When it comes to describing songs and music, the term “timeless” is sometimes bandied about a little too liberally – but every so often, a certain project comes along that truly deserves the branding. There’s an official story behind the shelving of It’s A Sad and Beautiful World, an extraordinary pop, roots rock and jazz inflected collection by multi-creative industry vet J.C. Hopkins and a host of rock legends and scions of legends.
It has something to do with Hopkins shift in focus from this hybrid style to his successful to this day launch of the JC Hopkins Biggish Band. Either way, its timelessness has to do with the fact that these eight 2004-recorded songs, some written in direct visceral response trying to make sense of the world’s good and evil in the post-9/11 haze of NYC, are as (if not more) meaningful and relevant to our modern American zeitgeist as they were nearly a decade and a half ago.
If Hopkins’ name is as fresh to your musical radar as it was to me, let’s catch up. A multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and producer, he’s helmed albums by Victoria Williams, en Fields and even actor John Lithgow, who won a Best Children’s Album Grammy for Sunny Side of the Street. He’s earned two Grammy nominations for his work with Willie Nelson and Norah Jones, and wrote “Painter Song” for Jones’ mega-platinum debut Come Away With Me. Besides leading his own band, he’s also performed in NYC for years with the likes of Jones, Elvis Costello, Madeleine Peyroux and folk/pop singer Martha Wainwright (daughter of Loudon (and Kate McGarrigle) and sister of Rufus) who brings her gorgeous harmony vocals to both the emotionally conflicted but also somehow life affirming title track, and the soulful, lyrical anthem “Walking Cane,” which pays homage to the creeping passage of time in both whimsical and sadly reflective tones.
For classic rock fans, It’s A Sad and Beautiful World will no doubt be appreciated first for its quasi-reunion of The Band members Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, who anchor the spirited mid-tempo blues rock opener “Upside Down” (featuring Hudson on Hudson’s wild Hammond B-3 solo) and “Walking Cane,” whose vocals sway atop the formidable charms of Hudson’s accordion and melodica. Hudson’s rooted grace also animates the accordion fired, zydeco-tinged “Big Sister,” whose outro lyrics find Hopkins singing “Have a Little Faith” like a mantra; the rollicking, churchy Hammond B-3 and brass driven “Saturday”; and the mystical, meditational “It’s Good to Be Alive,” which features some of Hopkins’ dreamiest, hippy-dippy vocals backed by Hudson’s mellotron and piano.
"It's Good to Be Alive" is the perfect place to mention a few of the other crazy-great musicians populating the session. On that track, Teddy Thompson, son of folk icons Richard and Linda Thompson), brings a transcendent sitar to the mix; elsewhere, he helps drive the musical narrative via more conventional instruments like 12-string acoustic and electric guitars. Those without rock and roll fame and legendary parents deserve mention as well. Upright bassist Catherine Popper adds an organic jazz sensibility to the mix. Cleave Guyton’s fluttering, skybound flute on the title track makes it seem more beautiful than sad. And the horn section (saxman Seamus Blake, trumpeter James Zollar) make “Saturday” and the thoughtful romantic ballad “Just That Way” two of the album’s most compelling tunes. And let’s not forget the ringleader, Hopkins himself, whose alternately dreamy and emotional vocals set the tone of the album, and who brings his own bag of instruments (piano, electric and acoustic guitars, percussion) to the mix.
As the story goes, the release of It’s A Sad and Beautiful World happened because Hopkins bumped into Matthew Cullen, who engineered the project, this past spring. Cullen agreed to master the songs, and everything was set in motion. Hopkins says, “I like the sound. They sound like New York City and they sound like Woodstock. The songs are earnest and the musicians play with conviction. It was a sad time for this country, similar in many ways to this moment. But it was beautiful making music with talented friends. I’m glad it was captured and that I can now release it.”
Listen a few times through, and there’s no doubt you’ll feel the same – and wonder perhaps how many other gems are out there in vaults, waiting to emerge at just the right time to capture a moment they couldn’t have imagined.