When We Shine combines folk music and civic pride, with uneven results | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

When We Shine combines folk music and civic pride, with uneven results

Calliope Songwriting Project
When We Shine: 15 Songs About Pittsburgh


When We Shine, the Calliope Songwriting Project's birthday ode to Pittsburgh, is perfectly well intentioned and earnest. The songs are, for the most part, carefully crafted and perfectly performed. Much of Pittsburgh's 250-year history is chronicled in this disc. Nevertheless, the collection is uneven and, frequently, maudlin.

Local folk veterans Rick Malis and Tom Breiding are paired with standout graduates of the Calliope Folk Music School on the 15-song collection, funded by a RAD grant in honor of that anniversary we keep hearing about. Each track, in whole or in part, is written by Malis, Breiding or both.

Breiding's efforts are strong, bluesy folk with a bit of rock and what sounds like a Warren Zevon influence; "Conrail Line" and "Summer Drive" are particularly enjoyable.

Malis' offerings, conversely, range from bland to unbearable. With the sleepy "Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts," he presumptuously attempts to finish the song Stephen Foster was writing when he died. On the groan-inducing title track, he rattles off Pittsburgh's achievements like an advertising jingle, combined with a cloying folk ballad: "A polio vaccine that stopped the outbreak, the first aluminum bottled beer / liver transplantation -- it was all invented here" sits awkwardly alongside the sentimental assurance that "when times get tough and trying, we always find a way." Malis is a gifted musician, but many of his performances on this album are, frankly, a bit ridiculous.

Emily Rodgers' "The Women of Arsenal" is moving and beautiful, and the spoken-word track "Lime Hill," written by Breiding and performed by Sean McDowell, is interesting and evocative. Yet while folk aficionados and Pittsburgh boosters may find enough to like, When We Shine isn't strong enough to overcome a half-dozen disposable songs.

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