Country Cool (6/22/2001)
Dolly Parton, Little Sparrow (Sugar Hill 2001) - Country superstar Dolly Parton returns with Little Sparrow, her second of three planned bluegrass albums. Dolly mixes in elements of old-timey, gospel, and hillbilly on Little Sparrow. The follow-up to the Grammy-award winning, The Grass Is Blue, the new album features (for my money) more accessible songs.
Dolly proudly carries on the tradition of "blue mountain music" on such weepers as "My Blue Tears," before shifting into the more light-hearted as "Marry Me" (with its refrain, "He's gonna build me a pretty little house/Have a pretty little babe or three/Cuz he's done kissed me on the mouth/So he's gotta marry me").
Dolly is backed by a stellar combo, including Jerry Douglas on resophonic guitar (also known as a dobro, except that name is trademarked), Chris Phile on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Jim Mills on banjo, and Barry Bales on bass. Also making a guest appearance is Alison Krauss on backing vocals.
While Little Sparrow includes eight original songs, the covers are carefully-chosen: Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" and Collective Soul's "Shine" are framed by Dolly's delightful voice, while "In the Sweet By and By" and "Seven Bridges Road" show that Dolly remains firmly connected to her roots, beneath all the glitz and glamour.
Notwithstanding her Nashville success, Dolly has a perfect voice for the songs on Little Sparrow. Speaking of the title track, Dolly explains, "It appealed to me; I'm little, and sometimes I'm sad too. It seems to represent who I am and what I do. I've been billed as the Smokey Mountain songbird. And my Daddy used to call me his little songbird."
After releasing 72 albums, Dolly wants to make music on her own terms. Says the singer, "If I love a song and it just burns in me, well, I'll find a way to do it. At my age, it's not like I'm doing it for any reason other than I just feel like it. People ain't buying my damn records anyway, so why can't I at least take a chance if I'm paying for the studio session?"
Adds Dolly, "This is the music I would have been doing all along, if I could have made a living at it. It's almost like I had to get rich in order to sing like I was poor again. I'm at the perfect age now to reflect on who I am, what I care about. It's a time to gather up all the precious little pieces I've left along the way."
Dolly pokes fun at her image. "I've looked gaudy and silly over the years, but it was a country girl's idea of glamour. Lucky me, people just forgave me. Or if nothing else, they just pitied me, like, 'Hell, I think she's serious, bless her heart. Let's forgive her for being a fool.' I got away with a lot of shit because people knew my heart was true."
Take this concluding thought from Dolly. She says that people tell her, "You know, Dolly, you could have done so much more with your music if you had not been so outrageous." And Dolly answers, "Yeah, but what kind of fun would I have had? What kind of a drag-ass, dull life would that be?"
With that kind of attitude, you have to love Little Sparrow.
Tammy Cochran, Tammy Cochran (Epic Nashville 2001) - Big-voiced country singer Tammy Cochran makes her debut on this Music City throwback. With rich vocals and effortless instrumentation, Tammy Cochran brings back memories of Barbara Mandrell, Mandy Barnett, and Tammy Wynette.
Tammy Cochran grew up near Lake Erie. Tammy has been performing for years, starting with a band in northeastern Ohio. Recalls Tammy, "I played all the 'animal clubs.' The Elks, the Moose, the Eagles . . . My band and I played weddings and fairs and made $50 or $60 each night, which was pretty good when most of my friends were working at McDonald's."
After Tammy's two brothers died of cystic fibrosis, she and her parents moved to Nashville in 1991. Not one to give up easily, Tammy persisted until she landed a recording contract.
Tammy Cochran was produced by Blake Chancey, and includes an A-list of Nashville studio hands, including Dan Dugmore on steel guitar, David Grissom and Steve Gibson on electric guitar, John Jarvis on keyboards, and Glen Duncan on fiddle and mandolin.
Tammy works in a classic country ballad mode, from "What I Learned From Loving You" to "When Love Was Enough" to "I Cry."
The album's leadoff single is "Angels in Waiting," a song written by Tammy in memory of her brothers.
For a rising Nashville talent, try 30-year-old Tammy Cochran.
Jon Brion, Meaningless (ArtistDirect.com 2001) - Los Angeles pop stylist Jon Brion - who has produced stellar recordings for Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and Eleni Mandell - steps forward with Meaningless, a solo effort. The album reflects Brion's "downpop" - part John Lennon, part Elvis Costello, all thinking music.
A fixture in the Los Angeles music scene, Brion is a regular at Café Largo, and produced the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to the film, Magnolia.
Meaningless includes Jim Keltner on drums, Benmont Tench on piano, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, and Mary Lynn Rajskub on backing vocals, with Brion providing all other instrumentation.
My favorite tracks are "Walking Through Walls," a jaunty number co-written with Grant Lee Phillips, and the concluding "Voices," an old Cheap Trick song with a music box introduction and subdued piano melody.
Brion described the recording process as follows: "Signed to Atlantic. Built studio. Played Largo. Started making record with outside producer . . . Work with others . . . Ask about leaving Atlantic. Finish Fiona record. Make VH1 pilot. Finish Meaningless. Start composing Magnolia score. Produce Magnolia album. Get dropped by Atlantic. Release Meaningless through Artist Direct.com, after the release of kidnaped domain name."
Thus, the first half of Meaningless is the album that Brion delivered to Atlantic Records. Says Jon, "What would have been known as Side One in earlier times and is now referred to as Songs 1 through 5 are rough mixes of the songs handed into Atlantic. Side Two benefits from the quality of the studio environment, and most of the mixes are final mixes."
Jon Brion has left his native strong mark on Los Angeles pop music during the past decade, with his swirling arrangements and smart lyrics. Give Meaningless a chance.
John Hammond, Wicked Grin (Point Blank/Virgin 2001) - Chalk this one up as a sweet surprise. Troubadour/blues singer John Hammond teams up with anti-rock legend Tom Waits (who won a Grammy for his 1999 release, Mule Variations) to record 13 of Waits' songs.
While you may have had trouble dealing with the gravely-voiced Waits on his own recordings, Wicked Grin opens the songs to new meaning, much as Jennifer Warnes did on her glorious album of Leonard Cohen covers, Famous Blue Raincoat.
The blend of Hammond's 40 years of blues background against Waits' down-and-out-in-Hollywood songs is a perfect match. Says Hammond, "It's the most evocative, imagistic, incredible material I've ever recorded." Compliments Waits, "John's sound is so compelling, complete, symmetrical and soulful with just his voice, guitar and harmonica, it's at first impossible to imagine improving on it."
In addition to Waits' standards like "Heartattack and Vine," "Jockey Full of Bourbon," and "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six," the album also includes two new tracks penned by Waits and partner Kathleen Brennan: "Fannin Street" and "2:19."
The backing band includes Larry Taylor (from Canned Heat) on upright bass, Augie Meyers (from The Sir Douglas Quintet) on keyboards, Stephen Hodges (from the Fabulous Thunderbirds) on drums and percussion, and Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. In addition, Waits joins in on guitar and adds a guest vocal on the album's final track, "I Know I've Been Changed."
Waits' typical dark imagery is reflected on tracks like "Murder In the Red Barn" and "'Til the Money Runs Out." I respect his songwriting imagery but prefer when he operates with a more tongue-in-cheek attitude.
The standout track is "Jockey Full of Bourbon" with its lighter, south-of-the-border feel. While the song continues Waits' dark imagery ("Your house is on fire/Your children are alone"), the squeezebox touches add a lighter feel.
Wicked Grin is a unique serving from a pair of talented artists.
- Randy Krbechek © 2001
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