John Cadley and Cathy Wenthen. Beneath the Willow (independent). Three years ago, local bluegrass musician John Cadley began trading harmonies and guitar licks with the talented—if somewhat less road-tested—singer-guitarist Cathy Wenthen. Cadley, a local advertising executive, was already established as leader of The Lost Boys. Wenthen, a graphic designer by day, was quietly revitalizing the music ministry at Immaculate Conception Church in Fayetteville. They shared an appreciation for traditional songwriting, and their no-frills performance style got them booked in a variety of local venues, from libraries to coffeehouses to festivals.
Cadley and Wenthen now have a loyal following. Anyone seeking refuge from the current deluge of over-produced pop and countrified jingo-anthems can appreciate their fresh take on time-tested material, and Cadley’s original compositions. Their first recording, Beneath the Willow, is a nearly perfect musical snapshot. Recorded at Esperance Recording Studio in Red Creek with producer and bassist Dan Duggan, the disc is sparse, unfussy and sure to please their followers. The voices—Cadley’s warm and pleasantly weathered, and Wenthen’s clear and effervescent—are front and center here. The songs are augmented only by the duo’s guitars, Duggan’s bass and Cadley’s mandolin.
As with their live sets, the couple (yes, in life and in music) chose their material for this project carefully. There’s plenty to please traditionalists, such as the title track and the seminal Bill Monroe/Hank Williams chestnut “Blue and Lonesome”. Better still is “Short Life of Trouble”, a song long associated with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. The duo has clearly made it their own: It’s now a staple of the Cadley-Wenthen set list. Mickey Newberry’s “Why You Been Gone So Long” adds some welcome tempo change to the disc, and Mark Knopfler’s racy “Red Staggerwing,” another highlight from their live show, fits easily with the classic fare.
The pair, who recently became engaged, also impresses with a cover of “Devoted to You”, the uber-romantic Boudleaux Bryant ballad first popularized by the Everly Brothers, and later charted by Carly Simon and James Taylor. This version is charmingly sweet, showcasing the couple’s easy harmonies without venturing into schmaltzy-town.
But the real treats in this collection are Cadley’s own compositions, the wistful “Evening” and “It All Adds Up to You.” The latter, a simply gorgeous tune, is a perfect showcase for Wenthen. Cadley’s lyric, a kind of bittersweet ode to a long-suffering relationship, is the work of a first-rate wordsmith (“He says that you’re the reason/ He’s closed all the doors/ And he knows you’d call it treason/ but he don’t care no more.”). Wenthen’s voice gives the tune levity, balancing the song’s complex emotions.
Those who have seen Cadley and Wenthen perform live could, perhaps, nitpick that there is one more classic that should have been on the disc: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. The couple has stunned audiences with their arrangement of the song since the early days of their musical partnership, and it’s still a set-list favorite. Yet Beneath the Willow still succeeds in accomplishing what all good debut recordings should: It offers a good cross-section of where the musicians are, and hints at what fans can expect in the future. With Cadley’s tunes, Wenthen’s vocal charms, and their combined musicianship, there’s clearly much to look forward to.
The duo will celebrate the release of Beneath the Willow during a CD release party with local bassist John Dancks on Saturday, Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m., at the United Church of Fayetteville’s Steeple Coffeehouse, 310 E. Genesee St., Fayetteville. Suggested donation at the door is $10. For details, dial 637-3186.
Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. Country (Controlled Substance Sound Labs). “One two/ buckle your shoe,” someone chants at the opening of “Sunshine,” as the group gently rolls into Country, a steep departure from their previous CD. Unlike the laid-back, hippie-dance-inspiring reggae grooves of the band’s 2006 indie debut album, Slow Down, Country hits hard on personal lyrics about distant love and Americana instrumentation that suggest some Southern influence on the Rochester-based band. Slide guitar, acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano, percussion, bass and full harmonies join to color Country in imagery of dusty, dirt-road browns and big-sky blues.
Some songs are sweet, with sincere lyrics swaying throughout “Get Me Through”: “Girl, you know that I’ve been missing you/ And you, you’re the only one that’ll get me through/ Oh, and I hope you’re happy, yes I do/ Oh, ‘cause if you’re happy, I am too.” A bouncing tune about the Occupy movement, “Kids in the Square,” provokes with these lyrics: “Time to get living is now/ YouTube the moment try to teach us how/ Run to the square with the people you know and you gotta get moving ’cause the movement’s been slow.”
“Healing” provides a therapeutic bob, with light piano and soft drums complemented by slide guitar, while “All Night Music” harps back to the reggae theme listeners might have been expecting from the start of the record. Expected or not, Country proves the creative versatility of the band’s James Searl, Dylan Savage, Dan Keller, Chris O’Brian and Aaron Lipp, who make the album sound effortlessly natural.
As the “all-night music” fades with someone’s whistle cutting through, it feels like the end of a late-night hangout as the sun comes up and the birds start chirping. Everything about Country feels just as country does: open, fresh and real. And just like the cover album art, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad’s sky is full of rainbows. Amazingly, the group’s next CD, In These Times (Controlled Substance Sound Labs), is already slated to drop on April 10.
Stiv Morgan. When It Rains (Old Boy). Comfort comes to mind when Morgan’s disc slides in the player. When this musician-songwriter sings, the warmth of his soothing voice, with soft vibrato lining the edges, carries like a lullaby through such swooning tunes as “Transition” and “My Angel.” Not every song works like a blanket, wrapping listening ears up in soft tones and tender lyrics, although it seems to be where Morgan lands most naturally. More upbeat tracks, including “I Am the One,” “Marked Twang” and “No Good Dirty Dog,” prove he’s not all mushy stuff, with the album ending on a jubilant high note with “It’s Gone On,” complete with shouting background chorus.
Morgan utilizes Old Boy Records, which works more as a musician collective than a record label, to bring in fellow musicmakers Chris Merkley, Chad Dean and Driftwood’s Claire Byrne and Joe Kollar on various tracks. The additions add further dimensions to Morgan’s guitar and vocals with colorful splashes of violin, mandolin, bass, drums, harp, shaker, banjo and vocals. On “Marked Twang,” Kollar’s banjo defines the country feel of the song and the backing vocals grow behind Morgan as he sings, “It’s a bumpy road, but I’ll give it a go/ And let the holler sing with my guitar strings/ Hear the echo ring it’s my marked twang.” Likewise, Byrne’s solemn violin strings dampen “My Angel,” drawing out the emotion of the lyrics.
Morgan’s album is worth a few rounds of listening, promising new favorites to crop up with each spin. And the comforting tinge still sticks when he sings, “But with a little bit of hope/ And a lot of faith it’ll go your way.” You’ll believe him every time.