LittleHouse Doesn't Live Up To Carter Family Roots

The Hartford Courant

The true essence of LittleHouse is best illustrated by the photographs on the front and back covers of "Carter Family Roots," the Simsbury band's self-explanatory new collection of songs.

On the front is a photo of A.P. Carter's house as it looked in 1893, a dilapidated cabin slumped precariously to one side. On the back is a photo of LittleHouse leader Joe Patrina's spacious Cape a century later, snow-covered and snug.

The implication, of course, is that these two things are somehow alike, or even that Patrina is a spiritual heir to the Carter Family's extensive musical legacy.

It would be a nifty bit of mythmaking if it weren't so preposterous.

There's no question Patrina, 58, has turned LittleHouse into a cottage industry, pardon the pun. He converted a barn on his property into a small concert venue, hired a band to back him when he plays in it and has paid to record and release two CDs of songs he's written. He has also self-published a book, "Songs: Where Do They Come From?" which explains his songwriting philosophy and collects the lyrics to 28 of his songs, filling a demand that may not exist.

In other words, it's a vanity project on a grand scale, funded by proceeds from the sale a few years ago of the software company he started in the '80s, and accompanied by press releases trumpeting his "grass-roots" aesthetic with every new musical gambit or charitable impulse. (They frequently seem to intersect.)

Patrina writes in "Songs: Where Do They Come From?" about a trip to the Carter Family Fold in Clinch Mountain, Va., where words of wisdom from Janette Carter made him eager to build upon her family's musical tradition with a style of his own that he calls "Heartland music."

There's just one problem: Patrina's not much of a songwriter. He's a capable musician fronting a versatile band, and he has a pleasant, gravelly baritone. As a lyricist, though, well, writing good lyrics is an art. The best lyricists, be they Bob Dylan or Jay-Z, are storytellers, masters of wordplay with a knack for vivid imagery, memorable turns of phrase and a near-magical ability to transform the mundane into something at once transcendent and relatable.

Patrina's lyrics, by contrast, are mostly just mundane. He often conflates plain-spoken into corn-pone on songs that fall back on hackneyed life lessons, relationship clichés and first-world problems. He leaves his new convertible out in the rain and buys stock during a downturn on "I Just Screwed Up," from LittleHouse's first record, "Old School"; and muses leadenly about emotion on "Only Humans Cry," an unreleased live staple as mawkish as it is mistaken.

The new CD, "Carter Family Roots," purports to celebrate a classic old-time sensibility on eight original songs and a cover of the Carters' take on the traditional "Three Little Strangers." The acoustic-based originals are sturdy enough, if unremarkable, bar-band fare, with chugging train rhythms, male-female vocal harmonies on opener "They Go Like This," a Tex-Mex feel on "Every Bit a Woman" and occasional flourishes on electric guitar, including twangy chicken-picking lead lines on "I've Been Waiting."

It's perhaps the most memorable part of an album that's less a contemporary homage to old-time music than a misinterpretation of its purpose and power. For that matter, using "grass roots" to describe a music fan's efforts to buy himself renown as songwriter is a misinterpretation of that notion, too. Either way, it takes more than vintage photographs and an open wallet to earn a place alongside the Carter Family.

LittleHouse performs for free Sunday at 9 a.m. at the Walk for Lupus Now at Blue Back Square in West Hartford, and at 2 p.m. at CT Summer Funfest (sponsored by FoxCT and The Courant) at the Connecticut Expo Center, 265 Reverend Moody Overpass, Hartford. Admission is $8 for adults, free for children 16 and younger.

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