By Brian Arsenault
Randy Sharp, Sharon Rays, Jack Routh and Maia Sharp
Dreams of the San Joaquin (Blix St. Records)
It seems to me that Dreams of the San Joaquin should be the birth of a band. They are that good together, whatever their sterling individual credits and talents. And San Joaquin wouldn’t be a bad band name.
Throughout there are touches of Johnny Cash — Jack Routh penned several Cash songs; Linda Ronstadt, who has recorded the title song; even early Eagles. As Ronstadt once said, there is (or was) a form of California Country music. And Willie could record any number of songs here. But the sound of this album is also uniquely attuned to the band’s members: the married Randy Sharp and Sharon Rays, daughter Maia Sharp and family friend Routh. They variously sing lead vocals and back up and harmonies and a sound emerges that has the sensitivity of C, S & N and the strength of Willie and his Outlaws in their glory days.
All have ties to the San Joaquin Valley which has seen Oakies and Arkies come, multi-generations of Mexican farm workers, and more surprising ethnicities including a substantial Portuguese population, the first Sikh place of worship in America and the only town in California, now gone, founded by African Americans.
Several of the eleven songs such as “Burn Day” and “Between the Ice and the Fire” (wish Cash was alive to cover this one) are about love lost or never realized. There are also echoes of Cash in “Beyond the Great Divide” which isn’t only about geography.
The separation brought on by poverty and the search for work and the too often hopeless dream of togetherness is brought to its highest artistic revelation in the title song:
I’m sending you some money — I wish it could be more
But it’s harder than I thought to find the work I came here for.
The contradiction of a place so beautiful but lousy poor is aching and the longing to be together “in the life we dream about” even more so. Randy Sharp’s understated yet touching vocals seem to have emerged from stoic men in the Dust Bowl era. And guest Louie Ortega beautifully singing the lyrics in Spanish as counterpoint to Sharp’s vocal on the final chorus makes more universal the experience of days, even years of want.
There’s a touch of Roy Orbison musically and lyrically on “New Way Out” wherein an exit from a relationship without pain is sought in vain. And the cowboy harmonies remind you that there once was a form known as Country Western, some would argue it was the first form of Country music.
Maia Sharp has a distinctive quality to her voice that is featured on “A Home”. More about that quality in the review of her own album below, but you’ll need to hear it for yourself if you never have before.
Maia’s Mom, Sharon Bays, lets us know that a bit of drink can make us merry, at least for a while, in “For Old Time’s Sake”. Old times and old timey music are represented on “Or So the Heart Remembers”:
Love just fell apart
Or so the heart remembers.
In the end, though, however fine so many of the songs on this album, there’s a cumulative effect that satisfies at an even deeper level. Though most have that as a goal, there are few albums that emerge as an entity, as a fully realized work of art. This one does.
Keep the band together.
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Change the Ending (Blix St. Records)
I agree with the title but let me start at the beginning:
Maia Sharp just has this really pleasing voice; smooth, clear, alluring, deep and throaty. The kind of voice you wish an early girlfriend had when you mostly talked on the phone.
So when she starts off with two keep-time-bouncing songs, “Me After You” and “The Middle,” I settled in like putting on the first comfortable old sweater of autumn and said ‘I’m really gonna like this.’ And I did. For the most part.
Musically and vocally Maia’s somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Carole King. But this is a better more rounded voice than either. She writes about broken love, lost love, yearned for love, even rising above love. Nothing wrong with that and she makes it all so believable.
Maybe therein lies the trouble. When the songs sound like they are all about your own (dreaded word coming) relationships, the (dreaded word) relationships have to be pretty damn interesting. It’s hard to get outside yourself and by the end I was just a teeny bit bored, even though the lyrics are always intelligent, thoughtful even.
Only on one song does she seem to reach beyond herself and speak to the larger human condition. “Standing Out In A Crowd” touches, with Janis Ian pathos, the problem of self consciousness and fear of not fitting in. Too bad in a way, since Maia wrote it, that the song’s already been someone else’s hit.
But I haven’t said enough good about this album. It’s real good. Maia’s singing throughout is terrific and the band supports her in fine fashion. Guitarist Linda Taylor is a stand out. And for the first half dozen songs this is a great love song album.
It’s just that it saves the dreary, rather self pity songs and an odd little instrumental remix of one of the album’s strongest songs, “Buy My Love,” for the second half. And made me want to… change the ending.
To read more reviews, posts and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.