Various Artists: The Times We're Living In: A Red House Anthology
The independent folk label Red House Records' latest compilation disc features all the usual suspects, including Greg Brown, Guy Davis and newly signed The Wailin' Jennys and Jimmy LaFave. No big surprises here, just a generous sampling from the recent catalogue.
Bob Feldman's Red House Records began largely as a way to distribute Iowa folk rocker Greg Brown's records. Just as Brown has become increasingly successful (with Grammy Award nominations and such), Red House has grown as well. President Bob Feldman has turned Red House into one of the nation's premier independent folk and contemporary acoustic music labels, with a roster that features an array of talented stars from across the country, including the aforementioned Brown, Guy Davis, The Wailin' Jennys and Jimmy LaFave. Red House has become synonymous with a certain type of literate folk-rock marked by populist, progressive politics and concern about the socio-psychological condition of our nation and its inhabitants. The instrumental purity of the artists' skills complements their common, public concerns. They make music with a soul and a conscience.
All of the 16 tracks on this anthology are already available on discs by the individual artists. Label compilation albums usually feature a few unreleased and / or bonus cuts, and I wish Red House would have included some as well. If the purpose of the record is to turn listeners on to new artists and have them purchase their entire albums, it only makes sense to give them something they can't / don't already have. Red House presupposes that those purchasing this sampler don't already have any of the material. This strategy is suspect because it makes more sense that anyone who would buy this already owns at least one or two of the tracks and wants to explore more of the label's output.
Not surprisingly, the best cuts on These Times We're Living In are by the best-known artists on the Red House label. Greg Brown's sumptuous and sardonic love song "'Cept You and Me Babe" opens the disc. His rumbling, low vocals declare his feelings as if he's a primordial creature of the dirt rising to meet the spirit world. He instinctively rebels against the state of contemporary life, with its cell phones and such. Austin Music Hall of Fame artist Eliza Gilkyson's search for refuge, "Coast" evocatively offers a glimpse into the brighter side of loneliness -- that of coming to terms with oneself. British folkie Martin Simpson's sprightly and atmospheric instrumental "Horn Island" deftly conveys the serenity of solitude. The irreverence of Suzzy & Maggie Roche's "Who Cares" suggests that the petty hypocrisies and concerns we share are outweighed by our common humanity and our desire to enjoy life.
The contributions from new artists The Wailin' Jennys ("Arlington"), Jimmy LaFave ("River Road"), Ray Bonneville ("Oxford Town") and David Francey ("Fourth of July") reveal that Red House continues to sign and record top-notch musicians to their roster. While these performers share a mostly acoustic style, their music differs on the roots level. For example, LaFave's tune comes out of the Western tradition, while Francey's has a Canadian lilt -- even though it was written in and is about the United States. Bonneville's song very much comes out of the blues, while The Wailing Jennys have a country legacy. This variety adds to both the depth and breadth of the compilation.
Other contributions by folk stalwarts Robin & Linda Williams, John Gorka, Bill Staines, Peter Ostroushko and John McCutcheon help round out the disk. Two songs that deserve special mention in these troubled times are Dave Moore's "Sharks Don't Sleep" and Guy Davis's "We All Need More Kindness in this World". Moore offers a cautionary tale about the importance of keeping on, keeping on during a dark period. He knows one has to do more than be careful, one must be caring. Davis reminds us of the same. We must maintain our core human values and help each other. He knows that kindness is more than a virtue -- it's a necessity.