CD Reviews from 2002 - 5-11-12


Alison Krauss and Union Station - Alison Krauss + Union Station Live

Although there have been fine female bluegrass singers and songwriters in the past such as Hazel Dickens, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton who have achieved commercial success, Alison Krauss must be considered the first woman bluegrass superstar. Ever since her first release Alison Krauss' new CDs have maintained a remarkably high level of musical and technical consistency. Her latest recording, Alison Krauss + Union Station Live, shows why the audiences at her regularly sold out live shows always go home happy. 

Recorded over two evenings, April 29th and 30th 2002, at the Louisville Palace in Louisville, Kentucky (except one cut - Down To the River To Pray which was recorded at the Austin City Limits TV show), using Sony's new DSD recording format, this two-CD set manages to combine both great playing and great sound. Union Station's core members, Dan Tyminsky on guitar, mando, and baritone vocals, Ron Block on banjo, guitar, and tenor vocals, and Barry Bales on acoustic bass, are joined by Jerry Douglas on dobro and Larry Atamanuik on drums. This ensemble produces some of the tightest, most technically complex bluegrass music you will ever hear. Their precision three-part harmonies coupled with dazzling solos and complex arrangements set a dizzyingly high musical standard.

The sound on Alison Krauss + Union Station Live is nothing short of state of the art. The Sony DSD recording process is simply the most transparent and least colored methodology currently available. Chief engineer Larry Paczosa, assisted by Neal Cappellino, Tracy Martinson, Eric Bickel, Thomas Johnson, and K.C.Groves, captured the pristine quality of Alison Krauss and Union Station's live show. Frank Edmundson, their gifted road manager and house sound engineer who recently passed away at age 49, was renown in bluegrass circles as one of the best live sound guys around. The sonics on Alison Krauss + Union Station Live give you a taste of just how good amplified music can sound when done well.

Alison Krauss + Union Station Live is a must-have for Alison Krauss and bluegrass fans as well as anyone else who enjoys virtuoso acoustic music.



Patty Larkin - Red = Luck

Is Patty Larkin one of the most underrated musical artists on earth? If her tenth release Red = Luck is any indication, the answer is definitely yes. Her songs have been covered by the likes of Holly Cole and Cher, and her own performances have graced soundtracks the Movies "Evolution" and "Random Hearts." She has even been given an honorary doctorate by the Berklee College of Music, but Patty Larkin is still not exactly a household word. Perhaps Red = Luck will help remedy this situation.

Very few musicians make it to ten releases, and by that time many that have settled into standard musical formulas, but not Larkin. Red = Luck displays the kind of creative risk-taking rare among mature recording artists. Larkin's musical adventures shouldn't be confused with forced trendiness or artificial hipness. Instead her use of sonic effects and studio techniques are all in the service of her songs. Her processed vocals on "Louder" add another layer of meaning and complexity to her lyrics. But even on the most heavily produced selections such as "Inside Your Painting" the music still has a natural acoustic ambience that keeps the overall feeling intimate. Her co-producers Bette Warner and Ben Wittman put together a fine roster of backing musicians including Richard Gates and Mike Rivard on bass, Gideon Freudman on cello, Duke Levine and Jeff Lang on guitars, and Jonatha Brooke, Willy Porter, Merrie Amsterberg, and Jennifer Kimball on background vocals. But even with all this musical assistance Patty still contributes 6 and 12 string acoustic guitar, electric guitar, lapsteel, mandolin, bouzouki, and accordion parts in addition to writing every song on the disc. 

Perhaps the breadth of Larkin's musical talent is what prevents her from being a big pop star. Not just a fine songwriter or virtuoso musician, she combines her talents to create music with great melodies and lyrics that mean something. No simple images or easy pigeonholes define Larkin's music, which is made by an adult, for other adults. If you are ready for some seriously special music, Patty Larkin is ready for you. 



The Mammals - Evolver 

Old-timey music has gotten to the point where it's mult-generational. Take The Mammals as an example. Pete Seeger's grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger joins Jay Unger and Molly Mason's daughter Ruth Unger, and art-pop songwriter Michael Merenda in a trio that combine old time material in a new au-courant package. Six of the fourteen selections are rearranged traditional songs such as "House Carpenter," Way Down the Old Plank Road," "John Brown's Dream," "Lady Margaret," "Wandering Boy" and something called "Infinity Medley" which combines "Yellow Barber," "Sail Away Ladies" with a pair of original instrumentals. Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and the old standard " Stairway to the Stars" join six original songs including the very haunting tune penned by Michael Merenda,  "69 Pleasant St." The arrangement on "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is a god example of how The Mammals de-evolve a modern tune. Driven by a Clawhammer banjo combined with clogging percussion, their Carter-family-like two-part lead vocals move a 1990's song back into the 30's.  

The array of instruments played by this trio could easily fill up a paragraph. Their musical weapons include fiddle, ukeleles, 6 and 12- string guitars, ronrroco, glockenspiel, electric bass, 5-string and long-neck banjo, bodhran, percussion, and sewing machine. Musical guests include Jay Unger on fiddle and mandolin, Molly Mason on upright bass, Peter Ecklund on coronet, Liz Bustamante on kkeyboards, Johnny Irion on dobro, Sharon Leahy clogging, and Pete Seeger adding a monologue written by William James. 

Recorded and mixed in their own Humble Abode studios by Max Feldman, whose past credits include U2 and Lou Reed, Evolver sounds much better than you would expect from a self-produced first release. In fact Evolver's sonics match the best I've heard from any major studio. The sound is warm, natural, and very clean. Even on the densest mixes such as "Wandering Boy" every part is distinct.

50 years American music, as performed by the Mammals, hasn't changed very much. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and that in the words of a certain recently disgraced home style guru, "is a good thing."

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