Album Review

Roger Street Friedman - The Waiting Sky

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After swimming through a myriad of albums in recent weeks - many of them excellent - I came across an artist that sounds like he’s been already around for decades. It was the confidence in his voice, the maturity and polish. He was compelling and seasoned. I came to the music with the belief that this was Roger Street Friedman’s “new” album and it is. I was surprised to learn his discography doesn't have several previous albums. It only has this one.

How does someone run this musical race straight out of the gate with such clarity, focus, and dynamics? And open for Los Lobos, which he did earlier this year?

Usually the first album has a tune or two that brings an artist to the attention of the masses, but the rest of the effort is filler. Usually the other songs are not fully developed and just cliché filled. Cat Stevens’ early albums were moderate sellers – nothing to write home about. But it wasn't until years later, after a serious illness, that he developed the Cat Stevens persona of his A&M albums, that he became noticed. The songwriting was sharper, intense, and there was a style that was all his own.

Roger Street Friedman’s first album already has the persona, and he is accompanied by some well-known players in a band that is so in-tune to the richness and message of Roger’s songs, it’s as if they have played with him for years. Maybe they have.

I was impressed when I realized Larry Campbell was playing electric guitar on a few cuts. Campbell was/is a member of Bob Dylan’s band. That’s hitting a ball out of the park - if you’re going to have a guest musician, one of Bob Dylan’s people would be the way to go. I was hooked and had to listen all the way through.

Aside from being impressed with the musicians, I was surprised to learn that this rootsy-Americana album was recorded where in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The entire collection has all the necessary ingredients: acoustic guitars, upright piano, a Hammond B3, ripe female background vocals, a grand piano, saxophones, a cello, a violin and melodies, melodies, melodies -- and none sound alike. Roger has a voice you can listen to all the way through – track to track. The diversity is attractive, interesting, well-paced and the production clean and inventive. The arrangements are crisp and enthusiastic.

While this is not necessarily dance music, there are tunes here that will get your body moving, swaying, fingers popping and snapping, toes tapping in your Nikes, Tony Lamas, bedroom slippers or hush-puppies. 

Above all, there is a pinch of humor to keep the presentation interesting and not heavy-handed. There are moments I hear a hint of a John Prine influence. Not voice-wise but in song style and approach. Roger is not copying, just planting, weeding and watering the same musical seeds.

“The Ballad of Fiberglass Buddha,” in the hands of a novice would be a silly novelty song. Roger, however, presents a lighthearted folk tale here, with clever lyrics and a stirring presentation far from novelty. The song has an airy arrangement with solid background vocal support. A breezy violin glides over the melody, steady drums drive the song as you sit, listen, shake and bob your head to its conclusion. It’s what endeared listeners to Prine, and Roger has learned his storytelling lyrical approach well. 

Couple a Cat Stevens-type voice with a Harry Nilsson edge and “The Ballad of Fiberglass Buddha” just may have the colors that create an interesting, provocative musical picture for you. I thought it was clever.

Roger’s voice from time to time is reminiscent of Stevens in his Teaser and the Firecat, Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman, and Catch Bull at Four, era. Roger also has moments when his voice is similar to Marc Cohn (“Silver Thunderbird,” “Miles Away,” and “Walking in Memphis.”) and the warm vocal treatments of Robert Ellis Orrall (“Tell Me If It Hurts,” "Everyday When I Come Home," “I Couldn't Say No,” - with Carlene Carter... tons of his songs that were written for others – including Taylor Swift - that were major hits).

So, Roger wears many hats, but these hats all fit him.

Roger’s approach is curiously original. I only mention these comparisons because I want readers to know that Roger does not sound like Buddy Miller, Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. He doesn’t have that too-many-cigarettes, or heavy whiskey-rough voice. He has a voice reminiscent of Bruce Cockburn, Gordon Lightfoot and in some respects, Fred Neil. It’s a faithfully driven melodic voice.

The album contains 14 tracks - each as different as siblings can be. This is the reason this artist is someone you can explore without growing weary.

First out of the gate: An upbeat “Time To Fly,” which does soar with its distinct Robert Ellis Orrall tones – it has a memorable, energetic and melodic attack. The enthusiastic guitars are tuned in a manner that is a signature to the tune. Typical of the great Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, who graces this cut.

While maintaining his style, Roger Street Friedman takes us down a different road from “Time To Fly” with “The Miracle Is You.” That’s proof that this is not a mere singer-songwriter but a wonderful tunesmith and musician. A craftsman. Larry Campbell returns to play guitar on this tune, which has a little Spanish brass weaving through its delicate, charming melody. The entire production is sincere, the background vocalists are smooth as silk, and Roger’s vocals are solid. It’s a song that feels like it’s fighting back tears. Does it need a comparison? It’s something Paul Simon would envy and Art Garfunkel would love to probably sing.

Despite good production and musicianship “Your Voice,” while not as impressive as the first two songs, does have the sound that other singers look for and are attracted to when they seek material to cover. It has a commercial appeal, the typical melodic structure of  a possible hit. There is a quality to these types of songs that remind me of Larry Weiss who had an album filled with great songs that he didn't hit with. But, Glen Campbell did find “Rhinestone Cowboy” on Mr. Weiss’s album. We know what happened after Glen released it.

Another singer-songwriter decades ago wrote something called “Sail On Sailor,” and The Beach Boys took that to the top. Then two tracks “Isn't It Time” and “Everytime I Think of You,” became hits for John Waite & The Babys. But, the recently passed away Ray Kennedy remained in the shadows despite other musical successes. These were truly wonderful songs by a multi-genre singer-songwriters, and that is my point.

Roger Street Friedman, while being totally capable of performing his own songs perfectly – is nonetheless, a multi-genre singer-songwriter. There is something on this album for everyone.

Track five is an echo-fueled rocker, “Gone, Gone, Gone," and it percolates with female vocalists, pulsates with tight brass, stings with 50’s styled lead guitar, and the arrangement has punch and balls. Larry Campbell returns on lead guitar. My only suggestion would have been to add a hot upright piano flourish in the tradition of Jerry Lee Lewis and it would have been perfect. The tune, nevertheless, is wonderful.

“Too Soon” is pensive, fragile and has an undercurrent of sadness.

There was a singer years ago who made many albums - was prolific and may even be featured somewhere in No Depression - but, has since passed. His name was Jackie Leven – he would have sung this beautiful Roger Street Friedman song brilliantly. He had the tone and strength and would have been an excellent interpreter of Roger’s songs.

A horn-driven rocker is next in “Life Is Hard.” It’s jet-fueled and sung with the same fiery energy that Robert Ellis Orrall performed his “Tell Me If It Hurts.” This is a hard-driving song, excellent with the top down, out on the highway. You need a fire extinguisher after it's over. This cut also features some hot sax playing, but it seems lost in the mix. Too bad it wasn't featured more upfront. But it's still a scorcher, a favorite.

Marvelously clean acoustic guitar is showcased on Time of a Life,” and Roger actually plays brilliantly throughout this album. This one has a set of wonderfully poetic lyrics: "She’s in a deep reflection, on a lake of glass / where these old green hills watch the summers pass / through fresh cut grass, runs a blue-eyed girl / laughter bouncing in golden curls…..”

Damn. There are some lyricists that would give the old classic poets a run for their money.

Roger has many words throughout his songs of similar quality and the reason I cite this particular one is because I was listening away from the speakers and the words grabbed me from a distance. That’s excellent songwriting when the words themselves can shove their way through music and musicians to penetrate your ears with their message and the picture they draw. 

“Gravity Always Wins,” again reminds me of the late Jackie Leven. The phrasing, the vocal tone and intensity are all there. Lyrically, this song is also a minor-masterpiece. “We’re always one step away from that thin edge / when it comes to the bones and skin, gravity always wins, gravity always wins...”

When backup singer Grace McLean wails at one point, the song grabs you by the throat. Friedman’s performance is striking. I would be curious to hear the old band Steppenwolf’s lead singer John Kay cover this. It's powerful stuff, not for the faint of heart.

When Roger writes something to which a mass audience can relate, he defaults to something like “Not Alone.”  It has power, conviction, is faithful and anyone who listens can relate. The background vocalists rise to the occasion as usual, the guitars chime and the emotion brought up from the well of this melody is penetrating. Anyone who has a heart will not soon forget this song.

One other important observation: this album lacks lameness. Its songs are sympathetic, arouse feelings, and they are above all sophisticated – not complicated – just possessed of life lessons, sparks of reminiscence. They all possess a good example of what great music is supposed to be. It’s not an opera, it’s not even a soap opera. These songs are more like buttons on a shirt that hold it closed against the wind, holding all the memories in your chest, in your heart.

If these songs are ignored by the Grammys, the Country Music Whatever, then that should send a clear message to an audience about where we are in the music industry. It’s more about fashion, controversy, bad language and attitude, poor judgment and lifestyles. Roger tries to touch upon some areas that are seldom explored and does so with humor and seriousness. So, instead of getting some beer for my horses, I will wait for Roger’s second album…because he will be worth it.


John Apice – Contributor – No Depression – May 2014

Disclaimer: The opinion expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression.