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March & April Short Takes

Neil Jacobs "12-String Guitar," 2008 Neil Jacobs employs 60 strings on his most recent CD, "12 String Guitar". That is, 5 different 12 string guitars, lending various shades of the signature chimey sound only a 12 string can impart. While I tend to grow weary of 12 string players who seem intent to merely channel early Leo Kottke, Jacobs ventures off into more interesting musical directions. He is a fluid flatpicker and fingerpicker who has immersed himself for years in the aural landscape of the music of the Balkans and Gypsies, and those sounds flow in and out of his playing. Many of these 15 songs are re-dos of concert favorites from various periods of his eclectic acoustic career. Two cuts are traditional pieces: "Talijanska" and "Monfrina". Jacobs gets adventurous in his take on Prokofiev’s "’Peter’s Theme’ from Peter and the Wolf". "Sacred Blue" is a wonderful Gypsy reflection. The driving, at times frenetic rhythm of "Moscow Calling" transports us to the Kremlin itself. There are hints of jazz and flamenco even (like in "Dead to Me"), and a fine ballad to close out the CD, "The Magi’s Old Calliope", whose bright melody does a nice turn for a calliope. For any lover of world music, Jacob’s "12 String Guitar" would be a welcome addition. © Kirk Albrecht

James Hurley "Tempest in a Teacup," 2008 Just when you think Hurley is one of those acoustic-guitar-wielding-every-song-rocks-out kind of singer-songwriter, he stops you in your tracks with a pleasing ballad like "Jealous of the Moon," with just his voice, guitar and way in the background, a flute. Or the wistful "Going Home," with a touch of harmonica. The remaining songs have a great back beat but not the decibel screeching kind. The quirky "Mushroom" sounds right out of the They Might Be Giants songbook, with its odd musical changes, weird but sing along-worthy lyrics and even a musical saw. In another song he assures us that vampires are from Southern California, complete with a very cool trombone and in another cut, wonders "What Might Have Been." I love the lyrics in "Mountain": "This is where a mountain used to be, we took it down ‘cause it got in the way and you can’t have that... This is where our conscience used to be... We let it go ‘cause it got in the way and you can’t have that." I’ll bet this guy is a hoot in concert. I’ll be there in my cape and fangs. © Jamie Anderson

Common Strings "The Rain Comes Down," 2008; Chris Stuart & Backcountry "Crooked Man," 2008 Two groups, both with an eye on tradition and good chops, take different approaches to bluegrass. Both offer originals that sound traditional: stories, gospel, tearjerkers, murder, and somebody leaving somebody. Both accomplish their mission. The best introduction to Common Strings is the title track, "The Rain Came Down." You'll be struck by Vanessa Nichols' lullaby smooth vocals. But to learn what this fiddle-less outfit is about, listen to the solo section. Notice the way the harmonizing guitar joins the mandolin in a brief, spirited duet. Then the guitar takes over. That's one fine handoff. These bandmates listen to each other. The standout soloist is Blake McDaniel on dobro, but all the chores are shared nicely. Though Common Strings keeps its vision firmly focused on its roots, the last track's title ("Picket Fences-First Movement"), extended jamming, and "Sweet Home Alabama" reminiscent vocal section hint of uncommon things to come. Backcountry roams more widely around the genre. The Chris Stuart penned title track-the metaphoric tale of a crooked man and his crooked fiddle-does a fine job of introducing the band: crackerjack songwriting, close harmony, tight work powered by fiddle and banjo, and Eric Uglum's melodic, imaginative flatpicking on the six string. Another standout is the anti-war "The Streets of Charlottetown." It's an original; I checked it twice. And you won't often hear such pretty pennywhistle on a bluegrass record. I'm also partial to Stuart's funny, raucous country song "I Remember Memphis," but I don't remember why. (Listen and you'll understand.) "These Tears" is another country-tinged standout. "Lantern Bay" (by banjo picker Janet Beazley) swings greatly for a ghostly murder ballad. "Ofer and Yesbuddy" is a folky weeper. Wandering through Backcountry territory means covering a lot of ground. It's rewarding exercise indeed. © David Kleiner

Rupert Wates "Dear Life," 2008 Rupert Waits depicts today's world in torrents of bleak images: "deserts ripped of life... poisoned air;" "the sinking raft, the wreckage of a faulty craft;" "we live in shit and flies and mud." But this dear life can be sweet, so Wates softens his apocalyptic vision with some uplifting musical choices. Throughout, there's the transcendent fretless bass of Michael Manring. Grant Dermody's chugging harp heightens the bluesy "Dear God." Stacey Lorin's lovely harmony brings hope we can believe in when she joins in on the closing lines of "I Dream" ("I dream of another voice that sings with mine and tells me I don't dream alone"). Nice touch. Wates makes interesting musical choices throughout. He gives "The Sound of Applause" -- an honest look at his motivation for seeking adulation -- a bossa nova flavor (ala Janis Ian's "Seventeen") with a Joni Mitchell guitar sound. "Now I'm Here" poses its existential dilemma backed by "Blackbird"-like picking. Wates goes all folkie on the closer, "You'll See Me Again." Recorded live, the CD truly presents its performances warts and all. If this world is going to hell in a handbasket, "Dear Life" makes a tuneful soundtrack for the descent. © David Kleiner

Dave Keir "Uneasy Listening," 2008 Acoustic fingerstyle guitarist Dave Keir offers up a thoughtful and literate mix of compositions on "Uneasy Listening." Keir, an engaging Britisher who experienced some success in the 1970s recording and touring in Europe, took a decade or two holiday from the business before getting his feet wet again with this 15-track collection of provoking originals. A student of life, he sings the truth with an earnest rasp; you just know he’d be gold in a pub while sharing a pint or two. He’d no doubt share tales and observations aplenty, as he does here. His liner notes say as much about the teller as they do about the tales: reflections on "insomnia and the consequent imaginary enumeration of sheep, an aspiration to a moonlit elopement, deeds of impish devilry, dazzling daylight and Dionysian revels, husbandry and parenthood, loves won, lost, aborted, discarded and remembered, gods invented or merely imagined, and the mantras of self-help gurus." Particularly memorable tracks include "Ice On Fire" and "Yes I’m Only Guessing." © Fred Kraus

Matthew Montfort "Seven Serenades for Scalloped Guitar," 2008 Matthew Montfort’s "Seven Serenades for Scalloped Fretboard Guitar" is an impressive collection of meditative sonic excursions. Montfort currently teaches music theory and guitar at the Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco. He has also recorded with legendary Bolivian panpipe master Gonzalo Vargas and tabla extraordinaire Zakir Hussain. As the title aptly suggests, this recording features the intricate nuances of a scalloped fretboard acoustic, which has subtle qualities of both the Indian vina and the steel string guitar. On the opening, "Gauri the Golden," Montfort delicately weaves Middle Eastern inspired motifs over opaque tonal layers provided by Patty Weiss’s electric violin and Alan Tower’s didjeridu. "Celtic Raga" is an interesting solo piece exploring the common ground found in Northern Indian and Irish music. All of these contemporary ragas are pristinely recorded using rich, lush reverb. Matthew Montfort is a true pioneer and master of the scalloped fretboard acoustic and this recording is highly recommended for all fans world music. © James Scott

Wild Bores 2008 Wild Bores (get the double entendre?) is the nom de plume of singer/songwriter John Whildin and a posse of fine supporting musicians. Akin to the reflective, and hopelessly sentimental artistry of Paul Westerburg, Ray Davies, John Mellencamp, Fountains of Wayne, and the master of them all, Bruce Springsteen, Whildin's wistful tales of dreams and lovers gone awry makes for great pop rock 'n' roll. Strong melodies coupled with tight, lean guitar driven arrangements which effortlessly balance acoustic and electric settings afford Wild Bores a timeless veneer. "Sometimes I was a baseball player / sometimes I was a soothsayer" from "My Home Town" is the stuff of great imagery when delivered by Whildin. Jilted romantics will raise a beer to "You're Killing Me." And be sure to check out the prog-rock motif to "Creepy Lives" -- how did he do that in a pop song!? Don't let the name fool you, Wild Bores is a great record. © Tom Semioli

Debra Cowan "Fond Desire Farewell," 2008 She has a deep vibrato a la Baez and like the famous folk singer, has a knack for choosing songs that tell a great story and fit her voice so well you would swear she’d sung them all her life. Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) produced it and played percussion, keyboards and hammered dulcimer. He’s joined by Debra on acoustic guitar and concertina, Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter) on several stringed instruments and others on fiddle, bass and more, in wonderful arrangements that make each story come alive. Debra’s influenced by classic folk singers like June Tabor and Sandy Denny and you can certainly hear that in her choice of material, from Richard Thompson’s "Jealous Words" to the traditional "Cruel Was My Father." "The Snow is on the Ground" is a heartbreaking ballad about compassion that builds slowly with guitar and piano. There’s a waltz by Ralph Stanley and of course, includes a fiddle and mandolin. There’s even a Ray Davies tune -- yep, the guy from The Kinks -- about that demon drink alcohol in a light hearted mix with a lively clarinet. The disc concludes with a perfect pitch a cappella rendition of "The Rainbow." This is a beautiful album. © Jamie Anderson

Here's some other great music we received this month:

Bola Sete - Windspell
Dimitris Kotronakis - Echomythia
Judy Handler & Mark Levesque - Passion
Anthony Ocaña - Solo
Tom Hoelle - Tomography
Norine Braun - Acoustically Inclined
Gwilym Morus - The Dressing Gown Goddess
Russ Hewitt - Bajo El Sol
Derek Coombs - Six String Shuffle
Luke Jackson - ...And Then Some
Matt Masotti - Shimmer
J. Shogren - American Holly
Bill Evans & Megan Lynch - Let's Do Something
Homeless Yellow - Fun Parlour
Blind Man Leading - Fire Escape


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