The Graham Weekly Album Review #1160

CD graphic Anders Osborne: Living Room
by George Graham

(Shanachie 5735 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/21/99)

With musical styles developing as the result of the culture and environment of their time, it's not unfair to consider the cultural and ethnic background of the people making the music. So much of American popular music has its genesis in the African American experience, and perhaps none so more than the blues. The influence of the blues has spread worldwide, to the point that in some other countries, the blues is more popular than here in the US, where it started. It's not surprising, then, that musicians from Europe and elsewhere would take up the blues -- a famous example was the British blues invasion of the 1960s. It's interesting hearing the way the blues comes out when played by European musicians. It can range from quite authentic to almost laughable, when a combination of language and cultural barriers prevents them from getting it right.

Today's question is, can a Swede play the blues? The land of Volvos and Abba has also given us singer, guitarist and songwriter Anders Osborne. And the answer to the questions is yes, definitely, especially since Osborne has been living in New Orleans for the past decade, becoming a regular part of the Crescent City music scene, and writing a couple of songs that have been recorded by Keb' Mo.' Anders Osborne's new, fifth CD is called Living Room.

Though a native of the city of Uddevalla, Sweden, and having been raised on an island in the Baltic Sea, Osborne inherited some of his American music influence from his father, a pop and jazz drummer who performed on the same German club scene that was the proving ground for the Beatles. Starting on drums, Osborne switched to guitar, and by age 17, he set off on a musical odyssey that took him across Europe and the Middle East before he came to America for a while. After some time in Southeast Asia, he returned to the US and settled in New Orleans, partly because his grandfather, who was a sailor, spent a fair amount of time there and shared his memories of the city with his musical grandson.

Anders Osborne absorbed the rich musical scene of New Orleans, incorporating it into his music, which is basically blues, but is actually rather wide-ranging. He's a great slide guitarist, but also a very good singer-songwriter, capable of penning some great lyrics and creating songs that would stand up well in an acoustic folk setting. He also draws on influences including second-line brass bands, Professor-Longhair style rumbas and even Memphis soul.

Osborne released his first two CDs independently in 1990 and 1994, before being signed to the Sony/Okeh label for whom Osborne's friend and fellow New Orleanian, Keb' Mo,' records. Osborne's Which Way to Here with its great, crisp, production by veteran producer Jim Scott was a very appealing eclectic mix with tasteful musicianship and good writing that sounded like the work of someone who grew up in New Orleans. Osborne followed that with a live CD in 1998, recorded in the famous club Tipitina's. Now, apparently after some upheavals in his personal life, he is out with Living Room, which is probably his deepest record yet, in terms of skillfully blending styles -- there is even a little country twang -- and in terms of his lyrics. He is a mature singer-songwriter who often addressed more serious issues, sometimes a driving blues context.

On this CD, Osborne is joined by drummer Johnny Vidacovich, one of the Crescent City's busiest jazz drummers, bassist Leon Medica, plus keyboard man Fred Bogert. There are various guest cameos, including Tommy Malone and John Magnie of the Subdudes, plus Keb' Mo' doing backing vocals and some resonator guitar on one track, and sousaphone player Kirk Joseph of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

The musical styles included on this CD range from down-in-the-swamp acoustic blues, to New Orleans second line, to more laid-back roots rock pieces. Lyrically, the CD has a few songs that cover familiar ground for the blues, but Osborne also included a musical recollection of his grandfather, the story of the founder of a cult, and a tale of cocaine abuse. There are also some less serious songs touching on personal relationships, but from a lyrical standpoint, despite the infectious grooves that pervade the CD, this is Osborne's most thoughtful effort to date.

The CD opens with one of those low-down blues tunes called Boxes, Bills and Pain. After a laid-back acoustic start, this song of regret at a lost love, builds in intensity. <<>>

The New Orleans influence is front-and-center on Greasy Money which bemoans the futility of the search for easy cash, and its quick flight once obtained. A second-line brass band, complete with sousaphone provides the appropriate backing to the Crescent City funk beat. <<>>

Osborne's 1995 release Which Way to Here showed a fair amount of Memphis soul influence. Coast to Coast Blues on the new CD also has a great Memphis groove, with lyrics that go well with the setting. The song was written by Gerry Goffin, Carole King's old partner, and one Barry Goldberg, which according the record company, is a pseudonym for Bob Dylan. This is the song's first official recording. <<>>

One of the more unusual sets of lyrics comes on Trippin' in Montana, inspired by news stories of cult leaders setting up shop in remote areas. <<>>

Anders Osborne the folk-influenced singer-songwriter is reflected in three of the CDs tracks. Never Is a Real Long Time is a song one could easily imagine in a solo acoustic setting. Instead, Osborne serves up the song's literate lyrics with a laid-back and soulful rock arrangement. <<>>

Approaching the country side of things is Takes Two, a love song on which Osborne's slide guitar sounds like a Nashville steel. <<>>

The track featuring Keb' Mo' on backing vocals and resonator guitar is called Two Times and gets back down in the swamp. <<>>

The album's most frank lyrics come on Highway, a low-down blues-rock styled warning about cocaine addiction. <<>>

The CD ends with That's All with lyrics about Osborne's sailor grandfather, who inspired him to come to New Orleans. Again, Osborne shows he is not about to be pinned down to any particular style. This song has the sound of an old-fashioned waltz. <<>>

Anders Osborne's new CD Living Room proves that at least this Swede can play the blues. But he includes a lot more on this first-rate blend of Memphis soul, swamp rock, New Orleans funk and second-line, and even folky singer-songwriter material. He's a fine guitar player and an articulate lyricist who ventures into subjects not often taken up in this kind of good-time music. Osborne's 1995 release Which Way to Here was a gem that was unfortunately lost on the major label scene. Living Room, on the independent Shanachie label, is every bit its equal, and is likely to get more attention from the record company.

The CD's sound quality is quite good. The production is very tasteful, and the mix effectively conveys the mood of each tune, from laid back acoustic pieces to hard-driving rockers. The music is allowed to ebb and flow, and there is a good dynamic range where it's needed. Warren Dewey was the principal recording and sole mix engineer who deserves credit for a job well done.

With the growing interest in American roots music, Anders Osborne, from his perspective as a Scandinavian immigrant, provides a fine recording that sums up a lot of what is happening in the scene, and makes for great listening.

This is George Graham.

(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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