Monday, January 30, 2012

Severin Browne - "LUCKY MAN - A Songwriter's Notebook" - CD Review

At the end of every calendar year, there is always a rush by artists to get their new CDs released in time for holiday gift-giving and, this year, among my most-anticipated releases was the new Severin Browne CD, which we had purchased as a pre-order. With it now in hand and having listened to it numerous times, I notice a very apparent error!  No, the songs are all great and there are no bad notes here; my problem is with the title. While "Lucky Man" is a VERY appropriate title, being the name of the killer opening track, my beef is with the subtitle, "A Songwriter's Notebook". To me the concept of a "notebook" gives connotations of unfinishedness, a work-in-progress glimpse at the artist at work, and that certainly is not a very good description of this CD. With the well-honed perfection of these songs and the wide array of styles  and feelings they incorporate, "A Songwriter's TEXTBOOK" would have been a MUCH more apt description!!!

So, now that my ridiculously cute opening paragraph has hopefully grabbed your attention, let me tell you a bit about this wonderful collection of songs by one of the best songwriters around. For those unfamiliar with Severin and his work, he has spent the better part of four decades as a professional songwriter and was a staff writer for Motown  many years ago. The discipline he learned back in those days has given him  a real depth of musical experience to draw from in creating and arranging this remarkable bunch of tunes. The first thing that will grab you about these songs are the amazing variety of styles and feels these songs encompass. From tender ballads to uptempo rockers, from cosmic folk tunes to bouncy calypso, from Cajun raveup to bluesy soul vamps, Severin is able to find just the right voice to tell the story at hand in the most effective manner.  What always strikes me about his music, whether enjoyed live in concert or recorded on CD, is how the performances are always about the SONG, not the singer or the instrumentals. Severin's singing can be deceptive in its strength. He will never wow you with vocal fireworks, like hitting big huge notes or soaring to incredible high notes or the like. Instead the "everyman" warmth in his voice helps lend these songs a universality that would be less effective delivered in a bigger voice. But please don't misunderstand what I'm saying, I have NEVER heard the man sing a bad note in countless performances both live and recorded over many years. He has a GREAT voice that I know is capable of much more than we ever hear, but he uses restraint to serve the purpose of the tune with no distractions. Similarly, while Sev is one of the best guitarists you'll ever hear, he is content to let his incredible side musicians play the solos and provide the background coloration, while he concentrates on the message in the song.

Now that we have established that Sev is all about the songs, lets examine these great tunes a bit. I could write on and on about each and every song here, but I know I tend to get too wordy when I'm this enthused about music. I will only describe a few of my personal favorites so I won't bore any of you, but each and every song on this CD is praise-worthy in its own way and deserves your careful attention. The CD starts with the title song, "Lucky Man", a jazzy musical morality play which features Gary Popenoe's plaintive harmonica work underscoring the twists of the ironic story of the lyrics. Its a perfect opening tune to draw the audience into Severin's view of the world. The song "Calypso Rose" lets us know that we will travel the world appreciating his songs, a full-blown Calypso rocker complete with steel drums and infectious rhythms that make you want to get up and do the limbo all by yourself!!!  Some songs are more about FUN than anything else, which makes a terrific release from the "seriousness" of some of the other tunes.

"To The Light" is a song Severin penned along with Freebo, James Lee Stanley and David Roth. We have also heard Freebo and James perform this tune both live and on record, but I think Severin's version is the best of all! His breezy delivery of this "cosmic"  new-age sounding song keeps the message grounded in every-day realities, steering the song from over-blown philosophy into the realm of a much more personal universe, without sacrificing the "cosmic" feel. This a superbly crafted song that features a chord progression that is at once unusual and totally logical, which again, perfectly underscores the lyrical content.

One of the most personal songs on the CD, "I Am Not Cactus", takes a metaphor and runs free with it, comparing the walls with which we protect ourselves emotionally to the protection that the spines give a cactus. The simple melody and chord progression, the spare production and Severin's warm vocal delivery are one of the most starkly beautiful expressions of vulnerability you will ever hear!

Do you know what is the most recognizable song in the English language? "Happy Birthday To You" has generated a huge amount of royalties over the years and is maybe the song most firmly entrenched in our Western culture. So who would be able to replace this song for us?  Sometimes the most simple, straight-forward sentiments are the hardest to express. No worries, Severin Browne is on the job and more than up to the task! "Britta's Birthday Song" is a brave attempt to come up with an a grown up song to celebrate our personal milestones in song and it succeeds on every level:

"The longer it steeps, the better the tea, the more time that the sauce can slowly simmer naturally, Today we celebrate another year, Happy birthday!"

Wow! This is simply ASTOUNDING songwriting! I hope that this eloquent expression of the upside of aging and the celebration of the lives of our loved ones will replace the old standard at future parties in my circle of family and friends!

The next highlight is a stop at the back alleys of New Orleans for a Cajun rocker, "Cat Woman", with its tales of love and fast food and felines, this song has been a crowd-pleasing staple  of Sev's live act for years. Its another tune that is just a lot of fun, from a serious songwriter who never takes himself all that seriously. On songs like this or "Calypso Rose" you can hear Sev's years of experience as a bandleader and these songs have a "live" feel and immediacy to their groove that only hundreds of live gigs can impart to a tune. I need to stop and mention the great musicians and background vocalists that Severin has assembled to add some serious polish to some already gleaming songs. There are too many different players here for me to mention them all, but the list of names resembles a Who's-Who in SoCal music circles and includes some players that are particularly favorite to me. In a business climate that lends itself to down-sizing and do-it-yourself technologies, it is a singularly refreshing and wise decision that Severin made in bringing in all these pros and it has a wonderful effect on every moment on this CD.

The next song on the CD, "Dear Ruthie", could very well be my favorite Severin Browne song and maybe just one of my favorite songs by anyone! Another seemingly simple tune that is utterly perfect in its construction and starkly beautiful in its execution, and whose emotional  "pay-off" at the end avoids over-the-top sentimentality mainly by virtue of Severin's perfect vocal delivery and the inevitabilities built into the structure of the song. The same tune written by less of a craftsman would never work, but this gem never fails to bring a tear to this jaded, cynical reviewer's eye! I am being purposely vague on the "story" of this song, since it is best experienced for the first time without knowing where the story is headed. I remember Sev saying once in a live show that that night was the first time in years that he had performed it, and it still blows me away that a songwriter could discard a tune of this magnitude! In a review of that live show, I wrote that, to me, that was "like Michelangelo leaving the Sistine Chapel out of his portfolio"!

Well, hitting just these seven "highlights" has left me neglecting some really great songs, because this CD has no filler at all. The remaining six songs, stated as succinctly as I can, include the nostalgic drinking song "Enough For Us", the blue-eyed soul of "Is It Really True" seems to hearken back to Sev's Motown days, "Don't Give Up On Me Virginia" with its bluesy boozy vibe, "The Other Man" a beautifully dark, minor key ballad with its wonderful "pirate" metaphors, "When It's Right It's Right", another gorgeous simple melody with wonderfully optimistic lyrics and finally "Lessons" a heart-felt finale of a tune with its child-like questioning and questing.

So there you have it, thirteen exquisitely crafted tunes that embrace  an amazing breadth of styles and feels and are recorded with all the love and care they deserve by some of the greatest musicians around! Like I said originally, a veritable "Songwriter's Textbook"  delivered by the old master himself, Severin Browne!  There is a lot to be learned here, please get yourself a "textbook" and see what lessons YOU can learn!

Here is a link to Severin Browne's website where you can learn more and purchase the CD directly from the artist!

And here is a link to a video I shot of Severin accompanied by Ed Tree  doing "Lucky Man" at Russ and Julie's House Concerts on 11/11/11

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