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Little Village Foundation (LVF), the non-profit record company founded in 2014 by Grammy Award-winning keyboardist Jim Pugh, produces and distributes recordings by a wide array of performers operating outside of the music industry mainstream. Pugh, who has recorded and toured with the likes of Van Morrison, Robert Cray, John Lee Hooker and Etta James, created the label in 2014 to expand the reach of talented artists who might not otherwise break out of their local and regional circles.
20 x 20 comprises twenty stripped-down songs recorded by twenty LVF artists for the year 2020. It is both a document of and a compilation for our times. Taken as a whole, the compilation unifies several undercurrent themes, including the importance of family, reevaluating our life priorities in challenging times, feeling nostalgic for bygone days, and not surprisingly, examining our political landscape with a critical eye and holding our political leaders accountable for their actions.
The opening track, “Things to Learn,” sung and finger-picked on acoustic guitar by multi-instrumentalist Nic Clark accompanied by cellist Katherine Smith, is a melancholic song reflecting on the lessons of childhood. Early on, Clark sings of learning to crawl and learning to walk, but concludes with the inevitable awakening of adulthood and the realization that “…life moves like the air.”
The multi-talented Margaret Belton, known primarily for her portrayal of Patsy Cline in the film Always…Patsy Cline, contributes “Lullaby of New Orleans.” She is accompanied by Maurice Tani and the song’s cowriter, Vicki Randle, both recording artists in their own right who are featured as principles on other 20 x 20 tracks. “Lullaby” takes listeners back to the days of steamboats, streetcars and brass bands, to celebrate a storied city that, for many, is still the melting pot and beating heart of American music.
Other 20 x 20 tracks, including Joe Rut’s “Gaslight Blues,” and Roger McNamee’s “Dr. Evil,” speak to the political failings of the current administration, especially as they relate to the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic. Rut employs a sardonic sense of humor and a neurotic delivery to bring the search for truth on social media into comedic focus. McNamee, best-known for his work with Moonalice and the Doobie Decimal System, casts blame squarely on our Commander-in-Chief for the ever-growing number of Coronavirus fatalities.
Stylistically, 20 x 20 juxtaposes guitar-based ballads with piano-driven numbers. Acoustic guitars prevail on Ira Marlowe’s “If We Were in Love” and Alabama Mike’s “Money Tree,” the latter presenting like a long-lost 78-era blues cut. Legendary Troubadour bassist David Jackson, accompanied by a lone piano, croons his Hoyt Axton co-write, “Pride of Man,” in a grizzled, world-weary baritone reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson, while Latinx performer Marina Crouse’s haunted reading of her own “El Cerrito Plaza Estacion ’29,’” co-written with LVF founder Jim Pugh, is accompanied by Pugh himself on keys.
Elsewhere on 20 x 20, burgeoning DC-based LGBTQ voice Be Steadwell, creates a vocally-layered landscape textured with beat-boxing on her affirming track, “Worthy.” John Bigham, best known for his tenure in Fishbone and stint with Miles Davis, attacks “I Love You” with a chill-inducing falsetto that punctuates raw emotion with a welcome intensity.
As a whole, 20 x 20 is a cohesive compendium of artists and songs that encapsulates the modern day American experience; a diverse cast with one foot planted firmly in the past and the other entrenched in the present day, with a furtive and hopeful glance to our collective future.