Tim O'Brien: Rock in My Shoe -- by George Graham
The so-called New Acoustic music world has had a curious relationship with more conventional bluegrass and country music. For one thing, many of the younger, iconoclastic players like Béla Fleck and Tony Rice, who have applied the instrumentation of bluegrass to very non-traditional styles, themselves started out playing straight bluegrass and still often do. But their innovative eclecticism has either turned off or raised the hackles of both traditionalists, and those at the other end of the spectrum in the commercial country music scene. On the other hand, many of these players have become very much in-demand as studio musicians, playing on precisely the style of Nashville country recordings that their own music is so opposed to.
Meanwhile, since the New Acoustic movement first really caught on the early 1980s, the style has evolved from a kind of instrumental bluegrass/jazz fusion as exemplified by David Grisman, to a wider range of influences including at least as much vocal music as instrumental.
This week's album is the latest by someone who epitomizes the "new" New Acoustic music, Tim O'Brien, whose just-released CD is entitled Rock in My Shoe.
Tim O'Brien came to prominence with the Colorado-based bluegrass band Hot Rise, and their tongue-in-cheek country-Western alter ego, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. Over the years, O'Brien, the mandolinist in the group, turned his attention increasingly to songwriting. Since Hot Rise broke up, O'Brien has had a busy career doing solo albums, making records with his group the O'Boys, and recording a series of fine albums with his sister Mollie. On record at least, O'Brien has managed to keep each of these simultaneous aspects of his career somewhat separate. His solo albums have been primary showcases for his songwriting. The collaborations with Mollie O'Brien have featured cover material, with a good helping of traditional songs, while the O'Boys records have been more bluegrass oriented. And like other of the New Acoustic artists, O'Brien shuns the commercial country sound, and continues to make his home in Colorado. But Nashville is recognizing O'Brien as a songwriter, with two of his compositions, The Way the Wind Blows and Untold Stories becoming Top Ten Country hits in cover versions.
Rock in My Shoe is an O'Brien solo album, though of course, he is given a good deal of help from friends and collaborators, including guitarist Scott Nygaard and bassist Mark Schatz, the other two O'Boys; Mollie O'Brien, and Jerry Douglas, the dobro whiz who serves as the album's producer. Rock in My Shoe follows in the footsteps of his two previous solo recordings, in showcasing both his songwriting, which is getting better all the time, and his tasteful playing on mandolins of varying descriptions. The album is intentionally wide-ranging. O'Brien says "It's always been my aim to synthesize all the elements of the great body of roots music. [So on] Rock in My Shoe, there's some of the rockin' stuff, some Cajun, some country, a bit of a bluegrass flavor. It's not a singer-songwriter record, per se, or a bluegrass record... it's kind of, well, my kind of record."
The album is nice collection of mostly new original songs by O'Brien, some co-written with others, that cover the gamut he talks about. Lyrically they are some of his best work, with creative turns of phrase, or the ability to look at common songwriting subjects from an original angle. The subject of drifters form a subtheme tying several songs together.
The album begins with Long Distance, about being far away from one's significant other, and attempting to keep in contact by telephone. The arrangement is rather typical of the enjoyable acoustic eclecticism of the album. Dirk Powell provides some Cajun-style accordion while the song itself has a bit of a rock beat to it. <<>>
Tim O'Brien's influence by the New Acoustic scene comes forward on Brother Wind, one of those songs about drifters. It's a fine track with articulate lyrics and some excellent instrumental work by dobro man Douglas and O'Brien on his mandolin. <<>>
The title song Rock in My Shoe brings in a little more Cajun influence with Powell's accordion and a danceable beat. Again, O'Brien serves up some clever lyrics. <<>>
Another of O'Brien's songs about drifters is Edge of the Storm. In this case, it's about a young girl just starting out. Stylistically it's about as close as this album gets to country. One could easily imagine this song, co-written with Celeste Krenz and Bob Tyler as being a hit for some Nashville singer. <<>>
About the song Climbin' Up a Mountain, Tim O'Brien in his liner notes says that for the drifter in question "the journey becomes more important than the destination." This track is pure bluegrass, with the added co-lead vocal of Glenn Zankey of the Colorado-based Bluegrass Patriots. <<>>
Another of the album's highlights is One Girl Cried, a wonderful composition about how a performer manages to touch an audience member with a song. <<>>
The one traditional tune on the album is Jonah and the Whale, described by O'Brien as a "song of epic Biblical indigestion." The arrangement is a curious blend of old-timey country with a bluesy harmonica. <<>>
O'Brien comes up with a great set of humorous lyrics on Melancholy Moon (Not), the premise of which is to deflate some of the more famous lyrical metaphors used in popular songs. O'Brien wrote the track with Fred Kollar, who himself has written his share of tongue-in-cheek lyrics in the past. <<>>
The album ends with a song written by Harley Campbell and David Kent, and previously recorded Neal McCoy. Small Up and Simple Down, is done in a kind of musical party atmosphere. The lyrics, in which "small" and "simple" are used as verbs, are a good-natured plea for getting back to the basics of life. <<>>
Tim O'Brien is one of the finest performers to emerge from what I suppose could be called the second generation of New Acoustic Music, which combines the stylistic eclecticism and instrumental prowess of pioneers like David Grisman, with a folky singer-songwriter approach. And O'Brien is getting to be an exceptionally fine songwriter. His pleasing bluegrass-influenced tenor voice, and easy-going approach give his music even more appeal.
Sonically, the album just about perfect. The almost all acoustic instrumentation is captured cleanly and sounds warm and natural. There are a few studio effects here and there, but it's all very tasteful, and overall dynamic range is very nice. Producer Jerry Douglas and engineer Kevin Clock did as good a job in the control room as the musicians did in the studio.
Tim O'Brien has released about five albums in past three years in various configurations, all of them noteworthy. Rock in My Shoe is his third solo CD, and though it would be hard to pick a best, this new one features some of his finest songwriting yet. It's first-rate acoustic music that's hard to categorize, but should appeal to a lot of different listeners.
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