I've been impatiently awaiting a new album from Canadian roots music artist Michael Jerome Browne for quite a while now. The last album of his that I have, Michael Jerome Browne & The Twin Rivers String Band, is one of my favorite roots albums, with gorgeous picking and singing with powerful cuts of old-time, blues, honky-tonk and Cajun songs. Having just received his new album, The Road is Dark (out now on Borealis Records), and having listened to it now twice in a row without stopping, this was definitely worth the wait!
Browne may not be too well known in the States–though he was born in Indiana, Montreal is his adopted home–but he should be. He's one of those rare musicians who have the artistry to transform traditional material that would sound old and tired in another's hands into something so refreshing that it feels like you're hearing the song for the first time. Browne nails this right out the gate with a surprising cover of the 1949 Flatt & Scruggs Mercury Records classic "Doin' My Time." This song was always one of the funkiest, blusiest bluegrass numbers around, so it makes perfect sense when Browne takes it into a deep Delta blues setting. It's a bold move to cast a classic of the bluegrass canon as country blues, but it's a sign of Browne's familiarity and comfort with American roots music. He's done this before on previous albums, effortlessly blending country blues, Appalachian old-time and even some killer Cajun music, and though The Road is Dark is primarily blues-based, the reason the album sounds so rich and effortless is because he's got so much knowledge and appreciation of the roots of the music he plays. On "Death Don't Have No Mercy," Browne takes a Rev. Gary Davis song into darker, eerier territory by channeling the influences of Skip James and Lightnin' Hopkins.
What's even more impressive than these re-imaginings of country blues, are Browne's original songs, which are sprinkled throughout the album. He writes so well and so cleanly, that it's pretty much impossible to tell the original songs from the traditional ones. Though some of the original veer away from the universality of blues lyrics towards more topical matters, this is an asset to the album. His "G20 Rag" is a welcome addition to any political songbook:
"caught the midnight train to Hogton
I went to have my say
'bout the way the rich keep gettin' richer
and the way the poor folks pay
up above the barricade
inside the penthouse suite
twenty future CEOs
raised a glass to the elite
and when the streets were empty
when we're all in jail
our leaders smiled and said 'you see?
democracy can't fail!' "
One of the strongest moments in the album comes right after the "G20 Rag" with Browne's spare and hair-raising song "Sing Low." Accompanied by Rwandan guitarist Mighty Popo and a finger-plucked gourd banjo, Browne's song is ostensibly an homage to Afghan women, drawing a comparison to African-American slaves, who used song to communicate with less fear of reprisal. On any other artist, a heavy-handed blues homage to the cultural complexities of the Afghan nation would be unbearable, but Browne's song is so deftly written and his rendition so subtle and rich, that he manages to convey the intended power to the song.
This is a great album, not only a delight to connoisseurs of American roots music for the way that Michael Jerome Browne reinterprets and subverts old blues paradigms, but also a delight for those just looking for some great acoustic blues. It's eminently listenable from start to finish and will likely enjoy a long shelf-life on repeat in your collection.
Michael Jerome Browne: G20 Rag
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