Sister, Oh Sister
There are great singer-songwriters who write songs of protest and outrage, like Dylan, who felt his job was to write, not to march in protests. Then there are the others, like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Jackson Browne, who always did both. They wrote the songs for the protesters to sing, and then they showed up themselves, holding signs, fighting for change. Kenny Mullins is in the latter group: he’s a deeply spiritual songwriter who writes songs of conscience and social change, but also does everything he can to effect that change. Songwriters are, by definition, people who feel things very deeply. To write an effective song, there’s no other way to be. Mullins has connected powerfully with the history of Native Americans, and their subsequent slaughter. The destruction of the eons of peace in which they lived here both haunts and informs these songs. The opening cut sings the names of the tribes – every one of which was decimated and ultimately destroyed – and sets it against the chanting of Native Americans. The result is powerful. This isn’t going to be a lightweight trip. “Ghosts of Wounded Knee” begins with a beautiful prayer: “Hold on to what is good, even if it is a handful of earth. Hold onto what you believe even if it is a tree that stands by itself.” It is the understanding at the heart of this beautiful album, that every life – and every handful of earth – is sacred. Unlike most modern songwriters, Kenny honors and celebrates the sacred. Not the sacred separated from man, reachable only in church or temple, but the sacred in everyday – the sacred in every soul – the sacred in the mission of the songwriter to effect change. Words cannot contain the spirit which radiates from these songs. Suffice it to say that when people suggest songwriting is limited, and cannot express that which means the most to the enduring and unified spirit of all humans, a songwriter like Kenny Mullins comes along to remind us just how much can be done, and how gracefully. Dylan said that nobody needs any more songs, that the world has enough as it is. But he added – “Unless someone comes along with a pure heart.” That pure heart shines in all of these songs.
Piper-Grey Live at the Onion
Recorded love at the mystic Onion, a beautiful Unitarian temple in Los Angeles on May 22, 2014, this album resounds like a beloved old radio show. Not only do we get Piper (David) & Grey (Earl) delivering a cycle of distinctive, deep and delightful new songs, we also get their spoken introductions, brief poetic and funny interludes that punctuate the proceedings. The old spiritual “Motherless Child” opens the show, the ideal folk-gospel springboard for this journey of spirit set in this post-modern onion-shaped church. Like Lennon and McCartney, who challenged and spurred the other to songwriting heights, Piper & Grey inspire each other to aim high in songs, and they get there. Earl’s romantic “Sweet Southern Nights,” a finely etched voyage on wings of love and memory, is wrapped in a tenderly sweet melody. David’s stunning “Wind Up Clock” is a poignant and perfect embrace of true love spanning a lifetime. It’s a testament to the old joke that if you want your marriage to work, stay together for 50 years, and after that it’s a cinch. Gently rolling rhythmic phrasing propels the song like a lofted arrow through canyons. Earl’s harmony wed to David’s melody is a soft ghost of compassion, as comforting as a wife patting her husband’s hand. Earl’s “Old New Orleans” provides a warm sense of time and place, precise and timeless both. “Mirror Ball” spins with luminous intensity. “Dinner with Carl,” written and introduced by David, details the real-life meeting of the songwriter and one of his idols, the identity of whom is revealed gradually and humorously in the song, and so will remain undivulged here. The follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Apples, this one was produced by Mark Humphrey, who is also the founder of the legendary Trough records. With his vintage equipment, he succeeded in capturing an intimate sound of warm fidelity, especially impressive given the acoustics of the Onion, which is a vast circular space with endlessly tall ceiling. Accompanying the duo is with great percussion grace is Wendysue Rosloff. For lovers of acoustic music, great harmony singing and spirited and ingenious songwriting, you will be happy here. Long revered on the L.A. folk music scene for their songs and beautiful, close harmonies, Piper & Grey both had burgeoning solo careers before teaming up, but this merger of spirit has been revelatory. They are actually quite different stylistically, as singers, songwriters, guitarists and performers. But it’s in the very marriage of those differences that magic has been discovered and mined. Doing this live album was a wise choice, as it affords lucky listeners a chance not to hear a collection of individual songs, but to hear them on this moving musical locomotive on which a warm and familial party is going on. It’s an onion train. I’m glad I was invited. This is a party I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
The Long Night
He’s a legend for the exultant perfect funk of his bass playing for everyone from Anita Baker to Deep Purple to Eurythmics and beyond, and on this record he shows us he’s a great songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Onstage with famous bands and artists, he’s famous for his giant and infectious smile while holding down deep, solid bass lines. But all that time backing up many of the world’s greatest songwriters seems to have led to this, a brilliant collection of sophisticated songwriting. There’s a multitude of styles all unified by fun and funk and great instrumental textures, with a rainbow cast of vocalists, including Samantha Stollenwerck, Liz Primo, Jem, Ko and Big B. Bradford also sings some of these songs himself, such as the poignant and haunting hip-hop journey of “Look Up.” Setting the scene of metro darkness like Lou Reed with echoes of Kurt Weill, he describes urban chaos and violence, from which the singer emerges like an angel, looking down on the earth at all connected human dramas ensuing. It’s stunning, a great counterpoint of spoken verses with a beautifully melodic chorus. But unlike so many records that connect rapped verses with a sung chorus, Bradford does both parts. With deep, haunting grooves throughout, he takes us on an inspirational walk through the long night. Liz Primo brings a delicate and soulful intensity to the lovely “No One But Myself To Blame,” a song of admitted weakness and strength, a human aware of being human, the imperfections woven into the essence of all. Ko sings the amazing “Together Forever,” sparked by a haunting whistler in the distance and great galloping drum groove. It’s another song of yearning, of regret, looking back and forward at the same time, rising from human ashes – from the dark alleys of addiction and failing – towards the light. It’s a song of time and timelessness merged, the eternal human condition of being and desire always together – together forever. This is funk noir, tales of enduring human darkness and sorrow, but elevated throughout with a spirit of hope and redemption. Who knew the man behind the bass behind so many genius songwriters was a secret genius himself? Now the secret is out.
Not all singers can sing harmony. Some of the greatest voices are meant for melody, and not for the unique art of blending human voices. But when three singers are gifted at harmony, and come together with distinctive voices to combine them into a miracle whole, the effect is magical and delicious. At the heart of The Amber is that magic, fusing three distinctive voices into one, and bringing as much finesse and ingenuity to the arrangement and blend of the harmonies as to the songwriting. This is a passionate and sweet EP by this Los Angeles trio composed of Florence Hartigan, Libby Lavella and Ryland Shelton. Their songs are tender and dynamic, and infused with the rich sound of their resplendent three-part harmonies on each track. Rather than overwhelm their delicate, almost unearthly vocal fusion, producer Michael Perfitt delicately frames their voices in tender layers of acoustic strings (guitar, mandolin, dobro) and subtle foundations of upright bass (by Jeff Dean) and gentle tapestry drums (Brian Zarlenga). Perfitt also contributes bass, keyboards and more to these tracks. It ends with “Valley of Love,” by Florence and Libby, which resounds like a timeless spiritual as sung in the dark around a huge fire. The Amber sounds like a legendary and charming folk trio from the days before the world went electric that somehow we never heard, yet not in a dated way. It’s a spirit of unity and hope, with a timeless charm so needed in modern times. During these dizzying days of chaos and ongoing strife and violence, hearing human voices in such perfect harmony reminds us that people cannot only get along, they can excel to great heights. This is timeless music, songs of great hope and beauty.