Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard
In a world in which tribute bands are the rage, covers given more cache than creative originals, and compilations more idea than success, Treasure of the Broken Land stands out. In fact, the music landscape what it is, it hovers far above. For that, we can thank Jeff Grantham and Phil Madeira--- Grantham for keeping the focus, Madeira for making sure the project have that focus. I had no idea who was Mark Heard nor was I familiar with but a couple of his songs, but this project brought it home for me and should for you, too. This, in fact, may be among the best compilations recorded for the right reasons ever. Let me explain.
Compilations are iffy. To truly put together a good one, you need more than just a string of songs. You need songs which truly belong together. This collection of the works of Mark Heard really fits the bill. Then, you need to match the performer(s) to the song. None of this, hey, currently popular music guy, pick a song from this hat and do a cover thing. More like, hey, Rodney Crowell, ever heard Mark Heard's “Nod Over Coffee?” How about recording it for this compilation we are curating to honor the songwriter's works? And even then, you have one big step to go. Finding the producer. How do you find someone who can produce the music? Make it seem like a real album and not just a depository for songs? Who has that ability to know what should be recorded and how to work with artists to make sure it is handled with focus without getting in the way?
If it was easy I would love compilations but the truth is that it isn't and I don't. So when I slipped this puppy into the player I had little hope. Then the music began. A nice rocker to start (Matt Haeck and an all-star band doing “The Dry Bones Dance,” rockabilly the way it is supposed to be), then Levi Parham takes “I Just Wanna Get Warm” on a light folk/rock ride and makes way for Birds of Chicago's version of “Rise From the Ruins,” the band and vocals dripping modern gospel (nice understated horns, too), and next, a surprise to my ears, Lily and Madeleine, carrying on that gospel string with horns and band of perfection and sisterly voices to match, and here comes Sean Rowe with his slightly imperfect (but perfect, all the same) bass-to-tenor voice singing “Everything Is Alright.”
Five songs in and I knew this compilation was an exception. It was like this huge stage packed with one band made up of unlimited talent, the talent fit to each song, musicians stepping up and stepping back as need be. It felt like a band! And for eighteen songs, they were. Not every musician on every song, but band, nonetheless.
Call it what you want--- folk/rocky, Americana, roots gospel, alt.country, country--- it makes no difference. This is an album which belongs to be called an album, not just a collection of songs with a loosely put together theme. Seriously, how long has it been since you have heard a compilation which was more album than compilation? I would venture to say that if you are honest, a long damn time.
And this album will introduce you to, if you don't already know them, the songs of Mark Heard, the real core of it all. Song after song presented in different styles but fit to the theme and the sound. I tell you, it isn't easy. Which is why I will not list the musicians individually, though they definitely deserve it. The sound is ensemble--- band. The result is an album of which I am very sure Mark Heard would be proud. Rest in peace, Mr. Heard, and be assured that your music will not disappear. Your musician friends will not allow it.