When No One's Around (Sugar Hill)
Tim O'Brien

By Bob Bahr

What on earth happened in Tim O'Brien's life to bring out the sentimentality and other emotions dominating this album? For longtime fans, this record, though it does occasionally show O'Brien's wry, NPR-variety humor and his affinity with traditional acoustic music, seems like it was made by a stranger. Can the man who was in the satirical, pointed swing band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers sing a song with lyrics such as "When you're soarin' through the air/I'll be your solid ground/Take every chance you dare, I'll still be there" or "Your memory's the sunshine every new day brings/I know the sky is calling, angel let me help you with your wings"? Sentiment is not unheard of in bluegrass music, but O'Brien undoubtedly knows from his career with the excellent band Hot Rize that the sentiment in that music is of the gnarled, blunt, Blue Ridge Mountains-type. This stuff is mushy.

O'Brien fans will notice another new wrinkle: the strong presence of John Gardner's drumming. His percussion is tastefully played, but it pushes this music closer to country or Western swing. Perhaps. The growing ambiguity regarding which genre O'Brien belongs to merely proves that the emerging category name "Americana" a category into which O'Brien is increasingly dropped is fitting and needed.

"When You Come Back Down" is certainly not bluegrass, country or rock. With a schmaltzy bridge you can see coming a mile away, it's more than anything else, tedious. "One Drop of Rain" is hard to take too, but the catchiness of the chorus gets to you anyway. "River of Blood" is on the borderline of insightful and sophomoric. "First Day of Fall" is right pretty, and pretty corny.

On the other hand, "Kick Me When I'm Down," with its less-than-a-saint main character, is quite potent and entertaining. "Out on the Rolling Sea" is the sort of vocal-driven gospel song (this one with an unmistakable reggae feel) that New Grass Revival used to do so well. "I Like the Way You Cook," co-written with NGR's John Cowan, is one of the best cuts on the album; the tune's food-as-seduction theme is devilish fun, and the funky swing of the tune is endearing.

Three songs exhibit the earnestness of the more sentimental ones on the album, yet pull it off via subtlety and smarts. "Think About Last Night" is a plea to a friend to try methods other than drug use/dissolute living to get by in life. "Love and Laughter" tells the time-honored tale of two young lovers running away together despite their poverty and the disapproval of their parents and it works; "When There's No One Around" is a straightforward apology from O'Brien explaining his devotion to music and songwriting.

Two more songs are vintage O'Brien. "How Come I Ain't Dead" is a hilarious heartbreak song with a painfully traditional-country form and rhyme scheme. "Love is Pleasin'" is a traditional tune rendered simply by O'Brien's voice and his melancholy fiddle playing.

Throughout, the music is masterfully played, by O'Brien mostly (he plays fiddle, guitar, mandolin and bouzouki), but with resophonic and lap steel guitar work from the album's producer, Jerry Douglas and acoustic guitar playing compliments of Darrell Scott. Cameos are contributed by John Cowan (harmony vocals), the Fairfield Four's Isaac Freeman (ditto), fiddler Darol Anger and Sam Levine (some nice tenor sax work on "When There's No One Around"). The production on the album is crystal clear, forceful and a tad negligent of Mark Prentice's acoustic bass all in all, an able showcase for the songs.

Unfortunately, not all the songs on When There's No One Around are up to the task. But they sure seem ready for radio. Maybe with this album, O'Brien is saying "Show me the money." For me, this effort is effective in showing me the benefits of culling certain songs from iffy albums to make killer compilation tapes for my personal enjoyment.