Dana & Susan Robinson,
Big Mystery
(Threshold, 2009)

As it was drifting through the speakers, "Big Mystery," which opens Big Mystery, led my wife to ask, "Are you listening to Cat Stevens?" Well, no. Nothing against the guy, but Cat Stevens' music has long been distant from my life. Her question did inform me, however, who the singer was that Dana Robinson distantly called to mind. The other thing these two have in common is that both craft silky melodies that tend to remain on rotation on the psychic stereo.

Beyond that, the North Carolina-based Dana & Susan Robinson, whose two previous CDs I reviewed here on 4 October 2008, are too American to resemble Stevens much. The Robinsons are deeply conversant in Southern and other homegrown traditional music, which informs Dana's songwriting, not to mention the couple's occasional covers of genuine folk material. Here it's an appealingly inventive old-time banjo arrangement of "Poor Howard" as well as the fiddle tune "Sycamore Tea." Dana's original instrumentals "Waiting for Gordon" and "French Broad Waltz," two of the CD's most striking pieces, could easily pass for traditional. French Broad, by the way, is a river in Tennessee and North Carolina, and not a rude reference.

My favorite of Dana's original songs is "Cairo," about the river city (pronounced kay-roe) at the southern tip of Illinois, a place that inspired fine old songs like the shantey "Goin' to Cairo" and the African-American "Cairo Blues." The real Cairo has always been a rough place, more Southern than Midwestern with attitudes to match. Mostly, Dana evokes a dying town living, if barely, on memories of past glory. He notes, accurately enough, "Some folks curse and shun this town." The chorus chills: "Faded, faded sky / Cairo in my eye." If this were the only song Dana had written, he could retire proudly.

I like Susan's straightforward, charmingly unaffected singing a lot, but I don't like the sentimental "Griselda's Waltz," which even she can't pull out of the syrup. It's written by Bill Steele of "Garbage" fame, if you were around to hear what passed for folk hits in the 1970s; Pete Seeger loved to have audiences sing along with it. It wasn't a good song. Happily, Susan is connected with a couple of Big Mystery's bigger moments, the aforementioned "Howard" and Lui Collins's stirring meditation "Gone But Not Forgotten," concerning the long dead who rest in a North Carolina slave cemetery.

As always, the Robinsons know how to shape strong arrangements with skeletal backup, in this case themselves (Dana on a range of stringed instruments, Susan on guitar and banjo) and three friends (on piano, drums, acoustic bass, and something called a "dotar," a two-stringed East Indian instrument). The music is smart, tuneful and atmospheric, and it is something you will want to hear more than once.

review by
Jerome Clark

5 September 2009

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