Bill Frisell - Good Dog, Happy Man (1999)

Nonesuch 79536-2

Somewhere in the desert hinterland between Blues, Country & Jazz a band is playing under the waning sun.

Their leader, a tall, erudite looking, bespectacled man brings tonal sensibilities from the world of Jazz to his guitar playing but a eclectic outlook which has previously subsumed elements of BeBop, Pop, New Age, Blues, Rock & even Klezma.

At times his chiming playing meshes seamlessly with that of the Country-Blues inflected slide guitar & pedal steel player (Greg Leisz). There is an unspoken empathy between all the players; the seasoned Rock drummer (Jim Keltner), keyboard & double bass player (Wayne Horvitz & Viktor Krauss) all contributing to the overall sound yet retaining distinct individual identities.

With a studious avoidance of clich, they experiment with feel & tones; setting up textures out of which emerge understated melodies that wheedle their way insidiously into the mind of the listener. Mood & melody are critical - nobody takes out of context, ego-tripping solos. They are visibly enjoying themselves.

The music they make is Bill Frisell's, "Good Dog, Happy Man"

For this 1999 recording, Frisell's restrained acoustic guitar somehow sits comfortably alongside his trademark warped electric vibratoed & bent chords, volume swells, echoes & layered loops of sound. Within a consistent overall feel, moods vary from contemplative ('Rain, Rain') to joyous ('Poem for Eva', 'Good Dog, Happy Man') & mysterious in loping pieces which could be soundtracks to David Lynch films ('Roscoe', 'Cold, Cold Ground'). As an added bonus, as if one were needed, Ry Cooder guests for the traditional 'Shenandoah'.

Close your eyes, you can see them out there playing.

September 2001

Ani DiFranco - Reeling & Reckoning

Righteous Babe Records

Ani DiFranco has never been afraid to be eclectic, sucking up new musical influences & incorporating them into her distinctive songwriting & sound. On this outing the new assimilation is Jazz.

The collection is split into 2 themed CDs, upbeat on "Revelling" & reflective on "Reckoning". It's initially tempting to think that within this 29 track package there's a single album with the power & impact of Ani's "Dilate" fighting to get out. Repeated listenings however, reveal 2 distinct entities in their own rights.

On "Revelling" it would be easy to dismiss the value of more relaxed, jazz-funk grooves such as "Ain't that the Way" & "Marrow" as a vehicle for Ani's brutally honest, often witty lyrics. Who else could make lines like: "there's a smorgasbord of unspoken poisons/a whole childhood of potions" ("Marrow") scan so naturally?

These 'feel pieces' sit alongside the more familiar punchy songs and stripped down, guitar & voice only performances such as the exquisite live favourite, "Garden of Simple". Unlike her early recordings, the list of performers is extensive with five members of Ani's current touring outfit forming the core band.

Despite the innovation & natural, unforced quality of the brass laden band performances on "Reeling", Ani is just getting warmed up for the real treat of "Reckoning".

Here we see DiFranco in a more mature, contemplative mode than on any of her previous releases. There's a greater emotional depth & intimacy, without the bravado of her earlier songwriting persona.

In keeping with the fact that she has more to say, arrangements are more intimate with sparse, understated instrumentation allowing breathing space for some very strong melodies. Ani's trademark clipped, semi-percussive guitar style remains intact & is provided with a greater depth by her increasing use of baritone guitar.

The sonic experimentation of recent albums continues with some tastefully employed organic sounds including guest spots from trumpeter Jon Hassell ('Revelling') & pedal steel player Lloyd Maines ('Sick of Me').

Subject matter varies from political ('Your Next Bold Move', 'Subdivision') to the heartfelt & affecting lovesong ('Sick of Me') or the stunning, articulate relationship song ('School Night'). The highlight is the beautiful, self-questioning 'Grey' where she asks "what kind of paradise I am looking for?" to a minimalist guitar accompaniment & sparse piano chords. This level of honesty & emotional communication is rare in contemporary songwriting.

Ani is without question an original & highly talented songwriter. While R&R might not be the most accessible introduction to her work, an investment in listening time with the lyric sheet in hand will certainly reward the patient listener.

May 2001