Tom Paxton & Anne Hills,
Under American Skies
(Appleseed, 2001)

To anyone seriously acquainted with folk music, Tom Paxton and Anne Hills need no introduction. Once two thirds of the trio Best of Friends, they each enjoy renown independently, and here they combine their considerable talents on Under American Skies.

Both provide trademark vocals, one often singing lead on a song written by the other. Their voices blend beautifully. Most of the songs have social consciousness in common, whether the environment, the failure of the justice system or civil rights. The title track is a grim indictment of the death penalty as well as all the social systems that fail to provide an adequate safety net for too many people. Similarly, in "Clarissa Jones," the title character never gets a break, from rats in her kitchen to her son's arrest to losing her home.

Richard Farina's poignant "Birmingham Sunday" begins with a recording of students from the Carole B. Robertson Center in Birmingham, Ala., singing a verse of the song. The recording fades seamlessly into the ripe tones of Monica Roach's cello, which strike the ear like a tolling bell. The song, set to an old ballad "I Once Loved a Lass," is timeless and as topical and moving now as it was nearly 40 years ago.

Not every song has a cause at its core. "Follow That Road" is a lovely hopeful song, packed with vivid poetic descriptions and an elegantly simple melody. "Getting Up Early" is contemplative and introspective. "And Lovin' You" reunites the Best of Friends in a live cut from 1984; this final track gives the CD a strong finish.

Other outstanding tracks include Tom Russell's "Manzanar," about one of the many Japanese and Japanese-Americans "relocated" during World War II, and Kate Wolf's "Links in the Chain." The arrangements are tight, spare and varied, resulting in a textured, dimensional recording.

The cohesiveness of the selections is also notable; each song strikes the listener as unique without jarring moods from one to another. Under American Skies is an essential CD in that it showcases two folk icons and reminds us that a social conscience never goes out of style.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 26 July 2003

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