With this recording, The Feral Crow, Scott Ainslie expands on his previous works: Jealous of the Moon (1995); Terraplane (1998); and You Better Lie Down (2002). Though not a Blues record, The Feral Crow (2004) bears all the emotional elements of the Blues–love and loss, compassion and injustice–stunning songs from the voices that are generally lost in the clamor.
In a recent interview Ainslie says,“I’m not changing direction; I’m adding territory. With my extensive work on Robert Johnson and my recent performing and recording history, I am known as a Blues scholar and musician. Before that I was known as an old-time fiddler and banjo player; and before that, a folk musician. For me, the same beauty and themes resonate through all this music. These new songs weave those threads together in a more personal way. They are songs of my life: what I’ve seen and how I see it.”
‘Feral Crow’ Blends the Topical and the Tender
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.
– Jon Potter, Arts Editor, The Brattleboro Reformer
Scott Ainslie: The Feral Crow
In the music business, it pays to be versatile, to be able to play different kinds of music, since the opportunities for performing in any single genre tend to be limited. But at the same time, this can be confusing to audiences, who tend to like their performers to play one kind of music and maintain the sound that was won those fans in the first place.
This week, we have a CD by a performer who shows his versatility by jumping from one style to quite another. Scott Ainslie’s new release is called The Feral Crow.
Scott Ainslie, who was formerly based in North Carolina but relocated to Vermont recently, has developed a reputation as a blues historian, being the author of a book on Robert Johnson and having produced an instructional video on Johnson’s guitar technique. His previous releases also tended toward traditional blues. But his new CD is very much in the singer-songwriter vein, imbued with some lyrics in the folk protest song tradition. It’s also a particularly fine example of an intelligent, literate singer-songwriter with very tasteful instrumental backing.
As Ainslie points out in an interview, before he got into playing the blues and being a blues historian, he had developed a reputation as an old-time style fiddle player and clawhammer banjo player, and said that before that, he was a folk musician. Now that comes around again on The Feral Crow, and the result is a memorable album that recalls the style of Richard Shindell, with Ainslie’s rich baritone voice and often powerful lyrics, touching on subjects from a motorcycle accident to the kidnapping of a South African human rights advocate, with even a couple of love songs.
He is joined by a excellent backing band of musicians from the Woodstock, New York, area, including bassist and producer Scott Petito, plus drummer Jerry Marotta, who has worked with people like Peter Gabriel, Marc Shulman on guitars, Peter Vitalone on keyboards, and Leslie Ritter, a fine singer-songwriter in her own right and formerly half of the duo Amy and Leslie, on backing vocals.
In Ainslie’s own publicity material for the CD, he notes that even though it is not the blues stylistically, the songs touch on some of the same subjects. But The Feral Crow is more expansive lyrically. These are songs that Ainslie has been working on for a long time, some of which go back to the 1980s. There are also some semi-topical songs, including a song for peace, and one about the aftermath of Vietnam. And musically the songs get into some fairly sophisticated territory that is a long way from three-chord blues.
The CD commences with a song called Exit 178. One needs to go to Ainslie’s website to find out the background behind the unconventional lyrics of this piece. It turns out that the title is a reference to an exit on Interstate 85 near Durham, North Carolina, where one night, as he was driving along, he came upon a motorcyclist who had had an accident and was lying on the road. Ainslie and his friend tried their best to stop traffic. <<>>
Perhaps the CD’s most pointed protest song is Don’t Obey, which Ainslie said was inspired by a line by author C.P. Snow, “More heinous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than ever have been committed in the name of rebellion.” He invokes some of the events of recent history in this powerful song. <<>>
In the more conventional area of a love song is Over Again, which seeks to take things back to the way they were before a breakup. <<>>
The title track The Feral Crow is another protest song, in this case about a particularly destructive mining technique in West Virginia, it speculates on how it affects one particular species of wildlife. Ainslie combined a spacey synthesizer ambience with his traditional clawhammer-style banjo. <<>>
Another song that was inspired by the news is It’s My World Too, about steelworkers in Pennsylvania who lost their jobs to the forces of globalization. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album is another song that takes up the topics addressed by protest singers over the years, the Vietnam War. In this case, it takes a more hopeful tone. The song is called Rice Grows Again in Vietnam, which was inspired by a refugee Ainslie got to know. <<>>
Another song that pretty much requires the explanation provided by Ainslie’s website is Confession. It’s about the kidnapping and murder of South African civil rights leader Stephen Biko. It was inspired by the South African Truth Commission, who was looking into the crimes of the apartheid era. In the case of Biko’s murderers, they never convicted. <<>>
Looking for a Rose is a tasteful philosophical song whose thesis that to get at the roses, you have to go through the thorns. <<>>
Bluesman Scott Ainslie has definitely made a stylistic shift on his new CD The Feral Crow, but it shows his versatility. Far from being a bluesy album, the new CD is a particularly fine example of the singer-songwriter genre, with Ainslie doing both jobs very well. His lyrics are articulate and often powerful, and his vocal style is pleasingly warm. Add that to the very tasteful backing musicians, and one has a memorable album even in the very crowded singer-songwriter field.
Our grade for sound quality is an unqualified “A.” It’s one of those now increasingly rare examples of great care being taken with the sonic presentation, and the temptation was resisted to pump up the volume on the CD. It’s a treat on a good sound system.
Irrespective of Scott Ainslie’s reputation in the blues, his new CD The Feral Crow shows that he can also be counted upon as another worthy example of how the current period has become the golden age of singer-songwriters, with new music rivalling anything from the Sixties or Seventies.
– by George Graham, As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/8/2004
On The Feral Crow:
“Scott Ainslie says with power and precision what so many of us are thinking: It’s time for a change.”
– Si Kahn, Songwriter/Organizer, August 2004
Scott Ainslie –
Scott Ainslie’s The Feral Crow (Cattail Music)
My children are amused when I bring home a bumper sticker that says, in big red letters, “DON’T OBEY.” They want to know if that means they don’t have to mow the lawn anymore. I explain that I got the sticker at the farmers market from a local (Vermont) singer/songwriter named Scott Ainslie, who was stirring up publicity for his new CD, The Feral Crow. Maybe he was also trying to stir up trouble.
I direct my teenagers’ attention to the quote beneath the block letters: “More hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.” The author C.P. Snow wrote that, and I point out its pertinence to the current national situation – how our president has bullied and lied his way into war, and how we have a right, in fact an obligation, to stand up against him and not blindly obey. My kids seem unconcerned: she turns back to cooking her ramen noodles, he sticks his face back into his laptop monitor. They’re good kids; if it was a friend talking to them instead of their dad, they might pay attention better.
In the meantime, I slip The Feral Crow into the stereo and listen. It’s quite a solid production: chunky guitar chords, edgy drums, restless riffs, urgent vocals-smart and gritty folk-rock. Ainslie plays acoustic guitar, clawhammer banjo, and diddley bow, and he is joined by a tight crew of musicians, including Jerry Marotta, Scott Petito, Leslie Ritter, Marc Shulman, and Peter Vitalone.
He examines a number of topics, ranging from the current political climate, to personal stories and yearnings, to the hard work of love. In the last category, one of the most heart-wrenching songs is Over Again, with the line, “If I could swallow the dreams I had like a mouthful of broken glass … We could take a chance and try this over again.” What a perfect metaphor: Haven’t you ever had a relationship that felt like you had to swallow glass to make it work?
But Ainslie’s political-message songs are consistently the most powerful here, and even then they cover the whole spectrum of human experience.
Uncommon Life tells of people persecuted for who they love (“We may burn easily-but we’ll make a strange and beautiful light”). It’s My World, Too tells the story of the closing of a steel mill, and the lives that are shattered by the loss of work (“My pockets are empty, my fingers are cold / And I’m so tired of doing what I’m told“). The title song, The Feral Crow, “compares violence against women to the practice of “mountaintop removal mining” in Appalachia: blowing off the tops of mountains to get at the coal. And Rice Grows Again in Vietnam tells of new beginnings wrestled out of a hard past (“Lift up your tools, lay down your gun / Once peace is lost, nothing is won / Harvest a thousand grains from one“).
And then we return to Don’t Obey, a witness and a warning against our increasingly totalitarian administration. Its litany of recent history’s evil-doers and rebels serves as a mirror to our present state of affairs, and its conclusion allows for no compromise:
If every sin were tallied, if every mother knew
Just exactly what they’re asking; exactly what you do;
How long do you think they’d stand there, with their hands by their sides?
Even all wrapped up in bunting-A lie is still a lie.
Presumably Cindy Sheehan is one mother who knows exactly what George W. Bush is asking.
Scott Ainslie is a voice crying out in a wasteland of atrocity. Luckily, he’s in good company. Nowadays local, independent recording artists with relatively small followings are almost the only musicians making genuinely provocative, rabble-rousing statements, whether it’s about politics, the environment, sex, or other social concerns.
In my corner of Vermont, it’s people like Ainslie, Derrik Jordan, or Lisa McCormick, all of whom have been reviewed on this web site; you can name your own local heroes. But virtually no nationally known recording artist, working for the two or three major conglomerates, would ever risk a song like Don’t Obey. Granted, there are occasional exceptions like Green Day, Springsteen, and bless their buttons the Rolling Stones, all of whom have spoken out recently about the moral bankruptcy of the radical right, but those songs don’t get airplay.
As for Dave Matthews? Coldplay? Beyonce? Forget it. Their corporate sponsors would drop them like bad meat, the one or two radio conglomerates would ignore them, they’d be branded un-American terrorist-lovers. The original protest music-rock ‘n’ roll, and even folk to an extent-has been co-opted and emasculated to the point where it’s nothing more than bland entertainment, background music while you’re cooking ramen noodles.
Meanwhile folks like Scott Ainslie show up at the small venues, the farmers markets, the demonstrations, and they tell the truth as they see it. And people listen. If enough of us get angry enough, maybe we’ll do something about it. In the meantime, thank you, Scott Ainslie, et al, for telling those much-needed truths.
I think I know what I’m getting the kids for stocking-stuffers this year.
– Lindsay Cobb, Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange (FAME)