calicoDrifters – Dreams Are the Ponies We Ride
In a year filled with numerous outstanding local CD releases, along comes another, an album that is equally winsome and poignant. Dreams are the Ponies We Ride is hauntingly sparse, conjuring images of rural American landscapes, wide-open places and people scarred by life’s tribulations, and the music creates its own overtones of wisdom and pain, insight and sadness. With only a few guitar tracks – sometimes acoustic, sometimes resophonic, and frequently both – and the vocal tandem of Thomas Burns and Sue Prodell, calicoDrifters deliver timeless tunes that flow with the ease of folk classics. Kevin McConeghey is the only guest, contributing lonesome harmonica on one track.
If Burns’ voice seems to possess a bit of a Southern drawl, you’d be right. Raised in Kentucky, Burns spent time on the East and West Coasts as well as Tennessee before relocating to Wisconsin a few years back. Prodell, a Fredonia, Wisconsin native, has been singing for some twenty years and it shows. Just listen to the beautiful phrasing on “My Prairie Home,” “On Clinton Street” and “How Do You Watch a Movin’ Train,” where her alto sneaks in barely noticed. She takes the lead on several songs as well. “Old Ragtop” is a minor-key, blues-infected tale of abandonment and features the only electric guitar on the album. “Siren Call” is a similar sea-widow’s lament.
“Cardboard Box” is even more morose: “Misfortune is my closest enemy,” Prodell sings in a voice completely unadorned, the full emotional effect coming straight from the gut. “If I would store happy memories in a brown cardboard box / I’d be left holding nothing but the dreams that I lost.” But nothing can eclipse the mournfully beautiful title track. Burns’ subtle chord voicings are perfectly matched to Prodell’s achingly melodic vocal and when she harmonizes with herself on the chorus it’s magical. The lyrics to “Dreams Are the Ponies We Ride” were co-authored by flow-poet Adam Gregory Pergament, former member of Stonefloat and the force behind the Chime Collective series at the Center for Creative and Cultural Arts. The pairing seems unlikely but the result is pure poetry.
The whole album is delivered in the same austere, no-frills fashion. The album was recorded at engine-engine Productions in Mt. Horeb but that could just as easily be Burns’ living room. That would be fitting, since the entire record has an aura of authenticity to it.
Burns composed the rest of the tracks on Dreams and assumes the lead on most of them. His voice is reminiscent in some ways of John Prine, a little bit of Dylan and maybe some Leon Redbone. He’s a versatile fingerpicker but it’s his choice of passing tones and the way he brings just a smidgeon of jazz to the proceedings that makes his playing so endearing.
I would highly recommend this recording to anyone who appreciates traditional folk styles and the pastoral form of Americana music.