Friday, 25 September 2015

Don Henley - Cass County [Deluxe Edition], album review

Walking on Water

You could always walk across the rivulet from the Eagles to Country without getting your knees wet, their kind of lightly C&W-splashed Americana prefaced by similar crossings with The Byrds and then so many others. Don Henley isn’t trying to re-write the American Country Songbook either with the tracks on this confident album: instead he takes generic but polished songs and invites classy guest singers to partner on some with their sweet as well as strutting deliveries.

Henley also surprises – not so much in covering Tift Merrit’s Bramble Rose or the fact that Miranda Lambert sings on it, but because the other guest vocalist is Mick Jagger who revisits his own Country flirtings, superbly. I’ll just immediately move from this opener to tenth When I Stop Dreaming because the other distinctive guest vocalist here is the great Dolly Parton, and she and Henley harmonise in one more example of perfection in that long line of exquisite Parton duets.

Returning to the opening tracks: second The Cost of Living goes, however, for a proper swim in Country waters by sharing the singing speedos with Merle Haggard, though I immediately apologise for the image in your mind I may have drawn. When Haggard picks up the second verse, and pedal steel accompanies, it is an authoritative partnership in terms of making it clear this album is more than just dipping toes in.

Third No, Thank You goes for some up-tempo cred with country rock, and fourth Waiting Tables goes with the Country Lyric Menu and picks a narrative about everyday hope in an everyday job for an everyday person - she’s just waiting tables biding her time ‘til there’s somewhere else to go….until one rainy night a handsome man came in, and you guessed it, they talked and talked until the moon went down….yet don’t get your own hopes up too much, but in the morning he was gone. Bugger. Another year or two and she’ll be moving on. Actually, not as hopeful as I had hoped, but at least rooted in the reality of everyday pain.

Handsome man is just a little twee, isn’t it?

Fifth Take a Picture of This evokes the happiness of a couple with a family that did make it, but the sad realism of the song is in the reflection on loss and change – no reason to remain – where when you spend all your time living in the past with all those picture that you took prompts the harsh lines here’s one more for the book - take a picture of this:  this is me leaving; take a picture of this: this is me walking away.

Sixth Too Far Gone is a song that sounds most like a country melody from an Eagles album, in parts, but this too is steeped in the Western end, with more pedal steel and plaintive storytelling that is heart-tugged with fiddle and the narrator’s altruism of loving the woman who has gone but always wishing her well.

On the next track That Old Flame, Henley teams up with Country royalty’s Martine McBride, and it is a song that fills a space well enough. The point is that these are all fine tracks with, as here, fine company, but they are not breaking new ground. However, on eighth, the well-known Jesse Winchester Brand New Tennessee Waltz, it sounds fresh because it is such a bright and breezy song.

I am in danger of working through every song as I so often do [listening to a whole album as I write] so I’ll just shift forward a little and mention one final caveat, though stress this is in the overall absolute appreciation for the country embrace of Henley’s new release: there are some occasions where too much buff and shine is at the expense of melody/memorableness, exacerbated, for example, by the interminable repeat of an ordinary chorus on eleventh track Praying for Rain [and I know there is an earnest ecological/farmer’s plight message in there].

There is a sweet version of Nilsson’s She Sang Hymns Out of Tune as track thirteen, fiddle and banjo accompaniment leading into some beautiful tight harmony singing. This is a lovely cover. Next Train in the Distance is an autobiographical gem that builds atmospherically, pedal steel and harmony and eventually an angelic chorus elevating the simple but strong melody to meaningfully reflective heights. In many ways, it is a song more in Henley’s normal songwriting comfort zone. Fifteenth, A Younger Man, rues having grown old – you’re an angel from the future, I’m an old devil from the past – and Henley sings with the calm gravitas of someone who understands, perhaps even a genuine honesty in rejecting false promises beyond: If you're lookin' for believers in faith and hope and charity / Then you're lookin' for a younger man, not me.

The Deluxe album closes on Where I Am Now, and for a Country album this is as rocking country as the Eagles and it is a rouser with Henley’s slight vocal rasp in familiar glory.

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