Eric Von Schmidt & The Cruel Family

Eric Von Schmidt & the Cruel Family

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Eric Von Schmidt's first album in over five years, 1977's Eric Von Schmidt & the Cruel Family places the Cambridge folkie into a California-style '70s folk-rock setting. Surprisingly, the combination works more often than not, especially since Von Schmidt doesn't change his characteristic singing and playing in the process. His bluesy growl of a voice goes with tunes like the sassy, horn-powered opener, "You Get Old, You Get Wise," like red-eye gravy goes with ham, and the ten-person backing band features his old collaborator Geoff Muldaur (who knows a thing or two about adapting gritty urban folk into a more mellow musical setting) on vocals and slide guitar. The only problem is that Von Schmidt's often inconsistent songwriting throws up as many misses as hits this time around; for every gem like the thoughtful "It's the Doing" or the lovely jazz-tinged closer, "Icarus," there's a fun but forgettable trifle like the swaggering "Debt I Owe." Still, when he's on, he's near the peak of his powers, as on the sly, rambling "Make It Last" (which features a killer slide mandolin part by Muldaur) or the wistful "Sudden Garden."

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