Mark Olson & the Creekdippers – December’s Child

Mark Olson & the Creekdippers
December’s Child

Every year, since long before there was such a thing as an officially recognized Americana genre, you could count on the release of at least a few standout albums that truly evoke the great meaning invested in the stories of normal people and pair them with the sounds of rural America. Still, even as the genre has positively exploded over the last decade, it seems that few artists outside of the established order (Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, etc.) are making powerfully cogent statements by staying within the natural borders of the sound while not being limited by them. As you can count on only a select handful of such releases a year, the ones that do break through stand out immediately. Mark Olson and the Creekdipper’s December’s Child could be this year’s finest entry.
The second release solely under his own name (with three others having been released under the moniker of the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers – the difference not being apparent), Mark Olson has wasted no time in establishing himself as a viable musical entity since his departure from alternative country pioneers the Jayhawks after their landmark Tomorrow the Green Grass album. Where the Jayhawks made some of the most truly inspired music to come out of the whole movement, positively saturated with wonderful harmonies and perfectly mournful melodies, closer to the Everly Brothers than the Byrds, Olson seems to have followed his muse into more soulful and rustic territory. Having married acclaimed singer/songwriter Victoria Williams and planted himself in the desert of Joshua’s Tree, Calif., Olson has made a truly brave move, abandoning the sure thing to explore something uniquely his own. Like all of the greats working in his neck of the woods, he pairs a plaintive songwriting sense with penetrating insights that find the beauty inherent in the dynamics of a particular moment, as his eye for detail and descriptiveness has dipped his verse in a economically expressive ether, needing only a few perfect words to construct scenes within his resonant narratives. Similarly, like the masters, he knows which elements to add and subtract in his homemade mélange of countrified R&B grooves, plaintive bucolic pop, and loosely pastoral folk-rock.
Similar to the Rolling Stones’ roots-rock opus Exile on Main Street, many of these songs benefit greatly from having a wonderfully communal chorus of voices filling out the arrangements and adding a decidedly familial feel. Much like Neil Young’s epic American Stars & Bars, many tracks sound like they could have been recorded in a country dance hall in rural America, although the swampy blues-funk grooves of tracks like “Alta’s Song” and the closing “One Eyed Black Dog Moses” certainly seem to have sunk deep in the Mississippi mud where the album was recorded. Nonetheless, a feeling of geniality and friendliness pervades the album, whether in the nearly perfect intermingling of brushed drums and subtle electric guitar leads in “Cactus Wren” or the cheery fiddle and sideways tempo changes of “How Can This Be.” Throughout, the mood is generally loose and contemplative, needing only fingerpicked guitar and triangle to invoke the simple majesty of the title track or pairing a droning mountain dulcimer to his early Dylan-esque delivery on “Nerstrand Woods.”
One of the truly great voices in contemporary music, somewhere between the ominous phrasing of Rodney Crowell and the understated sadness of Tom Petty, Olson still never sounds better than when locked in with his old Jayhawks harmonizer Gary Louris, with the two returning to duet on “Say You’ll Be Mine” (which is somewhat surprising given the circumstances of Olson’s departure from the band). Now, however, at this station in life, both Olson’s voice and songwriting aesthetic seem to be better suited for the raspy warble of Victoria Williams, a constant presence in the chorus of backing voices and on wah-wah banjo. In short, everything fits, whether a soft electric piano, a fiddle, a pedal steel, or a trumpet in the making of this impressively eclectic sound.
Although many were reasonably heartbroken when Olson pulled out of the Jayhawks’ camp to pursue his own musical vision unabated, there is little arguing now with his decision. Undoubtedly, that vision has produced one of the year’s best albums and a work that arguably ranks with the best of his career. Having moved well beyond the limits of the insurgent brand of country-rock he cut his teeth on, December’s Child is an album of nuance and singular vision, completely free of genre restrictions and the product of an artist who appears to know exactly what he wants. Overall, his move to the California desert has apparently provided the fertile soil needed to allow his talent to fully bloom into something more-or-less uniquely his own – and an album that just might be the best to come out of the Americana genre this year.