ALBUM REVIEW: Singer masters the blues in ‘Retrospective’

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First Posted: 1/14/2014

Northeast Pa.’s own Charlie Singer doesn’t play a standard 12-bar blues, with definitive, show-stopping cuts and slices rifling through a sizzling, last-call tavern haze. What the Wyoming Valley-based guitarist does specialize in is the Mississippi Delta-inspired acoustic fingerstyle fare of yore — the kind of sunbaked mood music spawned by legends of the genre like Bukka White, Charlie Patton, and The Mississippi Sheiks. Singer’s uniquely warm and resonant style is featured on his latest release, a compilation of his best work over the past 30 years, titled “Retrospective.”

Playing a plethora of strings throughout the richly wood-cut, even-timbred album, including mandolin and National Resonator in addition to standard six and twelve-string guitars, Singer’s flawless mastery of the instrument is clear among tracks like “American Raga,” in which his open-tuned fingerpicking presents a delicate hush akin to the most quieting of Mississippi John Hurt’s classic folk-inspired blues with the complexity of Rev. Gary Davis’ steel-encrusted best. Similarly, “East Saint Louis Blues” wanders the dusty backroads of the pre-World War II American South, lyrically tracing the typical nomadic “hop a train” lore of the archetypical bluesman through lines like, “I did not have one ‘ol lousy dime” — the downtrodden yet respite-seeking tone in Singer’s vocals is heartfelt and authentic.

Also included are live cuts like “Mandolin Blues in G,” a spirited romp through Americana-laced boogie with Singer’s mandolin lead piercing through the delicate mix. A telling pre-song conversation among his bandmates seemingly sets the tone for what Singer’s music is really all about. A musician asks, “What kind of tempo do you want?” Singer responds with, “Nice and easy” — pretty much sums up Singer’s approach to his craft.

Elsewhere, tracks like “Dark Side of the Sun” enchant with an air of intense, mysterious chord voicing and melodic shading. Singer’s use of a slightly flanged electric guitar for the instrumental song’s lead teamed with bass and acoustic guitar backing (no drums) makes for an interesting counterpoint — fresh-grown blues without any preconceptions. Brilliantly shimmering aural serenade exists in cuts like “Old Country Blues;” the dual-guitar interplay lends itself to headphones, as each instrument is separated in the stereo field, ever so lightly divorced in timing, providing an echo effect that is nearly hypnotic.

Teeming with unswept sophistication and rural charm, Singer’s blues speaks pure, old-timey sentimentality with ragged emotion dripping from his fingers. Music like this is a lost art in a 21st century digital world.

Charlie Singer ‘Retrospective’ Rating: W W W W W