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Higher ground

The Refugees are strangers in a strange land
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  January 14, 2009


Cindy Bullens, who has done a lot of things in the music business, recently wondered: "What? You have to get old to have success?" One might think touring with Elton John and singing on the original Grease soundtrack would be considered successful, but I get what she means. Do you know who Deborah Holland is? She fronted Animal Logic, back in the day, a band that featured Police drummer Stewart Copeland and jazz legend Stanley Clarke. Do you know who Wendy Waldman is? She's released eight solo albums, the first five on Warner Bros. Records, and she's written songs recorded by obscure performers like Robert Smith, Linda Ronstadt, Kim Carnes, Randy Travis, Kenny Rogers, Judy Collins, and Bette Midler.

All three of them are refugees of a music business that's been torn asunder by file sharing and the new digital world, where the most famous artists sell 100,000 records in a debut week instead of 1,000,000. Where no one can pick you out of a lineup unless you've just won American Idol. Where new songs are made successful as background music in cheesy teen dramas and iTunes commercials instead of through radio play and write-ups in Rolling Stone. (Okay, I'm being dramatic, but you've got to admit things have been turned on their head, in general. Maybe it's for the better, you could argue, since the playing field has been leveled in some ways, but it's certainly disconcerting for those who've made their living under the old world order.)

So why shouldn't these three talented music-industry veterans team up and form an old-school supergroup? Calling themselves the Refugees, Bullens, Holland, and Waldman have released a new album, Unbound, and begun touring the country as a modern-day, female Crosby, Stills, and Nash (who themselves had a successful comeback tour recently), appealing to the boomers who grew up on the beginnings of FM radio, and fans of that old country music that was actually played with acoustic instruments.

You might call them folk, or pop, or Adult, but you can't say they don't know what they're doing. They are great performers, in the first. Waldman wows with great runs on the acoustic guitar. Bullens aces the mandolin, dobro, and harmonica. Holland mostly holds down the bass, but also busts out an accordion from time to time. And all three can sing. When they team they create harmony like you read about; you know, real harmony, where each singer dips in and under and around each other singer's line of notes, and there are moments when things lock into place and seem to glow through your headphones.

They are also all pro songwriters, which is why it's a little strange they've chosen to recycle so much material here. Only five of the 12 songs on the album haven't been recorded elsewhere, and though it's very cool to hear the opening a capella take on Waldman's most-famous song, "Save the Best for Last" (Vanessa Williams sold a few million albums with it, and it was 1992's ASCAP song of the year, which means they considered it the most-performed song of the year), Waldman just released it in 2007 and, well, isn't that song kind of tired? Teams played it over their PA systems when they won World Series in the 1990s.

This is especially disappointing when you hear the results of their combined talents. The title and opening track is terrific: It's bluegrassy and authentic, a throwback to old vocal spirituals created by the likes of the Carter Family. Like many of the songs here, it's a triumph-over-adversity tune, with lines like, "Ten million miles across the universe, I drag myself around/Searching for the end of thirst before the weight of sorrow takes me down." Except that sorrow never does seem to win, and that's all the good for us.

"Stickin' with My Baby's Love," the other tune where all three get a songwriting credit, is a steamy, Bonnie Raitt kind of thing: "I like to bring those boys right down to their knees." Bullens's dobro lead here has a huge and expansive sound, like it's the most hollow body ever made. The steamy stuff is a little like catching your parents in the act, but, maybe (just maybe), "it doesn't hurt at all to fantasize."

The recycled stuff works to varying degrees. "The Violin Song," a silly, bluesy tune about disliking violin practice as a kid, may have worked well on Holland's 2006 solo disc Bad Girl Once... as part of a larger body, but here it sounds too much like a piece off the Free to Be...You and Me soundtrack. But "You Plant Your Fields," from Waldman's 2007 solo disc, is a winner, a minor-key rumination like "The Wayfaring Stranger" as done by Doc Watson, as good as any of the rootsy stuff put out by Gillian Welch recently.

It's easy to see why people are rallying to this music. It's real, impressively performed, and easy on the ears. Still, it seems to me the Refugees are younger than their years. I'd like to hear a full album of their songwriting collaborations. If they keep repeating their initial success, I have no doubt that will happen.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached

THE REFUGEES | One Longfellow Square, in Portland | January 16

  Topics: Music Features , Bette Midler , Cindy Bullens , iTunes ,  More more >
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