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Otis Gibbs - Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 11 / 8 / 2014

Otis Gibbs - Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth
Label: Wanamaker Recording Company
Format: CD


Gritty but melodic latest album from Indiana-based folk artist and political activist, Otis Gibbs

Otis Gibbs has put up a video of one of the songs from his latest album on his web site www.otisgibbs.com. ‘Ghosts of Our Fathers’ carries on in the tradition of Gibbs’ story songs; in this particular story an almost blind neighbour (“they say it happens when you’ve been punched too many times”) who has lost a son fighting in Vietnam. It’s the way Gibbs describes this man, the way the gruffness in Gibbs' voice conveys the hardship this “bare knuckled champion” has lived through that gets to the listener time and time again. It’s the detail in Gibbs' writing that makes you feel you knew these people personally. Gibbs has, in the past, had his work compared to that of Dylan. While lyrically few can argue with that assessment did Dylan ever cloth his stories with such beguiling melodies? It usually took other musicians to bring out the beauty in Dylan’s work. Gibbs dresses his stories in such captivating melodies that even shorn of his descriptive, fascinating lyrics you’d still find much to love here. Going back to that video Gibbs posted, there is a short description added under the clip, where Gibbs writes about his father, who inspired much of this latest album. “The greatest lessons I learned from my father came when he didn’t even know I was watching,, Gibbs writes and not for the first or last time you feel this connection with Gibbs, that he is articulating what many of us feel but can’t express and, apart from those melodies, apart from Gibbs acute observations it’s this feeling of connecting with his songs, with the lives of those he sings about that make his work so special. By my reckoning Gibbs has been releasing albums since 2002 and ‘Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth’ is his seventh album. The fact that he still has something new to say, that he can still create story/songs as affecting as ‘Ghosts of Our Fathers’ says a lot about the man. Even before you’ve listened to any of the ten new songs on this album, the striking cover art will take up some of your time. Gibbs created all the artwork for this project; the front image of a bird cradled in a man’s hands is strangely captivating, the other three paintings are also stunning; it’s telling that Gibbs on the small independent Wanamaker Recording Company label can have his albums dressed in such fascinating sleeves while the majors with all their money have no idea… Gibbs produced the album along with Thomm Jutz who also helps out on guitar and lends his vocals here and there; the solid base supplied by bassist Mark Fain and drummer Paul Griffith is built upon by Justin Moses on banjo and fiddle and Fats Kaplin (Jack White) who excels on pedal steel and also contributes fiddle too. The band provides the perfect setting for Gibbs’ story songs. Otis Gibbs wrote nine of the ten songs while his partner Amy Lashley composed one, ‘Wrong Side of Gallatin’. Some years back Amy released her own album and. while Amy helps out vocally here. It would be good to hear another solo set from her, especially if the song she contributed on this album is any indication of her current writing. Sharing the same acuteness that Gibbs does lyrically her observations of small town America are fascinating. Displaying that Amy can also match Gibbs for coming up with memorable melodies to hang her lyrics on this particular song just leaves the listener longing for more from this exceptional but reticent singer. But it’s Gibbs album and as we pointed out when his last album, 2012’s ‘Harder Than Hammered Hell’, was released it’s really business as usual. That’s not to say Gibbs recycles the same song and ideas time and time again, but his bluegrass/country/Americana roots are still the base on which he builds his stories. As with all his albums, Gibbs never once lets the quality of his songwriting slip or the appeal of his melodies fade. ‘No Rust On My Spade’ looks back on Gibbs time as a Nurseryman, when for ten years he planted trees without the aid of any mechanical aids, the way Gibbs describes, over another of his compelling melodies, the strain that such work causes to the body is another indication of his lyrical expertise. With Justin Moses banjo playing a major part in creating the atmosphere of the song it’s another Gibbs classic. ‘Nancy Barnett’ is a jaunty country song that belies the sad tale of a woman whose grandson stood guard over her grave in a hillside that the authorities wanted to move to make way for a new road. The authorities failed. ‘With a Gun in My Hand’ relates the time a young Gibbs used to spend and love with his father in the forests of Indiana where his father would go hunting for deer and rabbit. While the idea of killing an animal repulsed the young Gibbs, he cherished the time he spent alone with his father in the forest. He just couldn’t find the words to explain how he felt to his father at the time. Again, because of Gibbs' ability to draw the listener deep into his songs, you’ll feel the sense of loss and pain the young Gibbs felt as he saw life slip away from a dying deer. Otis Gibbs is not pushing any boundaries musically, but his sound, especially on this latest collection of songs is more complete, more full than on previous releases maybe. The fiddle and banjo play a major part in keeping his music sounding fresh, and even after all these years he is finding new subjects to cover. There is definitely more to Gibbs than the usual singer/songwriter though. Although Gibbs isn’t the only singer/songwriter to meld captivating stories to unforgettable melodies, he is one of the best. ‘Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth’ is the best yet from Gibbs, and that’s some claim given the quality of the songs on the half-dozen albums he’s already released. It’s only going to take an already established country star to hear a song like ‘The Darker Side of Me’ and cover it for Gibbs to suddenly reach a far wider audience than he currently commands. While that may not be what Gibbs wants for his music and while in an ideal world Gibbs already flawless readings of his own songs would be the perfect way for his music to spread, the time must surely come when Gibbs songs are going to be covered and introduced to a completely new audience. ‘Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth’ is one of the strongest albums released so far this year. It’s been playing round these parts for weeks now, and we’ve yet to tire of a single word or note. It really is an exceptional set of songs.

Track Listing:-
1 Cozmina
2 Ghosts of Our Fathers
3 Back In My Day Blues
4 It Was a Train
5 The Darker Side of Me
6 No Rust On My Spade
7 Wrong Side of Gallatin
8 Nancy Barnett
9 Kokomo Bar
10 With a Gun In My Hand

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