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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1630

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Susan Werner: Kicking the Beehive
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/16/2011)

A little more than 20 years ago, there was a revival of the singer-songwriter genre that happened in the wake of the commercial success of Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. It continues unabated to this day on the independent recording scene. Quite a few worthwhile artists emerged with recordings during that initial period, and of course, debut recording s by folkies continue to proliferate. Among the brightest lights of that so-called New Folk scene that appeared those two decades ago were John Gorka, Richard Shindell, Lyle Lovett and Susan Werner. These artists combined excellent writing, both lyrically and musically, with a sophisticated performing style and generally a great voice, keeping the literate acoustic texture of the 1960s folkies with an added musical dimension, without going into the slick sound the 1970s singer-songwriters.

Susan Werner has just released her latest CD called Kicking the Beehive, and she again reminds us why she is such a remarkable artist in the field.

An Iowa native, Susan Werner came East to college and settled in Philadelphia, where she began to attract attention in ever widening circles. Her combination of formal musical training, and articulate, sometimes witty lyrics, and the voice suitable for a jazz chanteuse made her an immediate standout in an increasingly crowded field. During the past several years, she has released what could be described as "concept albums," though that term may be a bit of an anathema for the fan of acoustic folkies. On her 2004 CD I Can't Be New Ms. Werner created a series of songs in the style of the great Tin Pan Alley composers, which really rang true, and also helped to spotlight her wonderful vocals. Next, on her 2007 release The Gospel Truth she did a collection of songs about various views of religion, including a kind of agnostic Gospel song. Her last recording in 2009 had her working with an orchestra.

For Kicking the Beehive she decided to get away from the concept albums and go back to a collection of individual songs. Now living in Chicago, Ms. Werner got some of her inspiration by taking a long car trip down the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans, and taking in the scenery, jamming in a club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and perhaps imagining characters inspired by the people she saw. She said that all she took was a paper notebook and a pen, leaving her computer at home, and just took notes the old-fashioned way.

With the collection of songs in hand, she went to Nashville to record, and enlisted veteran songwriter Rodney Crowell as producer. Crowell encouraged her to extend the back-to-the-basics approach to the recording technique -- laying down the songs played essentially in real time, with the vocals captured as the band, or sometimes just Ms. Werner played. Among the players are bassist Viktor Krauss, Alison Krauss' brother who often plays with Lyle Lovett, Keb Mo' who does some slide guitar and Vince Gill who also adds some guitar. The result is gem of an album that highlights what I think is a remarkable talent.

The title, Kicking the Beehive by the way comes from Ms. Werner's own tendency toward artistic restlessness. She quotes author Dale Carnegie as saying "If you want to gather honey, don't kick over the beehive." And the CD opens with the title song that channels the restless artist wanting to disturb things a little. It takes a bit of a rockabilly direction. <<>>

The CD takes a completely different lyrical direction on the following song Doctor Doctor, which examines the dilemmas and feelings learning that a loved one has received bad medical prognosis. <<>>

Along the same lines is My Different Son, in which the protagonist is the mother of an autistic or otherwise challenged child. Ms. Werner shows some of her jazz ballad side on the song. <<>>

Ms. Werner is not above a down-and-dirty rock and roll love song that gets right to the point. The track is called Red Dress, and Ms. Werner and the band give it the proper level of energy. <<>>

One of the most interesting songs that seems to have been inspired by Ms. Werner's road trip is The Last Words of Bonnie Parker. The Bonnie Parker in question is half of the notorious bandit duo of Bonnie and Clyde, and it takes the form of a tender love song. <<>>

Ms. Werner takes up the subject of homelessness poignantly on the song Sleeping on a Train, one of the lyrical highlights of the CD. <<>>

The jazzy side of Ms. Werner comes out again on another distinctive, and perhaps unexpected song, Botanical Greenery Blues, about a guy who presumably spends most of his time high on pot. <<>>

Ms. Werner's witty side is at its best on Irrelevance. It considers the dilemma and frustrations of an artist trying to make her mark in the world. <<>>

Susan Werner affirms her position as one of our finest contemporary singer-songwriters on her new CD Kicking the Beehive. Stepping away from the concept albums that she has been doing in recent years, the new recording touches an a lot of different topics, some of them rarely explored in song, and others shedding new light on familiar subjects. The Nashville recording venue for the project seeps in a little musically as does the roots-rock tendencies of producer Rodney Crowell. But Ms. Werner also shows various other of her musical facets. The result is definitely rockier in parts than some of her previous work, but it's tastefully handled. After all, she's out to kick the beehive. About my only complaint is that it times out at a rather short 38 minutes, though it has 11 songs.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B+. Perhaps it was because the vocals were recorded with the rest of the instruments, but the quality of Ms. Werner's wonderful voice is not captured particularly well. The vocal sound is flat, lacking in dynamics, a bit dark and seems at times to be trying to emulate the shortcomings of old analog recordings. Otherwise, the instrumental sound is decent.

Susan Werner's CD title suggests she may be out to mix things up and take some risks, and indeed she has taken a number of different musical turns during her nearly 20 year recording career. But once again, she has succeeded with another album that can stand as an example for aspiring singer-songwriters. She may have kicked the beehive, but she again delivers the honey.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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