Allison Crowe: Famous Blue Raincoat Video Premiere!

Allison Crowe’s upcoming album, Heavy Graces, will feature two covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” and the video for the “Choral” version has just been released. The video sets Allison’s music to scenes from the classic Marlene Dietrich film, The Blue Angel. As much as I love Allison’s voice, I really couldn’t imagine any cover of “Famous Blue Raincoat” surpassing Cohen’s original or Tori Amos‘ beautiful piano rendition. Yet where Cohen took the song to a melancholy depth and Tori gave it a bittersweet wistfulness, Allison gives the song a new feeling of suspense with a slightly faster pace and choral embellishments. Her cover at times recalls the elegance of Joan Baez‘ operatic folk rendering. And, as always, Allison’s vocal is gorgeous, multi-faceted and full of emotion and grace. You can watch it below….

Allison Crowe Official Site

Buy @ Amazon (Available Oct. 15th)

Muruch’s Top 15 Albums of 2009

It’s that time of year again! Following are my Top 15 Albums of 2009. As usual, I tried to balance the order of the list between what I personally perceive as artistic merit (quality of songwriting, vocals, and instrumentation) and basic listenability (how many times I played the album throughout the year). I’ve included some new commentary and brief quotes from the original reviews. Click on the album titles to read the full reviews, purchase the albums, and in some cases download mp3s…

Muruch’s Top 15 Albums of 2009

15. Joshua James: Build Me This

…all dusty roads and sunsets buoyed by rock guitar and drum crashes that eventually give way to sprawling piano and mournful strings” – As his previous release did on 2008’s list, Joshua’s album pushed its way onto this list at the last minute. I suppose it’s the subtlety of his music that prevents it from being more prominent in my memory, but it wasn’t until I listened to the album again that I remembered its excellence.

14. Rykarda Parasol: For Blood and Wine

…noirish rock sound with lyrics that alternate between whiskey-splashed cabaret and blood-soaked Gothic poetry” – I haven’t had much time to get to know this new release, but it’s already a favorite. I hope more people pay attention to Rykarda’s unique talent.

13. Sharon Isbin: Journey to the New World

… elegant, Medieval chamber-folk instrumentals and haunting traditional vocal pieces ” – This was a surprise. My enjoyment of instrumental music has grown tremendously this year, but I usually place a higher value on vocals. But this lovely album has been one that I’ve returned to and enjoyed many times over the year.

12. Maura O’Connell: Naked With Friends

…Maura O’Connell’s unparalleled vocal power is beautifully displayed in her impressive new album” – This one was sabotaged by the amount of emotion Maura’s voice rips out of me. It’s a gorgeous album from beginning to end, I just have to be in a particular mood to listen to it.

11. Luminescent Orchestrii: Neptune’s Daughter

…filled to the brim with the kind of warped traditional Eastern European music that made me love Luminescent Orchestrii in the first place” – I really expected this to be #1 when I first reviewed it and the stand out tracks are absolutely stunning, but overall I don’t listen to it nearly as much as the albums below.

10. White Lies: To Lose My Life

…dark, catchy synth-rock with a slight retro Goth feel…think “Blue Monday” by New Order” – This ominously infectious little album worked its way up the list throughout the year. The title track in particular is one that echoes in my head long after the music has stopped.

9. The Decemberists: Hazards of Love

…The Decemberists transformed themselves into the hard rock progeny of Led Zeppelin for portions of the album” – This magnificent concept album may be #1 when it comes to artistic merit, but it lacks the overall listenability of others on the list. Still, it’s one of the more impressive projects of the year.

8. Morrissey: Years of Refusal

…finally puts his pipes to good use over soaring rock arrangements” – I loved this album when I first reviewed it and put it on heavy rotation last winter, but hadn’t listened to it much since then. Playing it again made me wonder why I neglected it for so long. If albums have personalities, it has the strongest of the year.

7. Sonos: Sonosings

…whether humming in such hushed tones or belting to the rafters as in latter tracks, there’s an elegance to each note the sextet sings” – This was another release that faded in my memory until I dug it out again and rediscovered how wonderful it is. Now I love it even more than I did when I reviewed it. The duet with Sara Bareilles on “Gravity” is very moving, and their a cappella cover of “White Winter Hymnal” is one of the loveliest recordings I’ve ever heard.

6. Muse: The Resistance

…Integrating classical and opera music into their theatrical electro-rock sound, Muse have created one of the most exciting song cycles I’ve ever heard” – The brilliance and complexity of Muse’s album still surprises me every time I listen to it. Not only do I love this album, but it’s the one that everyone I know immediately asks about when I play it.

5. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears: Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is

…the kind of guttural, robust, bluesy soul of James Brown and Screaming Jay Hawkins” – I’ve played this countless times and it’s probably the most fun listen of the year.

4. Gaba Kulka: Hat, Meet Rabbit

…marries foreboding metal guitar and militant drums to pretty piano and angelic backing vocals, reminding us of Gaba’s fondness for Iron Maiden” – The Top 4 albums on this list are pretty much interchangeable. This is probably the most unusual and creative album on my list. I’ve known Gaba for almost a decade now, and I was happy to see her popularity in Poland skyrocket this year. I think she’s going to be a huge international star someday.

3. Vienna Teng: Inland Territory

…a breathtaking blend of militant beats and orchestral strings” – I loved this album from the beginning, but it also turned out to be a grower as repeated listens revealed even more layers to its beauty. It is definitely the most beautiful release of the year, but there are two albums I’ve listened to more…

2. Great Northern – Remind Me Where The Light Is

…Ominous instrumentation is barely restrained as Stolte’s sultry croon initially floats in” – If the order of this list was based solely on the number of times I’ve listened to an album this year, Great Northern would’ve been #1 by a landslide since I’ve played the album nearly every day since March. It may not be the innovative recording on this list, but it is certainly the most addictive. Only one man could keep it from the top spot…

1. Kurt Vonnegut & Dave Soldier: Ice-9 Ballads

…I can’t imagine a more perfect score for my favorite novel of all time” – The quote says it all. This album had an edge since it was based on my favorite book (Cat’s Cradle) and featured my favorite author (Vonnegut), but Soldier’s innovative compositions helped push it to the top of the list. If my imagination had a soundtrack, this would be it.

Sharon Isbin: Journey To The New World

Journey To The New World is the latest release from Grammy-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin. The albums contains a selection of elegant, Medieval chamber-folk instrumentals and haunting traditional vocal pieces featuring folk legend Joan Baez and violinist Mark O’Connor. The title Journey To The New World represents the time-travelling concept of the album. The songs progress from 16th century Ireland and Britain to early 20th century America, and the musical style of the album evolves with each step of the journey.

The four Renaissance lute works that open the album are each lovely, graceful instrumentals. “Drewrie’s accordes”, “Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home”, “Le Rossignol”, and “Greensleeves” melt flawlessly into one another, though the familiarity of the latter makes it stand out most. Isbin’s playing is beautiful, but unobtrusive enough to fit perfectly into the antiquated time period to which she pays homage.

The jaunty Irish sea chantey “The Drunken Sailor” is paired with the softer Scottish tune “Wild Mountain Thyme”. On behalf of my Irish husband, I take offense at the title “Two English Folk Songs” given to the two tracks in the liner notes. Scotland may be part of Great Britain, but Ireland is an independent country entirely free of English rule, thank you very much. Anyway, geographical misrepresentation aside, the pretty tunes make way for the subtle shift in style soon to follow.

Though I’ve heard The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is the song that has been covered the most over the years, I suspect “Wayfaring Stranger” isn’t far behind. Baez delivers a beautiful and somber vocal that greatly compliments Isbin’s gentle instrumentation. Next up is the “world premiere recording” of composer John Duarte’s “Joan Baez Suite”, a seven-movement instrumental tribute to Baez’ classic folk songs. Baez herself then returns to sing “Go ‘Way From My Window”.

The album features a second world premiere recording: Mark O’Connor’s “Strings & Threads Suite”. The soulful and vigorous twang of O’Connor’s violin infuses new life into the album, quietly but insistingly urging the journey forward from the shores of America into the Appalachian mountains and onward to the Wild West. Particularly charming are “III. Captain’s Jig”, “V. Pilgrim’s Waltz”, and “XI Texas Dance Hall Blues” – I highly recommend all three tracks to Appalachian folk and country lovers out there. O’Connor’s songs may differ in genre from the other compositions, but it’s somehow fitting given the album’s theme of trans-atlantic travel spanning several centuries. The suite provides the perfect finale for this gorgeous album.

I was not granted permission to share an mp3, but you can hear samples at the links below.

Sharon Isbin Official Site

Buy @ Amazon

Maria Muldaur: Yes We Can!

Maria Muldaur’s Yes We Can! will be released on July 22th. Muldaur departs from her signature romantic blues sound for what she calls her first protest album. She covers thirteen peace-centric tunes originally recorded by Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Allen Toussaint, Buddy Miller, Edwin Starr, and even Garth Brooks, and is backed by “The Women’s Voices For Peace Choir” composed of legendary female singers, activists, writers, and other prominent women. Among them are Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Phoebe Snow, Odetta, actress Jane Fonda, Holly Near, Kimberly Bass, Rhonda Benin, Linda Tillery, Keta Bill, Annie Sampson, Jeanie Tracy, Valerie Troutt, Indian holy woman Amma, Maria’s daughter Jenni Muldaur (when is this girl going to record a solo album?), and authors Anne Lamott, Marianne Williamson, and Dr. Jean Shinoda.

Muldaur says regarding her thirty-fifth recording: “What’s been weighing on my heart and mind so heavy it hurts is the sad, deplorable, alarming condition of our Planet today – wars, nuclear proliferation, global climate change, rapid depletion and rape of the Earth’s once bountiful resources, genocide, poverty, starvation…If things in this world continue the war they are, there soon won’t be any people to make romance and babies, and no place to do so either!”

The opening cover of Earl King’s “Make A Better World” is adequate, but the lukewarm melody isn’t the best setting for Muldaur’s rough edged voice. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” is a much better fit, though I do wish there was as much depth to the arrangement as there is in Maria’s vocal. I think I would have enjoyed her soulful renditions of Edwin Starr’s “War” and “Why Can’t We Live Together” much more if I hadn’t heard similar versions on Joan Osborne‘s How Sweet It Is.

The group renderings of Toussaint’s “Yes We Can, Can” and the Buddy Miller/Victoria Williams jug band tune “This Old World” are fine enough and would undoubtedly be impressive in a live performance, but the famous ladies that make up the “Women’s Voices For Peace Choir” are natural leads and thus not the most harmonious background singers. The exceptions are the traditional “Down By The Riverside” and the finale “Everyone In The World”. The former unites these illustrious feminine voices into an anti-war gospel choir and the latter weaves them together into an ethereal, exotic hush.

A surprising favorite is the gospel style cover of Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free”. The majestic presence of Odetta, Joan Baez, and Holly Near with Muldaur transcend the original. It is worth purchasing the album just to hear these four eminent female voices together in one song.

In the end, it’s three Bob Dylan anti-war songs that prove to be the stand out tracks on Yes We Can and possibly the most powerful performances of Muldaur’s career. The album finally comes alive with the riveting “John Brown”, as the bluesy song gives Muldaur the proper outlet for her rich voice. “License To Kill” and especially the spine-tingling reworking of “Masters Of War” are also truly stunning.

The bottom line is that Muldaur has a substantial voice, these are significant folk songs, and there are some truly breathtaking moments on the disc. But objectively, her vocals don’t mesh nearly as well as with most of these tunes as they did on last year’s marvelously sultry blues collection Naughty, Bawdy & Blue (#8 on my Top Albums of 2007). This won’t matter to people who are more concerned with the lyrical message of peace, but I feel that the vocal performance and musical arrangements are more important when a singer chooses to cover the songs of others rather than write something original.

Maria Muldaur – Masters Of War (mp3 expired)

Maria Muldaur Official Site

Buy @ Amazon