When I read the Roberta Schwartz' FAME review of Storyhill's first Red House release (here), I have to admit to being intrigued. It is hard not to be when comparisons are made to the vocal harmonies of early Simon & Garfunkel and the songwriting of Dan Fogelberg. So what did I expect when I received the duo's Shade of the Trees album? You guessed it. Simon & Garfunkel and Dan Fogelberg. I fell into the dreaded comparison trap, something I warn others against all the time. No doubt these guys are not Simon & Garfunkel, but their vocals are as impressive in their own way. And they are not Dan Fogelberg when it comes to the songwriting, but they write at the same level and hit peaks that Fogelberg hit during his musical ride. The comparisons were fair. My expectations weren't.
It didn't take me long to get in line, though. Storyhill (Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson) make up that strange segment of folk which could be pop but isn't. The voices are smoother than the norm, the harmonies outstanding and the songwriting stellar. While they do not conjure up images of Simon & Garfunkel nor Dan Fogelberg in my mind, they go one further. They mirror an era I visit way too seldom, that period in the late sixties and early seventies when the industry grabbed anything and everything and left so many on the platform as the train left the station. I am talking about Compton & Batteau, Batteaux, Prairie Madness, Pacheco & Alexander and a whole slew of artists tossed to the dogs for the profits of what the industry thought more marketable. During that period, it seemed like every week another album by another acoustic act was released only to be thrown on the scrapheap the week after.
Thank the gods those days are past. Not only are the likes of Robin Batteau, Tom Pacheco, Randy Burns and John Batdorf re-emerging, but there is music galore out there from new artists who follow a similar musical path. Artists like, yes, Storyhill. You hear it from beginning to end on this album. Simple acoustic guitar, clear and resonant voices and songs which strike deep and hard. Songs like World Go Round, a throwback to the Parsley, Sage period of S&G. Well of Sorrow, which sounds like Cunningham and Hermanson might have just finished a songwriting workshop with The Rowans. Dangerous Weapon, with Randy Burns-like voice and Phil Ochs-like message. The music on Shade of the Trees is solid, the performance the same and the lyrics are what lyrics need to be to make this more than more-of-the-same.
Should I mention Dan Wilson's production here? While it is true that he has impressive credits (among them Dixie Chicks, Semisonic, and Trip Shakespeare), it appears that what Wilson did was put mikes in front of them and say "sing". It is never that simple, though, and I do have to say that the end result is as much Wilson's as it is Storyhill's, even if what he did was to stay out of the way. Who knows? Maybe he's the one who came up with the minimalist sound. If so, I'll pat him on the back, you bet.
I have to admit that I have not heard the first Storyhill album. Does hearing this make me want to backtrack? Yes, it does. These guys are not just guitar and voices. They are not just folkie songwriters. They are a combination of influences brought into their own musical sphere, knowingly or otherwise, and I've found that that always makes for interesting music. In the case of Shade of the Trees, it is way more than just interesting.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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