By Jeff Burger
Steve Forbert, Early Morning Rain. This is Steve Forbert’s first album of covers since Any Old Time, his 2002 tribute to Jimmy Rodgers. Here, he casts a wider net, featuring 11 of his favorite folk and rock compositions by a motley assortment of writers. The uniformly excellent program—which mostly spotlights well-known material but incorporates a few relative obscurities—is indicative of Forbert’s diverse tastes. In addition to the classic Gordon Lightfoot title cut, it includes such numbers as Elton John’s “Your Song,” Bob Dylan’s “Dignity,” Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” Danny O’Keefe’s “Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues,” the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain,” and Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon.”
Forbert doesn’t dramatically change the arrangements of any of these tunes, but he doesn’t have to: his voice is so distinctive that he can make a song his own even by delivering it pretty much as it was originally conceived. Forbert—whose own compositions have been widely covered—writes as evocatively as he sings, so I hope we’ll see another new album of original material before long. Meanwhile, I’m happy to have these heartfelt performances.
Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton, Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton. In October 1962, as the American folk music revival burgeoned, the now legendary singer and flatpicking guitarist Doc Watson performed two New York City gigs with his fiddle-playing father-in-law, Gaither Carlton, one at the NYU School of Education and another at Blind Lemon’s, a Greenwich Village club. This album, which consists largely of previously unreleased material, preserves 15 numbers culled from those shows, among them such well-known traditional songs as “Corinna,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and “Billy in the Low Ground.”
This is old-timey music, with lots of lively interplay between Watson (who plays banjo as well as guitar) and Carlton. Says Peter Siegel, who recorded the shows: “These recordings were made at a particular time in Doc’s career when…he couldn’t get arrested with this music in his hometown…You can hear his surprise and happiness that the audience is responding [enthusiastically].”
The Nine Seas, Dream of Me. Fiona McBain and Liz Tormes, who have performed together on and off for two decades, join forces on this atmospheric debut album. which boasts gorgeous vocal work and sparingly employed guitar, banjo, piano, and orchestration. The program incorporates several originals, such as the jazzy, horn-spiced album opener, “Am I Still Your Demon?” Imaginatively reworked country standards predominate, however. Among them: the traditional “I Never Will Marry,” Charlie Rich’s “Midnight Blues,” and Boudleaux Bryant and Chet Atkins’s “Midnight.”
Don’t look for a lot of cheeriness in the lyrics, whose subjects range from heartbreak to murder, but don’t worry: the music is more than enough to keep you smiling. Imagine a cross between the dreamy early 1960s pop of groups like the Paris Sisters (“I Love How You Love Me”) and the otherworldly sound of Julee Cruise (who was featured in the Twin Peaks soundtrack).
Scott Ellison, Skyline Drive. Like most or all of its predecessors, this latest album from veteran Tulsa, Oklahoma–based guitarist Scott Ellison is blues rock, with the emphasis on rock. Ellison, who cowrote most of the songs with co-lead vocalist Chris Campbell, throws in a country blues–flavored acoustic number (“Woman Got a Hold on Me”). Mostly, though, he turns up the amps and delivers performances like the propulsive guitar rave-up “Overwhelmed,” and “Breath [sic] Underwater,” both of which could be mistaken for tracks on a John Hiatt CD. (That’s a compliment.)
Hawk, Fly. Los Angeles-based David Hawkins, who records as Hawk, is back with a high-energy follow-up to 2018’s excellent Bomb Pop. This time around, Hawkins’s supporting players include Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas, the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, and Mott the Hoople keyboardist Morgan Fisher.
As titles like “I Still Want You” and “She’s an Angel” suggest, most of these up-tempo numbers are love songs, but Hawkins makes room for “Truth to Power,” a jab at the Trump Administration. Also notable are tracks like “She’s an Angel,” which Hawkins has said attempts to capture the “thin wild mercury sound” of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde but which strikes me as being more like a high-tech, power-pop descendant of the Byrds’ catalog.
Holy Hive, Float Back to You. Holy Hive—a Brooklyn, New York–based trio consisting of singer/guitarist Paul Spring, drummer Homer Steinweiss, and bassist Joe Harrison—bill their music as folk/soul. That makes sense, given the way they blend acoustic guitar, Spring’s falsetto, and judicious use of horn instruments by assorted guest musicians. (Additional backup includes vibraphone, synthesizer, harp, flute, piano, and organ.) Their mellow debut album includes 10 originals, plus sweet covers of an Irish folk tune (“Red Is the Rose”) and a song by a 60s U.K. pop group (Honeybus’s “Be Thou by My Side”).
The record is auspicious, albeit not quite a home run: at times, the music may strike you as a bit enervated, and you may wish for more variation in tempo. That said, there are more than a few amiable tracks here, and especially after seeing a video of the group in live performance, I’m looking forward to hearing what transpires on their sophomore release.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.