“Modern Hymns” by Darrell Scott

Darrell Scott
Modern Hymns
Appleseed/Full Light
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Americana’s most impressive contemporary troubadour whose name isn’t Steve Earle, over the past decade Darrell Scott has produced a series of albums containing original music executed at such a high level that they have passed by all but the most discriminating listener. A true shame, considering the songs he’s dropped- including “My Father’s House,” “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” “River Take Me,” and 2007 Americana Music Association Song of the Year, “Hank Williams’ Ghost”- match or exceed that of those who have attained more widespread acclaim.

Perhaps best known for pairing with Tim O’Brien and as a sideman for Earle, Guy Clark, and Sam Bush, Darrell Scott has, with little fanfare, established himself as a ‘go-to’ Nashville-based songwriter and producer. However, his greatest work is contained on his own albums, and that continues with Modern Hymns, a new collection of songs written by others drawn from Scott’s formative years.

Those appreciating acoustic sounds from within a wide palate of color will find much of interest on Modern Hymns.

Most of the songs are multi-dimensional productions, replete with strings from the likes of Andrea Zonn, Stuart Duncan, and Orchestra Nashville. A few numbers- including Paul Simon’s “American Tune”- are kept to quintets, and provide down-to-earth respite from more elaborate settings. However, even when multiple vocalists and instruments come together on songs- as on Hoyt Axton’s “The Devil”- the arrangements are still seemingly uncomplicated and spacious sounding.

Roots fans will recognize many of the guests featured throughout the recording. Regular Scott collaborators Dirk Powell and Danny Thompson are prominently featured, and provide the album its instrumental core. Del and Ronnie McCoury contribute to Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going,” while David Grier, Jamie Hartford, and John Cowan also stop by for single appearances.

Scott, Mary Gauthier and Alison Krauss combine for a transcendent rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc;” magic, this one is with Krauss giving voice to the angels’ chorus as Scott’s flames arise to engulf Gauthier’s Maid of Orleans.

The beauty of Darrel Scott is that he can’t help but sound like himself, and he fully owns each of these songs. Even a number as familiar as “Jesus Was A Capricorn” becomes a Scott song by way of his hands and, most especially, voice.

It would have been easy for Scott to dramatically reinvent these songs, either by stripping them bare or throwing the entire tool shed at them. Instead, he has chosen to maintain the dignity of each song and their performers who came before him. And in doing so, Scott has honoured their artistic vision by taking the hard way- making the largely familiar songs his own while fundamentally retaining their essence.

Scott saves the album’s defining moments for the final ones, with a piercing reading of Guy Clark’s “That Old Time Feeling.” This intense song- filled with film-quality images- encapsulates everything that Scott has built his career upon: the influences of the past mixed with a modern, honest ear and precision instrumentation that just feels right.

When I recently submitted my annual Top 20 to the Postcard 2 discussion group, I missed Modern Hymns. My faux pas; Modern Hymns is certainly one of the most enjoyable and artistically adventurous albums released in 2008.

by Donlald Teplykse

Best CDs of 2008

It’s that time of year when I choose my 25 favorite albums of the year. I’ve done so, with a couple of changes from the way I usually do it.

I’m not ranking them this year, mostly because nothing really stood out as being far better than the pack and because there were a dozen or so more albums that could have made the list.

Also, I’m not adding the short reviews that I usually do. Health circumstances this year have left me with almost no energy to think and write creatively and intelligently about things, even music, which you know I love to talk about very much.

So they’re just in alphabetical order, and I encourage you to explore what you can from the list. Also, please use the comment function to take issue with my picks or to suggest your own.

So, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy New Year and everything else, hopefully while listening to some of the great music below.

Beck — Modern Guilt (DGC)
The Black Crowes — Warpaint (Silver Arrow)
Glen Campbell — Meet Glen Campbell (Capitol)
Chatham County Line — IV (Yep Roc)
Coldplay — Viva la Vida (Capitol)
Dailey and Vincent — Dailey and Vincent (Rounder)
Neil Diamond — Home Before Dark (Columbia)
Dido — Safe Trip Home (Arista)
Bob Dylan — Tell Tale Signs, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8, Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 (Sony BMG)
The Felice Brothers — The Felice Brothers (Team Love)
Flight of the Conchords — Flight of the Conchords (Sub Pop)
B.B. King — One Kind Favor (Geffen)
Ray LaMontagne — Gossip in the Grain (RCA)
Kings of Leon — Only by the Night (RCA)
Patty Loveless — Sleepless Nights (Time Life)
Shelby Lynne — Just a Little Lovin’ (Lost Highway)
Tift Merritt — Another Country (Fantasy)
Van Morrison — Keep It Simple (Exile/Lost Highway)
Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis — Two Men with the Blues (Blue Note)
Old Crow Medicine Show — Tennessee Pusher (Nettwerk)
Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass — The Room Over Mine (Rounder)
Punch Brothers — Punch (Nonesuch)
The Raconteurs — Consolers Of The Lonely (Warner Bros.)
Ron Sexsmith — Exit Strategy of the Soul (Yep Roc)
Teddy Thompson — A Piece of What You Need (Verve Forecast)

Cross-posted at Listen to the Lion.