If left to my own devices, I’d probably use the word “sweet” about 37 times in writing this here review of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Andy Revkin’s A Very Fine Line … because it is sweet. Not sugary, a-little’s-too-much sweet, but that savory/sweet like old Slim Chance albums; the kind of sweet that sounds as if it had to be recorded in a cabin where everybody who wasn’t pickin’ or pluckin’ or bowin’ or thumpin’ was knittin’ … and the only reason for a pause between tunes was to throw another hunk of wood on the fire or give the stew a stir: that kind of sweet. One pass through A Very Fine Line and you’ll feel like you’ve known, hung out, laughed, and cried with Andy Revkin for a long time. Which is pretty darn cool.
You may, in fact, know Revkin’s name from his writing in the NY Times, his blog, or his books – but never mind all that (which is a big statement in itself: Andy’s mix of social conscience, knowledge, and humor is a rare gift to us all). We’re here to talk tunes, boys and girls. And Revkin is no wanna-be: the man has paid his dues, from busking the streets of Newport, RI during the mid-70s to picking and singing with Pete Seeger aboard the iconic sloop Clearwater. Revkin’s writings may be what the world best knows him for, but his music is just as much a part of who he is – and, if anything, a stroke in 2011 served as a reminder of just how awry things can go … and inspired Revkin to burrow into his songs even deeper. The result is A Very Fine Line.
What we have here is a tasty mix of roots goulash. Revkin and company never sound like anyone ‘cept themselves, but the vibes they generate may put you in mind of some other makers of marrow music. The left-arm-out-the-window-with-your-heart-on-the-sleeve highway twang of “Grandpa’s Cadillac” (wicked guitar and pedal steel by Joe Johnson and Art Labriola, respectively) and the smart/smart-ass lyrics and low-gear chug of “Liberated Carbon” feel like some good ol’ John Hiatt. The can’t-help-but-sing-along “Bills Bills Bills” could be vintage Commander Cody, with Mark Murphy’s whumping upright bass acting as both carburetor and drive shaft. Bruce Molsky’s fiddle and Murphy’s ominous bass (along with the lightest of percussion from Ken Veltz) ease Revkin’s “Black Bird” into a Railroad Earth-style folk-gothic place, while “Breakneck Ridge”’s swing from up-tempo bounce to minor-chorded simmer might put you in mind of RRE’s Black Bear Sessions. And “Blame It On Biology” could’ve been recorded in a cool and goofy-grinning place where Dan Hicks hangs out with the Tijuana Brass.
But those are just passing flashes – at the same time, those tunes are just as original as Revkin’s “Arlington” (a quick-but-straight-to-the-heart lesson in the history and uncertain future of our nation’s cemetery, featuring guest vocals by Dar Williams); the beer-and-penny-whistle soul-warmer “Between the River and the Rails”; and the title song’s ponderings of life’s quirks, victories, and near-misses (or hits). An amazing cast of friends is woven throughout the album, managing to pull off the neat feat of making their own unique contributions while maintaining sonic continuity. Revkin’s the constant for A Very Fine Line ’s ten tracks (along with co-producer Joe Johnson) and it feels as if he let friendship and mutual respect be the single biggest guiding force for his deep bench of talent.
The album ends with Andy Revkin’s loving tribute to his wife, “Song For Lisa” – featuring Mike Marshall on mando hunkered down with Mark Murphy’s warm upright, just-enough-but-not-too-much drums from Eric Starr, and Revkin’s burbling guitar work. And now’s the time for me to pull out that word I’ve been saving up since the beginning, ‘cause this is truly sweet.
Keep the words coming, Mr. Revkin – you’re doing your part to make folks think. And if it’s not too much to ask … keep the tunes coming, too, would you?
You’re also doing your part to make folks feel.
Brian Robbins sails his make-believe sloop on the waters of www.brian-robbins.com.