Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review of the Hank Stone Band's "Painting Tomorrow's Skies Blue"

I just posted this review, my first of the new year, on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: "Hearing the rippling of rivers/You will not utterly despair."

Hank Stone is an old folkie. I don't think he'd mind me telling you that. Stone's music initially brings to mind artists like Bob Dylan, Woody and Arlo Guthrie and Peter, Paul and Mary, although there are also a variety of rock and Americana influences as well. Painting Tomorrow's Skies Blue is his third album, and his first with the Hank Stone Band, which includes Todd Evans (of He-Bird, She-Bird) on guitars and backing vocals, Mike Christian on bass and backing vocals and Gary Settoducato on drums and percussion. Stone himself adds both acoustic guitar and harmonica.

Overall, this is a solid album that features some fine songs and some quality musicianship. Stone being a folkie at heart, he gives us some songs about trains (both real ones and toy ones), some songs about rivers, and even a gentle war protest song. But he also touches on themes such as spirituality vs. science, the yin and yang of luck, and the betrayal of a friendship. 

My personal favorite track is a little ditty called "One Side's Up", a lighthearted song that pokes fun at various superstitions, all the while pointing out how one person's good fortune is another's mishap. Ultimately, he comes out on the same side of the fate vs. free will argument as Canadian prog rockers Rush: "Is it the fall of the cards? The roll of the dice? Why does no one ever talk about virtue or vice?" The song is enhanced by a rather tasty guitar groove, presumably delivered by Evans.

"The River Says" is also a favorite. The song is mostly about the permanence of rivers and our connection with them, but it morphs in the last verse into a river-themed love song. This one also features some really pleasing guitar work. Another interesting track is "The Rippling of Rivers", a song that Stone speaks as much as sings, that takes the form of a debate between himself and scientists such as Francis Crick, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on DNA, but who sees human consciousness as little more than a side effect of neural processes. Stone makes it clear that he respects the science, but feels that such a cold approach misses some pieces of the human puzzle.

One last track I'd be remiss if I didn't mention is "Wartime Bride". While many songwriters who try to write a protest song fall into the trap of preaching to the converted, Stone takes the approach of instead creating a believable and sympathetic character as the protagonist of his song, in this case a young soldier talking to his fiancee. His thoughts aren't filled with platitudes or huge ideas -- he just wants to find a way to talk to his girl (the Army has blocked Facebook, but he found an old phone card he can use), finish the job he was sent overseas to do, and get home to his lover and his family. By not preaching, Stone makes his song all the more effective -- we empathize with the young man, and want to see him make it home safely. The song is proof that sometimes, a light touch is more powerful than a sledgehammer.

My only criticism of the album is I'm not sure that the songs are consistently as strong here as were the tracks on his 2005 solo album Rough Folk. The Band is excellent throughout, and there are some numbers that seem to be carried more by the proficiency of the playing than by the songs themselves. Nevertheless, the top tracks certainly exemplify Stone at his best, and overall, this is an enjoyable and above-average album. 

Hank Stone's bio states that he's been writing songs for more than forty years, and he's been performing for more than fifteen. Painting Tomorrow's Skies Blue contains a solid representative sample of the songwriting skills he has honed over that period, and also gives you the added bonus of a skilled backing band to present those songs in their best light. It's a more-than-worthwhile listen for fans of folk rock and Americana music.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars