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Cookin' With New Releases (Better Read This Before You Order)

November 25, 2008

still on the hill.jpgSTILL ON THE HILL ~ OZARK: A CELEBRATION IN SONG

Kelly Mulhollen and Donna Stjerna are Still On The Hill. They are from the Ozarks and have been creating quirky and creative traditionally based music for years. Recently they began quizzing their audiences to see if anyone knew of any interesting backwoods people with untold stories. They received enough suggestions for a dozen albums.

They discovered Clara Byler, a woman from Batesville who began collecting coffee mugs and tying them to a tree in her front yard. This was creative therapy for Clara who learned that her son was dying of AIDS. They learned about Jessi Jones who made banjos and could whittle wood chains 20' long. He told them a funny story about 7 pies. You'll hear it on Folk Alley. Through this album you'll discover the talents of an ex-slave stonemason named Willie. Somewhat forgotton, his grave now has a proper tombstone commemorating his efforts. Then there is Coin Harvey who wanted to build a pyramid to warn future civlizations not to make the same mistakes.

Kelly and Donna's research generated enough interest that they received a grant to complete the project. They have captured a part of the history of their region and made it into a musical documentary that we can all be proud of. Reading about and listening to Ozark: A Celebration in Song is an enlightening experience and should make you curious about the untold wonder in your own neighborhood.


Greensky five interstates.jpgGREENSKY BLUEGRASS ~ FIVE INTERSTATES

Greensky Bluegrass is a contemporary bluegrass band based out of Kalamazoo, Michigan.They won the best new band contest at Telluride in 2006 and have been opening for groups like Sam Bush, Ralph Stanley, and the Flecktones.

What does that mean, anyway - contemporary bluegrass? Well, the group features bluegrass instruments: banjo, guitar, mandolin, dobro, and upright bass. They can sing high and lonesome if required. What separates them from most traditional bands is that they write and perform their own songs. More significantly, they cover topics usually not included in the standard fair: accepting the natural decline of life ("Old Barns"), a reflection about personal sacrifice for the good of others ("Reverend") and a zen appoach to making decisions ("Against The Days").

The chord structure is thoughtful as well, and the arrangements often allow for solo improvization. Musically, any of these songs are worth hearing, but the fact that they bring up these topics makes them worth hearing over and over. The heart is drawn to appearances, but it's the mind that falls in love. These songs stay with you.

The only knock might be the production values. The levels aren't well mixed. The vocals don't stand out above the instruments and the instrumental solos don't stand out against the rhythm section. I saw them live and noticed the same thing, so perhaps this is the sound they are going for. Either that or this is the sound producer Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth) likes. Tim has produced their last two CDs. It might be time for a set of outside ears. That's all Greensky needs to get to the next level.

Robin and Linda Buena Vista.jpgROBIN AND LINDA WILLIAMS ~ BUENA VISTA

You've heard them on A Praire Home Companion over 3 decades, but you might still see them at a house concert. Despite being the most familiar artists on Garrison Keillor's radio show, Robin and Linda are as genuine and as down to earth as your favorite aunt and uncle. On top of that they are musical poets.

The album begins with a marvelous observation about successful relationships. The best couples give each other freedom which only makes their bond stronger. ("Tied Down, Home Free"). The Williams are also not hesitant to tackle controversy. "I'm Invisible Man" discusses the homeless, raising the point that not everyone is on the streets because they didn't try. Robin told me in our recent interview, which you can hear on Folk Alley, that homelessness, usually ignored, will soon be our problem like it or not. There is also a testimony to famous instruments which you can see in the Country Music Hall of Fame ("Maybelle's Guitar and Monroe's Mandolin.") Though the heroes have left us, their tools remain, and seeing them behind glass is like witnessing the results of an archeological dig.

Like fine wine, Robin and Linda just keep getting better. Producer Tim O'Brien, who plays on almost every song, respected their material, and coaxed the best out of his performers.

There is plenty of variety in the subjects covered, the instruments chosen and the arrangements created. Ask for this bottle of Robin & Linda Williams, as you'll find something to go with any meal.

lindsay mac.jpgLINDSAY MAC ~ STOP THINKING

Born in Iowa, Lindsay Mac has quite a resume of the places she's been. She has studied at the Interlochen School for the Arts, The Royal College of Music in London, the San Francisco Conservatory, The Berklee School of Music in Boston, and Dartmouth College, where she studied medicine. She has also been a ski patroller in Utah and lived in a cabin with a wood stove. Needless to say, she has some life experiences to draw from.

Not too many songwriters accompany themselves on cello. Even fewer are women.
That makes Lindsay Mac pretty special. She is not a gimmick however; Lindsay's songs
hold up and she delivers them with flair.

"Faith" reveals the story of two people with entirely different backgrounds, one wealthy and one not. Both are miserable, but have high hopes. Why? Mac is hoping you'll figure it out.

"Does She" crys out with emotions we've all worked through - the wonder about our replacement in a broken love affair. We learn about a young man's dreams, and how they were changed by a well trained army recruiter ("His Dreams"). There's even a Beatle tune, "Blackbird," and if you listen closely, you'll hear the sound of the imperfections of a vinyl record skipping to the beat. Lindsay must be too young to remember that sound, but you may remember wishing that the skip would join the beat. Here it does.

Some of the songs are too personal, and sometimes Mac's delivery is a bit strident, but the songs above are top shelf, and seem too grow better with each listen. That usually means there was a lot there to begin with.


Posted by Jim Blum at November 25, 2008 5:34 PM


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