monoblogue music: “Radio Sister” by Dave Plaehn

My first review of the new year brings back my monoblogue music series from a holiday hiatus and features an artist who released his work at the tail end of 2014. As I found out upon deeper research, though, “Radio Sister” is a project over thirty years in the making from a veteran of the music business, one who’s made a more recent living touring with a blues band called (naturally) the Plaehn-Hino Blues Band.

In listening to this album, I noticed a tendency with several songs. I found the musicianship was excellent, but if there was one fault I would speak to among several of the songs it’s the tendency to meander off a little bit in the middle. “Radio Sister” has an unusual mix of quite long songs through most of its first half and somewhat shorter tunes on the back side, as it were. It’s different to hear the longest song first, but I Want Love is a nearly six-minute number with somewhat of a reggae feel.

Now this is a preference and taste quibble, because many may enjoy the different directions Plaehn and his varied group of players and background singers take songs like Nothing’s Got A Hold On You, Is Anybody Listening?, or the title track. Radio Sister could arguably be the most radio-friendly song of the set, while Is Anybody Listening? does have an upbeat feel to it, just like a later song called Soda Fountain.

The songs that are somewhat shorter tend to have a little more musical discipline, which makes the heart of the album a highlight. Comin’ To You and Hello, Melinda have the feel of a bygone era to them, more reminiscent of something out of the late 1970s – the featured marimba, in particular, give the brief Hello, Melinda a tropical feel without overdoing it. They lead into the song which I considered the best on the collection, a lyrically whimsical rocker called Better Things To Do.

The album continues with the desperate pleading of Give Me Lovin before departing from the sound of the first nine songs and taking a slower, more acoustic turn. That final trio of songs begins with the organ-based ballad Love And Truth before highlighting Plaehn’s rhythmic and vocal skills on the Leadbelly Medley, which features short takes on Looky, Looky Yonder, Linin’ Track, and Black Betty. Yes, it’s that Black Betty but performed in a unique fashion not generally heard until now.

“Radio Sister” closes by Plaehn featuring his harmonica chops on the final track, Stranger Blues. With the exception of a short bit of stomp box accompaniment toward the end, it features just harmonica and vocals.

Now I listened to the collection and wrote my notes, all the while thinking that these songs were just a little out of place in the modern era. I know some artists have tried to recreate that retro feel with varying success, but then I read the liner note from Plaehn’s CD:

Eight songs were recorded in 1983 and 1984 at Catamount Recording, Cedar Falls, Iowa, under the working title of “Pancakes.” Stranger Blues and the Leadbelly Medley were recorded for the EP “Mouth Full of Blues” in 1981 but were not used. Love And Truth and Give Me Lovin were recorded around 1982 as “sketches” or demos.

The sound of this CD then made a lot more sense to me. The good thing is that Plaehn added bass and drums to Love and Truth and drums to Give Me Lovin while making the song feel like it was all done at once. Several other songs received additional backing vocals as well.

One could ask what the point is of releasing songs which have been on the back burner for better than thirty years, but ask yourself: if a new Led Zeppelin or Beatles song was found in some dusty archive people would treat it as relevant and make it popular despite being rejected initially by the artists. So by the same token, artistry delayed in Dave’s case is not artistry denied.

“Radio Sister” is something I consider a little bit of an uneven effort, although the cover art is quite intriguing and appealing. But if you liked the sort of jazzy, melodic soulful songs of the 1970s (think, for example, of James Taylor) you may find this effort worth the long wait. As always, I invite the reader to listen for yourself.