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Tucson Weekly Soundbites

By Stephen Seigel

MAY 3, 1999: 

HONEST FOLK: The last several years have given us more folk-rock singer/songwriters than the mid-'70s California heyday of James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, the Eagles and Warren Zevon, not to mention those outside the L.A. vanguard: Canadians Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Easterners Carole King, Neil Diamond and Paul Simon, and the occasional Brit like, say, Cat Stevens.

The social climate has certainly changed since the utter sincerity of most of those voices first rang out, and many of the very same eventually got restless. Young, Mitchell and Waits began experimenting; Taylor, Browne and especially Neil Diamond--who's made a latter-day living playing Vegas-sized live shows for middle-aged women--all went the adult contemporary route; and Cat Stevens, bless his heart, converted to Islam and wholeheartedly supported the death warrant on Salman Rushdie. And this from a guy who once wrote the lyrics, "Ride on the peace train." It's more ironic than a hit song by Alanis Morisette, doncha think?

Which brings me (finally, you say) to the point: In the '90s, everything is ironic. Nobody wants to be a singer/songwriter anymore, because the tag implies an earnestness that went out of style long ago. Indeed, many of our most vital contemporary singer/songwriters are cloaked in some other genres, both by their labels (who seem to have determined that "singer/songwriter" spells instant marketing death) and critics who simply can't vie up to actually liking someone so obvious. It's just not cool anymore.

But when it all comes down, Vic Chesnutt, Cat Power, Greg Brown, Richard Buckner, Smog, Lucinda Williams, Ani Difranco, Liz Phair, Beck, Elliott Smith, hell, even Alanis are all--albeit some more than others--folk-rock singer/songwriters.

So it's kind of refreshing to come across someone who actually presents himself as an irony-free, contemporary folk-pop artist. David Wilcox, who has recorded for A&M and Fresh Baked/Koch Records, has just released his Vanguard Records debut Underneath, which is his seventh album to date. And there's no irony in the fact that Wilcox ended up on Vanguard, a label known for its folkie leanings.

I'll be honest. I made the mistake of reading the lyrics before listening to the disc, and was instantly put off by their bold sincerity. But after hearing the heartfelt opening lines of the first song, "I know that compassion is all out of fashion/and anger is all the rage..."--a voice I can't help but compare to James Taylor's--I was a changed reviewer.

Perhaps that's the ultimate difference between a poet and a singer/songwriter: for the poet it's all on the page, while song lyrics don't offer a complete picture without their musical accompaniment. Wilcox's music offers a perfect tandem. Using lots of open tunings--a trick he learned from Joni Mitchell--and a self-designed capo which covers only certain strings, there's a certain sadness underlying most of his songs (with the occasional upbeat anomaly like the R&B-influenced "Never Enough").

Wilcox is not a poet, but he's a damn fine singer/songwriter, who's earned his place on that esteemed post-'70s short list. Somehow he's escaped, even in the irony-drenched '90s, with a salable sincerity intact.

MATHENY'S MAGIC: When I was a kid and knew absolutely nothing about jazz, I was often struck by the melancholy sound of the flugelhorn, usually as background music in films. The problem was that I didn't know what a flugelhorn was. I knew what a tuba sounded like, and a trumpet, and a trombone; but any horn that didn't fit one of those distinct sounds, I just figured was a saxophone. I searched and searched for a sax-dominated record to fit those melancholy moods, something with that distinctive, sad sound, but all to no avail. And while I discovered a lot of great jazz in the process, I didn't discover that dark, late-night record that would elevate my mood to something filmic. I've finally found it: Dmitri Matheny's Starlight Cafe (Monarch Records).

This is the album I've spent a lifetime looking for. Playing flugelhorn exclusively--a first cousin to the trumpet, but with a mellower tone--Matheny is backed by Darrell Grant on piano and Bill Douglass on bass. Their sound I can only describe, in the best sense of the word, as pretty. Don't get me wrong: nothing offends my musical sensibilities more than light jazz (or smooth jazz, if you prefer). But this is no light jazz; this is real jazz imbued with an increasingly rare beauty.

And to top it all off, Matheny originally hails from Tucson (though he now lives in more temperate San Francisco). It's difficult to blame him for leaving: since his relocation, Matheny has almost unanimously wowed critics, counting amongst his recent accolades being named one of four Best New Artists in the JazzTimes Magazine Readers' Poll, and Talent Deserving Wider Recognition in the Down Beat International Critics' Poll.

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