August 31, 2011

Glen Campbell's Poignant Farewell

In light of his recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, Glen Campbell’s latest and professed final studio album, Ghost on the Canvas (Surfdog Records), unavoidably achieves a poignant distinction. Yet in meditations on mortality, faith, and earthly love, this is not a work steeped in wallowing, mournful resignation.

In fact, Campbell, 75, sounds resilient and assured throughout – even when the words he's singing suggest otherwise. “This is not the road I wanted for us, but darling it’s here,” he concedes to his wife in “Strong,” one of several songs co-written by Campbell and producer Julian Raymond, its lyrics offering an unshakable, against-all-odds vow of enduring devotion. Perhaps to illustrate the increasing adversity that lay ahead, he sings against a near-symphonic surge of turbulence, resounding as majestic and menacing at the same time.

A handful of other songwriters contributed tracks as well, including Jakob Dylan, who penned “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” especially for Campbell before cutting his own version on his 2010 solo album, Women & Country. Here Campbell invests the song with a sense of reflective wisdom that the much younger Dylan didn’t (or couldn’t) altogether convey. He enriches the stunningly beautiful title track – one of two standout selections composed by Paul Westerberg – with similar perception, his nimble voice complemented by the sort of hazy, swirling orchestration reminiscent of his definitive, classic recordings.

While Campbell’s illness provides its subtext, Ghost on the Canvas is ultimately about compassion and redemption, qualities which are best expressed in “A Better Place,” when in under two minutes he comes to terms with his fate. “The world’s been good to me," Campbell acknowledges to God. "A better place awaits, you’ll see.”

(First published on Blogcritics.)

August 22, 2011

An Interview with Edwin McCain

Believe it or not Edwin McCain has maintained a steady, fruitful career for two decades now. The Greenville, South Carolina native, perhaps most known for such pop/rock radio staples as “I’ll Be” and “I Could Not Ask For More,” has consistently turned out eclectic, soulful albums while playing countless live gigs to his appreciative, loyal audience.

McCain’s latest is Mercy Bound (429 Records), which marks the production debut of his longtime collaborator, singer/songwriter Maia Sharp. The original idea was for Sharp to co-produce the album with noted music man Don Was, but getting everyone together proved futile.

“We’ve always had this great writing relationship,” says McCain of Sharp, and so he ultimately encouraged her take the production reins completely. “It just turned into a wonderful experience,” he says. “I’m patting myself on the back for being right about Maia, how special she is.”

You've written plenty on your own, but as far as collaborating with Maia, does she change the way you approach songwriting?

She definitely changes the way I approach songwriting. I mean, I have the same ideas, but I think they’re more fully developed by the time we’re done with them, and vice versa, because the mantra is–and this is something her father taught her; her father is Randy Sharp, who’s a great songwriter as well–if you don’t develop an idea to its greatest conclusion than it’s disrespectful to another writer who would’ve; and it’s wasteful. I never really considered it in that way, but then when we started working together we would write it and then try to beat it. We’ve written it now; let’s try to write it better. Let’s do this as much as we can to refine the idea. And sometimes you find that your first thoughts are usually the right ones, but you can’t be sure unless you try.

Is there any inhibition on either one of your parts as far as what you'll write together?

There’s really nothing that she doesn’t know about me. It’s a total open-book situation. All the deepest, darkest… That’s where it lives, really.

Are you any different of a songwriter than you were 10 or 15 years ago?

I listen back to some of the [early] stuff and some of the ideas are these broad strokes of idealism. And I think that’s what you should have in your twenties. There should be some passionate idealism and some sort of poetic ignorance. Now what I do is find the beauty in the tiniest; it’s a lot more micromanaged. I find the description of a moment can be more powerful than these sort-of cry-freedom things I was talking about in the beginning, but I hadn’t really lived a whole lot. The sum total of my existence was riding around in a van, playing bars and chasing girls.

That’s produced a lot of great rock and roll, though.

It was a lot of fun. And that has produced a lot of great stuff. The challenge for me now is it’s really much more about the audience. And I think the audience that listens to what we do is like me. We’ve kind of been through that phase and now the things we pay attention to are much more empathetic.

Did having children change or inspire you in some way as a songwriter?

They inspire all of it. It’s their perspective more than anything that inspires the way I look at things. I find myself being positive and encouraging. A lot of that, when you’re alone before you’re married and even after you’re married a lot of time, it’s still all about you. You’re thinking, This traffic’s driving me crazy. It’s all about how it’s affecting me. And it’s funny, because when your kids start to think in that way it’s a clear reflection and you see how it looks. So I’ve made a real positive and committed effort to teach them how to be patient and understanding and not let the ego stuff run away with it; so they can have a better time.

Then you have to work twice as hard to live up to that example.

Absolutely. And it really does force you to put your money where your mouth is. But it’s a really good challenge because you know that if you’re sitting in the car yelling and screaming about traffic, kids pick up on all that kind of stuff. They pick up on that energy and they pick up on how you react and respond to just about everything. They’re going to do exactly what you’re going to do. So if you can react and respond in a reasonable way and have good boundaries… It’s all the things that I was never really good at before they came along. It’s amazing how hard we make things on ourselves. We make life a lot harder on ourselves than it needs to be. Just the parenting issue, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for time and organization and all of those things, but it really does put things into perspective. It makes me have a better outlook. It makes me happier about doing what I’m doing. When I’m going to work I know why I’m going to work. 

Mercy Bound will be released on August 30 by 429 Records. For more information on Edwin McCain, please visit the artist's official website.
(First published on Blogcritics.)

August 07, 2011

Rachael Yamagata Readies New Album & Tour, Offers MP3

There’s something intriguing about Rachael Yamagata. On one level, with lyrics that are at turns cryptic and starkly confessional, she reflects qualities consistent with that of an archetypical singer/songwriter. On another, she’s got a bold streak, and in her songs she increasingly challenges herself to find new ways to broaden the scope of her musical expression.

On her third full-length album to date, Chesapeake (scheduled for release on October 11), Yamagata continues to exhibit and explore these two strands of her artistry. It's the follow-up to her ambitious 2008 double-LP, Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart, on which she expanded upon the often-sullen, piano-based template of her 2004 solo debut, Happenstance, to embrace richer textures and — by introducing her own experiments on the electric guitar to her sound — an unmistakable edge.

With Chesapeake she branches out even further, drawing on elements of rock and jazz, in particular, while maintaining an integral if not altogether dominant presence on the piano. One of the album's most brazen tracks, "Starlight," is available now as a free download.

Yamagata will embark on an extensive tour in support of the new album, beginning on October 24 in Portland.

Download: "Starlight"

First published as Rachael Yamagata Previews Upcoming LP & Tour with New Song (MP3) on Blogcritics.

August 03, 2011

Don't Overlook The Red Button's Latest Album

With their debut, She’s About To Cross My Mind, The Red Button produced what would’ve been one of the hippest records of the British Invasion—had it not been composed nearly 50 years afterward by two guys from California.

Nearly four years on now, the singing/songwriting duo of Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruekberg has returned with The Red Button’s sophomore LP, As Far As Yesterday Goes (Grimble Records). Where its predecessor for the most part evoked a Merseybeat vibe, this effort reflects far broader influences, its melodic-pop foundation at times incorporating the quirky psychedelia of mid-to-late-‘60s Donovan and Harry Nilsson ("Picture," "Genevieve") along with some of the ornate textures of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys ("On A Summer Day") and the finessed riffage of early-'70s George Harrison ("Easier").

On some level maybe it’s tempting to question, if the Red Button’s retro sound so closely recalls that of any number of classic artists, why not then just stick with those? Swirsky and Ruekberg are no doubt aware of their influences and, in turn, of the comparisons they draw. But these guys are serious, and seriously talented musicians. Besides, instantly memorable melodies have never been easy for songwriters to come by; and the knack the Red Button display in having crafted the ones that grace As Far As Yesterday Goes cannot be underestimated and shouldn’t be overlooked. Highly recommended.

First published as Music Review: The Red Button - As Far As Yesterday Goes on Blogcritics.