Rod MacDonald,
Into the Blue
(Gadfly, 1999)

A former mainstay of the New York folk scene, Rod MacDonald relocated a few years ago to the sunnier shores of Florida, and Into the Blue is his first record since moving there. Not only the album cover (MacDonald sunbathing on the beach) shows the distinctive influence of his new home, but also the music has a much more relaxed, if not lazy feel to it.

MacDonald has always seemed to me to be someone who was more of a craftsman than a natural talent, someone who had to labour really hard to make his music come together. But he did work hard, and that was why his music had such considerable appeal.

He was always more a songwriter than a singer; not surprisingly, his songs often shone brightest when done by others. Still, MacDonald's voice is warm and far from unpleasant; it's an average voice.

But, having traded urban New York for Florida's beaches, his music has changed quite a bit. He sounds less intense, less city-like. He's become mellow instead.

MacDonald, who plays kalimba, harmonica and acoustic guitar, is clearly still a devotee of the early Bob Dylan/Jack Hardy school of music, but he's trying hard to bring more of an easygoing Jimmy Buffett approach into his sound. He plays now more on the quiet side, with lots of harmonies, congas and soft keyboards, and no electric guitars to speak of. And, sadly, the beautiful violin of his last album is gone completely.

Some of the tunes come and go like a summer breeze. It makes MacDonald's music even easier to listen to, but, on the other hand, once you're through with listening, there's not that much that remains. His focus on words over music seems to be shifting as well. Florida has become a primary topic for him, and I have no idea whether his song "I Have No Problem With This," in which he tells us how glad he is to be down in the Sunshine State, was meant to be ironic or not.

Much better is "Days Of Rain," which deals with the darkness on the horizon -- not only the weather, but also the crumbling of society. Easily the best song on the album, it contains the whole of MacDonald's heart and artistry.

The other highlight is "Six Strings & A Whole Big & Round," where MacDonald admits that his favourite sound is still the one from his old guitar -- "You may call me a cliche / but who cares what you say / you weren't there when this was going on" -- that is where MacDonald hits it on the spot. Old-fashioned or not, cliche or not, he should stick to doing what he is best at -- not songs that celebrate life under the sunny skies of Florida, but engaging and heartfelt songs about love and other important issues.

Into the Blue is not a bad CD, but at best it is uneven. MacDonald may be a happier man living in Florida, but his music has suffered somewhat; he no longer seems to put in the same relentless effort he once did. It remains to be seen which path his music will take in the future.

[ by Michael Gasser ]

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