September 30, 2004
Gear Live Playlist: Ray Lamontagne, Citizen Cope, Jamie Cullem, Damien Rice, Nick Drake
Playlist takes a look at the world of male singer-songwriters this week, a tradition going back to Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, and continuing today with a whole list of gifted musicians. New releases by two American newcomers, and some recent releases and a collection essential from their British counterparts. Enjoy the world where all you need is an acoustic guitar and a lyric sheet.
Ray Lamontagne – Trouble
In the interest of full disclosure, my reason for buying this album was Ray Lamontagne’s connection to my native state of Maine. The singer-songwriter has spent the last few years living in a cabin in the woods of Wilton, Maine, with his wife, kids and no electricity or cable. Apparently being cut off from society leads one to search the soul, because the lyrics on "Trouble" are incredibly personal and poetic. One can’t imagine a bigger life change that going from a log cabin to a major label deal with RCA, but if “Trouble” is any indication, the transition has been seamless. A review in “The Portland Phoenix” summed it up best, “I want him (Lamontagne) to get really famous, just so someone will make a movie of his life so I can watch it”. With his gritty voice, which sounds like a white Otis Redding, listening to Lamontagne read the phone book would be better than a lot of albums out right now. The phone book doesn’t make an appearance here, but with lyrics like “Listen, try to ignore, all this blood on the floor, it’s just this heart on my sleeve, and it’s bleeding” and backup vocals and violin by Nickel Creek’s Sarah Watkins, “Trouble” is one of the best albums I have heard this year. Because of the aching “Burn” and the beauty of “Jolene”, “Trouble” gets a 9/10.
Citizen Cope – The Clarence Greenwood Recordings
In the vein of G. Love and Everlast before him, Citizen Cope is a singer-songwriter who fuses folk with hip-hop in interesting, but ultimately disappointing ways. Citizen Cope’s backing music is great, layered with great bass lines and numerous instruments, but his voice and lyrics are just plain mediocre. The nonsensical “Pablo Picasso” is baffling, and ultimately disappointing. The rest of the album is full of sickly cheery lines like “The sun gonna rise in a mile” and the run of the mill reggae/hip-hop/r&b talking points of Babylon and Jah. Seems like Cope is trying to angle for an image, the white guy with soul, or the singer-songwriter who prays to the gospel of Bob Marley. The bright spot on the album is “Sideways”, which is still repetitive, but a pretty decent song. All in all, “The Clarence Greenwood Recordings” gets a 6/10.
BEST RECENT RELEASES
Jamie Cullem – Twentysomething
The pop music world has been invaded recently by what many critics call “old souls”, young artists covering/sounding like their much older counterparts. Artists like Norah Jones, Joss Stone, Michel Buble, Nellie McKay and now Jamie Cullem. Cullem has been a star in his native Britain for a little while now, but is attempting to crash the U.S. market with his blend of jazz, pop and soul. Cullem wrote about half the songs on the album, with the rest of the songs covers of Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, N.E.R.D. and Jimi Hendix. Ultimately, Cullem’s strongest skill is his reinterpretation of jazz-pop standards like “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “What A Difference A Day Makes” and “Singing In The Rain”. To update these songs while still retaining their folksy charm is not easily accomplished, but Cullem does it with aplomb. Jamie Cullem is definitely a polished performer, which is a strength and definitely a weakness, lacking much in the way of original songwriting and vocal range, Cullem relies too much on borrowed material. Not a bad listen, but if you are looking for something serious or though provoking, this isn’t it, but sometimes that is what pop music is all about.
Damien Rice – B Sides
After the release of 2003’s “O”, Damien Rice has toured ceaselessly, while winning 2003’s Shortlist Award (a rather prestigious honor). “B Sides” is filled with live & unreleased versions of songs from “O”, as well as a couple of songs that didn’t make the “O” cut, but really should have. The album starts with “The Professor”, which is one of the best-written songs I have heard in years. Basically a look at love from the eyes of an academic, who tries to understand attraction as a scientific or logical endeavor, but obviously fails miserably. The line “loving is fine if you’ve plenty of time, for walking on stilts at the edge of your mind” is just an example of Rice’s poetry. The only weak point on this seven-track disc is “Moody Monday”, which is quickly forgotten because of acoustic live versions of “Delicate”, “The Blowers Daughter” and “Woman Like A Man”. All in all, if you didn’t pick up “O”, grab that disc, but if you are a fan of Damien Rice, or even a fan of just good music, grab “B-Sides”.
Nick Drake – Pink Moon
I first heard Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” on a Volkswagen commercial, which is not a common place for me to be introduced to an artist. I couldn’t get that song out of my head, so I bought “Way To Blue: An Introduction To Nick Drake”, basically a greatest hits album. I kept coming back to the fact that my favorite songs on “Way To Blue” were all on “Pink Moon”, so I quickly got my hands on that album. “Pink Moon” was the last album Nick Drake recorded before dying from a mysterious overdose of anti-depressants, robbing the world of another great artist about to break big. “Pink Moon” is the sound of Nick Drake reaching deep inside it laying it down on the reels, of a man using just his voice and an acoustic guitar to explain himself, of Drake’s melancholy but somehow hopeful view that even though the sky is cloudy, hopefully soon the sun will shine. The first track, the title track, was obviously the biggest hit off of the album, with incredible acoustic guitar work, and Drake’s voice at near perfection, achieving a balance that holds throughout the cd. There is something in Drake’s voice that lulls you into a calm that even though life may be hectic, even though the rain might fall, it’s not really as bad as it seems. “Place To Be”, “Which Will” and “Parasite” and songs stripped to nothing but emotion, no overproduction, no multi-track layering, just pure emotion. My favorite track on “Pink Moon” is , with a chugging, repeating guitar loop and Drake humming along, almost a farewell to his fans “Know that I love you, Know I don't care, Know that I see you, Know I'm not there.” We just wish that you were still here.
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