As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Dec. 24, 2004
The world of alternative country, whatever that is, has produced few, if indeed any, more soulful voices than that of Buddy Miller.
I’m hardly the first to note this. It’s hard to find any review of Miller that doesn’t employ the words “soul” or “soulful.”
But there’s a reason for that. Each one of his albums over the course of the last decade are full of songs that cut right to the core with their sincerity and hard-won truth. With his world-weary drawl, Miller sounds like someone who doesn’t sit down and sing a song until he’s lived it from every side.
Miller’s latest, Universal United House of Prayer, is no different -- except that it might just be his strongest work yet.
Named after an actual church in the Nashville area, this record is the closest thing to pure gospel music Miller has ever recorded. No, it’s not quite holy rolling. Not all of the songs specifically name check God or Jesus or quote scripture (though drummer Brady Blade reads a psalm in the background of “Don‘t Wait.”)
But throughout the album there are lyrics of spiritual yearning. This, along with the background vocals of Regina and Ann McCrary -- daughters of the Rev. Sam McCrary of The Fairfield Four -- make Universal United House of Prayer a religious experience.
There’s a couple of fine cover tunes on Universal United. He takes Ira and Charlie Louvin’s “There’s a Higher,” adds some funky percussion (courtesy of Brady Blade and Steve Hindalong), sweet fiddle by Tammy Rogers and call-and-response vocals from the McCrary sisters to make the song sound ancient and modern at the same time.
Then there’s the 9-minute, slow-burning version of Bob Dylan’s Cold War classic “With God on Our Side.” backed by a tremelo guitar, a churchy organ (by Phil Madeira) and martial drums, Miller sounds like the Universal Soldier himself, damning war and nationalism from a throne in the sky.
(At one point there it seemed like all these old protest tunes were quaint and dated. Unfortunately that’s no longer true. Last month a bunch of kids in Boulder, Colo. Became the subject of an FBI investigation when local right-wingers didn’t like them performing Dylan’s “Masters of War” at a high school talent show.)
Ultimately though, the most enduring songs on this album are the ones written by Miller and/or his wife Julie.
“Fire and Water,” written by the couple, is a song about Julie Miller’s brother, who died shortly before the album was recorded. More upbeat is “Don’t Wait,” in which Miller’s Creedence-like guitar is out front and the McCrarys get full of the spirit.
Miller’s guitar is even more swampy, in fact, downright spooky on “Is That You,” a slow, bouncy full-force call to God.
The voices -- Miller and the McCrarys -- are even more out front on the concluding track, “Fall on the Rock,” a Julie-penned gospel shouter that warns, “You better fall on the rock or the rock’s gonna fall on you.”
In short, Universal United House of Prayer is a record full of joy, grief, faith and despair. If it doesn’t make you feel religious, it should at least make you feel very human.
*Lifeline by Iris DeMent. Iris DeMent? I thought she was dead ...
No, not really. During the past eight years or so, you can find her songs on a variety of soundtracks (The Horse Whisperer and Songcatcher to name a couple) and tribute albums (Jimmie Rodgers, Tom T. Hall) and dueting on records by John Prine, Tom Russell, Steve Earle and her husband Greg Brown.
But until now she hadn’t released an album of her own since 1996 when she gave the world her jaw-dropping “The Way I Should.”
But each impressive new guest appearance just fueled the burning question: “Where the hell is the new Iris album?”
A bad case of writer’s block, she’s said in interviews.
While her distinct, warbling voice is still in fine form, Lifeline doesn’t indicate whether or not DeMent has recovered from her writer’s block. All but one of the songs here are old traditional gospel tunes, many of them public domain.
These are mostly fondly-remembered songs from DeMent’s childhood, songs her mother used to sing.
In her liner notes DeMent writes, “These songs aren’t about religion. At least for me they aren’t. They’re about something bigger than that. There was a great urgency in my mother’s voice when she sang out that came out of desperation, a great need.” DeMent also talks about a “calmness” in her mother after singing.
Backed only by acoustic instruments -- sometimes just her piano -- these songs done her elicit a certain calmness also.
There are familiar hymns like “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Before now I’d always considered this a rather gimpy song. But DeMent pours her soul into it, making it a powerful declaration.
There are obscure songs with odd and ominous titles like “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted” (“I don’t want to get adjusted to this world, to this world/I’ve got a home that’s so much better …”) and “God Walks These Dark Hills.”
And there’s one DeMent original “He Reached Down,” in which she retells the Bible stories like the Good Samaritan and Jesus telling only those without sin to cast the first stone at an adulteress. This is her subtle way of saying that religion is not the sole property of right-wingers.
I hope this signals the end of DeMent’s writer’s block. As the writer of “Wasteland of the Free,” one of the most on-target protest songs of the ‘90s, she is needed.
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