Widely considered the world’s most skilled Dobro player, Jerry Douglas has appeared — according to his official bio — on over 2,000 recordings in his career. He is a man with complete control of his instrument, a man who has accumulated many friends and admirers in the music business over the years. This makes sense, because Traveler sounds like it was made by exactly that type of person.
Re: the friends and admirers — Traveler is heavy with collaborators. Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, The Mumford Sons, blues legend Keb’ Mo’, Marc Cohn, and Alison Krauss all make prominent appearances on the record (and many other famous names turn up in small roles). Some of these guests fare better than others. Clapton adds nothing appreciable to a boring cover of the bluesy Chris Kenner original, “Something You Got,” but Alison Krauss provides a very strong and affecting lead vocal on the pretty country ballad “Frozen Fields.” Keb’ Mo’s vocals, likewise, inject much-needed cool into (another) boring run through of an old blues number (this time Huey P. Newton’s “High Blood Pressure”), while Marc Cohn does little to redeem the too-slick “Right on Time.”
“The Boxer” – being, as it is, a folk tune that builds steadily to a crescendo – is right in the Mumford Sons’ wheelhouse, and they do a predictably nice job with it.
Re: the complete control of his instrument — The album jumps, almost back-and-forth, between covers and original instrumental tracks. Douglas’ virtuosity can indeed be very impressive, and some of the album’s best moments take place in these songs. “Gone to Fortingall,” with its vaguely Celtic character, is an affecting tune that mostly pulls off its intended epic-ness, and “American Tune/Spain” successfully combines its sparse and contemplative first half with its fast and Latin-tinged second. Not everything he tries works, though. “So Here We Are” – the lone electronic instrumental — is bland and numb-skulled, a song that sounds constantly like someone’s about to start explaining APR financing over it. The other two are fine and nothing more.
Overall, Traveler is a very polished and technically impeccable record made by people who really know what they’re doing. It is consistently good, but a bland sort of good, good in the way a desktop background picture of the Grand Canyon is good. If you like your music safe, clean, and professional (which is fine) this is an album for you. Otherwise, don’t fret: I hear Jerry has some other recordings out there.
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