Jeff Lang: Cedar Grove
by George Graham
(Wind River 4009 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/4/99)
A lot of interesting music has resulted from efforts at mixing disparate styles. Lately, for example, there has been a spate of fusions of say, African music with techno dance, or Celtic with New Age. This week, we have a performer from far away, who nevertheless mixes two familiar American styles and comes up with something quite distinctive and appealing. Jeff Lang is a young Australian who mixes blues guitar style with the compositions of an articulate singer-songwriter, and on his new album Cedar Grove, he does it while playing an amplifier acoustic guitar.
Jeff Lang is a native of Geelong, in the Australian state of Victoria, though these days, he is based in Melbourne. His first instrument was clarinet, but after being intrigued by the blues in his father's record collection, he switched to guitar. By the early 1990s, he had developed a reputation as one of Australia's most acclaimed blues guitarists, especially on slide guitar, playing full-tilt electric blues in a standard band setting. He shared stages with touring American and British musicians like Edgar Winter, Junior Wells and Rory Gallagher. Lang would often play an acoustic set to begin his performance, and found himself getting increasingly positive reactions for that kind of setting. Also Lang's original material tends not to be the standard blues fare, either musically or lyrically. The result is an interesting blend, with compositions that sound like the work of a folkie with guitar playing that ranges from gentle acoustic to bruising amplified slide guitar work, performed on a plugged-in acoustic instrument.
Cedar Grove is Lang's third release, but his first to be available in the US, and it's a fascinating blend. Lang plays some great bluesy slide guitar, sometimes on lap steel, but with lyrics containing phrases like "deep-instilled scrutinizing diatribes," and a compositional style that favors modal lines reminiscent of English and Celtic folk, his music is anything but standard 12-bar blues. The combination of fine writing and exciting blues playing is intriguing, distinctive, and quite substantial musically.
Lang is joined on by a trio, consisting of bassist Grant "Squire" Cummerford, and drummer Ashley Davies, in this recording completed in just nine days in an Adelaide studio. Producer Kerryn Tolhurst provides a little added guitar on two tracks and there is a backup singer on two others, but basically it's just the un-augmented trio making straight-ahead honest music. Playing an amplified acoustic guitar allows Lang to go from a folky sound to cranking up the amps and turning on the fuzz and grunge, sometimes within the same song, for dynamic effect.
The CD starts off with one of those tunes where Lang gets more electric as he goes along. Prepare Me Well takes a bluesy look at divorce. The tune is an interesting blend of low-down swamp blues with the kind of vague traditional British Isle folk influence reminiscent of Richard Thompson. <<>> As the track works its way along, Lang gradualy turns up his amp to "10." <<>>
With a similarly intriguing set of influences is the track Is She Slipping, one of the album's highlights. Though it deals with a typical blues song topic, the end of an affair, Lang's lyrics are more like those of a folkie. <<>>
The title track, Cedar Grove, is another really interesting piece that for me also conjures up musical and lyrical images of Fairport Convention, but with some great slide guitar work. The result is a one of the CD's most memorable pieces. <<>>
Lang really goes electric on a song called Too Easy To Kill with good old fashioned folkie protest song lyrics, in this case, lamenting the easy availability of guns and the inevitable violence that results. Lang delivers his message almost in a rap style, with a distorted vocal presumably for effect, while he plays some hot slide guitar. <<>>
On the other hand, Bateman's Bay is a mostly solo, acoustic, Australian travelogue. The performance is folky, but with some nice bottleneck style guitar. <<>>
Jeff Lang, the poetic singer-songwriter, combines with the bluesy guitarist on We Don't Ask, with interesting lyrics presumably about leaving things unsaid. <<>>
The CD's last two tracks spotlight each of Lang's facets individually. His articulate folkie persona is epitomized in Throw It All, with some creative wordcraft on the subject of missing someone, in the context of a rather un-bluesy accompaniment. <<>>
Jeff Lang the straight-out bluesman takes the spotlight on the album's only cover, ironically a Bob Dylan song, Call Letter Blues. It's also the album's only standard twelve-bar blues. Lang is featured on the lap steel guitar while producer Tolhurst plays the rhythm guitar. <<>>
Though American audiences don't get to hear a lot of the less-commercial music on the Australian scene, there have been some worthwhile Aussie blues artists whose music has reached these shores, including guitarist Dave Hole and the band the Mighty Reapers. Cedar Grove, the impressive American CD debut by guitarist, singer and songwriter Jeff Lang is another worthy import from Down Under. He is the interesting combination of a hot blues slide guitarist and a composer and lyricist creating thoughtful music that would be at home in a folk club. His instrumental technique, using an amplified acoustic guitar is also a kind of hybrid of the two. The result is a distinctive album that should appeal to fans of both genres.
Sonically, we'll give the album about an A Minus. The honest, unfettered production deserves kudos, but sometimes things get cranked up too high and the guitar sound can get overly grungy. And trendy or not, in my book there's no excuse for the intentionally distorted vocals which appear on a couple of tracks. The CD's dynamic range is not bad, with some tracks effectively building from soft, mostly acoustic, to full-tilt electric.
Jeff Lang's Cedar Grove combines his two musical interests in an innovative way, in a recording that will likely win him a good number of fans in this country, among those lucky enough to hear this worthy independently released CD.
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