Stylised debut album with signs of promise.
Suitcase Sam, also known as Leon Stanislaus Czologosz was born as far as I can gather, in California, where his father was a railroad engineer (is that what we call a train driver?) for Central Pacific. Trains were very much a part of Sam’s early years, and now they are a part of his songwriting, as in the opening track, ‘Growing Up’. Apparently, Sam may be the great-great-grandson of the anarchist Leon Czologosz, who in 1901 killed President William McKinley. Thus far that does not seem to be a subject for any of his songs.
Sam has been a professional musician for ten years and though he has previously recorded two EP’s, ‘Goodnight Riverdale Park’, is his first full-length offering. He has been based in Toronto since 2010 and the current album was also recorded in that city.
Sam is an award-winning musician and in 2012, the song The Sweetest Hippopotamus, from the. ‘Get It To Go’, EP, was adapted into the BravoFACT short film by the same name. Suitcase Sam, who appeared as himself, composed the music for the film and went on to win the Best Soundtrack Short award at the AOF International Film Festival.
Influences are said to be Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Emmett Miller, and Jimmie Rodgers, whose ghost surely influences the second track, ‘Friday Afternoon’. The collection of press cuttings on Sam’s website offer various suggestions regarding, ‘sounds like’, one being Leon Redbone. To these ears, it seemed that instrumental, ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, with its featured clarinet solo was the only track clearly in that style. In fact, the influences are varied and one of the strongest tracks, ‘Tattered Shoes’, with its likeable guitar/harmonica introduction, seems to fall right into the world of rural blues and Mississippi John Hurt. The website also featured comments that at times the live ‘Sam sound’ was akin to that of The Band and there are indeed times when the vocals might resemble those of Levon Helm.
The accompaniments on this album, from a range of musicians, involve clarinets, sousaphone, washboard, pedal steel slide and resonator guitars, upright bass, violin and handclaps. They offer sympathetic and engaging backing with plenty of instrumental breaks to keep the interest up. However, there are two reservations, one being the vocals, which at times seemed to be overly mannered and it was interesting to see a comment on the website regarding a live show,
‘Suitcase Sam appeared to be a caricature, sitting barefoot on his suitcase wearing white sunglasses and a harmonica holder with a kazoo taped on’.
The pictures on the CD cover suggest a certain image and it could be that Sam is trying just a bit too hard? When all is said and done your voice is your voice, but the first thought on hearing it was whether it had a degree of affectation – a thought that seems to have struck a chord elsewhere. If that is wide of the mark then apologies are due, but it would still be the case that Sam’s vocals are not always the most appealing aspect of his music – as though he is trying for some sort of strained poorly recorded 1930’s authenticity?
The second observation would be the song content and it has to be questioned whether or not the world needs any more ‘born to ramble/she done me wrong/drink was the death of me’ type songs? Whilst there is an intent to create a certain musical era and sound, have they not all been written by now, and do they not, consciously or unconsciously, just propagate some rather redundant gender stereotypes? It’s not that Sam doesn’t have a way with words and some of his couplets work well as in, ‘Frankie and Me’,
‘I was halfway out the door and guess what? / Ya, she kicked me out the rest of the way’.
However in the same song, the chorus begins,
‘All the Kings horses / And all the Kings men’.
Words when written and words when sung can sound very different. The music received at AUK for review is generally well played and sung; it’s the quality of the writing that is much more variable. It’s the ability to write well using images and words that stand out and resonate that results in the highest quality work.
This is Sam’s first full-length CD and there is time to hone his songwriting skills both in terms of language and subject matter. Maybe there is a song to be written about that presidential killing or perhaps that original surname has a story to tell? The voice though will remain a matter of taste.