‘Under Cover’: Song-Swapping With the Best : The Dennis Roger Reed Band: “Under Cover” Plastic Meltdown Records (cassette) ***
This collection of a dozen folk, pop and country nuggets has the informal feel of a come-and-strum party, with a bunch of friends and relations getting together to knock out some old favorite songs for the fun of it.
But there is more going on with “Under Cover,” which grew out of Reed’s nostalgic impulse to recall the weekly bluegrass sessions he presided over a few years back at the Old Dana Point Cafe.
Teaming with his current band and guest alumni from the cafe days, the veteran folk-country singer-songwriter from San Clemente proves that if a song is good enough, and left in capable and sympathetic hands, it doesn’t have to be immaculately tailored to wear well.
Guitars, mandolins, banjos and fiddles dominate, rolling along in laid-back fashion. But the players and singers are strong enough that some tasty instrumental licks and warm vocal harmonies pop out from the easy-flowing current of acoustic strumming.
Nobody seeks to dominate, and the performances take on the air of a relaxed, ego-free session in which the only objective is enjoying good songs in good company.
On his own tapes and as bassist with the Andy Rau Band, Reed has shown he knows how to write a good song. Here, he displays a terrific knack for browsing through other people’s catalogs.
Each side begins with a song that pretty much every folk-pop fan will know, done in a way that underscores that familiarity: Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” and the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman.” Nat “King” Cole’s “Mona Lisa” is the other standard, and an array of lesser-known numbers pop up from familiar artists (Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” Mike Nesmith’s “Papa Gene’s Blues” and Poco’s “Child’s Claim to Fame”).
Then come the treats most people will have never heard, or will have forgotten--such contemporary gems as Chris Gaffney’s “Frank’s Tavern,” a fetching romantic ballad by Katy Moffatt and Tom Russell, and obscure oldies from Chris Darrow and Paul Siebel that make you want to hear more of their work.
Unifying the proceedings is Reed’s penchant for understated plaintiveness and gentle melancholy. It’s what he delivers best as a singer, and he sticks to the program. But not without some interesting twists: On an album where almost every cover is more laid-back than the original, “Mona Lisa” shakes off the cottony “King” Cole treatment, and instead prances to a sprightly country-barroom bounce, with gaily plinking piano leading the way. Siebel’s “Painted Pony” offers dryly comic relief with its deadpan take on the conventions of the romantic-outlaw song.
Reed’s wife, Waverly, spells him on a couple of ballads. Her sweet, untutored voice sounds a tad thin and naive on the old-time honky-tonk tune “Remember Me,” but she is perfect in the winsome role of the romantically smitten young girl of Moffatt and Russell’s “Walking on the Moon.”
“Under Cover” is a fine reminder of music’s fundamentally communal spirit. Players who hear it might well get the itch to throw a picking party of their own; others can do the same thing with a record-spinning fest.
Face-to-face song-swapping seems less wired to the pulse of these fast-moving, Internet-exploring times than it should be. But what could be more interactive?
(Available from Plastic Meltdown Records, 222-A Avenida Miramar, San Clemente 92672-4738.)
Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.