Posts Tagged ‘Gary Paczosa’

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – “Calling Me Home”

September 10, 2012

Kathy Mattea

Calling Me Home

* * * * * 

Coming off the supposed one-off side project Coal, Kathy Mattea found her purpose as a recording artist transformed from a commercial country singer to an Appalachian folk singer. The four-year journey has led to a full exploration of her West Virginian roots and the land surrounding the mountains where she’s from.

Calling Me Home finds Kathy exploring the austere realities of man’s desire for growth at the expense of preserving our natural world. The album richly chronicles the death of nature from many perspectives, and features the works of notable folk and bluegrass singer/songwriters Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Alice Garrard, and Hazel Dickens among others.

“The Woodthrush’s Song,” written by Lewis, leads the charge with an effective thesis on the drawbacks of advancement within the human race:

Man is the inventor, the builder, the sage


The writer and seeker of truth by the page


But all of his knowledge can never explain


The deep mystery of the Wood Thrush refrain 

The thesis makes a bold yet true statement, and I connected with the way Lewis used the plight of the Wood Thrush to hone in her main point about man’s relentlessness to grow, seemingly without consequence.

Kathy explores that sentiment on a more human level with Ritchie’s masterfully heartbreaking “Black Waters,” a crying out over the state of Kentucky’s decision to allow the building of a strip mine in her backyard. I was taken aback by the brilliance in Ritchie’s storytelling; how she layered the vivid imagery to devastating effect. The climax of the track comes towards the end, when Kathy sings about Richie’s lack of sympathy from those causing the destruction:

In the summer come a nice man, says everything’s fine


My employer just requires a way to his mine

Then they blew down the timber and covered my corn


And the grave on the hillside’s a mile deeper down


And the man stands and talks with his hat in his hand


As the poison black waters rise over my land

“Black Waters” comes off a bit too sing-song-y, a bit too commercial in feel. But the lyrical content speaks for itself as does the haunting combination of Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, which adds an additional texture to the proceedings.

Kathy continues her main theme on Lewis’s “The Maple’s Lament,” which is told from the prospective of a maple tree dying so the fiddle can live (Lewis is a master fiddle player, hence the elegant fiddle that opens the track). The concept sounds strange on the onset, but it’s a beautiful number about an element of nature (trees) we all take for granted.

A part from man’s destruction of nature, these songs explore the broader theme of home, whither it’s the structure where we live or the land we were birthed from. Kathy further explores the coal mining lifestyle on Ritchie’s disturbing “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” which chronicles the death of miner from the often overlooked prospective of the wife and children he leaves behind. Kathy brings it to life unlike any other track on the album simply from her authoritative vocal, which places the listener directly into the small town from which the song arises.

The title track quite literally rests on Kathy’s vocal, and marks one of two a cappella tracks on the project. Another angle on the idea of home, Kathy sings Garrard’s tale of a man’s final moments on earth and the friend there with him. It’s a beautifully touching story, and the lack of production furthers the emotional resonance of the track. The other a cappella track, Ritchie’s “Now Is The Cool of the Day” works a bit less well as it becomes a bit repetitive, but Kathy manages to save it with her compelling vocal.

Thankfully, not all the songs are bleak. Possibly my favorite track (that distinction changes almost daily) is Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home,” a love letter to Kathy’s home state. I love everything about it, from the folk/Celtic arrangement to Kathy’s gorgeous phrasing of the lyrics. Mollie O’Brien makes the execution of the track even better with the lightness of her harmony vocal perfectly offsetting the richer tones of Kathy’s voice. This track is nothing short of magic.

“Hello, My Name Is Coal” is the closest the album comes to black comedy, as Kathy takes on the titular object in Larry Cordle and Jeneé Fleenor’s tale. The track also boasts the album’s sunniest accompaniment, and is the one most likely to get stuck in your head. What sold the song for me was Oliver Wood’s harmony vocal, raw grit that feels abstracted from the earth, mirroring the coal itself.

“Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” written by Western Pennsylvanian Si Kan, may not be the happiest track on the album, but it boasts my other favorite production. The plucky banjo opening is so ear catching you can’t help but be drawn in to the tale of a grandfather leaving life (corn stalks and apple trees) behind on his land for his grandchildren to enjoy as the grow up.

I also admire Mike and Janet Dowling’s tale of homesickness, “A Far Cry.” No matter where you’re from, when you leave your home for another land, you leave behind that sense of belonging engrained in you from birth. They capture these universal feelings perfectly.

What’s surprising to me is how much I love and adore this album. Calling Me Home took me many listens to fully embrace, as I found myself unable to grasp the density of Gary Paczosa’s production values, especially the slowness of the ballads and the choice to record “Calling Me Home” and “Now Is The Cool Of The Day” a cappella. But the more I listen, the more I connect with Kathy’s ability to bring each song to life in its own way solely with her voice, and that was my ticket to appreciating the record as a whole. I’m also an avid nature lover and connected with Calling Me Home on that level as well.

I’ve since come to understand Calling Me Home as a declaration of Kathy’s authentic self, her Mountain Soul, the portrait of a woman operating from an authoritative space deep within. These aren’t merely emotionally driven vocal performances but glimpses into her core. There’s a palpable urgency to her singing that drives the record from start to finish, a need to spread these messages to anyone who’ll listen. She’s never sounded so grounded, so pure as she does here.

This is the music Kathy was put on earth to sing, and I cannot wait to witness the journey she takes with this record, and what will follow in the years to come. I feel like I’m discovering the breadth of her talent for the first time, in the same way she’s discovering her purpose as a recording artist.

I cannot recommend this album enough.

Advertisements

Album Review – Joey + Rory – “His and Hers”

July 30, 2012

Joey + Rory

His and Hers

* * * * 1/2

When The Life of a Song launched the career of husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek in 2009, it established a rarity – an artist using traditional country music as the basis for their sound, without a rock or pop element in sight. It also introduced Martin’s astonishing soprano, a crystal clear vision cut from the Dolly Parton / Emmylou Harris cloth all the while sounding uniquely herself.

A sophomore CD Album Number Two and Holiday collection A Farmhouse Christmas followed, but their new release His and Hers is the fullest picture of their individuality yet. Martin and Feek trade off lead vocals for the first time, but smartly avoid the pitfalls of sounding pieced together. And by sticking firmly to their traditional roots, Joey + Rory have made not only their most satisfying album, but also one of the most authentic recordings of the year.

It’s all too easy to knock His and Hers for sounding too retro. The exclusion of electric guitars and decision to record songs displaying actual depth will alienate it from the majority of mainstream listeners, while the ample steel guitar, flourishes of dobro, and touches of fiddle will make it essential listening for country music aficionados.

The strongest material on His and Hers comes when the songs aren’t bogged down with detours into comical situations. “Josephine,” a Feek original inspired by real life letters between a Civil War soldier and his wife leads the way in stunning fashion. Backed by an ear catching bluegrass-y mix of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, Feek tells his story with striking poignancy, detailing the horrors of war in a way still relevant today.

Also touching is “The Bible and A Belt,” a tribute to two apparatuses used in raising a child. Another Feek original, he conveys the emotional story with an everyman quality that keeps it universal all the while sounding deeply personal. The soft mix of dobro, mandolin, and acoustic guitar frames the ballad beautifully, giving Feek the perfect bed to lay down his vocal.

Like Feek, Martin succeeds brilliantly in bringing her material to life. The emotional centerpiece of the album, Sandy Emory Lawrence’s “When I’m Gone” rests on Martin’s gentle vocal, the guiding force in drawing out the song’s emotional core. The story of a wife’s plea to her husband about life after she passes is a remainder that quality material is still being written and performed, a fact lost by any major recording label, no matter the genre.

Martin also breeds life into the title track, a full-circle story about a couple’s love and eventual parting of ways. Their knack for song selection is on full display here as what appears to be a simple love song unfolds into something quite different. But storyline aside, the beauty of this track is Gary Paczosa’s production, which lets the song build from Martin’s gorgeous a capella beginning to an instrumental bed of sliding steel and fiddle.

One can easily be forgiven for categorizing His and Hers as a somber album, as the standout tracks are darker than the usual radio fare. But the project has its share of lighter moments, too, although the results are a mixed bag.

The Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We Never Met,” a fast paced traditional honky-tonker complete with infectious steel, is the best at mixing the duo’s offbeat wit with their serious demeanor and stands as a fine showcase for Martin’s playful vocal abilities. Also excellent is “Love Your Man” a 90s country throwback on par with some of Patty Loveless’ best work.

“Someday When I Grow Up,” another Feek original, tries too hard to convey its tale of boyish leanings, all the while smartly avoiding detours into the frat boy lifestyle. While “Your Man Loves You Honey,” a Tom T. Hall penned tune he brought to #4 in 1977, fails to bring anything new to the song and feels more carbon copy than remake. Another oddity is “Waitin’ For Someone,” a Martin fronted tune about blind dating that’s technically fine, but lacks an added spark to make it stand out against the album’s strongest material.

His and Hers rebounds splendidly with the gorgeous “Cryin’ Smile,” a tender ballad showcasing the breadth of Feek’s uncomplicated yet powerful vocal style. Pure and simple, “Cryin’ Smile” is a heavenly piece of country music, harkening back to a day when melodies were uncluttered, and steel guitar extenuated real life storytelling.

The winning streak continues with “He’s A Cowboy,” another simple ballad showcasing the duo’s adeptness at making real country music sound effortless. The arrangement works in the song’s favor and slowly builds behind Martin’s tender (but tough) vocal. “Teaching Me How To Love You” works in much the same way, but uses a nice dose of fiddle and acoustic guitar as its backdrop.

His and Hers will likely be ranked among the top country albums of 2012, if only for Martin and Feek’s ability to stay true to the history of country music all the while pushing the genre forward in all the appropriate ways. They stay clear of clichés, and avoid any tendencies to overcomplicate matters, something I greatly appreciate. And unlike most duos, they’re vocally equal, each bringing a comfortable every person quality to their perspective songs.

Of the song selection, Martin says it best – “It has to be genuine, it has to be honest, it has to be sincere.” Who could ask for anything more?