Music reviews

Michael Barnett’s “One Song Romance”

Michael Barnett is a fiddler who, while young, has done a lot. He’s a prodigy, more or less, becoming a sought after teacher and session musician at a very young age. He was a member of the David Grisman Sextet, and otherwise has turned the ear of a who’s who of acoustic music. The album is packed with some of them, including Aoife O’Donovan, David Grier, Sarah Jarosz, Tim O’Brien, Noam Pikelny, Maeve Gilchrist, Chris Eldridge … there is enough talent here to make your head spin.

But this album presents another side of Barnett that, until now, hasn’t been apparent: his songwriting. It’s repetitive, quirky, and entirely uninteresting. “Dig, Dig, Dig” is a lovely swing piece, though the words are nonsense, and not in the good way. “Jabberwocky” is nonsense in the good way—it sounds like nothing, at least at face value, yet for whatever reason is full of inescapable meaning. It’s charming, moving jibberish. “Dig, Dig, Dig” on the other hand, is really jibberish. It’s about a shovel digging into a person’s brain, and finding sombreros and “silly things, like Belgian waffles.” You can imagine some twenty somethings sitting around giggling about this stuff, but are Belgian waffles silly? Not really. The lyric is a string of non sequiturs simply for the sake of it. The vocal harmonies aren’t great either. The piece would have worked brilliantly and delightfully as an instrumental. Too bad he didn’t leave it at that.

Elsewhere, too, the writing is cringeworthy. Tim O’Brien provides the lead vocal on two of the tracks here, “Little Darlin’” and “Change Her Mind.” It jars particularly because O’Brien is such an expert writer, though here is singing the kind of lyric that you’d find scrawled on a high-school student’s binder. I imagine O’Brien would defend the writing—what else could he do now that it’s out there—but it’s hard not to feel a bit embarrassed for him. Barnett sings, too, and has a nice voice, though there is more to writing than simply saying things. “It Wasn’t Meant to be That Way,” finds him on lead vocal morning the loss of puppy love as if it were the romance of the century.

The best pieces are the instrumental ones, such that we wish the entire album was instrumental. Though, even there, not all the instrumental tracks are equally successful. “Hopped the Train to Hudson” is a lot of flash, yet never really roots itself. “Raindrops and Puddles” is a chance for Barnett to channel Eric Satie, but only really makes you want to go find some Satie. “Bottom of the Barrel” on the other hand is a delightful swing piece, easily a stand-out here.

Ultimately, however, this album is alienating. We find ourselves in a room full of people who know each other and yet we are left to stand in the corner trying to make sense of all the in jokes. It’s Barnett’s first album, and no doubt he’s a very important and impressive presence in the world of acoustic music. But, to really hear what he can do, it would have been preferable to hear his interpretation of other peoples pieces, some standards included, and leave the writing for later. He’s trying to sound wise, and fails.

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2 replies »

    • Yes, perhaps I was a bit punchy when I wrote that piece. But the thing is, isn’t this one of the risks of releasing something publicly? I don’t relish the idea of writing negative reviews, but I do think that there needs to be a conversation around music, one that exists beyond the marketing and the pizzazz.

      Reviews are just that—if performers and publicists want to print ads, great, but they can’t expect reviewers to become part of their marketing team. Rather, reviews are the conversation around the music — one that those within the industry, frankly, should encourage and be thankful for. If all that was ever said was “how great is this!” then I think we’d lose something. It would become hollow, uninteresting, nothing more than some ephemeral flashes of light. Barnett didn’t approach music as an apologist, I guarantee, and that’s one of the things that propelled him forward, I would hasten to guess.

      Now he’s part of that world, and he’s lucky for it in equal measure to deserving it. Barnett released an album, and from that point on, it’s public. I don’t know anything about him, personally, but the songwriting on this album isn’t great, and I’m perfectly at liberty to express that. As well, I can write for my readership, and a bit of sparks is something that will make a piece more engaging and more likely to incite a response, to continue the conversation. That’s a good thing, I believe. If a reader has some thoughts on the review, I’d be delighted to hear them. Of course, they are allowed to disagree. They then become part of the conversation. And that’s what we’d like to encourage. “You should be ashamed of yourself” isn’t conversation, and it isn’t informed. It’s a desire to hide something, or to avoid the reality of living in a democratic world where everyone’s voice is protected. In a democratic world, we are allowed to be wrong, and make mistakes, but the responsibility is to engage, not to stifle.

      But a musicians friends and family are just that: friends and family. They don’t see the music, just the person. I’m the opposite. I’ll never meet the person, and don’t care to; rather, I’m interested in the music, and the conversation that it’s taking part in. Barnett is responding to all the things that he’s heard, or at least some of them, and he’s responding in different ways. He wants to be involved, but there’s a bit of uncertainty there too. He also wants to be taken seriously, and to be creative, and to be appreciated. He’s young, and he doesn’t see what all of that really means.

      I recently interviewed Norman Blake and asked him about his participation in the Will the Circle Be Unbroken recording in 1974. In retrospect, it is an indelible moment in the history of roots, country, and Americana music. What does Blake think about it, even in hindsight? He said that it was a job, and he took it as a job. Had he had his druthers he wouldn’t have gone, given that he was sick at the time, but that he didn’t feel he could turn down a job. No amount of hindsight, history, whatever has changed that. He still just sees it as a job, one that perhaps got more attention than most others, but, you know, whatever.

      Barnett isn’t yet looking at all of this as a job — right now it’s all about the applause in his room — but he will. He’ll also see that it’s not his room, it’s our room that he’s entered into. My room. He’s my guest; he’s our guest. I’m not his guest; we’re not his guests. He’s welcome, of course, but it won’t all be upside. And, in time, he’ll thank us for that.

      Perhaps I was a bit overly flip, but then again, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. If Barnett doesn’t want his feelings hurt, then he shouldn’t release albums. Once he does put something out there, it can go either way. He wants applause, but he can’t enforce it. And, given time, his art will be better for it.

      Anyway, I stand by what I said. If I’m wrong, that’s fine. But, again, I’m responding to the music, not the person, and in the world of industry and the arts, there is a difference.

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