Center Songs (Apria)
A few years back, I went to New York to write about Baltimore native Joe Holtzman and his acclaimed magazine, Nest. While there, I met Beckham, Holtzman's ace graphic designer, who also happens to be a jazz musician. A fine composer, Beckham plays the vibraphone with the same creative zest he exhibits in his magazine work. It's an instrument that's often used for color, nuance, and little else (players such as Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson are exceptions), but Beckham hammers a full range of expression from it. As a result, Center Songs tilts agreeably, but never topples.
Desperate Man Blues (Dust-to-Digital)
The next best thing to tagging along with Joe Bussard during one of his record scavenging trips, or listening to him spin old 78s in the basement of his Frederick home is watching this excellent documentary film and listening to its companion CD. Bussard, who was featured in last May's issue of Baltimore, is a feisty, opinionated, and obsessive collector of old-time records. In fact, he has amassed what is arguably the preeminent collection of pre-World War II records on the planet. In Edward Gillan's film, which you may have caught on IFC, Bussard recalls traveling the back roads of Appalachia in search of records. He went door-to-door in small towns, ventured down dirt paths, walked through forests, and even waded across creeks in search of folks with rare records to sell or trade. Over the years, he turned up rarities by greats such as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, and the Carter Family (all featured on the soundtrack CD). He also found gems by relative unknowns like Lane Hardin, Gitfiddle Jim, and the Tennessee Messarounders and developed a knack for turning up country, blues, gospel, and bluegrass obscurities. The Desperate Man Blues DVD and CD offer unique peeks into a personality and a slice of Americana that are both intriguing and entertaining. The DVD includes 40 minutes of outtakes from the original film, a short featurette on Bussard (with footage shot at Hampden's True Vine record store), and audio commentary by Bussard.
Goldenacre (The Gate International)
An electronic recording shot through with the measured cadence of a reflective soul, this disc presents Renner as Baltimore's answer to David Sylvian, or a more somber XTC, with some John Cale and Brian Eno in the mix. Renner crafts delicate, literate songs that echo mid-1980's experimental pop, with a contemporary twist. The vocals are a bit flat, but the atmospherics compensate for that and manage to complement Renner's plaintive delivery. Like Sylvian's best material, this is good listening for a cloudy winter afternoon. A second release, Memoirs of a Distracted Church Organist, is a companion CD of instrumental sketches culled from the Goldenacre sessions.