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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1183

CD graphic Ned Farr: Desert Motel
by George Graham

( Records NF 2010 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/23/2000)

"Concept albums" were among the many artifacts that arose in the 1960s. Many consider the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers the archetype for what would later become a plethora of LPs whose songs were supposedly tied together into a single theme or idea. There were concept albums in styles spanning from art rock to environmental sounds, and like most things from that era, ranged from the innovative to the fatuous. In the Empty Vee era of rapid-fire sound bytes that have reduced people's attention span to no more than a few seconds, concept albums have gone the way of thoughtful political discourse. But this week, we have a recording that carries on the tradition, succeeding in capturing the best elements of the form in both content and execution, without any of its pretense. And it is also in an area that has not seen very many recordings in that vein: not by a regular band, but by a singer-songwriter. It's the new CD by Ned Farr called Desert Motel. In fact, in "concept," this new release is something of a sequel to his first album, The Good Red Road which was made five years ago.

Before I go any further, in the interests of journalistic disclosure, I should point out that I was peripherally involved in the making of Desert Motel as mastering engineer, and that Ned Farr has been on the Homegrown Music series here on WVIA-FM and that we are friends. But I like to think that my enthusiasm for this CD is objective, as indeed I was fascinated by Farr's first CD long before I met him.

Ned Farr grew up in Westchester, NY and New Mexico, has been writing songs since before his teens, and been part of the New York folk scene for a some time, performing at such venues as the Bitter End. Some of his songs have also been used in the soundtracks of films. His time spent in the desert Southwest has left an indelible mark on his songs, going back to The Good Red Road and its images of Native American rituals. That album also dealt with difficult family situations and was personal enough that Farr was reluctant at first to make it widely available.

The new CD's title Desert Motel sums up the overall "concept" behind this album, with backdrop for these songs of mostly rocky personal relationships taking place in a desolate motel out in the middle of nowhere in the New Mexico desert. One could easily imagine the songs' scenes taking places in the motel's various rooms, and indeed the CD provides subtle snippets of sound between the tracks to reinforce the atmosphere.

Like Farr's previous work, the lyrics and the general mood of the music tend to run toward the melancholy or introspective, with stories of relationship either in the process of unraveling or with the lyrics ruminating about how it was or could have been. But they never reach the point of being maudlin. Musically, the CD is unlike most singer-songwriter albums, which tend to be fairly limited in their musical scope. Desert Motel is full of rich, highly creative arrangements that make strikingly effective use of a relatively small number of musicians, with instrumental colors that range from folky to atmospheric to energetically rocky -- sometimes all within the same song. Subtle orchestrations with violin, steel guitar, accordion, clarinet and other unconventional instruments; the skillful use of dynamics; along with Farr's winsome folky tenor vocals makes this an album that will quickly draw you into its beguiling musical vignettes, in a way that will have you listening to the album on different levels each time you hear it.

Joining Farr on the CD are some of the same musicians who appeared on The Good Red Road: electric guitarist Jim Olbreys, bassist Jon Ossman, drummer and very tasteful percussionist Joe Casalino, violinist Cenovia Cummins, and co-producer and engineer Evan Richey who is heard on cello. Also appearing are Peter Keisenwalter, who shows his versatility on piano, accordion, sax and clarinet, and David Hamburger on steel guitar. Farr's wife Dreya Weber joins on backing vocals. All make distinctive contributions to the CD, from the ethereal guitar to the Cajun evocations of the accordion, to the cowboy boots implied by the steel guitar, to Ms. Weber's haunting background vocals.

The title track Desert Motel opens the album, and sets the scene for many of the songs that follow, both lyrically and musically. The arrangement brings together the unlikely combination of a subtle, contemplative mood and an accordion. <<>>

One of my favorite pieces is Black Sand, again drawing on the desert setting for its melancholy lyrical images, while Farr and company hint at a bossa nova beat in this arrangement, given a jazzy touch by Keisenwalter's soprano sax. <<>>

The more aggressive side of Desert Motel is represented on the song Snake, whose title can refer to both the denizens of the desert setting and the adulterous main character of the song. <<>>

On the other hand, one of the most strikingly beautiful pieces is A Stone's Throw from Mexico, again hinting at the Southwestern desert, and attempts there at repairing a broken relationship. <<>>

Better Than This is an interesting departure musically, with its vaguely funky groove coupled to a Lousiana-flavored accordion, given an unexpectedly acoustic overall sound. <<>>

Also fascinating musically is Judas, whose title implies the betraying character of the Biblical apostle. The arrangement comes across as a kind of jazzy psychedelic blend. <<>>

Most of the relationships in the songs on Desert Motel seem to be ultimately unsuccessful. Could Have Boon Good is a wistful look at what might have been, in a quiet, folky musical setting. It features some nice playing by violinist Cummins. <<>>

The album ends with The Sound of Waves another song about a relationship going on in that Desert Motel, presumably of an illicit nature. The arrangement is especially noteworthy with its curious blend of clarinet and accordion, a pair of instruments usually heard together in polka bands, but here implying sea and sky. <<>>

Ned Farr's new second CD Desert Motel is fine new recording that brings back the old idea of a concept album in the settings for the songs, the way they relate to each other and even the order in which they appear. Farr has been working on this CD for about three years now, on and off, facing such obstacles as a fire in the studio where he was mixing. But after doing all the work independently, the result is a memorable record that is full of musical subtlety and is often downright captivating in its sound. About the only drawback is that the lyrics do tend to be melancholy much of the time, but the quality of the writing, arranging and performance tend to make one look at the bright side.

Sonically, in terms of production and mix, the album is definitely a class act. Engineer and co-producer Evan Richey nicely captured the subtlety of the performances. Again, even in terms of the sound, this CD rewards repeated listening with new facets becoming apparent each time. As mastering engineer, I'll leave it to the listeners to judge the overall translation to CD.

Ned Farr has been in the past a reluctant recording artist, or at least not exactly aggressive about promoting his own music. It was only at the urging of Ms. Weber, who is now his wife, that he get copies of his first CD out of his apartment, where they had sat for two years, and into the hands of people who could the spread word about his music. Hopefully, Desert Motel will take less time to attract attention. It's a distinctive and musically rich recording that deserves to find wider audiences. And I would say that even if I had nothing to do with the record.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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