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an overlooked treasure
Black Diamond (Birdcage)
By Bob Bahr
Discovering an album like this is the absolute best part of being a music journalist. Stan Ridgway's album is getting no radio airplay to speak of, no national press attention of significance, and most of the people that I've played it for hadn't even heard of it. And "Black Diamond" is certainly one of the best albums I've heard this year. Boy, am I glad Birdcage Records sent me this disc.
Ridway, the eccentric singer/songwriter who fronted Wall of Voodoo (as in "Mexican Radio") and collaborated with drummer Stewart Copeland on the sparkling movie soundtrack for "Rumblefish," has put out several albums alone and with his band Drywall since the peak of his notoriety in 1982. The dark, brooding tone and tasteful musicality of "Black Diamond" will have me seeking out the rest of Ridway's catalog. The lyrical complexity of "Knife and Fork" is reason enough; Ridgway's overture to a prospective lover moves stealthily from creepy to playful to desperate, effective in every facet explored. Single-minded ponderings on love, lust and pain can make for great songs, but few artists can reflect the true diversity of emotions a human feels at any given time.
Ridgway can. Sometimes it's done from a very personal perspective, as in "Knife and Fork" or the lament for Kurt Cobain titled "Gone the Distance." Other times the tales are told with an objectivity unreachable for even the most detached journalist, as in the tragic "Down the Coast Hwy," which ends in a confused criminal's quick death, or in "Big Dumb Town," which sketches the long-term effects of being too smart for your own good.
Musically, Ridgway mixes atmospheric keyboard effects and subtle drum machine parts with acoustic guitar and piano to create what has been described as a modern film noir setting. As a producer, Ridgway is like a quirkier Daniel Lanois, the New Orleans master of mood. Bob Dylan's best modern record, "Oh Mercy," was produced by Lanois and blends music with great lyrics in a fashion similar to the work on this disc. Ridgway doesn't have the innate lyrical brilliance of Dylan, but he's close. The Dylan connection is more obviously visible in Ridgway's cover of "As I Went Out One Morning," a Dylan tune that communicates volumes through suggestive and decidedly ellipital images.
But where Dylan keeps a tight rein on his manic side, Ridgway embraces it. "Crystal Palace" will have you wondering about the song subject's sanity; "Man of Stone" is about the ghost of willpower that Ridgway's character seeks inside himself, but only glimpses outside his window. Throughout the album, Ridgway darts from a confessional stance to a wry, observational perspective. Everything works, even a sentimental paean to Johnny Cash's late guitarist, Luther Perkins. Man, am I glad I own this album.