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Rich Warren's Past Favorites

 

Rich Warren's Favorites of 2014

 

First, an explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2014" because the following list is but one listener's biased opinion. I have culled these from the many good recordings that crossed my CD player this year. I'm sure I forgot to include a few notable recordings. All told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 1000 new recordings, and I listened to about 500 new recordings, of which about 250 made it into the WFMT library, and about 150 received airplay. I do not include reissues and most compilations among these favorites. As the cut-off date is November 15, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Sometimes the mediocrity just overwhelms me while at other times I marvel at the creativity and talent. There are a mere eight favorites this year. It boiled down to being exceptionally discriminating or a list of 25. I probably could have halved these or doubled the number yet again. There was ample good music, but only these eight grabbed me. While I thought about these choices long and hard for several weeks, if not most of the year, had I made the list a day earlier or a day later it might have been slightly different.

If a good friend visited from out-of-town with only an hour or two to spare, and asked me to play my favorites from 2014, I would play the following. Actually, I have purchased quantities of several of them to give to friends for the holidays.

By way of explanation, I have annotated the CDs on the list, arranged alphabetically.

 

Vance Gilbert: Bad Dog Buffet Disimye 008
This CD encapsulates Vance Gilbert's genre-bending style from highly original humor to straight-to-the heart sorrow delivered with simple folky to busy pop production. He's all over the musical map with humorous songs about seasonal employment for reindeer, dismantling of marriage among other topics to sensitive songs of love and loss. His wide vocal range and expressiveness covers it all. This is one of his best balanced projects between his zany humor and heartfelt serious ballads. Gilbert entertains, a property missing from many, if not most releases.

 

Grace Griffith: Passing Through Blix Street 10108
Grace Griffith has suffered from Parkinson's disease for well over a decade. She was at her height of ability and success when confronted with the diagnosis. She refused to fall silent and worked for several years on this aptly named final album. (She lives, but probably will not record again.) Her voice remains as beautiful as ever and she has surrounded herself with talented accompanists. They include: Al Petteway, guitar; Sue Richards, Celtic Harp; Marcy Marxer, guitar, flute, percussion; and background vocals by Cary Creed, Lynn Hollyfield and Jody Marshall. The CD includes three previously unreleased older tracks, and a mesmerizing reprise from an early album of Betsy Rose's "Water, Fire, and Smoke." Griffith shares traditional songs along with compositions by Emmy Lou Harris, Tom Prasada-Rao, Rick Kemp, Julian of Norwich as set to music by Sydney Carter and many others. Some tracks are fully, but gently produced and others leave the beauty of her voice unadorned.
Here I quote her album notes: "Soon after that 2006 (final) concert, Griffith underwent a radical surgery called deep brain stimulation (via implanted electrodes) in hopes of regaining some of her lost abilities and quelling some of the disabling symptoms of Parkinson's. Because this was an experimental procedure, there was potential risk to her voice but in the end it was not affected. She had to be awake for the operation" Marxer recounts, "but the improvement was incredible, because before that she was barely able to walk and talk. It gave Grace her voice back."

 

Louise Mosrie: Lay It Down Zoe Cat 002
Louise Mosrie may well be the brightest young folk-oriented artist to emerge from Nashville in many a year. On her second release her pure, expressive voice delivers the songs with the perfect balance of expressiveness and direction. Better still, the exquisite, very low key production keeps Mosrie's voice out front and shining. This is Mosrie with a few well chosen, subtle accompanists. A pleasing aspect of this CD is its ideal mix of personal songs and songs outside of Mosrie's own life, such as a song set in the Civil War and one about a young girl leaving home for the larger world in 1920 and coming to grief. In my book, Mosrie's song "Singing My Heart Out" alone is worth buying this CD.

 

Carrie Newcomer: A Permeable Life Available Light 02
What can I say about Carrie Newcomer that I have not said in past years? That her lovely alto voice would bring glory to singing Google search results making you want to search endlessly? With "A Permeable Life" Newcomer continues her ever deepening spiritual journey of intriguing, moving and enlightening poetic songs. As with her past few CDs, she commands a firm balance between her voice and the accompanying production, creating a textured, sometimes lush bed for her voice. "A Permeable Life" is not merely listening to a CD, it is a passage. However, as she has with recent releases, Newcomer concludes with a rollickingly humorous song about our contemporary world.

 

Jim Photoglo: Halls of My Heart Grifftone 76481-10205
In a way, Jim Photoglo might be favorably compared as a male Carrie Newcomer. His smooth, engaging tenor voice glides through the mostly reflective and spiritual songs on this CD like a swallow in a spring breeze. There's a pleasing hint of Dan Fogelberg in his style. The songs take on different stages of life and ultimately the joy of life. There are songs for his son, which reflect on Photoglo's relationship with his own father. There's a tribute to America's melting pot of immigrants and a great a cappella song that's a paean to great soul singers. Another attribute is that Photoglo is a very in-demand musician in Nashville and he brilliantly plays a variety of instruments on this CD.

 

Shelley Posen: Roseberry Road Well Done 04
Shelly Posen maintains a solo career and also is one-third of the superb harmony trio Finest Kind. His delightful sense of humor comes through in half the songs on this recording whether they are about food, one of his favorite topics, camping, or canoeing, which also seems to be a passion. However, his serious songs are powerful and arresting, leaving you contemplating them long after the last note fades. The folk-oriented production is just right for Posen's pleasing voice and he creates a warm sitting-around-the-campfire vibe. When I hear complaints about they don't record folk albums like they 'usta,' I'd hand them Roseberry Road, even though there are no genuine folksongs on the CD.

 

We're About 9: Future Pilot self 00261-39744
I'd call We're About 9" a metaphysical trio. Just so you're not confused, they really exist as three mortal souls, Brian Gundersdoft, Katie Graybeal and Pat Klink. No one writes ethereally down-to-earth songs like member Gundersdorf, and he wrote nearly all the songs on this CD. Even if ethereally down-to-earth sounds like an oxymoron. They are at once mundane and spiritual, with a twist of clever, subtle humor spun into the thread. For example, a song about a drive from Boston to Baltimore becomes the roadmap of life. The songs are exceptionally poetic propelled by sensuous, intoxicating melodies, performed with equally sensuous harmonies. The voices and songs soar and dart both in sound and topic. The songs take several listenings to fully grasp the intent, but like a very fine wine, once you discover the complexity you'll understand and remember.

And a special mention:

 

Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures 1949-2013 Harbinger 3002
One rule of "Favorites" for a year is that they be new recordings of new and recent material. This 53-song, two-CD set of a vast array of Harnick's work covers 64 years. Many of the recordings were found in the proverbial closet or on the back shelves of studios. Many are co-writes, some with Harnick's long time songwriting partner Jerry Bock. There are several songs written for "Fiddler on the Roof" but never used in the show. There are recent recordings, such as one by Audra McDonald, along with very early solos by Harnick. You hear his voice solo, in duos and trios, as well as his songs covered by others who have recorded his work. The topics range from humor and satire, to serious and profound. He's the author of the popular The Merry Minuet often heard on The Midnight Special, along with a dozen other whimsical songs. Some of the tracks truly were rescued from oblivion and sound like it, while others are full high fidelity. Very rarely does such a compendium appear of unreleased or obscurely released material of a songwriting genius who can be considered part of the Great American Songbook. Incidentally, 90-year old Harnick continues alive and vital.

Rich Warren's Favorites of 2015

 

First, an explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2015" because the following list is but one listener's biased opinion. I have culled these from the many good recordings that crossed my CD player this year. I'm sure I forgot to include several notable recordings. They say the CD is waning, yet all told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 1000 new recordings, and I listened to about 500 new recordings, of which about 250 made it into the WFMT library, and about 150 received airplay. I do not include reissues and most compilations among these favorites, although there is a major exception this year. As the cut-off date is November 25, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Sometimes the mediocrity completely overwhelms me, while at other times I marvel at the creativity and brilliance. There are ten favorites this year. It boiled down to being exceptionally discriminating or a list of 25. I probably could have halved these or doubled the number yet again. There was ample good music, but only these ten grabbed me. While I thought about these choices long and hard for several weeks, if not most of the year, had I made the list a day earlier or a day later it might have been slightly different.

If a good friend visited from out-of-town with only an hour or two to spare, and asked me to play my favorites from 2015, I would play the following. Actually, I have purchased quantities of several of them to give to friends for the holidays.

By way of explanation, I have annotated the CDs on the list, arranged alphabetically.

Matthew Byrne: Hearts & Heroes self 79444-00525
Matthew Byrne, a young newcomer, hails from remote Newfoundland. The CD is a mixture of traditional and traditional-sounding songs, and a couple of exceptionally beautiful instruments showing of his guitar virtuosity. His interpretations show a respect for and intelligence about the music that makes this album special.

Dave Gunning: Lift Wee House of Music 2015
One of the many top notch singer-songwriters from Canada, another artist from the Maritimes, in this case, Nova Scotia, Gunning collaborates with a wide range of co-writers to sing about an array of topics and subjects that keep this album exceptionally entertaining, from songs with political overtones to old-fashioned love songs cleverly expressed. Gunning also is a fine singer and guitarist and this album will hold your attention from first to last track.

Lori Lieberman: Ready for the Storm Drive On 11511-14
Lori Lieberman's voices remains as gorgeous and expressive as it was 40 years ago, but now is even more nuanced and knowing as it expresses some exceptionally good lyrics and memorable melodies. Although most of the songs are broken-hearted love songs, there are few quite interesting vows and explorations that keep the CD interesting throughout. "Three Days" literally is a heart-stopper. Lieberman co-wrote most of the songs, so each has a slightly different flavor and feel. The production is simple and appropriate, never masking her superb voice.

Jim Malcolm: The Corncrake self 80992-14431
Jim Malcolm is now the dean of performing Scottish folk singers. Unlike many Scots singers, he spends most of his time at home in rural Scotland. His obvious affinity for the music gives this album authenticity, but he never buries the lyrics beneath an exaggerated Scots burr, although the dialect remains intact. As usual, he's chosen mostly traditional and traditional sounding songs to share. Beyond the material, his truly lovely voice proves that traditional singers can be enjoyed for their beauty as well as for keeping the great songs alive. Malcolm was once the lead singer of the popular group Old Blind Dogs and that band has never been quite as good since he left. Meanwhile, he's impressively grown as a solo artist.

Tom Paxton: Redemption Road Pax 010
Tom Paxton creates one amazing album after another. He's been at it for over 50 years. Not all of are equal brilliance, but a good Tom Paxton album surpasses most other singer-songwriters with ease. It's uncertain if this will be Paxton's last album of new material, but he ties up a few loose ends with songs about aging and retiring, as well as one exceptional love song, "Central Square." His sense of humor remains intact with a pair of humorous songs. No Paxton album would be complete without some humor. He also retains his political edge. In other words, this is the full Paxton buffet. However, he ends with "The Parting Glass," perhaps a message to his fans that he is leaving. Thus, this album is worth savoring as an example of the genius who has given us so many great songs.

John Roberts & Debra Cowan: Ballads Long and Short Golden Hind 111
Put together two of the most serious and humorous traditional singers of our time and be prepared for an album that honestly brings to life traditional music with a knowledge of the genre rare in our time. They compliment the traditional songs a few contemporary traditional sounding songs, including one with a definite wink and a nod. John Roberts a long time practitioner of the art of traditional music finally found a new singing partner worth his mettle in Debra Cowan, who possesses a most pleasing voice and love of the music. It's not merely that they do justice to the material on this CD; it's obvious that they enjoy it.

Elaine Romanelli: The Hour Before self 88295-24554
In an era of singer-songwriters with dubious production values, Elaine Romanelli shines like a super nova with just her and her grand pianos. Her utterly haunting performance leads down the mirrored corridors of lost love with highly original reflections and melodies that tug and pull emotions. While normally producers gum up recordings, in this case Si Kahn, mostly known for his labor and political songs, brings Romanelli to her full glory via sparseness. Of all the singer-songwriter recordings received this year, this one most unnerved me with its simultaneous simplicity and complexity.

Tom Russell: The Rose of Roscrae - A Ballad of the West Frontera 9
Tom Russell operates on Daniel Burnham's edict: "Make no small plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood." Picking up where The Man From God Knows Where left off over a decade ago, this magic rollicking, rambling two CD epic includes a score of guest performers, both living, recorded especially for this album and deceased from various audio archives. Thus, the album includes Walt Whitman and Lead Belly along with Maura O'Connell, Guy Clark and Eliza Gilkyson and even the Swiss Yodel Choir of Bern and the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. It ranges from rock to nearly acoustic, with bits of spoken poetry and narration. The original songs are Tom Russell instant classics. This is a mind bending journey through American history and the Irish diaspora best enjoyed with a sip of single- barrel aged bourbon.

Happy Traum: Just for the Love of It Lark's Nest 00261-42584
The title of the album sums it up. Happy Traum, the preeminent guitarist who started during the folk boom and accompanied many great artists, along with several albums with his late brother Artie, sat back, took stock and with a deep, subtle passion recorded an album of his favorite traditional and contemporary songs and instrumentals. Although well on in years, his fingers still do their dance on the guitar as agilely as in his youth and he sings with the experience only years provide. Many older artists attempt to go back and mine gold, but Traum succeeds. He's accompanied by many talented artists including John Sebastian on harmonica; Abby Newton, cello; Martin Simpson, guitar and David Amram, the one-man orchestra.

Joy of Living - A Tribute to Ewan MacColl
Damien Dempsey, Martin Carthy, The Unthanks, Seth Lakeman, Marry Waterson, Jack Steadman & Jamie MacColl, Dick Gaughan, Eliza Carthy, Chaim Tannenbaum, Steve Earle, Jarvis Cocker, Paul Buchanan, Paul Brady, Norma Waterson, Karine Polwart, Martin Simpson, Christy Moore, Billy Bragg, Rufus & Martha Wainwright, Kathryn Williams, David Gray Compass 748572
The contributors to the 21-tracks of this two-CD set read like a who's who of contemporary British folk, along with some surprises such as the Wainwrights and Steve Earle. The songs were selected by Ewan's children from his marriage with Peggy, Neill, Calum and Kitty. They included well known songs, some of which have slipped into the folk tradition, and some of Ewan's lesser known songs. If you're not familiar with Ewan MacColl, a Renaissance man, actor, writer, and singer, this is a fascinating introduction. For Ewan's fans this is a confirmation of the artistry and validity of his work. He would have been much more famous in the U.S., save for his politics that kept him out of this country for a decade or more. MacColl ranks high in the pantheon of traditional and contemporary folk artists and should never be forgotten. This set does him justice.