Tim O'Brien - Cup of Sugar
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Cup of Sugar (Howdy Skies, 2023)

Tim O'Brien

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

A welcome addition to the Tim O'Brien canon. "Cup of Sugar" may be an old man's record, the phrase 'old man's record' utilized with respect: some perspectives can only be achieved with time, and as O'Brien writes, "I don't relate to a lot of the new stuff, and while I do fairly well in spite of all the changes, sometimes I'll swear at them."

Despite this descriptor, the music is as fresh as ever, as one would expect from one of the finest musicians, singers and songwriters the roots world has produced. Rather than simply shaking his fist at clouds overhead, O'Brien brings sharp perspective to his observations. Band-mates Jan Fabricius (mandolin and vocals), Mike Bub (bass) and Shad Cobb (fiddle and vocals) provide a consistent foundation to O'Brien's songs, several of which reveal his displeasure or at least confusion at a world that is changing in ways he doesn't appreciate.

The allegorical "Bear" leads off the album with O'Brien's political slant becoming apparent as the catchy little number progresses. Richie Stearns' banjo notes give the song a jaunty coloring. "The Anchor," allowing Walter Cronkite a voice from the afterworld, further explores the cultural, political and ethical divides we currently face. A theme of the album is connection — community connections, personal connections, political and natural. The gentle, insightful title track, co-written with Jonathon Byrd, about a neighbor whose views and politics the singer doesn't necessarily appreciate, puts things plainly: "Jesus said to love your neighbor, you don't have to go that far."

"She Can't, He Won't, and They'll Never," a vocal duet with Fabricius, is a highlight: another divide, this one interpersonal and not bridged. "Goodbye Old Friend," co-written with Ronnie Bowman, is intentionally affecting.

Cobb's fiddle provides "Stuck in the Middle," an O'Brien/Shawn Camp co-write, a lovely, mournful atmosphere; Russ Pahl's steel guitar is a pleasant touch. Additional musical guests making appearances include Thomm Jutz (guitar on "The Anchor) who co-wrote the whimsical "The Pay's A Lot Better Too," another of those 'old man' songs, Paul Burch (drums) and Mike Rojas (various keyboards including Hammond organ).

Connections to an early O'Brien album, "Oh Boy! O'Boy!" appear. The jammy "Diddleye Day" borrows from "The Farmer's Cursed Wife," featured on that Sugar Hill release, while Del McCoury appears here on a great song, "Let the Horses Run;" McCoury's distinctive tenor was previously featured on "When I Paint My Masterpiece." Thematically, one hears a connection between 1993's "He Had a Long Chain On" and "Shout Lulu" herein, although "Shout Lulu" takes a much lighter approach.

Another good album from Tim O'Brien, a legend who never disappoints.

CDs by Tim O'Brien

Cup of Sugar, 2023 Where the River Meets the Road, 2017 Pompadour, 2015 Chicken & Egg, 2010 Chameleon, 2008

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