Bill Staines has written and performed songs for a long time, and he is good at both. Octobers Hill, his most recent CD -- and his 22nd album! -- is mostly very sedate, with several especially pretty tunes. "Dear Friend," the first track, is one of the catchiest. Up tempo, with smoothly picked guitar and gently played piano block chords, each verse begins, "Dear Friend," printed as a letter salutation in the liner notes. The language is a bit abstract, but each verse evokes the value of friendship in contrast with some of lifes pain, ironically including the limitations of friendship itself.
Slow and melodic like a lilting Irish ballad and carried mostly by Staines piano, "Some Distant Hill," the third track, is a moving ode to lost love. "Once I walked along my road and I felt within my heart,/That youd be always by my side and never would we part," it begins. "And oh, it was the sweetest song that I had ever heard/But I listened only to the tune and never to the words." Maybe its that note of accountability, in the singers acknowledging his possible mistake, that enhances the pathos when, later, he sings, "And now the echoes in my soul, they repeat what I know well/That you have gone so far from me, without a fond farewell." And when the song ends with these lines sung twice: "For Love, you are this fleeting thing, oh, so sweet when you are new,/You come like music on the wing, and disappear like dew." A bit old-timey, yes, but in Staines calm and gentle voice which always avoids any tendency to force the emotion, it works.
The album includes Rod McKuens "Loves Been Good to Me," another song based on nostalgia -- one of Staines strongest suits, as in his deservedly much-covered "Roseville Fair." The second song, "On the Road Again," I find a bit clichéd. Telling the tale of a "small town boy with a big guitar" leaving home and taking up a career performing onstage. It comes to be understood that being a star isnt all its cracked up to be, but specifics are not made clear. "In another hotel, another old town,/Ring around the Rosie, hes falling down." Although the repetition of "another" ostensibly implies monotony, it is not clear what is so dull about dreaming dreams, why the songs dont seem right, or why the lad feels like a thief. Jeanie Stahls singing is fine on "Dear Friend" and elsewhere on the disc, including the refrain of the Carter Family classic "Gold Watch and Chain."
If this pleasant collection lacks an extra sparkle or edge, maybe the final track, the 1848 "All Things Bright and Beautiful" by Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander, may help to explain it. Its an album that expresses order, fulfillment, and continuity. Not much tension here; no indignation at injustice, not much tragic vision. But theres also no pretense, foolish overproduction, or other pitfalls -- pretty much just a pleasant bunch of songs.
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