Stephen Cummings, Skeleton Key (2001).
It's often considered dangerous, I suppose, to be reviewing (such as it is) things this close to me. I'll admit my bias upfront - I love his work, and I actually help to provide a home for the fan-driven site lovetown.net. Anyway.
2001 brings something of a return to the whole band thing for Stephen Cummings, after the reasonably low-key Spiritual Bum and subsequent 3-person gigs (rotating lineup, but almost always three people nonetheless). And while he's certainly capable of doing a nice and quiet "adult" gig, history reminds us of his earlier career as a great Rock 'n' Roll Singer(tm). And so at the Continental (R.I.P.) earlier this year when it turned out it'd be his last time playing there, he pulled out a full band and let it all go - something repeated (perhaps to slightly less effect) for his album launch gig just recently.
But onto the album itself. The opening, title track is left alone all nice and quiet, as it should be - having heard it at a gig or two before the album came out, I wouldn't want to hear it any other way. I thought similarly of another track - You put a pain on my heart - but this one had the band treatment, and I'm in two minds about it - some of the guitar in the chorus bothers me a bit with its cheesiness, for example. Nevertheless, it's hard to find fault with the album (even the two bluesy tracks, which may not be as cerebral as the rest of the album, but can still be appreciated for their fun value, especially the closing track which is literally just a string of old blues cliches). It's hard to pick the best track on the album, because I'm torn between 5 (maybe even 6) of them, from a 10-track album, no less...
One of these is the long-awaited fourth "waitress" song, The truth about love. As Stephen often mentions during his gigs, "the path of true love doesn't always run smoothly. sometimes it doesn't run at all". Familiar territory for him, but always with a new angle, a new anecdote - it's all done in a very story-telling manner, like having your parents explaining how they met, or something.
Another gem is Love is mighty close to you which is so good that Jimmy Little has already covered it (indeed, his new album was released at about the same time). Well. Something like that, anyway. It's a more idealistic love song, perhaps the furthest that way that you'll go with Stephen. Nothing's wrong here, not yet anyway, and perhaps it's more of a reflection of the kind of moment you look back upon when things do start to go wrong. But listen to the song instead, it's much better than anything I can say about it.
The main point to make about any Stephen Cummings album though, is that they're always "growers". You're not going to "get" it all upon first listen. Take it slowly, and watch it unfold over time. You'll thank him for it later, I hope.