Minor 7th July/August 2006: Ralph Towner, Eltjo Haselhoff, LeRoy Bell, Yonder Mountain String Band, David Wilcox, Stephan Bormann, Antje Duvekot, Pure Prairie League, Paulo Bellinati & Harvey Wainapel, Women in Docs, Chris Carelli, Brooks Williams, Arnaldo Lopez
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

July/August, 2006

Ralph Towner, "Time Line," ECM 1968, 2006

Ralph Towner's compositions are hold-your-breath stunning. The creative well never seems to run dry for Towner, who for 35 years has been writing songs which are nestled in the terrain between classical and jazz, a terrain which he's all but defined. It's rare indeed for one guitarist's work to alternate between circumspect and provocative, but Towner expertly jumps back and forth between these moods on his new CD "Time Line" as if governed by two distinct personalities. "Always By Your Side" and "Anniversary Song" are bittersweet and pianistic tales which seem to pay homage to Bill Evans' balladry. Juxtaposed between these songs and their wistful sentiment is "The Hollows," a somewhat dysphoric musical walk into a spooky musical landscape. "Freeze Frame" is an abstract tintinnabulation of 12-string joy reminiscent of his 1974 LP "Solstice," a landmark recording in jazz which was experimental for the time and perhaps then dissonant to some ears. Fans of Oregon will recognize "If," a Towner composition featured on that group's 2005 release "Prime" and an inspirational and resolute epic of a tune, to the extent that an epic can be rendered on six nylon strings alone. Recorded solo and direct to mike without overdubs at Propstei St. Gerold, an old Austrian church, "Time Line" embodies the spontaneity which has been Towner's credo for decades. It's an appropriate cap to an incredible career which has seen Ralph Towner progress from a countercultural maverick to venerable master over the course of nearly 100 recordings.
© Alan Fark

Ralph Towner's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Always By Your Side" (mp3)

Eltjo Haselhoff, "Fingerstyle Guitar Solos," Solid Air SACD 2056, 2006

It's no wonder that Acoustic Music Resource picked up this self-produced CD from Eltjo Haselhoff, a Netherlands-based physicist and erstwhile musical genius. Every tune on "Fingerstyle Guitar Solos" is a joy to the listener. "Tap Your Other Foot" begins with chicken-picking before Haselhoff launches into the minor-keyed theme. The melody of "Myosotis" sounds like an English ballad, but a sensitive interpretation and a pop-sounding middle section gives the impression of a love song from 1960s pop radio. The beautiful "Snow in London" features similar compositional development as "Myosotis," although utilizing a darker mood. Similarly, "Tumbo" recalls Elizabethan dance music. Carolan's "Morgan Megan" fits in well with his own compositions. Haselhoff employs exacting microtonal bends very effectively in several tunes, including "Jantine," which closes the disc. Although critics have compared him favorably to Tommy Emmanuel, Haselhoff's tunes and playing also recall John Renbourn, Ralph McTell, Laurence Juber (especially on "Roundback Rag") and even Stefan Grossman. But Haselhoff is no imitator. His attack is varied, but always clean, and his tunes hold up under close listening. Let's hope that wider exposure will lead Haselhoff to release more music in the near future.
© Patrick Ragains

Eltjo Haselhoff's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "Roundback Rag" (mp3)
Listen to Eltjo Haselhoff at our podcast

LeRoy Bell, "Two Sides to Every Story," Martez Music MTZM0602, 2006

You've heard LeRoy Bell before, you just didn't realize it. As a member of the songwriting team and recording act Bell & James, the artist has co-authored hits for Sir Elton John (the Grammy nominated "Mama Can't But You Love," and UK #1 "Are You Ready For Love"). And along with his uncle, noted producer Thom Bell, he's written for such legendary artists as The Spinners, O'Jays, Rita Marley, The Temptations, and Phyllis Hyman, to name a few. A seasoned veteran in the pop music wars, Bell exudes the spark of a new artist with passion aplenty on "Two Sides." His soulful, often gritty vocal style glides through this collection which tackles the personal, political, and social themes of the day with a decidedly upbeat attitude. By way of a simple acoustic guitar strummed dead center on the down beat, Bell offers a sturdy foundation for each track. The band (ironically dubbed "His Only Friends") play all the right notes in all the right spots too, as they embellish the singer's melodies with rich harmonies and understated counterpoint. "Voodoo" kicks off the disc with a dark, swamp groove reminiscent of the early Allman Brothers, especially when Rick Novito's slippery slide guitar surfaces in the verses. Phil Peterson's plucked cello and legato passages abet the reggae tinged "Father & Son" and his weepy intro to the Latin flavored "Mexico" blends into Bell's downtrodden tale of love lost in a sublime manner. Be sure to check out Bell's dexterous transitions in "Once Upon A Time" which afford the track an orchestral bent without the usual MOR trappings. "20 Years From Now" can't help but sound like modern -day Springsteen thanks to the ragged harmonica and Bell's chin-in-chest (it's referred to as "emo" nowadays) demeanor. Percussionist Stan White and bassist Terry Morgan come to the forefront in "I'm In Love," laying down a funky, percolating template for Novito's hypnotic figures and Petersons' sweet riffs. As a vocalist Bell intuitively breaks into a falsetto to temper his throaty wail, adding the dramatic flair that separates a good singer from a great one, of which Bell is the latter, of course.
© Tom Semioli

LeRoy Bell's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Voodoo" (mp3)
Listen to LeRoy Bell at our podcast

Yonder Mountain String Band, Vanguard Records 79801-2, 2006

Precise flat picking and rolling rhythms mark the Yonder Mountain String Band's fourth studio release, their first in three years. This newgrass/folk quartet breezily conjures up the catch phrase, the infectious rhythm, the hummable refrain. Their "How 'Bout You?" spans bluegrass, folk, country, pop and rock, somehow managing to sythesize all of those genres into one tasty, pleasant nugget of musicality. The addition of drums to Jeff Austin's mandolin, Ben Kaufmann's bass, Dave Johnston's banjo and Adam Aijala's guitar infuses this work with some extra propulsion. While you're not going to find any drum solos here, the percussion makes a very nice counterpoint to Kaufmann's bass. It's clear that these band members have been performing together for quite some time, as vocal harmonies weave in and out as smoothly as their instrumental lead lines. A jam band in the mold of Old and In the Way and Hot Buttered Rum, YMSB remains distinctive and true to its roots yet within a good skipping stone's throw of the main stream. Teaming with veteran rock producer Tom Rothrock (James Blunt, Foo Fighters, Elliott Smith) may have had something to do with that happy circumstance. Yonder Mountain String Band have previously released three studio albums, Elevation (1999), Town by Town (2001) and Old Hands (2003) as well as Mountain Tracks Volume I-IV, an amazing collection that captures their high-energy live shows. All these discs were recorded on their own Frog Pad Records.
© Fred Kraus

Yonder Mountain String Band's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Sidewalk Stars" (mp3)

David Wilcox, "Vista," What Are Records?, 2006

The king of alternate tunings is back with a new CD entitled "Vista." When David Wilcox arrived on the music scene in the late 1980s he was pioneering new techniques which now are commonplace among acoustic guitarists, techniques to which Wilcox should rightly own copyright if such a thing were possible. Taking DADGAD a step further, Wilcox found his zone by winding his pegs into unusual but resonating combinations like CGCGCE, DADGBE, CGCF#AD and CGDGBD. He also figuratively (and sometimes literally) whittled his Kyser capo into a dynamic piece of gear by undamping specific strings, partially or double-capoing the fretboard, often requiring him to finger downstream from the capo. His early CDs "How Did You Find Me Here?" and "Big Horizon" were beautiful in their simplicity. His CDs at mid-career however became more produced, occasionally so that sidemen would raise a din above Wilcox. With "Vista," Wilcox has again found equilibrium with his bandmates, one that permits his guitar to assume center stage. "Get On," "Grateful for her Beauty" and "Great Big World" (the latter tune co-written by Pierce Pettis) especially showcase his dulcimer-like and trademark style, reminiscent of his classic "Language of the Heart." Wilcox is not all prettiness, though -- listen to his down-n-dirty blues on "Wilford Brandon Hayes." He has always injected social commentary into his work and continues that biting tradition with an attack on fundamentalism on "Good Man"... but in his typical egalitarian fashion spares neither Eastern nor Western zealot in the process. As is the title of his 1991 recording, it's absolutely great to find David Wilcox "home again."
© Alan Fark

David Wilcox's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Get On" (mp3)

Stephan Bormann Band, "Songs From a Small Room", Ozella Music OZ009, 2005

The Stephan Bormann Band's current release "Songs from a Small Room," captures the magic and mystery of the seminal ECM recordings from the 1970's. Bormann's guitar style lies somewhere between Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, with a little Ralph Towner thrown in for good measure. However, the strength of this musical offering lies in the unique voice, which the guitarist has forged within the parameters of his influences. The recording also includes a stellar cast of musicians featuring Volker Schlott on alto and tenor and soprano sax, Mohi Buschendorf on double and electric bass, and Jens Dohle on drums. While several pieces display the leader's tasteful electric playing, the acoustic guitar is prominently showcased throughout the nine brilliantly crafted compositions. The opening, "Nordic Sky," sketches vivid and alluring images of the group's native topography, not unlike the great Scandinavian landscape paintings of the 19th century. Another composition, "Beyond the Horizon" includes some exceptional twelve-string excursions, performed in an intimate trio setting. Throughout the recording, Bormann offers plenty of room for his remarkable ensemble to stretch out. For example, on the closing, "Two Old People in a Maizefield," Volker Schlott submits a hauntingly beautiful soprano sax solo, reminiscent of Paul McCandless's incendiary work for Oregon. The pristine production really accentuates the openness of the compositions, and the intricate interplay between musicians captures the intrinsic beauty of each tuneful vignette. "Songs from a Small Room" is a lyrical, introspective, musical odyssey and a welcome addition to eclectic collections of acoustic music.
© James Scott

Stephan Bormann's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Nordic Sky" (mp3)
Listen to The Stephan Bormann Band at our podcast

Various Artists, "Sail Away, The Songs of Randy Newman," Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-4015, 2006

Here's an idea! Use fine pickers and singers-most of them from the South -- for a tribute album to... Mr. L.A., Randy Newman. Take most of the tunes from "Sail Away" and "Good Old Boys," records that eviscerated the South. This tribute to the wit, wisdom, and twisted misanthropy of Randy Newman ("Let's drop the big one / There'll be no one left to blame us") may seem a downright perverse concept. But don't fret... it is. And, for the most part, it works beautifully, most beautifully at its most contrary. Take the title track. A slave trader assures his human cargo the trip will prove to be for their own benefit. After all, "In America, you'll get food to eat, won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet." Here, these words are sung by Tim O'Brien, whose last album "Cornbread Nation" was a tribute to the culture and music of the South. It's too post-modern for me to understand what all this means, especially when it sounds so fine with Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Dan Dugmore on steel. Sonny Landreth tears up the landscape with his slide on "Louisiana." The Del McCoury Band embraces "Birmingham" as straight bluegrass, fashioning a paean to the salt of the earth. Reckless Kelly and Joe Ely-with Lloyd Maines on steel guitar-work the cowboy lament of "Rider in the Rain," trading solos in a lovely interlude. Steve Earle tackles "Rednecks" with a karate chop of distortion. Bela Fleck turns "Burn On" into a delicate cakewalk. Sam Bush swings with "Mr. President." The only missteps, Guster's folk-rock "Memo to My Son," and the Duhk's Dixielandish "Political Science," both lack the requisite perversity. The record gets back up on its feet in a big way with Marc Broussard's soulful "You Can Leave Your Hat On." Kim Richey closes with the ultimate Newman perversity, human kindness overflowing. Sail away! I assure you the trip will prove to be for your own benefit.
© David Kleiner

Sugar Hill's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Sail Away" (mp3)

Antje Duvekot, "Big Dream Boulevard," Black Wolf Records BW 006, 2006

Antje Duvekot's first true studio album -- with high-powered producer Seamus Egan of Solas and vocal support from her mentor, Ellis Paul -- takes the listener on a journey through "the uncharted country out on ecstasy's borders." There, Duvekot serves up wisdom beyond her years, a knack for metaphor, an angelic voice, and great melodies. She merges them with a radio-ready sensibility and makes a strong bid for national recognition. Duvekot is unique: a disarming, talented performer and a songwriter with awesome range and a poet's command of language. "Dandelion," is a bouncy, winsome-yet-poignant, pop-inflected tale of unrequited love (produced by Boston's Flynn, who also produced Ellis Paul's latest). The stirring "Jerusalem," paints a portrait of the land where "peace is a term that is relative" and "scars are as deep as the rivers and as old as the land." "Anna," a longtime Duvekot staple, presents two character studies simultaneously: an Alzheimer's victim losing her fight against the disease in which she is losing herself ("It's like someone's built a wall and through the very last cracks Anna extends her hand") and her granddaughter, who urges Anna to "tell your bones not to let go" at the same time she recognizes that "your heart is beating slowly now." "Helpless Kiss" has a chorus as hard to resist as the "helpless kiss" that leaves the speaker "rudderless" and asking "how do you intend to unbreak this?" "Diamond on Your Hand" keeps playing in a loop through my head, though it may finally stop "at the end of the, end of the, end of the day." Egan and Duvekot uncoil "Sex Bandaid" out of an ominous, hushed beginning (featuring Duvekot's whisper and Kevin Hansen's atmospheric electric) until pure desire rises ("you light me like a candle with the sugar in your mouth") leading to an unsettling climax ("it's just a little blood. Just a little flood, flood, flood"). There is only one place on earth you can find songs this powerful and this listenable... "Big Dream Boulevard."
© David Kleiner

Antje Duvekot's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Dandelion (mp3)

Pure Prairie League, "All in Good Time," Drifter's Church Music 008, 2006

A blast from the past perhaps, but one that retains its charge, as the PPL gang cozies up to Nashville and puts the country right out front in the mix. Craig Fullerís trademark vocals are complemented by snappy songwriting that should please many of their fans and could even win over some converts. Tracks like "I Sure Do Miss You Now" stay close to the genre with lyrics that hang in the Nashville pocket, as in "...the only thing Iím sure about is I sure do miss you now." The band gives a nod to some Louisiana vibes in "Nothing Like the Lonely" and "Cajun Girl." The former features an acoustic country feel complemented by a Zachary Richard turn by Fats Kaplin on accordion. "Cajun Girl" features more Fats on accordion and fiddle in a song built around some classic PPL changes and a great drum battery by Rick Schell. "Here Tomorrow, Gone Today" sports a great country chorus hook against a sparse verse set to a perfect kick drum. A lovely nod to the signature Eagles gambit is found in "That Changes Everything Again." "One of Those Things" proves to be a classic country chart single driven by, once again, Kaplin on pedal steel. "The Cost of Doing Business" is an interesting song. You could call it the journeymanís blues on life in the musical AA leagues. Itís affecting, honest and reflects a mature songwriting perspective that you see a lot of in the new Nashville -- more personal, introspective and intelligent than the old school. Fuller remains in good voice throughout -- not something one can expect from every band in its nth decade. And the harmonies should not be left without a shout-out either. One little complaint to the ears of this reviewer is a seemingly uneven mastering job that obscures the vocals on some sound systems, while overflowing that 2KHz Fender Twin bite on others. Or maybe its just my tinnitus acting up again. The "bonus" live track, "If You Could Say What Iím Thinking," shows these guys to be a state fair attraction not to be missed. A powerful rhythm section drives a hooky song in an inspired performance that showcases these guys as the accomplished pros they are.
© Steve Klingaman

Pure Prairie League's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "I Sure Do Miss You Now" (mp3)

Paulo Bellinati & Harvey Wainapel, "New Choros of Brazil," Proteus Entertainment 0016, 2005

The choro is a distinctively Brazilian musical form, yet most listeners would be shocked to learn that its roots are in 19th century European court dances such as the polka. When Don Jo„o VI, the then king of Portugal, moved his court to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 to flee oncoming armies of Napolean, some European cultural traditions likewise crossed the Atlantic. The choro was the result of a serendipitous experiment by Brazilian street musicians to hybridize European court dances with syncopated native sounds. However, rather than remaining a footnote in musical history, the choro has permutated over the last two centuries. "New Choros of Brazil" is exactly as the title describes, a contemporary choro repertoire which was mostly written in the past few years expressly for guitarist Paulo Bellinati and clarinetist Harvey Wainapel. Bellinati is a revered figure in Brazilian music, boasting Brazil's equivalent of a Grammy, the Premio Sharp, as well as some impressive credentials engendered by an ambitious project -- the transcription and recording of the works of famed guitarist Garoto. Although guitar and flute has been a common duet format in the past, the guitar/clarinet combination heard on "New Choros" is novel but nonetheless exhilarating despite such a minimalist pairing. This is not at all surprising when one considers the virtuosity of these two players and of those names with whom Bellinati and Wainapel have honed their trade: Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, and Sergio Assad, among others. Like these artists, Bellinati and Wainapel remain sincerely true to the art rather than submitting to the dictates of music executives and marketers. © Alan Fark

Paulo Bellinati's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Choro Para Thalia E Steve" (mp3)

Women in Docs, "Under a Different Sky," Baria Records BAR061, 2005

Uh oh, two women who play acoustic guitar and offer lush harmonies. You're probably thinking "Indigo Girls" but slap on their disc and give 'em a chance because Amy and Emily they aren't. Yeah, most songs are built around a strong acoustic guitar and their voices are sister-harmony tight but their light folk/pop songs are more accessible than that other duo. And have I mentioned the charming Aussie accents? Roz Pappalardo and Chanel Lucas have built a strong following in their country and are moving on to the rest of the world; their experience shows in their confident songs. A crisply strummed acoustic guitar is the center of "Crown Street" while a more delicate fingerpicked guitar showcases "I Wanna See." "Supermarket" is a quirky love song about meeting your life's love at the store after he knocks over soup cans. A solid bass and snare open "Show Me," a contrast to the bitter lyrics. I love it when a writer mixes it up that way. They fool you with a cheerful intro then dive right into the "you stink" lyrics. "Fade Away" is an upbeat song that would sound right at home on mainstream radio. It's something you'd request the DJ to play so you could throw your head back to sing along. I'll bet "Noise Pollution" is a blast to hear in public, with its crunchy guitar in a bubble gum arrangement. I'd love to hear these women in person so that their dynamic vocals and clean guitars aren't lost in the sometimes crowded arrangements. Also, the songwriting is weak in spots, relying on simple phrases without a lot of emotional impact. Still, for pop music, you don't always need meaty lyrics or you risk sounding like a Joan Baez dance mix. If you're a sucker for great harmonies and sing along lyrics, get this album.
© Jamie Anderson

Women in Docs' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Crown Street (mp3)

Chris Carelli, "Anthology", Kharmo Records 333, 2005

In his debut CD "Anthology" Chris Carelli has set out to explore the music that first inspired him to pursue the classical guitar, and the repertoire that has touched his life since that time. The result is a recording that showcases some of the best known and most accessible music for the instrument. Beyond this, the disc also offers some common arrangements for the guitar by Albeniz, Bach, and Debussy. It is surprising that on a lighter fare disc such as this, Carelli chose to also include the Five Bagatelles by William Walton, which are not only demanding for the guitarist but equally so for some listeners. I have a personal fondness for these pieces, and was pleased to find that Carelli navigated them with ease. Similarly, Carelli offers solid renditions of the other works on the CD which include "Romanza" (anon), "Cavatina" (Myers), and "Suite Espanola" (Sanz). If you or someone you know would like to be introduced to the world of classical guitar, you can do no better than this disc. It is my hope that Carelli will inspire others to the instrument, just as he was so inspired a little over a decade ago. © Timothy Smith

Chris Carelli's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Walton: Allegro" (mp3)

Brooks Williams, "Blues & Ballads", Red Guitar Blue Music RGBM-0501, 2006

Our wildest dreams probably include being invited into a musical artist's living room and kicking back over a few tunes. Accomplished guitarist and singer/songwriter Brooks Williams performs a fewthose living room tunes for us on his 15th release, "Blues and Ballads." In addition to the title categories, he presents a few jazz (notably a silky version of Miles Davis' "All Blues") and swing numbers (a dead-on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore"), all of which reflect Williams' wonderfully comfortable arrangements. He simply lives in these tunes. The songs come across like old friends, familiar and effortless -- something comfortable to slip into. With more than two decades of touring, as well as his work as an educator at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Williams well knows the art of presentation. He lovingly slides through Blind Boy Fuller's "Weepin' Willow Blues" and Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain." "At the root of every riff is the blues, it informs everything I play, write, and arrange," Williams has said. And he walks the walk as well. Accompanied only by John Daniel on stand-up bass, Williams performs on acoustic, bottleneck slide and resonator guitars, mandolin and vocals. Economical and sure-fingered, he's a true treasure, with a expressive, natural voice. He turns playful on "Honey Babe" and reflective with "Peacemaker's Hornpipe." Williams wraps up this stellar collection with a joyful, thoughtful take of Richard Jones' "Trouble in Mind." This is a CD to enjoy many times over. © Fred Kraus

Brooks Williams' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Weepin' Willow Blues" (mp3)

Arnaldo Lopez, "Someday", DPCD 2859, 2006

Flowing, cascading harmonics open Arnaldo Lopez's CD "Someday" on the title track. It's a good introduction to Lopez's refined sense of melody that carries throughout the recording. He lists Tommy Emmanuel as one of his inspirations, and many of his tunes carry within Emmanuel's sense of time and melody, without Tommy's rapid-fire arpeggios. It's a gentle, loose CD, with lovely, listenable songs at every turn. The title track draws you in to hope that yes, someday your dreams might just come true; it could happen. "Joy" is an upbeat, bouncy piece, while "Baroque" harkens back to that era in darker tones and complex chord changes. We play the game with Lopez on "Hide and Seek", darting from room to room. "Grandpa" would be perfect if Chet Atkins were your grandfather, because it's some good thumb picking a la Chet. The clock ticks slowly as we wind our way through "Time", with the melody played well against the moving bass line, with more harmonics used without overdoing it. The disc closes with the flight of "Angel" who must be a gentle soul as Lopez paints her. If you like Tommy Emmanuel's softer side, this CD will please your ears, and leave your face with a smile. © Kirk Albrecht

Arnaldo Lopez' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Someday" (mp3)

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