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(Signature Sounds 1286 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/8/2004)
The 1980s marked the begining of what has become a long-running revival of the singer-songwriter genre. It was the commercial success of Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman that paved the way for the current generation of artists who are remarkably numerous and have made the early years of the 21st Century the new golden age for such music, eclipsing, in my opinion, the output of the 1960s, speaking as one who goes back that far.
Ms. Vega and Ms. Chapman also helped to usher in a awareness of women as practitioners of singer-songwriter-ism. In fact, when such artists were signed, for a brief period at the time, to the major record companies, most of them were women, like Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith. And it's nice to see that the genre has become more of an equal-opportunity employer, much more so than, say rock or instrumental jazz. While women such as Susan Werner, Gillian Welch and Lori McKenna, remain some of the brightest lights in the field, recently, a yet a newer generation of male singer-songwriters is emerging and keeping the keeping the field creatively active. Among the notable new artists appearing in the last couple of years are Jake Armerding, Slaid Cleaves, and Jim Gilmour.
This week, we have another outstanding recording, in this case, by a Midwestern transplant based in Massachusetts, who evokes the Texas singer-songwriter tradition, Jeffrey Foucault. His impressive new CD, his first with national distribution, is called Stripping Cane.
Jeffrey Foucault grew up in Wisconsin, becoming serious about music at age 17, borrowing his father's guitar, and playing and singing along with old John Prine records. His biography admits to his having stolen a copy of the late Townes Van Zandt's Live and Obscure from a friend, which no doubt opened a path to the Texas singer-songwriter appoach. Foucault attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but ended up quitting school to work as a farm-hand and carpenter, and during that time took to writing songs. After travelling around for while, he settled in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, not far from where he grew up, and where he performed regularly in a coffeehouse. In 2001 he released his debut CD, called Miles from the Lightning, independently. He recently moved to Western, Massachusetts after his marriage, and settled into the prolific Bay State music scene. He has been attracting critical and fan attention, and invited to tour with such well-known artists as Chris Smither and Gillian Welch. He also has performed as part of a trio of singer-songwriters called Redbird with Peter Mulvey and Kris Delmhorst.
The new CD Stripping Cane, Foucault says, in the first time he worked with a producer, in this case David "Goody" Goodrich, who also produced Chris Smither and Peter Mulvey. The result is a surprisingly intimate, rootsy acoustic sound, which fits very well with Foucault's slightly gruff but friendly vocals, and his often subtle, allegorical lyrics.
On his new CD, Jeffrey Foucault bears a striking sonic resemblance to storied Texas singer-songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey. Ramsey has the distinctive reputation of making one absolutely brilliant album while still in his teens 30 years ago, and then never making another one, despite remaining musically active. Foucault's songs tend to be more subtle lyrically, but the relaxed pack-porch sound of the CD, and Foucault's vocal style are very evocative of Ramsey's work. He as also been compared to Kelly Joe Phelps.
On the CD, as mentioned, the backing instrumentation is very scaled-back, usually just another guitar or two, played by producer Goodrich. Also appearing are Anita Suhanin and Foucault's occasional bandmate Peter Mulvey on the backing vocals. Though he is currently based in Massachusetts, most of his songs have evoke the kind of wide-open places of his Midwest upbringing.
Typical is the opening track called Cross of Flowers, an introspective song of homecoming, that beautifully captures the bittersweet spirit of going back home after having a life elsewhere. <<>>
Another nicely executed piece is Mayfly which has a real "picking-in-the-living-room" sound. The song celebrates the ephemeral nature of life. <<>>
The title track Stripping Cane is described by Foucault as being about the "idea of prying sweetness from an unforgiving source." The piece is imbued with the atmospheric sound that is a kind of motif through much of the CD. <<>>
There is a story song, served as kind of Appalachian murder ballad. Doubletree tells the tale of a horseback accident that kills the protagonist's best friend. <<>>
Foucault writes a historical song called Pearl-Handled Pistol, which is set in the circus in which Buffalo Bill Cody performed. <<>>
Also evoking the loneliness of the plains is a Northbound 35, which is given a country touch with the steel guitar played by Kevin Barry. <<>>
Foucault includes one unexpected cover tune, a kind of old-timey country version of the Creedence Clearwater Revival tune Lodi. It works surprisingly well. <<>>
The CD opens with a song about a homecoming. Foucault ended his CD with a song about leaving, Every New Leaf Over. It has the qualities of an old hymn with its simple melodic line. <<>>
Jeffrey Foucault's new CD Stripping Cane is an exceptionally fine recording by yet another of the many outstanding up-and-coming singer-songwriters on the scene. I find it a particularly pleasing and memorable CD with its intimate, understated sound, Foucault's relaxed vocals, and his highly literate songs that reveal more of themselves on each successive listen.
Our sonic grade for the recording is almost an "A." The intimate, mostly acoustic sound of the CD is nicely captured with a fairly decent dynamic range. My one quibble is with an occasional bit of distortion on the lead vocals, sounding like an artifact of recording on analogue tape. But overall, it's a model for sonic clarity.
Texas songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey made only one album back in 1974, and generations of music fans have been clamoring for him to make another for almost 30 years. Jeffrey Foucault has distinguished himself as a force to be reckoned with on his new CD. It's also the closest thing to a new Willis Alan Ramsey recording you're likely to encounter.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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