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(King Easy 0501 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/11/2006)
The past few years have seen the emergence of a significant number of worthy singer-songwriters. But it's also notable how many long-time veterans remain active on the scene. There are, of course, those who have been well-known since the 1960s, like Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, and Joan Baez, who have all released new CDs in the past few months. But there are also many long-time artists who do not have quite the visibility of some of the better-known names, but who still manage to maintain a musical career and continue to create high-quality work.
This week, we have a fine example, Dana Cooper, whose new CD is called Made of Mud. With a more than 30-year recording career, Dana Cooper began performing in clubs in Kansas City when he was sixteen. Though he received a college art scholarship, he instead decided to go out on the road performing, toured the country, and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he was signed to Elektra Records. He released his debut solo album in 1973. Cooper later formed a musical partnership with Shake Russell, and moved to Texas. Cooper and Russell recorded five albums together, and gained a fair amount of popularity, being signed to MCA Records and appearing on Public Television's Austin City Limits. Though Cooper and Russell still collaborate, Cooper has been working as a solo since the 1980s, and has been living in Nashville since 1978, periodically releasing independent CDs which attracted critical accolades and got him nominated for the Nashville Music Awards among others.
Cooper's last CD, Harry Truman Built a Road was released in 2002. Now Cooper is out with a particularly fine new release in Made of Mud. As usual, Cooper's songs are literate and lyrically interesting, and the musical backing is very tasteful. Cooper himself comes across as a personable performer with an attractive voice. He is joined by producer and multi-instrumentalist Richard McLaurin, who also did similar duties on Cooper's last CD. Otherwise, it's a small cast of supporting musicians, including bassist Dave Jacques, drummer Paul Griffin and keyboard man Eric Fritsch among others. Cooper himself plays some bluesy harmonica, in addition to his acoustic guitar and vocals.
There is a theme that ties much of the CD together, including its title piece, the idea that in an increasingly divided country and world, there are some things that people do have in common. Cooper is quoted as saying "Whether you are Howard Hughes or the guy in the gutter, we're all pretty much the same person."
The songs also span a long period, including one of the earliest that Cooper and Shake Russell wrote together. There is also a cover of Woody Guthrie's Pretty Boy Floyd, which Cooper thought would be relevant in the current environment. A fair number of the songs are philosophical in their outlook, with one notably political song, and at the other end of the spectrum are love songs.
Opening is Step into the Light, the old composition from close to 30 years ago written with Shake Russell. It was penned during the Vietnam era, and it has relevance today. Musically, it's a pleasing blend of acoustic instrumentation and roots rock. <<>>
With this album having been recorded in Nashville, there are some hints of country among its tracks, understated though they may be. Bird on the Wing is excellent piece of writing that addresses the album's theme of the commonalty of people. It tells the story of a pair of lovers from very different social classes. <<>>
Probably the most direct political commentary comes on the song Sit This One Out which takes aim presumably at wealthy televangelists. The musical setting is an infectious rock groove that in a way, takes a little of the edge off the lyrics. <<>>
One of the more interesting pieces from both a musical and lyrical standpoint is Comic Tragedy. It's not often that singer-songwriters write in a 5-beat rhythm, while the words seem a kind of stream of consciousness exposition. Cooper plays some harmonica on the track as well. <<>>
Cooper's version of Woody Guthrie's Pretty Boy Floyd is nicely done. Cooper plays it rather straight with the arrangement, with his acoustic rhythm guitar featured prominently. Cooper feels the story is ripe to re-tell given the environment of corporate scandals and general plutocracy. <<>>
The title track, Made of Mud, is also one of the CD's highlights. The roots-rock style song speaks to Cooper's theme of the album, putting into a rock setting a paraphrase of a biblical notion. <<>>
That is followed by two songs that are lyrical opposites. Death is a Door is a almost spooky-sounding piece that deals with the subject stated in its title. <<>>
Contrasting to that is Empty Glass. The song has a kind of swamp rock sound whose lyrics essentially say, after the previous tune, "I'm not going anywhere soon."
Dana Cooper's new CD Made of Mud is a fine album by a veteran singer-songwriter with a more than 30-year recording career who has tended to stay just under the radar. The new CD is a very independent release, so it's unlikely to go gold or platinum, but it is a recording that definitely deserves wider recognition. It's one of those albums that does just about everything right -- intelligent literate lyrics, tasteful musical backing, and an appealing performance by Cooper himself.
The sound quality is also commendable, with a mix that is as generally understated as the music. But the dynamic range, the difference between loud and soft moments is only fair.
Despite all the outstanding young talent emerging on the singer-songwriter and new folk scenes, long-time veterans, even if they are not biggest names, can have a lot to offer. Dana Cooper offers much on his new CD, and it's music that will likely stand the test of time.
(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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