Bruce Piephoff

Doctor River [CD]

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Lo and behold, the reviewer who thought the CD combining the Hamburger Square and Anson County releases was the earliest available material by Bruce Piephoff gets shot down by this release, which provides the real first two albums by this Greensboro, NC, singer/songwriter. The reissue uses the Doctor River title, but the earliest of the pair of originally vinyl releases presented here was entitled Razor's Edge. Combining two albums on one CD is of course so practical that it has become an industry standard and something consumers expect. It sometimes seems to add up to a lot, as in simply quantity. There are 27 songs in total here, all played with quite similar instrumentation, and representing a good deal of lyrics to take in from any one source.

Sometimes the comments of an extremely casual listener are interesting, someone who is really not concentrating but picks up a few lines here and there. Such a creature in hearing distance of this set during a playback was able to guess that it was a combination of two albums, and made the following comment as to the songs themselves: "In the first half, he sings about getting drunk. In the second half, he talks about a lot of different people, so many that I couldn't keep track." This commentary, a better description of many folk and rock lyrics than half the books written on the subject, gives a bit of a feel for the collection. It is surprising that the casual listener did not comment on the harmonica, which is played by Piephoff in a style much like Bob Dylan, whose influence on the material also extends well beyond the metal harmonica thingy that sometimes scrapes performers' tender ear meat. The harmonica playing has the same effect on the material instrumentally that it does on Dylan records, best described as a kind of aural confinement. It blots out the sounds of the guitars, tending to harmonically chloroform whatever notes are being picked. Since the harmonica itself can never be played in a neck brace with anywhere near the pleasant tone achieved when it is held directly in the hands, the overall effect is a negative. Some listeners may see the entire association with Dylan in this light, but it should be said that fans of the mighty one's early -- or later period -- acoustic material would certainly enjoy a good deal of the tracks here. Those that are able to judge Dylan's material without feeling like they are supposed to be kneeling might also suggest that there are things here that Piephoff does better -- more simply, more directly. He can also be a more believable narrator when it comes to songs such as "Great N.C. Drought and Farming Disaster, 1986." Maybe that is because Piephoff's model was Dylan, who is easy to imitate, while Dylan's model was Woody Guthrie, who was impossible to imitate. And it certainly has something to do with the fact that Dylan, once he became a big star, totally lost his credibility dealing with the problems of the common people, and as a result stopped singing about them.

This set plays with expectations by starting off with the later material, the 1988 recordings making up the final 13 tracks. The arrangements utilize simple combinations of guitars, slide guitars, mandolin, and bits of banjo and fiddle. Players include some area bluegrass notables such as fiddler Kirk Sutphin and mandolinist Arnie Solomon. Scott Manring provides some great slide guitar, while the playing of some of the others is simply functional. Quality of both performance and recording mix vary from track to track, ranging from moments of sweet brilliance to the "losers on an open stage" syndrome, but one cannot accuse the participants of not doing what comes naturally. Since the earlier album seems to be the better of the pair, the programming concept actually helps.

Track Listing

Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:25
2 2:33
3 2:25
4 3:20
5 2:02
6 2:05
7 1:40
8 3:01
9 2:51
10 2:35
11 1:50
12 3:09
13 2:55
14 2:15
15 2:14
16 2:00
17 2:08
18 2:41
19 2:03
20 3:10
21 3:10
22 3:35
23 2:33
24 3:43
25 2:10
26 2:07
27 3:24
blue highlight denotes track pick