Cold River – Cold River
Cold River – Cold River, self-released
Let Me Stay Up All Night – Astrograss, self-released
When do a children’s album and a roots album have much in common? In the case of Astrograss and Cold River, it starts with songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Jordan Shapiro who leads both Brooklyn-based acts. But, it’s not just a matter of a familiar face standing at the microphone, Astrograss’s Let Me Stay Up All Night and Cold River’s self-titled debut swim in rootsy arrangements that give both the impression that they could have formed intact at a local hootenanny that, conveniently, featured likeminded musicians.
While the 16 tunes on Astrograss’s album are intended for the pre-tweens in the audience, it’s just as pleasing to any adult who hasn’t killed off the child inside. A precursor of such a feat can be found years ago with the David Grisman/Jerry Garcia effort, Not For Kids Only, wherein silly songs for the young ones are solid enough that parents don’t gnash their teeth from an excessive number of spins. Astrograss even throws in a couple classic folk songs – “Drunken Sailor” and “Oh! Susanna.” As far as the originals, it’s a combination of songs that exist simply for their Fun Factor (“There Their They’re,” “The Brooklyn Neighborhood Song,” “Piddle Paddle”), some comedy (“Dashboard Corn”), a Dylanesque nod (“The Garbage Van”) and a lesson thrown in for good measure (“Have It The Earth’s Way”). Throughout, the acoustic musicianship is superb, which makes it all worthwhile for those sitting in the driver’s seat and the passengers in back.
Cold River runs in similar Americana territory, but in a place that’s also inhabited by Crazy Horse, Todd Rundgren, Aaron Copeland, The Who, Sonic Youth and Frank Zappa. These are subtle touches to these artists/composers. Still, any sense of recognition doesn’t overwhelm the overall output. “Midnight Train” presents a low key and effective introduction to what Cold River has to offer. The arrangement of the traditional song has a genial feel to it, allowing the listener to immerse inside the lyrics and instrumentation. Covering a couple other traditional numbers “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” and “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” spark with just as much quality even when the former initially blares with the guitar growl normally heard from Neil Young and his brothers in amplification, Crazy Horse.
The only knock to “Cold River” is its ambitious nature can be overreaching. Besides arranging several traditional numbers and writing seven originals, text written by authors is used as lyrics. While vocalists Shapiro and Jennifer Milich make headway through much of it, twisting one’s notes around “With the salubrious odor of honeysuckle!” seems more English Lit than the rest of the album deserves. The musicianship from the sextet balances out such a misstep. “By Frazier Creek Falls,” which uses the text of Gary Snyder, fares better in part to the twists and turns of its engrossing arrangement. Even when the transfer from the literary world to the musical one gets a little rough, the veteran players display the maturity and grace to bring about a flourishing atmosphere that ultimately works like the unfolding plot of a good book.