Portland-based Americana singer-songwriter and acoustic guitar/harmonica player John Craigie has put together a basically fine collaboration with musician-friends on his “No Rain, No Rose” 13-song collection. To my ears, the majority of the songs are of a high quality and the performances are stellar. But there are some issues, though minor and cosmetic are not mortal wounds. No need to hold your breath.
Track one “Virgin Guitar,” unlike most albums by other artists, comes out of the starting gate slow and easy. Nothing bombastic and riveting. However, John does have a beautiful melody in this song, and some meticulously written music and words. There are subtle back ground vocals that support John’s desperately elegant voice. Smooth fiddle, a savoring harmonica solo, and just an easy-going dazzle of a tune. Repeated listening? Absolutely. Wonderfully recorded piece.
A little more of a rollick with banjos, acoustic guitars and harmonica can be found on “Broken.” This is one of those songs that can grab an earlobe and drag your head to the speaker. John continues to sing with a very rural heartland voice – it would make Woody Guthrie proud. On this John reminds me of the inflection and vocal tone of the late Greenwich Village poet-singer-songwriter David Blue who had a similar way with a lyric. There are hints of early Eric Andersen here as well with Bob Neuwirth and Townes Van Zandt. Yeah, good company to be in.
This song has a stirring fiddle and harmonica drive, pleasant female backup and consistently good Americana musicians with their wondrous folk-rock-traditional instruments at full-throttle. Excellent.
This is where the test really begins.
“Highway Blood,” is in an entirely different mode. If the first two songs were on a dirt road, this third track is on a gravel road. Little nuances decorate this song the way fine threads hold a fabric together. Sometimes flimsy, sometimes heavy and thick. John is singing in a deeper voice, slow and sincerely blue. Definitely not flimsy. It’s simple with its acoustic guitar strum but the tune is genuine as tiny piano notes sweeten the melody. You can hear every word in the lyric as John narrates/sings the little moody poignant story.
Here is where it gets a little rough. It states in the bio that John tried to do what the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did by capturing a little banter and jokes between friends and letting the tape continue to roll. From here on in there is always a little banter between songs.
But John Craigie – you’re not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Usually, a band like that has some of their banter already in their heads and rehearsed. Tom Waits does it brilliantly in his live shows with little stories that lead up to a song. The Beatles did it gently with their English humor – especially John Lennon. But an independent artist trying to lasso an audience on his original songs he doesn’t yet have is courting disaster. This comment more from my producer experience than a commentator. You can do whatever you want -- it's your showcase. But I find it a distraction from what you are trying to sell -- your good songs and your fine performance.
Because the ears of the public are impatient especially potentially new ears. Trivial additions don’t stimulate interest they tend to have people hit the advance or reject button. No one cares about what you’re talking about in the studio – they aren’t there and can’t relate to the musician gibberish and it goes on for too long. A perfectly fine song as “Rough Johns,” was almost skipped.
Now, don’t feel so bad.
Elvis Presley made the same mistake on his "Elvis Country" album when he (the producer more than likely) had little pieces of one song “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago,” slipped between each song on the album instead of the standard banded 4-second silence. I understand at the time, Elvis wasn’t happy with that effect and he also didn’t like the sound that faded down and then came back up on the original “Suspicious Minds.” But that was the style of the time. “A Taste of Honey,” by Herb Alpert stopped completely a few times in mid-song and started up again. Gimmicks all. Some worked, some didn't.
So, until you get a little more famous and people are familiar with your personality and spiel – don’t interrupt the flow of some wonderful new original songs. You are jeopardizing them because the gibberish is there forever in your studio work. Twenty years from now it may not sound as fresh.
“Savannah” was a little bit of a sleeper. It’s pleasant enough as a song with fine playing but approaches five minutes in playing time and it begins to drag. Solution? Just cut the playing time down and the song should redeem itself. We have studio talk again after “Savannah” that can hardly be made out. What are they talking about? Ingenious segues, if you have to be creative between songs, is far more interesting.
This next song doesn’t work either. “Bucket List Grandmas,” -- why am I being so critical? Because the album started off with 3 brilliant songs and now we're in Roger Miller country novelty territory. This puts a wrench in the album’s true momentum. This is not the image I had of John Craigie when I started. Is the song any good at all? Well, I won’t deny the musicians play well and John does try his best to use another voice – a little more aggressive voice -- which is good. But it’s being used on a song that has little to recommend it.
More banter now after Grandmas…still don’t know what they're talking about. No relation to the song before or what’s going to begin from what I can decipher. It's typical musician talk that average listeners or audience have no clue what it means. Maybe someone like Paul Schaffer would.
Eliminate it from a permanent document like a record.
Unfortunately, another dud slides up and I am mystified at how 3 tight, great songs started the album and then it started to slide into an oblivion. Or, maybe I expected much more from John. But...I will hold my breath and see what develops.
“Tumbling Dice,” slow as molasses. Yes, the Rolling Stones song. Without the vim and vinegar of Mick Jagger, this tune falls flat. I will compliment John since he took the chance with an entirely different arrangement of the tune. Kudos for that. It’s more out on a humid summer afternoon in Georgia feel. All the musicians play proficiently. There is even a real nice “sound” during the harmonica solo that is evident. Maybe the tune should have been just an instrumental. Instead of the banter between songs a little familiar instrumental passage would have been clever. An intermezzo, like fruit cocktail before the cheese and salami.
I will say again, John did not perform this cover with any lack of spirit. He does try. The effort is commendable. It’s a good brave attempt at a well-known song by a world class band. But it's still far from those first three well-crafted songs on this album.
More banter that after a few years will grate the ears of even the most dedicated fan. It’s just not something anyone wants to hear every time they want to listen to their favorite John Craigie song. But, for now, I am jumping to “I Am California,” because that’s the next wonderful song.
Back on track with brilliance. This is John Craigie. This is what he sounds like.
Here it’s a little like a slow Jackson Browne tune and it still has meat on the bones. While some of the songs were diminished by the banter, this tune is strong enough to survive. This is pure, emotional, delicately sung, and sensitive. Lovely. I listened to this one more than once. It’s a track that if I were an A&R man I’d recommend to another more established artist to cover (and this is usually how an independent artist gets to be known. Ask Randy Newman). This song is that good.
The fiddles soar and they accentuate nicely. The harmonica comes in and just balances the sadness and presence of the lyric. There is no lyric book in this CD but this song sounds like it has some ambitious words threaded through the musical notes. Very strong performance. Not overstated and not over dramatic. Just right. And uh...welcome back John.
More banter. Annoying. This time for a whole minute. Like a rehearsal. Shouting. Talking over the fiddle playing. Poorly planned. This needs to be eliminated if it ever goes to a major label. If you absolutely must have this – put it as the final track. Nothing more. But I will ignore it because....
The final track – gloriously – is another winner.
“All the Salt,” starts off with well-balanced slowly building music. John sings well and the female vocals are again fluid in their beauty. None of the musicians are credited clearly on each individual song so I don’t really know who is playing what and where. Bevin Foley is a fiddler/violinist, and Niko Daoussis plays the mandolin. The musicians are an impressive bunch because they are multi-instrumentalists. They played and contributed richly on a diversified array of instruments.
This is a song that is back to the rural style and has a jaunty well-crafted style to it. John ends his album -- upbeat. And the collection – on a whole – musically – flexes its muscle generously. These tunes are far better than the commercial pop songs of radio. This is John’s fifth studio-proper album – and he has a voice in this music that is unifying. There’s lots to enjoy when you listen to any of his albums.
The album was produced by John Craigie and recorded in SE Portland, OR. All songs were written by John except for “Tumbling Dice,” – Jagger/Richards.
The CD art is an attractive full color four-panel with the musicians lounging on the lawn of a big southern-type estate with willows hanging down and actually – quite representative of the music. The inside spread has portrait shots of all the musicians. The cover photo is by Ben Moon. Inside photography by Kristen Mico with the more urban back cover photo by Chelsea Stephen. Nice work.
Spotify Music Samples: https://open.spotify.com/artist/7ytgyYmtUPfxXHsXEvgObK
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / August 2017