Music

April Verch: Steal the Blue

A warm foray into country music's best side: despair and doubt with a smile.


April Verch

Steal the Blue

Contributors: Hayes Carll, Sam Bush
Label: Slab Town Records
US Release Date: 2008-09-02
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Amazon
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The great thing about some folk and country records is the dichotomy. The cover will feature a smiling, beatific face while the songs parlay into desperation, mortality, and ill-advised situations. A gifted artist can go one step further by swinging that division back around. They can make all this life heartbreak sound appealing, even necessary. April Verch is proving herself to be precisely one of these artists.

Steal the Blue, Verch's fourth release (and first that should be filed under 'country' instead of 'folk'), is the first to truly let her vocals soar. Her last releases were heavy on instrumentals and her virtuosic ability with a fiddle. By letting her voice -- a smooth mix of Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton -- take the reins, the fiddle may step into the background, but that only makes it more pronounced upon arrival. It's in the contrast of the sounds that it is raised to the forefront but it's also more than that. Verch is a master of subtlety and precision. She doesn't over-sing, or over-play, although it's plain she could easily do both. Add to this the ace production by Stephen Mougin and Jon Weisberger, and Steal the Blue should easily qualify as one of the best country music releases of 2009.

It's easy to hear the influence of Alison Krauss on April Verch, but what gives her a compelling edge (much like Krauss) is the digestion of what is old. It is tradition that she stands upon. There's an inherent lonely sound that emanates from the fiddle (something about the crying, almost hysterical sound of the strings) and the best players know how to evoke this without turning their back on the playfulness of the instrument. This is displayed best, and in layers, on the opening track, "Slip Away". The narrator is determined to live in the present but along with that statement of belief arrives the corollary which is "Oh these days are gonna slip away / They'll be gone before you know it". Verch makes promises to the present while the soon-to-be-past creeps in. The fiddle dances in and out sounding like a mournful dancer.

"Long Way Home", written by the splendid Hayes Carll, is nearly perfect. Each note resonates as Verch wraps her lovely voice around the bittersweet lyrics: "I would give anything / One more night to learn / One last song to sing". The fiddle plays around the melody, contextualizing the atmosphere of regret against the chorus's affirmation that we all are merely trying our best. "My Friend Craig" is one of the few instrumentals, and it stands out as record of what Verch can do with a piece of stringed wood. Her playing is all over the place and yet never slides out of her control. It's spirited and haunting and one of the stellar tracks.

But what allows Steal the Blue to stand out from the pack is the aforementioned dichotomy of the thing. Put this on in the background and it will be another pretty, impressive country/bluegrass records. Sit down and listen to the words and it becomes something larger than that. There is pain and wandering lost here. There are worries. There is reaching out to people who will never respond. In the end, Verch uses her voice and fiddle to create a world. It's not about the smile she possesses in the photographs but after hearing her version of it, you may give in and decide it may as well be.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
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Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

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"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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Music

Mike Stern: Trip

Photo: Sandrine Lee (Concord Music Group)

Mike Stern has fallen. Trip shows that he can get back up just fine.


Mike Stern

Trip

Label: Heads Up
US Release Date: 2017-09-08
UK Release Date: 2017-09-08
Label website
Artist website
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iTunes

Guitarist Mike Stern suffered from a big owie last year. It seems that, while trying to cross a street in Manhattan, he tripped and fell, breaking both of his shoulders in the process. He underwent surgery and reports that "I still have to use glue so I can hold a guitar pick." While you're busy trying to figure out just how a jazz-fusion guitarist needs glue to hold a pick, keep in mind Stern is an embodiment of a working musician, and his chosen genre of expertise is famous for its pay-to-play, sink-or-swim business model. Such a setback can really eat into one's career. Gigs need to be canceled, which sometimes leads to venues blacklisting you in the future. And in a world where most people listen to their music via streaming services, gigging may be your only reliable source of income. Thankfully, Mike Stern, who was 63 at the time of his injury, has made a full recovery and is back to work with an impressive array of professional help. His new album is ironically named Trip. Apart from the title,

Trip makes it sound like nothing ever happened to Stern. At all. In the same way that John McLaughlin and his current Fourth Dimension band sound like a bunch of barnstormers who haven't hit 40 yet, the powerful performance of Stern and his colleagues coupled with the high quality of the material belie both age and medical condition. Now I'm aware that our very own Steven Spoerl did not care for the writing on Mike Stern's 2012 All Over the Place, but there's no way I can sling the same criticism at Trip. The opening title track alone is enough to nullify that. Stern plays the melody in unison with saxophonist Bob Franceschini, and it's all over the place. The song slinks into a B section where the chords shift from a minor vi to a major IV, and again, Stern and Franceschini drive an even meaner melody down the scale with plenty of sharply punctuated intervals. This guy fell, broke his shoulders, and now needs glue to hold a pick? Are we all sure he wasn't just replaced with Steve Austin?

Another number that, to me, offsets any concerns about the able-bodiness or strength of the material is a spunky one named "Watchacallit". This time, the B section brims with even more tension with Franceschini flying high and bassist Tom Kennedy doing little divebombs at the start of each bar. When it's all put together, it's truly a moment for you to crank your listening device of choice (in the past, we would say "stereo" right about here). But that's just two songs. There's a total of 11, spanning an hour and six minutes. Stern doesn't use every bar of every number to punch us in the gut. He still goes for the smooth bop ("Emelia"), the funky intersection of Miles Davis and Funkadelic ("Screws"), and the soothing ballad ("I Believe in You" and "Gone").

No review of Trip would be complete without mentioning the musical pedigree of Mike Stern's friends. When it comes to drummers, he managed to net Dennis Chambers, Lenny White, and Will Calhoun (yes, that Will Calhoun). Those names alone give you a money-back guarantee that the rhythm section will never, ever falter. But just to be sure, Stern summons Victor Wooten to play bass. Top shelf names like Randy Brecker and Bill Evans, in addition to Franceschini, provide Trip with soulful wind. Pianist Jim Beard pulls double duty as the session pianist. Normally, I'd wrap this up by saying that Mike Stern is under the process of pulling himself up by his bootstraps and dusting himself off after a major boo-boo. But after listening to

Trip over and over again, I'm convinced that he's beyond that. The straps are up, and the dust has cleared. He's back, playing and composing just as well as he ever did. Better than he did before the accident, perhaps? You can be the judge of that meaningless hairsplitting exercise because Trip is worth the journey no matter where your expectations may lie.

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Photo: Theo Anthony (Domino Records)

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