Shades of Gray (01/21/2000)
John Prine, In Spite of Ourselves (Oh Boy Records 1999) - John Prine returns with his first new studio recordings in five years on In Spite of Ourselves. Featuring 16 tracks, all of them duets with female vocalists, the new album marks a thematic departure for Prine: too much wry, and not enough pone.
In Spite of Ourselves is all cover songs (save one track), and never achieves that point when you sit back with a big smile on your face and say, "Thanks for visiting, John. I had a good time."
Instead, Prine selected songs that "are all about what happens between men and women. Originally it was all cheating songs - but we moved beyond that. But in the beginning, the working title was, 'Meetin', Cheatin' and Retreatin'."
John continues. "I sat down and made myself a dream list of duet partners, then we started calling people up. To my surprise, they all said yes. And you know what? I like singing with girls. It kinda takes the edge off my voice."
While the concept is interesting, the album never gels. What's missing is Prine's rich appreciation of the human condition, as reflected on such songs as "Angel from Montgomery" and "Sam Stone."
Not that In Spite of Ourselves is a failure. Prine's duet partners include Iris DeMent on three tracks: the George Jones and Tammy Wynette favorite, "(We're not) The Jet Set," the wife-swapping "Let's Invite Them Over Again," and the only original on the album, "In Spite of Ourselves."
Also included are two songs with Melba Montgomery: Another wife-swapping song ("We Must Have Been Out of our Minds") and an old concert favorite, "Milwaukee Here I Come" (says John, "I've been singing this song for years off and on. I used it to open my shows. I like the way it moves a crowd, because it really jumps around").
Other duet partners include Connie Smith ("So Sad to Watch Good Love Go Bad"), Emmylou Harris ("I Know the One"), Dolores Keane ("It's a Cheating Situation"), and Lucinda Williams ("Wedding Bells/Let's Turn Back the Years").
Prine was sidelined for a long period because of the frightening bout with cancer of the neck. Says John, "I'm loving everything right now, and I'm sure having an incredible time. Everything flows and feels real good to me - even my oldest songs feel real fresh. And to be able to make a record of the stuff I love with all these great women, well, what could be better?"
Though In Spite of Ourselves is a disappointment, we're glad to have you back, John.
Curtis Stigers, Brighter Days (Columbia 1999) - Idaho native Curtis Stigers turns a corner with Brighter Days. Stigers has turned from the pop flavor of his top ten hit, "I Wonder Why," and now embraces a more moody, yet still accessible sound.
Brighter Days was recorded in Los Angeles with a band including bass player Davey Faragher and drummer Michael Urbano (both former members of Cracker) and guitar player extraordinaire Greg Leisz.
On songs like "To Be Loved," and "Then I Had the Dream," Stigers delves into a deeper mode of songwriting, with melding an atmospheric background with strong pop hooks. Adding to the moody feel is the mix, which finds Stigers' voice in the thick of things (rather than up front).
Known primarily as a saxophone player, Curtis ended up writing most of the songs on guitar. Explains Stigers, "I shut myself up in a room and carved out the lyrics. Some came quickly; some took six months . . . I really crafted the lyrics to say what I wanted to say, as opposed to just writing good pop lines."
Stigers also collaborated with songwriters such as Carole King ("Then I Had This Dream"), Paul Brady ("Well-worn Love"), Dillon O'Brian ("End of the Afternoon"), Beth Nielsen Chapman ("Don't Go Far"), and Jules Shear ("The Last Embrace").
Working with Stigers were producer Ed Cherney and long-time collaborator Bob Thiele, Jr. Explains Stigers, "Bob and Ed helped me get that sound I've been hearing in my head for the last ten years. Because it was such a departure from my previous work, my manager was a little nervous about all the pedal steel guitars, dobros, fiddles and mandolins, but this is the record I set out to make from the beginning."
The album also includes guest backing vocals from Jackson Browne and Valerie Carter, together with assistance from Heartbreakers organ player Benmont Tench, drummer Jim Keltner, fiddle player David Mansfield, and keyboardist Chuck Leavell.
Stigers continues. "It's going to be hard to go from being perceived as this blue-eyes soul pop singer to being taken seriously as a singer/songwriter. It will probably be a long hard road getting there, but it's the road I've chosen. I think I've made a record I'll be proud of 20 years from now and that's important to me."
In the end, Brighter Days reflects maturity and introspection. Says Stigers, "It was a dark few years. I lost a couple of friends as well as my innocence. My personal life became a lot more complex. And I feel the songs reflect that in their richness." For moody L.A. pop, try Brighter Days.
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison (Columbia/Legacy 1968/1999) - Now 30 years on, At Folsom Prison plays off Johnny Cash's formidable image as the "Man in Black." Now with three songs not on the original release (including "Busted" and "Joe Bean"), Cash delivered a great jailhouse mix.
Recorded live on January 13, 1968, before 2,000 inmates in the cafeteria of Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash was anything but traditional country. Cash blended folk, blues, and a storytelling style around his engaging personality and gritty personal life, all highlighted on At Folsom Prison.
The expanded edition includes a new personal reflection by Cash, together with his original handwritten liner notes, additional notes by Nashville maverick Steve Earle, and previously-unpublished photos by photographer Jim Marshall.
Backing Cash was the Tennessee Three combo, including Marshall Grant on bass, W. S. Holland on drums, and Luther Perkins on electric guitar. Also part of the concert (which marked Cash's fifth appearance at Folsom Prison) were the Statler Brothers quartet and the legendary Carl Perkins.
With their bumping "boom-chicka-boom" two-beat, the Tennessee Three was a great foil for Cash on such songs as the classic "Folsom Prison Blues," "Dark as the Dungeon," and the semi-comic "25 Minutes to Go" (about a hanging).
The middle part of the album finds Cash changing the pace with such earnest folk numbers as "The Long Black Veil" before switching to the comic "Dirty Old Egg Suckin' Dog," followed by a pair of songs with wife June Carter Cash, who shows her always-exuberant personality.
A classic set from an American original, At Folsom Prison should be discovered by a new generation.
- Randy Krbechek © 2000
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