Article Published: Thursday, December 02, 2004 - The Brattleboro Reformer
'Feral Crow' blends the topical and the tender
By JON POTTER
BRATTLEBORO -- Fans of Scott Ainslie's blues work might be put off at first by the songs on his new CD, "The Feral Crow," just released on Ainslie's own Cattail Music label.
The mud of the Mississippi delta and the hot dry grit at the crossroads seem far removed from this collection, which has rock, folk and country sensibilities at its musical core.
The best advice I have is to get over it quickly and listen with hungry, appreciative ears to a CD which can best be summed by the chorus of the title track -- "It's a clean cut, when the knife is sharp/It's the dull knife (that) leaves a scar."
Ainslie is razor sharp, indeed, on a CD which manages to be topical and tender, dark yet uplifting, rich in polished poetry and raw emotion, a love call and a call to action.
"The Feral Crow" is, most of all, a creative achievement that aspires to the highest ideals. It's the work of a mature artist whose life experience and musical experience are brought to bear with impressive integrity.
And it succeeds with the help of a fine team of musicians. Scott Petito produced the album and played bass, mandolin, keyboard and guitar. Jerry Marotta added drums and percussion. Leslie Ritter supplies vocals, Marc Shulman plays electric guitar and Peter Vitalone adds keyboards, accordion and melodica.
Ainslie is in fine voice on "The Feral Crow," strong where he needs to be, finely mellow when that's required. The production is deft, applied with a light but confident touch that does not overwhelm the songs. Those who know Ainslie's other work have a chance to get to know his musicianship and artistic vision in a way not so evident on his blues recordings.
Fans of Ainslie already know about his passionate interest in social activism. That spirit is there in abundance on "The Feral Crow," which takes an unflinching look at some painful issues.
At least five of the 11 songs on the CD might fairly be called topical, including the title track, which talks about environmental degradation and domestic violence; "It's My World Too," which paints a painful portrait of a millworker who loses his job and much of his self-worth; and "Confession," a song about the torture and murder of Steven Biko. "Confession" is a stunning song which puts the listener in the mind of a torturer and jarringly juxtaposes images of human cruelty with the mundane gestures of everyday life. In light of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, "Confession" carries a particularly sharp sting.
Two other topical songs are among the best on the album.
"Don't Obey" is an anthem, a challenge to the steady drum of voices urging people to commit violence in the name of patriotism. It features some of the strongest lyrics ("When they speak to you of glory/And colors bright and true/Using words like good and evil/And say it all comes down to you/When they offer you a weapon/And send you out into the fray/Don't Obey.")
The other topical song is "Rice Grows in Vietnam," a hopeful ballad of healing in the aftermath of war, a song which tells us "There will be days when rain will fall/Upon these fields, upon the wall/May the harvest of these tears/Bring peace to our remaining years."
It's no accident that "Rice Grows in Vietnam" is the last of the so-called "topical" songs on the CD. For all the hard imagery and passionate calls to action, "The Feral Crow" follows an arc that successfully says what it needs to say but closes on a hopeful, prayerful note.
The CD sets a gritty tone at the outset, opening with "Exit 178," a song that paints a dark picture of a body found on the highway. It's based on something that actually happened to Ainslie and pulls the listener in with a compelling rhythmic riff, deft instrumental flourishes and a haunting story.
The CD immediately shifts gears with "Over Again," a sweet mature love song, which could easily find airplay on country charts. It's some of Ainslie's best writing -- no rhyme is forced, no word is out of place -- and the musicians supply the right touches. Petito's mandolin solo is particularly fine.
After that, it's back to the topical with "Don't Obey," "The Feral Crow," "It's My World, Too" and "Confession."
But then the album turns from the political to the personal, with the desired affect of softening the mood without diluting the acidity of the previous songs.
"Cold in Here" is a love song with a lonesome feel and a tender appeal to healing old wounds. Then comes "Rice Grows Again in Vietnam," topical but resolutely hopeful.
And that spirit continues to the end.
Leading up to the last song, Ainslie has given us images of armies marching across Europe and people marching in the street, of bodies broken by torture and spirits broken by capitalism. It's a sweeping set of images.
But "The Feral Crow" brings the listener home at the end. "When Our Living Begins/Requiem" is quiet, prayerful, delicate. It's two people in an intimate moment, forgetting the rigors of the day and the hard lessons of life ... for a moment, anyway.