In the press release sent out with the advance copies of Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, the venerable Marty Stuart says, “I found traditional country music to be on the verge of extinction. It’s too precious to let slip away. I wanted to attempt to write a new chapter.”
Stuart is right that it’s too precious to let slip away, but immensely wrong in claiming that it’s on the verge of extinction—and anointing himself as its savior is a bit presumptuous when there are, in fact, legions of talented artists (in Nashville, in Austin and all over the world) working to keeping the various (and numerous) strands of traditional country music alive.
“New chapters” are written every day by artists like Dale Watson, Miss Leslie and Brennen Leigh (just to name a few), so Ghost Train is no salvation record—just one cog in gear that’s already turning, and one more spoke in a wheel that keeps rolling along.
Of course, Stuart is in typically fine technical form here. One of country music’s most talented and ambitious artists—as well as one of the genre’s preeminent historians—he demonstrates a deep dedication to this project’s mission by treating these 14 classic-sounding songs with due reverence, while performing them with expected deftness and masterful precision.
And when it comes to production, Ghost Train (Engineered by Mick Conley, who also worked on Kathy Mattea’s Coal), possesses a crispness that you just won’t find on the underfunded records put out by many of traditional country’s most noteworthy purveyors—most of whom have tiny recording budgets and limited access to studio space and equipment.
Certainly, if traditional country music needed saving, Stuart wouldn’t be the wrong man to turn to. His grasp on the collection of styles he presents here as “traditional country” is firm; had album opener “Branded” been released 35 years ago, it might well have been remembered today as one of the “outlaw” era’s finest, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more precise example of the country recitation than “Porter Wagoner’s Grave.”
“Branded” was written by Stuart, but it sounds like it was clipped from the Waylon Jennings songbook. Ultimately, that’s emblematic of a weakness found throughout Ghost Train. As well as Stuart performs each of these tracks, they often sound more like very specific attempts to recreate a certain type of song than they sound like outstanding country songs in and of themselves. Indeed, these songs often sound like the ghosts of songs before, not new creations with spirits and souls of their own.
The album features a train song, a spiritual talker, a patriotic ode to “the working man” and a mournful heartbreak ballad, among other canonical themes, but each of these is more notable for the statement it makes about a particular slice of country music history than as a new piece of music.
That fact leaves Stuart often sounding like the late man to the party. Despite his stellar technical execution, he never really takes full ownership of these songs. “Branded” leaves us wishing we could hear Jennings or Haggard sing it, while all we can hear in “Hangman” is the songwriting voice of Johnny Cash.
Stuart co-wrote “Hangman” with Cash just four days before the legendary singer died, and it’s easily the highlight of Ghost Train. The story of a hangman (executioner) who can’t remember the number of men he’s put to death (and who uses alcohol and “dope” to numb the pain and guilt of doing so) the song is more than a notch above the rest of the album’s material. Cash’s influence is palpable in the clear story, engaging character and deeply resonant hook.
Those elements are largely missing elsewhere on the album. Perhaps lost in matters of style and process, Stuart’s songwriting on Ghost Train fails to provide much that’s especially memorable or engaging. And clocking in at nearly 45 minutes, it begins to bore around the halfway point.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the halfway point is “Hangman,” which leaves everything after sounding elementary by comparison.
One thing that is never boring about Ghost Train is the incredible steel guitar work featured throughout the album. Performed, at various points, by an all-star cast of Ralph Mooney, Gary Carter, Tommy White, Robby Turner, Kayton Roberts and Fred Newell, the depth and quality of steel here is second to none.
Ghost Train isn’t likely to be the album that single-handedly revives mainstream interest in classic country music styles and themes, but it is an enjoyable addition to the absolutely not-extinct line of modern, but traditional-sounding country records—one that sounds better than most, though it contains only a couple of truly outstanding songs.
Album Review: Yelle – Safari Disco Club
When Yelle arrived on the scene in 2006, it was with “Je Veux Te Voir,” an attitude-packed and hilariously vulgar diss track directed toward rapper Cuizinier for his misogynistic views. The 2007 debut album, Pop Up, spawned two more minor hits with “A Cause des Garçons” and “Ce Jeu.” The French trio, led by singer Julie Budet, established themselves as purveyors of summery electropop. Then, they all but disappeared.
To a certain extent, Yelle have kept busy since their first album, remixing Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘n’ Cold” and appearing on the Kennedy track “John and Yoko,” as well as covering “Who’s That Girl?” by Robyn. However, in such a fast-paced music environment, no one can afford to take four years between albums unless the result is something that could universally be considered a masterpiece. Yelle’s sophomore release, Safari Disco Club, is a good effort that falls short of legendary status.
They’ve grown out of the youthful spirit of Pop Up, though “C’est Pas Une Vie” packs a bright punch, while “Que Veux-Tu” and “Unillusion” make good use of ’80s pop references. Songs like “Chimie Physique” and “La Musique” are much more mature in tone than anything Yelle have released before. There’s also more actual singing from Budet, rather than the sing-rapping previously employed. Safari Disco Club showcases a more developed act, but it doesn’t sound like four years’ worth of growth. The more subdued approach makes sense, but the songs aren’t as engaging as established fans might expect.
The dance scene has changed drastically since Yelle’s debut. This isn’t to say that producers GrandMarnier and Tepr should have gone for a dubstep approach—it wouldn’t suit Budet’s voice, though “S’Eteint le Soleil” has hints of grimey bass—but in an environment where the fresh-faced Londoner Katy B is poised for a takeover, it’s difficult to see where Yelle’s role is now.
The album sounds solid, with plenty of agile synths to spare, but it’s difficult to see what role it plays; it’s not exactly more of the same, but it may as well be. Safari Disco Club is worth a listen, but it fails to assert itself as something that demands listeners’ attention.
Album Review: Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
In the five years since Canadian chamber-rock band Broken Social Scene released its last album, lead Scenester Kevin Drew has ably stepped into indie-stardom, nurturing mass-anticipation for the collective’s upcoming opus.
Enter Forgiveness Rock Record. With the Toronto outfit choosing to explore every bit of the space that their physical largesse affords, the wait has been worth it—even if the album requires a bit of stamina in order to fully grasp the triumph.
Perhaps the group—composed of a fluid membership that often numbers well into double digits—is finally becoming exactly what it is they were likely always going to be: a dramatic, sweeping and engrossing baroque-rock troupe. Besides, it’s not often that a group that has featured a melodica in the past acts as though it’s a power-pop trio, which many of their earlier songs have suggested.
While a lack of sonic cohesion does make itself evident, as the result of a mixed bag of styles that can often distract rather than attract, the significant and unifying thread of Kevin Drew’s Jeff Tweedy-esque, achy vocals equip the entire proceedings with immense heart. Some sort of binding agent is necessary, however, due to the divergent styles showcased. By showing off their skills in Post-rock (“Meet Me in the Basement”), bombastic, arena-anthems (“World Sick”), playful prog (“Chase Scene”) and effective melody making (“Texico Bitches”), it’s quite clear that this is a group that is more comfortable stretching their musical legs than the average listener will likely be sinking their teeth into this album.
Given the amount of time between records, not only is Forgiveness Rock Record an example of good things coming to those who wait, but also, to those who also don’t mind putting forth a little effort to gain great reward.
EP Review: Dan Fisk — Bruises from the Backseat
When an album’s liner notes list multiple banjo players on the same song, you know it’s going to be an enjoyable listen. Dan Fisk has two banjo pickers on“Life and Limb,” from his new solo EP, but that’s not the only thing he’s got going for him on Bruises from the Backseat (out 6/28).
Fisk (an upstate New Yorker who’s spent the past decade in Virginia), has a radio-ready, slightly raspy voice and solid songwriting skills. Album opener “A Thousand Love Songs” is the highlight of the disc, and had it been released fifteen years ago when Vertical Horizon and Matchbox 20 were flying up the charts, Fisk would probably be blowing his nose with $20 bills right now.
The EP’s sole cover is a version of Paul Simon’s “Stranded in a Limousine,” which features fellow area singer-songwriter Ted Garber on harmonica. It feels a little out of place among the more mellow tracks on the record, but it’s definitely a fun listen.
Bruises from the Backseat is a promising solo release from Fisk. Let’s hope a full-length record is next.
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