Bright Morning Stars
Not many bands would choose to follow up a debut album made up of mainly self-written songs with a second album comprising covers of traditional gospel songs. So you can’t accuse Dead Rock West of lacking the courage of their own convictions. If their aim is to re-invigorate traditional gospel and make it appeal to modern audiences, the major part of this album finds them effortlessly achieving this goal.
For a project like this, faithful re-creation of the originals is not an option, and the best songs here, not surprisingly front-loaded onto the first half of the album, find the band soaring up and away from traditional gospel arrangements. Although Dead Rock West comprises Cindy Wasserman and Frank Lee Drennan, they’ve assembled a talented set of musicians, notably Peter Case on guitar and production duties. The best songs have the whole band cooking away, fleshing out the songs and in some cases giving them a whole new lease of life.
Song selection covers all the expected bases – songs previously recorded by the likes of the Staple Singers, Blind Willie Johnson and Johnny Cash, almost all with Wasserman on lead vocals. A dash of adventure is added by the daring inclusion of a song by The Jesus And Mary Chain, “God Help Me”, sung by Drennen, and it is perhaps a tribute to Case’s production that it fits right in.
The merest glance at the song titles gives a flavour of what lies within – references to God, angels and heaven abound. And some of the songs on the second half of the album – notably “Tell The Angels” and “This May Be The Last Time” – don’t work so well, because they settle for more-traditional-sounding gospel arrangements. If non-believers find this a bit relentless, the one song on the album which is not explicitly religious “Beyond The Blues” – a Peter Case/Bob Neuwirth/Tom Russell composition – provides a welcome break.
Conceptually, this collection is very similar to Ashley Cleveland’s God Don’t Never Change album, and the Blind Willie Nelson song which gave Cleveland her title track appears here too. Comparison is inevitable, and while Cleveland has an exceptional voice, arrangements and playing are equally strong on both albums, so chances are that if you like one, you’ll like both.
“Angel Band” is a beautiful little song that nicely winds up the album. It must be quite difficult to do a bad version of this one. The Stanley Brothers performed it on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and even the Monkees produced a creditable version.
Release date: April 12.
Dead Rock West are currently touring the UK. See the gig guide for details.