Bruce Cockburn: Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu
by George Graham
(Rykodisc 10407 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/8/99)
There are not many performers in contemporary music who have put out 24 albums and still manage to remain fresh and even iconoclastic over the years. Bruce Cockburn is one of those rare individuals, who has just released his 24th recording, Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu.
The veteran Canadian folkie has had a good deal more commercial success and recognition in his home country than south of the border in the US, but among critics and a fair number of long-time fans in this country, Cockburn is one of the most widely respected performers, for his musical and lyrical integrity. The fifty-three-year old singer-songwriter has an interesting background. His first instruments were clarinet and trumpet, but moved toward guitar and piano as he began to play in rock bands. He also began to move toward folk and eventually studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, known for their strong jazz orientation, taking composition and arranging, something which has had a lasting effect on his music. Cockburn has never been the one for simple three chord tunes. He has always had an open ear for exploring other styles, and has maintained his ties with jazz. In fact on his last album, The Charity of Night released two years ago, he was joined prominently by jazz vibist Gary Burton.
Over the years, Cockburn has run from the pastoral folk singer on his debut album in 1969 to the more electric troubadour to the political activist on subsequent releases. Though in Canada almost all his recordings have gone gold, his closest approach to having a hit in the US was the song Wondering Where the Lions Are in 1979. But he is also known for his song If I had a Rocket Launcher inspired by the Reagan-administration supported wars in Central America.
His new recording is a kind of sequel to The Charity of Night Though it lacks Gary Burton, it again was co-produced by Cockburn and fellow Canadian Colin Linden, and features a somewhat similar sound. Two years ago, I commented on the appropriateness of the title of The Charity of Night, with a lot of the songs having a rather darker mood and sound. Breakfast in New Orleans is a bit more upbeat and sometimes has a somewhat looser sound -- most of the tracks were first or second takes. But there is an interesting World Music influence. Cockburn was taken by the sound of the kora, the harp-guitar of Central and Western Africa; thus part of the inspiration for this album's title's reference to Timbuktu, which is in Mali, home of the kora. Stylistically, this CD ranges from in-your-face rockers to very attractive mostly acoustic pieces.
Lyrically, Breakfast in New Orleans is a bit less political than some of Cockburn's previous efforts -- there is only song that could be considered to be making any kind of statement. The rest is a collection of oblique love songs and impressionistic observations. There are also two instrumentals, both of which sound largely improvised. As on his last album there are a number of guest cameo appearances, including Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies and Lucinda Williams doing backing vocals, along with Richard Bell of The Band and formerly with Janis Joplin's band, on keyboards. Percussionist Rick Lazar adds a bit of a Middle Eastern flair from time to time, and the kora player is Daniel Janke. As usual, Cockburn, who is no slouch on guitar, provides tasteful work throughout. While drummer Gary Craig, who appeared on Cockburn's last CD plays on a four of the eleven compositions on Breakfast in New Orleans, most of the drumming is handled by Ben Riley, who turns out not to be the same Ben Riley who played drums with Thelonious Monk during the Fifties and Sixties and who is still quite active.
The album begins with one of its rockier arrangements, When You Give It Away. Bits of pop trash culture find their way into the lyrics, but only as a setting for what is could be interpreted as a love song with a hint of a reggae beat. <<>>
Showing the African influence of this CD, through the presence of the kora is the song called Mango, which Cockburn describes as "a kind of hymn to female sexuality." The laid back sound and interesting instrumental colors create an appealing trance-like mood. Margo Timmins is the backing vocalist. <<>>
Last Night of the World is a composition which is both a love song and also was inspired by political events. Cockburn mentions refugees he found in Mexico living in terrible conditions, but still showing optimism, which found its way into this song. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals is the lengthy piece Down to the Delta which Cockburn describes as "a kind of free for all," with drums, percussion, acoustic bass and Cockburn's guitar each getting a change to stretch out. The rather unstructured the piece is not up to the standards of some of Cockburn's previous instrumentals, which he usually provides on each of his albums. <<>>
The closest thing to a political song on this CD is Let the Bad Air Out. The lyrics are a general statement on the hypocrisy of people in power, but it becomes a vehicle for some interesting musical exploration, hinting at both jazz and African influences. <<>>
In recent years Cockburn has been creating some songs with spoken or partly spoken lyrics. There are three on this CD and all are interesting. One of the more memorable is Look How Far, with its intriguing sound. <<>>
Cockburn includes a cover of the old Fats Domino classic Blueberry Hill. Cockburn said this track came out of an extra-curricular band in which he sometimes plays together with Colin Linden called Bambi and the Deer Hunters. Despite its interesting start, <<>> and the presence of Margo Timmins, neither the song nor its arrangement fits Cockburn well, and the recorded sound on the track is a big disappointment. <<>>
The album ends with on of its best tracks lyrically, Use Me While You Can. The song is about the fact that nothing lasts forever, and thus one should seize the moment. Cockburn took inspiration from the Sahara desert and how the impermanent anything man-made is there. The kora was brought in to provide some additional atmosphere while the backing vocalist is Lucinda Williams. <<>>
Bruce Cockburn newest CD Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, by most counts his 24th release, is another worthwhile recording by one of the most respected singer-songwriters on the scene these days. This CD is a bit more upbeat in mood that his last release from 1997. And the addition of the kora gives this record an interesting twist. But this is not Cockburn's best album: neither the songs nor the musical performances exceed the finest of his previous work. And there are a couple of tracks, including the version of Blueberry Hill which could be considered throwaways, very rare on a Cockburn record. But there is much worth hearing on this generous 62-minute CD.
Sonically we give the album about a "B minus." It its favor is the fact that tracks with different styles get different sonic treatments and that from track to track, there is a good dynamic range, but some of the rockier tracks are compressed so heavily that it makes listening downright unpleasant. And even the quieter acoustic tracks lack some clarity.
While this may not be Bruce Cockburn's finest album, it nevertheless has much to offer his growing number of fans. As usual, Cockburn is lyrically articulate, musically eclectic and vocally in fine form. And not many artists can be as consistently high in quality as Bruce Cockburn has over a thirty year recording career.
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