Live Review

Three to not forget: Valorie, Dao and Otis

on December 31, 1969

No more humbling reminder of the impotence of the written word exists than the blank indifference of the marketplace. For 21 years now I have listened carefully to mounds and mounds of music, and sought venues in which to write about the songs and sounds which moved me. For a time I awaited a groundswell of shared enthusiasm, though I fully understood the difference between criticism and consumer reporting.

It rarely happened, of course, that other music fans shared my peculiar enthusiasms. Blood Circus did not become the biggest band out of Seattle, very few people remember an obscure early '90s North Carolina band called Metal Flake Mother (I think one of them became a Squirrel Nut Zipper, if that counts), and Mike Ireland is not a country star.

Nor, I should add, was my pen able to stop the careers of artists whose music I detested.

Each shelf on the CD cabinet next to the stereo holds about 100 newish releases, and of the unknown (or unknown to me) discs that have come my way, maybe one of those 100 has been listening to, worth shelving against the possibility that the artist's next album would be worth writing about. (In passing, I would once again note the importance of putting your strongest song first, for you will get no further with many of us.)

As I have drifted into a semi-public semi-retirement from all this, the mail has slowed some, and I have quit trying to listen for the next best fanciest shiny new thing. But I keep my eyes and ears out for the survivors of that winnowing project, for familiar names whose new music might yet hold the magic I still need to hear. Three of these I have stored up (like a squirrel with nuts) to share here. They are not the next big thing, nor would I wish that upon them. But it'd be nice if they sold a few records, if somebody else listened.

(1) Back in 2002, a woman from Asheville, North Carolina, named Valorie Miller, who had something to do with Malcolm Holcombe (his was the first name thanked in the liners), who had cut a broad swath through Nashville when first I moved there, sent out an album called Sweeter Than Salt. It opened with a spectacular song called "Not My Daughter". A raw, blue, keening mountain song that had to have emerged from somewhere deep within.

It was a sparse, simple album, inexpensively recorded, and nothing else came quite to that opening song. But it only takes one.

She followed that effort up with Folk Star in 2006, and in retrospect it may have been a better album than I thought when it arrived. Probably I was looking for some kind of growth, and she was at the stage of tightening up what she'd already figured out. Fair enough.

The new album, which came out this summer, is called Autumn Eyes. It is a more lush affair, better recorded with a rounder sound, and though a small variety of instruments lend spare support, it is principally built around the sound of a lovely piano.

It is, for the most part, prettier and happier, and I am not drawn to that. The opening title song, for example, has the maturity of a Triple-A radio standard, and is by far the most radio-friendly song Miller has recorded. Which is fine, and good for her, except that I miss the rawness and the gut-wrenching honesty of her best songs. (And I think "Carolina Line" borrows too much from the melody of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", but that could be a trick of the ears.)

Valorie Miller's "Carolina Line"

It's still there, of course, that thing which makes me keep listening: Three tracks in, "Fire Song", which I take to be her true telling of what happens when you don't snub out a candle before falling asleep. I like that dry, carefully observant voice better, and it seems the best written of these ten songs.

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(2) I have blogged before about Dao Strom, who pursues dual careers as a songwriter and novelist. In the interim she has moved from Austin, Texas, to Portland, Oregon, and from Portland to Juneau, Alaska, and now has self-released a second album with handmade paper and all the trimmings called Everything That Blooms Wrecks Me.

The successor to 2004's Send Me Home a curious title from a woman born in Saigon who writes fiction that drifts, as she seems to, across the country is as subtle and word-driven as its precedessor. Strom is also more comfortable in her own singing this time, and less shaped by the dry mannerisms of the Carter Family, whose influence led to the concluding "I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger" on her debut.

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Which is to say her vocals are not so often trying to be country that they sound more like I imagine her speaking voice. She chose to record her debut on a late '50s analog two-track; this appears to have been cut on an eight-track, and she uses the extra layers to good advantage.

Her voice, then, is a sharp but carefully modulated brush placed amid various acoustic layers, and surprisingly pretty (though her words can be wonderfully disconcerting). The effect is rather like I imagine Hem would be, if I were drawn to their music as strongly as my co-editor has been.

I don't want to talk about her lyrics because they seem so private as to invite solitary exploration within the comfort of headphones and winter tea. But let me clip this opening bit from the song she calls "Silver":

i've always worn silver
i've never wanted gold
the choice was given to me
& i put it on hold
to hold fast to my heart
& not a band of gold
i guess i didn't believe it would
really take away the cold
i've never worn a dress that i
couldn't run away in

It is not clear to me what Strom wants from her music, whether it's a hobby that serves as a tonic to her fiction, or an adjunct to it. Or both. Or neither. In both cases, I tend to suspect she is only at the beginning of a long creative road, and that her work in ten or twenty years will be extroardinary.

(3) And then there's Otis Gibbs, a very different kind of road warrior, whose fourth and most accomplished album has just arrived and is called Grandpa Walked A Picketline. It is perhaps his most accomplished, simply because Chris Stamey produced it and surrounded Gibbs with a solid studio cast: Don Dixon on bass, Al Perkins on pedal steel and dobro, Will Rigby on drums, Chris Carmichael on fiddle, Tim Easton on mandolin, harmonica, and vocal,and Amy Lashley on vocals. (Ed Pettersen plays tambourine.)

His website reveals several things: First, that he's a pretty fair photographer (and we've talked about art at conventions a couple times, but somehow I missed that part), and second, that this album is available now in Europe and at his website, but isn't meant to be in stores until January 20, 2009. The day before the inauguration of our next president.

And, yes, with no apologies, this is a political album from a political man. When he talks about hobo jungles, he's not making it up, though I'd have guessed that culture was long gone. He's from Wanamaker, Indiana, though he is probably better-known in parts of Europe than he is here, partly through Billy Bragg's intercession. (He's toured with Bragg, and Bragg recently wrote about Gibbs in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal.)

Unlike Strom and Miller, I know Otis a little bit. Which is to say we've stood at the back of rooms at music conventions and talked a couple times. I believe his bio when it says he's lived on $3,000 a year, but there is also a good bit of ambition driving him. This is not a bad thing. It's why he's living in Nashville, and recording in North Carolina with Chris Stamey.

Gibbs has embraced the long tradition of the political troubadour and has made of himself a logical heir to Rambln' Jack Elliott and Utah Phillips, whose roads wind to an end. He has a nice, weathered voice, and no peculiar and distinctive tricks dominate his music. Just the facts, as he sees 'em.


* * *

Two final notes.

First, Shout! Factory has taken over the HighTone catalogue, and has released summaries of the careers of Dave Alvin, Tom Russell and Buddy Miller on that long-running imprint. I have only played Buddy's on my way out to the farm, and it's a bittersweet thing: sixteen tracks, which he chose and sequenced, but one hopes people will still find their way to the fine albums he recorded in the 1990s.

Lastly, a sad note. Miles of Music, the long-running roots-music catalogue/website dreamed up by Corrie Gregory and Jeff Weiss, e-mailed last week to indicate they were finally shutting their doors against the tidal wave of music downloads and declining sales. MoM were constant advertisers in the print edition of ND, and became good friends quite apart from that relationship. They loved good music, and sought to make a kind of living by finding and developing an audience for that music. They still love good music, but will now go through a period of sadness with which I am familiar. The world changes.