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.