Meg Baird - "No Song to Sing" (Oh Michael, Look What You’Äôve)
There have been so many mediocre-to-horrible tribute records that this review must start with a plea: do not tune out right away, because this one is the exception to the rule that such projects are a waste of time. It starts off with a strong subject — septuagenarian English singer-guitarist Michael Chapman, who has been recording for more than 40 years and is in the midst of a late-career renaissance. But how many such records have you heard where performers you kind of like turn in decent but un-illuminating renditions of songs you love? How many more where players that you don’t like “reinvent” songs so cluelessly that you want to call the cops? Either way, they drive you back to the originals, chastened and wishing you hadn’t wasted your time straying from them in the first place. It takes more than a good subject to make a tribute album worth hearing, and while this one isn’t perfect, parts of it beg to be played over and over.
It comes down to a fortuitous blend of empathy for the material, canny interpretive skills, and the essential user-friendliness of Chapman’s songs. He’s often been characterized as a folksinger, mainly because of his penchant for playing alone with a guitar. But his roots are really in jazz and blues; his choice to perform solo has been a matter of practicality and simplified logistics. His songs are sturdy, useful things, like well-made tools that fit well into any craftsman’s hand. And like said tools, they’re good for enabling someone else to get the job done, a point exemplified by D. Charles Speer and the Helix’s take on “Expressway in the Rain.” Chapman wrote this lamentation of mid-tour loneliness in the early 70s, but he could have written it about the Helix, who have put in plenty of road time over the past few years. The tightness they’ve acquired on the road certainly shows in the effortless fluency of their honky-tonk take on the tune, but it also sounds like they really feel it — all of it. Chapman is too plainspoken to make too much of his misfortune, and you get the feeling that after a meal, a snooze, and a phone call from home, he’ll be just fine. Likewise, the cheer in Speer and Co.’s uptempo playing registers just as strongly as the blues in the words. These are songs made for other people to inhabit, and performances like this one raise the question why more people haven’t done so already.
The compilers made some especially apposite choices of female singers. Chapman’s delivery tends to be a bit gruff and reserved. By contrast Meg Baird, Maddy Prior and Bridget St. John plumb their songs for impressive depths of longing, sorrow, and bittersweet remembrance, touching points on the affective compass that the composer can only point toward. It’s worth noting that each of them sounds absolutely like themselves, and not particularly like Chapman. Only Lucinda Williams didn’t get the memo; she sings a bit too much like he does, and as a consequence I’d rather hear him than her. But I’d still rather listen to her than the record’s one out-right dud, which is by Chapman’s old bassist Rick Kemp. “Vanity And Pride” is a catalog of guitar sounds that really should have stayed in the past, and Kemp’s strained voice compares unfavorably with Chapman’s own.
Lately, Chapman’s picking has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention on the heels of a couple of all-instrumental releases, but that hand is not overplayed here. The solo guitar performances by Nick Jonah Davis and William Tyler are both quite strong, capturing by turns the mystery and amiability in Chapman’s own playing. But it’s the Black Twig Pickers who take the prize by turning “Life on the Ceiling” into a jaunty Appalachian amble. Title be damned, it sounds like an invitation to head outside and get some mud on your boots. Since Chapman is a long-time country dweller who by his own confession spent much of his tour with the Twigs’ pal Jack Rose spotting piles of wood he wanted to chop up, I imagine he’d appreciate the sentiment.