CD Reviews: Gram Parsons Tribute, the Rioters, Blue Highway

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VARIOUS ARTISTS
Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
Almo Sounds


Playing what he liked to call “Cosmic American Music,” Gram Parsons’ idiosyncratic and fragile songs managed to forever mark him as a vital visionary and a pioneering welder of previously opposed musical styles. A one time theology major, he unfortunately let that demon life get him in its sway, ultimately leaving him torn and frayed at the tender age of twenty-six. But his purity of purpose and his moving compositions left a legacy that is still not fully appreciated.

This latest attempt at a Parsons tribute album is marvelous at times, and dull at others. While it’s good to hear just about anyone cover a Gram Parsons song, it seems the overall attitude of the album should be about taking artistic chances. But artists like Beck, Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow, Chris Hillman, Lucinda Williams, David Crosby, and the Pretenders, though they do bring out the pure and simple beauty in a Parsons song, seem to lack any real spark.

Surprisingly, the Mavericks offer a poppy send-up of “Hot Burrito #1” that honors the original version and more. The Wilco song is a little louder and raunchier than the original while Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform an eerie rendering of “Hickory Wind” with sparse accompaniment that seems to thrive on its own enigmatic atmosphere. And the Cowboy Junkies change the tempo and offer a multi-layered track filled with effects that is staggering and splendid.

Haunted and heart-wrenching, this tribute album boasts an impressive array of performers that only occasionally attest to the audacity of the mythopoetic genius they wish to venerate. —Chris Webb

 


THE RIOTERS
Crucial
Duppy Music


From the breathy and melodious opener “Why” to the sonorous and enchanting “Push On Through”, the rolling landscape of Crucial is fertile with a solid range of instrumentation and skillful application. Though they’ve only recently emerged, the Rioters sound focused and mature, paying homage to Caribbean influences and reverential roots rhythms, draping them in expressive shrouds of impassioned harmonies and compelling musical intensity.

With nine evocative tracks, the Rioters sensitively wrap powerful themes in an internationally flavored fusion of torrid tropical tempos, chiming guitars, and pumping bass lines. “Fire Burning” and “Jennifer’s Crying” extract bittersweet emotion with hypnotic, soul-searching subtleties as “Rudie” and “Purity” thrive on robust beats and scratchy guitar licks. The soothing strum of “Polaris” is enough to make one drift away while the guitar solo on “Babylonian” is sublime.

The slick and soulful grooves are enhanced by Gordon Campbell’s vocal delivery as he wails with conviction, at times sounding like the incarnation of a real reggae mystic. The music is equally enriched as Chris Bingcang delivers uplifting, crisscrossing melodies alongside Lyle Smith’s firmly grounded percussion.

Sometimes profound and sometimes simply catchy, the Rioters have shown that they are capable of creating authentic island music and, occasionally, transcending traditional reggae’s repetitious formula.
-Chris Webb

 


BLUE HIGHWAY
Blue Highway
Ceili Music


Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, once compared playing bluegrass music to baseball. He said it was a team sport that required a full team effort to be done right. On their latest release, Blue Highway have assembled a fine team, including veteran producer Ricky Skaggs and the angelic voice of Alison Krauss. And with a star athlete like Rob Ickes, an IBMA Award-winning dobro player, already on their team, Blue Highway know what it takes to win.

A first rate band that is capable of intricate ensemble-playing that occasionally explodes into sensational solos, BH write and perform marvelously textured songs that reflect the traditional themes of country music like working, women, drinking, murder, prison, and redemption (not always in that order). Weepers like “Lonely Old Town” and “It Wasn’t You” and rousers like “Born With a Hammer In My Hand” are expertly executed with equal aplomb. With storytelling that combines a patient view of life with an understated, yet memorable, eloquence, the characters in songs like “That Could Be You” and “Clay and Ottie” come to life. Sting’s “I Hung My Head” is well suited for a bluegrass cover while the delicacy of the gospel numbers grab you with their rich harmonies and empowering lyrics.

Well performed and composed, BH’s latest offering is full of quality songs and commanding performances. Their devout mountain sensibility generates bluegrass that’s as potent as liquor from a still, pure and undiluted. -Chris Webb



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