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Tim O'Brien: Pompadour
by George Graham
(Howdy Skies Music As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/6/2016)
Tim O’Brien is one of those fairly ubiquitous musicians usually associated with Nashville. His musical career began to attract attention as mandolinist in the Colorado-based bluegrass band Hot Rize starting in the latter 1970s. The group became favorites on the bluegrass scene, and they would also assume another amusing identity as Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, doing old cowboy songs. Around the time that Hot Rize went their separate ways, O’Brien, who had been writing songs gravitated to Nashville, where he worked as a session musician on various instruments, and wrote songs which became hits for artists like Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks. He has kept up a steady recording career and turned up in supporting roles quite frequently on albums. He has also worked with his older sister Mollie O’Brien on a couple of memorable recordings.
O’Brien is a versatile multi-instrumentalist and is known for his warm tenor vocals – he has sung backing vocals with many over the years. His musical output, though folk and bluegrass-based, is quite wind-ranging, running from the straight bluegrass of Hot Rize to an interesting album of offbeat acoustic covers of Bob Dylan songs, to a couple of Celtic albums, to doing vocals with the Moody Bluegrass project, who created bluegrass versions of the songs of the Moody Blues. O’Brien has been keeping busy with recording projects recently, and he is now out with what I believe to his his 14th solo album, not counting the numerous projects in which he collaborates with others. Two years ago, he released a very nice duet album with another ubiquitous Nashville multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Darrell Scott. Then in 2015, there was a reunion album with Hot Rize, which shows the iconic bluegrass band in fine form. Now he is out with his first official solo album in five years, Pompadour.
O’Brien’s last solo album, Chicken and Egg featured songs that were a consideration of his own life, with his father passing away and his own kids growing up. Pompadour is a more lighthearted album lyrically. O’Brien wrote a bunch of worthwhile new songs about more familiar topics like love and rocky relationships. As fine as songwriter is O’Brien is, he also likes to include interesting reinterpretations of music by others. Pompodour has a set of Woody Guthrie lyrics, a song by folksinger Michael Hurley and interestingly and perhaps amusingly, a James Brown song. On the album, he is joined by a variable cast of supporting musicians. Most of the Nashville-based players are heard on only one or two tunes each on this fairly brief 41-minute 11-song album, but O’Brien, who produced the album himself, picked just the right people and made for some enjoyably unpredictable arrangements, while maintaining his trademark vocal approach.
The album opens with its lighthearted title track, Pompadour which is about getting up one morning and finding his hair mussed into an inadvertent rock & roll “do.” The added horns in the arrangement match the fun spirit of the song. <<>>
Following is Down to the Water a set of Woody Guthrie lyrics that were set to music by English protest singer Billy Bragg, in one of the various projects in which the Guthrie family has been giving found Woody Guthrie lyrics and poetry to various artists to set to music. O’Brien plays clawhammer-style banjo, giving it more of an old-time sound. It all comes together very well. <<>>
O’Brien’s last album had a number of songs considering his own stage of life. Whatever Happened to Me is another set of introspective lyrics. The song was co-written with John Hadley and has a bit of a country twang to it. <<>>
One of the non-originals on the album is The Tulips on the Table, by Dan Reeder. It’s a whimsical-sounding song about a marriage on the rocks and it features a prominent and perhaps unlikely cello. <<>>
O’Brien and Hadley also co-wrote the song I Gotta Move an amusing plaint about what happens when you have to move into a new house. <<>>
The album takes a rockabilly direction on the song called Gimme Little Somethin’ Take Her Off My Mind, co-written with another prolific Nashville songwriter Gary Nicholson. The title pretty much says it all. <<>>
Pompadour has one instrumental, with O’Brien on fiddle as well as electric guitar. It’s a traditional tune called Snake Basket and he and his band give it a kind of Celtic rhythmic texture. <<>>
Perhaps the most distinctive track on the album is another of O’Brien’s clever reinventions of a song from an entirely different genre. Get up Offa That Thing was a James Brown tune, and O’Brien plays an old-timey style banjo on it. It’s a fun track all around. <<>>
Veteran bluegrass and country singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien’s new 14th solo album, Pompadour is fully up to O’Brien’s high musical standards. Though it has been five years since his last official solo album, O’Brien remains prolific with recent joint recordings with Darrell Scott and Hot Rize. But Pompadour puts the focus clearly on O’Brien. And he does not disappoint with his creative arranging of mostly acoustic instrumentation, but with some electric guitar and organ thrown in for good measure. His vocals are as pleasing as ever and the musicianship is first rate. Though there are songs about love affairs that are not exactly in the smooth sailing mode, the tone of the album remains fairly upbeat, and he and his musical colleagues are clearly having fun.
Our grade for sound quality is a B-minus. O’Brien has been much better recorded before. His last album Chicken and Egg was commendable in that respect. This album has suffers from the endemic volume compression disease that as affected so much of the music business. The vocals and acoustic instruments are not very clean, warm or appealing, just loud.
For close to 40 years, Tim O’Brien has been making worthwhile music in bluegrass and country. His talents are well-recognized by other musicians and music insiders, and he has attracted many fans over the years. O’Brien has made so many good records under his own name and with others that it’s hard to rank this one within his career. Suffice it to say, that Pompadour is a musically fine album all around, and one that will be as appealing decades from now as it is today.
(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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