Three More Great Albums from 2004

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Randall Bramblett - Thin Places

New West Records

The New West label has a remarkable knack for putting out arresting releases with original musical voices. For many years Randall Bramblett has made a living as a sideman, playing keyboards, sax, and background vocals for the likes of Gregg Allman, Sea Level, Widespread Panic, Levon Helm, and Stevie Winwood. His second release for New West, Thin Places, proves Bramblett can write songs that equal anything written by anyone, anytime. His vocal delivery and arrangement show a level of musical maturity found only in a select few popular musicians.

What makes Randall Bramblett so special? Every time I hear Thin Places I'm struck by his amazing combination of infectious melodies, insightful and personal lyrics, and tight arrangements. Every song comes across like a rare gem set in a perfect piece of jewelry. Trying to fit Bramblett's music into a particular genre presents a daunting challenge. Adult rock? Too limiting. Roots rock? It's far more sophisticated than that. Singer-Songwriter? The music has too much energy for this category. No, the best description I can come up with is to call it "killer contemporary."

Five of the songs on Thin Places are co-written by guitarist Jason Slatton. Other members of Bramblett's band include producer Michael Rhodes on bass, Davis Causey and Kenny Greenberg on electric guitars, Shawn Pelton on drums, and Ashley Cleveland on backing vocals. Randall Bramblett handles all the lead vocals, Hammond B-3 organ, piano, saxophone, and harmonium.

The musical arrangements on Thin Places deserve some attention. Every song has a unique structure and shape. None just start and stop. They all have subtlety evolving orchestrations, with instruments drifting to the front of the mix and then receding into the musical texture. All this musical intricacy would be lost if the recording and mixing were not first rate. Engineer Dave Sinko, assistant engineer Joshua Muncy, and mastering engineer Ken Love have created a sonic masterpiece that easily rivals the best pop recordings I've ever heard. The Beatlesque "Are You Satisfied"  creates a wall of sound so beautiful that it would make Phil Spector turn in all his guns. "Chet Baker" features a perfectly articulated lyrical bass line recorded so it functions as lead instrument rather than merely a bass fundamental. The piece de resistance has to be the final cut "I Don't Care" which has a brooding yet anthemic sonic quality that makes merely living into a supremely heroic act.   

Although 2004 has barely begun, I feel confident in predicting that Thin Places will be on my top ten list for the year. If you don't give this disc a spin you are missing out on something special.

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Janis Ian - Billie's Bones

Oh Boy records

My fondness for Janis Ian comes as no surprise to longtime VG readers. My monthly column is named after one of her songs, and I have been following her career ever since I bought my first LP, which was also her first LP. Billie's Bones marks another installment in her musical saga, and like most of her work, lets us into her rich interior world.

Close on the heels of her live double CD release, Billie's Bones features all new material recorded in a studio environment. Songwriting is not just an art, but also a craft, and the craft of songwriting takes years to perfect. Here, on Ian's eighteenth studio album, you can't help but be impressed by her mastery of this craft. On the title track "Billie's Bones" she combines haunting melody with multi-leveled lyrics to create an arresting sonic landscape. Other songs take you from Paris to Amsterdam and back to her adopted home of Nashville. The uniting force is Janis Ian's sharp wit, musical soul, poetic heart, and crusading will. 

Produced by Jeff Balding and Marc Mareau with her longtime front of house engineer Phillip Clark serving as the associate producer, Billie's Bones has the polish and finesse of a major label production. The musicians roster includes Jim Brock on percussion and drums, Richard Davis on upright and arco bass, Dan Dugmore on dobro, lap and pedal steel, electric guitars, banjo, and nylon string guitar, with Harry Stinson and Dolly Parton on harmony vocal joining Janis' acoustic guitars, keyboards, and lead vocals. More fully fleshed out than her last studio release, God and the FBI, which was done on a Mac in a rented house, the arrangements on Billie's Bones remain understated so that Janis' voice remains in the forefront of the mix. The songs are the stars here.

In an age where most pop stars' careers are over before they are old enough to get their drivers' licenses, it's heartening to see that an adult artist can not only survive, but also continue to expand artistically. Janis Ian is my hero. She proves that modern musical art is not the exclusive province of the young, and that given half a chance a contemporary musical artist can continually grow and prosper. 

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Randy Thompson - That's Not Me

Jackpot/Leaps Records

People are always talking about "authentic" country music, but when pinned to the wall, most never come up with a good definition of what they mean. I know better. When I find myself heading down the slippery slope decrying the sorry state of contemporary country music, I just put on Randy Thompson's new CD That's Not Me.  Randy captures the essence of "authentic" country music without working up a sweat. His music has swagger with substance, twang with meaning.

With musicians you can tell a lot by the company they keep. Randy Thompson surrounds himself with some fine fellow travelers. Rickie Simpkins on fiddle, Mike Auldridge on steel guitar, Rick West on guitar, bass, piano, and mandolin, Andy Hamburger on drums, Garrick Alden on lead guitar, bass, and mandolin, and Maura Kennedy on harmony vocals join Thompson's strong vocals and tasteful acoustic guitar. Besides lead vocals, Thompson contributes eight of the nine songs on the disc. The title cut "It's Not Me" could be a sure-fire hit for whatever stadium hat-act with enough savvy enough to cover it. The combination of bittersweet lyrics coupled with infectious melody two-steps its way into your being.  My favorite selection on the disc is "Dance Until Dawn." It kicks off with a powerful guitar lick followed pell-mell by a veritable wall of electric guitar twang. The solo located mid tune epitomizes how Thompson's music is different from the usual Nashville fare; instead of a guitar pyrotechnics you get a basic melodic solo that ain't slick, but fits the song perfectly.

Production values on That's Not Me are far better than you'd expect from a small label release. Garrick Allen deserves much of the credit for the sonics. Her wears a double-sided cowboy hat of co-producer and engineer on five of the nine cuts. Rick West takes over producer/engineer duties for three cuts, and Pete Kennedy takes the reins for one selection. Like the music itself, the sound here is straightforward and honest, direct and clear, without too much tarting up or sweetening to blunt its visceral effect.

If Buck Owens and early Dwight Yoakum gets you off, you're gonna' love Randy Thompson. He understands what it takes to make authentic country music that's special.

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