I heard a song off this album on the local public radio station this weekend, and I was instantly impressed. For those of you who don't know who Levon Helm is, he is the drummer for "The Band." It's not too often that a drummer's voice is identified with a band, but it's Helm's voice that you hear when you hear "Up On Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," two of the all-time greatest songs ever written. Helm is a 67 year old cancer survivor - he had throat cancer in the 90's. This is his first solo album since 1983, and it's a dandy. His unmistakable voice is still strong. If you like The Band, and specifically the songs that feature Helm on lead vocals, you'll love his new album.
The album was released in October of 2007, and it features Helm's daughter Amy, as well as Larry Campbell, longtime Dylan sideman, who also serves as producer for the album. Amy Helm is a member of the band "Ollabelle" that plays music that is similar to the style on this CD. Her voice is a perfect compliment to her father's, it's apparent that her appearance on the CD is no gimmick - she's a pro and she can sing. The CD is recorded, as near as I can tell, with all acoustic instruments. It was recorded in Helm's studio, which is housed in a barn on his property in Woodstock, NY.
Anyway, enough of the background. On to the CD. If I had to categorize the CD, I'd put it in the "Americana" or "Roots" genre. It is full of old-timey references, and the themes of the songs include wine, whiskey, guns, railroad, train robbery, farming (and the farmer's daughter), poverty, mining, Tennessee, mountains, women, and the blues. When Helm sings the songs on the album (all covers or traditional songs), it sounds authentic - there is nothing forced about his delivery. Starting with the first notes of "False Hearted Lover Blues," Helm takes you on a journey through the middle-American landscape, through farmlands, mountains, and rivers. The last song, "Wide River to Cross," is particularly poignant, as you can't help but listen to it with his cancer and his advancing age in the back of your mind (similar to Warren Zevon's entire final CD that he recorded after discovering he had terminal cancer).
One last thing. One of the most distinctive things about Levon Helm's singing voice is also one of my favorite things about it. He still pronounces words like "thing" as "thang." Like in "Dixie Down," when he sings "and the bells were rang-in'" and "the people were sang-in'." This CD contains mutiple instances for him to showcase this little quirk. I love it.
You can buy this CD direct from his site if you would like. It's been nominated for a Grammy. If I knew how to put music clips on this blog, I'd do it. Maybe I'll figure it out and add something later.