|Eric Kufs - Dust Bowl o' Cherries Vol. 1: A Lonesome Traveler|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Saturday, 01 July 2006|
release year: 2006
label: Common Rotation
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein
There are plenty of unplugged albums out there, but Eric Kufs’ debut solo album is actually … unhoused. Recorded on the streets of Los Angeles – primarily in and around Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade – Dust Bowl o’ Cherries manages the neat trick of conveying the essence of the folk music busking experience while still sounding crisp and clean. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Kufs – who is otherwise still alive and well with performing partner Adam Busch in the band Common Rotation – offers up his vocals and guitar-playing chops unadorned as he performs for passersby with their varying degrees of interest. The results are intensely live and immediate in a way that no studio album and few concert recordings can approach.
As Common Rotation fans know, Kufs has a soulful, melodic voice with just a hint of country twang when the piece calls for it. His lyrics have the inventive, continually unexpected imagery of a Warren Zevon or even Dylan, while the original tunes reflect folk influences – with some country – from the ‘30s to the present.
The opening track, “Captain’s Arrival,” is a wistful musing on the uncertainty of life in general and the hazards of human behavior – “When we get hungry/We eat the atom down to the core” – with the suggestion that the narrator is waiting for something he can finally believe in. The music is gentle, precise finger-picking in the style of early Simon and Garfunkel. The vocals are strong and we hear each finger strike on the guitar strings, the mix containing just enough ambient sound to let us know we are in a public place, with some low conversation and people occasionally dropping objects in the background.
“I Saw That Film” is performed in a much livelier style, looking back on rowdy old times – the refrain goes “Damned if we ever sang in tune” – with rueful perspective and fast, accurate strumming. “Everything Under the Sun,” which Kufs has described elsewhere as “an apocalyptic love song” (a different live version is available on Common Rotation’s Clear Channel CD), has buoyant finger-picking as Kufs sings simultaneously of what sounds like the imminent end of the world and how his love is “everything under the sun.”
“Pawn” has a country waltz musical texture, with slow strumming underlying lyrics protesting innocence – “I’m just a pawn in somebody’s game.” In what is surely an unplanned bit of synchronicity, a car can be heard driving through the background as Kufs sings of “the times of the car chase.” There’s also a verbal tag with a helpful security guard trying to direct Kufs away from both traffic and competing street musicians. “Normal Sea” is a quietly haunting number, with beautiful, precise string work – recorded so clearly we can hear each slide and finger strike – with the elegiac refrain “lesson learned, lesson learned.”
“Given Signs” starts with a deceptively sprightly, folksy instrumental intro before segueing into the deeper water of its theme and refrain, though there is humor here in both lyric and performance, as Kufs grouses in the verse, “Yeah, all right, I’m leavin’.” The music sparkles at the end in a flurry of notes that belie the melancholy of the song’s body. “Lonesome Traveler” has both the sound of real old-time folk and the feel of a hymnal, with the plaintive declaration “I am a lonesome traveler/I take no high road home …” “The One I Left Behind” is a semi-regretful, semi-playful ode to a failed relationship, with our narrator confessing “I’m not strong enough to miss her,” while observing “One can count the ways to and from her in time …”
“Union Dues” is the liveliest cut on the album, opening with an energetic, sparky guitar lick before turning into an infectiously rhythmic toe-tapper with clever rhymes that can be taken as a paean to the working man, a comment on what it takes to stay in a relationship (the “union” of the title), or both. The track ends with another mall guard, this one cranky, warning Kufs to move before he gets run over. “The Same Prayer” starts musically a bit like a Jim Croce ballad, with an echo-y quality unique to this track. The lyrics about stoicism and self-effacement – “Got one prayer for the careful/One prayer for the weak” and “You can learn to sing softer/You can learn to stand still” – produce a glimmer of hope in the end, as we are advised, “Don’t you learn to stand still …”
“Locks and Fields” returns to a country feel, with lyrics that mix wry observations about damage with a sense of mischief. The track expands to include a conversation between Kufs and a passing listener who claims to be a bodyguard from Nashville and borrows the guitar for a few bars. Like the interactions with the guards, this serves to give Dust Bowl o’ Cherries a context that most albums don’t even consider. These are not just anonymous audience members but individuals with their own points of view, as idiosyncratic as the songs that surround them here.
“No One Like You” is the only track on the album recorded indoors – it’s in a living room rather than a recording studio (per a note physically printed on the disc itself) – but the environment gives it a different timbre than the rest of the cuts. Kufs is joined here by frequent Common Rotation bandmate Jordan Katz, who contributes slow wah-wah jazz trumpet that merges pleasurably with Kufs’ guitar. What is perhaps best described as a reluctant love song is filled with short, telling observations on the surrounding lifestyle: “Drinks that knock you over/And never pick you up on time …”
“Heaven Help Me,” an upbeat agnostic song regarding the lack of supernatural interaction in life, contains twinkling guitar picking from Kufs, which seems precise and springy despite his verbal protestation at the beginning of the track that after eight hours of performing, his singing and playing “aren’t as good.” The last track, “Victims,” features more slow-folk picking and plucking, which contrasts bass and high notes beautifully in a gently-sung wish that people would stop harming themselves and one another: “What if no one was a victim/ Of anyone else?” As the song fades away, an ice cream truck drives by, canned music playing, reminding us again of the surrounding world.
Dust Bowl o’ Cherries is in both its content and its presentation the epitome of a strong contemporary folk album. The songwriting is powerful, the performance is captivating and the framework of performing for those who stop to listen is a potent, straightforward statement about the roots of this musical form.
Given the challenges of the unpredictable, non-amplified set-up here, it’s tempting to give producer/sound recorder Brian Speiser (known for his work with They Might Be Giants) a 10 for achievement, though of course this does not have the sonic quality of music recorded under more controlled circumstances. We hear Kufs’ voice strongly and each fingered note, each plucked string, without ever losing the idea that we’re hearing this in a public venue. Entering the room with this album playing, it’s as though we’re passing along the sidewalk as Kufs performs, a charming, transporting sensation that a studio album would be hard-pressed to replicate. Is this 5.1 discrete nirvana? Nothing of the sort. Is this a unique and captivating album? Absolutely.
(Unless you live in the Los Angeles area where giant Amoeba Music seems to stock it, you may have trouble locating Dust Bowl. Go to: www17.serrahost.com/servlet/commonrotationcom/Categories and tell ‘em AVRev sent ya.