The Secret Handshake

Geoff Muldaur

Hightone Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/30/1999

I've often written before about how press releases can sometimes scare me away from listening to a particular album for a time. Geoff Muldaur's latest effort, The Secret Handshake, is another example of a disc that fell to pre-listening bias. Reading through the liner notes intrigued me enough, but the press releases - and the album's own description of itself as "Blues & Gospel" - was enough to push this disc to the back of the "to be reviewed" pile in the Pierce Memorial Archives.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

When will I learn? It seems the discs I'm the most scared of listening to turn out to be the better albums. Muldaur is not the strongest vocalist in the world, but his mastery of the material is more than enough to power The Secret Handshake to being a great album.

While one could see religious overtones in some of the songs ("This World Is Not My Home," "I Believe I'll Go Back Home"), to classify this album as gospel is stylistically incorrect. I'd rather classify it as "folk," just because there are so many other influences at work in the music at the same time that the songs themselves transcend any one strict boundary. (Maybe this is why Muldaur calls the music on this album "American Music" on the back of the CD cover.)

Granted, it does take some time to really get into this disc - often because Muldaur is not the world's greatest singer. (Counterpoint: he's not bad, but you can hear limitations.) Tracks like "Alberta" and "This World Is Not My Home" seem to stretch on forever - not the best way to start out the disc. (Actually, the disc's opening track "The Wild Ox Moan" isn't bad at all.)

Things change for the better once you reach "Got To Find Blind Lemon - Part One"; this is where the natural folkiness of Muldaur kicks in, and the album becomes much more listenable and fun. Thanks to a funky bass line provided by Bill Rich, "Chevrolet / Big Alice" seems to fly by, even though it clocks in at well over seven minutes.

The only other difficult song to get through - at least for me, because I'm not an afficionado of banjo music - was "Mistreated Mama". Otherwise, Muldaur and his cast of musicians turn a forgotten form of music (at least forgotten to the MTV generation) and shows just how vital it is to both our past and our present.

The Secret Handshake is an album that takes some time to warm up to, but is one that is, for the most part, worth the effort.

Rating: B+

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© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Hightone Records, and is used for informational purposes only.