Charlie Faye, Wilson Street * “Is it time to start being someone new?” asks Charlie Faye in “Bottletops,” the beautiful opener to her solo debut, Wilson Street. Beautifully produced, mixed and mastered all by the great Mark Hallman, this is the kind of record that makes you ask, “Where has this person been all these years? ” Well, the answer is that she’s been on Wilson Street in Austin, playing with her band The Jerks, as well as being a beloved member of Dan Zanes’ great traveling band. Lately she’s communed with the jovial Texan spirits of Wilson Street, writing a chain of songs on an old Gibson that resound like gems polished in the Sea of Cortez. If you hear one of her wonderful songs, such as my current favorite, “Runaround” or the timelessly evocative “Waitin’ On Something,” you might wonder who writes the great songs Charlie sings. The answer is Charlie does. Were she not a great vocalist, she could have a luminous career as a songwriter for other artists. But she is a powerful singer, and she delivers these gems with genuine grace and abundant soul.
Presently she’s revolving around America, spending ten months in ten cities (which sounds like a song title in itself), a great Steinbeck-like method of getting to know America from the inside out (his book Travels with Charlie naturally comes to mind). All songwriters yearn to embrace all of America and its regional music, but here’s a real attempt to do it – not just the southern west coast or northern east – but America from south to north, woven with threads of Memphis soul, Appalachian folk, New York City rock, West coast cool jazz and beach party, dark Hollywood noir, downtown funk and more. It’s all there and more on Wilson Street. Much of it has strains of country, but not the new Nashville pop as much as the classic country soul of Lefty Frizell and Hank Williams.
She’s got a big voice well-suited to her generous soul; love seems to pour out of this record. Writing happy songs that aren’t corny is tough – few can do it. But Charlie does it, and it’s but one of the qualities that makes this debut a prize. As well as being a powerful vocalist, she’s also a gifted instrumentalist (she plays guitar, bass, and more), and a seriously good songwriter. If she wrote only one song as great as “Runaround” she’d deserve ample attention, but there’s so many more. She writes the kinds of songs everyone says nobody writes anymore: songs with sweet and romantic melodies, songs laced with the rich details of real life, songs meant to be sung, meant to be heard. Songs that matter. Songs of consequence, of a finely focused vision and ambition. That she also happens to be beautiful doesn’t hurt in this visual age, in which people like to watch music as much as listen to it. Her singing is warmly inviting, luring you into her songs like a good storyteller entrancing listeners. “She’s Gonna Go” is like a country standard written years ago though it’s very much about now. “Runaround” is a song you can listen to over and over (as I have) and it just gets better each time, evidence of a masterful songwriter at work; it’s catchy and cool, it simmers and sparks, and all around a chugging locomotive John Fogerty-like rhythm-riff, hip Chrissie Hynde-like phrasing and a luscious gospel-tinged chorus. “Coward’s Lament” is a beautifully poignant ballad with a heartbreak melody. “Waitin’ On Something” succeeds in capturing the elusive ghosts of expectation – those things we wait for forever – (think Tom Petty’s “Waiting” wed with Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” as channeled through the soul of Johnny Cash) matched to a sophisticated yet simple melody that ascends chromatically like the hope kept alive in an optimist’s heart.
This record gives one hope that great songwriters will continue to emerge and provide new music that can stand up proudly next to the classics in our collection. If you’re looking for something new and great, check it out. –P.Z.
Allan Comeau, Life In Session * Here comes a guy singing his heart out, and it sounds like a big heart, crying honky-tonk blues, gentle folk ballads, churning rock & roll, stories of the earth and beyond. Here comes a gentle and resonant baritone that seems one part Burl Ives, one part Willie Nelson with a dash of Johnny Cash. Here comes a guy with a purity of intention and expression that’s pretty rare these days, a guy without a single inauthentic note in his words and his music. Here comes a guy who happens also to be a psychologist – as reflected in the title, which presents the ongoing examination of existence – and this insight into the human condition informs all these songs. But although the ideas might belong to the mind of a psychologist, the lyrics belong to the heart of a poet. Some big ideas and abstract concepts get translated into the timeless language of song, making the complex simple enough to sing, whether singing about the meaning of being male in “Best Man” or walking the razor’s edge between sin and salvation in “Sin To Be Saved.” Produced with Loni Specter, who also adds eloquent guitar leads to the proceedings, Life In Session reflects the mind of a modern man who exists always at the intersection of the physical world and the world of the mind. “Best Man” journeys on the percolation of Arthur Barrow’s fretless bass and proposes an evolution of the spirit leading to a time “when flags turn to rags.” “This Day” is a harrowing song from a father to a daughter facing a life unplanned. Gently he unfolds the sad reality of life alone after the loss of a wife and mother. And yet this sorrow is transformed into a song of promise and love: “Life has more in store for you and I’ll be there to see you through.” The visceral “Sin To Be Saved,” written with Specter, blazes from the first beat on the pure heat of Loni’s stinging guitar lines, suggesting a fiery duet between Johnny Cash and B.B. King about the pathways and boundaries of grace. “You Can’t Catch Me” is a rollicking honky-tonk handshake with southern blues, like some lost collaboration between Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis. “Homeless Man” is a sad waltz-time reckoning, underpinned with optimism on a chipper mariachi accordion. And not unlike a special desert after an amazing mean, Comeau boldly brings in an empassioned take on Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah,” which fits in perfectly with his own personal contemplative reach. This is thoughtful stuff which kind of goes on forever, like that endless place between two mirrors where you can reach infinity only inches away. Like life itself, these songs are sad and happy, weathered and wizened by the years, and laced with lessons. Poignant and great. – P.Z