You by the Avett Brothers American Recordings

When I first saw the Avett Brothers a few years back, on a local tv news show, I thought they were going to be my new favorite group. Still it took me a couple of years to actually call myself a fan. Although I fell in love with their sound (old-timey) and their style (neo-hippie) of playing, but I was never for sure they weren’t pulling my leg with their down-home sentimentality. Still, the more I listened, the more I came to love them.

When I heard Rick Rubin of American Recordings was producing the new album, I was very interested. Rubin, who began as rap producer with Run DMC & the Beastie Boys, caught my ear when he worked with Johnny Cash in the 1990s. For all the great records JC had made over the years, none of them were as good as those final few. On the first of those, Rubin had the good sense to just set up mikes in his living room and let Johnny perform with an acoustic guitar and that wonderful vocal instrument of his.

Where Rubin used minimalism with Cash, he gave the Avetts the benefit of full on production, from the instruments and over-dubs, to the artwork and jacket layout. The album is one of those, where the songs seem to flow together as if they were of one piece. What the Avetts have given us is a beautiful album, musically and lyrically, and what Rubin has added is an exquisite production that can easily be called “Beatlesesque,” without any hyperbole. The instruments, from guitars and drums, to keyboards and strings, are never over-wrought and always seem to enter and depart at the perfect time. And, oh yeah, the boys can sing and their harmonies rival other brother/sister teams like the Everleys or the McGarrigles.

The songs are the best they’ve ever written. They flow; they stick in the back of your head. They’re simple; yet seem far more complex than they are. The album begins with a song about change (“Load the car and write the note/grab your bag and grab your coat/Tell the ones that need to know/We are headed north”) and ends with a song about being unable to finish things. In between are 11 beautiful songs about doubt and fear, love and friendship, fame and the joy and sadness that accompany it. There’s not a bad cut, only some I like better than others. Songs like “Ill With Want” or “Tin Man”, or “Incomplete and Insecure”, are mini-sermons, sung with compassion instead of piety. Their preaching is always as much to themselves as to anyone else, like in Ill With Want”, when they sing “I am lost in greed this time it's definitely me/I point fingers but there's no one there to blame.” 2009 has been a great year for albums, but this one is clearly one of the best.