Rockwells and Picassos
by Carey Driscoll
Joe Rathburn is a singer/songwriter/guitarist from the San Diego area, and this is his second CD. Eleven of the twelve tracks are self-penned, with a nice cover of Michael Smith's The Dutchman closing the album. Although there are occasional appearances of an electric guitar and organ, this is basically an acoustic, folk-based album.
The opening track, Call it a Miracle, calls to mind David Crosby, with its spacy musical feeling. Lyrically, it states one portion of Joe's philosophy on life (as confirmed to me by none other than Mr. Rathburn): "Everything we hear, smell, touch, taste, and see is a miracle, and we damned well ought to appreciate that fact." The next track, a musically good-vibe, acoustic guitar and percussion song called Together, covers his overall philosophy -- the "common thread throughout my music": "We're all in this together, let's make it a better world."
As a matter of fact, from many of the song titles alone, you can pretty well get the Rathburn philosophy: What Don't Kill Ya" (Makes You Stronger); (Never Will) Kill This Thing; The Way of the World; and Every Little Vict'ry sing the praises of a positive outlook - of a cup that's not only half full, but often overflowing - if you just choose to see it that way.
The production is top-notch, with the participation of some of San Diego's upper echelon of the acoustic scene, most notably Jeff Berkley (guitar, percussion, and co-producer with Rathburn) and the ubiquitous, multi-instrumental wizard Dennis Caplinger. I'd like to make another comment, one I hope other singer-songwriters will take to heart: inasmuch as song lyrics are typically a major factor in songwriting of this genre, including the lyrics (as Rathburn has done, on the booklet as well as his web site) makes it a lot easier for listeners to get his meanings and messages.
Rathburn has a good, though maybe not "great" voice, but whatever it might (slightly) lack in excellence is more than made up for in performance characteristics, none of which are unnatural or forced in any way. The sound - the timbre and tone - of his voice is very appealing. All of the playing, and the recording quality, is excellent.
In conclusion, Rockwells and Picassos should appeal to any fan of the acoustic-based singer-songwriter genre who doesn't feel that one has to write "woe is me, the world sucks" songs to be "real." I liked this album upon first listen, and I've liked it more with each subsequent exposure. Rathburn's songs, whether serious or humorous, are always presented in a light manner and mood, and are never preachy. You can enjoy them just for the music, get into the lyrics, or anything in between - but enjoy them you will. There literally isn't one song that I feel a desire to skip over, and that's saying a lot when compared to many others, including big-name artists.