It’s that time of year!
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
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.
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
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.
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.