Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cristian Cuff Chalkboard 2010

My wife and I took a lovely trip to the coast of Maine earlier this summer. Ogunquit, Kennebunkport, Portland, Bar Harbor, and especially Boothbay Harbor were delightful, and included really good seafood everywhere. Boothbay Harbour also had the Eastern Maine botanical garden, a not-to-be-missed stop.

While in Bar Harbor, we discovered a fine little Irish pub (stocking Paddy Irish whiskey, one of my faves) with an interesting bartender who told us his second CD had just been released. So we went back the next day to buy a copy from him. It turns out he is Christian Cuff.

While I don't generally buy much folk music (although Cheryl Wheeler and David Wilcox take up some space on the shelves), Cuff's material best fits into the category chamber folk, or as CD Baby calls it, anti-folk. It has taken me a while to get into the record, but as time and multiple listenings add up, I've come to enjoy much of what is on offer on this interestingly different CD.

Cuff is a folky singer-songwriter and a good guitarist. Joining Cuff on this CD are various musicians on keyboards, bass, guitar, drums, harmonica, vocals, woodwinds, trumpet, baritone horn, and string quartet.

There's not much happiness in the lyrics, but there is also not much cliche in them either. Cuff writes personal stuff quite well, and avoids the most common chord progressions in his music. This keeps things from sounding like "just another" anything, and gives the CD a uniqueness that is welcome.

The real thrill of the CD is the arrangements. Relatively simple songs augmented with string quartet and a variety of instrumental assistance keep the music interesting and varied in a way that simple guitar-based folk often misses. If there is a weakness, it is Cuff's voice, a husky-raspy whispered growl with limited range that nonetheless suits his songs well, and as tools go, it effectively communicates the tension in his lyrics.

South, Hobo Island, Red Rum, For Now, and Awful are standouts, and tend to move along at a slightly more sprightly clip than the others. But the entire CD benefits from the arrangements and that includes the more somber tunes. Cellist Jeremy Harman is consistently excellent, and all of the other musicians serve the music well.

Late night melancholy is soundtracked right here. If you like that sort of thing, this one will serve your listening pleasure.

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