Sunday, May 11, 2014

Kat's Korner: Childhood Home is an adult classic

Kat:  In the rock era, there aren't a lot of mother & son acts.  True, Elijah Blue appeared in his mother's "If I Could Turn Back Time" video and also performed guitar in her tour band and Cher and Elijah Blue recorded Tommy James and the Shondells classic "Crimson & Clover."  But for a mother and son act, you really have to drop back to the Shondells days to find a mother and son.

No, not Shirley Jones and David Cassidy and The Patridge Family.  Shirley was David's step-mom.  I'm talking about the real group which inspired the TV show The Partridge Family, The Cowsills.

"Hair" was about what The Cowsills could manage -- the title track from the sixties happening cum musical. Bill, Bob, Barry, John, Paul and their sister Susan and mother Barbara made up The Cowsills -- a really family, a real group.  Along with "Hair," their other top 40 US hits were "The Rain, The Park & Other Things," "We Can Fly" and "Indian Lake,"

Then last Tuesday came Childhood Home.

Ellen Harper:  We can walk side by side
You can run, 
You can't hide
The look in your eyes
I know it's true, 
So do you
Ben & Ellen Harper:  If I was hoping 
I'd wish upon a star
If i was looking
I'd know just where to start
If you'd let me 
I'd just love to break your heart

Ellen's her son's guitar.

That's what hit me listening to "Break Your Heart."

Ben is a great guitar player and his playing is similar in tone and phrasing to his mother's voice.

The two team up for the ten track album Childhood Home.  Six of the songs were written by Ben and four were written by Ellen ("City of Dreams," "Farmer's Daughter," "Altar of Love" and "Break Your Heart" are Ellen's four).

Months ago, Ben told Steve Appleford (Rolling Stone), "Not one thing is plugged in.  It's all acoustic.  I think they're going to call it 'Americana,' but it's soul, California, folk rock, American."

I think they're going to call it f**king amazing.

Because it is.

This album has weight and breadth like a classic of the rock era.

Some born to lose
Some born to win
They say we're all born to sin
That's a hard way to begin
But I was born to love you 

I'll be honest, the above is sung beautifully by Ben and there are many times when I first listened that I'd be thrown by the fact that the two performers were mother and son.

There is no rock equivalent for what Ben and Ellen are doing.  You'd probably have to move over to country and The Judds for any form of equivalent.  Like Naomi and Wynonna, Ben and Ellen can harmonize.  Their voices are entwined and when they go off into opposing phrasing it creates a real musical tension.

"Farmer's Daughter" is the political song -- dealing with the banks, the destruction of the small farms and genetically modified food corporation Monsanto.

Speaking with them last week, Brian Ives ( attempts to pimp Bruce Springsteen and compare the album to Twinkie Man's Nebraska.  He can't let go of the topic and will go on to insist that "'Heavyhearted World' felt kind of Nebraska-like" when it really doesn't.

Ellen's "Altar of Love," however, could easily fit on Nebraska -- both in terms of scope as well as sound.

Did Ives even listen to the album?

I don't know.

But before you do, you already know Ben is an accomplished musician who hit new artistic highs with Both Sides of the Gun and has just made amazing strides since.  You could argue Ben owned the '00s and you'd probably face little pushback on that.

The guy responsible for "Diamonds On The Inside" could achieve moments of greatness and was an amazing live performer in the 90s.  But in the '00s he surpassed his influences and became an original artist.

So the big surprise here is that Ellen can hold her own as a singer and as a songwriter with her son still at his zenith.  "Learn It All Again Tomorrow" is my favorite of the songs he wrote for this collection.  He could put this on an EP with "With My Own Two Hands," "Never Leave Lonely Alone" and "Fool For A Lonesome Train" and you'd have four of the most amazing songs of the last 20 years.

If Ellen had been just adequate, it would be an okay album.

But she's so much more than that and the two blend so beautifully that this is a classic album.  It will be on my year's best list come December.

Friday, the two were on World Cafe (NPR) and along with the interview, you can stream three tracks there: "Learn It All Again Tomorrow," "Farmer's Daughter"  and "A House Is A Home."

Note: This is one of three album reviews Kat's offering this weekend.  Already up is "Kat's Korner: Livingston Taylor brings the songs to life" and Sunday night her third review (on Tori Amos' new album) will post.