(Sky Hunter Records, CD)
Central Vermont singer-songwriter Lafe has led a pretty interesting life. After running away from the family farm at age 13, he traveled the country Woody Guthrie-style, getting into skirmishes with the law and living the life of a troubadour. He later worked as a label exec for Warner/Elektra/Atlantic, but never abandoned his vagabond roots. Lafe's debut release Am I Gone sets these experiences to music.
Expertly produced by Vermont musicologist/folk musician Mark Greenberg, the disc features smart arrangements and crisp, rich tones. A small crew of supporting musicians -- including multi-instrumentalist Greenberg, vocalist Coco Kallis and percussionist Bim Edison -- embellishes the album's easy-going tunes. Warm, inviting and filled with subtle nuances, it's one of the best folk-styled releases I've heard in a while.
Greenberg's mandolin intro to "I'll Get Over You" provides a fine melodic opening to Lafe's melancholic vocal phrasing. "Broken hearts and broken homes/You know it happens every day/Faces pressed against the glass/framed pictures from the past," Lafe sings in a candid tone. Earnest and unpretentious, he conveys the tune's sad tale without sounding sappy.
Lafe is a solid, if unassuming, guitarist; his soft strums and gentle fingerpicking provide a decent framework for each of the record's 14 cuts. Effective in its simplicity, "Paint Me Blue" is a good example of the songwriter's economical six-string style. "Kings Don't Cry" features Kallis, who sounds like a cross between Sandy Denny and Christine McVie. She provides the song with an earthily romantic quality and nicely complements Lafe's low-key vocals.
The spry bounce of "South Folk" spins a romantic tale about travel below the Mason-Dixon line. Banjo, mandolin and harmonica dance playfully around Lafe's robust vocal lines, giving the cut a winsome feel. "The Alamo" is the type of story-song Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash might pen; its Southwestern imagery and lonesome chord progression create a late-night campfire vibe. "Got in a high-risk game with three Mayans and a priest," Lafe intones in a hushed baritone. While this particular song might not be drawn from personal experience, it sure is fun.
Am I Gone isn't particularly groundbreaking, but there's so much to enjoy that you never really mind. Lafe's debut will delight those looking for honest tunes impeccably performed and recorded. Help him celebrate the release Thursday, April 21, at The Black Door Bar & Bistro in Montpelier, and at the River Run Restaurant in Plainfield on Sunday, April 24.