Album Review

Lee's Listening Stack: A Special Holiday Bonus - Six More Special Picks

The Kennedys - Error

The Kennedys
Dance a Little Closer: The Kennedys Sing the Songs of Nanci Griffith
(independent release)

As sincere a tribute as one might ever imagine, Dance a Little Closer: The Kennedys Sing the Songs of Nanci Griffith finds Pete and Maura Kennedy singing the songs made famous by their mentor, the great Nanci Griffith. It’s a fitting concept; long before the Kennedys made good on their own, they backed Ms. Griffith up onstage and in the studio, taking a cue from her songwriting skills and special stage presence. No doubt Nanci’s proud of how they evolved on their own, but she’s likely also proud of this heartfelt homage recorded live before an appreciative audience. Be forewarned -- it’s tough getting through certain songs without having a tear trickle down -- such are the tender sentiments evoked in these magical and memorable melodies. Even those songs that specifically didn’t come from Griffith’s pen -- “Across the Great Divide” and “From a Distance” in particular -- offer little distinction from the emotional embrace of her original material. Indeed, tracks such as “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods,” “Trouble in the Fields” and “Late Night Grande Hotel” are so chock full of evocative imagery, it’s hard not to be swept away by the narratives they impart. This is a spectacular collection, a credit to both Griffith and the Kennedys, and it ought to be remembered as one of the best sets of songs the year was able to offer. (www,KennedysMusic.com)

Mark Erelli
Milltowns
(Independent)

This inspired tribute from one superb songwriter to another resonates with a sincerity and sensitivity that it’s immediately apparent from the first track on. Mark Erelli offers heartfelt homage to the late Bill Morrissey, recasting his songs in both a tender embrace and stripped down settings befitting both the man and his music. Sadly, Morrissey’s work never reached the masses, but for those fans who still remember his efforts fondly, Milltowns is a work with a sobering perspective. Songs like “Birches,” “Handsome Molly” and “Long Gone” tug at the heartstrings with a tragic beauty that’s almost too much to bear. Other songs offer a hint of whimsy, particularly “Morrissey Falls in Love for the First Time,” the writer’s reflection of a first date in which he laid out his plans for the two even before learning his intended’s name, and the ironic “Letter from Heaven,” in which Morrissey offered assurances that indeed “heaven is better than the bible says,” while providing a roll call of the late great people he’s encountered. “Life is great in heaven” Morrissey assured us, and one can only hope he’d finding that to be true. As for Erelli, he’s doing  both his mentor and himself proud, especially when he sums up his sentiments on the title track, a sole original that offers opportunity to share his reflections on his first meeting with Morrissey. Here indeed, lovely is as lovely does. (www.markerelli.com

Jim White Vs. The Packway Handle Band
Take It Like A Man
(Yep Roc)

Those familiar with Jim White’s offbeat output may be taken by surprise by this latest effort as he pulls it all back and offers up an album so ebullient and enthusiastic it’s practically impossible to compare it to earlier output. On the other hand, White and his current congregant, The Parkway Handle Band don’t exactly play by the rules either. “Paranormal Girlfriend” is indeed kind of weird. “Jim 3:16” is as fine a drinking song as any expressed before, and when White insists, “A bar is just a church where they serve beer,” you kinda get his point. Then again, “Gravity Won’t Fail” (“Gravity won’t fail, but you will let me down”) does its part to carry the concept of tears in beer balladry forward as well.  “Smack Dab in a Big Tornado” with its jocular banjo accompaniment could be considered a disaster song were it not for the unlikelihood of anyone getting swept up by the storm and surviving. Indeed, the bluegrass reverie of “Corn Pone Refugee” and the faux gospel of “Sinner!” make it more obvious than ever that tongue is firmly planted in cheek, even as the sobering “Sorrows Shine” brings matters decidedly back down to earth. Perhaps the difference this time is that White keeps it all tuneful, never allowing his curmudgeonly instincts to take over entirely. Consequently, Take It Like A Man isn’t such a difficult challenge after all. This is an easy album to embrace and enjoy. (www.jimwhitevsphb.com)

Amanda Thorpe
Bewitching Moon -- The Lyrics of Yip Harburg
(Rubric Records)

Yip Harburg was one of the most prolific songsmiths of the 1930s and ‘40s, the man whose words added poignancy and purpose to such famous tunes as “Over the Rainbow,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” and “April in Paris,” allowing him a special standing in the American Songbook. While standards sets have become all too common in recent years, Amanda Thorpe’s Bewitching Moon strikes a special chord by focusing specifically on Harburg’s singular genius. Thorpe, once part of the nu-folk trio Bedsit Poets, is an excellent match for the material, her winsome vocals and fetching style well-suited to the softer sentiments these songs parlay. She adds just the right amount of sensual suggestion to “I’m Yours,” cheery playfulness to “I Like the Likes of You,” forlorn desire to “Over the Rainbow,” and slow-burning tenderness to “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” thus summoning up just the right emotional input that each of these offerings demand and deserve. A soothing set of songs, it ought to be played while sitting by the hearth on a chilly winter’s day.  It doesn’t get much warmer than this. (www.amandathorpe.com)

Hugh Moffatt
Only Along for the Ride
(SOHL Recordings)

Hugh Moffatt’s been making music for several years now, a tattered troubadour with an unassuming attitude and a sound to match. Sadly, he’s escaped the attention of many of those who should be a part of his prime audience, lovers of gentle acoustic music of the softly strummed variety. The fact that Only Along for the Ride initially came out last year and still remains a secret of sorts is testimony to the fact that Moffatt’s music deserves a wider audience. It’s an impeccable effort, flush with beautiful ballads (“Juniper Canyon,” “Remembering,” “I Knew Her When”), rugged barroom narratives (“Tiger’s”) and jaunty, up-tempo sing-alongs of the bawdy variety (“Cover Me”), each of which prove to be of the crowd-pleasing variety. And that’s the first five songs! The fact is, Moffatt is every bit as adept as his better known contemporaries, and more than deserving of the notoriety that comes from populist pursuits. Whether urging defense of the downtrodden on the lovely “Light a Candle,” attempting to define the inexplicable through the affirming “I Know” or simply celebrating what should otherwise be obvious through the ready refrain of the title track, Only Along for the Ride offers an excellent encapsulation of Moffatt’s essential strengths. A wonderful record indeed. (www,hughmoffatt.com)

Walter Salas-Humara
Curve and Shake
(Sonic Pyramid)

Another superb album from an artist who’s built a career on mining superb albums, Curve and Shake finds Silos leader Walter Salas-Humara creating a tapestry of sounds that’s both sedate and sumptuous. He adapts sonic his textures accordingly, from the upbeat optimism of “Counting on You” and the ultra catchiness of “Satellite” to the serene hypnotic trance of “The Craziest Feeling” or the soft, irresistibly seductive “What We Can Bring.”  The album evolves from there, unfolding as a sequence of evocative curves and shakes that give credence to the album title itself. Salas-Humara varies these tone poems in other ways as well, whether sharing the songwriting credits, varying the recording locale or incorporating exotic arrangements that fit the ever-shifting moods. This may well be the most ambitious effort of Silas-Humara’s solo career, one that seems to put him on a steady roll. Yet at the same time, while the songs seem to draw all sort of descriptions and evoke a wide range of emotions, the quietly mesmerizing nature of it all provides its singular feel, and it’s all that much lovelier because of it.(www.waltersalashumara.com)