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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1756

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Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore: Love Runner
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/29/2014)

Lately, it seems that there are more family bands emerging, groups including siblings, or spouses or even parents and children. Among the groups we have featured on this review series recently are the Oak Creek Band and Barnaby Bright both led by spouses, and Trampled Under Foot, a blues band of three siblings. Of course family bands go back a long way.

This week we have another family act, but whose members have been on the music scene for quite a while. They are spouses Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore, and their new CD is called Love Runner.

Mollie O'Brien has making music in a family situation for most of her life. A native of West Virginia, she is the older sister of Tim O'Brien, who was a founding member of the Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rise, and who over the years has become a prolific songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in Nashville. We reviewed Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott's joint CD Memories and Moments last fall. After spending some time in New York, trying to break into the business there, and getting into jazz, Mollie O'Brien followed her brother to Colorado, where she has remained. Starting in the late 1980s, Tim and Mollie O'Brien made three fine albums together. With Tim in Nashville, they have not been working together so much in recent years.

In 1981, Ms. O'Brien began working with Rich Moore, primarily known as a bass player, and after a couple of years, they married, and have been marital and frequently musical partners since then. Ms. O'Brien is also known to Public Radio listeners for her regular appearances on A Prairie Home Companion in the early 2000s as a member of the Hopeful Gospel Quartet with Garrison Keillor, and another couple, Robin and Linda Williams.

Love Runner is O'Brien and Moore's second studio album together. They also released a live album first. Recorded in Colorado, Love Runner is a nice collection of songs from various composers, including three originals, done in an easy-going mostly acoustic setting that reflects the folk, jazz and blues influence that has shaped the pair. Ms. O'Brien in the singer, and Moore is the guitarist and occasionally backing vocalist. And Ms. O'Brien's vocals are as impressive as ever. Her formal training and jazz experience are apparent in her great phrasing and occasionally soaring range that nevertheless has a relaxed feel. Like the best of jazz-influenced players, Ms. O'Brien can make the hard stuff sound easy.

If there is a kind of lyrical theme to the album it's that of home and location. There are songs from the late Dave Van Ronk, the traditional folksinger Hazel Dickens, Tom Paxton, Randy Newman, Chris Smither; one from Ms. O'Brien's Hopeful Gospel Quartet colleagues, Robin and Linda Williams, plus the two originals and one very original treatment of a traditional song.

Leading off is the Dave Van Ronk song, Sunday Street, which has the bluesy ragtime sound that was featured in the last joint O'Brien-Moore album. The small band assembled for the session, produced by Eric Thorin, has just the right sound for this kind of approach. <<>>

Continuing on the theme of place and home is the Chris Smither composition Train Home. The guitar lines keep the essential instrumental texture that is Chris Smither's trademark, but Ms. O'Brien's high, clear and powerful vocals are light years from Smither's gruff, bluesy mumble. <<>>

The first of the original songs also continues on the lyrical theme. It's an autobiographical piece called Went Back Home with a light-hearted swingy feel with the added whimsical element of a musical saw. <<>>

The other of the original songs is bluesier. The title track Love Runner is one of those love songs that doesn't beat around the bush. In this case, it's a car that could serve as the venue. <<>>

Randy Newman is always good for songs about people with less than perfect motives. His song Suzanne, not to be confused with the Leonard Cohen song of the same name, is a somewhat creepy love song, perhaps written from the standpoint of a stalker. <<>>

The closest thing to a folk-style song on the album is the Tom Paxton composition Central Square, and it's very nicely done. <<>>

The traditional song that O'Brien and Moore adapted is Don't Let the Devil Ride, to which they give a kind of swampy blues feel. Ms. O'Brien's vocals are particularly fine on this one. <<>>

The theme of home and place is nowhere expressed more directly than on the old Hazel Dickens song West Virginia, My Home, which they perform with appropriate musical nostalgia. <<>>

Love Runner the new CD by Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore is an outstanding, mostly acoustic album by a couple of long-time artists who also have been married to each other for nearly 30 years. This second studio project by O'Brien and Moore and their understated band, provides a nice cross-section of music from composers, well-known and otherwise, and some original material that fits into the caliber of the rest of the music. Ms. O'Brien's often-soaring, technically impressive but easy-going vocals are the center of this pleasing and very tasteful record. The arrangements are wider-ranging than one might expect if one was thinking this would be a folk album, but the sound it not dissimilar to their last joint album in 2010.

Our grade for sound quality is about a "B." The acoustic instrumentation was handled well and the mix put things in the right perspective. But with the usual mindless attempts to compete in the CD loudness wars, the recording was volume-compressed to make everything needlessly loud, and the clarity and dynamics of Ms. O'Brien's vocals were undermined in the process.

Unlike many family bands, Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore don't sing together much on their new CD. Their musical partnership is not one of vocal harmonies -- she sings, he plays -- but Ms. O'Brien's vocals more than make up for that. Their collaboration nevertheless results in a fine record that has the kind of sympathetic musical feeling that the best of family bands show.

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