This review is written by Kevin McCarthy, 4/01
"Kevin and Maxine’s Celtic & Folk Music CD Reviews"
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Is Fred Eaglesmith the bastard son of Leonard Cohen? Let's see, both are from Canada. Check. Both wear black. Check. Both are as morose as the atmosphere at an undertaker's convention. Check. Cohen may be Montreal urbane but he more than likely made a few excursions through Ontario in his younger days...hmmm.
Although they may break bread together in the land of dourness, Eaglesmith also resides in the Kingdom of Edge. His characters travel the dark recesses and murky corridors and our hearing about them is as close as we ever want to get. Unlike Cohen's fellow Montrealites, if the inhabitants of Eaglesmith country are wearing furs, it's because the residents have shot and skinned the animals themselves.
Trains, cars and losers dominate the land of Fred. "Freight Train," "105," "Good Enough," "Time To Get A Gun," "Rodeo Boy" and the ironically titled "Flowers In The Dell," among others, all feature and accentuate these elements. His characters often roam a bedeviling landscape armed with a quirky and befuddled defiance. "Flowers In The Dell" is a prime example, featuring an out-of-the-blue but very matter-of-fact relationship derailment.
Elements of reverence, sass and spoofing are also Eaglesmith trademarks and all are evident in his latest release, a tribute of sorts to now retired Flying Squirrel bassist Ralph Schipper. A concert taped in Santa Cruz, CA, this offering amounts to a 'Best Of', with some of his concert standards such as "Lucille," "How's Ernie?" and "Big Hair" finally recorded. Call it The Fred Eaglesmith Experience, for this is certainly the most comprehensive collection of his material.
Eaglesmith slides in playful moments--in "Mighty Big Car" he spoofs the size of the vehicles Detroit used to produce with "they don't look like money, they look like the bank." "How's Ernie?" provides a take unlike most in busted relationships--the protagonist laments missing his lady friend's father more than the lady. Looking for the defining moment, one of the characters in "White Trash" repeatedly asks: "When, exactly, did we become white trash?"
He provides a unique look with an older woman and younger man tryst in "Lucille." The sweet, tender and surprising conclusion is almost un-Eaglesmith but it's simply the sensitive side of his writing that he infrequently unveils. His emotion-choked tribute to the late bluegrass major domo Carter Stanley, "Carter," is another gem along these same lines. Ditto with the sedate but touching "He's A Good Dog."
In "Alcohol & Pills" he relates the personal struggles of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Graham Parsons and Jimi Hendrix, singing that despite the riches and notoriety, "fame doesn't take away the pain, it just pays the bills."
Eaglesmith is an underrated songwriter, a fact borne out by the quality and quantity of the cuts on this release. He may be a bit more jarring than the typical folkie, a bit more clever than the usual country crooner and just a whole lot more uncategorizeable. But do not let the inability to label him and his music act as any sort of a deterrence. This guy is good. Very good.
Eaglesmith on acoustic guitar and vocals, is backed by Ralph Schipper on bass and background vocals; Willie P. Bennett on mandolin, harmonica and background vocals; and Washboard Hank on percussion and background vocals.
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