Hardin Burns: DOWN THE DEEP WELL

I can’t stop listening to Down the Deep Well by Hardin Burns. It simmers, it sizzles, it dives deep under the skin as only the best music does. Hardin Burns finds the sweet spot where folk, country, rockabilly, jazz, and Latin stylings meet. Jeannie Burn’s expressive vocals recall the throb of Dusty Springfield and the grit of Lucinda Williams; Hardin plays with the virtuosity of Eric Clapton and the ease and sensibility of JJ Cale—just listen to “Ache,” “Wave of Your Hand,” and “Gentle Rain.” Together, these two powerhouses create original songs so rich with arresting harmonies, lyrics, and arrangements they’re destined to be classics. Warning: One listen, and you’ll be hooked.

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Tom Russell, “Love and Fear”

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On “Old Heart”, Texas singer-songwriter Tom Russell exhorts himself to “get out of bed”. But however weary of life his persona may be, one thing is certain from his 13th release: Russell the artist is as strong as ever. He’s mastered the skill of spinning mundane details into universal gold, and his melodies deliver a knockout punch. The all-original songs on Love and Fear grapple with despair, hope, and “all you little devils of alcohol and caffeine” (from “The Pugilist is 59). Searing electric lead guitar (by Andrew Hardin) gives the rootsy sound a raw edge, while Gretchen Peters (vocals), Gurf Murlix (bass and slide guitar), Fats Kaplan (steel guitar), Barry Walsh (keyboards), and Rick Richards (drums), among others, contribute to the vibrant and nicely blended textures. Russell uses his deep baritone to chilling effect, taking it down to a ghostly whisper on “Beautiful Trouble” and dramatically intoning spoken lyrics against the rousing rockabilly beat of “Four-Chambered Heart”. Throughout, Hardin is Russell’s ace in the hole; his acoustic picking shades the haunting beauty of the ballads (particularly “K.C. Violin”) with mediative, jazz-influenced lines and single notes that ring with bell-like clarity, underscoring the bittersweet wisdom that Russell imparts on one of his finest CDs to date.

(High Tone, http://www.hightone.com)

Acoustic Guitar, July 2006

I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey

Various Artists

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The late John Fahey, father of “American primitive guitar”, incorporated elements of blues, Native American sounds, Indian ragas, and other rootsy music sounds into his playing, influencing not only a generation of fingerpickers but countless players from other genres as well. His special legacy is reflected in these 13 interpretations of his instrumental by artists from across the musical spectrum, including such unlikely candidates as Calexico and the electric collaborative Immerglück, Kaphan, Krummenacher & Hanes. Peter Case’s version of “When the Catfish Is in Bloom” is probably the most Fahey-like of the tunes here, though Devendra Banhart, while wandering further afield on “Sligo River”, still captures the original’s brooding vibe. Elsewhere, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo uses street sounds to evoke late-period Fahey on “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Brooklyn Bridge Version: The Coelcanth”. The differences in these artists matters less than what unites them: a willingness to experiment that Fahey, as much as anyone would have approved of.

Guitar World Acoustic

Various Artists, “Tone Poets”

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What a concept! For the last extension of his Tone Poems project, DAvid Grisman conjured the idea of taking a 1933 OM-45, one of the most sought-after Martin guitars, and a 1922 Gibson Loar F-5, one of the most imitated mandolin designs in the world, and exploring how the same instrument sounds in different hands. On one disc of solos and another of duets, 42 acoustic masters—including Sam Bush, John Jorgenson, Del McCoury, Tim O’brien, Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton, and Grisman—indulge in a buffet of styles and techniques, from Bach counterpoint to bluegrass picking and Gypsy jazz. The Gibson is bright and plunkety under Mike Marshall’s fingers, rough and prickly under Mike Compton’s. On the Martin, Bon Brozman picks percussively over rumbling bass; Jerry Douglass sounds twangy yet warm, Jim Hursts vibrant yet mellow; Frank Vignola’s flashy runs ring clear, and Beppe Gambetta gets luscious tones from alternate tunings. The duets play up the contrasts between mandolin and guitar in a variety of styles, including a choro by Eva Scow and Carlos Oliveira, a jazzy blues by Joe Craven and Rob Ickes, and a contrapuntal dance by Chris Thile and Mike Marshall. In the end, this sonic experiment proves that players, even more than instruments, account for ultimate uniqueness in musical sound.

(Acoustic Disc, http://www.acousticdisc.com)

Acoustic Guitar, January 2006

Tim O’Brien, “Cornbread Nation and Fiddler’s Green”

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On these two simultaneously released CDs, Tim O’Brien loosely parcels out his abundant talents between his Southern-folk inheritance (Cornbread Nation) and Celtic inspirations (Fiddler’s Green). Both feature almost the same top-notch lineup, with such guests as Jerry Douglas (lap steel and resophonic guitars), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), and Kenny Vaughan (electric guitar) joining O’Brien’s core band of John Doyle (guitar, bouzouki), Casey Driessen (fiddle), and Dirk Powell (banjo, bass). The ensemble playing is rich and varied on both recordings, but Fiddler’s Green is sparer, with stripped-down accompaniment for O’Brien’s voice on cuts like “Foreign Lander” (where O’Brien’s fiddle improvises with Edgar Meyer’s Bass), “Buffalo Skinners” (featuring O’Brien’s muscular flatpicked solo guitar), and “A Few More Years”, where the interplay voice and exquisite fiddle harmonies will cause shivers. Whether he is singing of hard work or hard luck, Obrien’s burnished tenor voice conveys every emotion, from stubbornness to sorrow.

Adding new lyrics to old and altering traditional melodies, O’Brien liberally mixes ingredients and time travels across both CDs. “Cornbread Nation” could have been cooked up a century ago, but (Runnin’ Out of Memory” reveals itself as contemporary with its clever, computer-related lyrics. Cornbread Nation features Vaughan’s electric guitar throughout, even on such traditional material as “Hold On” and “When This World Comes to an End”, an unconventional choice that pays off. The thunderous gospel song “Moses”, with Odessa Settles, Todd Settles, and Darrell Scott on backup vocals, is just one of many standouts. It might be unclear what is and isn’t traditional here, but that’s the point. Change is part of the recipe for this rich and satisfying feast.

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(Sugar Hill, http://www.sugarhillrecords.com)

Acoustic Guitar, December 2005.

Nickle Creek, “Why Should the Fire Die?”

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When 2002’s This Side created less excitement in bluegrass circles than the band’s self-titled Sugar Hill Records debut, Nickel Creek could have retreated to the “vanguard grass” that garnered early accolades from roots to aficionados. Instead Chris Thile (mandolin) Sara Watkins (fiddle), and Sean Watkins (guitar) moved even further from their bluegrass roots into pop territory, and instinct that has paid off in an assured and vibrant new work. Though seemingly absorbing inspiration from everyone from the Beatles to Stevie Nicks to Elliot Smith, the trio, aided by Mark Schatz on bass, recasts its influences in a small sound all its own. From discordant fills on the brooding “Eveline” to staccato guitar strumming and crystalline mandolin picking on “Somebody More Like You”, the arrangements here are varied, original, and show even more creative flair than the instrumentals (except for the masterful “Scotch and Chocolate”, with its intricate shifts of tempo and tone). Each member of the trio contributes original music, carefully crafted lyrics, and lead vocals, but the group’s strength is its synergy. “Jealous of the Moon” (co-written by Thile and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks), “Best of Luck”, and the beautiful, wistful title track especially showcase Nickel Creek’s intense vocal harmonies and instrumental finesse.

(Sugar Hill, http://www.sugarhillrecords.com)

Acoustic Guitar, December 2005

Badi Assad, “Verde”

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Badi Assad says that Verde (green) represents the various shadings of the forests of her native Brazil. Indeed, on her first solo effort in six years, she wields her pliable, irrepressible voice like a magic wand through a rainbow of pop, bossa, jazz, and traditional hues, creating a sound at once representative of her country’s idioms and uniquely her own. Assad’s startling vocal tones—which accurately mimic the sounds of rainforest insects and birds—and percussive effects could easily have been overdone or become mere ornamentation. Instead, they are integral to the spare, exotic sound of the original compositions and covers, most sung in Portuguese, as on “Não Adianta” and “Daruma”, co-written with Jeff Young. Her inventiveness extends to her guitar playing—on “Daruma” she places a drumstick under her strings to achieve a tolling bass against a harp-like arpeggios. Teco Cardoso (flute), Naná Vasconelos (percussion), Rodolfo Stroeter (electric and acoustic bass), Webster Santos (mandolin and 12-string guitar), and Toquinho (guitar), among others, lend support to Assad’s subtle, often surprising fingerstyle arrangements that emphasize delicate, single-note melodies in this artful collection.

(Edge/Deutsche Grammophon, http://www.universalclassics.com)

Acoustic Guitar, November 2005