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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1626

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Shaun Cromwell: Folk-Worn Prose
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/19/2011)

Having a full rock band can be a useful thing musically. In addition to having more sound, the collective musical talents can combine to raise the general level of musicianship and sonic interest beyond what the composer had in mind. So stripping away a band and working largely solo, for example as a folkie, removes those possibilities, and one is left with the strength of the material and the abilities of the artist in question. In the folk world, often the lyrics and narrative of the music the becomes the focus, compensating for a lack of strength elsewhere.

This week we have a new recording by a ostensible folkie who is pretty much the whole package, Shaun Cromwell -- an articulate lyricist, but also a fine guitarist who also plays some banjo, does very attractive vocals and serves as producer. As a composer, he creates music that is stylistically eclectic and has a good deal more depth than is typical for a folkie. His new CD, his second, is called Folk-Worn Prose.

Shaun Cromwell lives in Los Angeles, and has worked as a mix engineer for various TV shows. He released his debut album, The Turning of Clocks in 2007, a strictly solo recording which was based on the theme of mortality. He has done some touring playing in bands with others, including Trisha Gagnon.

Now he is out with Folk-Worn Prose which though the instrumentation is still scaled back by pop music standards, is wider-ranging sonically. Over the last couple of years, Cromwell has taken up the banjo and he includes it on the new CD, giving it an old-timey or traditional folk texture at times, but he also has a bit of a ragtime streak, imparting a kind of nostalgia-tinged aura. The added instrumentation on this largely self-recorded CD include tuba and accordion.

As a lyricist Cromwell is inventive and articulate, often including some vocabulary words that one does not often hear in folk or pop songs, but more perhaps along the lines of Tin Pan Alley wordsmiths. But he also includes two instrumental pieces. And as a vocalist, Cromwell has a slightly weathered, but still smooth voice that is a bit reminiscent of Jack Johnson or Tim O'Brien. Altogether it makes for an album that has a lot going for it -- more than would seem apparent from its appearance as what may seem like just another folk singer-songwriter album.

That is apparent from the opening track The Gristmill. It shows the old-time folk facet of the recording, with Cromwell on banjo and an added fiddle. <<>>

Quite different in sound is the following piece The Rise and Fall (Of It All), done as a kind of old-time waltz, with interesting lyrics about traveling and using automobile suspension parts as a kind of metaphor. <<>>

The first of the instrumentals is a short whimsical piece called Old Saw Rag, done with guitar, tuba and a little percussion. As a composition it's quite good. <<>>

Little Back Bedroom is one of the most appealing songs on this generally warm and inviting album. Lyrically it's a kind of reminiscence of home, with a small band including some organ and harmonica. <<>>

Vocalist Devon Sproule appears as a guest on the song I Am Undone a nice piece that is based on acoustic folk instrumentation. <<>>

Another facet of the CD comes out on The Steeplejack with a kind of swampy bluesy sound with Gospel-influenced backing vocals. Cromwell gets back to the subject of mortality on this song. <<>>

A track that nicely illustrates Cromwell's appealing blend of dashes of traditional folk with a kind of pop sensibility and clever lyrics is Only If the Now Is Then. There's his banjo in there along with a kind of beat you can snap your fingers to, while Cromwell tells the story of an interesting character. <<>>

Cromwell creates a song that sounds like an old Appalachian hymn. A Day's Gap Keening, done with banjo and accordion, again considers mortality but with hope. <<>>

Shaun Cromwell is one of who-knows-how-many hundreds of acoustic folk-singer-songwriters on the scene. But his new CD Folk-Worn Prose shows that the form still has endless possibilities. Rather than letting the scaled-back instrumentation be a limitation, Cromwell invokes a variety of influences from old-timey country to ragtime to more contemporary. He's a great writer. His compositions are outwardly simple in sound but hold a good deal of musical and lyrical sophistication. He's got a very appealing musical persona, and he's a tasteful guitarist, joined by a variable small group of like-minded players.

Our grade for sound quality is a B-plus. The acoustic instrumentation and vocals are well-recorded and have a generally pleasing sound. Cromwell himself did the mix. But in the mastering process, the same mindless, loudness-at-all-costs approach that afflicts far too many CDs was used to crank up the volume and thus lose the dynamics of the performance.

Yes, it's another folkie album in a very crowded field by a relative unknown, but Shaun Cromwell is a particularly well-rounded artist in the field, and his Folk-Worn Prose is both memorable and very appealing.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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