WHERE TO BEGIN... Boston area singer-songwriter Jon Carmen seems to pose this question directly to me as I approach reviewing his 1994 release. Where to begin? The 11 songs range from personal reflections and deep introspection to finely edged observation of painful social realities. Carmen is adept at conveying subtle emotional gradations through his strong voice and intelligent lyrics.
Several songs captured my attention over repeated listenings. The lead song, "I Didn't Know," opens with a saxophone weaving around the acoustic guitar and then leads smoothly into Carmen's appealing vocals and lovely harmonies from Lynne Saner and Peg Loughran. This song reappears as the final cut on the CD as well, under the title "Wild Rose." In the later arrangement, however, the saxophone and backing vocals are gone, focusing completely on Carmen's voice and guitar work. Both cuts are equally effective, and I believe that the final cut gives a positive indication of Carmen's sparser solo performance style.
The title cut effectively captures the feeling of lacking direction within the mundane imagery of being caught in road construction on a dreary, rainy day. Carmen's voice conveys the weariness and loneliness of his lyrics while David Eure's violin plays liltingly behind him.
"The tractor trailer in front of me
Lets out a great big sigh
The big black cloud floats over me
And up into the sky
Do they really have to fix the road
When I'm trying to get home
Couldn't they find some other time
To do this type of work."
The most powerful song on the CD is "Give Me Your Dirties," a fact based song that tells of a former heroin addict's attempts to slow the spread of AIDS among junkies. Carmen's voice is the cajoling of a concerned friend when he sings; "Don't share the cooker, Don't share nothing at all, Don't share the cotton, The virus is alive in it all."
The complete track listing runs:
I Didn't Know
I am a Shadow
I'll find my Soul
Things R Different Now
Give Me Your Dirties
Where to begin
If Love was a Novel
I am the Road
Carmen delivers every song with clean arrangements that underscore the vocals and allow the listener to fully appreciate the lyrics. His guitar work is subtly conceived and serves as the underpinning of the songs, rather than as the central focus. Saner and Loughran supply beautiful harmony vocals over Carmen and Selcer's arrangements of guitar, bass, mandolin, keyboards, drums, and occasional saxophone and violin. There is a subtle jazz shading to some of the tracks that makes this CD a soothing listen. An interesting side note is the fact that singer-songwriter Jim Infantino provided the art and graphic design for the cover and insert. There seems to be a kinship between the writing styles of the two performers in terms of the free verse poetic nature of their lyrics.
This is not a CD that is going to reach out and grab you by the lapels. Quite the opposite, it requires listening to the interplay of the voice, words, and music to discover its quiet but powerful emotions. Once begun, however, the effort is more than repayed.
©, 1995 by Three Rivers Folklife Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.