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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1293

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Christine Lavin: I Was in Love with a Difficult Man
by George Graham

(Red Wing Music 5411 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/28/2002)

As bad as the state of commercial corporate pop music music has become, we can take solace in the fact that this is also a period during which we have been blessed by a wealth of fine singer-songwriters, from rockers to traditional style folkies, to bluegrass-influenced artists to those who blend in some jazz. Lyrically, there is also a similarly broad range, from introspective confessional singers, to those who vigorously address the broad social issues of the day. And the range of artists runs from the profoundly philosophical to the hilarious.

Christine Lavin certainly established her reputation among the latter category -- her witty songs and charming delivery have established her among ever wider audiences through her constant touring and her frequent album releases in a career that now stretches for almost two decades. But over the years, she has also gained the acclaim of everyone from casual fans to major artists for her skill in not only demonstrating her wit, but in her sometimes poignant observations on life.

Ms. Lavin has just released her newest recording, whose title is pure Christine Lavin, I Was in Love with a Difficult Man. And while she has been issuing CDs prolifically, this one is billed as her first full studio album of new songs in about five years. It's also the first one in several years that she has released through a record company other then her own. It does not disappoint. Ms. Lavin once again strikes a nice balance between her wit, charm, and her ability to evoke a little sadness with a couple of wonderfully articulate songs, including one the New York resident wrote in the wake of September 11.

On the subject of New York, Ms. Lavin writes in her notes about all the interesting people who were in close proximity to her in the city on whom she was able to call for this recording, including the couple whose breakup inspired the famous 1945 song Good Morning Heartache.

As good as it is hearing Ms. Lavin's songs with a nice, more produced sound, for me, Ms. Lavin is best in performance. Her live albums while not as sonically polished as her studio recordings, are high points of her career, full of her playful interaction with the audience, and with her lines delivered exquisitely. The arrangements on her new album are quite tasteful, and often musically interesting, but fans like me can easily imagine how she would deliver some of the songs to an audience, and that ebullience is somewhat muted on this, like most of her studio albums. Nevertheless, I Was in Love with a Difficult Man shows that she has not run out of great song ideas, and she remains as clever and appealing as ever.

For this CD, she called on producer Steve Rosenthal, marking the first time she has worked with an outside producer in the better part of a decade, and she is joined by some fine musicians who are often heard as studio players on albums by well-known artists and who have been part f the New York folk scene. They include guitarist Frank Christian, bassist Zev Katz and drummer Hearn Gadbois. The backing vocalists represent some intriguing casting, including Julie Gold, who wrote the hit song From a Distance, Suzzy Roche of the Roche Sisters, Ms. Lavin's aunt, actress Pat Crawford Brown, and veteran Tin Pan Alley songwriter Ervin Drake.

The title song, I Was in Love with a Difficult Man opens the album. The song's title says it all, and Ms. Lavin applies her wit to the situation. This is as example where the added musicians and arrangements do add a lot to the song, especially given the playful, accordion-laden instrumentation. <<>>

Almost the exact opposite in mood in the following piece Jack & Wanda, inspired by, as Ms. Lavin has been several times in the past by people she encountered on the road, in this case as elderly couple on a plane who were still very much love birds. <<>>

That is followed by another road song, Strangers Talk to Me, done with an interesting all-percussion accompaniment. <<>> Of the little exchange over the meaning of the word "contiguous" in the song, the reply is given by Edith Drake, who in 1945, split up from her then-boyfriend, songwriter Ervin Drake, who used that as the inspiration for his writing the classic song Good Morning Heartache.

Meanwhile, Ervin Drake also appears on the album -- Ms. Lavin says it's the first time they appeared together on a record -- on the song called Sunday Breakfast with Christine (and Ervin). It's a jazzy-sounding musical recipe for petit pan au chocolat.

Another song inspired by watching people around her is All You Want Is What You Want, relating an overheard argument between a mother and daughter on the streets of New York. <<>>

The most poignant song on the album, and perhaps the most touching piece Ms. Lavin has written is called Firehouse, the story of what was previously an innocuous New York fire station in her neighborhood which was changed forever by the events of September 11. <<>>

Of course, Ms. Lavin never fails to give us her classic witty songs, and my choice for most memorable is Making Friends with My Grey Hair, another song whose title says it all, which she performs mostly solo. <<>>

Also laced with Ms. Lavin's generous wit is Wind Chimes, in which the tinkling of the chimes become a major nocturnal irritant. <<>>

Ms. Lavin also provides an elegy for a beloved aunt on For Carolyn/Something Wonderful, which starts with a poem by the late Carolyn Crawford Bennett's sister actress Pat Crawford Brown... <<>> before Ms. Lavin's song which considers the relationships in a family. <<>>

Christine Lavin's new release I Was in Love with a Difficult Man, is another gem from one of our finest singer-songwriters. She is one performer who can have you in stitches on one song, and wiping a tear on another. She has created another impressive batch of songs that run the gamut of emotions, and does it with her trademark charm. That appeal seems to work on her live albums more than on her studio releases, but among her studio recordings, this is probably one of the better at letting her personality come through.

Our grade for sound quality is about a "B+." The production and arrangements are quite tasteful and the instrumentation and vocals are generally well-recorded. But in mixing or mastering, the CD's sound ended up being excessively compressed, giving it a less-than appropriate "in your face" quality, that detracts from the subtleties of the performances and arrangements

Christine Lavin may not yet have become a artist known to the masses, but over a twenty-year career she has become one of the most respected singer-songwriters in the field, no mean feat in such a crowded arena, starting with her reputation for funny songs. Her new CD once again strikes a nice balance between the lighthearted and the serious.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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