Leon Redbone,
No Regrets
(August, 1988; Rounder, 2004)

As a reluctant part-time employee for a major corporate music store -- where I am bombarded daily by the tasteless treacle of Maroon 5, Kelley Clarkson and Hillary Duff -- the opportunity to hear work as undercooked and raw as Redbone's No Regrets is a stirring testament to what can be done when you pack the drum machines away, bust out the sticks, bass and banjo, and make some music.

While records like Duff's are not exactly intended for sophisticated audiences, the problem is that its sound -- that desperate "we need a single and we need it now" overproduction -- is bleeding over into albums billed as the work of "singer-songwriters" like Pete Yorn and Jewel, while older bands such as U2, the Pretenders and the Cure try to keep up with the kids by making albums whose overbearing arrangements belie far more desperation than desire.

Tossing any Leon Redbone album into the stereo in the face of all this is like wiping your face with a rag soaked in ice water on a stifling August afternoon, but No Regrets, with its backward-gazing production and astonishing range, carries a charm more distinct today than ever before. Redbone swings just as easily as he yodels throughout one of the most eclectic sets of his career.

From the lilting competence of "She Ain't Rose" to the bluesy chortling of Hank Williams' "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," Redbone proves that he had his mojo working overtime for these sessions back in 1988. The album's release on the always-reliable Rounder label and featuring the equally reliable Bela Fleck on banjo is as timely as any reissue in recent memory.

Even by 1988, Leon had already been around for a while, and his slightly haggard vocal delivery, which sounds like he's trying to swallow his voice as he sings, makes for precisely the kind of grit and bravery so lacking in the contemporary music scene. Even some of today's more sincere country and bluegrass performers -- Alisson Krauss, for one -- cannot seem to escape the studio polish whose absence makes Redbone's No Regrets such a treat.

Like David Olney's Deeper Well, No Regrets is as urgent as it is breezy, hitchhiking along the border between indifference and indulgence but never straying too far in either direction. Redbone's mastery of "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" ranks with Townes Van Zandt's "Honky Tonkin'" among the most memorable of so many Hank Williams covers, while the almost rickety "Somewhere Down Below the Dixon Line" summons the ghosts of Dog Boggs and Clarence Ashley.

Not one to be pigeonholed, Redbone serves up a tender take on "Are You Lonesome Tonight" that puts his unique stamp on a well-traveled standard. No Regrets is by no means a landmark album, but it is just the kind of minor masterpiece capable of haunting us with a primitive echo of long-gone days.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 12 March 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.