Michael Chorney, Mother Tongue | Album Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Michael Chorney, Mother Tongue 

Published September 20, 2006 at 1:52 p.m.

(GrainbinMusic, CD)

Bristol's Michael Chorney has worn several musical hats over the years. A talented bandleader, composer, producer, instrumentalist and arranger, he's among the Green Mountains' most versatile artists. With Mother Tongue, Chorney makes his first foray into the singer-songwriter genre. The results are nearly as strong as anything he's tried before.

Mother is a stripped-down affair, with Chorney's intimate baritone vocals and muted guitar providing the main points of focus. There are a few guest appearances, however: Chorney's Magic City bandmate Miriam Bernardo lends her sultry voice to four tunes, while Anaïs Mitchell and Peg Tassey turn up on a track each. Bob Wolk provides banjo and harmonies on a song as well.

The CD gets started with the lovely "Joyce," which is built on placid, finger-style guitar. "They always took the back roads when they drove up every year / The afternoon was clear / they stopped for gas and cigarettes, sandwiches and beer," Chorney softly sings. It's a little like Raymond Carver moonlighting as a backwoods folkie.

The instrumental "Bells" features Chorney's "treated guitar," the hallmark of which is gamelan-like, percussive tones. The brief track provides a link between Chorney's embrace of trad song structures and his more avant-garde leanings.

"Dirty Steps" features gentle strumming, backed by upright bass and a bed of female harmonies. Wisps of brass drift by as Chorney delivers impressionistic prose in a near whisper.

Only one tune on Mother Tongue doesn't work, and that's "Russian Poet." The song apes Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits a little too closely for comfort. Reproducing Waits' singular sound is no small feat, but it seems beneath Chorney, a unique talent in his own right.

"Waltz" is another brief instrumental. Its mournful lilt serves as a fine intro to "Bitter Seeds," an exhortation to openness in the face of cynicism. "You tell me Jesus never helped you / Mary never did a thing / You killed the Buddha as instructed / There's no song you care to sing," Chorney intones. Later, he offers a recipe for transcendence: "If you open up your heart / Open up your mind again / Open up your mouth to sing / Wonder what you might find, my friend," he sagely croons.

The album closes with "Nothing Is Pure," which features a humble chord progression and Bernardo's rich harmonies. "Nothing is pure / Nothing is simple / Nothing important / Nothing will last," the two sing in a blissful ode to emptiness.

It's always a treat to hear what Chorney is up to, but I wouldn't have predicted his latest turn. Guess you could call Mother Tongue a pleasant surprise. Hear him at Burlington's Radio Bean on Friday, Sept. 22.

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About The Author

Casey Rea

Casey Rea

Casey Rea was the Seven Days music editor from 2004 until 2007. He won the 2005 John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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