Something often forgotten by today’s folk singers is that folk music has a wider range than most genres. It can be a heartfelt ballad, a story of hope, or a call to arms for a downtrodden people. Shareef Ali, based out of the Bay Area in California, seems to understand this better than most. His new album, A Place To Remember The Dead, runs the gamut through all of these variations. He adds a bit of punk rock attitude to it, kinda like Frank Turner’s recent work. The difference being Ali shoots a bit higher, reflecting less on his own past and focusing on the world at large.
He’s often been compared to Conor Oberst, and sometimes throughout the album that comparison is very valid. But more often he comes across as his own creation, blending old-fashioned instrumentation and modern lyrics in a way that sets him apart from most young folk artists.
My first time through the record I was just half-listening while I was doing some other things, but I had to stop when “Stone’s Throw” came on. This is pure early Dylan re-imagined to fit today’s world. I was surprised when songs like this didn’t start popping up with higher frequency around the Occupy movement, but I’m happy to finally hear someone singing about the people fighting back, be it here in the US or in Egypt. The words are straight, and never bend to compromise: “Well I got released to a fast food feast on the front steps of the jail, but we know our work ain’t finished until we empty every cell. So you can ban us from the plaza, stay away from city hall, but sure as we burn that flag, that edifice is gonna fall. So we rage on, like a grease fire, I heard they torched our bank today. And we raise a fist to Cairo, we’re just a stone’s throw away. Now if you got a pot to piss in, don’t be afraid to call it black. Or you never break the kettle, and take your city back.” The genius of the song, I think, is that the first couple verses are sung alone-just a voice, acoustic guitar, and harmonica-and when it gets to the line about being banned from the plaza a chorus starts up and gets louder through the rest of the verse. It’s a very effective song sung by one man, made much stronger when joined by a group.
The first single from the album, “Tuscon,” shows a much different side of Ali. It’s a fun country song with a big helping of steel guitar. Lots of honky tonk heartbreak on the track as Ali laments “I ain’t ever gonna understand how you like every kind of boy except the kind I am.” I like the dynamic shifts that the album goes through, and that they didn’t try to smooth it out too much. Everything on A Place To Remember The Dead sounds good to me. It isn’t over-produced and engineered, so it feels honest and real. As a record like this should.
It’s not out until February 19th, but you can check out the video for “Tuscon” and if you’re in the Bay Area you can catch Shareef Ali on the release date playing at Bottom Of The Hill in San Francisco. A Place To Remember The Dead has been one of my favorite listens so far in 2014, so I definitely think you should check it out.