Album Reviews: Life-Affirming Funeral Music, Bette Midler's Triumph, and Two Auspicious Newcomers

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Paul Kelly & Charlie Owen, Death’s Dateless Night. Last year, Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly delivered Goin’ Your Way, a memorable concert collaboration with ex-Crowded House leader Neil Finn. Now he’s back with another superb collaborative project, this one with guitarist Charlie Owen, who, like Kelly, is a longtime Down Under musician.

The theme is unusual. “We’d talked over the years about making a record together but had never got ’round to it,” the pair explain in a booklet that accompanies the CD. “Driving to a friend’s funeral last year and discussing the songs we’d played on other such occasions separately and together finally gave us our frame. These are the songs we’ve sung for our friends and kin.”

Given the concept and album title, you might expect a morose collection, but if so, you’d be surprised. With the exception of Hank Williams’s set-ending “Angel of Death,” the program leans toward life-affirming material that’s more meditative than melancholy. The 12-track CD includes such classics as Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” the traditional “Pallet on Your Floor,” Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” and Lennon/McCartney’s “Let It Be,” as well as a pair of Kelly originals. He and Owen selected the Williams track, but all of the others were requested at funerals.

Appropriately sparse backup keeps the frequently profound lyrics of these songs front and center. On Kelly’s “Meet Me in the Air,” for example, his effusive vocal is supported just by Owen’s dobro; and on “Angel of Death” Owen’s acoustic guitar and Kelly’s singing are the only sounds you’ll hear. 

These are all heartfelt, beautiful performances. And their focus is not so much on death but on the essence of all that precedes it.

Bette Milder, The Divine Miss M. Bette Midler’s newly reissued debut album caused a stir when it first appeared in 1972, and it’s easy to see why. After years of club performances, she was already a polished vocalist—and an impressively versatile one.

On the album, she captures the spirit of early rock with covers of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance,” the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love,” and the Shangri-las’ “Leader of the Pack.” She also revives the Andrews Sisters’ World War II hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”; delivers an anguish-soaked reading of Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell’s “Superstar” (best known for the Carpenters’ hit version); and even throws John Prine’s touching “Hello in There” into the mix. Not only does she hit the right emotional and stylistic notes with all of this disparate material; she somehow makes it seem natural for it to appear on one record.

This reissue’s bonus disc, which features nine demos and early, alternate, and single versions, adds no large thrills or revelations, but the sometimes campy and frequently theatrical performances on the original album still sound charming, clever, and well executed.

Pony Hunt, Heart Creak. Jessie Antonick, who performs and records under the name Pony Hunt, delivers major delights on this ethereal and winning debut album. Staking out territory that’s simultaneously redolent of Cowboy Junkies, Julee Cruise (who delivered the Twin Peaks theme), and fifties outfits like the Fleetwoods and Teddy Bears, she incorporates elements of folk, country, and especially early pop and doo-wop. This is rich, understated music, a series of sweet meditations on love and life that will leave you hungry for album number two.

Karrie, Perpetual Motion. British vocalist Rumer is reportedly a fan of this Irish singer, which doesn’t surprise me. They share a romantic pop sensibility—though better reference points for Karrie might include Joni Mitchell, Shelby Lynne, and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. Karrie, whose moody, soulful vocals shine throughout this varied program, also proves to be a fine songwriter on the introspective, all-originals set, which features full band backing and favors complex melodies and incisive lyrics about relationships.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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