Minor 7th May/June 2002: Mike Dowling and Pat Donohue, Carl Verheyen, Kris Delmhorst, Alex Houghton, David LaMotte, Jim Volk, Josh Rouse
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Reviewing the best in guitar CDs, from jazz to folk to rock to new age, emphasizing acoustic and independent or obscure releases

May/June, 2002

Mike Dowling and Pat Donohue, "Two of a Kind", Solid Air Records SACD 2028, 2002

Guitarists Pat Donohue and Mike Dowling infuse their musical roots with more energy than a young pup after a rabbit. Pure enjoyment radiates from the tips of their well-callused fingers to their tapping toes on "Two of a Kind." Dowling, longtime sessionist extraordinaire, and Donohue, a "Prairie Home Companion" regular, pay homage to the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Chet Atkins and Django Reinhardt enroute to a smile-invoking collection of duets. The 15-track "Two of a Kind" represents the eighth volume of the "Groovemasters" series that brings together guitar artists of similar tastes -- and then wisely pretty much just lets them have at it. This instrumental session includes numbers written singly and together, plus fresh arrangements of old favorites. Accompanying liner notes lend fly-on-the-wall insight. Here's Donohue regarding his composition "Gee Whiz": "One day I sat and wondered what Chet Atkins would play if he had to come up with something quick. This is what came out. The late great Mr. Guitar was a hero to us both." Here's Dowling on "Wild Rose," giving us a peek into the creative and technical processes: "This is a melody I've had in my head for years. I showed Pat the chords for it in the studio one day and it became a song on our first take. I've capoed my National El Trovador at the fourth fret to enhance a kind of woody sound that's not too deep in the register." The CD is buoyed by an early 20th-century sense of optimism and adventure. Our two earnest musical guides take us on a tour through ragtime, blues, boogie-woogie, jazz, and some gumbos that defy categorization. It's a smooth ride loaded with musical goodies.
© Fred Kraus

Mike Dowling's Website Pat Donohue's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to a sample of Two of a Kind (streaming mp3)

Carl Verheyen, "Solo Guitar Improvistions", Chase Music Group CMD8063, 2001

Carl Verheyen recounts a telling memory on the liner notes of "Solo Guitar Improvisations". At age 11, while practicing a then-standard repertoire of chords to classics like "Satisfaction" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" before his overhearing father, Verheyen was taken aback when his father, unimpressed, wondered aloud why he couldn't "play it all". With this disc, there should be absolutely no doubt that Carl Verheyen can play it all, not only in the sense of synthesizing melody, chords and bass together into one package via fingerstyle, but also in effortlessly traversing styles between jazz, blues, folk and swing. "I Loves you Porgy", "God Bless the Child" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" are unhurried and soulful renditions of jazz classics which, though superficially restrained, are punctuated intensely by lightning-quick outbursts of feeling. A highlight is a Verheyen original, "The Notch", wherein blocked chords levitate and are masterfully ushered through an ethereal space to be unusually but magically aligned, not unlike an Allan Holdsworth compostion. Yet, both feet are firmly grounded on Jerry Reed's "Mr. Lucky", a cookin' and straightforward bit of fingerstyle swing. The only peril in Verheyen's playing is that he exhibits astounding proficiency in so many voices that he runs the risk of not finding his very own.
©Alan Fark

Carl Verheyen's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Carl Verheyen's The Notch (mp3 download)

Kris Delmhorst, "Five Stories", Big Bean Music bb003, 2001

There are more than five stories in "Five Stories" and much to learn from its opening tune, "Cluck Old Hen." Kris Delmhorst will experiment with genre, here taking a banjo based old-timey chestnut and making it rock with vocal grace notes, electric guitar, and sax by Morphine's Dana Colley. She also gives the lyrics substance, exploring-like the rest of the CD--the mysteries and uncertainties of a human heart, which the speaker "shook... like a piggy bank" only to discover emptiness. In Delmhorst's hands, what could simply be an obligatory number-a "Damn Love Song," every singer/songwriter has to have in the repertoire-turns into a series of questions about writing love songs. How can she write her lover's name "in the steam on the mirror," the "love song stuck in my throat?" How can she let herself "pick... the lock of (his) heart" until she opens her own? "Words Fail You" is begging to be covered, a simple, lovely melody with a chorus that repeats the title with moving effect. "Honeyed Out" is another highlight, with percussion introducing a cynical kiss-off lyric in a gospel-like setting. No two songs on the CD sound alike though Delmhorst is often supported by a core band of drummer Billy Conway (who also co-produces), multi-instrumentalist Sean Staples, bass player AndrewMazzone, and a few good friends (like Jennifer Kimball and Catie Curtis) guesting on vocals. Delmhorst herself handles a number of instruments including organ, cello, steel and electric guitars. But even on "Little Wings," a tune accompanied by ten different instruments, the arrangement is subdued, existing only to serve the song. The final (except for a brief reprise of the opener)cut, completely stripped down to singer and guitar, twists one more genre, lullaby-not an unusual choice for closing--that here becomes something completely different. "Lullaby 101," teaches us the basics as Delmhorst gently sings to sleep resumes, reservoirs, alibis, a lover, and the listener.
© David Kleiner

Kris Delmhorst's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Broken White Line (RealAudio)


Alex Houghton, "Happybody", MAPL 888-AH03, 2002

I first heard Alex Houghton while cruising the Internet about 4 years ago. I was looking for some good acoustic guitar music, and she fit the bill. Oh, and the CD was inexpensive through Canada with the favorable exchange rate. I liked her percussive style, keeping a strong bass beat while dancing in and out of melodic lines. Her latest effort Happybody, her third CD, continues to reveal her abilities as yet another indie artist who is finding her own superb voice without a label. Alex uses both steel and nylon stringed guitars on Happybody, weaving subtle textures through well-constructed melodies. I usually am pretty reserved about orchestration with acoustic guitar, but she uses it well, and the strings artistically enhance her tunes. Particularly strong is Kevin Turcotte's trumpet on "Compression", a song which flushes film noir images of dark and lonely streets. Here Houghton's sparse classical lines play counterpoint to the strains of the horn. "Slow in 'C'" drives slowly and tenderly, while "The Getaway song" conjures images of a journey not fast, but steady toward its destination. The title cut makes you believe she really is happy body. "Happybody" has less complex playing than her earlier CD's. But she has a great sense of space in her songs, never forcing the tune. Alex Houghton isn't out to wow her listeners with flashy technique, but her music just keeps you listening.
©Kirk Albrecht

Alex Houghton's Website Buy it here
Listen to Compression (RealAudio)

David LaMotte, "Good Tar", Lower Dryad Music LDM9091, 2001

Promo and liner note photos of David LaMotte call to mind a young Dan Fogelberg, and like Fogelberg on his debut LP "Home Free", LaMotte is both precociously sage and musically articulate. Though visually recalling Fogelberg, aurally the resemblance belongs to David Wilcox. In fact, "Good Tar", a double-CD collection of live solo acoustic guitar ballads interspersed with humorous anecdotes bantered between LaMotte and an appreciative audience, has the feel of Wilcox's "East Asheville Hardware". Alternate tunings and slapped percussives abound, as do lyrical and ironic observations about the nature of relationships and the commonplace. Both discs even feature Wilcox's "Levi Blues", a clever crowd pleaser that typifies the self-effacing humor of both these artists. Pivoting 180 degrees to songs like "Deadline", "Lens Cap" and "Home by Now" LaMotte demonstrates he also has the grasp of empathic poetry and the depth of vision of introspection. Yet, LaMotte is essentially a super-beefed-up strummer, his fingerstyle tunes not quite carrying the virtuosic authority of Wilcox. Partly because of this, the double-CD solo format seems slightly longwinded by the final track, a weakness which is not at all shared by his earlier well-produced recordings with a supporting band.
©Alan Fark

David LaMotte's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Lens Cap (streaming mp3, from the CD "Corners")

Jim Volk, "Blue Wheels... and other Guitar Favorites", Steel River Recordings SRR001, 2002

Jim Volk's latest artistic incarnations document the accomplishments of more than 15 years of musical experience and self-reflection. The compositional realizations presented here in Blue Wheels... and Other Guitar Favorites make use of the Fahey-Kottke and Hedges-deGrassi styles, and projects these different sounds into a kind of post-Rock and post-R&B dimensionality. While Volk's highly energetic fretwork and open-tunings are very much reminiscent of the more recent history of fingerstyle, his music also activates the songwriting greatness of such bands like Jethro Tull, made most apparent in "Book of Change" and "Just Another Train Song," both of which demonstrate Volk's very impressive vocal abilities. But if Volk truly succeeds in circumventing the singer-songwriter badge by rendering the guitar his first and foremost medium, he does so by seamlessly blending his voice with his beautiful instrumentation and unorthodox tuning arrangements. The compositional boldness found in every one of the seven instrumental pieces reflects the guitarist's triumph in deploying a masterfully set of harmonic slaps, sub-sonic pizzicati, and Bachesque "resolves" in both the high and low steel-string tradition. For example, "Mistress of the House" not only contains echoes of Page, Bensusan, Ross, and Reinhardt but it articulates a set of progressions and recapitulations in a way that envisages a sound that both challenges and embraces the New Age/Folk/Jazz lexical conundrum. The five minute-long completely acoustic "Lifting the Rib From the Weaves," as well as the opening track "Blue Wheels", communicate the purity of a masterful guitarist whose thoughtful melodies make audible a new approach to guitar music. Beyond its shear lucid intensity, Volk's playing is hauntingly captivating, remarkable, and brilliantly crafted.
©Bernard Richter

Jim Volk's Website Buy it at here
Listen to Blue Wheels (mp3)

Josh Rouse, "Under Cold Blue Stars", Rykodisc SRRCD 59, 2002

Ask any songwriter. The hardest tune to write is an exuberantly upbeat love song. Under Cold Blue Stars has three. Josh Rouse writes infectious songs, then delivers the goods in an engagingly wistful pinched whisper, toying with pitch just enough to keep things interesting. "Feelin' No Pain" is the most radio ready of the bunch, arranged to perfection. It gets your attention with a few siren-like notes on electric guitar that morph into a pop-steady rhythm section that disappears with a tremelo signal from guitar as the vocal starts. Verses feature Rouse and drums with silences filled by more tremelo flourishes. The start of the hooky chorus brings on the whole band as everything rises to a crescendo. Tension builds as each verse returns to the duet of voice and percussion. A brief instrumental leads to a bridge performed virtually acappella until everything blasts back into the chorus. All in all, a lesson in creating an appealing pop song. Ditto "Nothing Gives Me Pleasure" with its hip-hop reminiscent rhythm and "Miracle" with an organ sound that propels the listener into Rouse's spell. What such confections do not require is a carefully constructed lyric, and Rouse rarely bothers. In three different songs, he rhymes "doubt" and "out". Rouse's style is to string phrases together image free without allowing the listener any sense of story or character. One near exception is "Summer Kitchen Ballad," with its uncharacteristically downbeat tale of an old man "in the kitchen with an asthma cigarette," who, like the "van is tired and slow." But even here, the listener is left to figure out why the narration changes from "him" to "you," and who that too thin "she" is. But, I didn't notice anything of the sort when I heard "Feeling No Pain" on the radio the first time. All I wanted to know was who sang the song and when it would be coming on again. One listen and I was ready to sing along. That's how hits happen.
© David Kleiner

Josh Rouse's Website Buy it at Amazon.com


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