And the award for the most intelligent semi-folk-rock-roots album goes to… Man, you have to wonder where they're hiding the music. The major media doesn't seem to care, their involvement seemingly limited to the yellow journalism crucial to the sensational headlines which make news news, as if it even approaches news these days. What it is, though, sells and isn't that what business is all about?
Joe Crookston obviously doesn't think so, though in Able Baker Charlie & Dog he has put together a package professional and slick enough to rival anything the majors could produce. It is beautiful, this foldover digi-pak, from the excellent graphics to just-right liner notes, and maybe it will attract the occasional glance but it takes a distant second to the music within. Distant.
Picture Crookston on a beer can a la Olympia Beer, whose ancient containers held the motto, "It's the Water", only with him, "It's the Music". Thing is, as fine a songwriter as he is, he's savvy enough to kick things off with a cover: Supertramp's The Logical Song. Now, wait a minute. Before you kick this to the curbside, hear me out. This is not Supertramp's Logical Song. This is Joe Crookston's Logical Song presented with a Simon and Garfunkel edge with a little Americana thrown in for good measure. Sure, Supertramp's Roger Hodgson wrote it, but beyond that, it's all Crookston. Kind of. Sort of. Truth be told, I was halfway through it before I could put my finger on who did the original and before I did, I was looking toward the folk rock side more than anywhere. This is good. Hodgson would approve.
Crookston's tribute to the underground railroad slides right in after, John Jones an epic folk tune based upon the research of one Jim Cunningham from Waverly NY. With voice reminiscent of the best of the golden age of folk music (maybe a cross between Bob Lind and Glenn Yarbrough with the sensitivity of Gordon Lightfoot), he tells the story of a man who helped free over 800 slaves in an era during which he could have been punished severely.
If you have to cover someone, Dan Fogelberg is as good as they come and his excellent Wandering Shepherd is among the best he composed. Crookston does an absolutely outstanding job capturing the aura of what the song can be. The used copy of Fogelberg's High Country Snows cost him a buck and was worth a thousand times that. It will make you scour the racks for Fogelberg, guaranteed.
Most skateboard songs are surf-oriented, Ventures-like Rickenbackers cranking out the pulse. Not so with Freddy the Falcon, a view of why sometimes things don't work out and how we hang on to the strangest things to survive.
Another true story turned into a musical epic, Brooklyn In July tells how inequality can push one over the edge. In this case it is Frank, an African-American who snapped and tossed a rock through the window of a cafe and spent "a good part of his life" in jail because of it. Presented in jazzy folk/swing fashion, it captures the tragedy of it all through simple chord changes and vocal timbre.
Crookston turned humor into song after hearing a tale of drunken roosters, courtesy of an 83-year-old named Walt Losey. Red Rooster In the Mash Pile, upbeat and downright humorous, has that '30s jazz feel, thanks to the light jazz piano and violin as well as upfront vocals and great chorus. Crookston includes a live version of this song toward the end of the CD and when you hear it, you know why. A real crowd pleaser.
Joe's grandpa was in The War (The Big One) and just before he died, told the story of laying runways for the planes which would carry the nuclear bombs to Japan. They named the runways Able Baker Charlie & Dog and the song ranks just below Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald as truth in song.
Crookston borrowed from Robert Frost a bit on Mending Walls, a fine pop/folk song about maybe finding yourself in others. Maybe. A good song, no matter what you get out of it.
Father to son. It's as old as the world and Hands Metal and Wood lays it out as well as it has ever been. There is even a story in the liner notes about his great-grandfather which is as good as and actually part of the song. No, I'm not going to spoil it. Buy this and read it for yourself.
If I didn't know better, I would think that Gordon Lightfoot had written Blue Tattoo. A beautiful song about a Polish mother and her daughter and a conversation which involves a trip to the States and a tattoo. And a war. May we never forget.
Bird By Bird is as close to folk as Crookston gets and there is a reason. Inspired by an Anne Lamont book, it is a song of healing and maybe rehabilitation in simple terms. After hearing it, you will agree that no other genre could have gotten it quite right.
Crookston finishes this album with a live track, The Rutabaga Curl, a rowsing and, again, jazzy story of a game played with, ahem, rutabagas (oddly enough). Another crowd pleaser which shows just how good Joe Crookston can be. And he is.
This album is overrun with magnificent musicians. I pick up anything which has Pat Wictor on it (his resophonic guitar is among the best out there these days) and now have deep appreciation for the piano of Molly MacMillan, the bass of Cary Black and the fiddle of Judy Hyman as well as the others who contributed. If this album had nothing else to recommend it (but it does), these names would be recommendation enough.
Looking at the liner notes, Ithaca NY jumped out and slapped me in the face. It is home to a number of fine musicians, not the least of whom are my last year's discoveries, Tom Mank and Sera Smolen. If I had the money, I might think of moving there. Crookston, Mank, Smolen? Makes me wonder who else is hiding there. Of course, as long as those three are there, it is a destination. For the music, you see. The music.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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