Saturday, October 18, 2014

Anne Hills – Tracks

Hand & Heart Music

On the appropriately named Tracks, Anne Hills turns her beautiful voice and highly skilled songwriter’s pen to songs about trains and people whose lives are affected by them. Like almost all of Anne’s solo albums and her many collaborative efforts, Tracks – with nine of Anne’s songs and four well-chosen covers – is filled with gorgeous singing and seemingly simple yet elegantly perfect acoustic arrangements.

Listening to this album, and particularly the third track, “Transcontinental” I was reminded of the late, great Doc Watson’s intro to a train song decades ago when he said that trains and the railroads were the most written about subject in folk songs. “Transcontinental” is a kind of theme song for the theme. Anne sings in the first-person but from the perspective of a train and ancillary components like the tracks of the role of trains in history, stories and songs. “You use me as a metaphor in song/ I’m romantic but I’m known for moving on/ bringing music, clowns and circuses to town/ and my cars roll by like verses in a ballad ten miles long.”

Among the highlights of Anne’s original material is the album opening “San Luis Valley Song,” a vivid account of a train ride through the San Luis Valley in Colorado just ahead of the seasons change that will bring in winter. Others include “I Rode ‘Em All, Man,” obviously inspired by the country song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” which kind of does for trains what “I’ve Been Everywhere” does for places; “The Littlest Hobo,” about a dog that rode the rails in the company of hobos (something Bruce “Utah” Phillips wrote about decades ago in “Queen of the Rails”); and “Maria Took the Train to Town,” a striking character study of a homeless woman.

Among the four cover songs, I particularly like Anne’s version of Michael Smith’s “Ballad of Dan Moody,” a song about train robbers in the Old West sung from the perspective of Dan Moody, a friend “who recently found Jesus.” Moody gives up his friends to the sheriff’s deputies only to see them murdered. There is also an excellent rendition of David Massengill’s “Rider on an Orphan Train,” the sad story of two young orphaned brothers who never each other again after they were split up for adoption.

The album ends with “Fallen Flag,” almost a sequel to “Transcontinental,” another beautiful song in which the train observes the passage of time and history from the first railroads to the present.

Working with co-producer, engineer and accompanist Don Richmond, Anne has made some great additions to that most written about subject in folk songs.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems

Popular Problems

Thinking about an introduction to my review of Popular Problems, released last month to coincide with Leonard Cohen’s 80th birthday, I’m drawn to back to what I wrote in 2012 at the release of Old Ideas, when Leonard was but a kid of 77:

“The songs of Leonard Cohen have been an important part of my life since 1968, when – like almost everyone in Montreal (or, at least, English-speaking Montreal) into music and/or poetry – I sat down with his newly-released first LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen, a masterwork of songwriting. I lost myself in Leonard’s voice, his music and his words on that album. Especially the words. I’ve been listening to those songs, over and over again, and to the songs on every album he’s released since, and I still find layers of meaning and new ways to interpret so many of them. A well-established man of letters, a poet and novelist, who was well into his 30s before recording that first album, Leonard has never been a simple singer-songwriter churning out ephemeral pop music.

“Even the songs on Leonard’s minor albums like Death of a Ladies Man or the somewhat uneven Dear Heather have kept me enthralled. And I’ve stayed enthralled when listening, over and over again, to albums like I’m Your Man built around mechanical-sounding, programmed keyboards, an approach to music-making I generally loath and have no time for in the hands of almost anyone but Leonard Cohen.

“Curiously, despite using variations on that pre-programmed keyboard approach on much of his recorded work since 1988, his concert tours in that same period have featured ensembles of world-class musicians and harmony singers and impeccable arrangements.”

Leonard was already an established poet for more than a decade before he emerged as a songwriter and it occurs to me as I’ve listened and re-listened to the songs on Popular Problems that it is Leonard the poet as much as Leonard the songwriter that we’re listening to. Many of them are sung in a way that suggests recitation as much as singing and some of them have musical accompaniments that bolster the singing/recitation with pulse or heartbeat rather than melody.

And the songs, for the most part, are not narratives whose meanings are clear. For example, in “Nevermind,” he is singing about the aftereffects of a war – but so much is unclear. There are allusions to spies and refugees, but are they literal? Figurative? There’s a haunting repeated passage from one of the back-up singers that sounds like it is in Arabic which suggests the Middle East – but that certainly doesn’t narrow down which war he might be singing about.

Among the most interesting songs is “Born in Chains,” a prayer-like meditation on the biblical legend of the Jewish Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and on faith lost and then found again. It is a song that Leonard has said he worked on for 40 years – but is that statement an allusion to the 40 years the Children of Israel spent wandering in the desert following the Exodus.

Another is “Samson in New Orleans,” a further deliberation on the city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – perhaps a continuation of what I believe he began with “Banjo” on Old Ideas.

In the final song, “You Got Me Singing,” Leonard again sounds like a folksinger in what could be a love song, or a prayer, or even a post-apocalyptic meditation.

Despite that pre-programmed keyboard approach that Leonard (and producer Patrick Leonard who composed the music for seven of the nine songs) uses on several of the tracks, Popular Problems is yet another compelling masterwork. These are songs I fully expect will continue to reveal more layers of meaning with every hearing.

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--Mike Regenstreif