This season, independent CDs by Former Red Clay Ramblers are popping up everywhere. This one, Shining Down , is by Mike Craver, whose forte is piano, but who also plays guitar, percussion, and theramin.
The subtitle is “A program of comic novelties and pensive ballads sung and played upon the paino forte.” Craver is stuck in the first half of the 20th century, so you might hear “archaic piano styles,” as well as tin pan alley, vaudeville, pseudo broadway musicals and generic pop. Many people, especially my age, are not very enthusiastic about these musical styles, having heard enough of it on the TV as a child. However, Craver marries these styles with quirky but sometimes appropriate lyrics which at their best can be weirdly dark and brilliant. I learned this from Craver’s second album, Wagoner’s Lad (1999), in which he fused his broadway style with North Carolina Folklore in a way that was reminscent of Copeland.
Some of the tracks on this album just irritate me, but the first four tracks are great eerie pieces of America, it’s as if Craver ran out of vinegar after this and turned into syrup and Driving Miss Daisey.
This third album, Shining Down, retains Craver’s “The Entertainer” style, enhancing the plunky barbershop piano. It moves on from the Piedmont backwoods into… well, a patchwork of several different musical stage productions, as well as adaptations of stories that Cravers’ mother wrote. As a whole the lyrics and the tunes lack some of the weathered barn charm of Wagoners Lad. Some, however, still carry the punch of a damp outbuilding with a body inside. “Argonne Wood” is, as might be predicted, a song about a WWI soldier who came home with both legs blown off, his soul permanently lodged “in the heart of Argonne wood.” Of his comarades, “…how could they know? They’d be cut down like the grain…”
One track that recalls Wagoner’s Lad is “Cimarron Cyclone,” about a gentleman who bites the dust in a tornado in Kansas. “I was thinking to myself ‘Its just a little zephyr’ When I got knocked down by a low flying heifer.” Now those are lyrics! “Kalamazoo” is set to a well-hooked pop tune, an esoteric comment on American culture. Someday Craver is going to “buy a couple acres on the edge of the American soul, Not close enough to lose control.” Here’s a couple of lines:
I met these guys in a band called Peter Lorre, They do Scorpions, they do Judas Priest, The drummer’s named Doug and he’s from Detroit And he wears a bicep bracelet—Doug’s a beast.
There is some image play in the song as well as some conflict. Some songs are just goofy. “The Butterfield Stage” is a song about a mail order bride set to the tune of “Sweet Betsy From Pike. “Her teeth were like stars, they came out at night.” And then there’s the Gilbert and Sullivan styled “When I Was a Little Wee Babe,” about a boy who always wanted to be a mortician. “That Wicky Wacky Hula Honka Wonka Honolulu Hawaiian Honey Of Mine” is just what it looks like it would be.
Craver’s piano playing is marvelous, and to add to the quirkiness his vocals are plain, as if he were singing on a kids album. As on Wagoner’s Lad he plays most of the backing music himself.