Full disclosure: Singer-songwriter Doug Irving is my brother. So you might imagine I could be biased in a review of his album, Fire Towers and Shanties (CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon). While I can't claim total objectivity, I am also a singer-songwriter, and there's always been a certain amount of friendly musical-sibling rivalry between us. While we generally like each other's music, and we have even written a number of songs together, we are unlikely to give each other a pass on any less-than-stellar musical effort just because we're family. So as far as I am able, I'm evaluating this album as I would any album that I like well enough to bother writing about on this blog (probably a dozen albums a year at most).
Doug has written and recorded a lot of great songs over the years, and has released several very good albums covering a wide range of styles from pop to show music to country. A lot of really good stuff. But he never recorded an album where every song really worked for me. Until now. On the bluegrass-inspired Fire Towers and Shanties, I think Doug has reached a sweet spot in his writing, singing, arranging, and playing. This is a great album where every song works and and several are really amazing.
Working backwards, the playing is first-rate. Doug has always been a good acoustic guitarist and keyboard player, and for everything else on this album, he used excellent Nashville session players, recorded with great quality in a Nashville studio. The arrangements and mixes are full and rich but not overcrowded, so you can clearly hear each of the instruments. Doug is a good singer, but on recordings in the past, he has sometimes used portions of his range in ways that did not display his vocal ability to full advantage. On this album, the lead vocals and all of the many harmony and background parts are strong and sound great.
That brings me to the songs. These are some of the most emotionally engaging and well-crafted songs Doug has ever written, with colorful melodies, strong harmonies, and excellent lyrics. While all the songs stand up well to repeated listening, these are the highlights for me:
Before Too Long - Longing for the comforts of home from under a full moon... in Kandahar. Great harmonies and fiddle parts.
Sounds Like Goodbye - The harmonies on this song reminds me of Poco, a country-rock band I liked back in the 70's. It's a "might be trouble" love song with an interesting angle and a promising ending.
Details - OK, Doug and I co-wrote this one, and I recorded it myself in 2003. But this is a better version. A reminder that in love, the small stuff counts.
John Speaker - This is a powerful song that reminds me of Bruce Hornsby (not much bluegrass on this one). War takes a toll over three generations. I'm not sure the age and date math exactly work, but the song definitely does.
Stages (April's Song) - The final song on the album is this beautiful tribute to Doug's wife. I love the chorus:
I've lived my life in stagesGreat job, Doug!
And every time I've gained some age
I feel more like starting over, less like turning a page
And your eyes spoke to me like only love can do
Every night and every morning
I thank the Lord for the love I found in you.