Thursday , September 23 2021

Music Reviews: ‘Girl from the North Country’ Soundtrack, plus Explorer Tapes, Oregon, Sierra Ferrell, and Ben Bostick

When Bob Dylan saw Girl from the North Country on Broadway right before the pandemic temporarily closed the show, he was bowled over by the performance, which draws all its music from his catalog. “The play had me crying at the end,” he told journalist Douglas Brinkley in a New York Times interview last year. “When the curtain came down, I was stunned. Too bad Broadway shut it down because I wanted to see it again.”

You don’t have to see Girl from the North Country yourself to understand what must have been one big reason for his enthusiasm; just listen to the newly available studio-recorded soundtrack CD. The vocal performances by the show’s cast, which is dominated by people who are either little-known or known primarily as actors, are superb without exception. So are the musicians (who use only instruments that were available in the 1930s, the time when the play is set). Finally, the arrangements and orchestrations by British composer and musician Simon Hale (working with Irish show director Conor McPherson) are uniformly brilliant. Many of them represent radical departures from Dylan’s originals, yet they manage to reflect the spirit of his recordings while adding major new shades of meaning and emotion. 

Even casual Dylan fans will be familiar with at least some of the inspired song selections. Highway 61 Revisited‘s “Like a Rolling Stone” is here, for example, as are Desire’s “Hurricane,” which Dylan wrote with Jacques Levy, Nashville Skyline’s “Lay, Lady Lay” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You”; and such often-covered numbers as the title track, which first appeared on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; “Forever Young,” from Planet Waves; “All Along the Watchtower,” from John Wesley Harding; “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” from The Basement Tapes; and “Make You Feel My Love,” from Time Out of Mind

But the program also embraces less-known compositions, including two from Saved (“What Can I Do for You?” and “Pressing On”) and three from the seriously underrated Street-Legal (“True Love Tends to Forget,” “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” and “Is Your Love in Vain?”). Also here are “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy,” both from New Morning, another under-appreciated album and one that Dylan originally wrote for an off-Broadway play. (The songs ultimately didn’t find their way into that show.)

Rounding out the program are Empire Burlesque’s “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)”; Slow Train Coming’s “Slow Train,” Blonde on Blonde’s “I Want You,” and Highway 61 Revisited’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”; “Blind Willie McTell,” from The Bootleg Series Vols. 1–3; “Jokerman,” “Sweetheart Like You,” and “License to Kill” from Infidels; “Idiot Wind” from Blood on the Tracks; and Tempest’s “Duquesne Whistle,” which Dylan wrote with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. 

You might wonder how director McPherson managed to insert some of the soundtrack’s more topical numbers, such as “Hurricane,” into a play set in a Duluth, Minnesota guesthouse in 1934. As he says in the liner notes, he “realized that Bob Dylan’s lyrics were so universal, you could almost use them anywhere. It seemed to me that any character in any play could turn to the audience and start singing a Bob Dylan song—and it would somehow make sense.” You’ll likely see what he means after listening to this soundtrack—and you’ll also understand how the cast can pull off some of the improbable pairings in its medleys, such as the one that weds “Hurricane,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Idiot Wind” and the one that melds “Lay, Lady, Lay” to “Jokerman.”

In any case, these recordings are a revelation—some of the best cover versions ever of songs by a writer who has previously been covered ad infinitum. Among the many high points: a slowed-down “I Want You,” a duet by Colton Ryan and Caitlin Houlahan that puts much more emphasis on passion than did the Blonde on Blonde original; a joyous version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”; and Kimber Elayne Sprawl’s “Idiot Wind,” which is more mournful and less mean-spirited than Dylan’s reading. And oh my, you’ve got to hear Todd Almond’s head-turning a capella opening to “Duquesne Whistle.”

Good luck trying to pick a favorite among this soundtrack’s 22 selections. Girl from the North Country delivers a thoroughly magical hour of music, one that will leave you in awe of the performers and the show’s creators. Should you somehow need a reminder of just how monumental a songwriter Dylan is, this album will deliver that, too.

Also Noteworthy

Explorer TapesExplorer TapesBack around 2014, Max Townsley and Drew Erickson, aka Explorer Tapes, appeared to be experiencing a good-luck streak. Having started a band in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, they drove to L.A., signed a publishing deal, and wrote songs for other artists, including Keith Urban. Then the group scored a recording contract with the Warner label, which paired them with producer Mike Elizondo, whose credits included such popular acts as Carrie Underwood and Fiona Apple. And with Elizondo’s help, they quickly recorded a debut album in January 2015.

So far so good. But then for a variety of reasons, including personnel changes at Warner, the record sat in the vaults for more than six years. It has finally been released this month on a CD that includes two bonus tracks.

Explorer Tapes is pop-rock at its best—beautifully sung, consistently melodic, imaginatively produced, and loaded with hooks and ear-candy tweaks. There’s not a bad song on the album but highlights include “Change Looks Good on You,” where Explorer Tapes sound a lot like Squeeze; “Texas Time,” the number Urban covered; the dreamy “Julia”; and “Kids These Days,” a ballad that pairs a heartfelt vocal to piano backup.

That a record this good could sit in the can for this long is rather amazing. Whoever’s responsible for that deserves to be fired.

OregonOregon – 1974I was lucky enough to see Oregon play live in 1974 at New York’s little Café Wha (where I interviewed them after their late-night show), so I can attest to how good they were back then. But don’t take my word for it: check out this two-CD, nearly two-hour set, which captures a performance recorded that same year in Bremen, Germany. The nine selections, all but two of which clock in at more than 10 minutes, leave no doubt that Oregon’s music is among the most adventurous and fascinating in all modern jazz.

The consummate performances incorporate Indian and classical music elements and build stunning, seemingly improvisational soundscapes from Paul McCandless’s reeds, Glen Moore’s bass, Colin Walcott’s percussion instruments, and the guitars of Ralph Towner, who wrote all the selections. Highlights include greatly expanded versions of the title track from 1973’s Distant Hills and that album’s “Canyon Song” and “Dark Spirit.” 

Sierra FerrellLong Time Coming“I want my music to be like my mind is—all over the place,” says West Virginia-bred Sierra Ferrell, and so it is. Thanks, perhaps, to the influence of multiple-Grammy-winning co-producer Gary Paczosa, who is known for his work with artists like Dolly Parton and Allison Krauss, this impressive debut album seems rooted in bluegrass and traditional country. But Ferrell, who wrote or co-wrote all the material, recognizes no boundaries. One minute she recalls singers like Parton; the next, she manages to evoke the likes of Amy Winehouse. 

“At the End of the Rainbow,” which employs such instruments as clarinet and trombone, is Dixieland jazz, while the mournful “West Virginia Waltz,” with Jerry Douglas guesting on dobro and lap steel, sounds like classic Appalachian country. “The Sea” is moody jazz, while “Jeremiah” is a bright albeit lyrically downbeat Americana number flavored with mandolin and banjo. On “Far Away Across the Sea” and the accordion-spiced “Why’d Ya Do It,” Ferrell even flirts with tango. Throughout, the elastic, self-assured vocal work by the now Nashville-based singer is the star of the show.

Ben BostickGrown Up Love. Sometimes the hardest real-life experiences can provide fodder for the best songs. Just ask Bob Dylan—or folk singer/songwriter Ben Bostick, who composed this poignant collection of love songs to try to boost his wife’s spirits and his own in a year that delivered both a pandemic and devastating personal news: their elder daughter was found to have Rett Syndrome, a rare and severe genetic disorder. 

Given the context, it’s understandable that some of the tunes, such as “The Diagnosis,” exude melancholy and sadness; but even that song finds Bostick singing that “hope will light our way on the darkest of our days.” And most of the other numbers, such as “Lucky Us” and “If We Only Had Tonight,” are remarkably upbeat. Clearly, Bostick is a guy who knows how to count his blessings. 

He also knows how to make memorable music. Featuring emotive lyrics and striking vocals that recall Tom Pacheco, this collection confirms what Bostick’s three earlier CDs suggested: he deserves a much wider audience. 

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About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's 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.

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