Giving the gift of music is certainly a Christmas thing to do. At least it's certainly one of the easiest gift ideas for the holiday season: Hop down to the record store, pick out something on the current Top 10 list and instantly you've fulfilled a yule obligation.
And with new albums by superstars like Steve Winwood, Madonna, Phil Collins, the Traveling Wilburys and Whitney Houston, there seems to be plenty for just about any taste.But destined to get lost in the holiday shuffle are two of the year's finest releases: new albums by populist rocker Darden Smith and acclaimed folkman John McCutcheon.
Each is a four-star offering, rich in melody, lyrical substance and social relevance. And, sadly, neither can be found anywhere in the Billboard Top 200, which is to say the music will die in relative obscurity.DARDEN SMITH; "Trouble No More" (Columbia). * * * *
While Darden Smith is not exactly a newcomer (he released the critically acclaimed "Evidence" last year with Boo Hewerdine), his "Trouble No More" marks a coming out, of sorts, that establishes the Austin singer-songwriter as a force to be reckoned with.
This is powerful music that explores everything from emotional scars to religious doubt to personal introspection. These are not, of course, new topics. But the way Smith delivers them certainly is.
To liken Darden Smith to anyone else is grossly unfair; he isn't like anyone else, though he obviously blends several influences. He has the populist rock appeal of a John Cougar Mellencamp and an acoustic poetry akin to that of fellow Texan Nanci Griffith. He has vocal similarities to a Jackson Browne, and lyrically, he is somewhat reminiscent of a coherent Graham Nash.
But what makes "Trouble No More" so engaging is Smith's blend of all those elements, particularly the lyrics, in a self-revealing sort of way (he insists it is not autobiographical) that grows stronger each time through. They are the kind of songs that get you thinking, "I know exactly what he's saying" or "I've felt that way before."
They are not necessarily happy songs or love songs. They are songs about how people really feel: the doubt, the frustration, the love that binds people together beyond the simple words.
Best among the 11 tracks is the acoustic "Fall Apart at the Seams," an anguished commentary on someone who seemingly has everything, only to lose it all searching for something he doesn't - or can never - have. And are we really the people we appear to be?
"I spent most of my life trying to wear another man's clothes/the collar's too tight and the shoes they hurt my soul/I got a closet full of nightmares in the style of your wildest dream/and nothing seems to fit me anymore/I fall apart at the seams."
There's "Midnight Train," a poignant commentary on a restless 21-year-old with "a kid in the crib and another one on the way/I'd lie awake and listen for that midnight train/sound like my little boy callin' out your name."
And there's sense of religious reconciliation on "Ashes to Ashes" when he sings, "preacher, preacher make me whole, undo the damage and save my soul/I've lied and I've cheated/I marked my cards/gave into temptation/boys it wasn't that hard." Then on "2000 Years," there's a sense of theological doubt with phrases like "answer my prayer, if there's anyone up there" and "I have to know/do you love me or no/blessed be the one/who dares to stand alone."
Said Smith of the album, "It's about struggle, people trying to get over it, around it, through it, and coming out the other side. Everybody I know goes through periods where it feels like life is just pounding you down. You just have to get up every day, put your clothes on and get through it. That's what it's about, moving through the darkness."
Maybe "Trouble No More" (Columbia) won't make the Billboard Top 10. But it certainly deserves to be among the year's 10 best.JOHN McCUTCHEON; "What It's Like" (Rounder). * * * *
Another that deserves top billing is John McCutcheon, an anti-establishment folk-rocker (a lot more folk than rock) whose songs reflect the traditional folk roots of Woodie Guthrie or Pete Seeger. They are songs about working men and women fighting to survive in a world that is anything but fair.
Like Darden Smith, McCutcheon's songs are comprised of powerful lyrics woven around exceptional melodies, and the result of "What It's Like" is simply unforgettable. Unlike Darden Smith, McCutcheon sings working-people songs and gettin'-by songs.
Like the long-haul trucker song "Cup of Coffee," in which he laments, "It's a cup of coffee down the road/A heavy heart and a heavy load/The lines, the lights, the red-eyed nights/The troubles I can't lose/Just pulling loads and pulling time/In younger days would suit me fine/But now the aches, the age, the burning rage/Lie smoldering like a fuse."
And there's an inexplicable morbid appeal to the title track on which he sings, "Do you know what it's like to work in there?/Oh you start snatchin' guts and scrapin' hair/And close calls, sure I've had a few/Each month you figure one or two/But you punch the clock and you give what's due/And you learn more about Spam than you wish you knew."
There are songs about farmers, factory workers and those without jobs or homes. But not all McCutcheon's songs are downers. There are also songs about family and love and even a heartwarming story of a boy who loves the plow horse, even after his productive days are through and Dad wants to send him to a factory.
While the album as a whole may lack a certain commercial appeal, McCutcheon's throaty vocals are a perfect marriage with the workin'-man lyrics (much the same way John Hiatt's material is suited to his style). Backing vocals by fellow folksinger Mary Chapin Carpenter soften the edge on several cuts, but the magic of McCutcheon is as much in his delivery as in its content.
For folk fans, it just doesn't get any better.