Craig Rafuse,
Promise Land
(Echo Lake, 2001)

Craig Rafuse's CD Promise Land is the product of a fairly pleasant but not-quite-ready-for-prime-time regional singer-songwriter. Rafuse is from the Atlanta, Ga., area, and Promise Land was released on local indie label Echo Lake Records. Rafuse's greatest asset is his voice -- a smooth, supple tenor with a wide range, shown off to advantage on the album's first track, "Sweet Sister," and on a melancholy yet soulful version of Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty." His music style is an unusual blend of folk, blues, jazz and Broadway showtunes, which sometimes works well, as in the above-mentioned "Sweet Sister," but just as often doesn't.

After "Sweet Sister," I was jolted by the second track, "What It Takes," a humorous lament about the troubles of the working man. The transistion from smooth ballad to social satire felt jarring and incongruous. It's tough to mix humorous and serious songs on the same album -- Dar Williams does it well, though some critics have quibbled, but even Christine Lavin, a more accomplished musical humorist than Rafuse, stumbles occasionally in this area. Humor (most often flavored with social commentary) has a long history in the folk tradition, but striking just the right tone can be difficult.

In addition to "What It Takes," Rafuse includes several other humorous tunes, such as "Trickle Down," a tongue-in-cheek ode to the Republican party, and "Partners in Sloth,," a parody of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Rafuse gets off some funny lines, such as "You know, Jesus was a carpenter / I wonder what he'd've done / But then what would he know; / he quit when he was young" (from "What It Takes") but for the most part, his humorous songs evoke mild chuckles on the first listen and a strong desire to push the skip button thereafter. And "Partners in Sloth" is rendered all but unlistenable by a particularly excruciating (and I do mean excruciating) pun involving the seventh planet in our solar system and a certain portion of the human anatomy.

Other tracks on the album include "Just the Other Day I," an uninspired title for one of the best songs on the album: a polemic against the hypocrisy of the Religious Right whose lovely imagery and passionate singing raise it above the tiredness of the subject matter; the jazzy, upbeat "Wishbone Fever"; the annoying mock honky-tonk of "Head Up in the Hills," a cliched ode to escaping the madness of city life; and "If You Care," an earnest call to social action that veers perilously close to the saccharine with lines like "open up your heart / it's just a wish away" and "over hill and over dale / following the rainbow banner's trail." I suspect that Rafuse is an enjoyable live performer, but his album fails to engage after the first listen.

I was hindered in my reviewing of this album by a problem, common among but certainly not limited to independent releases with small budgets. That is, the lack of a lyric sheet -- one of my pet peeves both as a reviewer and as a recreational listener. Within the singer-songwriter genre in particular, I believe the words are as important as the music, and I like to have access to them in their full and proper form. To be fair, Rafuse did list in his liner notes a website where lyrics and other information could be found. However, when I tried to access the site I received a server error message, so it was somewhat less useful than I had hoped. I realize that liner notes are added expense, but I think it is worthwhile to include them, if only to keep discriminating listeners (and persnickety reviewers like me) in good humor.

[ by Erin Bush ]
Rambles: 29 September 2001