When was the last time you heard a great Neil Young record? No, I don’t mean one recorded by the man himself. I am talking about the style of country rock music that Shakey used to shake off so easily back in the seventies such as On the Beach, American Stars ‘n Bars and Comes a Time. You know—back when Neil could rock, philosophize, and lay back all at the same time without being maudlin or corny. “You’re just pissin’ in the wind,” he used to sing, and he was right: hearing it took the piss right out of you and made you open your mind to other perspectives. There was something epic about the whole experience, even when Neil used mundane details to express his observations.
Sometimes, artists since have been able to capture that type of lightning in a bottle. Think of magical records in the past by Allison Moorer, Shelby Lynne, the Jayhawks and such. These acts, among many others, have achieved ephemeral greatness following in Old Man Young’s footsteps. The Mastersons’ Transient Lullaby is the latest entry into this musical division. The record’s tight songwriting, plaintive vocals, and sophisticated yet simple instrumentation come from a previous era. The sound of wood and wire and human voices seem timeless and still resonate as essential parts of our being. The Mastersons creatively capture the sense of social alienation and personal experience that make up living, no matter when one orbits the sun—and it does so with beauty and grace.
The two do it as one even though they often express different views. Let me explain. Husband and wife Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore can play and sing in wonderful harmony. His guitar and her violin (although “fiddle” may be a more apt term in several songs) can interplay in marvelous ways, so the melodies interact with each other. On tracks such as “Highway 1”, Masterson uses his instrument to move the action forward while Whitmore’s strings express the emotional sadness of two people growing apart. This complements Masterson’s singing about remaining steadfast while Whitmore pines for freedom. “We don’t breathe the same air / We don’t sing the same song,” they harmonize, but the inherent irony lies in the fact that yes they do. Each spouse empathizes with the other.
While the two often seem to be singing to a fictional version of each other, some songs are deliberately projected outward. Consider the sweetly sung “You Could Be Wrong” that was allegedly written in Lexington, Kentucky, during the Kim Davis controversy (Davis was the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples). The music is soft rather than angry, and therefore much more subversive. Preaching to the converted (or in this case the fundamentalist) leads nowhere. The Mastersons provide an opening for thought and reflection rather than an argument. The duo gently croons “You Could Be Wrong” before ending the song with a two-minute instrumental coda that invokes transcendent grandeur. The best way to have people change in positive ways is to have them look deep within themselves about what is right.
Each of the 11 cuts on the album share an emotional core about the search for a heart of gold ... oops, I mean peace of mind. “All that stays the same, it gathers dust / I never rust / Happy when I’m moving,” The Mastersons sing together. That’s a line that could be right out of Young’s songbook, as are the harmonica riffs that blow in and out of the song. One can find many examples of parallels between this album and Young’s ‘70s music. The Mastersons may not purposely be trying to recreate a Neil Young album, of course, but the many pleasures of Transient Lullaby suggest the two share much in common in wonderful ways. Now is the time to, ahem, reap the harvest. As the title of the album suggests, everything changes in this temporal world.
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