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Carolyn Wonderland – Peace Meal

Bismeaux Records

12 tracks; 50.28 minutes

Carolyn Wonderland follows up her well received 2008 “Miss Understood” album with this new offering which places her strong vocals in a series of tough songs, many of which tackle some difficult themes lyrically. Carolyn handles all vocals and guitar duties with her regular band members Cole El-Saleh on keyboards and Rob Hooper on drums. Bass duties are split between Lincoln Schleifer, Glenn Fukunaga and, Mark Epstein with Cole El-Saleh doubling up on key-bass on two tracks. Producer of her previous CD Ray Benson (Asleep At The Wheel) returns to produce seven of the tracks in collaboration with Sam Seifert. Larry Campbell (who helped relaunch Levon Helm’s career) produced four tracks and Michael Nesmith (Monkees) produced one. The recordings were made at Benson’s studio in Austin TX and at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock NY. Six of the tunes are Wonderland originals alongside covers including Dylan, Joplin and Waters.

Carolyn has something of the ‘Joplin growl’ to her singing, so it is not surprising to find that the opening cut is one of Janis’ songs, albeit a relatively obscure one, “What Good Can Drinking Do?”. Interestingly this is in fact the first time she has covered Janis, despite the obvious comparisons. Apparently Carolyn always felt too in awe of Janis’ reputation until she was invited to perform in a Janis tribute event in 2009. She does a great job on the song which tackles head on one of the problems that drinkers have – drinking does not actually solve the problem: “I drink down the bottle, but the next day I still feel blue”. The song starts off in acoustic mode with plenty of piano, mandolin (Producer Larry Campbell), lap steel (the splendidly named Cindy Cashdollar) and acoustic guitar before some nice electric guitar comes in on the solo.

The other three tracks produced by Campbell include two originals. “St Marks” is a catchy tune with strong guitar riffs and an impassioned vocal: “If love and peace were so easily reached the world would go the way that we do” may be the source of the album title. “Shine On” is a gentler affair, far more country in approach, again with excellent piano and organ playing supporting the vocals: “Shine on little starlight, shine on without care, ‘cos if you’re not there I’d be left alone.” As the last track on the CD it leaves the listener with a warm feeling of optimism. However, the centrepiece of the Campbell produced quartet is “Golden Stairs”, an obscure song written by one-time Grateful Dead keyboard player Vince Welnick and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter which clocks in at over seven minutes. The track opens with stately piano and pedal steel (Campbell) and a genuine feel of the Dead in their more reflective moods (“You don’t need no light to climb those golden stairs”) before Carolyn’s passionate gospel-infused vocal raises the stakes towards the end of the track. Her guitar playing is also excellent, matching the mood created by the band perfectly. Definitely a high point on the album!

The one song produced by Michael Nesmith is, rather surprisingly given his usual style, a cover of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom”. It’s a short version but a really good one. Carolyn’s slide playing and singing are spot-on and there is some great piano too.

The Benson/Seifert tracks include four originals. First up is “Victory Of Flying”, a hard rocking track which features some striking guitar playing against the driving drums. “Only God Knows When” follows immediately with both Carolyn and Cindy Cashdollar on lap steel and a lyric that again tackles issues of peace and understanding. Carolyn’s solo and the honky tonk back beat reminded me of Little Feat. “Usurper” has sparse instrumentation, the keyboards giving a moody, rather downbeat feel to the song. “No Exception” is a co-write with keyboard player Cole El-Saleh and starts with a much more upbeat feel, ringing guitar chords riding over the keyboards.

The covers include Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning”, one of the less well known songs from “Blood On The Tracks” and “Two Trains”, again, one of Muddy Waters’ songs that is not often revisited. “Two Trains” starts off with the riff from “You Don’t Love Me” (as on the Allmans’ “Fillmore East”) and builds up a real head of steam as Carolyn switches between low voiced and sultry to full throttle roar. “Meet Me In The Morning” takes a more restrained approach but contains possibly the best guitar solo on the whole album. The final cover is “I Can Tell” credited to Samuel Smith, but usually considered a Bo Diddley tune (or at least a collaboration). Carolyn takes the song at a more leisurely pace than one often hears and I found the version very effective. The sleevenotes state that she learned both the Muddy and Bo songs from Little Screamin’ Kenny (Kenny Blanchet) when she was a kid and give credit to Kenny’s influence on the arrangements for the album.

Overall I liked this CD. Carolyn is a good guitarist and has a strong voice though one that might not appeal to everyone. I know that she and her band have been very active on the live scene and I would expect this album to be the one that breaks into a larger audience for her music.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music.

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