PENNY BLACK UK
For their latest album ‘North East’, the collective of musicians that has already released almost a dozen albums under the name Session Americana has expanded from its usual core of five or six members to eighteen artists contributing to the eleven non-original songs on offer.
To quote the sleeve notes “here the band interprets an array of voices from the Northeast region of the country” and a look down the list of songs will raise many an eyebrow. There are the collective's take on songs written by James Taylor (no great surprise), the wonderful Bill Morrissey (again no real shock), Donna Summer (what?) and Jonathan Richman to name just a handful. So, a diverse set of songwriters having some of their not so obvious songs given the Session Americana treatment is a recipe for success as the results prove.
It appears that ‘North East’ is available on an eleven-track CD and the dreaded digital download that adds three extra tracks. As one of these extra tracks is Carly Simon’s ‘Coming Around Again’, this is the first time ever I think I’d prefer to listen an album streaming through a computer. But I’m missing out on that so we’ll concentrate on the CD.
There’s not a mis-step on the album. While looking down the track list there are a number of songs that while you can’t wait to hear how the collective have worked their magic on, there are others that you think are just not going to work. But they do. Brilliantly. But first mention must go to one of the standouts, one that we just knew the collective would make their own. Patty Griffin’s ‘Goodbye’ is worth the price of entry alone. While in the writer’s hands the backing went some way to offset the sadness in the lyrics, here the longing and hurt in Jennifer Kimball’s voice is heartbreaking, while the music subtly weeping behind her just highlights the pain in her voice. Such is the quality and inspired arrangements of every track here that it’s difficult to pull out just one song for special attention, but Kimball and all concerned have turned this song into an instant classic. It’s an amazing performance from all concerned.
The Everyday Visual's ‘Driving’ shares an almost whispered vocal with the original and the arrangement is similar, but it here displays even more poignancy than writer Christopher Pappas' performance. Both versions create a beautifully chilling atmosphere, but Session Americana have had a decade of listening to the song and the knowledge of what has happened since the original recording and they utilise this to make the song sound even more contemporary. It’s another outstanding, affecting performance.
As for covering Bill Morrissey, up until now unless it was Mark Erelli interpreting the much-missed Morrissey’s work it would be given a wide berth,. There simply wasn’t anyone else who could add anything to perfection, but Session Americana’s take on ‘You’ll Never Get to Heaven’, even shorn of Morrissey’s distinctive vocals which were a major part of the attraction, is a little gem. Zac Trojano doesn’t try to emulate Morrissey’s vocals in any way and in doing so makes the song even more melancholic. The lack of brass and a more country setting actually suit the song.
Of the unexpected tracks, Donna Summer’s ‘Dim All the Lights’ is another standout. The opening section always ranked as one of Summer’s most soulful performances, although the song, once it reverted into usual Summer disco territory lost some of its power, it now sounds very much of its time. I have to confess that I can’t put my finger on the lead singer on this version, but, despite the band keeping the disco influence to a thankfully minimum, it would still fill a dance floor while the vocalist gives Summer a run for her money when it comes to a soulful performance.
Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ adds a country-blues flavour but none of the urgency of the Modern Lovers' cut is lost. In fact, this is the sound of a band enjoying every second of covering this classic in their own way. There’s also a country influence seeping through the collective’s version of the Pixies’ ‘Here Comes Your Man’, again with the band's obvious joy of playing this song shining through.
For once listening to these interpretations doesn’t urge the listener to search out the old familiar versions, but you find that you’re listening with new ears to a bunch of musicians who obviously enjoyed adding their own twist to these well-known songs. As a project, I think Session Americana can consider 'North East' a success.