I don’t know about your house, but in mine, every Marc Cohn album release is an event.
They don’t come around often. The last one, in fact, was nine years ago, and consisted of covers of songs released in 1970. Seven years after that he gifted us with a collection of lost songs and rarities that is simply amazing, but we haven’t heard a new Marc Cohn record since 2007, and the world has been a poorer place for it.
If you know Cohn, you probably know him for “Walking in Memphis,” his most enduring tune. I have often wondered how gratifying it must feel to have written a song that is instantly recognizable by millions of people within a couple notes. “Walking in Memphis” is one of those. It’s one of those songs that is more famous than its author, by a long, long way. It’s one of those songs that has passed so far into the cultural consciousness that some might say it belongs to all of us now. I’d dispute that – it’s still Marc Cohn’s song – but I get the sentiment.
If that is the only Cohn song you know, well, you are missing out. He’s such an accomplished and striking songwriter that the fact that we only have four records of his compositions is a shame. A couple years ago I pledged for an upcoming fifth album, but that never came to be. (My money was refunded when Cohn realized he wasn’t even close to ready to record something new.) He works slowly, and that’s fine, but it has left us with only a handful of songs to mark his time here.
But they’re great songs. “Silver Thunderbird.” “Dig Down Deep.” “Rest for the Weary.” “She’s Becoming Gold.” “Lost You in the Canyon.” “Dance Back from the Grave.” “The Things We’ve Handed Down.” The wedding favorite “True Companion.” Just listing the song titles had me humming along. Marc Cohn has written music that has enriched my life for nearly 30 years.
And he’s still doing it. Work to Do, Cohn’s recently released collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama, is easily one of my favorite albums of 2019. I’ve heard it probably 15 times since it came out last Friday, and I can’t stop listening to it. My joy was only amplified by the fact that it was a surprise to me – I heard about it only a week or two before it came out, so the fact of its existence and the beauty of the music it contains were part of the same burst of euphoria for me.
That means I also missed the fact that Cohn and the Blind Boys have been touring together. Had I heard about this, I would have moved heaven and earth to be there for one of the shows. Cohn and the Blind Boys is one of those pairings that clicked in my head as soon as I heard about it. I knew what Work to Do would sound like before I heard it, and I was pretty much right, much to my delight. The Blind Boys accentuate the gospel elements of Cohn’s music and provide a gorgeous, earthy texture to his soulful folk-pop. They’re a remarkable combination.
Work to Do begins with three studio tracks, including the first two new Marc Cohn originals in years. I like “Talk Back Mic,” about the voice of God, and I think Cohn and the Boys spun gold on the old spiritual “Walk in Jerusalem.” But it’s the title track that owns my heart. It’s at once a breakup song and a keepin’-on song, and there’s a resigned hopefulness to it, a mix of emotions that only a master storyteller and songwriter could balance out. It’s also a superb song melodically, and the Blind Boys give it that boost into transcendence. If this turns out to be the last gift we get from Marc Cohn, it’s a generous one.
The rest of the album is live, and it’s stunning. Here is “Ghost Train,” given just that hint of ethereal wonder. Here is “Baby King,” and if you know this song, you’re probably hearing the Blind Boys sing it in your head right now. Here is “Listening to Levon,” an underrated classic from his last full album. Best of all, here is a 10-minute “Silver Thunderbird” that digs down into the corners of the song and finds treasure hidden there.
And yes, here is “Walking in Memphis,” because it must be here. But this rendition is lovely – Cohn never plays this song as if he is sick of it, but you can tell the Blind Boys have renewed his interest in it. To my mind he’s written far better songs than this one (and many of them are featured here), but I can’t deny how much I enjoy hearing how much Cohn enjoys it here. The record ends with “One Safe Place,” a simple tune that has found a home in several movies and TV shows. Here it sounds like a soul-filling benediction, and it takes its rightful place next to his best songs.
Back in 2005, Cohn survived a gunshot wound to the head after an attempted carjacking in Denver. That he continues to walk the earth (in Memphis and otherwise) is one of the closest things to a miracle I can think of. I’m thankful he’s still with us, and still making music. Maybe, as his song says, he’s still got work to do. This new record certainly makes that case.
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How about another pleasant surprise to round out the week?
I resisted Needtobreathe for a long time. I found a lot of their early work reminiscent of Kings of Leon and the like: average rock that failed to do much to interest me. But the more I listened, the more I liked what the brothers Rinehart were bringing to the table. Their last two records, Rivers in the Wasteland and the diverse Hard Love, made me a fan. Well, that and seeing them live a couple times, where they shine.
I’m not sure anything Needtobreathe have done could have quite prepared me for Wilder Woods, the debut solo project of singer Bear Rinehart. (His real name is William, but Bear is such a cool name that we’ll let him get away with it.) In some ways the more Motown-influenced material here is a logical step from the poppier parts of Hard Love. But in some ways, this is a new sound for Rinehart, and he makes the most of it.
If I’ve had issues with Needtobreathe in the past, Rinehart’s voice has never been one of them. It’s front and center here, leading the quiet acoustics of “Someday Soon” and the elastic soul of “Supply and Demand,” neither of which sound like Rinehart’s home band. “Supply and Demand,” in particular, feels like it’s right out of 1960s Detroit, so well has Rinehart replicated the Motown sound. One song later he’s offering an electronic beat and a pop hook on “Electric Woman.” Two songs after that he’s doing John Legend on “Mary, You’re Wrong.”
Most of Wilder Woods is concerned with romantic love, but those who have suspected that NTB’s spiritual side might have fallen away lately will have more to talk about with the closing track, “Religion.” It’s a fascinating, possibly metaphorical waltz built around these lines: “I was born in the shadows of preachers and saints, I was raised in a house of God, but the blood on my lips and the dirt on my face is the only religion I’ve got.”
It’s just one surprise on an album full of them. Bear Rinehart’s work here might be the most interesting he’s ever done, and I hope he can carry some of these new sounds back to his home base. Even if he doesn’t, though, Wilder Woods is an effective and successful drive down new avenues toward new destinations. It’s worth checking out even if you’ve never been a Needtobreathe fan.
OK, that’ll do it for this week. Next week, probably Frank Turner and one or two others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.