(for KDHX) The thing about Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott is that each project comes with the feeling that you’re joining a show already in progress. That’s true of their latest studio release, Memories and Moments, which comes a full decade after their first. Like everything they’ve done, it’s quirky, adept, interesting, intelligent and entirely worthwhile. This album was eagerly awaited and is one of the best things to come along this year.
But there is a distinction to be made here. The pop music format approaches each new release as an artifact, a collection of new songs presented as if they were etched in stone. Albums are understood to be definitive, complete, and unalterable. That solo on “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” is the solo and always will be. Audiences expect to hear it at shows, and if they don’t they feel that they’ve been cheated out of something.
O’Brien and Scott aren’t that. This album includes new songs as well as songs that we’ve heard before, and while not radically different, are different enough. “Brother Wind” was recorded for the Transatlantic Sessions with a rich cast of players and gorgeous production (and a great video). If you love that version, then you might feel that you’re being cheated out of something here. This recording of the song is barer, thinner, less lush. The lead voice is dry, and the instrumentation straight forward, just as if you were sitting in a room with two guys playing a song that, for whatever reason, they just feel like playing. Scott’s vocal harmony can sound a bit tentative at times, almost as if he’s still working out his part.
It’s not better or worse, it’s just a song. It doesn’t need a definitive recording, because it’s the idea that O’Brien is drawing us to, which is a quality that marks all of his writing and performances. He’s asking us to come along with him for a moment, and to take a look at something important. He’s successful because he is simply a brilliant songwriter, and that’s not because he turns out great lines, but rather because of what he allows us to consider and, for the moment, get lost within. The duo of Scott and O’Brien is successful because they both clearly share that approach; they’re not trying to etch anything in stone, but just turn over some ideas.
There are a couple tracks here that might get more attention than others, principle among them being a recording of John Prine’s classic “Paradise” with Prine himself adding vocals. Fine, but the song becomes a distraction with the presence of Prine pulling focus from the truly great stuff in here, such as the title track and the caustic “Keep Your Dirty Lights On.”
At the end of the day, it’s no matter, because there is a richness to this material that really demands your attention while reminding us that there is nothing permanent. It’s all just thoughts, ideas, memories and moments. The recording was apparently done over three days, and the feel is as if we are there with them, in the room, just savoring all of that.