It’s never easy to declare an Album of The Year winner, even in the Deep Roots world wherein multiple albums are awarded said distinction. How do you not include the vocational nuns of Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles for their Lent At Ephesus, a 23-track masterwork of poignant chants, intricate harmonies and rousing hymns of glory and redemption? How do you confine to the Elite Half Hundred the world’s best selling classical artist, Cecilia Bartoli, when she blesses us with performances as rich as those on her 2014 release, St. Petersburg: Music From Imperial Russia? We could go on, given the broad definition of roots music we embrace here.
But in the end five albums simply rose above those comprising our version of a year-end Top 50, the Elite Half Hundred. One thing we learn from this quintet of honorees is what a good year 2005 was. Who knew? Sean Costello’s In The Magic Shop was recorded in 2005 but only saw the light of day in 2014. The searing tracks on In The Magic Shop were recorded at New York City’s The Magic Shop studio with Grammy winning producer (and studio owner) Steve Rosenthal in sessions that produced Sean’s lauded 2005 self-titled CD. After Costello passed away in 2008, the extra tracks remained locked away in the Magic Shop vault until Rosenthal, though still shaken by Costello’s death, retrieved them and found himself immersed in the amazing music Sean had made years earlier. Rosenthal’s emotional liner notes are one of the album’s many virtues, but in the end the power and passion of the music carries the day, in a big way.
Joining the Album of the Year fray are the latest releases from three superb veteran songwriters. Sadly, one of those was no longer with us when his beautiful final testament was issued this past fall. Jesse Winchester began recording what became A Reasonable Amount of Trouble when the cancer that would take his life was in remission. Whether he knew it was his final hurrah we can only guess, but the lyrics seem to suggest so. More to the point, as our review observes, “few artists have fashioned a final testament as generous, as warm-hearted, as amusing, as insightful and, not least of all, as everlastingly beautiful as this one will surely be judged in our time ahead.” Serious thought was given to making Jesse’s album the sole Album of the Year—who could argue with that?—but in the end we were sure this most gracious of men would have been honored to be in the company of four such thoughtful and compelling stylists as he is here, all working at the peak of their powers.
One of those stylists is bluegrass giant Peter Rowan, who began his career almost half a century ago as a young whippersnapper of a Blue Grass Boy in Bill Monroe’s band. Rowan’s last few solo albums—notably 2010’s Legacy and 2013’s The Old School—have been replete with the expected inspired playing but also have found him going deeper into himself, exploring in song his values and beliefs, as shaped by his immersion in Buddhism. Last year he took it all to a whole other, higher level on Dharma Blues. Meshing folk, bluegrass, blues, country and stylistic quotations from Indian music, and in his lyrics seeing things more clearly than he did on Legacy and understanding certain truths he had not examined fully four years ago, Rowan winds up in a place of inner peace and personal clarity, and does so in a way a listener can feel to the depths as well.
And what to say about Rosanne Cash and, in our estimation, her finest album yet, The River & The Thread? Literate yet poetic, with a wry point of view and subtle wit, Rose’s writing is arguably the closest in spirit and in poetry to Jesse Winchester’s sensibilities—yet another reason to cherish her. This is especially obvious on The River & The Thread, which arrives after a long, fruitful stretch in which this towering artist has been exploring and honoring her late father’s daunting legacy. On The River and The Thread she’s being a dutiful steward of her own history in an exquisite set of song probing aspects of her southern heritage in a moving effort at self-definition (or re-definition). Memphis and Mississippi figure prominently in the mise-en-scene and many of the songs read like allegories spun from an odyssey to the far reaches of the heart with insecurities and frailties laid bare. John Leventhal, her partner in love and in life, became her co-writer here and also, as producer, framed his wife’s ruminations and reflections in striking, austere atmospheres complementing both the texts and subtexts of tales told truthfully and artfully.
Without further ado, then, and in alphabetical order, our Album of the Year honorees are:
THE RIVER AND THE THREAD, Rosanne Cash (Blue Note)
In the five years since last we heard a batch of original tunes from her, Rosanne Cash has been a dutiful steward of her late father’s legacy while turning to art both to grieve over his passing and to assess the long shadow he cast over her life and music. On The River and The Thread she’s being a dutiful steward of her own history in an exquisite set of songs probing aspects of her southern heritage in what is a moving effort at self-definition (or re-definition). Memphis and Mississippi figure prominently in the mise-en-scene and many of the songs read like allegories spun from an odyssey to the far reaches of the heart with insecurities and frailties laid bare. A pronounced, deep spiritual yearning has planted roots in this unsettled landscape (overtly on the quiet, dark thump of “Tell Heaven,” more subtly elsewhere) but sometimes she simply sounds lonesome, even a bit confused, as in the beautiful, music box-like (with celeste and strings) “Night School.
Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal, ‘The Long Way Home,’ from The River & The Thread
This is a great songwriter–easily one of her generation’s finest– at a new peak of intimacy with her audience; appropriately, her producer-multi-instrumentalist-husband John Leventhal keeps the rootsy support (guitars, percussion, selectively deployed strings, background vocalists) understated but profoundly empathetic to the texts—the better to insure Rose’s liquid voice pierces us where we live. –David McGee
IN THE MAGIC SHOP, Sean Costello (VizzTone)
The question is, how many ways can a record touch your heart at its deepest point? Let me count the ways.
In the case of Sean Costello’s astonishing In The Magic Shop, it starts with the liner booklet’s five statements from people close to the artist, including his mother (closest of all, of course, and a health care professional who clearly struggled to keep herself together while composing her two-page statement, which includes an informed explanation of her son’s co-occurring diagnoses of bipolar disorder and addiction that sets the record straight about the tragedy of his death on April 15, 2008, a day before his 29th birthday); VizzTone label owner (and a musician in his own right) Richard Rosenblatt; pianist Paul Linden and guitarist Jimi Zhivago, both of whom made invaluable contributions to these sessions; and Magic Shop studio owner/four-time Grammy winning producer Steve Rosenthal, who confides in a haunting soliloquy as to how it took him six years to play these recordings and even then he needed the support of engineer Brian Thorn to polish them up for release. For all the poignancy of Debbie Costello Smith’s remembrance of her son, a passage in Rosenthal’s anguished reflection most shadows the stirring, raw truth of the artist’s performances here, to wit:
Listening to him all these years later
It seems he was trying to tell me something
I just couldn’t hear it
So many songs in this set speak of displacement, disappointment, darkness and even death
At the time I thought it was the “blues”
Now I know it was “Sean’s blues”
From In The Magic Shop, Sean Costello’s ‘Can’t Let Go’
This is so true, but perhaps more amazing is how Costello, even in the darkest hours here, reveals an intense will to surmount paralyzing despair—which is often couched in terms of romantic dysfunction—and live with a vengeance while owning up to his own role in upsetting the apple cart. In its confessional quality In The Magic Shop is every bit the personal statement Rosenthal claims it to be but it is also, pure and simple, a powerful musical experience.
Follow this link to the complete review of Sean Costello’s In The Magic Shop, an Album of the Week selection, January 12, 2015
DHARMA BLUES, Peter Rowan (Omnivore Recordings)
Almost half a century has passed since a young Peter Rowan began learning the fundamentals of traditional bluegrass as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and went on to carve out a resume as one of the music’s greatest practitioners and proponents, both as a progressive bluegrass innovator (with the legendary Muleskinner) and as a beacon of traditionalism. Recent years have seen him experiencing an artistic resurgence while signed to the Compass label, during which time his 2010 album Legacy and 2013’s The Old School ranked with each year’s most memorable long players. These were fully realized projects, perfect wholes of inspired writing, singing, playing, arranging and production.
In light of the startling change in direction Rowan takes on his new and challenging album Dharma Blues, some of what we heard on The Old School and even more so on Legacy were clearly precursors, musical signposts pointing the way to the intensely interior, deeply personal journey that would ultimately yield the scintillating new songs here. The Old School, for instance, contained an unusual departure from standard bluegrass fare in the imaginativey structured, dramatic reading of a Native American’s homecoming titled “A Mountain Man’s Dream” in which Rowan repeats a mantra—“earth, water, fire and air”—to emphasize his protagonist’s love of and spiritual connection to the land in what is an unusual departure from standard bluegrass fare; and in the remorseful “True Love to Last,” he assures his former paramour, whose affection he threw away, that “love will find you and be kind to one who gives true love to last.” On Legacy the easygoing beauty “Don’t Ask Me Why” paints a lyrical portrait of a fellow out enjoying the wonders of the natural world as the sun makes its way to the horizon, an experience that reminds him not only of his beloved but also of a fundamental truth: “Oh the heart is a muscle, got to love to live/if you want to love, you got to forgive…” “Father, Mother,” a heart rending recollection of the day of their father’s burial co-written by Rowan brothers Peter and Christopher, features the image of a shooting star crossing the heavens and what the siblings recognize as the sound of “the angels singing/from Heaven on high.” In short, Legacy and The Old School, if you listened closely, suggested Rowan was seeking higher spiritual ground, moving towards some form of elevated consciousness with respect to his place in the earthly scheme of things.
Peter Rowan, Dharma Blues EPK
And so we get Dharma Blues. First off, you’d be hard pressed—and wrong—to call it a bluegrass album. You’ll hear some bluegrass flourishes here and there, but it’s more a folk album, if it must be categorized at all, in the way it meshes folk, bluegrass, blues, country and stylistic quotations from Indian music. Dave Easley, playing pedal steel on almost every cut, lends the festivities not only its southwestern flavor but an otherworldly air too, much as Steve Wesson’s musical saw does on the Flatlanders’ first album. Instrumentation on other cuts includes tamboura, bass sarod, water drum, wooden drum, glockenspiel, mandola, and others mentioned above—no, this is not a bluegrass album. It is, however, an album in which each cut finds Rowan going a little deeper into himself, seeing things with perhaps more clarity than he did on Legacy and understanding certain truths he had not examined fully four years ago, and ultimately winding up in a place of inner peace and clarity.
To say Dharma Blues is about the healing, sustaining power of love is an oversimplification. Better to assert it’s about love as the cornerstone of a fulfilling design for living, which may account for even the uptempo songs having a gentleness about them—the standard-issue hard charging bluegrass workout simply doesn’t fit the template Rowan has constructed for his 12-song narrative. …
Follow this link to the complete review of Peter Rowan’s Dharma Blues, an Album of the Week selection, July 21, 2014
A REASONABLE AMOUNT OF TROUBLE, Jesse Winchester (Appleseed Recordings)
When Jesse Winchester set out to record the album that became A Reasonable Amount of Trouble the cancer that would take his life not long after the long player was completed was then in remission. Having been fortunate enough not to have had to live with that dreaded disease or any other, I hesitate to say whether, while he was writing these almost perfect songs, Jesse’s intimations of mortality were no longer intimations but rather more like “the sound of rolling thunder at a picnic,” to quote W.H. Auden’s memorable description of death. What I do know is that few artists have fashioned a final testament as generous, as warm-hearted, as amusing, as insightful and, not least of all, as everlastingly beautiful as this one will surely be judged in our time ahead.
Everything is right about this record: the Maltese Falcon-derived title; Jesse’s inclusion of three oldies so reflective of his true Romantic’s sensibility; the tasteful, unobtrusive accompaniment of friends such as lap steel master Jerry Douglas, soulful fiddler Stuart Duncan, accordion titan Joel Guzman and sax stalwart Jim Horn, among the notables; the nine new Jesse originals brimming with wisdom, gentle soul grooves, lyrics as gracefully crafted as their insights into the human condition are stirring and true; the crisp, full soundscape fashioned by producer Mac McAnally (who also joins in on acoustic and electric guitars, mandola, keyboards and backing vocals) to place the artist in intimate confines with the listener.
Follow this link to the complete review of Jesse Winchester’s A Reasonable Amount of Trouble, an Album of the Week selection, September 15, 2014
On Friday, April 11, 2014, Jesse Winchester died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Charlottesville, VA. Deep Roots honored his life and music in a two-part tribute published on April 18. Follow this link to “The Miracle of Jesse Winchester”; follow this link to “Jesse Winchester: Talk Memphis.”