Minor 7th Jan/Feb 2008: Phil Roy, Van Morrison, Laurence Juber, Antoine Dufour and Andy McKee, Phil Keaggy, Fiske & Herrera, Theo Bleckmann & Ben Monder, Michael Kelsey, Peter Mulvey, Thomas Leeb, Randy Browning, Dormlife, Axel Schultheiss
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

January/February, 2008

Phil Roy, "The Great Longing," Decca Records 2007

One dissolving synth chord, a tap of the cymbals, and the bass line kickstarts the groove... "The Willow," a song about "understanding the flow" eventually flows into a handclapping vamp featuring a call and response involving Roy, a chorus of Lucy Woodwards, and Julian Coryell's guitar. Propelled by Roy's smooth, soulful vocal, its gospel feel can get you up on your feet. This is not your typical singer/songwriter CD. It's not even your typical Phil Roy CD. Roy's third release finds him with one eye focused on the meaning of life and the other on the rhythm section. In "I Love Everyone," listen to the various colors moving in and out. This tune also has the record's highest percentage of Roy's trademark grouchiness. The agoraphobic narrator decides he's ready to love everyone, finally leaving the house when "even my shadow got bored." Out in the world, he finds loving everyone a challenge. "Busy Thinkin' About Today" really takes off when Amos Lee contributes some high harmonies. "Exceptionally Ordinary" captures Roy and Madeleine Peyroux having too much fun with a bluesy swing tune. "Fly Away" uses a deceptively simple arrangement. Roy's silky voice rides Joel Bryant's swirling keyboards (a Minimoog patch with arpeggiator lines and a Fender Rhodes) while Ricardo Silveira's nylon string guitar adeptly adds fills. Philly fave Mutlu's vocals keep "Without Conscience" moving. "You Were There for Me," the closest thing to a love song on the album, is also its only true duet. Antje Duvekot never sounded better. The record's vamps reflect its groove and musical joy. "Day to Day Thing" co-written with Bob Thiele, Jr. -- a favorite Roy writing partner -- dances out with all kinds of sounds over a little synth groove: George Rabbi's trumpet, Jimmy Lint's Fender Rhodes, and a Japanese rap. You won't find another singer/songwriter album with production this adventuresome, songs this sophisticated, or rhythm this infectious.
© David Kleiner

Phil Roy's Website Buy this CD here
Listen to "Day to Day Thing" (mp3)

David Kleiner interviews Phil Roy!! - click here

Van Morrison, "Still on Top - The Greatest Hits," Polydor, 2007

In terms of mass pop culture, Van Morrison remains one of the unsung greats. Part of what makes him so appealing is that so much of his nature remains unrevealed at this late date, still to be discovered by the intrepid listener who will find gems in strange corners of his oeuvre. Though his music has served admirably as a "soundtrack of our lives," it is all the more rewarding on close listening. And the arrangements, so loose, so one-take, throughout his early career. Just listening to his breath marks on "Crazy Love," you know this guy is his own dude. This collection of his work demonstrates his range over 40 years. That, in itself, is a remarkable milestone. The CD offers a generous selection of tracks, 21 in all. The first ten, covering the years from 1964 to 1978, probably comprise the greater number of "hits," featuring songs like "Brown-Eyed Girl,"Domino," and "Wild Night." Then there’s "Wavelength," which ends his rave-up phase on such a high note of 70’s enthusiasm. The middle period of the 80’s revealed more of his passionate romanticism, where love and higher love blend with such unflinching honesty, as in "Dweller on the Threshold" and "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You." If there is any complaint here, it is that the final tracks wander a bit. But any serious fan might wish to substitute a track or two in favor of one they feel is more compelling. The CD serves to remind us what a phenomenal output this man has gifted us with over the course of his career. And then there’s "Gloria," the iconic song that spawned a thousand garage bands. Those famous three chords defined the musical vocabulary of a generation. One of my favorite little details was how the bridge merely reversed the chord order. Brilliant! To become great, by any definition, it is necessary to bring the conviction of your experience to the work, and nobody does that quite like Mr. Morrison.
© Steve Klingaman

Van Morrison's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Wild Night" (mp3)

Laurence Juber, "PCH," Solid Air Records, 2007

Since his emergence as a solo artist in the 1990s, Laurence Juber has created a body of work that's stylistically varied, technically innovative and consistently listenable. PCH is all of these things, but with a couple of twists that distinguish it from his other recordings. While Juber still features his acoustic playing most prominently, he plays electric guitar in a visceral blues-rock style on several tracks, using either an Eastman archtop or a 1957 Stratocaster. Secondly, he's created a small band, performing several pieces with Lee Sklar on bass, Russ Kunkel on drums and Jim Cox on keyboards. Juber leads this combo with both his acoustic guitar, as on the title track, "Gardenia," and "Let's Stay Together," or with electric, on the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger" and the improvised "Blue Guitar Blues." On the minor-keyed "Castle Walls," he plays both acoustic and electric throughout for a great performance. Juber pulls out all the stops on several acoustic solos, including "Bullet Train Boogie" and "All of Me." His solo version of "Layla" recalls Derek & the Dominos' original arrangement and is sure to please casual listeners and challenge guitarists. The feel throughout PCH is more relaxed than much of Juber's catalog. While it's not thematically cohesive in the manner of "LJ Meets the Beatles," "One Wing," or "I've Got the World on Six Strings," here we get a better look at Juber the guitarist by hearing him perform in different contexts and on a number of guitars. As an extra offering, three of Juber's compositions appear twice on the disc, first in the group recordings, then again as solo tracks at the end of the CD. These bonus solos are fully realized performances, and although they don't necessarily include anything new for listeners, guitarists will appreciate them. Overall, LJ can expect to please his fans and attract new listeners with this fine offering.
© Patrick Ragains

Laurence Juber's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "Temple Bar" (mp3)

Antoine Dufour and Andy McKee, CandyRat Records, 2007

Seeing is believing -- an observation that perhaps launched this video project to present live performances of two exceptional solo fingerstyle guitarists (and friends), Andy McKee and Antoine Dufour. Each performs eight original songs; each plays his tracks, one by one, as the screen fades to black as each song ends. It's a studio video recording, as contrasted to a concert video recording, which might present an entirely different vibe. As such, this DVD shows two young men whose percussive techniques, hand-switching flair and athletic dexterity give the aural impression of (at least) a guitarist and his accompanist. Clearly, we can see from the video that that's not the case! Though their styles are somewhat similar, McKee's unconventionality mesmerizes from his very first track, "Drifting." His hands fly all over the place, from the bottom of the guitar to the top of the neck. One wonders how he can move his arm so far and yet land it with such precision, all the while keeping tone, melody and tempo dead on. On the wistful "Rylynn," McKee uses a capo on the sixth fret on four strings -- but he plays above the capo on the two free strings, his left hand again traveling long distances. McKee's guitar neck actually extends into the soundhole, with part of it cut away on an angle. Another fascinating aspect of McKee is that he manages all of his musical gymnastics with short, squatty fingers, Despite his speed and flash, he displays a nuance that conveys a wide range of emotion. He breathes life into his creations, aided by a variety of subtle visual expressions. Dufour, a Canadian, whose set opens the disc, displays a somewhat reserved performance range. Technically, he's just as accomplished, but, in contrast to McKee, focuses less on interpretation and emotion. Both guitarists draw from classical, jazz, folk and rock genres, although McKee, at least from this viewing, works in a wider number of influences. If fingerstyle with a heavy percussive dose is your forté, chances are you'll enjoy viewing these two fret magicians.
© Fred Kraus

Andy McKee's Website | Antoine Dufour's Website Buy it at CandyRat
Listen to "Rylynn" (mp3)

Phil Keaggy, "The Song Within," Autumn Records, 2007

It's hard to know what to write about Phil Keaggy's guitar playing that hasn't been said before in some way. Brilliant? Check. Inspiring? Check. Amazing? Ditto. Inventive? Roger that. Keaggy's latest instrumental recording, "The Song Within," reveals parts of all those superlatives, and more. This CD is a platform for McPherson guitars (in this case, an MG-4.5 with African mahogany back and sides and an Adirondack Red Spruce top). It's not a solo effort (like "Acoustic Sketches"), but the accompaniment is minimal and tasteful, allowing this six-string wizard to showcase what he does best: dance all over the fretboard in weaving excursions of musical wonder. Keaggy has always maintained a cheeky side to his playing (especially in concert), and it comes through on several tracks: the opening cut "Water Day" is a sly knockoff of his early "What A Day," with passages reminiscent of that work recorded soon after his Christian conversion; and "Addison's Talk," taking ideas from his slower "Addison's Walk" on the "Beyond Nature" CD. "Wow's the Weather" fuses several Keaggy staples: rich chordal movement over the melody, lightning-fast arpeggios, and a few soaring electric riffs. The title cut, "The Song Within," is a fine example of the direction of his songwriting over the past several years -- a richer canvas of melody in an almost enveloping serenity. One of Keaggy's favorite musical partners, the fabulous Muriel Anderson, accompanies him on "New Year's Eve," and the interplay is pure magic. "Noah's Shuffle" takes a catchy hook and runs over it with that Keaggy style -- a few bars and you just know this is a Phil Keaggy tune. The 16 cuts on "The Song Within" don't break any new ground for Phil Keaggy or his legion of fans, but each one reinforces his place among the very best guitarists on the scene today, one who knows how to make soulful music.
© Kirk Albrecht

Phil Keaggy's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "The Blue Trail" (mp3)

Fiske & Herrera, "Just Breathe," 2007

"Bad Dream," opens "Just Breathe." This tale of a separation showcases everything that makes this record so darn pretty. Amy Herrera and Jared Fiske's gentle voices blend perfectly. Acoustic guitars sparkle. Starting with the first chorus, two six-strings support the vocals with a steady duet. Three minutes in, a third guitar trios up, playing a lovely solo that mirrors the fingerpicking behind it. Such precision arrangements are standard for this record. "Along for the View" opens with a reference to "Norwegian Wood." The guitar solo introducing "Rough Luck" evokes early Joni Mitchell and only gets sweeter joined by a fretless bass. "The Explanation" uses cello effectively and features a counterpoint vocal duet. Co-producer Seth Connelly's piano knows where to put its quiet chords and arpeggios. The lyrics in "Just Breathe" are generally of the confessional kind. They reflect the concerns of young adults finding their way in the world: parent/child issues ("The Father"), self-doubt ("The Explanation"), freedom and limits ("Choice"). The narrator in "Choice" confesses, "I am young / I carry my dreams out in the open," but he has "seen friends go before their time / pills and guns and rope they left behind." In the end, he declares, "I will give what I have to give / 'cause I have a choice to make / I choose to live." Such drama can at times drag the lyrics over the top ("These feelings are bleeding me dry / I feel the world still suckling at my breast / this anger feels like a lie"). But always there's that pretty, pretty music washing over you.
© David Kleiner

Fiske and Herrera's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to "Bad Dream" (mp3)
Listen to Fiske & Hererra at our podcast

Theo Bleckmann & Ben Monder, "At Night," 2007

Ben Monder and Theo Bleckmann's second collaboration, "At Night," is an astonishing compilation of originally conceived and orchestrated musical landscapes. Monder is one of New York City's most inventive guitarists, regularly playing at the 55 Bar in Manhattan's West Village and Barbes in Brooklyn's Park Slope. He has recorded four albums as a leader and has appeared on over 90 albums as a sideman with such artists as Paul Motion, Mark Johnson, and Donny McCaslin. Theo Bleckmann is truly a multi-disciplinary vocalist whose diverse projects include Cabaret, Performance Art, and Installations, as well as Concerts. He has also recorded and or performed with Bobby McFerrin, John Zorn and Laurie Anderson. While this album is not primarily an acoustic guitar recording, several pieces feature Monder's unique and expressive approach to the instrument. On the ominous opener "Late, by Myself," the guitarist creates some wonderfully flowing chordal tones to Bleckmann's ethereal wordless vocals. "Animal Planet" is a beautiful Brazilian inspired piece with subtle, melodic vocalizations over Monder's delicate and intricate accompaniment. An album solely devoted to the acoustic instrument would be a welcome appendage to the guitarist's critically acclaimed solo catalogue. The addition of Satoshi Takeishi on percussion on five of the tracks adds an even more dynamic dimension to the mix. As a case in point, on "Carbon" Monder unleashes some frenetic, distorted guitar lines reminiscent of Terje Rypdal and Steve Tibbetts, while Bleckmann counters with processed vocals amid Takeishi's powerful percussive work. There's even a psychedelic deconstruction of the Beatles "Norwegian Wood" and a poignant reading of Joni Mitchell's "Sunny Sunday." This groundbreaking album is challenging in many ways, but is at the same time uniquely refreshing and satisfying. While tradition is definitely abandoned, it is also redefined and recreated, to produce a recording that is truly unique and compulsory listening for adventurous fans of contemporary music.
© James Scott

Ben Monder's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Late, By Myself" (mp3)

Michael Kelsey, "The Way It Rolls," H-Note Records, 2007

Michael Kelsey has said "There is a five piece band in my head. They all have different tastes in music and they are all trying to escape at the same time through my hands, feet and mouth. I hang onto an acoustic guitar and see what happens." On "The Way It Rolls" that band in his head comes bursting out of one soundhole of his guitar, the face of which is burnished raw by thwacking, spanking and slapping... to create a uniquely percussive style which is rarely heard within singer-songwriter circles. Comparisons to Michael Hedges are inevitable but unlike Hedges, for whom vocals always seemed an afterthought, Kelsey's vocals are soulful with intensity on equal par with his guitarwork. Think Steve Marriott on vox and Don Ross on box. The "five piece band" metaphor is especially true on "The Way It Rolls." This is a full band sound, yet a perusal of the CD insert for the expected backup musicians on bass, electric guitar and harmony vocals yields only one other name besides Kelsey -- Matt Call on drum kit. Past Kelsey projects have showcased Jekyll & Hyde musical personalities: the restrained fingerstylist versus the maniacally bluesy rocker. The evil twin definitely wins out on this CD, so don't look for much Windham Hill prettiness. The title track's message could be both the "Que Sera Sera" of a new generation and a synopsis of his musical M.O. -- "Some choices you make / some you leave to fate / sometimes you just gotta get out of the way / and let life roll around like thunder / keep yourself in a state of wonder / I don't think it's about trying to figure it all out / I think it's more about the way it rolls, not where it goes." Michael Kelsey seems to be genuinely enjoying the way things are rolling.
© Alan Fark

Michael Kelsey's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to "Hey Elaine" (mp3)

Peter Mulvey, "Notes from Elsewhere," Signature Sounds, 2007

Cheryl Wheeler once said that open tunings were a gift from the songwriting gods. The gods have blessed Peter Mulvey and it's not just 'cause he makes good use of the tuning keys. His playing ranges from Ani Difranco-like killer grooves to delicate arpeggios a la Alex de Grassi. His voice does that bluesy folky thing like Vance Gilbert; his lyrics a string of metaphors and images, like in some of Ellis Paul's songs. In case I haven't confused you enough, throw in Michael Hedges for good measure, 'cause there's the same great kind of guitar work. Yeah, that's a lot of performers to compare him to but he's not so close to any of them to make you stab your finger in the air and accuse him of anything but being Peter Mulvey and he does that very well thankyouverymuch. This collection of songs includes favorites from fifteen years of recording only instead of a band, you just get Peter and his guitar. Just. In that one guitar is a whole rhythm section and a hot lead player, all solidly grounded with a foundation of chords. I swear the guy has four hands but I've seen him in concert and I know he's a mere mortal. You may disagree with me when you hear this release. The disc begins with "Shirt," featuring some lively fingerpicking. In "The Dreams" he shows his philosophical side while "Better Way to Go" is bluesy and a bit sinister. He's a grounded funk/blues player in "Rapture," a piece that starts with harmonics and a few well-placed runs until the groove sneaks in. The lowest string is tuned to a mysterious tone that seems to emanate from somewhere below the upper crust of the earth. I did some research and found the tunings for each song listed on his website. That mysterious note? It's a G. Folks, that's almost a freakin' octave below standard tuning. Not only does it make for one hellacious bottom end but it has this cool buzz that offers the percussion in this crazy band. According to the book of Mulvey "The Trouble With Poets" is that they talk too much. Depends on how they play the guitar. It's in "Black Rabbit" that I hear de Grassi. It's a gorgeous fingerpicked instrumental in DADGAD that has movements, like a symphony. There's an Irish lilt because that tuning is used often in modern Irish music. "Knuckleball Suite" is about the collection of folks found in the cozy Café Carpe in Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin. He comments in the liner notes that "the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Billy C's name has not been changed owing to a lack of innocence on his part." The disc ends with "Little Foot," a sweet instrumental with a lot of space.
© Jamie Anderson

Peter Mulvey's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Shirt" (mp3)

Thomas Leeb, "Desert Pirate," 2007

I would not want to be Thomas Leeb's guitar, but I like having ears to hear what he does with it. On his latest amalgam of pops, slaps, bends, thwacks, plucks, and strums, Leeb once again pushes our aural boundaries with hard-driving melodies using -- literally -- the entire guitar. "Desert Pirate" is a firestorm of sound, from the opening "Grooveyard" (where surely even the most decayed are moving), to the gentler tribute piece "Ladzepko" (for his musical inspiration). Leeb's ability to create accessible melody reminds me of Billy McLaughlin's best work: you have a hard time imagining how he can be doing so much yet still create true songs. The title track, "Desert Pirate," begins sounding like a mouse is trying to get into his soundhole; it then builds into a percussive crescendo before the traditional sound of a guitar appears, sounding not too traditional, but reminding us of the varied palette of sounds six steel strings can deliver. "Jebuda" mixes some well-placed harmonics with slightly more "traditional" picking in a funky groove. Harmonics feature again on the lovely "Nai Nai," with the three notes of the melody ringing bell-like over open strings. Leeb delivers an infectious cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry," mixing slaps with a harmonically-rich melody over a driving bass line. He shows some jazz chops on "Oachkatzlschwoaf" (no, that's not a typo, it's a German word) which feels like a ride on the Autobahn with the top down in June. Leeb even covers the Swedish pop songstress Bjork's "Isobel" (in a far more endearing form to this listener's ears), giving his own percussive, driving sound, making the most of the lower registers of the guitar. This is a solid record. For anyone wanting new acoustic sounds on the guitar, Thomas Leeb delivers.
© Kirk Albrecht

Thomas Leeb's Website Buy it iTunes
Listen to "Grooveyard" (mp3)
Listen to Thomas Leeb at our podcast

Randy Browning, "Radical Rags," 2007

You have to like the concept: a mix of six originals and four covers linked by a common thread of positive social change. As a composer, Randy Browning, who makes his home in Maine, shows himself to be literate, thoughtful and inclusive. His story songs reveal insights while being engaging and entertaining. Browning's pleasant voice and his easy way with his acoustic guitar, slide guitar and old-time banjo makes for a comfortable pairing. For this collection, his first solo work, he blends folk with blues, ragtime and contemporary. His opening track, the upbeat "Radical Rags," sets the tone for Browning's slightly askew universe view. Browning includes a couple of verses of Randy Newman's acid-tongued satire "Political Science," a challenge for someone as sweet-voiced as he. Browning fares much better with Leadbelly's still relevant "Bourgeois Blues." A journey through these 10 tracks will raise your social consciousness while it raises a smile.
© Fred Kraus

Randy Browning's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Radical Rags" (mp3)
Listen to Randy Browning at our podcast

Dormlife, "Roses are Blue", Duckphone Records, 2007

We are what we pretend to be. So it's somewhat fitting that Dormlife, three guys and a girl from Chicago, have never actually resided in dormitory. Yet the songs which comprise their buoyant sophomore release certainly reflect topics most prevalent in the lives of many post-adolescent collegians -- that being; romance, self-identity, and uncertainty. Dubbed "acoustic pop" in their press bio, Dormlife is much more. Bassist Philip's (they only reveal their first names) fretless lines afford the tracks a jazzy veneer akin to Tony Franklin / Fernando Saunders / Jaco Pastorius' work in the pop realm. Sara's flowery piano accompaniment runs the gamut from classical to jazz to rock (Tori Amos, Mike Garson). Drummer Michael holds it all together, laying down a fierce backbeat (see RHCP's Chad Smith) or coloring subtle harmonies (ala Paul Motian) whenever necessary. The success of this band, however, rests on the shoulders of singer/acoustic guitarist Samuel. Blessed with an expansive vocal range to further his supple melodic phrases, Samuel is certainly in a class with some of pop's best theatrical crooners -- Rufus Wainwright, Ed Harcourt, and Duncan Sheik to name a few. His guitar playing is fairly straight forward, strumming on the downbeat in root position, which is the perfect approach as his mates flex their chops on each track. "The Shortest Conversation I Ever Had Was With A Bullet" emerges as a virtual Dormlife greatest hits collection: punky staccato verses, a lush chorus worthy of Sinatra or Bennett, and a ska bridge straight out of London circa 1979. If you only read the lyrics "Leaving Through The Windshield" you'd likely guess it was written by Morrissey on caffeine. However Samuel's winsome falsetto, Sara's cinematic arpeggios, Michael's rapid fire snare fills and half-time groove, plus Philip's growling lower register pedal tones coalesce into an alluring mini-rock opera. Philip's plucking provides a sharp edge to "Shoes Your Weapon." Samuel steps out a bit in the intro to "Making Time To Waste," finger-picking until Sara renders a catchy repetitive motif to prepare the listener for the rollicking rhythm section. Despite its relative brevity, there's a lot to digest on "Roses Are Blue." Nobody ever said Dormlife would be easy...
© Tom Semioli

Dormlife's Website Buy it at Interpunk
Listen to "Medicine" (mp3)

Axel Schultheiss, "The Uplift", Acoustic Music Records, 2007

Instrumentalist Axel Schultheiss performs 15 of his own compositions and two reimagined German folk songs on solo steel-string acoustic guitar on this, his third CD. Schultheiss' often aggressive right-hand attack and use of dissonance sometimes recalls Peter Finger (who produced the disc). Schultheiss often uses altered tunings, but, like Finger, he avoids using them as a crutch in developing his material. The opening track, "On the Move," with its driving rhythms and long melodic lines, characterizes Schultheiss' approach with medium-to-fast tempos. "En Route" and "Blue Afternoon" feature a jazz-blues feel, with key changes and spirited improvisation. Several pieces, including two short "Sketches," "Pollock," and "The Sham," allow us to hear the guitarist explore more abstract ideas and radically different tonal colors. "November Day" and "Solace" are the first two of three slower, reflective pieces showcasing Schultheiss' mastery of melody and harmonic movement. "Solace," the more varied of the two numbers, begins with single-string lines that convey loneliness; he later introduces bass and chords to move the piece toward its conclusion, a resolution of sorrow. In contrast, "The Uplift" delivers exactly what its title promises. Schultheiss has a great time with the uptempo "Scofun(k)," which must be a crowd-pleaser in live performance. The disc ends with the pensive "Nightfall," which evokes more regret than peace at day's end. Axel Schultheiss is a masterful young guitarist and composer who can call to mind moods ranging from fear and sadness to uninhibited joy. His use of dissonance and subtle tonal shifts will reward careful listeners. I enthusiastically recommend this CD and look forward to his next release, titled "On Wings."
© Patrick Ragains

Axel Schultheiss' Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to "En Route" (mp3)

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