Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Peter Cooper - Opening Day

Peter Cooper
Opening Day
Red Beet Records

The studious eight-year old in a Braves cap on the cover of this record is indeed Peter Cooper, the guy who thirty-five years later is writing the liner notes for his third solo album from Australia.  The man has clearly come a long way, and it’s those parts in between Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and a continent a half a world away that make this record such a delight.

The first of eleven tracks is the autobiographical Much Better Now, where Cooper details some of his employment history (among others, a waiter in a buffet restaurant where the people “can’t see their feet.”) The man who gave us the best song ever about baseball (715 (For Hank Aaron) from his 2008 debut release Mission Door) comes back with another excellent one in the title track, where unbridled optimism at the beginning of the season when “we’re tied for first with the whole season left to play” gives way to grim reality (“with a couple of breaks we might take fourth place”) by the end of the first verse.

Cooper’s songwriting has matured tremendously on this record. Always able to turn a phrase inside out effortlessly, here his attention to detail in each song complements the clever word-play.  As with his always excellent columns in the Tennessean, he writes with a detective’s eye, picking out details that define people, moments, situations. He takes a subject, builds on it, expands it, makes his point and most importantly, since we’re talking about songs, he makes it rhyme. The mood shifts from light-hearted (the eye-rolling Grandma’s Tattoo, co-written with Tommy Womack) to serious (Quiet Little War is about drone warfare and how you can fight a war in Afghanistan from New Mexico and go home to your wife each night or Jenny Died at 25, the type of death where you go on living.), but all the tracks are finely honed pieces, illustrated by pedal steel legend Lloyd Green, Jen Gunderman on keys, bass from Dave Jacques and Dave Roe, vocals from Eric Brace (with whom he’s recorded two fine albums), guitars from Richard Bennett (Mark Knopfler Band) and producer Thomm Jutz.

Peter Cooper is a journalist, a college professor and student of country music, a guest DJ on radio, a baseball fan and luckily for us, a songwriter and a musician.  With Opening Day, Cooper steps up into the bigs.

Curtis Lynch
September 2013

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Jason Isbell - Southeastern

Jason Isbell
Southeastern Records

On Cover Me Up, the opening track of Southeastern, Jason Isbell sings over an acoustic guitar and a moaning slide that “someone needs medical help or the magnolia’s bloom.”  That the couplet is at once unexpected and perfected crafted is what makes this record a finely polished dark gem. Fulfilling the promise of the young twenty-something whose songs and guitar energized the Drive-By Truckers, fleshed out their southern vision and contributed to what is arguably their two best records, The Dirty South and Decoration Day (the title cut belongs to Isbell) and washing away the inconsistencies of his solo and band recordings, this newfound creativity and sobriety was hinted at on last year’s release Live from Alabama.  On those performances, you could hear a man and a band that was operating at a higher level and with a resolute purpose and focus.  Jason Isbell had something to prove.

Whatever wreckage Isbell caused, created or enjoyed while partying his ass off gave fuel to his creative fires, at least when the smoke in his head cleared enough to write down what he remembered.  Painful and honest in a way that allows no self-pity, Isbell ponders his new life. On Live Oak, he realizes “there’s a man who walks beside me it’s who I used to be/and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me” and on Different Days, he sees that “ten years ago…I might have offered up my help in different ways/ But those were different days.”  The dozen tunes here are mostly built around acoustic guitars, relying on the strength of the songs and lyrics rather than raging electric riffs. The exceptions are Flying over Water, which utilizes a quiet/loud dynamic and Super 8, a snarling, undeniably great rock n roll tune the Faces would be proud of. In a recent interview, Jason said that he wasn’t going to leave a good song off the record just because it didn’t fit the mood,  but its placement is still jarring.

As a songwriter, Isbell is operating at a stratospheric, Guy Clark level, constructing lines like “sharecropper eyes and hair almost all gone,” from Elephant, the album’s emotional centerpiece, a tale of watching a friend suffer from cancer or the chilling, gothic Yvette, a story of abuse where the narrator, in a flat voice sings about “a bedroom upstairs/it’s a family affair” and how he’s “cleaning my Weatherby/and sighting my scope.” 

Southeastern is filled with addiction, redemption, and gumption.  Isbell, through force of will and lack of alcohol, has forged his most complete set of songs yet and one of the finest records of the year.

Curtis Lynch
July 2013

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Comeback Album - Eric Brace & Peter Cooper

The Comeback Album
Eric Brace & Peter Cooper
Red Beet Records

A comeback album?  Only these guys would slap such an ironic title on a record. 2011’s I Love: Tom T. Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow was a remake of Hall’s classic children’s record, nominated for a Grammy, one of my favorite albums that year, and Eric Brace and Peter Cooper were all over it, organizing, producing, coordinating,  singing. Their 2010 duo record, Master Sessions, featured pedal steel king Lloyd Green and dobro wiz Mike Auldridge (The Seldom Scene). On this, their third record together, Brace and Cooper complete each other’s lines like a married couple finishes each other sentences. This familiarity breeds not contempt but better performances.  Brace is the more emotional songwriter, while Cooper is adept at wry lyrics. Brace is literal, where Cooper is literate. But instead of each song being a Brace song or a Cooper song, this time out they’re Brace and Cooper songs. On Johnson City, Brace takes the more direct route, singing about being locked up in the Tennessee town’s pokey (“I know the way to Johnson City/ now I just gotta find my way out”) while Cooper comes in on the bridge detailing a surreal jailhouse conversation with God.  

The opener Ancient History is one of their tradmark clever, up-tempo tracks, a meditation on the impermanence of existence using stage names and nicknames as a metaphor for change in life. (“Richard Nixon was Tricky Dick/Dick trickle was a race car driver, no really he was a race car driver, a talented popular race car driver”). Baseball references are scattered throughout (also from Ancient History: Sid Bream was safe at homethe eighth world wonder was the Astrodome”), although I wish they had included Cooper’s fine song Opening Day on this release.  Nine of the twelve tracks were written by Brace and/or Cooper, with one of the covers coming from the aforementioned Tom T. Hall, Mad, which features guests Duane Eddy, Mac Wiseman and Marty Stuart (“When she’s mad, that’s a dangerous game/in the obituary column, they’ve already printed my name.”). Recorded in Nashville (of course) by Thomm Jutz, the album features a core of stellar musicians, including Paul Griffith on drums, Dave Jacques on bass, Green on pedal steel, and Jen Gunderman on keys.

The overall theme here seems to be one of uncertainty, whether the protagonists in the songs are in jail looking for bail, a perennial loser buying lottery tickets or a sailor adrift in the darkness. But that doesn’t mean the album is dark or completely introspective. Eric Brace and Peter Cooper see to that through their solid songwriting, singing and impeccable harmonies. The Comeback Album may not be an over-the-fence, Ruthian home run, but it’s a solid rap into the gap, a triple and with a combination of determination and talent, Brace and Cooper score.  Just like Sid Bream.

Curtis Lynch
May 2013

Monday, February 4, 2013

Hundred Word Highlights - February 2012

Hundred Word Highlights
Each CD review is guaranteed to be a full one hundred words, because sometimes ninety-nine and a half won’t do.

Mike Cooley
The Fool on Every Corner
In November of last year, Hundred Word Highlights reviewed Patterson Hood’s record Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance and this month is his partner Mike Cooley’s turn.  The Drive-By Truckers’ other half may be less loquacious and prolific than Mr. Hood, but he is just as talented of a songwriter and performer.  This live acoustic solo recording showcases finger-picked versions of his rock tunes along with a full glass of wit served with a side of sly winks and surprisingly keen insights. Cooley even picks up the banjo for an eerily wicked take on Cottonseed. Picks: Cottonseed, Carl Perkins Cadillac.

Buddy and Jim

Two of the brightest stars in the Americana firmament team up for this collection of country, R&B and good-natured rock. Buddy and Jim are well-respected musicians, with shelves of awards between them, but more than that, they’re friends and this record has that easy vibe of two buddies making music together. There’s not a Buddy song or a Jim song, they both own them, especially when their harmonies remind you of the Everly Brothers with a twang. The eleven songs won’t break any new ground, but that’s kinda the point.  Picks: Vampire Girl, I Lost My Job of Loving You.

Curtis Lynch
February 2013

Mary Gauthier
Live at Blue Rock
In the Black Records

Mary Gauthier’s songs, like the artist herself, require your attention before their brilliance becomes apparent. This is music that involves and captivates, not background music that slides underneath whatever else you have going on. In the same way Bob Dylan’s early lyrics held meaning and weight, her songs are carefully crafted, whittled and polished until what remains is gleaming, straight and perfect.  Gauthier, Louisiana-born but now living in Nashville, has a lyrical preoccupation with outcasts and outsiders and her songs are imbued with a sense of her real life, a hard life, and so are the three covers she chose for Live at Blue Rock, all from another fine songwriter, Fred Eaglesmith. A teenaged runaway and recovering addict, Gauthier sings about what she knows, or as another cinematic songwriter, Guy Clark, put it in his song Homeless, “the bums, the whores and the abused.”

The eleven tracks here were recorded in an intimate setting outside of Austin, Texas, with Mary on vocals and acoustic guitar, Mike Meadows on percussion and the wonderful Tania Elizabeth on fiddle and vocals. Tania’s fiddle perfectly accentuates the songs and is an essential element, while the percussion is solid throughout.  On some tunes, not a syllable is wasted, not a line thrown away and on others the words tumble out like coins from a Biloxi jackpot, especially on Wheel Inside the Wheel (a track covered by Jimmy Buffett, she sometimes jokes that his cut of this tune allows her to drive a nice car). It’s a Mardi Gras tune of a surreal sort (“Sipping wormwood concoctions/drinking absinthe and talking trash/it’s a red carpet, black tie all night celestial bash.”) that caps the record, rolling to a driving, joyous conclusion.

Her sixth record overall and her first live recording, Live at Blue Rock may not be an easy record to like, but it’s an incredibly easy record to love.

Curtis Lynch
February 2012
 Mary Gauthier's "I Drink"