Last spring, Passion Works Studios released the second volume of its musical CD project, which pairs developmentally disabled artists with local musicians to create songs.
As someone who had the pleasure and privilege to take part on the first CD, 2004's "Get Up and Fly," I'm happy to report that Volume 2, "My Little Pancake Button," is at least as good as Volume 1. It certainly boasts some bigger musical names on it, including Jorma Kaukonen and John Hutchison.
On the project, Passion Works clients work with Hocking College students to write poetry. Their poems are given to local musicians, who turn them into songs and record them.
Just based on that description, this could easily be viewed as mainly a feel-good project. But the truth is, something extraordinary seems to happen in these collaborations.
In 2004, for example, when I took on a lyric written by Harry Grimm (with help from Cassandra Karnes) called "Birds in Triplicate," I was already a long-time songwriter — though the quality of my ouevre was, let us say, uneven. The tune that came out of that collaboration is one of the better ones I've ever had my name on.
Most of the tunes on "Pancake Button" were recorded by project mainstay Bruce Dalzell in his home studio, though in some cases, musicians handled the recording themselves. On the resulting product the meshing of the poets and musicians is so close it can give you little shivers at times.
When Hutchison, for example - a rare, genuine bluesman - tears into "God" (lyrics by Carolyn Williams with Eduardo Cid), it's like it was tailored for him by Armani.
"I believe there's a God - I've seen pictures of him," Hutchison bellows over a barreling piano part - and by God, you're up to take an altar call. The song pounds to an end with, "I saw Jesus and that's it." Could there be a more perfect précis of salvation?
The up-and-coming Princes of Hollywood give a bubbling, country-pop reading to the title tune, with its thoughtful observation, "Donkey - funny name for a coffee shop."
Kaukonen picked a lyric, "Kenji Kawkanno," written by Cheryl Williams with Chuck Poling and Deni Naftziger. Opening slowly with the sound of a rainstorm and an ominous rumble, the song is suddenly pierced by a guitar and martial drumbeat that I swear, could have come from some long-lost Jefferson Airplane cut - and I mean that in the best way possible.
The words tell of a couple, perhaps seen in a picture, who "look happy because they are in battle, fighting for us in Vietnam." They never had children, we hear, but "maybe they'll adopt when the war is over." This is a spooky tune.
The alchemy by which the collaborators on this CD manage to blend their flavors together is only slightly more remarkable than the range of styles in which this happens.
Carolyn Williams' lyric "I Remember You, Mom," for example (written with help from Justin Wellman), is given a piano/choir treatment by music-writer Nancy Pierce, with piano by Lynn Sullivan and vocals by the Calliope Feminist Choir. It's lovely and sad.
Jack Wright turns "On a Monday Morning," written by Mindy Henninger with Sarah Reid, into a funny little offhand Appalachian narrative spiked with jaw-harp twanging.
In "I Am a Biker," musician Hill Hackworth put David Dewey into a Hocking College studio to read his poem, then played around with the vocal using echo and repeat effects, and added a nifty backing track.
It's really hard to pick favorites out of the dozen tunes here. There's my friend Alexis Rhinehart's frank confession of her abiding love for the "King of Soul," Smokey Robinson, backed by the music of her dad, Billy. There's the smooth, jazzy "Birds Fly South," in which Zach and Jesse Catania take on a lyric written by Ron Queen with Jaimie Laulusa.
There's Ravenwood's rendition of "Valentine's Day" (lyric by David Dewey with Jacob Lenart), in which, over an arrangement of the traditional "Margravine's Waltz," harpist Patrick McGee solemnly reports his plans to cook dinner for his Valentine.
"I'll dress up, and look good for her," he notes. "I'll tell her how beautiful she is." Smart man.
On "Run With the Wolf," Adam Remnant and Josh Antonuccio give a moody guitar/Rhodes organ treatment to a lyric by Harry Grimm with help from Bambi Taylor, about a wolf and "his lady wolf, the love of his life," who has "big black eyes and big sharp teeth," and "can be mean if she wants."
Bruce Dalzell takes on "Yellow and Gold," words by Jonna Burns, and once again, the close match of musician and lyricist is striking. "The Angels' job is to watch over us/and God is their boss," goes the song, and if you've ever heard Bruce play "When You Wish Upon a Star," you know he can do that line justice.
And lest we forget, there's also "Fantasy Talk Show," in which the Local Girls, using music written by Dalzell, give their typically flawless three-part vocal treatment to another Harry Grimm lyric, and give voice to a question I believe has bothered a good many of us.
"I like Oprah/She's a good woman/with a big house/but no kids," they sing. "Why doesn't she have kids?/They would be good kids."
To find out more about the project, or to buy the CD, check out passionworks.org.