Tuesday, August 16, 2011
I'll Take Love: Songs from the Pen of Louisa Branscomb - CD Review
Louisa Branscomb's pen must be directly connected to her heart, as the thirteen songs in this marvelous collection demonstrate so clearly. Her mastery of both language and music mix beautifully and appropriately in each song, striking precisely the right note to complement each other, driving home the point of the song with both elements. There's not a false note in the work. Branscomb never over-writes. Her language is spare when called for and lush where needed. She has a poet's feel for allusion, metaphor, and language coupled with a musicians sense of melody, rhythm, and tone. The selection of singers and musicians chosen to perform on this recording. “I'll Take Love” is so carefully structured and so wonderfully rendered, listeners would be doing themselves a serious dis-service not to purchase the entire CD and play it through rather than on shuffle as part of a collection. The CD is a Compass Records release and is available at all the usual sources.
“I'm Gonna Love You” sung by Claire Lynch is a road song with a difference. The singer is returning from a trip thinking of how she's going to “love you while the stars shine above, like you've never been loved before.” The singer thinks about the concerns of her job – selling enough tickets, smiling for the audience while missing her loved one, singing each song about him, and driving through the night to the door. All this made all the more believable by Lynch's voice and the happy lilt of the tune. Alison Brown on the banjo and Alan Bibey on mandolin keep the tune moving forward in a happy song without a hint of loss or regret, the usual subject of road songs. Homecoming and loving dominate this lovely opening song. Brancscomb uses evocative phrases to create her overall mood, often leaving plenty of room for the listeners imagination to fill in the blanks. As she drives, she “longs for the distance” in two stanzas until she “sees the light in the distance.” A fine opening song for this CD.
Dale Ann Bradley
“I'll Take Love,” the title song of this remarkable collection is sung by co-writer Dale Ann Bradley, whose voice represents an interesting change from Lynch's in the previous song, taking a darker and somehow more mysterious tone, backed by Stuart Duncan's fiddle and, again, Brown's banjo with Ethan Ballinger on the guitar. The song finds a connection between the patterns of daily living (the harvest, the old hound dog sleeping and dreaming, friends held dear, and the first and last loved one to watch the evening sun with) all are part of love and remembrance, and yet this song suggests loss and death as well as the endurance of love, which stays along with the rising soul. Steve Gulley's harmony vocal, as so often when he sings with Dale Ann, is light, and supportive almost invisible, yet there. In the end, love is all that counts.
The resophonic guitar is the ideal instrument to create a lonely mood in “Closin' Nashville Down,” and Mike Witcher provides that with his haunting background to Steve Gulley's gentle lead in this late night song. With the roles reversed, Dale Ann Bradley adds harmony along with, through the magic of the recording studio, Steve himself. The song captures the feeling of clinging to the last moment of a long night as the couple closes the bar because he can't dig himself out of her brown eyes until he finally watches her tail lights disappear down the chilly street. It's easy to see the couple sitting at the bar as the staff stacks the chairs, mops the floor, and wishes the couple would leave. He sings “you hide in words while I just hide in silence and tomorrow.” What a lovely, lonely love song!
“Wearin' the Blues” is written in the style of a classic bluegrass song and sung with verve and a smile on his face by Josh Williams. I'm glad to see Josh included on this CD, and it would be even more delightful if he'd add this lively tune to his set list. There's nothing particularly exciting about this song, except it's a really tuneful and enjoyable one. Alan Bibey's lively mandolin break helps set the tone as a complement to Josh's bright voice hiding the pain of the blues. The band sells it, Josh sells it, and it works. What more could you ask?
The structure of an album is still important despite the tendency for listeners to purchase downloads instead of whole CD's. The sharp contrast of Claire Lynch's singing “Your Amazing Grace” after Josh's smilin' blues makes a fine song even more powerful. The lyric, filled with the language of Christian worship – grace, last confession, virgin heart, transgression, sanctified – along with literary allusion “go so far through the looking glass” combine to create a lyric rich in multiple meanings. Claire and the ever versatile Jim Hurst provide just right harmonies for this tender song of loss and regret.
“State Line” is a bluesy swing song sung by Dave Peterson with perfect harmony provided by John Cowan. Buck White on piano and Ben Branscomb on harmonica turn the swing bluesy along with Rob Ickes on resophonic guitar. The light and tasteful drums from Robert Crawford and Missy Raines on bass come together to make this the kind of song that you'd like to hear pretty late in the evening at your favorite watering hole. The singer repairs himself as he heads further south through the Carolinas headed for Georgia. Branscomb's language, again, is complex and thought provoking. In the map of memories there's no sign posts/just tangled roads of time/I think I'm going north but I circle back in time/To a Georgia state of mind.
Many country songs have come out of the events following 9/11 and the resulting middle eastern wars we've been fighting for the past decade. “Surrender” written by both Louisa Branscomg and Dale Ann Bradley, who sings it with Steve Gulley looks at the war from the deeply personal viewpoint of a couple whose relationship lies in tatters because of its loss and stress. The returning soldier cannot get past the loss of a buddy, saying “I love you dearly, this I know/But that desert took my soul.” The singer begs her lover to surrender, to allow himself to be enfolded in her arms and to their love. Gulley's simple guitar solo captures the high emotion of the piece as does Stuart Duncan's violin, which transcends fiddle here. This wonderful song puts the losses and damage of these wars into a new and much more real perspective.
The Whites w/Carl Jackson
“This Side of Heaven” is a story song about a farmer whose barn is burned to the ground as a result of a lightning strike. Soon he realizes that “this side of heaven” is where faith and perseverance are tested as he rebuilds his barn. The song promises reward for hard work and simple faith in its assurance that adversity can be an opportunity rather than the end of all efforts. Sung by The Whites, with Sharon singing lead, Cheryl harmony along with Buck White, who also plays mandolin on it. Louisa on lead guitar and Alison Brown on rhythm guitar help give the song a full sound. In its placement after the powerful “Surrender,” the song adds still more promise to the pleas of its predecessor.
“Extra Blue” is a love song, plain and simple. Beautifully sung by Becky Schlegel who, frankly, I'd never heard of before but want to remedy soon for both her singing and songwriting. The song finds “extra blue” in the eyes of the object as well as in his heart, prompting the singer to be willing to fall to her knees to have some of it sent her way. The tune and tone express the search for love and, again, Brancomb's ear for nuance and imagery stands her well. And it's way too cold out on my sleeve to be wearin' how it gets to me captures both the risk and the allure. Jim Hurst's guitar and vocal harmonies are just right while Mike Wichter's subtle use of the pedal steel comes in without ever overdoing it. Alan Bibey on mandolin and Missy Raines on bass, as on almost every cut of this fine CD, are always there to fill the sound and contribute just what's needed. In addtion to her writing, Louisa Branscomb appears playing the mandolin on a couple of cuts. This is a singer's record, and every instrument is used to strengthen each song without calling excessive attention to themselves. The tunes can easily become brain worms. Watch out!
John Cowan blasts out “Stormy Night” in a voice and tempo reminiscent of his work with New Grass Revival. From Josh Williams' kick-off and later guitar break through Cowan's attack to Dominick Leslie mandolin and Rob Ickes' Dobro breaks, the song takes us back to NGR days, a bluegrass song with more contemporary drive and tonal changes. “Stormy night, I'm on my own now, But I know I can go on now, if you say that you will meet me, at the first light of the dawn.” The song is catchy and lively, showing Branscomb's versatility as a song-smith once again.
Listening to the CD in order and writing to each song successively, I'm astounded at the structure of the entire work. “Silence Broke Beyond Repair” provides the quiet of lost love in the silence of snowfall and the chill blanket it creates. Not for this song the warmth of the crackling fire, instead the snow falls covering the lost love which started in lightning and now ends in silence. The contrast between this song, sung lovingly by Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley with harmony by Jim Hurst, and “Stormy Night” makesthe sense of irreparable loss palpable. “only snowflakes fill the air/where silence broke beyond repair.” The former lovers sing of the dance of snowflakes experienced by others, but for them...it's beyond repair.
The Whites return for a reprise with this song of loss without regret. “That's What Texas Was For” presents a widower going through the “thing” in her drawer to “pack” them, and in doing so is able to recapture the memories of a “Waltz across Texas” that had continued since 1944. The poignancy of the old man holding “that long blue satin gown,” taking it in his arms, smelling the lingering aroma of her perfume, and waltzing in the room with the dress is painful beyond writing it while offering the hope of the reunion the two will enjoy in the forevermore. Stuart Duncan's haunting fiddle, plain and simple, captures the pain with Buck White providing a hint of lilt as the music looks backwards and forwards simultaneously.
The CD concludes with another bluegrass song “It's Just Lovin'” sung by Dale Ann Bradley with Steve Gulley and Dale Ann providing the harmony. Alison Brown's banjo kick-off provides the impetus for the lightly driving movement of this song. “And I will go on lovin' you/In my heart I'm holdin' you/Someday I'll get over you/But it ain't nothin'/It's just lovin'.” Rob Ickes Dobro strikes the tone for this song with its insistent slide and drive while Alan Bibey on mandolin provides the balance.
The musicians appearing on “I'll Take Love” were chosen with particular attention to how they'd sound on the specific songs on which they appear. The basic band consisting of Alison Brown on banjo, Jim Hurst on guitar, Alan Bibey on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Missy Raines on bass would grace the work of any writer and provide support for every singer. Additional instrumentals from Rob Ickes, Mike Witcher, Ben Branscomb, Louisa Branscomb, Buck White, Shadd Cobb, Ethan Bollinger, Steve Gulley, and Dominick Leslie seem glove-like in their fit. Vocals and harmonies from Dale Ann Bradley, Claire Lynch, Steve Gulley, John Cowan, Josh Williams, Becky Schlegel, Jim Hurst, Cheryl & Sharon White, and Dave Peterson are perfectly chosen to suit each song.
“I'll Take Love: Songs from the Pen of Louisa Brancomb” is, more than usual for a contemporary CD, a carefully constructed production which, when approached thoughtfully can be seen as a hymn to love, loss, redemption, and reconciliation. It has been nominated for IBMA awards as Recorded Event of the Year and Song of the Year. As such, it should be approached whole and in order. I urge you to purchase the whole package, which is available from Louisa Branscomb's web site, Compass Records, Amazon, and other sources.
Thanks to Louisa, who supplied a copy of the CD.