Rockwells & Picassos
From the first track, "Call It a Miracle," you get the idea that Joe Rathburn's got a lot of hours of listening to Bruce Cockburn under his belt. "Miracle" is about how great existence is, and nearly all of the rest of the album, while not always so cosmic in scope, is equally thumbs-up to stuff like equality, God and keepin' on truckin'.
It'd all be pretty cloying if San Diego singer-songwriter Rathburn and co-producer Jeff Berkley didn't enliven each song with unexpected instrumental choices, the faint acid wash of Berkley's electric guitar behind Rathburn's jolly whistling on "Together" and Gerry Walker's plaintive pedal steel on "Miracle" being just two. Elsewhere, brass horns and steel drums add a shimmer, if not an edge, to Rathburn's relentless optimism, and a wicked little bowed-bass line opens the Jimmy Buffett-like "Closer to the Moon."
The only ugliness here, in the breezy roadside-attraction portrait "24/7 Motel," is handled for laughs -- it's cute, never sinister. The fillips of originality might be enough for some listeners to overlook the truth of the adage that it's easier to write sad songs than happy ones. Rockwells & Picassos -- which owes a whole lot more to the former artist than to the latter -- is well made, but if you prefer vinegar to sugar, you'll have trouble swallowing much of it at a time.
Pamela Murray Winters
Rambles, June 16, 2002