Legendary Webb Pierce
Webb Pierce dominated country music in the '50s, all but inventing the lonesome twang and weepy pedal-steel-laden sound of modern honky-tonk music. But Pierce's voice could be grating taken in large doses. The Louisiana Hayride's commanding cowboy Horace Logan, who regularly took chances on artists the Opry wouldn't touch (Hank Williams and Elvis Presley being prime examples), only allowed the pitch-impaired Pierce on his show because of his persistent badgering. Logan's risk paid off. Complex material and a gift for subtle yet dramatic phrasing made up for Pierce's vocal deficiencies. Fifty years after Pierce's pinched nasal whine topped the charts, Caught In the Webb, a rare gem of a tribute album, proves that the Wondering Boy's music is still as vital, rebellious, and endearing as ever.
Nouveau Texas troubadour Dale Watson opens with a driving rendition of the Jimmy Rogers-penned "In the Jailhouse Now," a tune recently brought back into the pop consciousness by the ubiquitous O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Watson's Haggard-esque baritone, propelled by the Jordanaires' tight harmonies, is nearly as whimsical as Pierce's own cover and is far superior to the Soggy Bottom Boys' campy (sorry, folks, but it is) send-up.
There are disappointments on the disc, notably Charley Pride's throaty "I'm Tired" and the great George Jones' croaking on "Yes I Know Why." BR5-49's mechanically precise version of the drunkard's national anthem, "There Stands the Glass," is fun but sadly lacking in the pathos department -- the very quality that took the song to number one in 1953 even though it was almost universally banned from the radio.
With lyrics like "I don't care if I'm not the first love you've known/Just so I'll be the last," Pierce's "I Don't Care" ranks among the sweetest love songs ever recorded, and Billy Walker's lurching rendition can't begin to measure up.
A trio of plaintive ballads, "Wondering" by Emmylou Harris (the disc's one genuine treasure), Allison Moorer's divinely morose "Back Street Affair," and Crystal Gayle's "More and More" stand head and shoulders over everything else collected on Caught In the Webb. Willie Nelson's beautiful "That's Me Without You," Mandy Barnett's faithful "Slowly," Dwight Yoakam's "If You Were Me," and Guy Clark's hot lickin' "Honky Tonk Song" are all classic recordings in their own right.
Webb Pierce charted 96 songs in his career, but the 21 selected for Caught In the Webb make for a pretty definitive track listing, with the wonderfully goofy "Teenage Boogie" and the self-explanatory "The New Raunchy" being the only glaring omissions. -- Chris Davis
Suzzy and Maggie Roche
(Red House Records)
Ironically enough, Zero Church, the latest collaboration from Suzzy and Maggie Roche, was originally set to be released on September 11th. In fact, Suzzy Roche, a native New Yorker, was out walking her dog and witnessed the disaster firsthand. How timely, then, is this collection of prayers that the Roches set to music, the result of a seminar held at the Harvard Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue which the sisters were invited to join. As part of that project, the Roches were given the task of writing music to accompany contemporary prayers, many written in a nonreligious context, offered by the participants. The prayers themselves spring from a great diversity of both famous and everyday folk suffering and rejoicing: one a near haiku from a wheelchair-bound Buddhist troubadour, another attributed to Mother Teresa on her deathbed, and a prayer for Matthew Shepard, the young gay man murdered in Wyoming, among others.
The exquisite harmonies, humanity, and humor we've come to associate with these renegade folkies are here in abundance (check out Suzzy's Dylan impression on one track). And, as always, the Roches exhibit a thoughtfulness, joie de vivre, and intimacy.
An impressive lineup sings with the group and/or contributes lyrics. These include siblings Terre and David Roche, Dr. Ysaye Barnwell from Sweet Honey in the Rock, Broadway star Lynette Dupree, and journalist and author Ruben Martinez. Martinez does a particularly fine job, his gravelly vocals evoking the hardships that Latinos face in the land of the free. But the real stars of the album are the ordinary yet extraordinary people who offer prayers of thanksgiving and hope despite unbelievable suffering -- the AIDS patient who refers to her virus as her "spiritual growth"; the Vietnam vet turned firefighter who tries to atone for his previous bloodshed by saving lives; and most touching of all, a young Sudanese man, sold into slavery for 10 years as a child, who gives thanks in broken English for his escape and asks for help for those still enslaved. Destined to be a classic. -- Lisa Lumb
Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
God dawg, what a waste of a great voice. The voice being wasted here belongs to 52-year-old Robert Bradley, who often sounds like the late Arthur Alexander, another Alabama native with a stunningly expressive vocal approach. Both share the same melisma-drenched and countryish (as in Southern rural) voice. And, like Alexander, Bradley writes his own material. Unfortunately, his playing partners -- I hesitate to call them a band because they simply don't function like one; they sound like a pack of bar-band palookas with a great singer straining for some measure of soulfulness -- come across as an unholy grafting of Hootie & the Blowfish and Creed (lemme hear you say, Ugh). Mediocre white rock bands have been hiring powerful black vocalists to cover up their inadequacies for decades, and Blackwater Surprise seems to be desperately hanging onto Robert Bradley's coattails, hoping he won't notice how dull they sound.
What offends most about this recording (besides the lackluster band performance) is the production. It's your typical "modern rock" formula with tons of anthemic choruses, layered keyboards, pedestrian guitar breaks, and horribly processed vocals that bury the best features of Bradley's voice. And the songs are obscured as compositions by the aforementioned baroque, track-laden production. Bradley may have written some decent tunes here, but it's hard to tell due to the production tricks piled on like so many layers of cheap makeup. This wedding of a middle-aged soul singer and a noisy rock band sounds more like a shotgun affair than an act of volition by all parties involved. Perhaps it's time for Bradley to opt for the proverbial solo career. That voice of his sure deserves better. -- Ross Johnson