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Wednesday, January 18, 2017


ROUTES & BRANCHES  
a  home for the americana diaspora
January 18, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

This week alone found me suddenly in possession of full records by Band of Heathens, Chuck Prophet, Great American Taxi, Nikki Lane, Otis Gibbs, the Sadies, Son Volt, Tift Merritt and more.  It's a frustratingly generous influx for a reviewer who likes to give an album its due attention, and these are only the low hangers.  Perry Brown of Fire Mountain, Leif Vollebekk, Heath Green & the Makeshifters, Ags Connolly.  So who do I talk about first?

Well, let's travel back to the halcyon days of September 2016 and the release of Angelica Garcia's Medicine for Birds.  I saw almost no bloglove for this eclectic, original CD, but came across mention of the Virginia artist as a recent tour opener for Lydia Loveless.  Her site bows to the "holy trinity of Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Jack White", while I'd place her on the altar of Samantha Crain, Alynda Lee Segarra, Adia Victoria and, yes, Lydia Loveless.  But let's be honest that Angelica Garcia's music really sounds like little else:  Percussive, playful, aggressive, restless.  "My blood speaks Spanish to me" she coos on "Red Moon Rising", an homage to her native East LA and her Latin roots.  Beginning with a phone recording of her Salvadoran grandmother, it's a lovesong written from too far across the country, from a young woman coming of age to a temple on a cul-de-sac, where innocence and refuge meet.  The rhythms are swept along by a slight Latin undercurrent, Garcia's elastic voice swooping and diving in a vaguely Middle Eastern swoon.  Produced by Charlie Peacock, the songs on Medicine for Birds rarely follow a predictable verse-chorus-verse strategy.  "Woman I'm Hollerin'" launches as an atmospheric blues, then adds an urgent vocal, an addictive percussion and a rubberband bass for something that pairs tUnE-yArDs' playground rhythms with Kate Bush theatrics for a spellbinding romp.

You'll find Garcia's most straightforward, rootsy moment on the cottony "Call Me Later".  Strolling down the sidewalk with your blue shoe shine / How you went and took this little heart of mine.  "Loretta Lynn" slows the pulse ever further for a moving reflection on the frustrating unreliability of men.  It's the only song I recall that portrays the country legend as a girlfriend and confidante:  Among the sinners and the cigarettes -- / the kind of crowd you'd expect him in. / But we're not angry at all the men, no, / just the ones we got tangled with.

Medicine for Birds is the sound of a young woman exploring her own artistic expression and limitation.  Angelica Garcia reportedly wrote and set demos to tape in her parents' very rural, very out of the way house, and the lack of an obvious musical compass point shows in all the strongest ways.  The charming "Orange Flower" is a messy blues stomper boasting one of the less conventional vocals you'll find on recent records.  It's girlish, flirty, barbed and confident:  He gave me an orange flower / What ... what in the hell does that mean?  It's a high point of an unexpectedly accomplished record that's hopefully just begun to garner the buzz it deserves.

------------------------------------------------

But let's talk about what's awaiting below.  It's our first effort at a webcast, like a radio show you can listen to whenever you like.  And there's cussin' in the songs, and maybe you can hear the water heater growl to life.  But it's a thing, and I'm very happy to have created it for you.  My plan is to feature it for one week or so, then to replace it with a new Episode.  Everything that's played is done so with the expressed permission of the artists, labels and promoters.  The question remains:  Does it sound more like I'm broadcasting from within a tin can, or from a cardboard box?  O well, at least the music is top notch ...

* Green on Red, "Black River" Gas Food Lodging  (Restless, 85)
* Chuck Prophet, "Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins" Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins  (Yep Roc, 17)
* Minus 5, "Days of Wine & Booze" Down With Wilco  (Yep Roc, 03)
* Son Volt, "Cherokee St" Notes of Blue  (Transmit Sound, 17)
* Dead Man Winter, "Red Wing Blue Wing" Destroyer  (GNDWire, 17)
^ Angelica Garcia, "Orange Flower" Medicine for Birds  (Warner, 16)  D
* Lydia Loveless, "Out On Love" Real  (Bloodshot, 16)
* Adrian + Meredith, "Southern Call" More Than a Little  (A+M, 16)
* James Leg, "I'll Take It" Blood On the Keys  (Alive Naturalsound, 16)
* Mark Porkchop Holder, "Disappearing" Let It Slide  (Alive Naturalsound, 17)
* Wilco, "Thanks I Get" Alpha Mike Foxtrot  (Nonesuch, 14)
* Sadies, "God Bless the Infidels" Northern Passages  (Yep Roc, 17)
* Tift Merritt, "Proclamation Bones" Stitch of the World  (Yep Roc, 17)
* John Moreland, "Holy Ghost Haunted" Everything the Hard Way  (Moreland, 11)
* Nikki Lane, "Muddy Waters" Highway Queen  (New West, 17)
* Michael Chapman, "That Time of Night" 50  (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
* Milk Carton Kids, "Heaven" Ash & Clay  (Anti, 13)
* Otis Gibbs, "Great American Roadside" Mount Renraw  (Wanamaker, 17)  D
* JP Harris w/Kelsey Waldon, "If I Were a Carpenter" Let's Duet In the Road  (Demolition & Renewal, 17)  D
* Girls Guns & Glory, "Empty Bottles" Love & Protest  (GGG, 16)
* Billy Joe Shaver, "When the Word Was Thunderbird" I'm Just An Old Chunk of Coal  (Columbia, 81)
* Band of Heathens, "Keys to the Kingdom" Duende  (BoH, 17)
* Iron & Wine, "Southern Anthem" Creek Drank the Cradle  (Sub Pop, 02)
* Cody Jinks, "Heavy Load" I'm Not the Devil  (Jinks, 16)
* Bonnie Whitmore, "Cinderella" Fuck With Sad Girls  (Starlet&Dog, 16)
* Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough, "Broken Fences" Mockingbird Soul  (BDM, 17)  D
* Jaime Wyatt, "Marijuana Man" single  (Wyatt, 14)
* Old Crow Medicine Show, "Alabama Hightest" Best of OCMS  (Nettwerk, 17)  D
* Ags Connolly, "I Hope You're Unhappy" Nothin' Unexpected  (At the Helm, 17)  D

Wednesday, January 11, 2017



My practice of only reviewing one record per week won't work anymore.  I comment frequently on how much good music is out there to be discovered.  After about an hour on bandcamp this morning, I'd also say that the converse is true - holy god, there's a glut of pretty sad music out there, too.  No wonder folks just turn to their old favorites rather than pick thru the rubble.  But I'd be overlooking too much worthy music if I didn't at least try to shoehorn a "bonus" review in now and then.  Hence ...

SHOEHORN REVIEWS  
they're short because so's my attention span
Scott Foley, Routes & Branches

Over the span of two very good records, 2012's I'll Keep Calling and 2014's Home Is Where the Hurt Is, JP Harris has boldly worn his musical heart on his plaid sleeve.  While Harris capably pens his own songs, on his new EP, Why Don't We Duet In the Road, he pairs with a cabful of pretty and pretty talented lady singers to cover 4 country perennials.  Reportedly inspired by star-stuffed projects a'la Will the Circle, Harris' new project was stamped onto 500 slabs of hand-numbered seven-inch vinyl.  Fortunately for non-collectors like me, it was also released to good old fashioned mp3 ...  The songs are familiar ones, paying tribute to classic country duets like Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy and Johnny & June.  The playful "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly" pairs Harris with Nikki Lane.  Former Sixpence None the Rich-er Leigh Nash joins him for another bluesy shot of attitude in "Better Move It", replete with countrypolitan horns.  Onetime Denver fixture Kristina Murray contributes a perfect vocal to George Jones' sweet "Golden Ring".  My favorite of the batch is a Nashvilled up take on Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter", with both Harris' and Kelsey Waldon's deliveries proving to be nothing but genuine.  And that's what JP Harris does best.  These pieces are played close to the trad vest, apparently cobbled together during a hurried afternoon recording session.  With Harris at the helm, it all comes across as both a fitting tribute and a promissory note for his next record of originals.


Monday, January 09, 2017

ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
January 7, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Okay okay okay.  What better way to spend nearly two weeks' vacation than to clear over 1,000 CDs out of the basement?  And add to that carving out a podcasting bay, replete with Fancy New Mic and Laptop That Doesn't Buzz Incessantly When In Use.  Friends, we're on our way to that online broadcast for which I've been reaching over the past several weeks.  Since dropping off the face of terrestrial radio.  While I'm not 100% functional at present, I'm fixin' to piece together a 2 hour-ish  sample next week for your timeless and repeated streaming enjoyment.    It's no Kandinsky, but ...

Always happens this time of year, after holiday shows (never happened in 2016) and favorites shows and leaving your radio dial, those new and forthcoming releases collect in the shadows like so much dead spiders in the basement.  This week, we explore some of that promising stuff, including releases by perennials like Son Volt, Old 97s and Nikki Lane.  As well as stellar bits by less familiar artists such as Jaime Wyatt and Mark Porkchop Holder.

For today, we'll sharpen our focus a smidge on a British acoustic guitarist who released his first record just after I was born.  From the always worthy Paradise of Bachelors label, Michael Chapman's new release is called 50 (marking a half-century of his career, rather than his 76 years on the planet).   Chapman's stated influences feature a who's who of artists who have never set foot on the R&B stage, but whose shadows fall long over many of the contemporary types we do play:  Broonzy, Django, Jansch, Wes Montgomery.  A great 2012 tribute disc from Tompkins Square drew contributions from the likes of Hiss Golden Messenger, Black Twig Pickers, Lucinda Williams and more.  While critics shoehorn him into the Brit-folk tradition, the guitarist follows his own lineage to the roots of jazz and blues.  Collaborators on 50 run the gamut from Kurt Vile and Steve Gunn to fellow eclectic acoustic slingers like Nathan Bowles, applying themselves to new pieces as well as reimagined work from Chapman's generous, underappreciated back catalog.

Michael Chapman calls this his "American record".  My sense is that this means producer Gunn has rounded some of Chapman's sharper, eccentric edges, surrounding his still remarkable guitar work with this capable army of contributors.  Which is fine, since these noisy, evocative collaborations like "Spanish Incident" and "the Prospector" are rough hewn glories.  Chapman's acoustic is still quite present, and listeners can hear the grain and the warm knots of his well aged voice.  "Incident" adds a full band, from Bowles' raw and frailed banjo to a soulful bass, followed by the droning chime of Gunn's electric.  The downplayed backing vocals of fellow longtime British artist Bridget St. John provide a hearty grounding for the songs.  "Sometimes You Just Drive" takes a more subtle approach, but also boasts that electric buzz and drone, along with the resonant strain of ghostly supporting vocals.

It's on moments such as "Memphis In Winter" or "Falling From Grace" that Chapman's guitar and time battered voice stand relatively alone against a starker arrangement.  There's a touch of the apocalyptic in these tunes, well grounded in the stuff of daily life but sneaking an occasional glance beneath it all.  Especially as we're looking to draw a meaningful bow on a lifetime, issues of friendship, change and meaning are given lead.  From "Memphis":  "They say that Jesus saves, but I see none of that down here.  I just see people with the hunger.  I see people with the fear."  "Falling From Grace" is a gorgeous reflection, made more poignant by the inclusion of piano and fleeting pedal steel.  "I'm beginning to feel like that man in the park that can make the kids cry and the dogs start to bark.  He's lonely by day and no better by dark; don't you know he's just lost and lonely?" 

Feel free to file Chapman's 50 alongside younger "american primitive" sorts like Daniel Bachman or Glenn Jones.  I'm by no means a guitar wonk, and I'm much more taken by a melody or a turn of phrase than by rapidfire picking.  Beneath Gunn's admirable production work, it's just Michael Chapman and his acoustic guitar.  "That Time of Night" finds the man at a tender and vulnerable impasse.  "You know I don't scare easy, but I do get scared when it's that time of night".  Strip away the atmospherics and you still have a moving work of art.

* Jessica Lea Mayfield, "Bible Days"  With Blasphemy So Heartfelt  (Polymer, 08)
* Charlie Parr, "I Ain't Dead Yet" I Ain't Dead Yet EP  (Red House, 16)
* Mark Porkchop Holder, "My Black Name" Let It Slide  (Alive Naturalsound, 17)
* Gasoline Lollipops, "Love Is Free"  Resurrection  (GasPops, 17)  D
* Kelly Pardekooper, "Least I'm Not Alone" City at Night  (Pardekooper, 16)
* Jaime Wyatt, "Wishing Well" Felony Blues  (Wyatt, 07)  D
* Son Volt, "Back Against the Wall"  Notes of Blue  (Transmit Sound, 17)
* Rodney Crowell, "It Ain't Over Yet" Close Ties  (New West, 17)  D
* Whitey Morgan, "Buick City" Whitey Morgan & the 78s  (Bloodshot, 08)
* Nikki Lane, "Jackpot" Highway Queen  (New West, 17)
* Old 97s, "Good With God" Graveyard Whistling  (ATO, 17)  D
* Miranda Lambert, "To Learn Her" Weight of These Wings  (Vanner, 16)
* Dead Man Winter, "This House is On Fire" Furnace  (GNDWire, 17)
* Sadies, "It's Easy (Like Walking)"  Northern Passages  (YepRoc, 17)
^ Michael Chapman, "Memphis In Winter" 50  (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
* Ryan Adams, "To Be Without You" Prisoner  (PaxAm, 17)
* Justin Townes Earle, "A Desolate Angel Blues" Yuma  (Bloodshot, 07)
* Mando Saenz, "Home Again" Highway Prayer: Tribute to Adam Carroll (Eight30, 16)
* Hayes Carll, "Faulkner Street" Trouble in Mind  (UMG, 07)
* Scott H Biram, "Long Old Time" Bad Testimate  (Bloodshot, 17)  D
* Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Bellbottoms" Dirty Shirt Rock 'n' Roll  (Majordomo, 10)
* Gillian Welch, "Go On Downtown (Revival Outtake)" Boots No. 1  (Acony, 16)
* Blue Rodeo, "I Can't Hide This Anymore"  1000 Arms  (TeleSoul, 16)
* Bash & Pop, "Never Wanted To Know" Anything Could Happen  (Fat Possum, 17)
* Charlie Musselwhite, "Christo Redemptor"  Stand Back  (Vanguard, 89)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

ROUTES & BRANCHES
a home for the americana diaspora
December 31, 2016
Scott Foley, purveyor o' dust

Towards the finish of every recent year, I have assembled a mighty and humbling list of "stuff that Scott whiffed on" over the past 12 months.  This is a handful of releases that I should have represented on my blog and my playlists, but which for whatever reason I either shared too sparingly or simply never got around to.  Consider this a formal mea culpa to the artists, as well as a heads-up to readers to check this stuff out.

~ Darrin Bradbury, Elmwood Park: A Slightly Melodic Audiobook  (Bradbury, Sept)  This East Nashville songwriter actually earned some good words on Rolling Stone's own site, though I apparently never got around to doing so myself.  Bradbury can be a brilliant writer, though he tends to masquerade that gift behind irreverent humor a'la Todd Snider or Bobby Bare Jr or John Prine.   Check out the brilliant "Life Is Hard" below,or the sweet sweet "True Love" on bandcampHow I wish I could get back to when love was just a toke of something green like your eyes / Honey gold like your hair / And we could always laugh, even when there was no joke / We'd lie lazy 'round like cats / We're not going anywhere ... 



~ Chris Stalcup & the Grange, Downhearted Fools (Stalcup, Sept)  Stalcup even quotes me on his website, in praise of his previous band Chase Fifty Six's work.  Apparently, that's not enough for R&B to play his new act's excellent 2016 release.  What sucks is that the more I listen to "Ogeechee River"  or the chunky style guitar of the title track, the more I realize that Downhearted Fools probably belongs somewhere on last week's list of my favorites for 2016.  And if you're looking for a 7 minute alt.country slide guitar opus to complete your year, look no further than "However You Want Me".  For more fun, I've included Stalcup's seasonal single, "I Hate Christmas" on the playlist below.


~ Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Commandments According To SCAC  (SCAC, Sept)  Arliss Nancy aside, the Square State music scene was a virtual wasteland in 2016.  Or maybe I just wasn't paying attention.  One thing we can all agree upon is that I should've shared more from this genuinely unique band's new collection.  SCAC have long abandoned "normal", and with impatiently evolving time signatures and enigmatic lyrical content (I think there's a lot about moths here), you won't be singing along with "Commandment 1", "Commandment 8" or even "Commandment 4" anytime soon.  Nor will they be on your wedding mixtape.  Its electric guitars, graveyard percussion and anti-chorus backing vox can be dark dark dark.  Like the devil's interpretation of B52s ... But consider this an antidote to ... say, Jim Lauderdale or some other artist who is so deep in their pocket as to be in a musical rut.  Which is precisely why we're grateful for a record like Commandments, providing the turbulence to shake up our kind of music just enough to keep it alive.

~ Itasca, Open to Chance  (Paradise of Bachelors, Sept)  Those who prefer their alt. a bit more melodic might want to lend an ear to Kayla Cohen and friends.  Her third release as Itasca might recall one of those long lost 60s or 70s folk recordings like Vashti Bunyan or Judee Sill, a lovely and husky delivery at its best on lazy midtempo songs like "Buddy" or "No Consequence".  "GB" lopes along on shuffling drums and languid slide, Cohen's spectral voice beyond it all.  Plus, there's the occasional appearance of The Official Instrument of 70s Folk: the Flute (a worthy tool so conspicuously absent in today's roots fare).  I find most of what passes for folk music limp and edge-free, which is why I'm so eager to discover stuff not embraced by the contemporary folk community like Itasca or Courtney Marie Andrews.

~ Karl Blau, Introducing Karl Blau  (Raven Marching Band, May)  Browsing forthcoming releases early in the year, the cover caught my eye.  A husky bearded gent, nicely attired, bedecked with lights and photographed against a cornflower blue sky.  Surely something good had to be happening there?!  Mr Blau has apparently been dodging my radar for 20 years, releasing gobs of eclectic projects to local notoriety (Seattle), but with little recognition elsewhere.  Apparently, all it took was this handsome record jacket and this atypical collection of country-soul and country-politan covers.  Blau plays it relatively straight here, applying his smooth baritone croon and very tasteful arrangements (thanx, Tucker Martine) to pieces originally done by Tom T Hall, Townes Van Zandt, Link Wray and others.  One review called him a "plastic cowboy", wondering if Blau is really playing it straight here.  Yep or nope, it's certainly good good stuff, surely worthy of a handful of spins on R&B.

In all honesty, every year there are many more than the 5 whiffs on which I focus here.  Many more.  But it's always the case that in choosing to shine a light fairly on one release we risk neglecting a dozen other worthy projects.  Next week, be ready for new stuff from Scott H Biram, the Sadies (w/Kurt Vile), Old 97s and mucho mas.   Here's hoping you a meaningful and rewarding New Year, one that's rich with musical discovery.  For my part, I resolve to continue chasing the muse into the bramble and tangle of the music industry hinterlands.  That, and to grow out my bangs ...

Here's one of these festive poppers:

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


ROUTES & BRANCHES  
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
December 26, 2016
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long...  --  George Bailey

Sure, we all have dreams.  We dream big.  We want little things to become bigger things, bad things to become better.  With time, some of these wishes are granted, others are forgotten and still more are harbored for a lifetime as hot little spots in the heart.  I've said it before that I always wanted to be a dj.  When given the chance, I did my best, building a radio home and furnishing it with all the best music I could find.  About this time last year, I predicted that I would burn down my radio home, and a couple months ago I did.  God help me, I miss being on the radio, sharing music with anyone who just might by happenstance trip across the exact right place on the dial and accidentally share my passions.  But I made the right choice to step away.  And in the meantime we have these short reviews and these playlists that still focus on all the great music I find, all the hard working independent artists who populate these pages.  

Make no mistake, 2016 brought us some fine music, stuff to stir our heart.  Music to fuel my trips down Hwy 287 and back, to make us thrill to be alive, at least for that moment.  While I started the list below several weeks ago, bigger and mightier blogs than mine have already shared their lists.  While I breathe it all in, the last twelve months of music, I'm once again grateful and humbled to put this stuff on the webs.  I dream that some kindred musical treasure hunter somewhere will find it, and that they will call it good.  I love what I do (and I hate it), and I know it's a musical vision that has real merit.  Beyond all hope, December has been the busiest traffic month ever for this blog, almost nine years old now.  I'll keep it going during 2017.  I won't burn it down, but will challenge myself to continue tilting against the windmills of popular music, pushing back against an industry that incorporates an ever thinner slice of what's out there. And in twelve months we'll take another look and see if we're any closer to realizing that vague dream.  

FAVORiTE ALBUMS of 2016

1. Lydia Loveless, Real  (Bloodshot, 8/19)  I remember heading into a record store during my mid-teens in Grants Pass, Oregon.  I can't even recall the name (though, curiously, I do know that it was next to an uninspiring cafe called The Black Forest), though I do remember searching my soul in deciding whether to purchase the Ramones' End of the Century, Pretenders' classic debut, or Rachel Sweet's Protect the Innocent.  The fact that I opted for the latter speaks loudly for my state of mind at the time.  Nevertheless, Lydia Loveless' new album would've fit fine beside all of the above, a retro punk-fueled slice of pop glory that surpasses all expectations.  You'll still hear twang now and then, primarily in Loveless' inescapable drawl, but it's nothing more than an ingredient in the mix rather than the driving spirit.  As with her 2011 breakthru (which also landed atop that year's favorites list), Real bears the standard for the current focus of Routes & Branches.  I don't need obvious twang, won't fall for cliche or predictability.  All I ask is genuine heart.

2. Drive-by Truckers, American Band  (ATO, 9/30)  There's certainly not a more relevant record released in 2016.  Always with at least one foot in the socio-political realm, American Band is the sound of a veteran band seriously regarding its role.  It's neither a rabble-rouser or an outright damning, but rather it's Patterson Hood's state of the nation, simply taking stock of our condition on songs like "Surrender Under Protest" or "What it Means".  "Ever South" and "Guns of Umpqua" take a more personal stance, while "Filthy and Fried" might satisfy longtime DbT fans who are just looking for a good time.

3. Alejandro Escovedo, Burn Something Beautiful  (Fantasy, 10/28)  You can't help but lower your expectations when a guy reaches this age.  Certainly he's seen his better days, he's riding on fumes, he's earned the right to coast.  Even if Burn Something isn't Gravity, it's his strongest effort at least since Real Animal, with an army of capable contributors who serve to support rather than smother his gifts.  Songs like "Horizontal" betray glam influences, while "Beauty of Your Smile" and the uber charming "Heartbeat Smile" trade in the sort of urban romantic punk that's been Escovedo's stock in trade since the beginning.  If you're looking for the long lost heart of rock, no need to look beyond this release.  And no need to make excuses for age.

4. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer's Daughter  (Third Man, 3/25)  Sure, there's Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark.  But I would argue that few artists, female or male, better embrace both the tradition and the promise of country music.  From the countrypolitan to the honky tonk and the bandstand, Price checks all the boxes without seeming as though she's playing a character or unnaturally forcing her talents.  When she hits her stride on "Tennessee Song" or "Four Years of Chances", she's a near equal to Stapleton.  On "Hands of Time", she the year's best.

5. Arliss Nancy, Greater Divides  (Gunner, 5/13)  2013's Simple Machines held court as my record of the year.  While Divides hasn't achieved those lofty heights, it's a much different, far deeper project for the Colorado band.  Cory Call achieves new heights in writing with tunes like "Dufresne" and "Finches", both heavier and more confessional than anything else in his repertoire.  New keyboards enhance the experience, following the band's alt.country punk into new sonic places.  All this without extinguishing the band's early hunger and passion.  While some of the songs allude to an underlying restlessness, one would hope that Call can translate this to fuel his next project.

6. Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like a Levee  (Merge, 10/7)  You want an artist to go places, to evolve and to change.  MC Taylor's journey as HGM has followed him from a quiet, introspective folkie to today's soulful bandleader.  While Levee began as a vehicle to tell stories about others, Taylor followed his muse back home for these reflections on obligation and distance.  I would argue that the companion "bonus" disc that accompanies deluxe editions of the album is almost as revealing and rewarding as the original, even as it allows the artist to turn inward once again.

7. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, Constant Stranger  (Big Legal Mess, 9/30)  The most effective solo projects are those that allow an artist to stretch in new ways, to explore sounds and directions not available to the group.  JPKS parses Water Liars' fuzzy noise for a sparse and focused acoustic collection that exceeds even the expectations of a big fan.  The folks at OurVinyl have released a 3 song single that features the artist and his guitar alongside a lake.  Burbling brook aside, it's a bit redundant, since there's not a more lovely, more quiet, more intense record out this year.

8. Richmond Fontaine, You Can't Go Back ...  (El Cortez, 3/18)  And it's true, you can't go back to the early days of Winnemucca or the classic Post to Wire.  But if Willy Vlautin & co. are calling it quits with one last volley, it might as well be a record like this.  "Tapped Out In Tulsa" and "Wake Up Ray" are the quintessential wedding of the band's early alt.country and Vlautin's more recent departure into narration.

9. Mount Moriah, How To Dance  (Merge, 2/26)  I haven't seen Mount Moriah's third album on too many year end lists to date.  I have found Heather McEntire's songs inescapable since the record's February release, whether the heavy guitar of "Cardinal Cross" or the elegiac strains of "Baby Blue", another of my favorites for the year.  The trio strikes a rewarding balance between tuneful country and lush indie folk.

10. Austin Lucas, Between the Moon and the Midwest  (Last Chance, 5/27)  Always an admired singer and songwriter, Lucas forged new territory on this superb collection.  It's at once his Metamodern Sounds and his Tulsa Heat, a CD that is bigger than anything else he's done while remaining well rooted in story.  Plus, it's bolstered by some notable contributions by Cory Branan, Lydia Loveless and John Moreland himself, who plays a supporting role on the spirited "Ain't We Free".  In the end, it's the more traditional, pared back "Pray For Rain" that serves to remind us that it's Lucas' angelic voice that's carried us this far.

11. Sturgill Simpson, Sailor's Guide to Earth  (Atlantic, 4/15)  Am I wrong to keep Simpson from my top ten when so many others gave him top billing?  I loved the record as much as any of these others, with its ambitious arrangements and unexpected evolutions.  Strings bleed into Stax soul horns.  We're as likely to hear variations on country as we are to catch psychedelic rock or skronky sax.  It's a fractured puzzle of an album, less song oriented than Metamodern Sounds, but one that satisfies with its surprises.  Perhaps it's telling that my favorite song from Sailor's Guide was Simpson's sweet and syruped take on Nirvana's "In Bloom".

12. BJ Barham, Rockingham  (BJB, 8/19)  Composed both of new songs and American Aquarium tunes reinterpreted, Rockingham is the year's best portrait of small town blue collar America.  Appropriately, I enjoyed this while driving across the vast and open states of the Western US, pulling into small towns and judging them by their cafes and their political signs.  Primarily an acoustic affair, it's a glimpse into a Barham not often seen through the heavier noise of his day band.

13. Caleb Caudle, Carolina Ghost  (This is American Music, 2/26)  Carolina Ghost is the sound of taste and restraint, soul and grace and genuine goodness.  Nearly every song has worn a gentle and patient path into my musical soul, becoming smooth and familiar with time.  The pedal steel is parceled just perfectly, and no other instrument tries to hard to make an impression.  And Caudle simply writes an indelible song.

14. Justin Wells, Dawn in the Distance  (August, 8/5)  So what's the difference between the perfectly good country rock of Kentucky's Fifth on the Floor and the superb debut record from former member Justin Wells?  Perhaps it's simply that Dawn is the sound of one man, one artist exploring his vision.  While the group could push the pedal as a way of proving their mettle, Wells simply writes a great song.  It's got more soul than Fifth, and seems a more genuine statement, from the midtempo rock of "Going Down Grinnin'" to the runner up for my favorite song of the year, "The Dogs".

15. Kent Eugene Goolsby, Temper of the Times  (KEG, 11/11)  True confessions: I actually went and double checked that Kent Eugene Goolsby is the same person as the Kent Goolsby whose fine music I've followed for a couple records.  Turns out that it's just been a really good year for the writer, taking great strides in writing and adding a nice handful of grit to his new work.  There's some unexpectedly deep soul diving on "Loveless Prayers" and "Great Confessor", songs that find Goolsby examining his own ways and taking the temperature of our country.

16. Freakwater, Scheherazade  (Bloodshot, 2/5)  God bless Freakwater.  Bless the broken and beautiful voices of Janet Bean and Catherin Irwin, the haunted and creaking trad folk that sounds like everything and nothing we've heard before. When even the best stuff on this list admittedly sounds like other stuff, nothing sounds like Freakwater.  Just the thing we need after close to ten years of quiet.

17. Brent Cobb, Shine On Rainy Day  (Elektra, 10/7)  Yet another Nashville songwriting machine who has held back some of the better stuff for himself.  Such a smooth and soulful effort, Cobb is able to recall 70s a.m. country rock without losing his current vibe or his relevance.  Moments like "South of Atlanta" and "Country Bound" bring Isbell to mind, while the title cut and "Black Crow" don't fall far from early Tony Joe White or JJ Cale at his most engaged.

18. Honeycutters, On the Ropes  (Organic, 5/20)  Just part of my perennial campaign to assure that Amanda Anne Platt gets her due as a great artist.  Lori McKenna is garnering a wheelbarrowfull of accolades for her excellent '16 release.  I would argue that Platt rivals McKenna for her steady stare at the hard times, while pairing her unflinching lyrics with more engaging, more eclectic arrangements.

19. Jayhawks, Paging Mr Proust  (Sham, 4/29)  Granted, Gary Louris & co. have never revisited the rarified air of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass.  But they've also never floated a hollow, soulless effort.  On "Dust of Long Dead Stars" and the pop perfect "Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces" the classic Louris - Perlman - O'Reagan - Grotberg lineup deliver what we've come to expect and to appreciate from a band in its longtime pocket.  While Mark Olson paid a fleeting visit for '11's folky Mockingbird Time, Proust reminds us that the Jayhawks remain more than the product of their shuffling parts.

20. Left Arm Tan, Lorene  (LAT, 4/1)  By all means, LAT should be americana allstars.  Heck, with the right publicity they could cross over into mainstream country and red dirt audiences.  For now, their tuneful brand of roots rock has earned a home on R&B with good humor and heartfelt lyrics on tunes like "Blacktop Blues" and "Break Even".  A generous 18 tracks of the good stuff!

21. Two Cow Garage, Brand New Flag  (Last Chance, 10/14)  In some ways, the arc of 2CG's career has mirrored the realization of Micah Schnabel's unique songwriting gift.  Part alt.country, part punk and part beat poet, he's a throwback to a time when artists and listeners forged a strong bond over lyrics that are deeply personal while at the same time seeming to speak directly to the ostracized masses.  Try the title cut or "Let the Boys Be Girls" for a draught of this liquid courage.

22. Matt Haeck, Late Bloomer  (Blaster, 6/3)  Another name that was pretty much off my radar until 2016.  Matter of fact,  Haeck took the slow lane to his first record, a road that led through seminary, career dead ends and personal demons.  End of metaphor.  That's apparently given him more time to hone his songwriting skills on "Tennessee" and the lovely "Cotton Dress" with Caitlin Rose.  The understated "Lucky Cigarette" landed on my list of favorite songs for the year.

23. Shovels & Rope, Little Seeds  (New West, 10/7)  I love that Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent continue to make lots of noise, even as they settle into their well earned spot as one of the foremost americana acts of the day.  There's nothing safe to songs like "I Know" or the abrasive "Buffalo Nickel", and quieter bits like "St Anne's Parade" and "This Ride" can be revelatory.  No duo makes more beautiful noise, and no two voices blend so recklessly.

24. Becky Warren, War Surplus  (Warren, 10/14)  Onetime frontman for the Great Unknowns steps out on her own to tell the story of an armed services survivor returning to a world that no longer makes sense.  It's one of the real welcome surprises of the year, a relative unknown who emerges as a fully formed writer who can do sassy, heartfelt and pissed as well as any bigger name.

25. Lucinda Williams, Ghosts of Hwy 20  (Hwy 20, 2/5)  As you pick your way thru the above list, you might notice how many familiar names from the americana genre are conspicuously absent:  Hayes Carll, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle, John Prine all released pretty good new stuf in 2016.  Lucinda stands as one of the Old Guard who continues to make music that matters.  "Dust" aches, "Can't Close the Door On Love" breaks hearts, and "Place In My Heart" is just plain sweet.  It's sparse, intimate and quietly, confidently brilliant.

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No playlist this week, as this is stuff that I've shared many times during the year.  Still exploring the legal requirements of podcasting, since I really want to do it right (and don't want to spend the money on licensing if I can avoid it).  Nevertheless, I did invest in a shiny new mic this week, so ...

Here's to a Routes-worthy 2017!  Many Thanks for following me this far!

Monday, December 19, 2016


ROUTES & BRANCHES  
a home for the americana diaspora
December 17, 2016
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

With my short musical attention span, I'm like an annoying spoiled kid at Christmas.  I'm never satisfied with what I have.  I'm always looking for the next wrapped present under the tree.  While I seek treatment, let's take a look at some of the Bigger Things on the horizon for Our Kind of Music:

~ Ryan Adams, Prisoner:  2015's remake of Taylor Swift's 1989 might've provided a convenient reboot for Adams' career (if he needed one).  "Do You Still Love Me", the anthemic first single, offers some fine Bon Jovi-esque guitar powered pop, heavier than most of his self titled 2014 record or '11's restrained Ashes & Fire. Adams' new stuff was generated in the wake of his high profile divorce, and was pulled together with some help from uber-producer Don Was, as well as a brand new band.  I fully recognize that I'm a complete apologist for this guy, even as I cringe along with every interview he gives.  And while we wait for his next Heartbreaker or even a reheated Cold Roses, I'll probably accept whatever we get.  Check out this recent piece at NME, which also features a curious "interview" with YouTube sensation Lil' Bub ...  (PaxAm, Feb 17)

~ Son Volt, Notes of Blue:  Where 2013's Honky Tonk was said to be inspired by the Bakersfield sound, Jay Farrar's follow-up reportedly looks to the Delta blues for a spark.  Fact is, "Back Against the Wall" sounds like classic Farrar, and  "Lost Souls" is a touch more garage-y than we're used to from the deliberate artist.  But I'm not hearing Mississippi. To be fair, Farrar has acknowledged that the new songs are simply "inspired by the spirit".  The band has posted snippets of the album on their facebook page, a couple of which do actually favor more traditional blues chord progressions - see, f'rinstance, "Cherokee St".   The loud 'n messy guitar on both fully available tracks is a nice sign of life, and the brief "Souls" is harder and heavier than anything we've heard from Son Volt in years.  This quick piece from Garden & Gun finds Farrar mentioning a possible reissue treatment for some Uncle Tupelo as well.  In all honesty, it wouldn't be too hard at this point to pull the old band back together, would it?  (Transmit Sound, Feb 17)

~ Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator:  I've been expecting some kind of reshuffling of sounds following the success of 2014's New Orleans-inspired Small Town Heroes.  Our first glimpse, "Rican Beach" is reportedly dedicated to the protesters at Standing Rock, and features Latin percussion and a fuller production. Writer Alynda Lee Segarra has never especially shied away from speaking her mind about social justice issues.  Per Segarra, "The Navigator is you trying to make your way through a society that says you are too brown, too female, too queer, or too smart for your own good".  That said, here's hoping the new tracks steer clear enough of any overly heavy handed proselytizing. It's reportedly a concept record of sorts, which is always good news ...  You can take my life / But don't take my home / Baby it's a solid price / It comes with my bones.  (ATO, Mar 10)

~ Band of Heathens, Duende:  2013's Sunday Morning Record was a highwater mark in my appreciation of BoH.  It marked a tighter, more song-centric strategy as well as a pared down lineup.  "All I'm Asking" and "Trouble Came Early" cruise on a midtempo country-rock vibe that might recall an updated take on late period Eagles.  The guitars are chunky and there is promise of a good time with a chance of chooglin'.  "(W)e realized that at heart we're a roots rock band that loves to rock n roll".  Another jam, "Sugar Queen":  She even talks dirty when she's down on her knees to pray ... If you like a quality EPK, check out the band's good spirited piece on their YouTube channel (promise that Lil' Bub is nowhere to be seen).  (BoH, Jan 13)

~ Tift Merritt, Stitch of the World:  Of all these Bigger Things, I'm perhaps most heartened by the first couple songs from Merritt's first collection since 2012 (not counting a curious collab with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein).   Fresh from some work and some touring with Andrew Bird and with Hiss Golden Messenger, Stitch boasts both the bluesy and rambling "Dusty Old Man" and the gorgeous and timely "Love Soldiers On".  Looks like Iron & Wine's Sam Beam also gets some credits here.  I'm a great fan of Merritt's underrated early stuff:  Her EP with Two Dollar Pistols, Bramble Rose and 2004's soulful Tambourine. Here's hopin' ... (Yep Roc, Jan 27)

~ Nikki Lane, Highway Queen:  The title track to Lane's 2014 starmaking All or Nothin' is a sure thing stomper that straddles the wide divide between trad and contemporary.  A classic country story is propelled by a synthy pulse; Lane's Tanya Tucker drawl is applied to the kind of rural roots rap that the mainstream country kids like these days.  There's also the real promise of a song called "700,000 Rednecks".  It's all coproduced by beau Jonathan Tyler, following in the wake of Dan Auerbach and Dave Cobb who took the helm for her first couple records.   Despite a seemingly deep independent streak Lane boasts, You can tie her down / You can bottle lightning / But the highway queen don't need no king.  It's my bold prediction that Highway Queen will be the most celebrated of these Bigger Things in the latter days of 2017.  (New West, Feb 17)

~ Old 97s, Graveyard Whistling:  One thing these acts all have in common is that I'm immediately receptive to anything new from them.  2014's Most Messed Up was a ballsy, occasionally profane blast of electricity long absent from the 97s' repertoire.  Anybody who claims they expected adult contemporary swallow Brandi Carlile to make an appearance is lying to us.  Anybody who tells you that "Good With God" isn't an entertaining strumfest probably shouldn't be your friend.  Where do the busted angels go ... I can only hope that I'm good with god / I wonder how she feels about me.  (ATO, Feb 24)

I could go on.  I could also include bits on 2017 stuff from lesser figures like Michael Chapman, Chuck Prophet, Sadies, Scott H Biram and people called Leif Vollebekk and Mark Porkchop Holder (my father told me to always trust a man named after a fatty meat).  But here's hoping that the above will be enough to keep your motor runnin' during the cold and unforgiving months of Winter.

My tentative resolution for 2017 is to make something more of this sorry little space on the nets.  Dunno if that means podcasting, increased original content or just setting the damn thing on fire and selling the ashes.  For today, it's a rock in my shoe, a sharp poke I can't ignore.  Please won't you share my poke with friends and family during this holiday season.

Next week:  My favorite records of 2016!  Pretty sure ...

Look what I did:

Sunday, December 11, 2016


ROUTES & BRANCHES  
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
December 10, 2016
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

This week, we inch ever closer to Christmas.  Not 100% (yet), but I was hoping to provide enough here at least to stir your ho ho ho.  For those in denial, there's non-holiday cheer from Hurray for the Riff Raff, Black Joe Lewis, from Charlie Parr and Ryan Adams and more.  So much New Stuff on the horizon that I'm not able to shoehorn in my typical jingle shit.  But snow falls here in sunny CO, and there is wassail on the air.

And there's even Miranda Lambert.  Yes.  I find it curious how as americana programmers we turn a blind eye towards whatever is embraced by the country mainstream.  Granted, sometimes that's merited.  When, for instance, the music is Not Good.  There's enough of that going around, for sure, but good music is good music.  And Miranda's 6th record, Weight of These Wings, is good stuff.

It's been called her breakup album, landing in the wake of her split with that guy from The Voice.  But let's be honest, name me one album that's not about love, loss and resentment.  Lambert unnecessarily names the two discs that compose Weight "The Nerve" and "The Heart".  And whereas most double record sets are padded with generous filler, there's not a lot of that among these 24 tunes.

Most importantly, as a standard bearer for The Mainstream, Lambert makes very few nods to current country trends.  I'll throw just 3 songs in this basket, including the sorta faux off-the-cuff goofiness that is "Pink Sunglasses".  Otherwise, it seems at least one curious touchstone for Weight is Emmylou's 1995 collab with Daniel Lanois, Wrecking Ball.  Producer Frank Liddell pads much of the noise here with thick drums, guitar and reverb like I like.  "Ugly Lights" cruises atop thick bluesy molasses, replete with a nice early rock guitar solo.  I still go and stay too late / And be the girl bartenders hate / The one that doesn't need another one ...  One of the collection's stronger cuts, "Runnin' Just In Case" takes its time building on a deep electric pulse, atmospheric and haunted with distant backing vox.

Lambert leaves her stamp on nearly every one of these cowrites, sharing a byline with names like Foy Vance, Ashley Monroe, Jack Ingram, Brent Cobb, Mando Saenz and current beau Anderson East.  It's safe to say that her imprimatur is a tough swagger and a sassiness (not a word I believe I've ever used here), sparked by an almost punkish girl power that ignites even the most vulnerable tracks.  A collaboration with East, "Pushin' Time" is a barebones acoustic reflection addressing a reluctance to leap back into the relationship fray:  Sometimes love acts out of spite / And good things happen over night / Can't take it slow 'cuz you and I / Are pushin' time.

New songs like "Covered Wagon", "Six Degrees of Separation" or "Bad Boy" may garner the radio spins, but my investment on Weight of These Wings is with more unexpected pieces like gorgeous ballad "To Learn Her".  A truly classic vocal, a Hargus "Pig" Robbins piano solo, and some perfect pedal steel pulled down from the trad country attic combine to reveal Lambert's roots as a dedicated "Keeper of the Flame".

"I've Got Wheels" is another moment that echoes some of Emmylou Harris' 90s work, even if Miranda Lambert is a much different vocalist.  It's also another cut that embraces the pervasive theme of travel and escape.  Always on the move, she recognizes both the liberation and the letdown that come from living out of a perennially packed suitcase.  "Nobody ever taught me how to stay," she explains on one track.  Sure, the restless life takes its toll on relationships, but it'll doubtlessly provide the artist with another massive bestseller at year's end.  And she's not really apologizing for her choices, because sometimes the road provides a good excuse for avoiding commitment.  As Lambert explains on "Runnin' Just in Case":  Happiness ain't prison / But there's freedom in a broken heart.  Trust me and give Weight of These Wings a try.

- matt pond PA, "In Winter" Winter Lives  (131 Records, 16)
- Drag the River, "Fleeting Porch of Tide" You Can't Leave This Way  (Xtra Mile, 08)  C
- Gillian Welch, "455 Rocket (Outtake)" Boots No. 1  (Acony, 16)
- Becky Warren, "Dive Bar Sweetheart" War Surplus  (Warren, 16)
- Ryan Adams, "Do You Still Love Me" Prisoner  (PaxAm, 17)  D
- Kelly Pardekooper, "You Don't Say" City At Night  (Pardekooper, 16)  D
- X, "In This House That I Call Home (live)" Live at the Whisky a Go-Go  (Elektra, 88)
- American Aquarium, "Lonely Ain't Easy (live)" Live at Terminal West  (AA, 16)
- Trampled by Turtles, "Christmas In Prison" Acoustic Christmas  (Amazon, 16)
- Mount Moriah, "Baby Blue (Garage Demo)" Calvander - single  (Merge, 15)
- Charlie Parr, "I Ain't Dead Yet" I Ain't Dead Yet  (Red House, 16)  D
- Michael Chapman, "Sometimes You Just Drive" 50  (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Luke Roberts, "Untitled Blues" Sunlit Cross  (Thrill Jockey, 16)
- Derailers, "Jingle Bells" Connect Set - EP  (Palo Duro, 06)
- Dead Man Winter, "Destroyer" Furnace  (GNDWire, 17)  D
- Band of Heathens, "All I'm Asking" Duende  (BoH, 17)
- Hurray for the Riff Raff, "Rican Beach" The Navigator  (ATO, 17)  D
- Son Volt, "Back Against the Wall" Notes of Blue  (Transmit Sound, 17)  D
^ Miranda Lambert, "Runnin' Just in Case" Weight of These Wings  (Vanner, 16)  D
- Mavericks, "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down (live)" Best of Sessions at West 54th  (Sony, 01)
- Mark Porkchop Holder, "My Black Name" Let It Slide  (Alive Naturalsound, 17)  D
- Black Joe Lewis & Honeybears, "PTP" Backlash  (BJL, 17)  D
- Sallie Ford, "Get Out" Soul Sick  (Vanguard, 17)  D
- Kelly Hogan & Pine Valley Cosmonauts, "Papa Was a Rodeo" Beneath the Country Underdog  (Bloodshot, 00)
- Paul Thorn, "Rose City" Best of Paul Thorn  (Perpetual Obscurity, 16)  D