John McCutcheon,
Storied Ground
(Rounder, 1999)

By the time I got to John McCutcheon's newest release, Storied Ground, I wasn't expecting much. I'd waded through offerings that I couldn't connect with to save my life, barring a few exceptions, and really wasn't looking for much of a difference in this one.

Boy, was I wrong.

From the first afro-centric drumbeats, and on through the first song, "Jericho," which chronicles the events that made Rosa Parks a famous woman, I was drawn in like a fish on a hook. It was engaging, hard to ignore music that worked its way into my head for both the composition and the lyrics. Lyrics that prove that a song doesn't have to be all about the chords -- it can be about an idea.

If all the facts are on the table, Storied Ground starts out as a fantastic CD and fades slowly into a good one. The songs at the beginning are much more memorable than some of the bland ones at the end. The music gets progressively simpler as the album goes on, but the quality of the lyrics, and the voice behind them, remains consistent. It is glaringly obvious that the man is passionate -- an activist as well as an artist.

And what of that voice? McCutcheon has a rich voice that lends itself well to the genre, clear enough that you can understand his point (the words), but pleasing enough that you don't want to immediately turn it off. Sometimes emotion-filled, other times light and ironic, he's able to let you know what the song is about just by tone.

Several of the tracks are standouts. The first, as mentioned above, is "Jericho." "Cross that Line" is a tribute to Jackie Robinson's success in baseball that trancended color prejudices of the time, and speaks with a clarity that's unmistakeable. "Vultures," a song with an incredible sense of humor, is about the way Americans, as a culture, consume what the media offers. For example: "I don't wanna see Hillary in a swimsuit / Frank Gifford kissin' anyone / Any JonBenet Ramsey stories how the rich have fun / Monica Lewinsky / Frank Sinatra's last days / Any more OJ...." The entire song plays like a dirty laundry list of the last decade. Add in an infectuous melody that you'll be humming all day, and it's a recipe for a good song.

All in all, this isn't a bad CD by any stretch of the imagination. It has its weak spots and its rough edges, but the standouts more than make up for that. McCutcheon has about twenty-three albums to his credit, this one included, so there's more where this came from. I'm looking forward to listening.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

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