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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1441

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Merrie Amsterburg: Clementine and Other Stories
by George Graham

(Q Division 1033 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/26/2006)

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the term singer-songwriter came into the lexicon, there was a boom in the popularity of folk music. The term then meant songs that were handed down from one generation to the next, usually written by some anonymous composer. And a folk music performer doing his or her own music was considered something close to a sacrilege. Of course, Bob Dylan came along in the mid 1960s, after one album of traditional songs, he began to perform his own music, and the rest, as they say, is history. So by the 1970s, relying on old traditional songs and not performing one's own music, very much went out of fashion.

In recent years, though, perhaps due in part to the rising popularity of bluegrass, a new generation of performers have begun to re-examine the old songs that used to be sung at the hootenannies in the days of the Great Folk Music Scare. Some singer-songwriters have included a traditional song or two on their records, and over the past couple of years, there have been a number of CDs consisting of all traditional folk songs. Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs did one, as did a group called Ollabelle, and there was the fascinating remix album of Alan Lomax's 1950s era field recordings done by the group Tangle Eye. The latest, and one of the most compelling, is by Boston area singer-songwriter Merrie Amsterburg. It bears the title Clementine and Other Stories.

Merrie Amsterburg is a Michigan native, and from 1988 to 1994 was the front person for the rock band the Natives, which attracted a fair amount of attention. By the mid 1990s, she began recording on her own, though quite infrequently. Her debut CD came out 10 years ago, and Clementine is only her third full CD release.

Ms. Amsterburg is known for her subtle, sometimes poignant lyrics, and often haunting musical compositions, along with her very distinctive and wonderfully appealing vocals, and the interesting collection of instruments she plays from baritone guitar to bouzouki. Each of her previous CDs was marked by great depth and indeed delicacy, even when she went electric. They were the kind of CDs that would grow on one with each hearing.

Now, fully six years after her superb release Little Steps she is out with Clementine and Other Stories. The CD came about when Ms. Amsterburg decided to include the old song (My Darling) Clementine in some of her performances. She said she started getting requests for the song, and then thought it would be interesting to do a whole album of traditional songs. She also thought it would be fairly easy. But as she got into it, she found herself taking a long time to decide how she wanted to present the songs. She spoke of trying to determine, in her words, "what voice the song had, and what voice I could bring to the songs." She set as her goal trying to get people to look at the familiar old songs in a different way because, she says, "they are part of history and where we come from." The result is both fascinating and often compelling, with some songs that we learned in as young children or around the campfire, given a musical setting that reflects the often sad or tragic lyrics which are usually covered by the happy melodies.

Ms. Amsterburg recorded mainly in her home studio, often with the help of her husband and long time musical partner Peter Linton. She plays quite a few instruments, including a variety of stringed instruments, plus keyboards, drum loops, and even trumpet, which she learned and played in grade school. The arrangements range from solo performances to some tracks with essentially a full rock band backing, with the help of bassist Paul Bryan and drummer John Sands, who have worked with Ms. Amsterburg on her two previous albums. The songs she performs with perhaps one exception, and all very familiar to anyone who has had exposure to traditional music, including Streets of Laredo, Shenandoah, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and Simple Gifts.

Leading off is Down in the Valley, which sets the direction of the album. The old song of unrequited love is given a atmospheric, melancholy treatment. Ms. Amsterburg plays her bouzouki, while the band plays with darker musical colors. <<>>

One of the more unexpected musical treatments is given to the song Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair. This song which probably came from the British Isles, is given a vaguely Latin beat, while Ms. Amsterburg's vocal performance captures the mood of the lyrics. <<>>

The title track Clementine, is one of those old folk songs the everybody knows, and yet few really pay attention to how sad the words actually are. Ms. Amsterburg and her band give the song one of the most electric arrangements on the album, but she does it in part in a minor key, which puts a different spin on it, and causes us to re-examine the downright tragic lyrics. <<>>

Ms. Amsterburg includes a lullaby among the traditional songs on the CD. All The Pretty Horses, is transformed into a melancholy waltz with all the instruments played my Ms. Amsterburg, including the seemingly incongruous banjo. <<>>

Also very original is her treatment of the old Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts. She adds a bit of subtle electronica in perhaps the most upbeat arrangement on the CD. It's one of the album's many pleasant surprises. <<>>

Ms. Amsterburg performs another old folk music standard Streets of Laredo in a solo setting. It's another tragic set of lyrics, and Ms. Amsterburg's performance is remarkable for its subtle poignancy. <<>>

For me about the only track that does not surprise and delight as much, is her treatment of The Lakes of Ponchartrain. Though nicely done, with Ms. Amsterburg getting out her trumpet, it seems to lack the sonic impact of some of the other pieces. <<>>

The CD ends with a dark brooding version of When Johnny Comes Marching Home. I've heard this piece done as both a sad song -- it is after all written in a minor key -- and a more joyous version. Ms. Amsterburg's wonderfully melancholy vocals are at their best in this arrangement whose atmospheric quality is literal, with the sound of wind in the background. <<>>

More singer-songwriters are rediscovering the old traditional folk songs. They serve as a reminder, sometimes a humbling one to a songwriter, of the qualities of songs that allow them to last for hundreds of years. Merrie Amsterburg is the latest talented composer-vocalist to take up the traditional folk songs on her new album, Clementine and Other Stories, and it's one of the best yet. Ms. Amsterburg is a gifted performer with a wonderful voice, and an eclectic multi-instrumentalist -- she once used the sound of a washing machine to accompany a song. Her highly creative reworkings of these old songs most people think they know can cast a completely new light on them, and the subtle performances, both instrumentally and vocally, turn this into a compelling and memorable album.

Our sonic grade is close to an "A." The mix, the quality of the instrumentation, and Ms. Amsterburg's vocals are all well-handled, and the dynamic range is reasonably adequate.

Merrie Amsterburg is a outstanding songwriter in her own right, and about the only disappointing thing about this CD is that there are no new Amsterburg compositions. But her downright fascinating reinventions of these old folksongs helps to make up for that, and I hope that it is not too much longer before she puts out another, long-overdue album of new original music.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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