july 2009

Bryan Clark
Rainfeather Records

An artist who gracefully—and seemingly effortlessly—bridges the traditional and the progressive schools, Bryan Clark makes a bold statement with Gossip, Inspiration And Slander. A double-CD set, its first disc is all acoustic, the second all-electric, but that's not to say the most intense energy is collected on the latter. "Angelyne," the acoustic disc opener, begins with Casey Driessen—who knows from progressive bluegrass—scratching out a protesting fiddle line ahead of the rest of the band sprinting away with him on a hard charging ode to a rather fetching, if difficult, model of feminine pulchritude. Driessen has a couple more aggressive, stuttering runs, and banjo man Chris Pandolfi (of the Infamous Stringdusters) matches him with a series of rolling, propulsive punctuations of his own. In addition to Driessen and Pandolfi, Clark is supported by Matt Flinner on mandolin and Bryn Bright on acoustic bass, and the entire aggregate plays with the synergy and energy you'd expect from folks who have been together for a long time, which they haven't been. To the wistful, backwoods feel of "Raven King" they bring appealing introspection in the tenderness of their atmospheric ruminations behind Clark's sensitive vocal, which Clark enhances with his own plaintive dobro fills. The danger here, of course, is getting so lost in the scintillating musical choices that you overlook how finely crafted are Clark's songs. The swaying, poignant reflection on lost love that is "Nights Like These" shows an acute awareness of what a number a failed romance can do on the head and the heart both, and the emotion in Clark's voice—the timbre and the slight rasp in his voice makes him sound a bit like a backwoods Paul Simon—adds enhanced depth to his lyrical musings. Alternately soaring and reflective, "Predictions of You" is a clever, midtempo treatise (with wonderful dialogue between Pandolfi's banjo and Driessen's fiddle) on reclaiming a love that's slipping away, Clark casting himself as the paramour rushing from points far away to make his stand with the object of his desire—"I'm racing through these midnight miles to tell you that I love you," he howls ahead of his own spirited acoustic guitar break—with a clear understanding of what's at stake, to wit: "our future is what I see/when predictions of you show up in the tea leaves."

Playing all the instruments himself on the electric CD, Clark illustrates the wide range of influences he's absorbed in shaping his own music—everything from Bob Wills to Stevie Ray Vaughan to XTC, even the '80s shredding guitar style he became enamored with while attending Berklee College of Music. Like the acoustic set, the electric disc kicks off with his "Angelyne," radically altered for the sake of a deep, soulful groove, with Clark's sputtering guitar, burbling organ, handclaps and infectious, ascending chorus reminiscent of Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do." On the other hand, the frisky "Bumper to Bumper" is a jazzy, western swing romp with wit and high spirits to burn, a milieu made richer for Clark's Les Paul-ish guitar solo and cascading piano fills; in a similar, jazz-based vein, "Don't Blame Me" brings out the artist's sardonic side, as he kisses off a seemingly alluring gal who has a problem with being faithful—"you know secret little sinners can't live loud in Paradise," he cries, three times, as the piano, guitar and dobro mesh in a tumbling, antic burst of triumphant glee. As beautiful as it is, though, the full-band version of "Nights Like These," though it could very well be a mainstream country hit for someone, loses some of its gripping intimacy in comparison to the acoustic version on disc one. That's a rare misstep here, and easily overlooked when you come across heart-tugging and big-hearted twangy love songs such as "Yes It Is Amen" and the touching, rustic-flavored instrumental, "All That Really Matters," the latter having, thanks to Clark's evocative, searching piano soloing (in tandem with his lonesome dobro moans), the feel of Bill Evans's inward-looking meditations. There really is something for practically all tastes on Clark's ambitious outpourings here, but its greater achievement is in its seamlessness—whether acoustic or electric, whether in one-man band mode or surrounded by some of the finest bluegrass players in the land, Bryan Clark sounds right at home, making it easy to follow him through doors that open into different worlds. —David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024