february 2011


No Country For Broken Hearts

Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle examine what becomes of the broken-hearted

By David McGee

Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle
Ninth Street Opus

Admittedly inspired by the Emmylou Harris-Gram Parsons tandem, Carrie Rodriguez and Romantica’s Ben Kyle have crafted a compelling, tidy eight-song duets album awash in gentle country rhythms and haunting southwestern atmospherics supplied by a small combo of pedal steel, acoustic/electric guitar, bass, drums and Rodriguez’s own expressive fiddle work.

carrie rodriguezBy far the better known of the two, the Mexican-American singer-songwriter Rodriguez keeps making fine records, keeps getting great press, and keeps proving herself a distinctive writer and instrumentalist both. Though she’s cut four previous solo albums (including a live one), her ongoing association with Chip Taylor (must we say, again, he wrote “Wild Thing” and “Angel In the Morning”?), beginning with 2002’s surprising (because no one—really no one—had any inkling it would be so good) Let’s Leave This Town, has been a great calling card for her, boosting her profile in the roots world, bringing her a growing audience and allowing her to stretch musically. Slowly, inexorably, things are going Carrie Rodriguez’s way.

ben kyleBen Kyle, on the other hand, is a virtual unknown outside his band Romantica’s Minneapolis home town and certain American circles that have embraced that band’s folk-pop leanings. Belfast-born, Kyle has been compared vocally, and indeed bears some resemblance in that area, to Ryan Adams (less so to Jeff Tweedy, with whom he has also been comparied). He has a wobbly way with phrasing but a sturdy tenor voice; employed here in various capacities as a lead and harmony instrument, he sounds rather like what you’d get if you cross Gram Parsons’s voice with Roger McGuinn’s, sort of. It might also be said he needs Carrie Rodriguez more than Carrie Rodriguez needs him, but We Still Love Our Country is a fine showcase for both artists’ gifts as singers and as writers (and Rodriguez has a few stirring moments as a fiddler, too, which is how she first got noticed anyway—the mournful, crying line she weaves into the lamentable, shameful behavior John Prine and Robert Braddock chronicle in “Unwed Fathers” is positively tearjerking. And that’s but one example of her striking instrumental voice here). At the very least, the album puts Ben Kyle on the roots map in a way Romantica’s solid efforts have not yet achieved. Winners all around on this recording.

Both parties are accomplished songwriters, but of the album’s scant eight tunes only two come from their pens. Out of the gate the duo conjures the spirit of the Parsons-Harris pairing with the classic country strut of Kyle’s tale of romantic uncertainty, “Your Lonely Heart,” emerging form the honky tonk drenched in steel and fiddle, with Rodriguez singing a striking high harmony to Kyle’s vulnerable lead. The principals teamed up to author “Fire Alarm,” an upbeat, witty declaration of a couple’s combustible attraction to each other, complete with a soaring, singsong chorus and a thumping rhythmic backdrop, plus a tasty, lively electric guitar solo courtesy Hans Holzen. In an album rife with sad scenarios, “Fire Alarm”’s happy spirit radiates a healthy sensuality.

Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle do justice to the Louvin Brothers’ classic, ‘My Baby’s Gone,’ featured on their We Love Our Country duet album

Otherwise, the selections from Townes Van Zandt, Boudleaux Bryant, Hazel Houser (“My Baby’s Gone,” best known as a Louvin Brothers classic), Chip Taylor and Luke McDaniel are either skirting tragedy or divulging wounded hearts. Sensitive, introspective balladry hits a high water mark on the thoughtful dialogue informing a velvety rendition of Van Zandt’s aching “If I Needed You,” although the winsome yearning Rodriguez and Kyle bring to Taylor’s subdued heartbreaker, “Big Kiss,” is piercing enough to lay you low. The aforementioned John Prine-Robert Braddock co-write, “Unwed Fathers,” seems on the surface to be sympathetic to men who impregnate women and then run off; but on repeat listens it becomes as damning an indictment, albeit gently rendered, as Prine’s “Christmas In Prison” was toward the incarcerated protagonist who was absent from another family Yuletide—its power lay not in its anger but in its seething, understated condemnation of the wayward conscience, and Kyle, taking the lead, plays it note-perfect by sounding more wounded than outraged, with Rodriguez softly, tenderly shadowing him, both singers completely locked into Prine’s unerring instinct for bringing the hammer down with devastating subtlety.

Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle, ‘If I Needed You,’ by Townes Van Zandt, first public performance of the song from the We Love Our Country album

“Unwed Fathers” begins the album’s rush to its close, as the first of a trifecta of tunes addressing the abiding ache of love gone awry. It’s followed by a low-key reading of “My Baby’s Gone,” the Louvins’ urgency and heat sublimated here to a mournful plea on the duo’s part to stop the world while they get off, with Rodriguez’s fiddle and Luke Jacobs’s pedal steel delicately underscoring the emotional devastation systematically revealed lyric by heartbreaking lyric. In a compelling arrangement, the tune comes partly out of the mountains (in the singers’ harmonies), partly off the western plains (in the instrumental arrangement). Finally, to close this meeting of the lonely hearts club, Bryant’s “Love Hurts,” famously and immortally rendered by the Everly Brothers, serves as a benediction of sorts, a resigned if reluctant acceptance of the heart’s unpredictable maneuverings. With Kyle and Rodriguez sounding, in a powerful dialogue, as if they’re on the verge of tears, the narrative’s sorrow is underscored by the distant cry of pedal steel and the lonely twang of electric guitar. Albums twice as long as this rarely get to as profound a place of loss and longing as what Rodriguez and Kyle discover in these eight songs, theirs included. Flat nail it, they did.

We Still Love Our Country is available at www.amazon.com

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