In a way, Blissville is a musical history of Jeff Talmadge. Even though he wrote six fine new songs for this, he rejuvenated seven from his three earlier projects (Secret Anniversaries, Bad Tattoo, and The Spinning of the World). Not satisfied with just placing those seven amongst the new, he took them back into the studio for updating. He re-recorded some vocals, remixed and remastered them all and, to my ears, it worked. The feel is seamless; the production, first-rate; the performance, thumbs-up.
Talmadge comes from the reflective rather than the introspective school of folk. Artist's angst is replaced here by Talmadge's inner sigh, their sharp edge by his light sense of humor, their anger by his sense of frustration but acceptance of reality. He lives by the lyric, has the melodic sensibility of the folk master and writes with the muse at his side. He is not great yet, at least not in terms of maybe a Bob Dylan, but he shows enough here to make me think he could be.
Crazy Little Town makes me think so. An eery little tune, half-talked, rhythms juxtaposed just enough to throw you off and yet it is the way it needs to be. Light, upbeat, yet soft as if it were written to be played in the dark. I'm sure it was unintentional, but Talmadge captured just enough John Campbell to make it that much better to my ears. For those who don't know Campbell, that's a compliment.
The troubadour comes out in 40 Days of Rain, a Steve Young-like look at one farmer's inner plight. Done to death, I know, but this is much better than the norm. Much, much better. And Talmadge's voice is perfectly suited to it.
Talmadge knows love, too. What honest musician doesn't? Most notably, he captures it on the second track, Wild and Precious Thing, a beautiful song made more so by a simple arrangement including accordion, which adds just the right sound. Floating and soft, it is a love song of sorts. Possibly written for Susan Davidson, his wife, to whom this CD was dedicated. If it wasn't, don't tell me. I'd rather live in ignorance.
The Hard Part's Letting Go rides the light ripples of the plucked guitar over what seems to be the low stride of cello-as-bass and melds beautifully with a breathy, textured vocal. Strings seem almost an afterthought, but are just right and obviously well thought out.
Thirteen songs inhabit this CD, all alive and breathing because of Talmadge's vision. All are good, but I'm sure that some would sound better to you than others. They did to me. Already, though, I am finding myself opting for lesser heard tracks in place of those previously mentioned (unlike friends, I control when they drop in; like friends, though, they are all welcome, just sometimes some more than others).
Musician-wise, Talmadge gathered some good ones. Tim Thompson plays the electric guitar with a flair (his touch on Crazy Little Town is Mark Knopfler-esque when Knopfler was at the top of his game). Chip Dolan, when called upon, plays the accordion like a harmonium (I had to check the lyric sheet to be sure of the instrument, in fact). Dow Tomlin feather touches the bass so well that you almost don't hear it, but without it the music would seem a little empty. Everyone who had a hand in this added to it, though, and it is the better for their participation.
About the vocals, and please read this through: Jeff Talmadge does not always hit notes spot on, but that does not mean that he can't sing. He sings very well, thank you. So well that after a few listens, his voice becomes part and parcel of the song. Like a really good actor, he presents his voice for effect and not just tone. And, like a good songwriter, he writes songs to his voice. To my ears, it could be no other way and work as well.
All in all, Talmadge has to be extremely happy with this. Europe, home base of his label (Corazong), has been most accepting and he travels there to play regularly. In the States, as of this writing, Blissville has topped the Roots Music Report (folk) and is climbing the Americana Music Chart. And that is good. He deserves it. It's the road uphill, and I'm hoping it is a long and pleasant drive.
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