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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1520

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Tim O'Brien: Chameleon
by George Graham

(Proper American 007 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/2/2008)

When it comes time to make an album, artists, especially many solo artists, can't resist the temptation to pile on the instrumentation and the supporting musicians. The conventional wisdom is that audiences expect that kind of thing and somehow might not respond well to something with sparse instrumentation. A purely solo album is thus a rare event.

But that is just what we have for you this time. It's the latest release by veteran Grammy-Award-winning singer-songwriter Tim O'Brien called Chameleon.

Fifty-four-year-old Tim O'Brien grew up in West Virginia, and was first exposed to Bob Dylan by his older sister Mollie O'Brien, with whom Tim O'Brien still occasionally performs. He decided at that point to take up music, becoming a self-taught guitarist, mandolinist and fiddle player. He decided to drop out of Colby College in Maine to pursue music full-time, and eventually ended up Boulder, Colorado, during the 1970s. There, in 1978 formed the bluegrass band Hot Rize, a much-acclaimed and eclectic group that became part of the so-called New Acoustic music scene. Hot Rize also would masquerade as the old-time Western band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers and do some comedy material. O'Brien started recording solo albums while still with Hot Rize, and after the band broke up, he pursued his solo career full time. He eventually moved to Nashville, where he became in-demand as a songwriter and studio musician. He composed songs recorded by country stars like Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, and Kathy Mattea, with whom he recorded a popular duet. In 2005 he won a Grammy Award for best traditional folk album for his CD Fiddler's Green. He has also worked as a record producer for others.

Tim O'Brien's recordings have spanned a wide range, from bluegrass-oriented to a couple of Celtic-influenced CDs to a kind of concept album about traveling. This is his first CD since Fiddler's Green and Cornbread Nation were released simultaneously in 2005. O'Brien had decided to take some time, cut back on his schedule some, and settle in to do a lot of songwriting. He also said that over the years he has always had in mind to make a solo album, citing some of the memorable solo recordings by performers like early Dylan, Doc Watson, and Woody Guthrie. O'Brien said that usually, as the design of his next succeeding album would come together, the idea of doing it solo just slipped away, even though he does often perform by himself. But this time he did it. He points out in the liner notes that his songs generally start with him and an instrument. So, he writes, he "loaded all my hillbilly apparatus -- guitars, banjos, mandolins, etc. -- into [engineer] Gary Paczoza's garage, and played this batch of songs until I was finished."

Of course, it helps that O'Brien is a fine acoustic multi-instrumentalist, alternating among various guitars, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and a bouzouki. But the stripped down musical setting also helps us to appreciate what a great songwriter O'Brien is, with material ranging from autobiographical, to whimsical to the political. In style, most of the songs on the album have a kind of traditional sound, though sometimes that provides a contrast with the rather contemporary lyrics about such things as cell phones and global warming.

O'Brien was indeed busy working at the songwriting, coming up with 16 worthwhile new compositions for Chameleon.

Leading off is a song called Where's Love Come From, a rather philosophical reflection on love. <<>>

Also about love and heartbreak is The Garden, a sad waltz performed on a bouzouki. <<>>

The song Phantom Phone Call is an interesting juxtaposition, with the old-timey fiddle accompaniment for lyrics about cell phones. <<>>

O'Brien does get into the more traditional style of folksong lyric writing on a piece called Megna's whose words are about the cries of traveling produce truck man who hawked his wares in O'Brien's neighborhood as he was growing up. He plays the very appealing song on a mandola. <<>>

O'Brien has written his share of country songs, and he comes up with a kind of classic called The Only Way to Never Hurt, which he co-wrote with Danny Shearin. <<>>

O'Brien says that one of his favorite songs on the album is Get Out There and Dance. I'll agree with his assessment of this charming tune performed with mandolin. <<>>

The CD is arranged with most of the social commentary songs toward the end. O'Brien has fun essentially turning Woodie Guthrie on his head in the song This World Was Made for Everyone, which represents philosophy of let's say certain figures in the business and political world. <<>>

With an even more traditional sound is perhaps the most political song on the CD World of Trouble, performed in an old-time banjo style. <<>>

The CD ends with a kind of self-effacing autobiographical introspection called Nothing to Say (That Hasn't Been Said), nicely performed with on one of his bouzoukis. <<>>

Tim O'Brien's new CD Chameleon -- the title of which, by the way was inspired by a pet chameleon he had as a child -- is another very fine recording by a gifted songwriter and appealing performer. O'Brien bucked the tendency to add more and bigger musical backing on his CD, and instead opted for a literally pure solo album, recorded essentially live. Not a lot of artists could pull this off and have it remain interesting and engaging for close to an hour as O'Brien. It helps that he is constantly changing instruments, and his songwriting topics are wide-ranging, running from the love-songs to social commentary set in an old-time folk sound. His performances on his various guitars, mandolins, bouzoukis and fiddles are first-rate and help to add further interest to the recording.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The quality of the recording is very good, with a pleasing, warm sound on the instruments and O'Brien's vocals. But as is so depressingly common these days, the dynamic range, the span from loud to soft, was undermined by volume compression.

This is about Tim O'Brien's 16th album, but the first time he has gone it alone, after usually attracting some blue-chip players from Nashville to join him. In a way it was a courageous move, but he pulls it off superbly, and in the process, comes up with one his best albums, flying as it does with the essential ingredients: the fine writing and the great musicianship.

(c) Copyright 2008 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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