For many years, from the late ’70’s to the mid ’90’s at least, bands and artists seemed to be constantly trying to outdo each other as to how much money they could spend recording and producing an album. What started comparatively modestly with the then-huge budgets afforded bands like Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac later spiraled out of control as bloated act after act tried to spend as much as they could adding whatever gee-gaws they could to record their latest disaster-piece. Now, I am not talking about indie acts but mostly music released on the big labels at the time. Also, note that this endless spiraling of costs conspicuously coincided with the best money-making years of the music business and was a game played with artists as the labels wanted their artists to spend as much as they could so more could be recouped before any of these misguided artists got paid. Eventually, this spending proved their undoing as the business now sits, wasted and spent, headed towards certain extinction as the power of the Net has put business in the hands of the musician finally.
Enter artist Robert Valente, who seemingly prefers his music bare-bones and raw, which makes sense right now, with the music business in its’ huge sort of insanely terrible flux. Not that Valente seems to care a whit about the “music business” per se – this is music from an artist who sounds as if he recorded his album on his back porch. Which is not a bad thing, I guess, just a very interesting and often unsettling one, but in the way of the music being immediate and downhome, not in a “bad-quality” sort of way.
A raggedy-sounding down home country tune starts the album off, a song called “Gospel Man.” Production is not really there and the band seems to speed up and slow down a little more than they should. Nothing wrong with some country blues with a dash of folk but I guess I am thinking it shouldn’t be quite this ragged, at least not if they want airplay anyway. The Grateful Dead is gratefully dead, after all, and that sound is pretty passe. Pretty infectious and fresh, though, I gotta say.
The next song “True Again” starts in a bluesy, Canned Heat sort of way and the vocals remind one of Heat as well as Valente’s voice is high and keening. Some great fiddle breaks on this song though, giving it a real good country flavor. The third song “You Don’t Know” is a rockabilly stomper with more emphasis on country than rock due to a plethora of ringing acoustic guitar. This song sounds the most “solid” of the three so far and the closest thing to a song that could get airplay, even though the production is not what you would call “radio ready”.
“The Answer” is next, and is more folky than the rest of the others up to this point, and has a old-style mid-’60’s folk-boom feel to it. Sounds like an old song, which is saying something about Valente’s songwriting abilities. Great songwriting here, at least for that style. The next song is “Love Has A Way” and again is quite folky, but has tinges of the Byrds in the delivery, though much more traditional than most of their stuff and with female harmony accompaniment on the vocals. “Country Singer” comes next, and pretty much covers the style in the title. Valente has a good voice for old-style country and sounds at home in the style, though I am wondering how good this album would have sounded with T-Bone Burnett or Eric Ambel producing. “Alive,” the title song, is next and has the same ragged feel as the first couple of songs. While it sounds good in context, it has a sound almost as if these songs are unfinished and maybe the arrangements have yet to be fully worked out, as if these are demos. Fiddle does a great job on this song and adds depth to the band and album overall.
“This Old World” is next and starts out folky, with guitar and piano and voice – interesting song, with a very old-timey feel going. Valente and crew have a great “old-country” sound down as the music sounds as if it is being played in the early 1900’s. “In Your Mind” starts with some somber piano before voice and acoustic guitar join the proceedings. Valente’s plaintive, keening tenor works best on this song, adding a gravitas and a little certain something the other songs seemed to lack. The harmonies by the female singer are spot-on as well. Great song. The next song is called “Candy” and is sort of a throwaway compared to the seemingly more serious themes elsewhere on this CD but music has always been about love lost and found so who knows? Last song is “Take My Heart” is a cross between a hymn and a lullabye and a fitting way to end this curious CD. The CD seems “out of time”, recorded with new methods and equipment but displaying a sensibility as old as a redwood.
Though I think I “get” what Valente is doing, I feel his allegiance to his bare bones recording method may be Valente’s undoing as far as widespread acceptance. He indeed may feel the sound he is going for, a real old-fashioned, rustic Southern Gothic take on country music, sounds best recorded in the style of old blues and country records from the ’30’s and ’40’s but by doing so he will no doubt minimize his audience into some sort of niche contingent. That said, I admire Valente for finding a viable framework for his songs that is not the flavor of the month and having the bravery to see it through. There is something to be said for finding and using the path less traveled and I am sure his almost “outsider” art will find its’ share of fans as the word gets out about his music. Who knows, while Valente is not on the path that usually leads to great monetary success, in time Valente may end up becoming an artist whose work is appreciated for its’ substance and not its’ popularity. Though a lot of popular musicians would no doubt prefer the latter, the more cognizant of artist always ends up appreciating the former much, much more.