Red House Records
PO Box 4044
St. Paul, MN 55104
A review written for The Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Jim Dubinsky
I first encountered Neal and Leandra's music on the Red House Sampler, House on Fire. Their song, "Old Love," touched my wife of fourteen years and me deeply. Our appreciation for their intelligent and sensitive song-writing and excellent harmonies has only increased after hearing their latest collection entitled Accidental Dreams, which ranked first on my list for 1996.
The music on Accidental Dreams is a continuation of "hearth and home" themes begun on "Old Love," but all is neither warm nor bright here. The fire has burned down, the wind is whistling through the chinks in the logs, and the music confronts the "terrible moments of loneliness and hurt" that so many of us know but few share publicly. Such music gets into your bones like the proverbial cold winter's chill.
The CD begins with "Bottom of the Well," one of the saddest, and most haunting songs about lost dreams that I've heard. The arrangement is spare, with Leandra singing lead and Neal harmonizing. This song is followed by "Love in the Family," in which Neal's voice intertwines perfectly with the melancholy sounds of Peter Ostrouschko's fiddle to create a lonely, yet very rich sound. Here the listener becomes very aware that the "Old Love" of earlier times is undergoing tension.
Having just spent a long holiday visiting my own family and working through difficult times, I found myself returning over and over to "Love in the Family." I could quote the entire song, but allow me to just quote from the chorus and the bridge: "Oh love in the family / Can make your heart ache / You can run / and run / And run forever / But it's a love / You'll never escape"; "Where does it go to/ Where does it come from / All of this love/ Pent up inside / Blows like a windstorm / Burns like a desert / Cries like a river / Pulls like a tide." In the liner notes, Neal claims that the song is "about every family [he's] ever met." I agree, and once you listen, every time you think about family, you'll find yourself pulled like a tide back to this song.
These first two songs are just the beginning. In the third, "It's Only Love," Neal asks us to remember that "We're just a brief, bright flash in the Maker's mind" and "only love will set [us] free." Such love is described in "Rock in the River," an upbeat song Neal wrote which praises strong women who stand fast when faced with adversity. In the liner notes, he praises both Leandra and Maya Angelou, but I imagine anyone listening will know at least one woman who's "weathered storms, taken on floods" and survived. Survive these women may, but in these songs those storms and their aftermath go neither unmentioned nor forgotten. One of the most difficult and enduring periods of hard weather and tough times is described in "Love Back Then." Peter Ostroushko's mandolin, sounding like rain on a roof, provides a fitting accompaniment to a duet that begins with the bleak observation "This old ground is trampled down and hardened / Left so long that nothing grows" and ends with the startling admission "Now when we fight / We don't even pretend / We ever knew love back then". Seldom have I heard folk artists confront the darkest moments of relationships in such a straightforward, honest manner.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this fine collection is to help listeners remember how much we need love, while recognizing just how tenuous it is. In "The Wind Blows," a song whose melody Leandra revised 15 times before she felt it was right, we hear this tenuousness when Leandra sings plaintively, "When he comes home, I prepare for him to leave / When he sails away, I pray for his return / His love is a stubborn ocean breeze / Mine is a lighted lamp that burns".
The honest admissions that life and love are tough and sometimes desolate make this a CD for those of us who have lived with someone for a long-enough time for the initial magic to dim, and the doubts to begin. Through Neal and Leandra's music we come to understand that such doubts and the accompanying moments of loneliness and hurt, slow to develop and tough to endure, are as much a part of life and love as the moments of togetherness and joy. Yet, when all is said and done, they leave us with a belief that love, hard won and endured, can burn through the most stubborn breezes and make life worth living.
Neal and Leandra's music, which deserves the widest possible audience, has won much acclaim in their native Minnesota. Their song writing and singing, as well as the fine accompaniment by such artists as Marc Anderson on percussion, Peter Ostroushko on mandolin and fiddle, Richard Dworsky on piano, and Gordy Johnson on bass, deserve national acclaim. All I can hope is that a few more of you outside of Minnesota will give them a listen. The rewards will occur, when while listening you say, "I've been there too. These people speak from their hearts -- hearts that have known pain and survived."