Ear Say for 2012's CDs

A Nod to

By: - Jan 13, 2013


Well, it is that time of year when we get to see and read a lot of “Best Of” and “Top 10” lists. Now anyone who can claim to have listened critically to all of the output in a 12 month period is clearly blowing hot air because if they did they would have no time for sleeping, reading or for other pursuits to which the younger and nimbler are prone.

The only legitimate claim to be made is “what I liked best of what I managed to hear and to which I also paid attention.”

So, when NPR, Folk Alley, Fatea  or any other self proclaimed authority comes up with a list of the “Best Traditional (roots, Americana, et al,) CD’s of 2012” I am skeptical, no, actually I am downright dismissive of their validity.

Nonetheless, while dismissing their claims, I do find value in their assessments of product I have not had the opportunity to experience and so I have made it a point to reach out and solicit some of the works that have garnered praise, and pass on to you some of what other reviewers see as the current best with a confirming, moderating or contradictory judgment of my own.

With so many candidates, I can probably milk this until July…

The Stray Birds

Again, I cannot say with any certainty that this debut CD is top ten, but I will certainly agree that it is exceptional, delightful and a joy for the listening. The accompaniments are measured and stately while far from prissy. The harmonies wend from lean to rich mixes and back again. Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven swap vocal leads and writing credits on near a dozen very sing-able songs written in natural idioms with few fanciful reaches.  Charles Muench supports and stabilizes vocally with harmony and instrumentally with steady, sometimes  driving, bass lines.

There is much about Maya’s singing that reminds me of Iris Dement, the way she enters into a phrase and many of her inflections, though her articulation is seldom  as precise as is that of Iris. There are times a copy of the lyrics would be helpful. Oliver’s diction is far easier to understand though his voice and range are far more confined. With all that said, as a group they are well melded and present a fine and unified presence.

Maya’s proficiency on fiddle, banjo and guitar, Oliver’s on fiddle, acoustic and electric guitar, and Charles’ mastery of string bass are evident throughout.

From the opening line by Maya, “I dream in blue” to the closing number’s chorus of “Wind and rain," including an intervening medley of three fiddle tunes, this release gives us a provocative collection of narrative tales, character profiles and points of view, timeless and guaranteed to tug at the corners of your mind.

They may be Stray Birds, but if so, it is the flock that is lost…

Our Lady Of The Tall Trees
Cahalen Morrison and Eli West

I blew a chance to listen carefully to this duo when I first saw them at MOCA’s Fresh Grass Festival back in September last year.  I do remember noting the appreciation the audience was showing them with cheers and extended applause, and that instrumentally they were complex, both melodically and rhythm-wise. Still, I was busy looking for a decent vantage point to hear and shoot pics of Joy Kills Sorrow which was due to follow, so much for my perspicacity.

When this CD showed up on many Best of lists, and intrigued by the title I settled down to listen. From the start I was captured by the intensity and artistry of the vocal harmonies and the brilliant instrumental accompaniments of both Morrison and West. They are exceptional, no doubt about it. I fully concur with the legion of other reviewers who acclaim their “superb picking and singing,” that their music “captures the essence of old time country music,” that their “playing style is mature beyond their years, never noodling off into interpretive train wrecks, or nodding off in soporific folk self-appreciation.” I agree with all that and that’s enough to keep me listening to this release any number of times.

But, I do have a point of contention with all the reviewers who praise the songwriting of Morrison. One of those went so far as to compare Morrison’s verse as follows, “The words do hark back to the richness and poetry embodied in the King James Bible.”

I find Cahalen’s lyrics improbably obscure, his constructions clumsy and his phrases filled with extra syllables for no reason but to fit the meter, anathema to any poetic style.

The opening lines to Stone and Sand:

“My love did go where fire pours out of the hillside, straight from the core
With a loud silence, my heart, it did proclaim right from the start”

There is so much ambiguity here that I am at a loss to understand, is “My love” a person or is it my own passion. If it is the former, is she approaching a volcano?  If it is the latter, well, that makes even less sense to me. Time and space here forbid me to follow through, so I leave it to you who desire it to examine his lyrics for yourself here.

A part of me cannot help but wonder if it is all sham and Cahalen is really laughing at us for taking him seriously. However it would not be the first time that a prodigy in one aesthetic was clueless in another.

Their cover of Townes Van Zandt’s, Loretta is magical, far more satisfying than Townes' own. They do great justice to Norman Blake’s Church Street Blues and to the traditional Poor Cowboy.

As I stated at the beginning the music of this duo is exemplary and I am quite happy to praise it and them for it. To encourage Morrison to continue writing in the manner and style he has shown so far would be criminal. I would hope that he might do a lot more rewriting and editing and distilling and clarifying of his own thoughts before putting them to paper.

To summarize, we have here a gem of great beauty even if deeply flawed.

 The Stray Birds perform "Dream In Blue"

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West perform "Church Street Blues."