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13 June 2017

Overlooked Masterpieces

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I knew lots of songwriters during my time in New York City in the late 90s and early 00s, a number of whom had or would achieve notoriety. I also knew people who never became household names, even in the small world we inhabited, despite having written songs that can only be regarded as out-of-this-world great.

Needless to say, plenty of great songs go undiscovered. For example, why don’t more people know Crayon Angels by Judee Sill or My Only Son by Duncan Browne? And those are artists who had real careers in the music business: Sill recorded for Asylum Records and Browne co-wrote one of the songs on David’s Bowie Let’s Dance album among many other achievements.

These five songs are way less “discovered” even than Crayon Angels and My Only Son, but no less deserving of attention.

Wolfboy by Tim Robinson

This was maybe the 200th song I heard by one of my primary New York sidekicks, and there was something good in every one of them. Everything’s good about this song, which appeared on his 2005 album, Money in the Woods. Money in the Woods was Tim’s first full-scale recording, but he also released a couple of cassettes in the 90s full of remarkable compositions like Disassemble Yourself, Mother and her Airman, Blood on the Shoulder, Your Average Author, and Tahiti, at least a few of which appeared on Fast Folk recordings and can be found on Spotify. Some of my favorites of his early 00s output were earmarked for a recording project that stalled; check out Girl and Saint Jerome in the Wilderness on SoundCloud. (You could spend a pleasant half-day with his SoundCloud catalogue.) Another I can’t resist mentioning is Goodbye Diego – about Diego Rivera – which is only one of many, many songs about artists and other cultural/pop-cultural figures. Tim has received some recognition over the years – Paste gave Money in the Woods a four-star review and Suzanne Vega has called him one of her favorite songwriters – but still he labors in the shadows. The good news is, he labors: just last week he sent me two new songs that are as good as anything he’s written.

Margaret by Frank Tedesso

Margaret is legendary in certain circles, and even broke out of those circles when it kicked off Frank’s 1996 debut album, which was distributed by PolyGram Records and therefore got some attention. All Music started its review with this sentence: “In the world of songwriting, there is a coterie of artists who belong in a class by themselves; Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, writers whose body of work is capable of touching people at their innermost core. With the debut of Frank Tedesso, one more name is added to that illustrious list.” Hyperbolic comparisons aside, Frank Tedesso is a major talent, and anyone who hears Margaret knows it’s a straight-up masterpiece.

Interestingly, before he linked up with Imaginary Road Records and made a super-intimate acoustic record, Frank worked with Tommy West, who produced Playing God and Welcome To My Century. Tommy took a different approach to Margaret, fleshing it out with a bunch of instruments including strings. I love the solo acoustic version that appeared on Einstein’s Violin, but I also love Tommy’s version, and can’t help wondering if the additional production – which some might deem superfluous or deride as sentimental – could have made it a hit.

Weekday Bender by Paul Brill

My first favorite Paul Brill song was Maybelline, which I heard repeatedly when we played early gigs together at long-gone venues like CBGB’s Gallery, the Fast Folk Cafe, and Hotel Galvez. In the mid-90s, he was working in education and getting back into music after relocating from San Francisco; I watched him develop his act from a folky duo into a sprawling band with all sorts of interesting sounds. Paul is always up to something interesting, musically-speaking, which may be why he’s been successful as a composer for TV and film in recent years.

Weekday Bender is the second song on New Pagan Love Song, the 2004 album that received 4.5 stars from All Music, which is the same number of stars they gave Bob Dylan’s Desire, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, and The Beatles’s Let It Be. I don’t know if Paul’s album is as good as all of those, but it’s pretty good. One thing I know for sure is that Weekday Bender is the kind of pop confection that never gets old.

Box of Letters by Michael Veitch

Twice, Michael Veitch and I shared a rental car from Denver to Telluride, where we competed in the Troubadour contest at the Telluride Bluegrass festival. Presumably, during the seven-hour drive, we analyzed the singer/songwriter scene to death and then moved on to anecdotes from our personal lives. I know I heard at least one story from Michael’s life, because – according to legend – I proposed turning it into the song that would become the irresistible Box of Letters. Box of Letters features a chorus that’s so fun/catchy you don’t realize you’re singing along with a man’s bitter disappointment. Not everyone can pull off the ironic singalong, but Michael Veitch has that special something.

Flower Was Gone by Robert K. Wolf

Rob Wolf was discovered by Jack Hardy, who recruited him to play guitar on his 1997 album The Passing and at least one European tour. A talented musician, Rob also played bass on my first-ever recording for the Fast Folk Musical Magazine – which is my #1 song on Spotify despite not being good (The Drunken Alterboy) – and electric guitar on one of my early gigs at The Bitter End. Rob spent much of his life in New Jersey, but relocated to Nashville for a change of pace and to chase the songwriting dream. I haven’t seen him in years, but I’ve always remembered this song, which I heard for the first time at the Kerrville Folk Festival and subsequently performed with duos and trios on the occasional Monday night between midnight and 3am at the Ear Inn. Until I started writing this post, I wasn’t even aware that Rob had recorded Flower Was Gone. Since it hit my radar, however, I’ve had it on repeat.

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