Minor 7th Sept/Oct 2004: Sérgio and Odair Assad, Anne McCue, Joe LoPiccolo, Jeffrey Foucault, Bob Evans, Mutual Admiration Society, The Benoit Freeman Project, Kelly Lancaster, Emma Rugg, Slang, Robin Lee Berry
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

September/October, 2004

Sérgio and Odair Assad (with Fernando Suaréz Paz), "Live in Brussels", GHA Records 126.055 2004

For anyone familiar with the current icons of the classical guitar, the Assad Duo will require no introduction. These Brazilian brothers have been charming audiences with their effortless technique and impossibly synchronized ensemble for over three decades. Their recent release "Live in Brussels" is just another example of how they can choose repertoire of truly ineffable difficulty and then perform a near-flawless recital. In their combined discography currently numbering almost thirty, it is not uncommon to find the Assads sharing the stage with such greats as Gidon Kremer, Dawn Upshaw, and Yo Yo Ma. On this recording they are joined by Fernando Suaréz Paz, the violinist from Piazzolla's legendary New Tango Quintet. The CD focuses on the music of South America, featuring works by well known composers such as Egberto Gismonti and Astor Piazzolla. For those who crave the energy and raw emotion of such music, this disc will certainly be ideal, while some other listeners may find it a tad cloying as it is has a steady compliment of South American compositional clichés. Although this listener does have a deep appreciation for the works of Cobian and Piazzolla, I agree with the Assads decision to open with "Noites Cariocas" by Jacob Bittencourt. This highly articulated and vigorous work quickly sets the tone for the entire recording. Another gem is "A Fala da Paixao" by Gismonti, whose work is placed at the center of the disc and contrasts the more traditional approaches of the other composers. For those concerned with finding classical guitar music which is both accessible and virtuosic, they can do no better than this disc.
© Timothy Smith

Assad Brothers' Website Buy it at Amazon.com

Anne McCue, "Roll", Messenger Records 15, 2004

Simply, unequivocally, Anne McCue brings it. This Australian-born singer-songwriter and slashing guitarist wrestles lyrically with matters of love, wielding her Les Paul to punctuate her compositions like a poetic laser. Combine the pop sensibility of Sheryl Crow, the earthy musings of Lucinda Williams and the inspired guitar of Neil Young for some measure of the quietly awesome talent Anne McCue brings to "Roll". Williams, in fact, toured with McCue in 2002, saying "Anne is my new favorite artist ... and an amazing guitarist". With "Roll's" thirteen tracks, we are offered a rare opportunity to hear a prodigious songwriter rock out with her bassist and drummer. The plaintive realness and driving rawness lend a sense of urgent, life-on-the-edge quality that tends to haunt the subconscious. McCue includes a fair share of softer heart-tuggers as well, like "Tiny Little Song", which includes this wonderful couplet, "It’s so delicious at the start / Lust compounded by the heart", and the nicely achey track "Where the Darkness Grows". While she inhabits both the raucous and the rarified with equal ease, it seems the wilder side lets McCue play out some of her soul’s demons. Her closer, a snarly cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun", will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Still, if I had to pick, my fave would be her nicely crafted opener, "I Want You Back", because I believe her when she says, "You crucify my love / You terrorize my soul". Then she snakes into your head with a deceptively simple guitar lead. You gotta hear this collection.
© Fred Kraus

Anne McCue's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Stupid (streaming mp3)

Joe LoPiccolo, "Passages", Sierra Madre Music 0309, 2004

Miroslav Tadic and Andrew York have bequeathed a small portion of their own established musical legacies to Joe LoPiccolo on his debut CD "Passages". Tadic and York each cameo on two duet tracks on "Passages", and in so doing, place a stamp of earnest affirmation to this newcomer's brilliance as a composer for guitar. LoPiccolo brandishes influences from Tadic (and another Balkan guitarist, Dusan Bogdanovic) on his sleeve, peppering his melodies, motifs and solos with a Phrygian mode that imbues both an exoticism and solemnity to his work. The CD opens with "Jensen", a modal banter between Tadic and LoPiccolo and band. With the addition of tabla by percussionist Randy Gloss on this track, the music becomes reminiscent of Tadic's early quartet Bracha, which likewise was able to perform this kind of difficult fusion between improvisational chamber jazz and Middle Eastern classicism. York offers up a beautiful solo improvisation to the insistent plunge and swell of LoPiccolo's "Thunder". Water-as-musical metaphor befits the music of LoPiccolo's mind: "Waves", another collaboration between Tadic and LoPiccolo, is also set against an oceanic and meditative drone, and inspired by Dusan Bogdanovic's "No Feathers on this Frog". The pieces in which LoPiccolo is joined by saxophonist Eric Barber and bandmates, especially "Anthem" and "Africana", rotate that mood of introspection by 180 degrees into one of celebration, and might be compared by some to the music of the jazz quartet Oregon. Though "Passages" is his first CD offering, one can already hear that a legacy from Joe LoPiccolo himself is taking shape.
© Alan Fark

Joe LoPiccolo's Website Buy it here
Listen to Thunder (streaming mp3)

Jeffrey Foucault, "Stripping Cane", Signature Sounds 1286, 2004

Jeffrey Foucault tells tales. His sharply realized stories rise out of the darker side of the Appalachian tradition, murder ballads and lonesome love. Thanks to the tasteful production of David "Goody" Goodrich, the tunes are deep set in the sound of the mountains, stripped down front porch music just a mite rough: little flash, all atmosphere, finger picking six string, banjo, slide guitar, and mandolin fills. Foucault marries this sensibility with imaginative wordsmithing. Images carry the emotional load. In "Doubletree" death comes suddenly on a morning "shining clear and sharp as broken glass" where the "coal train comes rumbling through the seam... riding for the tracks at Sugaree." The musical atmosphere comes courtesy of Foucault's clawhammer banjo and thumping foot; Goodrich on guitars and something called a diddley bow, a one-stringed instrument of the 19th century rural South played like a slide; and Peter Mulvey's hushed vocal overtones. But for all my characterizations of what Foucault does, it should be clear that he will confound expectations. There's a cover of John Fogerty's "Lodi." "Cross of Flowers" heaps image on image (a thousand sparrows falling in a thousand shades of black; a low moan on the rails where the coal train takes the corner), in a tale of returning home to a town in deep decline that slaps the listener with its closing confession, "I always said I loved you / I never said I loved you well." "The Bluest Blade" is one lovely and affecting contemporary love song, "balanced on a sliver shot through the blacking" with fine harmony from Anita Suhanin and Mulvey, two of the usual and overqualified Signature Sound suspects from whom this production benefits. Because Foucault believes "what's beautiful is broken," "Stripping Cane" is relentlessly downbeat and almost relentlessly down tempo. But it comes to you like a "sweet night on silver wings," "whispers to your bones," and stays with you like "white frost on ...shade."
© David Kleiner

Jeffrey Foucault's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Doubletree (mp3)

Bob Evans, "The Voice in the Grain", Acoustic Tonic Records ATCD002, 2004

Fingerstyle enthusiasts may remember Canadian Bob Evans' contributions to a couple of Kicking Mule Records anthologies in the 1970s. Evans' relatively loud, outgoing style caught my attention back then and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he is now more musically active than ever. "The Voice in the Grain" is his second solo instrumental effort (see Minor 7th's review of Evans' first CD, "Caffeinated Coffee" here). Evans mixes originals with such well-known tunes as "Yesterday" and "Christmas Time is Here" (from Vince Guaraldi's score to A Charlie Brown Christmas), and throws in a couple of tunes by fellow fingerstylists Joe Carpenter and Mike Nelson. Evans contributes six of his own pieces, each a well-developed composition. "Dune" and "The Noodle Kitchen" are extended pieces showing of a wide range of Evans' compositional and performing. His own pieces sit well beside the covers - that's no mean feat when standing up to works by Lennon & McCartney, Vince Guaraldi and Henry Mancini. Evans' choice of material shows both a sense of humor and his love of a challenge; the slow string bends in "Cat's Meow" will tickle the listener's funny bone. His rendering of the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life" is astounding. On this tune and the closing "Theme from Peter Gunn," Evans captures the energy of the original recordings, yet makes each song his own with his strong bass, clear treble and energetic chording. These arrangements raise the bar for steel-string fingerpickers in terms of technique and selecting material. Bob Evans' music is well-rounded, accessible and captivating. I'm eagerly awaiting his next release. © Patrick Ragains

Bob Evans' Website Buy it here
Listen to Got To Get You in My Life (mp3)

Mutual Admiration Society, Sugar Hill Records 1067, 2004

Sometimes the grass is actually greener on the other side of the musical fence. Mutual Admiration Society is a random collaboration of kindred spirits comprised of Toad The Wet Sprocket singer-songwriter Glen Phillips, Nickel Creek's Sara and Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile along with upright bassist Jen Condos, pianist Richard Causon, and producer/guitarist/percussionist/vocalist Ethan Johns. An acoustic roots rock super-group, this organic, expertly rendered song-cycle captures the spontaneous combustion of musicians who, as the title overtly implies, love to play together. Outside of their respective platinum selling bands, the Society take ample opportunity to stretch their collective imagination and self-indulge sans the restraints that usually come with working within a pre-determined format aimed at a target audience. Fans of acoustic music will find this disc especially intriguing and inspirational as the Society pepper their folk-bluegrass inclinations with a myriad of refreshing, outside influences. "Be Careful" bounces with subtle jazz harmonies and infections pop hooks, pleasantly veering away from standard song structure, especially during the brilliant solo sections which highlight Causon's affection for the blurry resonance of a Chamerlain M3 organ. Phillips' falsetto and slightly echoed vocal take on "Sake of The World" is downright John Lennon-esqe, embellishing the melodies with daring changes in register. The dirge "La Lune" features dark Sus-chords strategically placed to keep the listener engaged, evoking images of both Tim and Jeff Buckley in their prime. And for old-school traditionalists the rag-tag honky-tonk "Think About Your Troubles" provides the perfect coda to this breezy set, as noted in the refrain wherein the members trade nimble solos and audible laughs. Recorded in just six days, Mutual Admiration Society makes a good case for showing up to the gig and letting your inhibitions take the night off. And if you're lucky enough to catch them live this year, sneak in a tape recorder as Led Zeppelin bass legend John Paul Jones is on board.
© Tom Semiloi

Mutual Admiration Society's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Sake of the World (streaming mp3)

The Benoit Freeman Project II, Peak Records PKP-8525-2 2004

Veteran musicians David Benoit, master pianist and composer of numerous film and television scores, and Russ Freeman, guitarist and twenty-year member of the legendary Rippingtons, have joined forces once again, along with several big name vocalists and jazz musicians, and delivered a laid back, smooth and inspired album of light pop jazz. All tracks but one, "Two Survivors", composed by Al Anderson and Nicholas Gary, are Benoit and Freeman originals, and explore both artists' many musical interests. On "Via Nueve", "Club Havana", and "Samba" the duo, aided by such illustrious musicians as drummer Peter Erskine and percussionist Luis Conte, convincingly ventures into the realm of Latin jazz. The dreamy, evocative, and pensive melodies and arrangements of "Moon Through the Window" and "Waiting for the Stars to Fall" exhibit the duo's more senstive side. Perhaps better known for their funky jazz-pop style, the two return to familiar terrain on the cool bluesy track "Struttin'" where Freeman lends some clean and bluesy electric guitar licks, calling to mind the 70s fretwork of Larry Carlton. The duo has spared no expense, recording several tracks with a full string ensemble as well as flute oboe and french horn where needed. Country-pop singer Vince Gill sings "Two Survivors" which at first seems an odd match, but fits nicely on the album. Vocalist David Pack contributes vocals on the Russ Freeman composition "Montecito". In all, "The Benoit Freeman Project II" is a solid album of laid back grooves, cool licks, and soothing vocals. Not one note offends.
© Chip O'Brien

Benoit Freeman Project II Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Palmetto Park (streaming mp3)

Kelly Lancaster, "High Lonesome Gypsy", 2004

With all the attention of the International Olympic Committee these days given to steroid scandals, someone should have tested Kelly Lancaster. I mean, how else to account for his blazing speed all over "High Lonesome Gypsy?" If you like fast flatpicking, this CD should fit nicely on your shelf. According to the liner notes, most of this stuff was spontaneous in the studio - no real rehearsing, and most songs were laid down in one or two takes. Lancaster is obviously well-versed in this musical vocabulary. Kelly plays both guitar and mandolin on the disk, with a mix of traditional bluegrass (the "High Lonesome" part), and Django-influenced swing (the "Gypsy" part). Randy Powell and Vladimir Kotsiouruba bring their considerable talents to the strings. Standards come out sounding not-so-standard, with quick as light accents on "Jerusalem Ridge", and some great cross-picking on "Arkansas Traveler," while he uses both cross-picking and single note runs on Drowsie Maggie." ! When Kelly plays Django, like on "Minor Swing", he tears it up, flowing from burning chords to flaming arpeggios, while Kotsiouruba channels Stephane Grappelli. That Hot Club of France sound is captured on the charming waltz "Pigalle," and the swinging "Sheik of Araby." "Kolomeike" (Hot Dishes) transports us to 19th-century Russia with some great interplay between Lancaster's mandolin and Kotsiouruba's wailing violin. This was my personal favorite from the CD. A couple of vocal tunes make it on to the disk with Brian Wunder handling vocals. Several cuts use vintage Martin guitar, which adds a great sound to the recording. I expect Kelly Lancaster will start branching out more from his native Texas in days to come as more listeners like this High Lonesome Gypsy sound.
© Kirk Albrecht

Kelly Lancaster's Website Buy it here
Listen to Old Joe Clark (streaming mp3)

Emma Rugg, "Isolated Impression", Indreams Records 209802 1, 2003

Emma Rugg's voice overflows with enough longing to send you out looking for whatever is missing from your life. That voice is at its loveliest when Rugg harmonizes with herself, sometimes quite intricately, in songs like "Grand Designs" and "Picture Perfect." Longing is at the center of "Isolated Impression." In virtually every song, what the speaker wants is out there somewhere far from here, faraway, afar. But Rugg is very present in this recording, performing all of the vocals and instruments, except for drums. The guitar playing is effectively idiosyncratic, with hammer-ons and offs a potent part of the repertoire. Listen carefully for the highlights the second guitar adds to the powerful rhythm playing in "Prelude to the End." The changes in the songs often make unexpected moves, contributing to Rugg's unique sound and melodic strength. Check out the opening notes of "Picture Perfect" and the chords in "Read Your Mind." The arrangements of songs like "Prelude to the End" show that Rugg longs to be cast as more than a confessional singer/songwriter in the Joni Mitchell mold. But her lyrics plant her firmly in that oeuvre. The majority of the songs begin with the word "I." The lyrics often do not rise to the level of the melodies and Rugg's voice ("Today" begins, "I should be happy but I'm not. And it makes me sad"). In the end, "Isolated Impression" doesn't do justice to Ms. Rugg's abilities. Neither her voice nor guitar is recorded to maximum effect. Check out the guitar as it peaks on the closer "In Your Universe." The recording is not kind to Rugg as she moves between ranges, betraying her with a harshness that doesn't belong ("To Love You"). Given all that, Emma Rugg is a talent to be reckoned with. I long to hear the future releases from this ambitious artist. © David Kleiner

Emma Rugg's Website Buy it here
Listen to Prelude to the End (streaming mp3)

Slang, "Blue", AveNew Productions, 2004

Slang it is, and it's American Slang. Your first thought is there's no way these guys are Bulgarian. But they are. It all goes to illustrate the amazing international dominance of Anglo-American arena rock idioms. Vocalist Dimiter Ekimor possesses a sometimes raspy, powerful voice that shines best on the lighter-waving arena ballad "Empty Heart" (of course he's singing in English!), complemented by guest vocalist Amalia (Bulgaria's Madonna?). Pearl Jam fans take note. And there's a little U2 in there too, especially in the contextual way that guitarist Peter Glavanov contributes to the outing (He kills with a Wah). So basically you've got Dimiter, Peter, and the drummer. Voilá, U2. Voilá, Aerosmith. Hello, Bon Jovi. But indeed there is a giveaway that these guys are not native. The secret is the broadly eclectic streak that runs through the CD. It's all commercial sounding, "radio ready" as they say, but it's all over the map. They've even got horns on "Celebrity" for God's sake. The most amazing cut, though, is "My Heart", in that it would be would be dead-on perfect for Rod Stewart. So they're genre-benders. A big no-no in the U.S.A. (Attention Clear Channel programmers, "The Wind of Your Dreams" is your designated hit single selection.) Do they deserve to rock the Homeland? Yes, definitely. If they can get a visa.
© Steve Klingaman

Slang's Website Buy it here

Robin Lee Berry, "Ahna Kick a Hole in the Sky", 13 Windows Music, 2004

Northern Michigan's resident singer-songwriter Robin Lee Berry has released her fourth CD, "Ahna Kick a Hole in the Sky." RLB was blessed with a great voice, and she uses it to share the convictions she holds deep in her heart, primarily the love of her two daughters Anna and Ruby (who share credit not only for inspiration but also for backing vocals and cover design). With scant production, this recording offers twelve songs that cover various musical styles and show Berry's ability to move effortlessly among them. Four of the included tracks are from live performances and capture RLB right where she belongs, on stage, singing and playing guitar and proving that she is the real deal. The title track is a reggae-flavored appeal, featuring a busload of talent which creates a sound that is redolent with texture. Aside from having one of the best titles in the history of recorded music, it suffers slightly from a voice-over that is sincere but pedantic, breaking the groove of this otherwise exceptional song. Her live performance of Neil Young's "Old Man" is notable for her precise guitar work and the power of her voice. Using an open tuning, RLB covers "Into the Mystic" by Van Morrison and once again steps up to the plate and swings for the parking lot. Of the six songs written by her, my favorite is "Bloom" a sweet song made even more poignant with the backing vocals provided by Anna and Ruby giving up some great harmonies. Berry is an amazingly talented performer who shape-shifts from folk to jazz, from ballads to blues but the underlying constant in all her music is the conviction in her voice showing us again that her heart is right where it should be with her songs flowing right from the center.
© Rob Dunne

Robin Lee Berry's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Coyote (streaming mp3)

**Please check out Minor 7th's other brief CD reviews this month, featuring Jeff Troxel, Damir Halilic, Jook Bourke, Misty River, Joël Fafard, Rosette Guitar Duo, John Hasbrouck, Lemon, Barbara Martin & Mac Walter at Short Takes**

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