Paul Zollo on Claudia Russell’s All Our Luck Is Changing

Written by October 4th, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Claudia

Produced by Peter Case
(Radio Rhythm Records)

This is beautiful.  At the exact time our society gets obsessed with musical artists as provocateurs or contest-winners, we also get music from people like Claudia Russell, a  gifted songwriter with a gorgeous singing voice. And it reminds us why songs matter. When they’re good, they are really good. They speak to our hearts and our minds at the same time, uplifting our spirits while engaging our thoughts, and giving us something solid to hold onto even in the whirlwind of modern times. She’s that kind of songwriter, whose work does all that and more.  This is an inspired chain of songs, and is elegantly produced by the great singer-songwriter (and Bluerailroad columnist) Peter Case, a guy who obviously knows a lot about songs and how best to render them. In Claudia, he’s found a brilliant and poignant connection, and the result is an album of much grace and joy.

Sweetness abounds. On top of the great songwriting and excellent musicianship throughout, there’s the overriding effect of sweetness, that deriving from the singular spirit that lives in her voice.  Whether singing a sad song or a happy one,  that voice shines through with great purity. There’s no affectations or contrivances, it’s a voice of great and poignant purity. It brings to mind the gentle embrace of the McGarrigles’ voices in harmony or alone, that gentle, reedy quality , that sound of a voice that isn’t singing beyond  you to an arena of thousands, but directly to you, like a friend talking to you and you only.

Add to that songs of great depth and detail, and with a sweet nostalgic longing for a happy and simpler world (“Pirate Girls”), and a spirit of real affirmation. Whereas many write vague and empty songs, songs with hardly any nouns even, songs with lyrics that suggest but don’t don’t show anything, unrelated to real life, she writes richly detailed and dimensional songs that are like little movies, each with a vivid sense of place so that the listener doesn’t take in the song from a distance, but from its heart. This is the essence of great songwriting.

The title itself and title song, “All Our Luck Is Changing” is one of the greatest songs ever about the persistent optimism of the human spirit. It’s about the reason people go to Vegas so often, as depicted in this song, trying to extricate themselves from normal life with hope for miracles.   It’s part of the human equation, that in the chaotic midst of being human in modern times, we cling to hope for change always – and often a big, profound change, the perpetual openness to the possibility of a big win that leads people in America to say everyday, “but if I were to win the lottery…”

It’s also the reason people often become songwriters.  As Paul Simon wrote in “Train In The Distance,” “the thought that life can be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.”

She wrote the title song and several others with her partner in life and music, Bruce Kaplan, who is also a gifted mandolinist and guitarist. Together they paint a delightfully detailed picture, as poignant in its reflection of of early 1960s America as the old postcards she collects: She’s a little girl driving to lucky town in a blue Falcon with a dad who looks like Andy Griffith, on their first family vacation, her little sister still unborn so she’s got no one to tease.  And then comes a keenly cinematic moment which speaks as much about the actual memory as the ways in which we remember our pasts, preserved both in our minds but altered by our old photographs, and in this instance, Super-8 film. The past becomes an amalgam of remembered experience and  captured myth, colored by the technology of the times which both preserves and transforms reality, and resounds with the magic newness of childhood, the discovery of being human:

My mom is shooting Super 8s of gap-toothed little me
I’m chubby but I don’t know it yet, I’m happy just to be
Splashing towards the camera and waving like a fool
And jumping off the high dive at the Stardust Hotel pool.
All our luck is changing
Stars are rearranging…

From “All Our Luck Is Changing”
By Claudia Russell & Bruce Kaplan

Peter’s production throughout is just right, sensitively framing but never overwhelming them so that the stories are heard, and Claudia’s beautiful voice shines.  Using a handful of fine musicians – especially Carl Byron on organ, piano and accordion, Debra Dobkin on drums and percussion,and  the vivid violin and viola playing of Tom Tally – he brings the best out of each song, evoking an organic, timeless spirit. It’s an elegant and textural journey through a chain of beautiful songs.

“Hey Hey,” which she wrote herself, is about that place where too many words get in the way, so grand and dramatic is the sweep of life and time, that the songwriter stands back and takes it in with few words. “Charleston” sounds like an old folk standard though it’s not, it’s a new one by Claudia which matches an exultant tune with a great sense of place, enlivened by Case’s harmonica and Claudia’s spirited vocal. Bruce Kaplan’s mandolin playing is especially nice on this one, happily coloring this “hotter than peaches in the noonday sun” tale.

“I Remember The Wind,” written by Claudia, is a sultry and cinematic song. Like the title song, it’s also a song about remembering, about that human intersection of actuality and myth. It’s got a great bluesy and brassy, melancholy but strident melody that would be perfect for Lady Day. Etched with a lovely sense of place and time, and beautifully rendered with  details like the “stale coffee and cinnamon gum/ and cold pick-up truck wine,” it resounds like a modern standard. Case wisely picked up on its timeless spirit, and enlisted Mike Fortunato to play haunting trumpet throughout the track with an eloquent solo that cuts right to the heart.

This is a masterpiece. Though everything she’s done solo or with others has been great, sparked by the singular charm of her sweet voice and pure spirit, this is the best yet. With Peter Case at the helm and a new batch of beautifully realized songs, this is everything that is great about her and more. Her singing has never been more poignant or confident, and these songs come to life with an effortless spirit of genuine soul. This is heartwarming stuff, both inspirational and comforting at a time we need inspiration and comfort more then ever.  Listen to this – you’ll believe that it’s true – our luck is changing, stars are rearranging.  I think a change is finally gonna come.

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