Veteran Philly singer-songwriter Ben Arnold probably spent a lot of time making the songs on "Calico" sound as if they didn't require a lot of time to write.
Then again, maybe there were moments when everything came to him swiftly and easily, like a series of happy accidents arriving out of the blue -- the whimsical arrangement for "Zig Zag," the clever wordplay for "House of Cards," the vivid imagery found on "Bluegrass." Maybe that's it, maybe Arnold is more lucky than talented. Maybe that explains why most of the songs on "Calico" sound so effortlessly constructed and so off-the-cuff entertaining.
There are a lot of lyrics worth quoting here, but perhaps the best illustration of Arnold's appealing songcraft and the album's fundamental optimism is "Pickin' the Lock," a self-flagellating blues with a punch line: "How can you walk with that ball and chain / Kickin' the rock standin' in your way / Just give it a knock and it'll float away / Or try pickin' the lock."
Raspy-voiced Arnold and his bandmates deliver the scolding with Stones-like swagger, but more often than not the moods on "Calico" are playful, yearning or contemplative. Particularly impressive are "Bluegrass," a loping, lovesick ballad that recalls Bob Dylan's hauntingly textured collaborations with producer Daniel Lanois, and "John," a soulful elegy for John Lennon that references his lyrics and incorporates Beatlesque instrumental touches. Other songs seem slight by comparison, but nearly all of them flow smoothly, without a hitch or lull.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Friday at Rams Head Roadhouse in Crownsville and Sunday at Iota with Rose Polenzani. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Ben Arnold, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8102. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)