Richard Berman is one of the great masters of the story-song. And his new seventh album, You’re Home Now, just might be his best work yet. This is no small compliment...as decades of critical acclaim, multiple awards, and Folk DJ “favorite” lists can attest to. Poetic yet always relatable – intimate, thought-provoking, and entertaining – his songs draw you in with lovely, haunting melodies and hold you with beautifully understated feeling.
Berman has composed a wide variety of modern folk ballads for this album, all delivered in a voice of uncommon candor. But he also has incorporated several upbeat Americana songs as well, along with occasional overtones of gospel, old-time blues, and Middle Eastern music. Helping him achieve this diversity is Berman’s producer, Max Cohen, on guitar (as well as occasional bass and harmony) and over a dozen talented guest artists, including Chris Devine and Donna Herbert on fiddle, Chris Haynes on piano and accordion, Marcie Brown on cello, and Joe Fitzpatrick on percussion.
It is, to be sure, an extremely tasteful, excellent production...subtle and sophisticated. But in the end, it is always Berman’s lyricism that steals the show. With the eye of an artist, he creates moods, characters, and personal relationships that are realistic and sympathetic. And while the initial impression might be one of gentle, moving music filled with a quiet wisdom, make no mistake: Berman never shies away from controversial topics.
This is evident in the title track of the album, You’re Home Now. It deals with the true story of two lesbian women, deeply in love, one of whom struggles to overcome rejection by her fundamentalist parents. In the end, love wins the day...and “You’re home now” are the words that the once-intolerant mother finally says to her daughter’s partner. It is a profoundly moving, unforgettable song, and Berman has added another layer of realism to it by asking a woman to sing it – the wonderfully talented Jamie Anderson – accompanied only, and eloquently, by Chris Haynes on piano.
Of course, this is far from the only poignant song on the album. It opens with a beautiful piece called Quoddy Point, co-written with Buddy Mondlock (the only co-write on the album). Quoddy Point is, in fact, the easternmost point in the United States. As such, it receives the first rays of light in the morning and has always been frequented by young lovers. The song is sung by the old lighthouse keeper as he watches a pair of these young lovers and reminisces about his own lost love when he was young. There is a quiet yearning in this song –tinged with sadness, but still looking towards that first light – that makes this song a true piece of poetry. And that mood is reflected perfectly in the cello of Marcie Brown and fiddle of Donna Herbert.
It is followed by A Father and a Daughter, a quiet portrait of an often unspoken event in modern life – when it’s time for a parent to “let go” of almost-grown children. It contains one of my favorite truisms in the album, as the father says: “I miss you even now before you’ve gone.”
Then the album bursts into a fabulously exotic and exciting song called An Appointment in Samarra. Based on a one-paragraph story by W. Somerset Maugham, it is the tale of a Baghdad merchant whose servant meets Death in the marketplace and tries to escape him. I’ll let you find out what happens when you listen to the song. This track is alive with rhythm and a Middle Eastern cadence, accomplished in large part by Chris Devine on fiddle, Joe Fitzpatrick on percussion, and Rusty Annis on dumbek.
There are 13 tracks in all on this album – all of them gems. But I must point out four more of my favorites. My Mother is Religious is filled with dynamic percussion, a traditional “old time religion” organ, and some rather untraditional brilliant philosophy. It starts out on a deliciously ironic note: “My mother is religious. She just doesn’t believe in God.” But, after opening in this somewhat humorous vein, Berman takes us by surprise by telling us what his mother does believe in. And those beliefs are so very deeply spiritual – truly at the heart of every religion – that the song is nothing short of uplifting. Kudos for Max Cohen’s guitar work, Joe Fitzpatrick’s drums, great harmonies by Max Cohen, Kate O’Connor and Rico Spence, and Darby Wolf’s inspired Hammond organ.
My last three favorites are part of a wonderful Americana trilogy: The Devil and Miss Hattie...The Gambler....and Miss Hattie’s Story. It is the story of a young man who wanders into a nearby tavern after losing all his money to an unscrupulous riverboat gambler. There he meets the young woman who owns the tavern, Miss Hattie, and they fall in love. In each song, Berman tells this story from the vantage point of a different character – the first time, from the young man’s point of view; the second time, from the Gambler’s point of view; and the third time from, from Miss Hattie’s point of view – each time providing a compassionate insight into the character involved (perhaps most of all, the gambler).
Each song in the trilogy stands perfectly on its own, with its own unique melody and musical treatment: Dan Levitt adds a lively banjo toThe Devil and Miss Hattie. Jim Henry adds a rootsy dobro to The Gambler; and Chris Devine brings his heartfelt fiddle to underscore the poignant nature of Miss Hattie’s Story. But taken together, the three songs are all the more wonderful...and the second time you hear each song, it is enhanced by this overview.
Once again, Richard Berman is home now...in the heart.
Richard Berman - You're Home Now
by Larry Looney
November 21, 2014
I’ll say up front that I’ve known Richard Berman for many years, and loved his work from the first time I heard him. His songs are honest and real and come from the heart, painting lyrical pictures of characters that become flesh and blood in the mind of the listener – whether they’re based on ‘real people’ (individuals or composites), characters from stories, or have sprung straight from Richard’s imagination. Listening to these songs feels like renewing a conversation with an old friend – I’m not sure there’s any higher praise than that, and I give it freely.
The souls that populate Richard’s songs deal with the same emotions, boons and pitfalls as all of us. Love, loss, joy, sadness, hard times, grief and hope can all be found here. There are highs and lows to be found in the human spirit – both coming and going. We deal with them all, and if we set our heart and mind to it, we move on through the lows and bask in the highs. It’s the points of the journey that lie in between the two extremes that exist in the shadows – and Richard’s songs have a way of leading the listener into contemplation that help pass the time and the miles in a way that, if we allow ourselves to be more open to the world in which we live, help us bear the sorrows long enough to find the joys.
One of Richard’s most moving songs, ‘Holding hands’ (from the album of the same name) finds resolution in the title track of this new release. It concerns two women, friends of Richard, walking through a Wal-Mart in Alamogordo, New Mexico, holding hands – the reactions from those watching them were sadly predictable, and Richard’s song made note of this and expressed a deep hope that tolerance would grow, and that people would come to accept love in all its forms for the gift that it is. Their story is continued in ‘You’re home now’, sung here beautifully by Jamie Anderson, a friend of the two women, wonderfully depicting the longed-for acceptance they sought.
In ‘The token of Scotty’s affection’, Richard revisits the game of Monopoly in a way that is wistful but ultimately gently humorous – things change but not necessarily for the worse. It’s a theme that runs through his work like a gold thread in a tapestry, skillfully woven into the lyrics, sometimes so subtly that we don’t recognize it until we’re really listened – and that’s one of the signs of a great writer.
I’ve heard several of these other songs from Richard in person – ‘Quoddy Point’ (co-written with the fine songwriter Buddy Mondlock), ‘A father and a daughter’, ‘Marianna’, as well as at least a couple of parts of the ‘Miss Hattie’ trilogy. Like all of Richard’s work, these songs are personal and universal at the same time – he draws them from within, and from life experiences, but presents them in such a way that they are almost instantly recognizable as a part of us. There’s no pretense or ego driving this music – just honest feelings, heartfelt words and beautiful, memorable melodies.
The production on the cd, by Max Cohen (who also worked with Richard on his ‘Now and then’ album), is just about as perfect as it could be. The musicians who appear here are well-seasoned, sensitive and supportive, and the arrangements never get in the way of the songs, but compliment and frame them, just as they should. This is, quite simply, a fine album – it fits nicely with the rest of Richard’s catalogue, and by all rights should find a comfortable and rewarding home in many collections.
Highly recommended. Richard's music can be ordered through CD Baby or through his own website: