Who is Carolyn Cruso and where has she been hiding herself all these years? Sure, I know the name. It was hard to miss it toward the end of my stint in Seattle (Cruso lives in the wilds of Orcas Island in the great Pacific Northwest) and she has worked with Billy Oskay, a musician and producer who has earned my utmost respect, but how did I miss seeing her or, at the least, hearing her music? I'm sure mostly it was timing, my journey taking a left turn about the time Cruso began to make a mark.
I heard stories. Hard not to in an area known for its forays into folk and hammered dulcimer, an instrument for which she became quite well known, and I didn't travel far (Oregon) so I was still plugged in. Yes, I know the name. In preparing for this review, I did my research, too, and heard why I know the name. Cruso is not a traditional style hammered dulcimer player. She pushes the envelope at every turn and I am amazed at some of the turns she took on her albums. There are the common traditional tunes, of course, and the occasional steps into Windham Hill territory, melodic gems of whim and fancy and space, all noteworthy and most far above the norm in terms of creativity and musicianship. Even more momentous are the works borrowing from classical, international and jazz, some in the form of actual structured compositions loosened enough to allow the occasional improvisational twist. How would I describe what I heard? Impressive, for sure, and accomplished. Add 'very' to both.
Cruso is not all hammered dulcimer and instrumental, though. She is a folkie and thrives within the genre. She even goes so far as to point to the more folk-oriented tracks on Have You Ever*as those to "go to," as it is written. Evangeline and Where Does the Love Go and Natural Disaster are all fine tracks, don't get me wrong, and perhaps they are songs radio people would prefer, all having more of a standard folk sound, but there is a lot more going on here than folk. There is jazz, for one thing. Throughout the album, Cruso slips in songs more toward the jazz edge in composition as well as arrangement and those are the ones to catch the ears of the more adventurous listener. Songs like Rage and Sorrow, with its flowing clarinet-at-dawn, superb chord structure (it must be that open tuning she alludes to in her bio) and voice which occasionally slides rather than vocalizes. Like the upbeat and lightfooted Feels So Good, with excellent bottomside fretless bass and topside soprano sax. Like Language, which allows Cruso to phrase to her heart's content (and she phrases very well, let me tell you) and shows you how important is chord progression to mood as well as melody. And like the jazz-heavy Rhythm in the Rain, a late night walk through city streets on a rainy night with spot-on muted trumpet over orchestral movement at the break (each time I hear it, I am humbled).
While I wasn't completely sold on Cruso's voice at first, the jazzy side quickly won me over. She has an ability to go from folk to jazz to late night and sultry blues without advertising the change, which in this case makes for a mostly mellow and very fluid album.
Am I surprised? Very pleasantly so. I expected good folk (and it is), but the jazz touches on this album are as good as it gets. The production? First class all the way. You get the depth, the feel, even the silences which separate the notes. If I was a musician looking for someone to produce a moody jazz album, Martin Lund's name would be at the top of my list. The sound is clear and full and everything you expect from a first class studio.
Now, if I could just figure out who Cruso sounds like on a couple of the tracks. I swear she sounds exactly like someone I have reviewed in the past and it is driving me nuts. A quick run through my collection found nothing and there was this one time I swore that McCartney's Jet was not only not McCartney's, but a minor hit from the sixties by some unknown group. Unfortunately, that was the week Jet was released and I lost that bet big time. I've lost a lot of brain cells since then, too. Maybe I'll just backtrack and pick up a couple of Cruso's earlier albums. I know the music is good and, what the hell, who needs the stress?
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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