Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Music: 2009

Okay, so I have only been reviewing music for a couple months now, and this site is attracting dozens and half-dozens of readers, but I thought I would go bold and announce the Wood-Between’s favorite music that showed up in our world in 2009.

Psalm 150 Award (the Best Instrumental Album):
Frio Suite, by Phi Keaggy and Jeff Johnson

Whatsoever* Award (most Edifying Album):
Love Was Here First: Carolyn Arends:

Best Album:
Fireflies and Songs: Sara Groves

Best Christmas Album:
In the Heart: Bob Dylan

Best Song:
Heaven is the Face: Steven Curtis Chapman (Beauty from Ashes)

Best Song Runner up:
Over the River, Jon Foreman (Limbs and Branches) Note: This is only runner up, because technically it came out in 2008, but it pretty much qualifies as the best song of the decade.

*Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Anne Haley: Its a Beautiful Life / Christmas

Anne Haley: American Song writer and singer

Genre: Bluegrass/Folk/Pop-Americana

It's a Beautiful Life
LIVE -From the Old Theatre:  "An Evening with Anne Haley and Friends"

It’s probably a little late to do anything with this review-this season, but I wanted to highlight the music of friend who has made a warm and wonderful Christmas album, most worthy of family time around the table, tree… or manger.

My wife and I often have this discussion: “Is it possible to have real friends, which you have never met, except by way of Facebook or some other kind of digital chat?” I say "Yes.” Wife says “No.”  And of course, if we mean –can you have a deep abiding life transforming “digital” relationship, or the chat-group friend that you can call on in crisis -- my wife is probably right. But if we mean a friendship characterized by the a life enhancing relationship built around good conversation, mutual interests, shared photos- files-music, (or even disagreements), then the of course -- you can.

Case in point, Anne Haley. I’ve never met the woman, but given a mutual cyber-friend, status updates, and hanging around her Facebook page, I feel like I really know the woman.

And the woman who comes through on both Facebook and her music is both consistent and vibrant. Think of a renaissance farm woman or early pioneer, the kind of woman who can help birth a cow, mend a fence, then throw – and write the music for – a barn dance at the end of the day. A certain joy and optimism of the heart saturates everything she touches.

As is, I don’t really know if Anne mends fences, but she does live on farm in North Carolina, and we get updates about her late morns as she helps cow, goat, and dog-kind give birth. Beyond that, she tends to mend fences of another kind. I’ve kind of figured out Anne’s politics, but she would rather not make a big to-do about such stuff. She looks for common denominators in conversation and life.

Anne’s music reflects the same warm, pioneering spirit that I find on Facebook. The title track to first CD, “It’s a Beautiful Life” means what it says. No parody here. And though, as a folk singer Anne touches on some of the standard terrain of cloudy skies, she seems most at home when touting things gone good.

To date, Anne has put out three albums of which I have heard two. (The third a live disk) All are “home productions” (i.e., the kind of thing where you pay someone to produce your music for you.) But that has little to say to the quality. Or said differently, Anne -- with big voice and guitar, has teamed up with some first rate bluegrass musicians to produce albums that feel both sharp and live. The sound is neither “roots-primitive, nor Nashville gloss. I think I may have heard a few overdubs (for harmony) but Anne’s music sounds like what country should sound like – Real people with real talent on real instruments (mandolin, dobro, guitar, fiddle,paino) playing their hearts out --- live in your parlor.  

Note: In subsequent converstations, Annie shared that she once was headed down the Nashville path, but pulled out when she saw how her handelers wanted to package her.  "I didn't agree with the "power pop" country rootless music that was being cranked out. Soooo...a couple of "good music row lawyers, I was FREE. At that point, I made a rock solid decision that ANNE would produce herself. Period."

Anne’s voice matches her character (or helps define it) Her voice is bold, sometimes sassy, a little brassy, with hints of apple:) She sounds at times like Patty Loveless without the twang, or a crisper Allison Krauss at a lower register. Anne tells of time she was doing a show and someone came looking for the “black woman” - Overall, think “Big” (especially for folk) but with plenty of variation and feminine touches. (Or you could simply cheat, and listen to her samples,)

Album: It’s a Beautiful Life.

Disk opens with a tribute to her beloved….(supported on a cushion of soft fiddle and mandolin) Lighthouse:

Sometimes I lose a sense of my direction, I cannot seem to let love be my guide, Sometimes it doesn’t seem to be enough protection, from the howling winds and crashing waves that roll across my mind.

When the cold winds blow I will pull your love around me, and hold it close to my heart to remind me. When the storm clouds show how quickly light can turn to darkness your love will be the light house that guides me home.

There’s times my heart is like a raging ocean , twisting turning everything in me when there are those times you anchor me with love and devotion and the angry waves become a placid sea.

When the cold winds blow….

And as I near the rocks, I don’t know if I will sink or swim…then you enter my thoughts and your love will pull me safely in….

Song two, It’s a Beautiful Life (parts)

Covered lots of ground it seems in such a short time, takin’ offbeat paths along the road that might have lead us astray, shouted questions to the universe, then doubted all of its answers, wondering if we even make it anyway, but here we stand hand in hand, on this road that seems less traveled… and when it comes to love the answer is as simple as it can be.

It’s a beautiful life, good cup of coffee, and some lovely conversation. ….watching stars come out over God’s great plantation, we rise we fall, we’ve been through it all, Murphy’s law can say whatever it likes, caue when your eyes meet mine, I know… inside, baby it’s a beautiful life.

I’ll skip more lyrics, except to say that Anne, whether singing her own or others words, is intent on bringing the same joy she lives out on the farm or on her Facebook page to her total songcraft.  She wants to walk with you.  (And if you want to talk about lots of other folks music, she is game for that too.)

Disk 2: Christmas.

Anne’s Christmas album sticks to the same musical recipe of homespun folk found on “It’s a beautiful Life” – with perhaps a few changes. A few songs are less county, and it seems that Anne using a slightly different voice. It may be two years in between, or the very content, but it sounds like Anne has gone for a softer, less punchy --- more beautiful voice -- in keeping with the Christmas glow. These are traditional songs, sung with a reverence for tradition and family memories.

As is, I was hooked and surprised by the very first song. I’m not a real bluegrass devotee, but I own a disk called “Sugar Plums” put out by the bluegrass powerhouse label Sugar Hill. Sugar Plums is a superb disk that features a robust and diverse collection of Bluegrass, folk, and Primitive approaches to Christmas music. I was pretty sure I was the only one who owned this disk. Turns out Anne likes it too, and has borrowed a couple of tunes, one of which (Christ was born in Bethlehem) she sings with decidedly less twang. Anne’s opening cover of a song penned by Americanna Artist Tim Obrien, (Making Plans) really charms, and sets the stage for a loving, faith affirming romp through a wonderland of hearth and home, with Christ firmly at the Center. (In fact, Anne makes a reading from the Gospel of Luke the “centerfold” of her album, placing it square in the middle.

I don’t have a lot more to say about this album, for the simple reason that it simply works. Anne has opted not so much for innovation, but re-creation from a time tested cannon. But what she recreates she does with such warmth and sensitivity (and with clean lean country production) that this disk will easily make it into routine play around my house this December. I readily recommend it.

Addendum:  Shorty after publishing this, I sent word to Anne:  Her words in reply further illustrate why she is such a gem (and help clarify a few points.) She writes:

Anne Haley 17 December at 18:56

WOW..isn't this something! THANK YOU KIRK!! I just tried to pull a fast one and call you...BUT....according to the White Pages, your number has been changed. SO MUCH for your kind words. I really appreciate it. This seems "inadequate," as I wanted to give you a proper "thank you." Tell your wife I AM one of those you could call in a pinch! Might take me a little while to get there, but I'D COME! :)

As an aside, you GOT IT..."the REASON" I record as I do is because I WANT my recordings to be as much like my live shows as possible...relaxed, comfortable, IN YOUR PARLOR. The reason for the "change in voice" on the Christmas album is was also decided. I wanted to showcase a few different variations on what we "hear" at Christmas. I love to sing ALL styles and was able to perform those, again, in almost a quiet, piano bar (coffee or tea) setting!

Yes, indeed, Lighthouse is for my "beloved." It is for God.

It's a Beautiful Life resulted from a conversation that I was having with my "earthly beloved." We were driving thru Swansboro, NC...W said, "You know it's a beautiful life that we have." And I said, "Yep, W you're exactly right!!! NOW HOLD THAT THOUGHT!! And I wrote the song in the car immediately! LOL!

So, you foiled my plans to sneak a call in on you...and I have to say thank you via a typed message. "Not my style," but I suppose it will have to suffice.

I'm thankful for Pam Kemp and spirited discussions...I am so proud to have friends like you Kirk. You're a jewel...and like you I REFUSE to wish ANYONE a happy "holiday." "Holidays" are what Europeans do on "vacation," which also bugs me...coming from the derivative of HOLY. Go figure. I'm just as confused as you are! I'm guessing that's a good thing.

Again, thank you Kirk. I really appreciate your thoughts, opinion and most of all that you find enjoyment in what I love to share with others. THAT has been one of the MANY gifts that God has given me in order to connect with others.

My very, very best to you and yours!

Your VIRTUAL friend, (does that mean we are virtually friends?)