Greg Trooper,
Live at the Rock Room
(52 Shakes, 2015)

Corinne West,
Starlight Highway
(MAKE, 2015)

Let's face it: there are too many singer-songwriters. Way too many of them, in fact, and way too few skilled interpreters of other writers' songs. For a long time "singer-songwriter" became, at least in popular discourse, synonymous with "folk singer" (or, in the sneeringly dismissive phrase, "folkie"), though in recent years folk music by its original definition (tradition and tradition-based music) has undergone a welcome renaissance. As a whole, on the other hand, singer-songwriters seem a rootless, uneducated lot. They can be annoyingly and undeservedly self-absorbed, too.

Live at the Rock Room and Starlight Highway are gloriously innocent of the sins of the trade. These are two mature, intelligently imagined albums stocked with strong, stick-in-the-head songs. Sometimes listening to CDs for review feels like a job; hearing these has been a pleasure. Numbers like "Audrey Turn the Moon" (West) and "Broken Man" (Trooper) are what modern folk songs should be: moving lyrics soaring atop striking melodies that accompany you when you aren't listening to records and just going on with your life.

Corinne West, who lives in Northern California, offers up 10 songs, more than half co-written with the gifted guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps, who has released albums of mostly traditional blues and folk under his own name. He also plays on the album with other acoustic musicians, who together weave a kind of dreamy, ruminative, pastoral ambience. Such atmospherics can be -- as often as not are -- insufferable, inevitably calling up the dreaded accusation "new age." But this isn't that. It just feels as if everything is happening in twilight, and that's a part of the day in which all of us have had memorable experiences at one time or another. The songs (as the album title implies) conjure up movement and gathering darkness with an admirable elegance and thrilling tunefulness. West's lightly smoky vocals are perfectly suited to the vision.

There are possibly singers broadly comparable to West, but if there are, they aren't ones I'm listening to. Just as likely, West is a distinctive talent who's fashioning a grown-up art out of easily abused materials. However unexpectedly, Starlight Highway triumphs.

I have no reason to think Greg Trooper does not come by that last name honestly -- in other words, by birth -- but his songs feel like the testimony of a battle-scarred romantic warrior. Brooklynite Trooper's stories are urban tales, hard and unromantic, raw with regret, sorrow, loss. Yet humor is hardly absent ("Mary of the Scots in Queens," surely a true story) or wry, adult acceptance of what must be ("Everything's a Miracle"). On his latest recording, cut live in Austin, Texas, the production is spare -- Trooper with his acoustic guitar and harmonica alongside Chip Dolan (keyboards, accordion) and Jack Saunders (upright bass) -- and Trooper's evocative yet casually conversational singing.

Again, as I observed when I reviewed his last album (Incident on Willow Street, 16 November 2013), Trooper deserves to be much more than a cult artist revered as much by fellow songwriters (e.g., Steve Earle) as by the rest of us. Still, fortunately for those of us who demand the finest in the songs we hear, he soldiers on. If you aren't doing so already, you really ought to be listening to him. Live at the Rock Room is a splendid introduction. But if you're familiar with his music, you may want to know that no fewer than seven of the songs on it appear in studio arrangements on Incident. On the other hand, songs like these won't ever sound stale.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 June 2015

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