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March & April Short Takes

Pete Smith & John Buckley "Jack Spratt and all that...", 2004 Internationally acclaimed, U.K. fingerstyle guitarists Pete Smith and John Buckley have delivered an acoustic, spirited romp with "Jack Spratt and all that..." Alternating between ragtime -- "Tiger Rag" and an arrangement of "All of Me," classic jazz -- "I Got Rhythm," and Django Reinhardt's "Nuages," traditional tunes, bluegrass and original material, this duo simmers and sizzles and offers up some of the finest acoustic guitar playing in years. Particular favorites include the duo's version of Sonny Rollins's "St. Thomas" with its beboppy calypso flair, and the Smith/Buckly original "When the Fog Lifts," which takes the listener on an unusual but pleasantly dynamic journey. Their version of the wistful, Ellingtonesque Reinhardt composition "Nuages" is also a treat. Competence, humor, and sheer musicality abound. © Chip O'Brien

James Hurley "The Sun and the Moon" 2004 "The Sun and the Moon" is a musical delight in every way. James Hurley owns a rare combination of talents - pop songwriting that is intelligent in its eloquence of lyrics and chordal changes, oh-so-silky vocals and harmonies, an unpretentious jazz-like virtuosity on acoustic guitar, and the guts to lay those talents bare with a very austere production. Like Stephen Bishop's, Hurley's style is up-beat and catchy, but very genuine. Fans of Brian Wilson's "SMiLE" will love the ethereal vocal coda at the end of "In My Dreams." "Whisper" is reminiscent of Kenny Rankin's Brasilian balladry. There's even a Sgt. Pepperish and playful use of tuba on "London Bridge," disclosing a strong Beatles influence that seems ubiquitous to his generation of songwriters © Alan Fark

Clarelynn Rose "Meadow Run", 2004 The back cover of Clarelynn Rose’s third self-produced fingerstyle guitar recording "Meadow Run" greets the expectant listener with a taciturn elk staring straight at you. These magnificent creatures are featured all over the well-designed CD package, reflecting both power and grace -- perhaps a visual key to Clarelynn’s music. Her sound reflects the legacy of Windham Hill guitar recordings of days gone by with influences (both explicitly and implied) of William Ackerman and Alex DeGrassi, as well as Celtic master John Renbourn. It’s a gently soothing elixir of carefully woven melodies. Clarelynn has such a strong connection with those horned quadripeds that the title cut "Meadow Run" is in DGDGAD tuning, which she calls Elk. She reveals a good Celtic feel in the sprightly "A Jig for John," "Headlands," and the reflective "Dust Dance." We take a silent trip on "The Road to Roberton" through fields awash in muted colors and filled with spring’s dawning peace, while "Phoenix" calls us to contemplation. One piece, "White Roots," shows off a new direction in Clarelynn’s musical journey on the Baroque Lute, telling a bitter-sweet tale of rumbling bass notes and haunting minor chords. If you’re searching for solo guitar music which demands only an open heart, "Meadow Run" is a worthy place to spend some time. © Kirk Albrecht

Toothpick "Time Travelin' Couch", 2004 Yes, you can play an acoustic guitar and move people on to the dance floor. Genre crossing hip-hop flavored artist Toothpick deserves strong comparison to Beck and Everlast on this funky, free-spirited collection of rap roots pop. Employing a DJ along with a traditional rhythm section locked in to a tight, phat groove, Toothpick's knack for weaving thought-provoking and often ironic stories incorporated into breezy melodies emerges as a winning combination. Every cut exudes a positive vibe, especially the regretful "High Life" by way of a salty, politically fueled diatribe punctuated by neat slide riffs and a shimmering brass arrangement. The always dependable I-IV-V progression of "Every Day & Every Night Girl" never sounded as fresh, even with an old school "Like A Rolling Stone" keyboard motif buried deep in the mix. Enhanced CD features two music videos including "Super Size Me" from the acclaimed documentary. © Tom Semioli

Johann Helton, "Tell Me a Story", 2004 Idahoan Johann Helton plays various steel and nylon string guitars, the terz guitar (tuned a third higher than standard) and basses. His approach is calming and very musical without resorting to flashy techniques. Helton performs live primarily as a solo guitarist and also plays bass for several groups. Several other musicians assist him on this CD, including Ben Burdick (guitar and slide guitar), Richard Kriehn (mandolin and violin) and Lawson Hill (drums). Some more noteworthy pieces include the originals "Say You Will," "Talking Wind," "Watercolor Rain," "Easy Livin'," "Disguise the Limit" and Roy Acuff's "The Precious Jewel." On the closer, "Heart So Wide," Helton plays lead on his upright bass with backing from his own 12-string and bass guitars. There is a muted quality to many performances on "Tell Me A Story" and I wonder if Helton has suppressed some of his technical and interpretive abilities in favor of producing effective ensemble arrangements. That said, this CD should please Johann Helton's regional audience and give him an opportunity to reach more listeners. © Patrick Ragains

The Dave Pittenger Band "Photographs to Nowhere", 2003 This youthful quartet deftly draws from funk, progressive, folk, and jazz on their spunky, spirited debut disc. Vocalist/guitarist Pittenger, who also doubles on keys, and lead guitarist Jay Wolbach are a match made in heaven, tempering slick rhythm patterns and tasty leads over Nicky Cardillo's percolating Jaco Pastorius flavored electric bass lines and drummer Brian Killan's flashy fills and cymbal work. The fur flys on "Alright," from where the album title emerges, by way of dexterous unison lines, scrappy, percussive acoustic guitar patterns, three-part vocal harmonies, and warm, electrified arpeggios. Pittenger's staccato guitar phrases mesh perfectly with his snarling vocal delivery which tend to mellowsout in the B sections, then come back up for redemption in a series anthemic choruses from cut to cut. Akin to Dave Matthews Band and Ben Folds Five, you never know which way the DPB will turn next, which is a very good thing. © Tom Semioli

Chris Moore "Figurines", 2004 Moore reminds me of Neil Young -- ballads reminicent of Young's "Harvest" period and crunchy indie rock tunes like Young's later offerings. The songwriting is just as solid with great lines like, "Hate to pin the song on you but it's you who volunteers," ("Volunteer") and melodic changes that don't always go where you expect. There's a roots rock feel, like alt country without the twang, in "Accelerated Changes." "Wrinkled and Flawed" is a cynical blues shuffle while "These Words" show a pissed off Moore slamming out distorted guitar chords. The title cut features delicate lyrics wrapped up with an old upright piano. The liner notes are too artsy to be readable but this isn't the kind of CD you buy because it's pretty. © Jamie Anderson

Paul Iwancio "Open Heart Stories", 2004 Armed with an acoustic guitar and sincere songs in pop arrangements, this singer-songwriter sings of love and finding inner strength. His voice is perfect for the material -- folky with a bit of a quaver hinting at vulnerability. "The Revolution Begins Inside of You" uses clothing metaphors to encourage the listener to "lead your own parade." The pop/jazz "Perfect Enough for You" is a duet with the lovely-voiced Nita Paul-Calliahn while "Morning Glory" is a folky number, also about love. Not all is sweetness and light, as evidenced in the angry "Standing in the Shadows of the Big Man." Too many of the songs are overpowered by pop arrangements. The simply produced cuts were my favorites, like the sweet love song "My Oasis." © Jamie Anderson


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