Minor 7th July/Aug 2008: David Cullen, Greg Laswell, Don Ross & Andy McKee, Jimmy Robinson, Steppin' In It, K.J. Denhert, Peter Ciluzzi, Rachael Davis, Sándor Szabó & Kevin Kastning, Hans York, Angel Band
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

July/August, 2008

David Cullen, "Guitar Travels," Solid Air Records, 2008

Grammy award winning guitarist David Cullen's current release, "Guitar Travels," is an extraordinary musical odyssey. With each sojourn the guitarist paints vivid, melodic portraits transporting the listener to landmark locations, and beckoning repeat visits. Cullen received his Bachelor of Music degree in classical guitar performance from the Hartt School and is currently an artist-in-residence at Elizabethtown College. He is a true Renaissance guitarist, equally at home performing the classical cannon with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra or sitting in with the Jaco Pastorious Big Band. He has recorded nine albums for Solid Air Records and is prominently featured on several Windham Hill releases. There are subtle but deliberate echoes of Ralph Towner in the guitarist's playing; however, Cullen mixes country and blues influences to create his own distinctive and commanding musical voice. He seamlessly blends classical, jazz, world, blues, and folk genres to create rich and expressive sound paintings. "Guitar Travels" was originally conceived as a solo fingerstyle project. However, to sharpen the focus on each destination Cullen soon added his own additional guitar parts to fulfill his creative vision. The result is a series of duets that allow the guitarist to freely improvise over his lush compositions. "Tijuana Time" has a playful Latin grove with subtle classical inflections. While the urban "Sitting in Chicago" offers some great blues-inspired runs supported by eloquent jazz comping. On "Colorado Rapids" the guitarist creates such an alluring adventure that the listener never wants the ride to end. With "Guitar Travels" David Cullen captures the essence of North American landscapes in much the same way as Aaron Copland did with his influential orchestral works. This is an exceptional recoding and absolutely essential for all fans of acoustic music.
© James Scott

David Cullen's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "Manhattan Espresso" (mp3)

Greg Laswell, "Three Flights from Alto Nido," Vanguard Records, 2008

Attention all singer-songwriters: the demos for this record were first introduced to the label by way of arrangements utilizing Apple's GarageBand software. Why is this information important in a record review? Because you'd swear "Three Flights From Alto Nido" was rendered by a seasoned band grooving in a proper recording studio. In addition to his TV and radio credits, Laswell has been a fixture on the Hollywood DIY club scene. Alto Nido ("high nest" as translated from Spanish) certainly gives the impression of an artist who hones his craft before a living breathing (and critical) audience before committing songs to tape, i.e. his performances exude confidence and there is nary a wasted note or lyric. Akin to the iconic songwriters he's been accurately likened (Chris Martin, Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke), Laswell's songs follow a pattern of gradually drawing the listener closer and closer as the composition progresses. For example, "I'd Be Lying" opens with a simple guitar / piano eighth note pattern as the vocal harmonies, melodic counterpoint, and verses coalesce into a grand chorus -- it's a can't miss method to get a song across to an audience (or a sponsor). Equally intriguing are Laswell's multifaceted guitar parts. "How The Day Sounds" evokes comparison the master of simplicity -- The Edge -- as Laswell's unencumbered single note pedal tones, often doubled by acoustic piano -- give the impression of a roomful of players. The almighty suspended chord gets its due in "The One That I Love" wherein Laswell transforms the most over-used chord progression in the history of pop music into something fresh and invigorating (and be sure to pay attention to those George Martin/Beatle-eque violin harmonies while you're at it). With regard to the above mentioned GarageBand alert: Laswell earns four stars for programming a "band" -- an effort I can only interpret as a songwriter who pays rapt attention to what a good session player can bring to the table. Stevie Wonder and Prince were masters of the one-man-band modus operandi, now Laswell brings it into the 21st Century.
© Tom Semioli

Greg Laswell's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "The One I Love" (mp3)

Don Ross & Andy McKee, "The Thing That Came From Somewhere," CandyRat Records, 2008

Don Ross and Andy McKee, two veterans of contemporary fingerstyle guitar, have joined forces on "The Thing That Came from Somewhere" in a graceful alliance. The tracks for the album were culled from their respective repertoires and include two cover tunes, the album opener, "Spirit of the West," composed by Russell Ferrante, and "Dolphins," by Mike Marshall. Although the sources vary, the material sounds as if it was created for the occasion and, ultimately, coalesces into a rounded musical whole. The tracks are meditative and contemplative, at times playful, always inspired. Both artists are accomplished in their own right and have received numerous accolades and awards but neither makes a single ego-inspired musical gesture here. The single-note fretwork, the lush open-tunings, the harplike chords, the adept fingerstyle work, and selfless accompaniment all gel to serve some higher purpose. Ross’s and McKee’s styles are similar, both drawing on contemporary acoustic music, jazz, folk, and classical, and the listener often loses track of one voice as it blends effortlessly and mysteriously into the next. Ross and McKee perform on standard guitar as well as baritone guitar. Ross, who produced and engineered "The Thing That Came from Somewhere," also contributes electric guitar and provides the programming and occasional string pads where necessary. >From the opening track, "Spirit of the West,"which acts as a sort of stylistic overture for the album, to the percussive and funky "Tight, Trite, Night," and, finally, to the haunting strains of "Dreamcatcher," the music is dynamic and hypnotizing.
© Chip O'Brien

Don Ross' Website | Andy McKee's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Dolphins" (mp3)

Jimmy Robinson, "Vibrating Strings," 2008

Some acoustic guitar players caress the strings; others coax and play with them. Jimmy Robinson on "Vibrating Strings" attacks them with force and passion. The opening cut, "Big Blue" pulls you quickly into the vortex of this musical maelstrom with tapping and slapping and slides and pulsating strumming. A mixture of instrumentals and vocals played on both six and 12-string guitar, "Vibrating Strings" grabs you as a listener and forces you to stop and listen, because there's a lot going on in this music. "Brian O'Neal" deftly combines a wistful melody with powerful right-hand work of strumming or flatpicking. Likewise, on "I Can't Believe It," we begin on a rollicking strumming pattern with verses interspersed, and then a slapping riff crescendos into the bridge. This would be a good bar song to get the crowd going. Robinson does a credible cover of Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" using jazz chords and horns, an arrangement I have not heard before, but it works, reflecting the inherent melancholy of the song. "Murderous Intent" varies between a Celtic-tinged jig and a quick-paced ballad. On "Lost Time" we hear echoes -- lyrically, stylistically, and vocally -- of a younger Bruce Cockburn. On the title cut, "Vibrating Strings," the cynicism of the lyrics is fed by almost frenetic strumming, creating a tension that reinforces the message of the song. "E Phrygian" is one of the most interesting tunes of the CD. Perhaps because of the mode it's named for, it draws images from Spanish music, early Alex DeGrassi, and at times is played in dizzying tempo. This may be the guitar lover's cut from the recording. The 17-song CD ends with a remarkable version of Led Zepplin's "Kashmir" played with all the power the original held, but this time merely on solo 12-string guitar. No doubt about it, Jimmy Robinson has all six or twelve strings vibrating on every cut of this collection of songs, making some pretty good music.
© Kirk Albrecht

Jimmy Robinson's Website Buy it at Louisiana Music Factory
Listen to "Big Blue" (mp3)
Listen to Jimmy Robinson at our podcast

Steppin' In It, "Simple Tunes for Troubled Times," 2008

Rare indeed when a collection of songs creates an entire world. Yet that’s exactly what transpires with Steppin’ In It’s "Simple Tunes for Troubled Times." Sonically painting with a pleasant array of old time country swing and blues, this Lansing, Michigan, quartet brilliantly updates a resurging American musical genre. Populating this 11-track collection is an aging riverboat, the ghost of Richard Manuel, innocent love, dreams that are dashed, and the struggle of the common man. It’s a world Woody Guthrie knew about, and sang about. Steppin’ In It conveys the wonder of the American spirit, but also its heartache. Led by composer/guitarist Joshua Davis, traditional roots music is celebrated here by plaintive vocals and sweet harmonies, plus musicianship that is positively staggering. The number of instruments manned by Davis, upright bassist Dominic John Suchyta, steel guitarist Joe Wilson and the harmonica-playing Andy Wilson includes trombone, trumpet, Cajun accordion, dobro, slide guitar, Cajun fiddle, clawhammer banjo. Even rarer, though their competence on these instruments is clearly superior, there is little, if any, soloing taking place. All four musicians play to support the essence of the song. A true ensemble, their wonderful arrangements take us on a rich journey through the jaunty "Give My Regards to Miss Moline," the Texas swing of "Hittin’ on All Six," the laid-back "Wren’s Lul-la-by," the true-blue "The Long Haul," and my fave, "Washtenaw County." Though mostly originals, there’s also a rollicking version of Randy Newman’s "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)." These artists earn my vote for band of the year.
© Fred Kraus

Steppin' In It's Website Buy it at Elderly Instruments
Listen to "Charles Hatfield's Blues" (mp3)

K.J. Denhert, "Lucky Seven," 2007

KJ Denhert toured North America and Europe for seven years as the lead guitarist in an all-female Top 40 rock band. After that, she worked as a financial analyst. As incongruous as those careers seem, so are the influences Denhert brings to her true calling, with musical heroes like Sergio Mendes, John Hartford, James Taylor (see "Sad Song"), Hubert Laws, and others. "Lucky Seven's" straight ahead jazz version of "Over the Rainbow" -- the only non-original on the CD, performed with as much ache as that much-covered classic can bear -- shows one side of KJ. But she has also won the folk world's prestigious Kerrville and Mountain Stage Newsong contests. Putting together all that and more, Denhert makes uncategorizable music that sure does a soul good. Denhert and her band sharpened their chops with a long and continuing residency at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. Clearly, she is ready now for more than regional recognition. So she's gone all out with "Lucky Seven," her seventh CD (one per year since quitting her day job). The funky opener introduces the album's theme: "Little Problems" provide opportunities and, in this case, the uncontrollable desire to move to the music. A Steely Dan influence comes through in the swinging title track, propelled by the funky lick Denhert plays on her Martin 00CXAEB. The extended jam of the closer, "Rivera," the hottest song ever written about a Mexican muralist, showcases what Denhert and her band do live. Pay attention to bassist Mamadou's extended solo. "Lucky Seven," an enhanced CD, gives access to a revealing interview, a live performance (a real crowd pleaser in which Denhert also raps), and a video, all worth checking out. Denhert dubs her music urban folk and jazz. The label fits because of its R&B, hip-hop, folk, and jazz elements. But any label is unnecessary because only one artist makes music like this. I could call it terrifically ambitious and thoroughly listenable, but let's just call it Denhert music.
© David Kleiner

K.J. Denhert's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Lucky 7" (mp3)

Peter Ciluzzi, "Music Without Words," CandyRat Records, 2008

Peter Ciluzzi builds his own steel-string guitars and plays his own compositions on this CD. He fits in well with the rest of CandyRat's guitar roster, many of whom play atmospheric solo pieces in altered tunings. Ciluzzi does this, but distinguishes himself with a sensitive delivery that draws the listener in. "Nocturne" is easily one of the best tracks, due to Ciluzzi's strength as a composer. Things get a bit lighter on "Gospel," although the low bass strings create a pensive feel (Ciluzzi most often tunes his bass strings down a full third or fourth, putting them in the register of a baritone guitar). "Sojourn" features strong melodic lines, played both vertically across the fingerboard and horizontally (i.e., tending to stay on one string). True to its title, "Elegy" evokes sadness. "Soliloquy" follows, recalling good times in the company of friends. Ciluzzi's tribute to Michael Hedges, "March," uses some of Hedge's techniques, including slaps and octave runs. At least two tunes on this disc, "Aria" and "Isola," were composed for settings other than solo guitar. Their inclusion reveals more about the breadth of Ciluzzi's musical interests; perhaps his future recordings will have some vocals or ensemble pieces. Peter Ciluzzi is an individualistic, yet very listenable, artist. He bears watching, which you can do at www.myspace.com/peterciluzzi (videos of Ciluzzi playing several pieces from this disc are posted on this site).
© Patrick Ragains

Peter Ciluzzi's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Isola" (mp3)
Listen to Peter Ciluzzi at our podcast

Rachael Davis, "Antebellum Queens," 2008

In terms of artistry, "Antebellum Queens" should probably be considered a breakthrough album for Rachael Davis, a Michigan-based singer and songwriter. The title reference comes from the song "Atlanta's Burning," which uses the historical metaphor of Sherman's March to the Sea as a touchstone for the emotional turmoil of love lost. The power of the song transcends even such a strong metaphor in the hands of this very talented vocalist. Her versatility shines through this 13-song collection with heart and soul apparent at every turn. Powerful, gripping songs are set in some fine arrangements performed by a revolving acoustic ensemble that always serves the song and the voice. "Prayer for Home" wins your heart as the track unfolds and the wonderful vocal partnership with Aoifa ("EE-fa") O'Donovan of Crooked Still simmers to a boil. "Music Sunday," the rocker of the bunch, features a Wallflowers-style setting that Davis infuses with richly nuanced phrasing and inflections. Its vocal hooks are compelling -- and vocal hooks abound on this disc ("Lela May"). Her opener, "Sweetwater Sea," recalls echoes of Dolly Parton -- not the country glam queen, but the serious interpreter of American roots -- complete with the charm of Parton's girlish tonalities. There is more: extended lyrical lines that resolve in complex musical sub-phrases while mining Nora Jones' Little Willies tendencies in "While the World is Sleeping," a lovely, and very authentic reading of the Carter Family's "Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow." Oh, and did I mention she has a lovely voice?
© Steve Klingaman

Rachael Davis' Website Buy it at Elderly Instruments
Listen to "Atlanta's Burning" (mp3)

Sándor Szabó & Kevin Kastning, "Parallel Crossings," 2008

The phrase "Parallel Crossings" poses a zen-like conundrum, and foreshadows an equally enigmatic music. This is music which is freely improvised on two acoustic guitars, and though such a concept would likely produce senseless noodling in the hands of lesser guitarists, Kevin Kastning and Sándor Szabó have the requisite skill and telepathy to create musical magic in the moment. Ambient improvisation has been done before by the likes of Eno, Hassell, and Oregon, but a similar endeavor with this kind of minimalist instrumentation is beyond recollection... truly innovative. With no electronics or loops to bolster instantaneous compositional choices guided purely by chance, Kastning and Szabó demonstrate the kind of interplay and the confidence to delve into unknown territory which is usually associated with master jazz musicians. Many of the tracks are dreamlike and meditative, as on the opening track "Preludium" and "First Pleochroism." Others, such as "Improfugue I" and "Cordulia Aenea" might be called pleasantly meandering. "Cartesian Vector" is haunting, perhaps even disturbing. All, however, will challenge your musical preconceptions -- spin "Parallel Crossings" only with a very open mind.
© Alan Fark

Kevin Kastning's Website | Sándor Szabó's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Preludium" (mp3)
Listen to Sándor Szabó & Kevin Kastning at our podcast

Hans York, "Young Amelia," 2007

I'm a little biased 'cause York did some of the recording at one of my favorite studios in the world, David Lange Studios in Fife, WA, and featured the soulful back-up vocals of Kym Tuvim and Larry Murante. Add the capable Dan Tyack on pedal steel and Dobro, and others on bass, mandolin, percussion, cello and yes, trombone, and you've got a wonderfully joyful album that bursts with good vibes. Even when he's singing a song of regret, like "Never Been in Love," there's something about the energy that brings me up. This collection of originals was recorded in a quick 2 ½ days, giving everything a great live vibe. I especially loved "Snow" with a melody that'll stick in your head long after the disc stops spinning. The title cut is a sweet love song. "Lifeline" has some fine acoustic guitar work and driving percussion that sounds like brushes on a snare. I would've preferred the percussion farther back in the mix so that the lyrics and York's wonderful finger picking were showcased. He's a great guitarist, using a lot of open tunings and unique chord phrasings. "Inner Windows" has a break-your-heart cello with a guitar part that weaves in and out. On "Invocation" is a muted trumpet that follows a hook played by York's guitar. This disc is full of tasty arrangements like that.
© Jamie Anderson

Hans York's Website Buy it atAmazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Lifeline" (mp3)

Angel Band, "With Roots & Wings," 2008

The roots in "With Roots and Wings" are the musical traditions of contemporary folk. The Angel Band taps those roots in tuneful homages (most written or co-written by archAngel Nancy Josephson) to gospel ("We are Shepherds"), blues ("Drown in the Fountain of Good"), old time ("Cold Lonesome Down In Blackbird Creek"), and more. The Afro-Caribbean "Hey Papa Legba," opens, calling on Haitian Voodoo's intermediary with the gods to help "us sing, just like the angels." It worked. They do. The Angels supply the wings of the title, the fine instruments behind the three part harmonies ---of Josephson, Jen Schonwald (of the currently dormant Full Frontal Folk), and the big-voiced Kathleen Weber -- that set this record apart. To hear how well the Angels blend, listen to the sustained last chord of the bluegrass entry "Hold Me Angel." This cut also continues the angel motif and lets the crackerjack backup band Chum stretch out. Some quick picking on the mandolin by Bobby Tangrea -- who wrote the song -- opens. David Bromberg, Josephson's husband, puts together a tasty solo with some nice cross-picking and extended scales. A sensual cover of Chip Taylor's "Angel of the Morning" makes a great showcase for the singers while translating the Merrilee Rush arrangement into Chum's language. Catch Tangrea's killer mandolin solo merging into Bromberg's Telecaster lick. Lloyd Maines adds pedal steel. But don't neglect the original songwriting. A live version of the spiritual "Jump Back in the Ditch," demonstrates its effectiveness. Just try to stand still. The wit of Josephson's pen shows in lyrics like "I'll even sing the blues for you / I'll sell all my shoes for you" (from the sexy country barnburner "I'll Sing This Song For You") and "no one wins / all we got out of it is thicker skin" (from "Place of Grace"). But frankly, such details may go unnoticed by listeners who simply let themselves soar on the vocal wings of the Angels. I can't blame them; it's a lovely ride.
© David Kleiner

Angel Band's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Drown in the Fountain of Good" (mp3)

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