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The first and title cut, "Red Neck, Blue Collar," is an eloquent portrayal of those who do the work, who've built whatever has been built anywhere. Having worked on a gas pipeline in Mississippi and as an irrigation specialist (AKA ditch digger) for the city of Oakland, Bob knows what he is talking about. A further exploration written for a union rally, "One Big Family" deals with the separation of class and the myth of economic equality. These are not, however, "ain't-work-awful-poor-us" downers. Bob simply tells it like it is.
Other songs vary: "Judas Iscariot" deals with the relationship between Judas and his "gypsy sidekick" Jesus. "Pledge of Allegiance" questions the recent addition of God to that pledge. And there's a love song, a cowboy song, a great description of a bar fight, a tale of a heroic truck driver and more. All are Bob Frank originals.
The excellent arrangements of 10 accompanying instruments support and emphasize mood and story rather than interfering with and drowning out lyrics -- and the music is great! Further, you can understand every word: a rare blessing in folk CDs these days.
Whether or not you consider yourself a "worker" (teachers don't work? doctors? lawyers?), with or without a red neck, you'll treasure the music and the thoughts Bob Frank brings with this collection.
--Faith PetricMudlark, Nest.
The word"mudlark" has multiple meanings: a type of bird, an 18th-century pejorative for children rooting in the mud along the Thames River for things of some worth, and -- more to the point -- the very talented Davis-based trio of Ray Frank, Katie Henry and Laura Sandage.
This musical MudLark digs about in the muck and mire of human foibles, and the nature of the human condition itself, and what they retrieve is a delightful and often meaningful collection of songs. Their contemporary sound, with definite old-timey echoes, is fashioned from wonderful vocal harmonies, guitar, banjo, string bass, trump (Jew's harp) and percussion.
All but two of this bake's dozen of tracks are by Katie Henry or Laura Sandage. Ray Frank's "Chickadee," the first cut, is as delightful a musical manner to ward off winter as I've heard in a good long while. The only traditional song, "Reuben" -- with its baleful references to disappearing transients, sinister razor blades, and newly-started graveyards -- is a tried-and-true chestnut, learned from the singing of Joe Hickerson and rendered quite nicely by the good Mr. Frank.
At one end of the emotional spectrum is the bluesy "Chicago is a Meat-Eating Town" with a very pro-carnivore slant. Ray does a delightful trumpet imitation, while in the background one can most assuredly hear porcine and other animal sound effects. At the other end of the spectrum is Laura Sandage's"Guantánamo" a song as hard-hitting as today's headlines, troubling the very fabric of the American political psyche.
Other personal favorites include: Katie Henry's "Potty Song," Sandage's "Mountain Girl," the story of a girl's longing for her deep mountain roots; and the haunting melody and French lyrics of the Henry-Sandage collaboration, "Plaisir," with its message that often the simplest pleasures are the most beautiful and memorable. The last cut features the Davis OK Chorale on Sandage's "May You Walk," an anthem-like call for strength and resolution even when one seems down and out and unwilling to continue going forward in life and its pursuits.
This is altogether a first-rate collection of songs eliciting love, warmth, and a true sense of musical purpose, by a trio that makes its own definite mark on the musical landscape.
--Robert RodriquezMartin Simpson , Prodigal Son.
This is a love letter to Martin Simpson, thinly disguised as a record review. June Tabor once paid Martin Simpson the highest of tributes, saying that when he moved to the U.S. in 1987, she knew she would never work with any other guitarist. And she hasn't.
Simpson is living back in England now, and back in the record racks with a new album aptly called Prodigal Son. It is a mixture of traditional song from both sides of the Atlantic, a handful of Simpson originals, and one song each from Dick Connette and Randy Newman.
The guitar playing is everything we have come to expect from Martin Simpson: the crystalline tone, the liquidness, the speed, the complexity, the unusual and gorgeous harmonies, the craftsmanship, the surprises, the impeccable taste, the deep feeling. I'll bet he's a good cook, too. What's not here are the exaggerated, ever-so-slightly Dylanesque vocal mannerisms that have marred much of his music in the past. What remains is more of what has always been there: a soulful singer who cares deeply about words and the art of storytelling. For comparison, think of Martin Carthy or Dick Gaughan. There's a little bit of Nic Jones in his phrasing.
Let it not be said that I am too Simpson-smitten to see his flaws. His reading of the Scottish ballad "Andrew Lammie" is barely lukewarm, and the arrangement is overdone. He says he was inspired by Ray Fisher's singing of the song. I have been, too, and I recommend you find her version of it on her album The Bonny Birdy. Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" is damn near ruined by Simpson's imitation of Newman's singing style. The effect is more irritating than anything else, and gets more so as the song goes on. Given the strength of the song and the beauty of the guitar arrangement, it could have been a masterpiece if he'd sung it like Martin Simpson.
One of the album's many high points, a track I've listened to over and over, is "The Granemore Hare." Even higher is his written account of the emotional process he went through in learning the song, and of a magical visitation that occurred during the recording of the track. Worth the price of admission alone.
-- Ed Silberman