Wry observations in a folk-country style built to last.
If Caleb Stine was seeking something self-descriptive in the title he sells himself far short with ‘Handyman’. At the very least “craftsman” would be nearer the mark, such is the obvious love and care with which he has created his 12th album. His timeless songs are like much-loved furniture, sturdy and polished, but not too much. In a voice that is expressive yet comforting Stine sings about people, places and emotions with a keen eye for the detail that brings all three alive. Musically he switches from folk through country and blues. Described as one who might become a 21st century Townes Van Zandt there are also echoes of the acoustic Neil Young. From start to finish ‘The Life and Times of a Handyman’ is an absorbing insight into a world populated by folks just getting on with life. And as so often, these people are far more interesting than their higher-profile counterparts.
Stine has been around for some time. Born and raised in Colorado he drew inspiration from his dad’s record collection steeped in 1960s country, blues, Dylan, Neil Young and The Byrds. He moved to Baltimore where he made his home and became part of that city’s vibrant bohemian arts culture as a solo artist and with two bands he fronted, the Brakeman and the Honey Dewdrops. Stine writes songs with deep connections that can be traced back to his fascination by the novels and music of a long-departed old, weird America. Yet he is not stuck in some time warp. What he does to great effect is to use that old time nurturing to look very modern situations straight in the eye. Kudos also to his long-standing collaborator Nick Sjostrom on bass, keys and vocals, the Honey Dewdrop’s Kagey Parish (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Laura Wortman (banjo, guitar, vocals), and Audrey Hamilton (upright bass, fiddle, vocals).
‘Looking For Someone to Love’ is a nod to the fact that kind and loving people are all around. Even in the frantic modern city tranquility oozes from Stine’s vocals, gentle strumming and distant banjo picking that evoke a rural back porch. “City lights push and pound you/ Summer night nearly drowns you/ But love ignites all around you.” Stine opens up further with songs about more specific characters. To a happy tempo ‘Just One Mistake’ is a charming assessment of what could be seen as errors. But don’t be too hard on yourself because, “All my mistakes turned out fine/ I love my children and my wife/ Maybe mistakes have what it takes/ to help create our life.” ‘Handyman’ is another good guy. A wistful fiddle and piano add to Stines’s tale of someone who places kindness to his fellow humans as his priority. The detail is very reminiscent of John Prine.
Turning to place, ‘Colorado’ is an amusing insight into the potential for a new life in a state far away where, “In Boulder they got the hippies and in Denver they got the squares”. But “Everybody up the mountain are living without no cares”. Again, Stine offers his wry observations to a folky vibe to match those folks in Boulder.
‘Whiskey’ blends the serious with the very funny. Almost spoken, to minimal acoustic and fiddle, Stine offers the joys and happiness to be found in a “wee dram”. ‘Energy’ and ‘Floating’ are two acoustic guitar instrumentals that flow with a sparkle and lightness of a mountain stream in Stine’s Colorado home.
The perceptive observations, lucid writing and skilled musicianship throughout ‘The ‘Life And Times of A Handyman’ is testimony to Stine’s belief that “music is a craft”. After a few listens Stine becomes a cherished companion whose homely stories are a reminder that the world is not all bad. As with any craftsman worthy of the name his work is built to last.