Acoustic Guitar Treasures
Piney Ridge Music, 1998
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/22/2001
I recently had a double-dose of pleasure in my life. One was seeing two masters of fingerstyle guitar - El McMeen and Larry Pattis - perform just a few miles from where I live. The second pleasure was inviting them into my house for dinner and a conversation about music - a conversation we'll soon feature on these pages.
And yet the greatest pleasure still comes when I put one of McMeen's CDs on to listen to, especially when I've had an absolutely miserable day. Just hearing his gentle yet intricate phrasing on his guitar allows me the chance to sit back, close my eyes and take stock of things in a more subdued manner.
Acoustic Guitar Treasures, released in 1998 on McMeen's own Piney Ridge label, is an interesting mixture of Celtic-flavored music, traditional "folk" music and even spiritual. In a way, it's hard to put into words just what the 13 songs on this disc do for me as a listener (while staying unbiased regarding my friendship with McMeen), simply because this particular disc hits me on an emotional level. Asking me to describe how this disc makes me feel is almost like asking someone who's never seen snow what they're feeling when they first experience it.
Do I like this disc? Hell, no... I love it.
There's something absolutely comforting about McMeen's phrasings of these songs, almost like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes and a sweater you'd only wear around the house. From the first note to the last chord, McMeen beckons the listener into a world where time, style, genre and even personal beliefs all blend together in a wash of steel strings struck with a loving touch.
Listen to a song like "Jacob's Ladder" and literally get sucked into the arrangement, and find yourself saying, "I know I've heard this somewhere." Listen to McMeen's rendition of "The Derry Air (Danny Boy)" and wonder how he can put such a fresh spin on a song many of us have heard ad infinitum. Listen to the absolutely stunning renditions of "Hyfrydol"and "Fairest Lord Jesus," two songs I recognize under different names from 17 years of Catholic education - and allow yourself to be enraptured by these arrangements, even if you're not religious. (Fact is, you don't have to be to enjoy the last two songs.)
"Mo Giolla Mear" makes an appearance on Acoustic Guitar Treasures (as it does on McMeen's two subsequent albums), yet it never wears out its welcome in the repertoire. Indeed, this particular version is a slightly different arrangement, making you feel like you're listening to an entirely different song. Even the more moody selections (such as "Pretty Maid Milking A Cow") deliver their payload well, not so much depressing the listener but providing a well-needed set of checks and balances in the music.
Complaints? Just two - and one of them McMeen is probably tired of hearing me talk about. First, this disc could be a triple-set, and it still wouldn't feel like enough music, so obviously 42 minutes of his brilliant playing will seem like an appetizer, leaving you wanting the main course. (Guess you have to check out some of his other discs to satisfy that craving.) Second, McMeen credits vocalist Scott Ainslie in the liner notes, yet I don't hear his contribution on "Hard Times, Come Again No More," McMeen's take on a Stephen Foster classic. (It might be that I'm reading too much into the liner notes, I'm not sure.)
Acoustic Guitar Treasures has been in almost constant rotation in my CD player anywhere I go of late, and is just another selection that shows McMeen's mastery of his craft. Having seen McMeen play live is kind of like watching a magician at work; you might not know the mechanics involved, but you know the outcome is still spectacular. Acoustic Guitar Treasures is 13 magic tricks that still are amazing me, even on what has to be my twentieth time listening to the disc. Let McMeen's magic come alive on your stereo, and pick this disc up.
For more information or to order this disc, please visit El McMeen's web site.