I didn't like parts of this album at all the first time I listened to it. Indeed, more than once I found myself thinking "what was he thinking?" With repeated listenings, however, I started to get it.
This album is unlike anything Buddy has done before. It is far and away the most ambitious album he has undertaken in his entire career.
Yes, some of the usual suspects show up (Ann McCrary, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Lee Ann Womack, Emmylou Harris and, of course, Julie.
But then there's a bunch of folks you wouldn't expect. First, you've got Bill Frisell (one of jazz's pre-eminent guitarists whose musical roots are very broad and very deep), Marc Ribot (another world-class guitarist whose past work has been labeled no wave, free jazz and Cuban among other things - trust me, Marc doesn't fit in a box any more than Bill does), and Greg Leisz (who plays just about anything with strings exceptionally well). [Greg's steel guitar will make your skin crawl it's so good] Together with Buddy, these four men constitute the Majestic Silver Strings, which will play as a group at the Grammy Museum in LA on Thursday, March 10th (only show scheduled that I know of). Add in Chocolate Genius, a floating member group centered on Marc Anthony Thompson, a New York-based singer/songwriter, and you've got a heck of a mix.
The album (the promo copy I have been listening to) states that it is "Buddy's re-imagination of classic country songs, loaded with guitars, atmosphere, and attitude." That's about as apt a one-line description as you're likely to find. That's also why there's a bit of culture shock at first. Most of these are not typical country arrangements; indeed, some are arguably not country at all (the cover of "Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie's" layered guitars are much more jazz and avant-garde, some of it downright dissonant at times - but it works).
As I've listened to this album I've had a lot of reactions and thoughts. There's a dark, brooding melancholy underlying some of the arrangements and singing. Some of the arrangements are reminiscent of Ry Cooder's "Jazz" album with a real turn-of-the-century 1800s/1900s feel to them ("Meds"). Some are lush and deeply layered, some are pretty stripped down and spartan. You can legitimately say that the album is a hodge-podge, but it all works nonetheless and it's cohesive as an album.
The best songs for me (and these may well change in the future) are Buddy and Ann McCrary's take on "No Good Lover," Marc Ribot's "Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie," the upbeat, jazzy instrumental "Freight Train," Buddy and Marc's "Why Baby Why," and the simple, straightforward "God's Wing'ed Horse" by Buddy and Julie that closes the album. That said, there's not a bad song on the album, just some that aren't quite as effective as others.
I'm sure some A&R moon unit at a super-sized label would have tried to talk Buddy out of working with Bill and Marc, and possibly out of making such an album at all. And on my first listening, I might have agreed. Careful, repeated listenings, however, revealed more and more; it lives up to the old adage, more will be revealed. After 8 full, careful listenings (three with the headphones on), all I can do is shake my head and think "Buddy, ain't that ol' boy something." Indeed, he is.
This album has its flaws and faults, but they are almost completely lost in the huge shadows cast by the sheer ambition of what is attempted and the brilliance of what is achieved. There is an old saying that there is nothing new under the sun; well, this album is something new under then sun and it goes places no one has been before. This is one of the most important albums to be released this year in any musical genre. Plus it's pure pleasure to listen to.
Recommended without any qualification or reservation.