A while back, I received my first unsolicited request for review in the form of three CDs by Boston area guitarist and singer Peter Calo. They were good discs, so I gave them good reviews. Calo impressed me with his instrumental prowess (Cape Ann), vocal and lyrical ability (Wired to the Moon) and interpretive capability (Cowboy Song, a collection of old west tunes). He thanked me for the review, and I figured that would probably be it.
Turns out, though, Calo has taken on the role of part-time hype machine for my column, to the point of asking a couple of his musical compatriots to send free CDs my way. Besides being nifty cool in that I get to check out free music, this is a swell thing for Calo to have done, especially since I’m such a small and insignificant source of publicity for him, so here’s his public thank you.
I then went and dropped the ball by not finding some way to work reviews of these discs into my schedule. Thankfully, the musical downpour has kind of dried up for a couple of weeks, and I’m finally ready to talk about both Pamela Ruby Russell’s Highway of Dreams and Chris Brown’s Go West. Besides being friends with these musicians, Calo added his signature swell guitar and arrangement skills to both of these discs, and co-produced them as well, so they both already have points in their favor.
Russell sent me her disc a few months ago – her salutation at the end of her letter read “happy summer” – and I’ve been meaning to e-mail her and thank her ever since. She’s a Bostonian who used to head up local band Beauty and the Beast, and Highway of Dreams is her debut solo disc. It was inspired by a couple of trips to Mexico to overcome family tragedy, and it features a wide variety of styles, all in service to Russell’s high, powerful voice.
In fact, it’s a voice that I sometimes have trouble with, since it often sounds a bit too studied. She hits the notes high and clear, but occasionally I wished for a bit more emotional resonance, especially since the songs seem to cry out for it. The main criticism I have for Highway of Dreams is that Russell doesn’t vary her vocal tone as much as the music behind her shifts and changes. She sings a haunting number like “Avenue of Tears” in the same tone she uses for a bluesy number like “Is There Any Love.” She does allow a great deal of character to seep in on the Spanish romp “Tengo Razon,” and I wished for more performances like that one.
But anyone that can write an album that bounces between those styles, and several more, is worth listening to. Highway suffers slightly from its sequencing, which places two of the weaker songs, “Boxcar” and “Live Baby,” up front. There’s nothing wrong with these songs, they’re just not as well-written as others like “Almost Gave My Heart Away” or the title tune. The aforementioned “Avenue of Tears” is this album’s finest moment, with rich harmonies accenting the melancholy chords. Russell actually sang this song on top of a Mayan temple at midnight five years ago, and unsurprisingly, it’s the best vocal delivery on the album.
All the songs here are Russell’s, but it’s impossible not to notice Peter Calo’s influence on this work. His rich guitar playing elevates even a simple number like “Boxcar,” and it’s quite surprising how few notes Calo needs in that song to make his mark. “Tengo Razon” shows a side of Calo’s playing that didn’t surface on his solo discs, and of course, he pulls it off fabulously. Highway of Dreams is not an album that I will pull out and listen to repeatedly, but it is a nice effort, and shows a fine collaboration between singer and instrumentalist.
New Yorker Chris Brown also has one of those voices that takes some time to become familiar with, but he gets by a bit more on cleverness. His album Go West is by turns smirking and sad, full of the stuff that makes the coffeehouse singer/songwriter circuit such a delight most of the time. His voice is low, deep and quirky, and he often sounds like the bastard child of Elvis and Leonard Cohen, especially on sing/speak numbers like “Dominoes.”
Go West is Brown’s third effort, after 1987’s The Edge of Life and 1991’s Surrealin’ In the Years, and that experience in the studio is felt all over this record. Brown, most likely with Calo’s able assistance, plays with dynamics on Go West to decent effect, mixing in accordion, organ and piano at the perfect times. The album is a fun and sometimes moving listen.
It’s Brown’s lyrics that really stand out, however. Sly opener “Nice Shoes” counts down a list of everything the singer’s significant other despises about him, but makes sure to point out that she can’t disrespect his shoes. The wry tune ends with the following couplet: “Nice shoes, nice shine, in lieu of another rhyme, I’m simply going to let the music play as I walk away.” Cleverness also abounds on the rollicking “Every Time We Kiss,” which includes the lines “Sometimes all this spinning has me feeling like an old 45, all pops with a hiss, scratch and skips, stuck on my b-side.” He saves one final zinger for the last verse: “It’s survival of the fittest and I feel fit.”
Brown strips the sound down for the sad recovery tune “My Better Half,” which stands as my favorite here. That comes directly after another highlight, Brown’s straight folk-rock reading of Tom Waits’ lovely “Hold On,” sung with all of Waits’ passion and none of his roar. And yes, Calo is all over this album as well, lending his graceful playing and arrangement skill to Brown’s well-crafted songs, but Brown exhibits enough confidence on his own to emerge as the focal point. Go West is a quick, clever piece of work that grows deeper with subsequent listens.
You can get Pamela Ruby Russell’s album at www.rubytunes.com. Chris Brown’s work is available at www.cbonline.net. And of course, I highly recommend (again) that you check out www.petercalo.com. Thanks to Pamela and Chris for sending me their work, and thanks again to Peter Calo for recommending me.
Next week, tales from the dreaded high school reunion, probably.
See you in line Tuesday morning.