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(Perfect Groove Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/5/2013)
Singer-songwriters span a rather wide gamut in style, sound and approach. But even so, the proliferation of such artists on the music scene these days has made it somewhat difficult for one to stand out. This week we have an artist who has come up with a musical direction that outwardly has a somewhat familiar sound, but also brings an interesting stylistic hybrid. It's Arthur Lee Land, whose new fourth album is called Cracked Open.
A resident of Lyons, Colorado, Arthur Lee Land takes an distinctive approach to his music. He's a multi-instrumentalist and often uses looping devices in his live performances to create layers in instruments. He often plays the banjo and shows a fair amount of bluegrass influence, but also traveled to West Africa and picked up influences from the music scene there. His publicity bio calls his music Electro-Americana, which I suppose is a fair description.
Interestingly, while most folk-influenced singer-songwriters are very lyric-oriented, usually writing their songs around the words, Lee Land does very little lyric writing himself. On all but one of the CD's songs, the words were written by his wife Carol Lee, while Arthur Lee Land concentrates on the sonic and musical mix. Thus, the songs often take interesting turns musically. Lee Land plays most of the instruments by himself, with the help of producer/engineer Aaron Shier who provided electronic drums and samples. But despite the rather technological approach, the CD does not have the fake, contrived sound of a lot of commercial pop created in the same way.
The only other guests on the album are two backing vocalists on one tune, Beth Neilsen Chapman, a singer-songwriter in her own right and Leigh Nash, plus tabla player David Hurlin on a piece with some world music influence.
The CD has a rather interesting story behind it. It was completed about two years ago, and then shortly after that, Lee Land suffered a polyp on his vocal chords and completely lost his voice for some six months as it healed. Then he was diagnosed with Graves Disease, a thyroid condition, which kept him off the road and delayed the release of the album for the two years. But now it's out and the result is quite engaging with the creative mix of influences, the impressive instrumental work by Lee Land, and the pleasing songs that provide the opportunities to show off the fusion of musical ingredients, from bluegrass to Indian sitar music.
That wide-ranging mix is evident on the opening and title track Cracked Open. It's one of the more rock-oriented song on the album, but there's the prominent banjo. The allegorical lyrics deal with the impermanence of life. <<>>
One of the more engaging and intriguing tracks on the album is called After the Eclipse which combines bits of rock, ambient music, bluegrass, African influences and melodic pop. <<>>
The one song with lyrics that Arthur Lee Land wrote himself is called Good Enough which comes off as autobiographical. In connection with this song, Lee Land was working with a support group for ADHD children. <<>>
There is a song about a romantic breakup on the album, and Carol Lee's lyrics are as clever as her husband's music. The song is called Do You Ever Think of Me? <<>>
Somewhat more philosophical in both sound and lyrics is Undertow on which the banjo is also prominent. It's very nicely done. <<>>
True North is creative hybrid of country influence and eclectic rock that shows another facet of Lee Land. <<>>
Another of the stronger tracks on the CD is Into the Waters whose lyrics are a kind of reminiscence of childhood, while the music is another interesting hybrid of pop and something that sounds almost theatrical. <<>>
The banjo is also prominent on a song that otherwise shows more of a pop orientation, Hawthorn Tree whose lyrics are some of the more poetically intriguing on the album. <<>>
The CD ends with its magnum opus a suite in two parts called Drum & a Chair. The first section features a kind of trance-like Eastern-influenced sound complete with tabla drums... <<>> before the second part brings in an energetic blend of bluegrass and African rhythmic feel. It's brilliantly done and impressive from a musical standpoint. <<>>
Arthur Lee Land on his new fourth CD Cracked Open has shown the musically eclectic side of the singer-songwriter genre. Combining folk, bluegrassy banjo along with a little influence from electronica, plus some African and Middle Eastern ambience, he has created a fascinating yet quite enjoyable recording. The playing by Lee Land on most instruments, is impressive, as are his appealing vocals. With his wife Carol Lee providing most of the lyrics, Arthur Lee Land concentrates on the musical aspect with his producer Aaron Shier to make a CD which incorporates an uncommonly wide palette of stylistic ingredients skillfully and with imagination.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-Minus. Sometimes the electronic effects distract from the other music and lyrics at hand, and the dynamic range -- how well the recording handles the differences between loud and soft -- could have been a little better, but overall it's sonically well-handled.
When you say "singer-songwriter" most people think of a folkie strumming an acoustic guitar, accompanying music constructed around the poetry of the lyrics. Arthur Lee Land may often play an acoustic guitar in his music, but he has set out to, and succeeds in taking things in a sonically eclectic, imaginative, and ultimately rewarding direction.
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