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(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/22/2010)
There are a lot of veteran artists who manage to stay "under the radar" on the general pop music scene, yet continue to do outstanding work that wins critical acclaim, and often attracts other performers as fans. A prime example is Dana Cooper, whose new CD is called The Conjurer.
A recording artist for going on 40 years, Dana Cooper first started performing in Kansas City when he was sixteen. Passing up a college scholarship, he went out on the road touring and settled in Los Angeles, where he signed with Elektra Records, who released his debut album in 1973. Cooper had a musical association with Shake Russell for a number of years and did five joint albums, and appeared together on Public TV's Austin City Limits. Cooper settled in Nashville in 1978, and has been releasing recordings every few years and touring almost constantly. He has developed a good following in Europe. And he also numbers among his fans other songwriters who have recorded some of his compositions, including Pierce Pettis, Maura O'Connell, Susan Werner and Clair Lynch. Lyle Lovett made a guest appearance on one of his previous CDs.
Dana Cooper is a kind of old-fashioned singer-songwriter, in the best sense. His songs are always lyrically astute, with almost every one having a great turn of phrase. The music is melodic, and Cooper himself has a great voice with a particularly wide range. He's also a fine guitar player.
Since his last CD, Made of Mud, which we also featured in this review series in 2006, Cooper decided for this recording to have a more scaled-back production with a more live feel. Cooper said that most of the tracks were second or third takes. He brought in as a co-producer Thomm Jutz, who is known for his work as guitarist with Nanci Griffith's touring band, as well as Ms. Griffith's drummer Pat McInerney. But there are a couple of tracks on the CD that are just Cooper himself with his guitar. From the copyright dates, one sees that these songs go back a number of years -- one of them to 1974. While his last album Made of Mud had as a kind of lyrical theme encouragement for people to come together, the new CD The Conjurer has a couple of commentaries on the larger world, including lyrics written from a contemporary soldier's standpoint. But the majority consists of songs that consider relationships -- about the oldest songwriting topic in the book, but Cooper manages to address it in an intelligent, original way lyrically.
The opening track called Enough illustrates the high-quality singer-songwriter direction of the album. There's a kind of underlying acoustic-guitar-strumming, harmonica-playing folky quality to the sound, while Cooper comes up with some great lyrics that uses the word "enough" to consider carrying various parts of one's life -- from work to love -- to their conclusion. <<>>
Back in September, we reviewed a CD by John McVey, called Unpredictable, which featured a two songs either written or co-written by Dana Cooper -- another example of Cooper's music being covered by capable songwriters. One of them was Leave a Little Mark. We hear Cooper's own version here, which is a bit more produced than some of the other songs on CD. It's still very tasteful and a fine song. <<>>
One of the solo performances is Orphan Army a song about a soldier, written in 2006. It makes reference to the Iraq war. <<>>
Also on the subject of solders and war is Straight into the Guns, presumably about the professionalism of a soldier fighting under difficult circumstances. It's a tune also written during the height of the Iraq war.
Cooper includes a song he wrote in 1974, called Leo and Lucille a kind of a classic tale of a hooker and a cowboy who got together. <<>>
One of the most appealing songs on the album is I'm Gonna Give It Away, a love song with something of a reggae beat. <<>>
Dana Cooper's writing is replete with clever lyrical lines. Big Foot Down is one of his best in that respect, performed in a rather bluesy context. <<>>
One of the more distinctive tracks on The Conjurer is Jesse James. The lyrics also look at a relationship in an original way, while there is an Indian tabla and tamboura, plus a fiddle. And the six-and-half-minute tune gets into something of a jam toward the end. <<>>
Dana Cooper's new CD The Conjurer got its title from its artwork, for about the first time after most of Cooper's CDs were named after a song they contained. It's an all-around fine album that personifies the craft of the singer-songwriter -- excellent songs both lyrically and musically, great singing and tasteful production and classy musicianship. Cooper has been doing this kind of thing for a long time now, and it's interesting that the collection of songs on the CD span quite a few years, with a song he wrote from 1974, one from the 1980s and the more contemporary material, written since his last CD Made of Mud from 2005. It's little wonder that other songwriters capable of their own worthy material will choose to cover a tune by Dana Cooper.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The mix is nicely done with no unnecessary studio effects, helping to convey the more spontaneous nature of the recording process. But the dynamic range, as usual, is restricted by unnecessary volume compression.
There is much to be said for music that stands the test of time. And that is certainly the case with the singer-songwriter style when it's in the capable hands of someone who is as experienced as Dana Cooper, who has been doing this sort of thing almost from the emergence of the style, and through his relatively infrequent releases, still staying at the top of his game.
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