Charlie Parr's 'Barnswallow' dependable, unchangingALBUM REVIEW: “Barnswallow” should do nothing to slow his roll, as it’s a nice chunk of what he does best.
By: Tony Bennett, for the News Tribune
One thing you hear a lot about Charlie Parr is that he’s “authentic.”
What people mean by this is that they see a man in the 21st century playing anachronistic music, and he does this in such a way that it seems like he can’t help himself. You don’t get the sense that Parr puts his National in its case after a show and then jumps in the van for a long road trip with the latest by A$AP Rocky on the stereo. Chances are he’s listening to solo blues guys from the era of the 78, guys with state names for nicknames. Or at least this seems like a good bet.
Parr’s music generally is described as folk or blues or roots music, but here’s what it is: a guy in a chair with an acoustic guitar singing songs that are influenced by music that came out before rock ’n’ roll; it’s cut from the same dirty, dusty cloth as the sessions Robert Johnson recorded before he got poisoned to death in 1938, and there’s no need for overdubbed keyboards or flutes or any other adornments, thank you very much. It’s fingerpicked, greasy, full of knotholes and sap, and that’s the way he likes it.
Put it this way: there’s a photo in “Barnswallow” of Charlie and his pals that helped him make the album, and, in it, Charlie’s got bare feet, and they look absolutely filthy. What, you want him to be wearing Nikes?
The past 10-plus years have seen numerous releases from Parr, all of them as dependable and unchanging as AC/DC or The Ramones. His music has taken him all over the country, and he’s even developed a fan base in Ireland and Australia. “Barnswallow” should do nothing to slow his roll, as it’s a nice chunk of what he does best.
The traditional song “Jimmy Bell” starts things off. A few slide licks from Parr set the stage, and some fuzzy harmonica from cohorts Dave Hundreiser and rat-a-tat washboard from Mikkel Beckmen join in as Parr starts singing, the lyrics coming out in blurry fragments. The mystery and atmosphere of classic blues isn’t lost on Parr — he knows that sometimes the story is more intriguing if every word isn’t perfectly enunciated. One thing’s clear, though: someone’s “goin’ to hell,” Parr repeats, his voice sounding somehow celebratory.
“Nowhere…Fast” is the first of eight straight original compositions on the album, and it picks up the pace with some scenes of life on the road, where Parr claims he’s been “baptized.” Interestingly, the deep, percussive mouth harp is perhaps the best part of this track. (Later on, on “Motorcycle Blues,” Parr even drops out completely at one point, letting the harmonica solo with barely any accompaniment.)
Banjo and jaw-harp are the main accompaniment to Parr’s high hollers on “My Wife Left Me,” which manages to take a standard tale of domestic un-bliss and make it seem like a life-or-death matter, all open graves and grim reapers. Parr’s repeated Travis-style guitar patterns have a hypnotic effect, and he pierces the verses with jabbing high vocal notes. It’s a high point on the record.
From there, it’s track after track of quality Charlie Parr. If you’re a fan, this is not going to change your mind. He gets a little ballady with “Jesus is a Hobo” and “Badger,” a story song with some vivid details and unusual word choices, and “Henry Goes to the Bank” is almost funky in the percussion department, but he’s not dropping any hip-hop beats here. It’s what he does best, and he’s doing it as well — and as authentically — as ever.
Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.