California-based guitarist/vocalist/composer/producer Walter Strauss has spent the past fifteen years as a sideman, waiting for the time to present his own compositions both as artist and producer. He has performed as an ensemble musician throughout the United States, Canada and Ireland, touring extensively with Rounder Records' The Burns Sisters Band, in a duo with Grammy(r) nominated Malian kora master Mamadou Diabate (appearing on this CD), and sharing the stage with other &emdash; and better known &emdash; top-notch musicians like Vassar Clements, Martin Simpson, Hank Roberts, and James Montgomery.Pulling Shadows is his first solo effort, a soulful journey of stellar guitar playing and songs suffused with tenderness and wit, a CD that stands up to anything out there from folk-world-roots artists. For his many admirers, it was worth the wait.
Imagine blending the beauty and strength of Bruce Cockburn's fingerstyle guitar playing, the gravity of Joni Mitchell's jazz, and the elegant simplicity of American roots. Strauss wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs, arranged all of them and sings lead on all but the two instrumentals. Most of the tracks open with acoustic guitar that may be joined by percussion or drums, fretless bass, electric guitar, pedal steel, West African kora, horns or flutes. Lyrics touch on themes from nature and ancient cultures to sensual abandon and love. The entire album is performed and produced with a crystalline beauty.
The opening track, In the Stone, practically leaps off the disc in a dance driven by Strauss' earthy, rhythmic guitar and hand drums, fretless bass from Rich DePaolo and kora from Mamadou Diabate. We're shown a magical lost world that's still perceptible in the desert southwest: "Redrock ringing through me / the silver hiss of a million suns / Sandstone totems to nobody." At the tail end of the fade we hear ancient voices, a haunting excerpt from a piece by the American Indian Dance Theater.
Strauss has the rare ability to take us from a wider perspective to a deeper, more personal view, subtly and without artifice. Where the opening track dances, the next one, Spring Song, sways. The first line is riveting: "I saw a newborn owl on a riverbank breathing steam into the air." Bob Carlucci's pedal steel floats over Strauss' electric guitar and DePaolo's fretless bass, accented by percussion from Mike Ricciardi.
Love Puddle is a bold invitation: "I'm aiming for your empathy / the soft spot behind your knee / I'll teach your tongue to Portuguese / I'll hold you up inside of me / If you let me into you." Just try to sit still listening to this! The Buffalo Song, written by Marc Mark Berger, is a melancholy portrait of the great American delusion: "I won't ask which way they went / if you will keep my Buick on the highway / In America your mother can become the president / and you can make your fortune on the phone."
Farthest from folk is The Beast, written in the sarcastic voice of the artist's disabling inner critic. A Latin rhythm is driven by Bill King's excellent drumming and horn arrangement/programming by avant-pop CMP recording artist Andy Rinehart. It's reminiscent of Carlos Santana's Smooth, or Stevie Wonder's Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing. You would never know the horns are sampled, only that a big brass section is in the house.
Deeper in the record I found my favorite, the moody Like Water, with its wash of acoustic and electric guitars, broad stokes of fretless bass, delicate drumming and ethereal background vocals from Uniit Carruyo. The bridge, with it's harmonizing flutes from Ken LaRoche, is like the best of late 70's Mitchell. "Cause we run like water / Right out of here / It's a short ride brother / No matter what we do." Beautiful. Blue Horizon, the closing track (music by Strauss and DePaolo, and lyrics by Strauss and Jonathan Stevens), will stay with you, returning again if your heart is a little bit broken.
Walter Strauss has the scope and musicianship to express himself in multiple genres, and he has the production skills to render each song in a fresh way, without cliché or repetition. Finally emerging from the shadows of sideman and support player, his beautiful solo CD Pulling Shadows has a light that shines very brightly.
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