Minor 7th Nov/Dec 2009: Chris Smither, Alison Stephens & Craig Ogden, Colin Hay, Joe LoPiccolo, Maneli Jamal, Les Finnigan, LJ Booth, Josete Ordoñez, EphenStephen, Roberto Dalla Vecchia
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

November/December, 2009

Chris Smither, "Time Stands Still," Signature Sounds, 2009

Virtually every song on Chris Smither's eleventh studio album relates to the passing of time. Smither has a lot on his mind. The economy, sex, love, death, and legacy all find expression in his inimitable style: clever wordsmithing; silky fingerpicking with thumb-propelled swing; tasty covers; and careworn vocals. Standout track "Old Man Down" movingly digs deep with uncharacteristically confessional lyrics. Over a "St. James Infirmary" style accompaniment, the "last man standing" in the family line wonders how to bury the unresolved issues between father and son as he buries his father. Producer David Goodrich's guitar and piano supply the atmospherics. Zak Trojano's understated percussion brings the funeral procession. In "Surprise, Surprise," Smither's ferocious growl perfectly conveys his humorously cynical wisdom ("The trickle down will float you up. Surprise, surprise, it ain't so.") about, well, everything ("...a coil of common problems. ...By the time you get them straightened out. Surprise, surprise, you underground."). Listen to Smither sing "unwound" and hope his snarl is worse than his bite. Smither's take on "It Takes a Lot to Laugh..." darkens Dylan with a deliberate tempo. The album has lighter moments. Smither's take on "Miner's Blues" is jauntier than Frank Hutchison's original. Its inclusion alludes to another line Smither finds himself in. Hutchison is regarded as the first white man to record the blues. "I Don't Know" is Smither's charming, calypso flavored take on a youngster's incessant questions and a father's attempt at answers. Smither knows; his essay "Become a Parent" appears in "Sixty Things To Do When You Turn Sixty." Check out the delightfully artless interplay between Goodrich's nylon strung guitar and Smither's six-string. Though no breakout tune graces the CD (like "No Love Today" or "Origin of the Species"), there's plenty to captivate. The artist doesn't stray far from the blueprint of recent albums, but it's one hell of a formula. The title track alludes to another durable formula. Only once in his life and only for love, when "I kissed her twice at the speed of light" has he felt that "time stood still." It passes too fast listening to Chris Smither's latest.
© David Kleiner

Chris Smither's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Old Man Down" (mp3)

Alison Stephens & Craig Ogden, "Souvenirs for Mandolin and Guitar," Chandos Records, 2009

Alison Stephens’ dedication to classical mandolin is a rarity in the musical world. She and guitarist Craig Ogden have selected a wide-ranging instrumental repertoire for this disc. The opening track, "Pastad’hilo," is a lively piece by the Columbian composer Carlos Vieco Ortiz, originally written for bandola and guitar. Works of several other Columbian composers appear throughout the program. After opening with three Columbian pieces, the Greek song, "Mother and Sister" gives the listener an idea of the variety that follows. "Elena’s Tsifteteli" is a guitar solo, inspired by a traditional Greek belly dance. Two Japanese-themed pieces are highlights: "Sakura (Cherry Blossom)" and Stephens’ own "Mount Fuji," a solo on the octave mandolin. Stephens solos on several other selections, including the sensual, flamenco-flavored "El Duende (i.e., goblin or sprite)." Craig Ogden takes several solos as well, including "Walk Dance," based on a Macedonian folk dance, and two works by Clemente Diaz. Focusing on several more duets, "De Aires Antiguos" hails from Mexico. Composed by Eduardo Angulo, it is one of the most modern-sounding pieces here, due to its range of rhythms and dynamics. "Burletta" and "Mitoka Dragomirna," both by Armin Kaufmann, conclude the program. The latter piece is a good encore, since its brisk tempo, melodic dissonances and odd modulations contrast from most other selections on the disc. Classical music lovers, guitarists, mandolinists, and many others will broaden their musical palettes with this lovely CD. Another enticement -- Alison Stephens is donating all of her royalties from this disc to Macmillan Cancer Support, a British charity.
© Patrick Ragains

Alison Stephens' Website | Craig Ogden's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Sousta" (mp3)

Colin Hay, "American Sunshine," Compass Records, 2009

Who can he be now? I am always curious about the half-lives of former pop stars, how their post-success careers develop -- or don't -- once the fairy dust of hitdom wears off. I confess I'm a sucker for those VH1-style "where are they now" vignettes. Colin Hay, for all you kids in the audience, was the frontman for Men at Work, the Aussie band whose early 80's hits included the chirpy, once unavoidable, "Who Can It Be Now?" I always thought of him as a kind of Aussie Huey Lewis. I had heard Colin Hay recently on Sirius XM; he has one of those instantly recognizable voices that is a brand unto itself. Like Sting, he occasionally strains to hit the high notes, but the overall package is intact and appealing. "American Sunshine" finds him reflecting the haze of the atmosphere he finds here, in the U.S., as he now lives in L.A., 20 years into a seemingly comfortable expatriation. The observations contained in these songs are not overly acute, or challenging, contrary to the gritty image presented on the cover. He has not morphed into, say, Steve Earle. Hay has a knack for melody -- a knack for pleasing the ear, and he brings that to this project through arrangements that sound like they emanate from legendary L.A. studios in the era of Ronstadt and Zevon (even if some of the tracks were laid down in Nashville). Notable tracks include "Broken Love," a sturdy, well-built shuffle intoning, "Broken Love is everywhere...," the spare, affecting "I Came Into Your Store," and the muscular, full-on rock of "Pleased to Almost Meet You" -- a tune that encapsulates some of what it must feel like living on the receiving end of the afterglow of stardom.
© Steve Klingaman

Colin Hay's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Prison Time" (mp3)

Joe LoPiccolo, "Night," 2009

Joe LoPiccolo’s current release, "Night" is an outstanding collection of eleven dynamic and diverse compositions. All are composed by a masterful guitarist whose eclectic influences have no apparent boundaries. LoPiccolo began his substantial studies by completing a Summer Youth Program offered by Berklee College of Music, eventually receiving a BFA and MFA in music from The California Institute of the Arts. He currently teaches on the collegiate level, composes and performs extensively, and writes a column for Fingersyle Guitar magazine. The scope of this album is broad, emphasizing the guitarist’s interests in Jazz, Classical and World music. Supporting LoPiccolo are a cast of noteworthy musicians featuring Andy Suzuki on woodwinds, Larry Steen on bass, and Aaron Serfaty on drums and percussion. On the opening "C.A.C. Funk" rapid fire chromatic unison runs are followed by a blistering guitar solo full of "pull-offs," "hammer ons", and wild interval leaps from upper to lower registers. His aggressive playing style and distorted tone sounds more like Mike Stern or John Scofield than Charlie Byrd or Baden Powell. While nylon string purists may question Lopiccolo’s adventurous use of effects, his gear allows him to seamlessly switch between fiery fusion and traditional Brazilian without changing instruments. Although the guitar is processed, one can still hear the unique intricacies of the classical guitar. LoPiccolo creates vivid, detailed, and exotic landscapes with his imaginative music. The catchy "Spyz" is a reggae inspired piece; while the Middle Eastern influenced "Rein’s Rhymes" gives a nod to klezmer music. "Mesaje Uno" and "Carnival" are two Brazilian flavored compositions featuring brilliantly executed conventional acoustic and are sure to please even the most hardened traditionalists. The former displays Suzuki’s impressive flute and the latter has an inspired sax solo. "Colors" features an admirable electric bass solo by Steen, whereas "Memory" offers his exceptional upright work. Aaron Serfaty’s spirited percussion drives the band during the up-tempo compositions and delicately supports the musicians on the slower songs. The album closes with "Memory," a reflective ballad and an appropriate conclusion to an outstanding recording. Joe LoPiccolo’s "Night" takes the listener on far reaching global sojourns and is highly recommended for aficionados of contemporary improvised music.
© James Scott

Joe LoPiccolo's's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to "Night" (mp3)
Listen to Joe LoPiccolo at our podcast

Maneli Jamal, "The Ziur Movement," 2009

Maneli Jamal is a young fingerstylist following in the musical footsteps of the likes of Preston Reed, Kaki King, Don Ross and Andy McKee. Like these players, Jamal's forté is a percussive style utilizing two-handed tapping and harmonics. Jamal does not fall into the usual trap of rhythmic pyrotechnics for the sake of elegance -- he nurtures the fretboard rather than attacking it. The title of Jamal's CD "The Ziur Movement" refers to a four-movement devotional dedicated to his fiancée, Ziur being an anagram of her name. The first movement, "Norym," begins as an urgent drone which morphs into quiet, and then back. "Vasat," the second movement, means "in between" in Persian, and does provide an intentionally hesitating but beautiful interlude into the third and fourth movements, named "Ziur" and "Finale" respectively. On these closing movements, Jamal tells a musical story by deftly interweaving rhythm, melody and harmonics, but also through a nuanced feel for mood and dynamics belying his young age. Like many slapstyle artists, Jamal's art can be very visual -- listening to the track "Cold Arrival" is a treat on this CD, but the aural-visual circuitry of a listener's brain positively glows when this tune is experienced on YouTube (click here for that video). Born in Iran, raised in Germany, spurned politically from the U.S. into Canada and, while fleeing, clutching only what could be carried (including his cheap but cherished guitar without a case), Maneli Jamal is a human symbol. He embodies a tide of musical multiculturalism which, when embraced, will enrich the collective art of the planet.
© Alan Fark

Maneli Jamal's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Southern Magnolia" (mp3)
Listen to Maneli Jamal at our podcast

Les Finnigan, "The Fiery Cart," String Plunker Records, 2009

Perhaps November is the right time to slip Les Finnigan’s latest CD, "The Fiery Cart," in the CD player for a spin. The changing colors outside reflect Finnigan’s use of the tonal palette of his 6-string to create aural images that are at the same time warm and inviting, and dark and complex. Finnigan is no rapid-fire flexer of guitar flashings, but more a crafter of melodies that breathe. A good example of Finnigan’s complexity is "Dreaming Arrangements," built around a simple yet flowing melody line, but augmented by darker, minor chords that add tension to the tune, but not in a way that distracts. It’s like a picture of life within a song: beauty tinged with sorrow at unexpected places. Other cuts where we hear the same effect are "Dancing Around the Topic," "A Sense of Pillow," and "Three Perspectives." "Bowl o’ Cocobolo" is a rolling tribute to the magnificent Fabrizio Alberico steel string used to record "The Fiery Cart." It’s an outstanding instrument, put to good use in Finnigan’s hands. Finnigan is like many modern fingerstyle players, using tapping effectively to add power to arrangements, like on "The Fairlane," where pops and string bends add a sort of hypnotic feeling. "Fret Buzz" is a dancing, weaving song that reveals the power of the guitarist’s right hand technique. The final cut, "Tord and Bobo," is slow, almost dirge-like, yet somehow enchanting. If you’re looking for some great songs for a cool fall day, "The Fiery Cart" is a fine CD of solo acoustic guitar music.
© Kirk Albrecht

Les Finnigan's Website Buy it at his website
Listen to "The Fairlane" (mp3)

LJ Booth, "The Road That Leads Me Home," 2009

On "The Road that Leads Me Home," L.J. Booth brings us to places where his musical grace, eloquence, and warmth touch those fibers that make us human and connect us, transcending time, place, and memory. He visits and revisits themes that are midwestern, small town America and often have a interior quality. He finds that angle that reveals and enlightens, such as the perspective of a rail worker who hears a story from his grandfather, on the haunting track "The Siskiyou Line." "The Siskiyou Line," among the many treasures to be found on this disc, offers a personal and moving perspective of the last train robbery in the USA, which occurred October 11th, 1923 at the summit of the Siskiyou Mountains near the border between California and Oregon. The guitar work rolls like the slow syncopation of steel wheels on a railroad track accented by the aching despair of Chris Wagoner's violin and Mary Gaines harmony vocal, as images related to the botched robbery that took the lives of three railmen are presented lyrically. The song was commissioned, in a sense, by luthier Bruce Petros, founder of Petros Guitars. One of the redwood timbers from Tunnel 13 where the robbery of the Southern Pacific's Train 13 occurred found its way into the hands of luthier Petros and the result was a limited edition series of Tunnel 13 guitars featuring soundboards made from these old beams. One of these Booth used to record "The Siskiyou Line." The CD was recorded live in Wisconsin, at The Jensen Center in Booth's hometown Amherst, and at the McMillan Library in Wisconsin Rapids. Three other tracks were recorded "live" in Booth's home without an audience. The CD also includes two bonus songs "Bendemeer's Stream" song by Booth's father and "My Father's Shoes" written and performed for his father. Although this CD has all the sparkle of a live performance it has an intimacy that makes the listener part of the moment, more like what David Wilcox once described as a "kitchen wildlife" experience than as an audience member. "The Road that Leads Me Home" is just L.J. Booth's fourth release over the past 22 years. As he puts it "Like most songwriters, I keep a fair amount of partial songs in my head. Sometimes that amount becomes a critical mass...and I know it's time to get down to the blue collar part of finishing. It's not that I don't like that part of the job. It's more often that I'm daunted by the work." He may be daunted by the work but the results are a joy to hear.
© James Filkins

LJ Booth's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to "The Siskiyou Line"

Josete Ordoñez, "Por El Mar," Ozella Records, 2009

It would be easy to dismiss at first blush Josete Ordoñez's music as smooth jazz or Nuevo Flamenco aimed at the masses. But there is a deeper maturity to the music on his CD "Por El Mar" than might be initially appreciated by a cursory listen. Finely-honed production details and masterful guitarwork are the stamp on this CD of Spanish jazz excellence. Ordoñez melds influences from other cultures by incorporating the Vietnamese Dantú and the Mexican Vihuela into these tracks. "Hanoi" begins dramatically with ominous reverberations underscored by Vietnamese singer Nsut Song Tao's ghostly incantations, but then resolves into a reassuring foray into a beautiful Brazilian-inflected melody. The title track "Por El Mar" likewise is introduced by novel sounds: children playing in the waves on the beach. The expectations of formulaic smooth jazz strains which follow on "Por El Mar" explode away, however, when Ana Salazar's vocals impart an impassioned urgency to the surprising culmination. On "Cinco," Ordoñez and Salazar's vocals are reminiscent of Mark Ledford and David Blamires' twinned vocals with the Pat Metheny Group, as are the keyboards of Iñaki Quijano, who here sounds as though he's been listening to Lyle Mays quite a lot. Fans of the Pat Metheny Group or The Rippingtons will find a lot to like on "Por El Mar."
© Alan Fark

Josete Ordoñez at MySpace Buy it at CD Universe
Listen to "Cinco" (mp3)

EphenStephen Guitar Duo, "Goldberg Variations, BWV 988" 2008

In late 2005 classical Australian guitar duo, Ephen-Stephen, known for "exploring both inventive and established repertoire," was asked to perform at the New England Bach Festival in Australia. After much listening and deliberation over possible material, the duo decided J.S. Bach’s "Goldberg Variations," reputed to have cured insomnia in past centuries, was the perfect choice for their participation in the festival. After what must have been many, many inspiring but grueling hours of transcription and arranging, the duo had what they’d sought, an adaptation of the "Variations" for guitar. They have released these arrangements on CD. Originally composed for harpsichord, these works have been recorded and arranged for all manner of instruments in a wide variety of ensembles and settings, perhaps the most famous in contemporary music being that of pianist Glenn Gould. The guitar, often criticized for its inherent limitations, and not taken seriously as a classical instrument until the great Andres Segovia , is an excellent vehicle for Bach’s brief masterpieces, particularly when there are two of them. Stephen Tafra and Steve Thorneycroft play these pieces with grace, dignity, and a depth of musicality. The performances are intimate in ways that might only be possible on guitar. What is most pleasing about these tracks, however, is the evocation of the harpsichord throughout. At times, the guitar even seems to transform itself into the intended voice of the "Variations," and, as the story goes, if one is reclined, gently lulls one into a peaceful and satisfying slumber.
© Chip O'Brien

EphenStephen's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Variation 5" (mp3)

Roberto Dalla Vecchia, "Unknown Legends," 2009

Whoa. Roberto Dalla Vecchia jumps right out of the gate on his fourth acoustic guitar CD "Unknown Legends" with the opening cut, "Surprised." If you have not heard this fine player before (he won Acoustic Guitar Magazine’s Homegrown CD Award in 2003), it’s a fitting beginning, because you will be surprised at his fluid picking, evidenced not just in the first song, but throughout all 11 tracks. "Surprised" is a good showcase for his clean, quick flatpicking. The title cut, "Unknown Legends," showcases some of the ensemble talent Dalla Vecchia has assembled for this CD, that adds dobro, bass, cello, and whistles. He plays the traditional "Angelina the Baker" with his own twist but doesn’t stray too far from tradition. "Seeds of Peace" features the tasteful dobro of Enrich Novak in tandem with Dalla Vecchia’s guitar work. My favorite piece on the disc is the mournful "Gift of a Lifetime," featuring the beautiful cello of Giovanni Costantini. Dalla Vecchia allows the cello to have the spotlight while he plays the simple melody underneath, revealing a sublime understanding of serving the music with his playing, not vice-versa. "Sunflowers" is a great solo flatpicked tune reminiscent of Robert Bowlin’s excellent playing. Dalla Vecchia sings on one song, "It Won’t Be Long," but the rest is instrumental in the best sense of the term. Dalla Vecchia is a fine picker, and his songs show fine song craft. Give "Unknown Legends" a listen; you won’t be disappointed.
© Kirk Albrecht

Roberto Dalla Vecchia's Website Buy it at CD Universe
Listen to "Surprised" (mp3)

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