Mermaids in the Theater (11/06/98)
Willie Nelson, Teatro (Island 1998) - Here's a winning combination: Veteran performer Willie Nelson (age 65) teamed with award-winning producer Daniel Lanois (who has worked with U-2, the Neville Bros., and Bob Dylan). The result is a visionary and daring release, blending Lanois' moody and atmospheric production touches with Nelson's plain-spoken delivery and masterful guitar work.
Nelson is one of American pop music's most under-recognized talents, with fully 200 albums to his name. Willie's last release, Spirit, was a somber and understated acoustic recording. By contrast, the band for Teatro is a formidable lineup: Nelson on guitar and vocals, Lanois on guitars, sister Bobbi Nelson on pianos and keyboards, harmonica veteran Mickey Raphael, and dual drummers Tony Mangurian (who plays for Luscious Jackson) and Victor Indrizzio (part of the Scott Weiland band).
Teatro (Spanish for "theater") was recorded in Oxnard, California in a cavernous studio which began its life as a Mexican movie theater. Balanced against Lanois' treacherous sonic landscapes is Nelson's earnest delivery and supreme self-confidence.
A defining element of the new album is the twin drummers, who lace Teatro with driving, Caribbean-influenced rhythms. Also part of the mix is Emmylou Harris, who contributes guest vocals on 11 of the album's tracks. Like Mangurian and Indrizzio, Emmylou is a veteran of previous sessions with Lanois: Her 1995 Grammy-winning album, Wrecking Ball, was a Lanois production.
Tracks like "Everywhere I Go," "These Lonely Nights," and "The Maker" find Nelson delivering melancholy dramas of ordinary life, set against a heady background of dual percussionists and slinky Spanish influences.
Which is to say, it's hard to describe Teatro fully. Nelson's voice and guitar playing remain a constant, yet the instrumental arrangements are a stunning change from Willie's recent work. A highly rewarding and complex album, Teatro is a rich treat. (Also look for this band performing on the 98 Farm Aid show, which is being broadcast on the CMT cable network.)
Sinead Lohan, No Mermaid (Interscope 1998) - Sinead Lohan is an Irish singer making her United States debut with No Mermaid. Featuring Lohan's earthy, Irish timbre, Lohan delivers a fine set.
Born in County Cork, Ireland, Lohan draws on traditional Irish imagery, with allusions to mermaids and the ocean. Which is to say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree: The Waterboys also made great use of this imagery.
With Malcolm Burns handling production work, Lohan delivers a dozen solid tracks. I prefer the more pop-based numbers such as "Whether or Not" and the concluding, "Diving to be Deeper," over the slower ballads.
Like Eleanor McEvoy (who also contributed to the famous Irish Womans' Heart collection), Lohan has the pipes to be a big star. Enjoy this rising talent.
Ebba Forsberg, Been There (Maverick Records 1998) - World traveler Ebba Forsberg delivers her debut album in Been There. Paired with songs written by sister Kajsa Ribbing, the new album displays Forsberg as a rock storyteller, with undertones of Scandinavian winters.
Forsberg was born in Sweden, and has also lived in the West Indies and Botswana. These world travels are reflected in such songs as "Taking Some Time," in which Forsberg sings, "I do wanna settle down/But haven't found a place to call home."
Forsberg has a poignant style, evoking somber moods so often equated with Scandinavia. Explains Ebba, "These songs carry a form of melancholy. They get into your blood. I can't do anything without a certain amount of melancholy."
Yet the music is not downbeat, with such tracks as "You Surprise Me" and "Hold Me" displaying Forsberg's rich voice. For an emotional trip, get on board Been There.
James McMurtry, Walk Between the Raindrops (Sugar Hill 1998) - Back with a new recording is James McMurtry (the son of author Larry McMurtry, of Lonesome Dove fame). With a delivery that resembles Lou Reed at his prime, Walk Between the Raindrops is a sweet treat from this southern talent.
After recording three albums for a major label, McMurtry found that his talents as a wordsmith are better suited to a proud independent such as Sugar Hill. Whether you call this music "electric folk," "country rock" or "adult alternative," the result is a winning combination, balancing McMurtry's intelligent lyrics and solid folk-rock roots.
The follow-up to It Had to Happen finds McMurtry working with a band that includes Ronnie Johnson on bass, Lisa Mednick on keyboards, and Chris Searles on drums and percussion. The album concludes with a ripped-up version of "Rex's Blues" (written by Townes Van Zandt). "Rex's Blues" is a delicious rock number that mixes elements of freedom, excess, and rebellion to highlight the best of Van Zandt's songwriting skills.
Another outstanding track is "Walk Between the Raindrops," a pop-influenced number that owes a debt to John Prine.
With his populist sensibilities and earnest delivery, James McMurtry bears the standard in a proud tradition that includes Bob Dylan. Fans of Americana will flock to Walk Between the Raindrops.
- Randy Krbechek © 1998
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