Higher ground

The Refugees are strangers in a strange land
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  January 14, 2009


Cindy Bullens, who has done a lot of things in the music business, recently wondered: "What? You have to get old to have success?" One might think touring with Elton John and singing on the original Grease soundtrack would be considered successful, but I get what she means. Do you know who Deborah Holland is? She fronted Animal Logic, back in the day, a band that featured Police drummer Stewart Copeland and jazz legend Stanley Clarke. Do you know who Wendy Waldman is? She's released eight solo albums, the first five on Warner Bros. Records, and she's written songs recorded by obscure performers like Robert Smith, Linda Ronstadt, Kim Carnes, Randy Travis, Kenny Rogers, Judy Collins, and Bette Midler.

All three of them are refugees of a music business that's been torn asunder by file sharing and the new digital world, where the most famous artists sell 100,000 records in a debut week instead of 1,000,000. Where no one can pick you out of a lineup unless you've just won American Idol. Where new songs are made successful as background music in cheesy teen dramas and iTunes commercials instead of through radio play and write-ups in Rolling Stone. (Okay, I'm being dramatic, but you've got to admit things have been turned on their head, in general. Maybe it's for the better, you could argue, since the playing field has been leveled in some ways, but it's certainly disconcerting for those who've made their living under the old world order.)

So why shouldn't these three talented music-industry veterans team up and form an old-school supergroup? Calling themselves the Refugees, Bullens, Holland, and Waldman have released a new album, Unbound, and begun touring the country as a modern-day, female Crosby, Stills, and Nash (who themselves had a successful comeback tour recently), appealing to the boomers who grew up on the beginnings of FM radio, and fans of that old country music that was actually played with acoustic instruments.

You might call them folk, or pop, or Adult, but you can't say they don't know what they're doing. They are great performers, in the first. Waldman wows with great runs on the acoustic guitar. Bullens aces the mandolin, dobro, and harmonica. Holland mostly holds down the bass, but also busts out an accordion from time to time. And all three can sing. When they team they create harmony like you read about; you know, real harmony, where each singer dips in and under and around each other singer's line of notes, and there are moments when things lock into place and seem to glow through your headphones.

They are also all pro songwriters, which is why it's a little strange they've chosen to recycle so much material here. Only five of the 12 songs on the album haven't been recorded elsewhere, and though it's very cool to hear the opening a capella take on Waldman's most-famous song, "Save the Best for Last" (Vanessa Williams sold a few million albums with it, and it was 1992's ASCAP song of the year, which means they considered it the most-performed song of the year), Waldman just released it in 2007 and, well, isn't that song kind of tired? Teams played it over their PA systems when they won World Series in the 1990s.

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