[5 February 2008]
With earnest apologies to Rodney Crowell and the sentiments he expresses on the Cicadas’ song “Through With the Past, co-written with Heartbreaker Stan Lynch, there can be merit in revisiting old history. Such is the case with the reissue of the 1997 albumThe Cicadas, the lone recording from the quartet which featured the renowned Crowell at its helm, along with guitarist Steuart Smith, bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer/vocalist Vince Santoro. Repackaged and featuring fresh liner-note observations from music journalist Scott Schinder, the album is still a potent piece of work, a decade after its release.
For those who missed it the first time around, or have been searching for it since its arrival, The Cicadas fulfills several purposes. It is a reminder of Crowell’s considerable abilities and his charismatic presence. His aptitude for surrounding himself with excellent musicians and achieving quality born of camaraderie is also astounding. At all points on the album, the Cicadas exhibit cohesion and a singular musical vision. Those qualities are helped by, as Schinder points out, the fact that Smith, Rhodes and Santoro had been members of Crowell’s band prior to this record. Throughout the album, Crowell is a confident and spirited leader who was on the verge of creating some of his best music. “Crowell would resume his solo career in 2001,” Schinder writes, “beginning an artistic resurgence that would yield some of his strongest and most personal music. The Cicadas, meanwhile, remains a worthy detour that offers a compelling account of his—and his bandmates’—talents.”
The project also serves as a roadmap for bands who wish to learn from the art of successfully melding various country and rock influences into a single sound. The best of the album’s tracks do a fine job of making sure one style doesn’t exert too much power over the other. While the alt-country movement had already caught steam by 1997, the work of Crowell and company kept pace with the best of their contemporaries, while giving certain evidence of Crowell’s impact on such artists.
Perhaps most significantly, the record is a clinic of sorts on what makes for great songwriting. The sheer presence of artistic dignitaries who wrote material for the project is noteworthy. Crowell shares credits with Lynch, country legend Guy Clark, John Leventhal (producer/session player for artists like Shawn Colvin and Roseanne Cash) and Ben Vaughn. Covers of “Tobacco Road” by John D. Loudermilk and the sensual, windingly rhythmic “Wish You Were Her”, a Bono / T-Bone Burnett composition, help round out a tracklist of stellar songs by stellar songwriters.
It is not, however, the impressive list of contributors that is the most striking or consistent feature of the album’s songwriting. Instead, it is Crowell’s spirit that serves as the unifying thread between the songs he personally authored and those he didn’t. That spirit is self-deprecating (see “When Losers Rule the World”) yet straightforward and full of the small town “style and grace” he celebrates on “Our Little Town”. When critics and fellow artists recount the best of Crowell, here’s hoping they don’t forget about The Cicadas, a project marked by first-rate songcraft and musicianship.