A brilliant, famous and beloved drummer, he’s drummed with countless legends, including Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Percy Sledge, Van Dyke Parks, Peter Case, Dave Alvin, Lone Justice, The Wallflowers and more. Yet here on his solo album, he plays no drums. A brilliant move, it is, as it focuses our attention on his greatly original and wonderfully fun songwriting, and on his production. Both are a bit of a revelation, as we know of him as the man behind the drum kit, but he’s a wonderfully distinctive songwriter, and wildly inventive producer. These tracks sound somewhat like later Tom Waits or prime Captain Beefheart in their organically quirky, groove-solid sonics. Dimensional emotional landscapes abounds, like a folk song dug out of the dirt of the blues-drenched South, set against a meandering piano. Worlds colliding. Somehow that unexpected piano part brings out the words and melody, setting off the voice in a whole other way than how records normally do it. “That’s Hollywood” is set against a dizzying track of different vocals, the lowest one resounding like a Jew’s Harp. It’s a track of madness, and perfect to the theme of “yeah, this is Hollywood.” “Put A Kiss and a Tear in yr. Letter” is a country song written with a great wordsmith, though not one we normally associate with classic country, Allen Ginsberg. This is an album of liberation made by a man who has provided the perfect beat for so many albums of other artists. Now freed to let his own colors shine, we see the worlds inside him we never knew existed. An exultant expedition, this voyage to Gloryland is one I look forward to taking for years to come.
A magnificent achievement, like a love-letter to the traditions of beautifully etched narrative songwriting. Like fine wine and few other things on this planet, the music of Joel Rafael seems to only grow richer over the years. After a career of many fine albums, he’s created his best one yet. Long revered on the folk circuit of our country and beyond, and with good reason, he’s a seasoned and serious songwriter, and a singer of great authority. His tributes to folk legends like Woody Guthrie shine with the purity of his folk heart, and his luminous voice and beautiful folk stories have enchanted the years. This new album is ripe with beautifully inspired and finely etched and detailed songs like “Old Portland Town,” which reflect the influence of Woody and others who have written perfect town songs like this. A rich and loving picture of spirit, it’s a snapshot of a time which resides like a fine memory in the poet’s heart. It’s also in perfect meter and rhyme, exemplifying the late great Dave Carter’s wisdom that the only great rhymed poetry to be discovered in these modern times is in songs. With Jack Tempchin he wrote “Love’s First Lesson,” a touching elegy to learning from deep sorrow, again told in perfect meter and beautiful rhyme: “Remember when things fall apart/Love’s first lesson is a broken heart.” His stunning ballad “El Bracero” is classic storytelling in song, again ringing with the echoes of Woody and Pete, music underscored by deep compassion and social consciousness. It’s the story of the illegal aliens some tell us are the root of all of America’s problems, those souls who work for slave-wages picking fruit. They’re the same souls Woody wrote about in “Deportees” and other songs, carrying truth sadly still unembraced. But here in this song come the truth, and again, it’s the songwriters – more than poets, more than journalists – who can bring forth truth with stark and startling force. “Sticks and Stones” starts with the songwriter about “to sing a Woody Guthrie tune” in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, and from there proceeds to unfold an astonishing tale of a black woman who comes to the Crystal Theater on this day, and is the only person of color present. It shows us hate inflicted and received, and how humans live always with hate, yet find light in that darkness. “When I Go” is as romantically sumptuous in its yearning melody as in the lyrics of real love. Produced tenderly by Joel and Lauren Rafael, it features Joel on vocals and guitars, piano and harmonica, and the great Greg Leisz on electric guitars, dobro and pedal steel, plus James “Hutch” Hutchinson on bass, with additional guitars by John Inmon and Terry “Buffalo” Ware. Any lovers of folk music in the pure and loving tradition of Woody and Pete, and Bob, of course (Dylan), would be wise to embrace the musical heart of Joel Rafael. A masterpiece.
We Are The Parade
When I asked Harry Nilsson who he considered the greatest songwriter, he said, “Johnny Mercer. Anyone who can rhyme ‘red and ruby chalice’ with ‘Aurora Borealis’ is pretty great.” I got a strong hunch Harry would love Sabrina Chap, who like Mercer, is a genius with rhymes. On this album she rhymes “Nintendo” with “crescendo.” And that’s only one example. In a world where most songwriters have concluded that craft doesn’t matter, and that real rhymes are a thing only old-timey songwriters need to worry about, here comes Sabrina with a reverence for rhymes so pure it is heartwarming to those of honor the tradition of great American songwriting. She’s in the tradition, as a writer and singer. Imagine, if you can, Judy Garland singing the songs of Tom Lehrer as arranged by Dr. John, and you will have an approximation – not perfect but close – of the Sabrina Chap experience. She’s an absolutely brilliant wordsmith, in the Tom Lehrer school of perfectly rhymed and metered lyrics that are also wildly hilarious. Writing funny songs, as anyone who has tried it knows, is not easy, as any joke gets old quick, and songs are designed for repetition. Which is why Tom Lehrer, Dave Frishberg and very few others are known as comic songwriters. Sure, many great songwriters like John Prine, Randy Newman and Loudon Wainwright have written great comic songs, but it is not their only focus. And Weird Al is brilliant with parody songs – writing comic lyrics for famous existing songs. But doing this – writing lyrics as inventively comic as they are musically rich – is the province of few. Not all her songs are purely comic, but she is a genius with great conceits, like “I Transatlantic ally Love You” which sketches a global love affair with worldly world music. Or the absolutely astounding song of dizzying power, “The Denial Rag” with its speed-phrasing, and lyrics which fly by at a tempo astonishing and enchanting, before turning suddenly bluesy. It’s like something out of the distant past wed with something very new, and the effect is electric. Then there’s the ingenious “To The Ones Who Never Call Back,” which uses a loop of the artist directing direct profanity at the subject, repeating like a great condemnation pedal-tone, on top of which other ragtimey vocals describe the sorrow of unintended isolation, and the age-old disbelief at the heartless. Were she only a lyricist, she’d be a formidable one on her own turf entirely. But she is much more. The composer of most of her own horn arrangements and orchestrations, she’s created her own New Orleans funeral band spirited sound, woven with delightful layers of vocals, as textured as her horns and drums. The number of great songwriters who can also do this – arrange horns and all – is countable on one hand (Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks), and like that remarkable trio, her orchestrations are as inventive and ingenious as her songwriting. She’s also a powerful, funny and versatile vocalist. She can belt out a fast jazz tune like Ella, with perfect pitch and elocution – sending the words out with purity and power – and then bends a bluesy tune like Bessie Smith, and inhabits the comic contours of a lyric like Judy Garland, with heart and brain combined. “La Luna La Luna The Moon” ends this journey by swimming into the multilingual, multicultural heart of modern times, which, like life, is funny, romantic and sad. People have told me for years that Sabrina Chap needs to be heard. Now I know why.