Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Folkie Roundup: Damion Suomi, Ruthie Foster, Strands of Oaks

Damion Suomi – Damion Suomi

Damion Suomi’s self-titled debut album answers the question that nobody ever asked: What if Michael Stipe had moved to Dublin and joined The Pogues? Suomi, a Florida native with the R.E.M. frontman’s voice and Shane MacGowan’s sensibilities (no word on his teeth), writes desperate little ditties about drinking yourself to death and losing everything of value in your life. This is ragged roots music featuring guitars and fiddles, and it would probably go over well in a pub where the lubricated patrons could slosh their pints and sing along. And while there’s an undeniably visceral punch to these tracks, the relentless despair and nihilism gets old quickly. “San Francisco,” with its whomping drums and tale of relational dissolution, is a rousing singalong to divorce by reason of inebriation. But when the same tale is told ten more times, with only slight iterations, the effect is merely depressing. “Nobody’s gonna save your ass except for you,” Suomi sings near the end of the album. Wrong, Guinness breath. How’s that working out for you?

Ruthie Foster – Truth

Ruthie Foster has released several albums of tasteful blues and R&B, and she doesn’t vary her tested formula much on her latest album Truth. Possessing a marvelously supple, soulful voice that recalls Tracy Chapman, she reworks Otis Redding’s “Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)” and dresses it up with a reggae beat on “I Really Love You,” adds a Stax/Volt Memphis horns approximation on “Dues Paid in Full,” and cuts loose on “Joy on the Other Side,” which sounds like an old Blind Willie Johnson Delta hymn. But for the most part this is blues and R&B with the edges blunted. It’s a little too polished and NPR-ready for my tastes, but fans of Tracy Chapman’s early work or the ‘90s albums of Bonnie Raitt will find much to admire, if not love.

Strand of Oaks – Leave Ruin

Strands of Oaks is one-man band Timothy Showalter, a self-described Indiana Mennonite turned Pennsylvania Hebrew Dayschool teacher who drives a school bus for extra cash. Since I figured there weren’t all that many of those folks plying their trade at the open mic nights at the nearby college, I decided to give him a try. And I’m glad I did. Showalter reprises the fragile, quavering tenor of a neophyte Neil Young, and although it’s been done a thousand times before, he does it well. Album opener “End in Flames” is typical: a lament to lost love accompanied by gently plucked banjo. It’s the oldest trick in the world, but this is Showalter’s lost love, and he makes you feel the particular specificity of his sorrow and regret.


Anonymous said...

Hi there Andy,
I have read some of your reviews and I have to say, you're good. But I have to disagree about Damion Soumi's review. I don't think you're young enough to remember what these songs feel like. Does that make any sense? I don't think you remember being dumped or having a relationship not work out. I don't blame you, I don't either. And I noticed you didn't say anything about Darwin, Jesus the Devil and Me. With your self proclaimed struggle with religion in your bio, I thought you would really connect with this song. I just don't see anything wrong with Irish songs... with good vocals and great lyrics. I don't mean to tell you that you don't have any taste in music anymore. I just don't think there's anything wrong with going out on a Friday night, buying a GUINNESS, becoming a sloshed patron and singing your favorite songs. But that's just me and every other musician.

Andy Whitman said...

Well, you're certainly allowed to disagree with me. You're probably right; after 26 years of marriage it's tougher to relate to the "my baby left me and I'm going to get wasted" sentiments. But I remember those feelings, and those days, and I do try to stay alive to it, if for no other reason than I want to be able to relate to people who are really going through that hell. Some days I remember better than others.

I've spent a little more time with Damion's album, and my reaction has moderated somewhat. It's far from a bad album, and I really like a few of the songs. It's just that it's a very crowded field, and to make those sentiments work the songs really have to stand out. A few of Damion's do, a few more don't for me. But overall I like the rawness and the passion.