CD reviews for 2003 for 8-17-12

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Just Because I'm a Woman - The Songs of Dolly Parton - Anthology

A hoary old country music joke goes like this: "Porter Wagner and Dolly Parton, there's two big'uns." And while Porter will be best remembered for his spectacular hair and Nudie suits, Dolly Parton's 3000+song legacy insures her music will continue to be heard long after her chest is forgotten. Just Because I'm a Woman - Songs of Dolly Parton delivers eleven different artists' takes on some of her most memorable songs.

Dolly's first release, not so coincidentally also titled Just Because I'm a Woman, came out on RCA in 1968. Since then several generations of female musicians have been influenced not only by her on-stage persona, but also her magnificent voice and prodigious musical talent. As you might expect, a number of major country and bluegrass artists grace this new anthology, but musicians from other genres also contribute, making this collection far more encompassing than it would be otherwise. Melissa Etheridge, Joan Osborne, Sinead O'Connor, Me'Shell N'Degeocello, and Nora Jones' renditions of Parton classics certainly spice up the musical gumbo.  Alison Krauss, Shania Twain, Shelby Lynne, Mindy Smith, Allison Moorer, and Emmylou Harris all weigh in on the country side. As an added treat Parton herself adds her own freshly recorded version of "Just Because I'm a Woman" on the final track.

With all this exceptional talent, singling out the best cut on the album would make King Solomon stutter and shake. Sinead O'Connor turns in the most idiosyncratic rendition of "Dagger Through the Heart," but oddball arrangements have long been her forte. Me'Shell N'Degeocello's treatment of "Two Doors Down" turns this song into a Prince-like urban sex romp and comes in a close second. Kinky? You bet. The most ornate production award goes to Alison Moorer, whose version of "Light of a Clear Blue Morning" includes artificial record noise mated to a thick bed of synthesizers. My favorite cut has to be Joan Osborne's take on "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind." Produced by John Leventhal and Rick Depofi, who also play all the backup instruments, Osborne's strong but lilting voice delivers the song with disarmingly direct intimacy.

Just Because I'm a Woman adds to executive Steve Buckingham's considerable reputation as an anthology expert. His other projects, Evangeline Made: A Tribute to Cajun Music, It'll Come to You: The Songs of John Hiatt, and The Chieftains' last release, Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions, prove that Buckingham can take recordings made in many different studios and make them sound consistently good.  Even the Emmylou Harris selection, "To Daddy" from her mid 80's release Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town holds up well, due in no small part to the efforts of Eric Conn and Don Cobb from Independent Mastering in Nashville, Tennessee.

Putting together a great anthology involves the art of mating the familiar with the new to create a final result that is novel without being alien, and fresh without being trendy. Just Because I'm a Woman - Songs of Dolly Parton balances these contradictory influences to create an anthology that is almost as seductive as its music's creator.

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The Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo

2 CD Deluxe Edition

With the exception of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper or Dylan's' Another Side of Bob Dylan, few albums were as influential to future trends in popular music as the Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo. This album single-handedly made country music hip by melding rock and roll and country into something even longhair hippie dope fiends could love. We can hear the fruits of the Byrds' invention every time we turn on the radio and hear the latest "hot country" hits. At least the trend began with good intentions.

As befits an album of such importance, Sweetheart of the Rodeo has been reissued in every format except Aramaic Braille 8-track. This latest deluxe CD edition from Columbia's Legacy division includes 26 additional tracks besides those found on the original LP. Fourteen of the additional tracks are previously unreleased material. Two alternative versions of "All I Have is Memories" join rehearsal versions of "The Christian Life," "Life in Prison," "One Hundred Years from Now," and You're Still On My Mind." Six selections from Gram Parson's recordings with The International Submarine Band, as well as six versions of Byrds' tunes first released in 1990 complete this two CD extravaganza.

Is the musical quality of the additional bonus material equal to the original LP? In large part, no. The International Submarine Band singles are especially dreary. Even a few of the alternative and rehearsal versions of Sweetheart of the Rodeo classics might perhaps have been better left buried in Columbia's vaults. Still I suppose hardcore fans would prefer to hear for themselves that not everything the Byrds did was golden. But on the positive side, some of the rehearsal recordings are easily as good as final Sweetheart of the Rodeo recordings. Gram Parson's lead vocals on "The Christian Life," are sublime. His straight delivery coupled with Rodger McGuinn's florid harmony vocals work together beautifully.

As you might expect when you combine well-polished studio tracks with rough mixes and outtakes, the audio quality on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo deluxe box varies from damn fine for its time to quant to pretty bad. Again the International Submarine Band cuts are the worst offenders. Fortunately most CD players made during the last fifteen years have provisions for programming skipped tracks. Still even the lowest fidelity selections are rendered at least listenable due to Vic Anesini's fine re-mastering job. Lavish packaging includes newly penned liner notes by no less than Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke.  Like I said earlier, this is a significant re-release.

I suppose there may be some folks in the audience who don't have a copy of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. You need to have one, of course. This particular incarnation delivers the original recording in all its glory, and some of the added tracks are certainly worthy of airtime. Still I can't help but wonder if Gram Parson's legacy gains any stature from his early work with the International Submarine Band. But perhaps you should pick up a copy so you can form your own opinions on that.

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Todd Snider - Live - Near Truths and Hotel Rooms

I often wonder what happened to Lenny Bruce after he died. Now I know. He's been reincarnated as a wickedly funny singer-songwriter named Todd Snider. Though not everything Todd Snider performs is funny; actually a lot of it is achingly sad.  He often writes songs about the folks who wind up stuck in the eddies and stagnant whirlpools of the modern world's streaming bustle. Other songs celebrate the irrational in ways that can't help but make you smile.

Given the nature of Snider's music, it's appropriate him to be on John Prine's Oh Boy label. Snider sensibilities parallel Prine's affinity with the absurdities of modern life, but with his own unique spin on reality. Armed with only his voice, a Gibson J-200, and a harmonica, Snider delivers a roomful of music. Besides great songs, this live album lets you experience Todd Snider's superb comic timing. This guy knows how to tell a story perfectly, with maximum impact.  For those adverse to certain, actually most, four letter words, Snider's between song banter may be a tad too spicy. But for those who appreciate a bit of colorful speech, Snider knows how to use words for maximum effect.

Todd Snider has four previously released albums, all of which sport a full band and primarily electric orchestration. Live reveals that even stripped of studio niceties, songs such as "I Can't Complain," " Easy Money," and "I Spoke as a Child" remain powerful.  Although he mocks his own guitar playing abilities, Snider is a solid fingerpicker who is more than able to supply solid backup for his rustic vocalizations. As with anyone who mounts a stage solo with only a guitar and harmonica, parallels with early Bob Dylan performances immediately come to mind. Certainly Dylan is the archetype for this kind of performance style, but Snider makes the genre very much his own.

Sonically, Live is real, but not especially pretty. The piezo quack of Snider's Gibson could never be confused with the sound of a well-miked instrument in the studio. But despite the direct input guitar, the album captures the feeling of a live concert extremely well, complete with intro music and spontaneous crowd interactions.

Todd Snider deserves a larger audience, not just because he needs to eat, but also because he has something of value to offer. Baby boomers have an ample supply of traveling troubadours describing their sorry condition. Snider brings Woody Guthriesque acoustic sensibilities and Lenny Bruce's wit to the X generation. They can certainly use more of both.  

 

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