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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
June 17, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Since leaving radio for the profitable land of blogging, I have largely ceased my active search and support for Colorado music.  Which doesn't mean I won't play a local artist when merited.  It's just that chances are pretty slim that I'll drive to Durango to pick up a home-burned CD from some new writer.  Call me lazy.  Nevertheless, I do recall fondly certain discoveries, from Esme Patterson and Paper Bird to Kristina Murray (whose next record will be a game changer, mark my words).

I was also privileged to have a front row seat as square state artists like Nathaniel Rateliff floated onto the nation's popular radar.  And I recall remarking how the young man fronting You Me & Apollo might do the same someday.  Matter of fact, Rateliff shared a notable "writers in the round" broadcast with Brent Cowles at one point.

A couple years after the dissolution of his band, Brent Cowles has emerged with his debut full-length record, How to Be Okay Alone (Dine Alone).  Like Rateliff, Cowles bears a unique voice, shot through with shades of soul.  But Cowles is no revivalist.  Instead, he works roughly in the shadow world of "indie-folk" (you thought americana was a difficult term to define).  The Spotify playlist he presents as inspiration is a rubbery thing stretching from Jeff Buckley and JC Brooks to Nico and John Lennon.

Cowles' voice is a throaty thing, most closely resembling Brett Dennen or Passenger's Michael Rosenberg, but with far more earthiness than either.  While the bulk of How to Be Okay Alone is more upbeat, that unique vocal gift can best be heard on quieter tracks like the aptly named "Velvet Soul" : How many times can a man catch fire / And still believe in a higher power.  Cowles favors an electric guitar, even on this sweetly swaying r&b set which finds him exploring some jazz colors.  The desolate acoustic title cut explores his higher register and reveals some of the delicious grain in the singer's delivery.  It was Cowles' unique voice that caught my attention in his You Me & Apollo days, and it's what's lifted him beyond the local music fray as a solo artist. 

How to Be Okay Alone also showcases Brent Cowles' evolution as a writer and a constructor of songs.  "Tequila Train" features the singer-songwriter in full band mode, patiently growing the song from bouncy bass and drum to a soaring keyboard line and soul satisfying backing vocals.  "Keep Moving" is propelled by a driving gospel groove.  These songs benefit from generous arrangements, presenting Cowles as a frontman as opposed to just another lonely guy strumming away at his acoustic guitar. 

"The Fold" may stick in those creases of your brain for quite awhile after a couple listens.  It's one of the year's more powerful anthems with a good old fashioned guitar solo and a fist-pumping chorus perfect for making an impression at Summer festivals. In a just musical landscape, it would be the wedge that allows Brent Cowles to work his way onto the national stage.  Until that point, it's enough that it rewards earlier fans who recognized his talent in those early days when he was just another voice in a crowded Colorado music scene.  World, meet Brent Cowles. 

- John Moreland, "Slow Down Easy" Big Bad Luv  (4AD, 17)
- Gaslight Anthem, "Our Father's Sons" 59 Sound Sessions  (SideOneDummy, 18)  D
- Jesse Dayton, "May Have to Do It" The Outsider  (Blue Elan, 18)
- T Hardy Morris, "When the Record Skips" Dude the Obscure  (Normaltown, 18)
- Dexateens, "Cardboard Hearts" Dexateens  (Estrus, 04)
- Eli Paperboy Reed, "Name Calling" Meets High & Mighty Brass Band  (YepRoc, 18)  D
- Erin Rae, "Mississippi Queen" Putting on Airs  (Single Lock, 18)
^ Brent Cowles, "Tequila Train" How to Be Okay Alone  (Dine Alone, 18)
- Buck Meek, "Fool Me" Buck Meek  (Keeled Scales, 18)
- M Ward, "Motorcycle Ride" What a Wonderful Industry  (MWard, 18)
- Mapache, "Lonesome LA Cowboy" Lonesome LA Cowboy  (Genuine Souvenirs, 18)  D
- Cody Canada & Departed, "Daughter of the Devil" Three  (Underground Sound, 18)
- Margo Price, "Tennessee Song" Midwest Farmer's Daughter  (Third Man, 16)
- Jason Isbell, "Whisper" Sirens of the Ditch: Deluxe Edition  (New West, 18)
- Shooter Jennings, "Rhinestone Eyes" Shooter  (Elektra, 18)
- Jason Eady, "Calaveras County" I Travel On  (Old Guitar, 18)  D
- Sons of Bill, "Firebird 85" Oh God Ma'am  (Gray Fox, 18)
- Crooked Fingers, "Sweet Marie" Red Devil Dawn  (Merge, 03)
- Devil Makes Three, "Paint My Face" Chains Are Broken  (New West, 18)
- Lucero, "Long Way Back Home" Among Ghosts  (Liberty + Lament, 18)
- Will Johnson, "Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue" Desperate Times: Songs of the Old 97s  (Neely, 16)
- Cody Jinks, "Must Be the Whiskey" Lifers  (Rounder, 18)  D
- Nude Party, "Water On Mars" Nude Party  (New West, 18)
- Ryan Culwell, "Can You Hear Me" Last American  (Culwell, 18)  D
- Tallest Man on Earth, "Forever is a Very Long Time" single  (Rivers/Birds, 18)  D
- Nathan Salsburg, "Impossible Air" Third  (No Quarter, 18)
- Jess Williamson, "Mama Proud" Cosmic Wink  (Mexican Summer, 18)
- Cordovas, "This Town's a Drag" That Santa Fe Channel  (ATO, 18)  D
- Old Crow Medicine Show, "Child of the Mississippi" Volunteer  (Sony, 18)
- Matt Haeck, "Lucky Cigarette" Late Bloomer  (Haeck, 16)

Looks like we'll prob'ly be back at the mic for next Episode (which will feature my favorites for the first half of 2018).  While our basement border abides, we offer another Scott-free ROUTES-cast, albeit one with some eagerly-anticipated new stuff.  We hear our first glimpse into new records by Jason Eady and Cody Jinks.  Please also consider us eagerly anticipating projects from Ryan Culwell and Lucero.  And it sounds like Isbell's got a live record on the horizon, in addition to his deluxe reissue of his first solo CD.  Here's your weekly ROUTES-cast.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
June 10, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of ash

Routes & Branches is a boldly different force in the world of roots music.  Much of the reason for this is that we cast our net across a more vast and diverse range of music than just about any other roots-oriented blog.  While there's a good chance every single roots music program everywhere is giving airtime to the new collaboration between Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, few are cushioning it between more "roots-adjacent" acts like Ryley Walker, Arthur Buck or Neko Case.  Sure, this week we feature great new stuff from Jason Isbell and Devil Makes Three, but stick around for Andrew Combs covering the Strokes, and for M Ward's surprise record!

Upon the release of her new Hell-on collection, Neko Case told Billboard, "It takes a long time to know what you're doing sometimes.  I could not write my thesis on this album yet, that's for sure.  But I feel good about it."  Me too, Neko.

Nothing on her seventh studio record is in the running for 2018's Song of the Summer.  There's nothing to dance to, nothing to drink for.  Let's be honest, as impactful as she's been since the debut of The Virginian in 1998, Neko Case has released music that's been relevant, fascinating, challenging and theatrical, but never easy and rarely "pretty".

There are beautiful moments on Hell-on.  "Sleep All Summer" is a meltingly gorgeous cover of a Crooked Fingers track, with Neko carrying the lines originally delivered by Emma Pollock and Eric Bachmann reprising his role as ... well, as Eric Bachmann.  I would change for you / But babe that doesn't mean I'm gonna be a better man.  While I know of few noises this year that have been as lovely, the song actually serves as a bit of a disruption on an album that can be abstract and untamed.

It's hard to imagine, f'rinstance, a crowd singing along with the refrain of "My Uncle's Navy":  Mercurochrome and merthiolate stains, oh!  And yet, Hell-on might stand as the most fiercely uncompromised musical statement of Neko Case's career.  The title cut sets the tone with a waltz-time procession that strikes an unpredictable and indelicate balance.  She's always been a powerful vocalist, and Case has never sounded as nimble as she does in navigating these minor keys and morphing rhythms.  "Hell-on" also serves to introduce many of the collection's themes, from nature to agency, cruelty to empowerment.  The natural world is presented as an un-fuck-with-able force: You'll not be my master / You're barely my guest.  And the already oft-quoted lyric: God is a lusty tire fire.

"Bad Luck" is another of Hell-on's more accessible pieces, a rubbery, upbeat groove buoyed by girl-group harmonies.  More common is "Gumball Blue", a collaboration with Case's New Pornographers' coworker AC Newman.  It's a song that bubbles with pop melody and 80s synth waves, but countered by wry Elvis Costello-esque angular bits:  Sometimes where there's smoke / There's just a smoke machine honey.  See also the indie folk of "Halls of Sarah", one of many tunes dwelling on women as warrior, muse, force of nature.  You see our poets / Do an odious business / Loving womankind / As lions love Christians.  Familiar guitar, piano and drum lines are accompanied by more otherworldly skronks and swooshes.

Remarkable music is being made throughout this record.  The presence of Case's collaborators is essential, from Joey Burns' piano and low strings, Barbara Gruska's percussion and co-producer Bjorn Yttling's keys and guitars.  And Hell-on's array of vocalists serves as a Greek chorus of sorts for this album-length travelogue:  frequent co-conspirators like Rachel Flotard, kd lang, Laura Veirs, Nora O'Connor and Case's secret weapon, Kelly Hogan.  In addition to her session with Eric Bachman, there are duets with Beth Ditto and Mark Lanegan.  Based on the sprawling "Curse of the I-5 Corridor", he and Case might do well to consider future work together.

I'll be honest, I don't care to psychoanalyze an artist's work, to parse their lyrics and plumb for hidden meaning.  I'll leave that to better journalists like the New York Times, which recently ran an excellent expose and interview.  I prefer to simply lay an exceptional lyric out for all to see, and there are several on this tangled but rewarding record.  You'd have to extend your search into the world of literature to find another writer like Case.  From "Winnie":  Her mouth was as sharp as the rib of a star.  The cumulative effect of Hell-on is that of a personal mythology, shattered scattered and gathered.

It's common knowledge that the recording of Neko Case's new CD coincided with her Vermont home being destroyed by fire.  While it's interesting to regard these works in the light of that episode, with all that's happening in the world I would argue that Hell-on would have been the same project if the artist's barn remained standing.  Even though these eccentric songs don't make for easy listening, repeated exposure will reveal a greater coherence and musical resonance to the proceedings.  That said, it's likely that the ideas and the spirit of Neko Case's new work will echo around our days more than the choruses.
When I am dark and I am down as I am now / The only thing that makes me smile is to remember / That I'm beloved of the wild / And may you ever return / To the warmth of your species

^ Neko Case w/Eric Bachman, "Sleep All Summer" Hell-on  (Anti, 18)
- Iron & Wine, "Tree By the River" Kiss Each Other Clean  (Warner, 10)
- Phil Cook, "Miles Away" People Are My Drug  (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Tami Neilson, "Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6" Sassafrass  (Outside, 18)  D
- Jeffrey Foucault, "Blown" Blood Brothers  (Tone Tree, 18)
- Kim Richey, "Pin a Rose" Edgeland  (Yep Roc, 18)
- Andrew Combs, "Reptilia" 5 Covers & a Song EP  (New West, 18)  D
- Pat Reedy & Longtime Goners, "Nashville Tennessee at 3am" That's All There Is  (Muddy Roots, 18)
- Dwight Yoakam, "Pretty Horses" single  (Reprise, 18)
- Jesse Dayton, "Jailhouse Religion" The Outsider  (Blue Elan, 18)
- James McMurtry, "Six Year Drought" Childish Things  (Lightning Rod, 05)
- Shannon Shaw, "Broke My Own" Shannon in Nashville  (Easy Eye, 18)  D
- I See Hawks in LA, "Last Man in Tujunga" Live and Never Learn  (ISHiLA, 18)
- Brent Cobb, "Providence Canyon" Providence Canyon  (Elektra, 18)
- John Calvin Abney, "Cowboys & Canyon Queens" Coyote  (Abney, 18)
- Romantica, "Dear Caroline" Outlaws  (La Traviata, 18)
- Ana Egge, "Girls Girls Girls" White Tiger  (StorySound, 18)
- M Ward, "Miracle Man' What a Wonderful Industry  (M Ward, 18)  D
- Jess Williamson, "White Bird" Cosmic Wink  (Mexican Summer, 18)  D
- Paul Cauthen, "Lil Son" Have Mercy EP  (Lightning Rod, 18)
- Milk Carton Kids, "Younger Years" All the Things That I Did ...  (Anti, 18)
- Nathan Salsburg, "Timoney's" Third  (No Quarter, 18)  D
- Jason Isbell, "The Assassin" Sirens of the Ditch Deluxe Edition  (New West, 18)  D
- Devil Makes Three, "Paint My Face" Chains Are Broken  (New West, 18)  D
- Swamp Dogg, "Sam Stone" Cuffed Collared & Tagged  (Fat Possum, 72)
- Juanita Stein, "Easy Street" Until the Lights Fade  (Nude, 18)
- Lori McKenna, "Young and Angry Again" The Tree  (CN, 18)
- Vic Chesnutt w/Lambchop, "Replenished" Salesman & Bernadette  (Ghetto Bells, 98)
- Dillon Carmichael, "It's Simple" Hell On An Angel  (Riser House, 18)
- NQ Arbuckle, "Sleepy Wife" Future Happens Anyway  (Six Shooter, 14)

Monday, June 04, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
June 3, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Phil Cook's new solo record sounds like community.  Set the proverbial needle down anywhere on People Are My Drug, and you'll hear a room full of friends, a porch crowded with song.  Pieces that begin focused on Cook's voice end up finding him surrounded by a gospel chorus and ecstatic, extended instrumental jamming.  It's like speaking in tongues, but musically.

Cook has plied his itinerant instrumentalist trade extensively, as a member of DeYarmond Edison, Megafaun and Hiss Golden Messenger.  He's also served alongside acts like Blind Boys of Alabama, Amy Ray, Charlie Parr and more.  His 2015 CD, Southland Mission was a vibrant solo introduction to Phil Cook: Jukebox of Southern Music. 

A rich vein of joy shines throughout these new songs, mined from gospel as much as folk, steeped in blues and rock.  "Steampowered Blues" opens People Are My Drug with a New Orleans-inspired shuffle, a spirited parade that ends up at church.  Atop Cook's nimble piano we are swept up in a chorus of gospel voices proclaiming So tired of running even as the tempo increases.

Uplift is the byproduct of gospel music.  It's also Phil Cook's seeming raison d'etre.  Concert clips show him as a bandleader, a perpetually active generator of energy.  "Deeper Kind" launches with a gently rewarding groove and a prayer:  Lord grant us wings / Lord give us sky / And let us fly.  Instruments add their voices to a call-and-response that builds and builds into a jubilant altar call.

Other pieces adapt a more free-flowing John Hartford vibe.  "Now That I Know" is boosted by banjo and fiddle, swinging more liberally than your typical folk music.  Produced by Phil's brother Brad Cook, the arrangements for People Are My Drug are bustling with joyful noise, instruments coloring to the edges and tagging all the white space.  Even a profoundly personal tune like "Another Mother's Son" seems driven more by gratitude than by fear and anger.  Cook regards the national epidemic of gun violence through the lens of fatherhood and family, testifying amidst a crowd of witnesses:  No more silence / No more fathers / No more mothers / No more daughters / No more sons / Never anymore / No more bodies!  It's a transcendent moment that will move hearts in concert, arms raised to the heavens.

Back to earth, the understated "Miles Away" serves as my favorite moment on the record.  A duet with Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath that bears no come-to-Jesus rave-ups or extended instrumental jams, it's simply a good song.  While her dayband tends towards more electronic beats, Meath has a gift for channeling the soul in a song.  One would hope Cook might lure her into the studio for a more organic solo album ...

People Are My Drug generates such a positive groove, like a more extroverted expression of the Wood Brothers.  Beyond the music, the sessions cement Phil Cook's reputation as a genuinely talented and good-natured force for gratitude and wonder.  He is a gatherer of energy and a raiser of spirits.  Musical community gathers around him.

- 16 Horsepower, "Clogger (live)" Live March 2001  (Alternative Tentacles, 08)
- Dead Tongues, "Clip Your Wings" Unsung Passage  (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Jayhawks, "Everybody Knows" Back Roads & Abandoned Motels  (Sony, 18)
- Nicki Bluhm, "Battlechain Rose" To Rise You Gotta Fall  (Compass, 18)  D
- Brent Cowles, "The Fold" How to Be Okay Alone  (Dine Alone, 18)
- Johnny Irion, "Salvage the Day" Driving Friend  (Irion, 18)
- Ike Reilly, "Clean Blood Blues" Crooked Love  (Rock Ridge, 18)
- Israel Nash, "Rolling On" Lifted  (Desert Folklore, 18)
- Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, "Silverlake" Downey to Lubbock  (YepRoc, 18)
- Neko Case, "Halls of Sarah" Hell-on  (Anti, 18)
- American Aquarium, "Tough Folks" Things Change  (New West, 18)
- Dillon Carmichael, "Hell on an Angel" Hell on an Angel  (Riser House, 18)
- Joshua Hedley, "I Never (Shed a Tear)" Mr Jukebox  (Third Man, 18)
- Shovels & Rope, "St Anne's Parade" Little Seeds  (New West, 16)
- Jason Boland & the Stragglers, "I Don't Deserve You (w/Sunny Sweeney)" Hard Times are Relative  (Proud Souls, 18)
- Juanita Stein, "Forgiver" Until the Lights Fade  (Nude, 18)
- Ruen Brothers, "Walk Like a Man" All My Shades of Blue  (Ramseur, 18)
- Lydia Loveless, "Really Wanna See You" Somewhere Else  (Bloodshot, 14)
- T Hardy Morris, "Stage Names" Dude the Obscure  (Normaltown, 18)
- Sons of Bill, "Sweeter Sadder Farther" Oh God Ma'am  (Tone Tree, 18)
- Pat Reedy & Longtime Goners, "Bloodshot Heart" That's All There Is  (Muddy Roots, 18)
- Kevin Gordon, "Great Southern" Down to the Well  (Shanachie, 00)
- Dwight Yoakam, "Then Here Came Monday" single  (Reprise, 18)  D
- Jason Eady, "OK Whiskey" Daylight & Dark  (Old Guitar, 14)
- Jeffrey Foucault, "War on the Radio" Blood Brothers  (Tone Tree, 18)
- Lucero, "To My Dearest Wife" Among the Ghosts  (Liberty + Lament, 18)
- Lori McKenna, "People Get Old" The Tree  (CN, 18)
- Jesse Dayton, "Charlottesville" The Outsider  (Blue Elan, 18)  D
- JP Harris & Tough Choices, "Badly Bent" I'll Keep Calling  (Cow Island, 12)
- Sharon Jones & Dap-Kings  "Humble Me" 100 Days 100 Nights  (Daptone, 07)

Monday, May 28, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
May 27, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

At the close of every month we make a practice of mentioning our favorite records of the past couple weeks.  As May melts into June, here are my top five for the previous month, in order of appearance:

Trampled by Turtles
Parker Millsap
Brent Cobb
John Calvin Abney
Jason Boland

And in another thirty days or so, we'll be at the halfway point of 2018, highlighting our favorites for the first six months of the year.

So back to that list.  We've already paid some due review respect to TbT and Abney.  The second half of 2018 would have to be seriously packed with musical goodness to prevent Brent Cobb's Providence Canyon from contention for our year-end list.  2016's Shine On Rainy Day introduced the Georgia songwriter to the masses, riding an easygoing vibe and fluent in classic country vernacular.  Extensive touring, prominent award nominations and a spot on the Routes & Branches favorite albums list have chased away neither that leisurely Southern drawl nor Cobb's pitch-perfect ear for the spoken rhythms of his homeland.

If anything, that genuine geographic rootedness has grown stronger on songs like "Mornin's Gonna Come":  Crooked old barefoot shovin' it across the outdoor dancefloor / Like you ain't got no sense / His new girlfriend's found her a pretty good fella / I guess that she's into rednecks.  That sort of rapidfire "flow" is not uncommon in mainstream country, but it sounds more authentic spoken in Cobb's unadorned twang.  These new songs are once again produced by cousin Dave Cobb and released on his Low Country Sound label.  While the elder Cobb's producer's stamp can be indelible, it's to his credit that he's seen fit to use his powers for good on Providence Canyon, supporting the songs with tasteful restraint.  Even with the credits betraying a crowded writers' room (no fewer than 14 writers are cited, in addition to Brent himself), there's a great appeal to the easygoing spirit of the collection.

Many of Cobb's new tunes reside in that same shady country-soul sweet spot occupied by classics like Prine or Cale, or fellow Georgian Larry Jon Wilson.  "Providence Canyon" lands us in the rural South, accompanied by some sentimental pedal steel and a precise acoustic/electric balance.  Like much of the CD, the title track speaks to Home - leaving it, longing for it, returning to it.  From the melancholy "Come Home Soon":
God it's been so long since I've felt at home / I've forgotten what it feels like to be alone / Anywhere / And I'm scared / I might forget who I am too / If I don't come home soon
 Cobb himself has acknowledged that "the idea of providence inspired the whole record: The idea of a safe haven.  A sacred something".  There are darker moments on Providence Canyon when the fears of straying too far are given rein.  The blinding symptoms of addiction even threaten the collection's abiding peaceful easy feelin'.

It's been stated that those more laid back moments came earlier in the writing process, with more gritty, humid grooves arriving later in hopes of generating a sound more suitable to touring alongside Chris Stapleton.  The electric guitars of "Ain't a Road Too Long" are punctuated by pounded piano and soulful organ. The early single is sanctified by the backing vocals of Kristen Rogers, a welcome presence on many of the songs.  That more edgy, extroverted spirit can also be heard on "Sucker for a Good Time" or the outlaw rocker ".30-06".

But even those more muscular moments sound genuine, and dwell on the same sentimentality as the quieter tracks.  It's to Cobb's credit that one of the strongest cuts on the record, "King of Alabama" doesn't drift into maudlin or vengeful territory.  Instead, the song about the murder of a touring friend is more of a good-hearted tribute to his legacy:  Some people calculate moves / He never had a thing to prove / He just let the wind take him where it may / It's a damn shame the way things go.

Providence Canyon is what I'm looking for from an established artist.  Brent Cobb has found his writerly voice, and simply trusts his instrument.  The new collection finds him getting better at what he's already good at, not stretching for the sake of novelty or losing traction in an effort to attract new ears.  It's one of the most authentic sounds in our kind of music, an artist who's digging in his heels for a long and rewarding career.

- Jason Isbell, "Super 8"  Southeastern  (Southeastern, 13)
- Amanda Shires, "Leave it Alone"  To the Sunset  (Silver Knife, 18)
- National Reserve, "Motel la Grange" Motel la Grange  (Ramseur, 18)
- Sam Lewis, "When Come the Morning" Loversity  (Tone Tree, 18)
- Sadies, "Walking Boss" Pure Diamond Gold  (Bloodshot, 99)
- Israel Nash, "Rolling On" Lifted  (Desert Folklore, 18)  D
- Rodney Crowell, "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" Acoustic Classics  (Crowell, 18)  D
- Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, "Downey to Lubbock" Downey to Lubbock  (Yep Roc, 18)
- Erin Rae, "Can't Cut Loose" Putting on Airs  (Single Lock, 18)
^ Brent Cobb, "Ain't a Road Too Long" Providence Canyon  (Elektra, 18)
- Phil Cook, "Deeper Kind" People Are My Drug  (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Gretchen Peters, "Lay Low" Dancing With the Beast  (Scarlet Letter, 18)
- Justin Townes Earle, "What Do You Do When You're Lonesome" Good Life  (Bloodshot, 08)
- Parker Millsap, "Other Arrangements" Other Arrangements  (Okrahoma, 18)
- Dead Tongues, "Won't Be Long" Unsung Passage  (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Lucero, "For the Lonely Ones" Among the Ghosts  (Liberty & Lament, 18)
- Nude Party, "Records" Nude Party  (New West, 18)
- Jayhawks, "Everybody Knows" Back Roads & Abandoned Motels  (Sony, 18)  D
- Arthur Buck, "Forever Waiting" Arthur Buck  (New West, 18)
- Horse Feathers, "Broken Beak" Appreciation  (Kill Rock Stars, 18)
- Ryley Walker, "22 Days" Deafman Glance  (Dead Oceans, 18)
- American Aquarium, "One Day At a Time" Things Change  (New West, 18)
- Karen Jonas, "Gospel of the Road" Butter  (Jonas, 18)
- Romantica, "Dear Caroline" Outlaws  (Romantica, 18)
- Paul Cauthen, "Resignation" Have Mercy EP  (Lightning Rod, 18)
- Richmond Fontaine, "Casino Lights" The Fitzgerald  (El Cortez, 05)
- Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis, "Wild Wild Wild" Wild Wild Wild  (Bloodshot, 18)  D
- Cody Canada & the Departed, "Lipstick" 3  (Underground Sound, 18)
- Dwight Yoakam, "Pretty Horses" single  (Reprise, 18)  D
- Kelly Joe Phelps, "Doxology" Roll Away the Stone  (Ryko, 97)

Monday, May 21, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
May 20, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Back in my radio days, I would enjoy opportunities to serve as a substitute host for other programmers.  Over the years I broadcast a fill-in blues show, a bluegrass show, a world music show and countless "mix" programs.  Invariably, I would receive calls from listeners wondering what had happened to their beloved host, and why I wasn't playing blues, bluegrass, etc.

Bottom line is that I thought I was playing blues, bluegrass, etc.  But I'm so drawn to hybrids and cross-genre-pollination that my definitions tend to be much wider than those of aficionados.  The same goes for the lines I draw around our kind of music here at R&B.  Matter of fact, I think I've mentioned before that my alternate name for the show more than a decade ago was Shades of Gray.  I'm a fan of outliers, mavericks and exceptions to the rule.

Which is all to say that even if this ain't your father's Sons of Bill, Oh God Ma'am (June 29, Tone Tree) is a brilliant and bold step into the light.  The Virginia band's fifth record is a far cry from 2006's Far Cry From Freedom or One Town Away, and it continues the evolution begun with 2012's Sirens and 2014's Love & Logic.

The new project arrives on the heels of a fluke episode that nearly cost frontman James Wilson the use of his guitar-playing hand.  Which is a bit ironic considering that Oh God Ma'am is Sons of Bill's most guitar-centric record to date.  Electric guitars pulse and soar and chime across the ten-song set, with hardly a twang to be heard.  Having debuted as an americana rock act, the band of brothers have become more War on Drugs than Reckless Kelly .

The album's first single, "Believer/Pretender" is built on those chiming guitars, treated drums and vocals awash in reverb.  And it's beautiful.  The song speaks to our perennial battle between the self we pretend to be and our true identity.  Expressed in musical terms, an act either strikes us as genuine and heartfelt, or hollow and plastic.  While the sounds on Oh God are less organic, less readily classifiable, they plumb deeper into the Wilsons' soul.  They emanate from nearer the heart.

On "Old and Gray", whipcrack drums compliment ringing guitars and the vocal reverb that echoes throughout the record.  Lyrics engage in the sort of personal accounting and psychological inventory in which the Wilsons have become experts.  All this introspection doesn't readily lend itself to your boot scootin' Friday night to-do.  It's thinkin' music as opposed to drinkin' music ...

"Firebird 85" is one of Oh God Ma'am's most rewarding tracks, providing a suitable bridge between Sons of Bill's earlier and more recent expressions.  These songs are more sweeping and cinematic than  twangy and grainy, though James Wilson's low-slung vocals continue to express some of those deeper roots.  Duet partner Molly Parden provides a beautiful compliment on the moving and evocative "Easier".

These flights are firmly anchored in the skin and soil of real life.  Like Matthew Ryan's excellent recent work, there is a deep intimacy to songs like "Sweeter Sadder Farther" that prevents these from being simply dreamy departures. "Sweeter" features a moving vocal, supported by little more than a piano and ambient electronics.  It would've sounded out of place alongside earlier material like "Roll on Jordan" or "Broken Bottles" or even "Life in Shambles" from the relatively recent Sirens.  But these are different days, and they evoke a more somber, measured response.  Oh God Ma'am may not win Sons of Bill new fans in the sometimes superficial roots music world, but such an honest and soul-baring effort earns on space on any playlist that features music that matters.

- Vandoliers, "Wild Flower" Ameri-kinda  (State Fair, 16)
- Ruen Brothers, "All My Shades of Blue" All My Shades of Blue  (Ramseur, 18)
- Luke Winslow-King, "Born to Roam" Blue Mesa  (Bloodshot, 18)
- Lake Street Dive, "You Are Free" Free Yourself Up  (Nonesuch, 18)
- Blitzen Trapper, "Furr (live)" Live in Portland  (BT, 14)
- John Calvin Abney, "Broken Bow" Coyote  (Abney, 18)
- Trampled by Turtles, "Annihilate" Life is Good on the Open Road  (Banjodad, 18)
- Johnny Irion, "Salvage the Day" Driving Friend  (Irion, 18)
^ Sons of Bill, "Easier (w/Molly Parden)" Oh God Ma'am  (Tone Tree, 18)
- Lindi Ortega, "Lovers in Love" Liberty  (Shadowbox, 18)
- Shooter Jennings, "Fast Horses & Good Hideouts" Shooter  (Elektra, 18)  D
- Chris Knight, "Oil Patch Town" Pretty Good Guy  (Drifter's Church, 01)
- Pat Reedy & Longtime Goners, "Nashville Tennessee at 3am" That's All There Is  (Muddy Roots, 18)  D
- Jason Boland & the Stragglers, "Tattoo of a Bruise" Hard Times are Relative  (Proud Souls, 18)
- Ike Reilly, "She Haunts My Hideouts" Crooked Love  (Rock Ridge, 18)  D
- American Aquarium, "Work Conquers All" Things Change  (New West, 18)
- Charles Lloyd & the Marvels w/Lucinda Williams, "We've Come Too Far to Turn Around" Vanished Gardens  (Blue Note, 18)  D
- Ronnie Fauss, "Night Before the War" I Am the Man You Know I'm Not  (Normaltown, 12)
- Nude Party, "Chevrolet Van" Nude Party  (New West, 18)  D
- Kelly Willis, "Don't Step Away From Me" Back Being Blue  (Premier, 18)
- Phil Cook, "Another Mother's Son" People Are My Drug  (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Brent Cowles, "How to Be Okay Alone" How to Be Okay Alone  (Dine Alone, 18)
- Gretchen Peters, "Wichita" Dancing With the Beast  (Scarlet Letter, 18)  D
- Neko Case, "Curse of the I-5 Corridor" Hell-on  (Anti, 18)
- T Hardy Morris, "Homemade Bliss" Dude the Obscure  (Normaltown, 18)  D
- Lucero, "Loving" Among the Ghosts  (Liberty + Lament, 18)
- I See Hawks in LA, "Ballad for the Trees" Live and Never Learn  (ISHiLA, 18)  D
- Kasey Chambers, "Harvest & the Seed (w/Emmylou Harris)" Campfire  (Essence, 18)
- Amanda Shires, "Leave it Alone" To the Sunset  (Silver Knife, 18)  D
- Joey Kneiser, "To My Younger Self" The Wildness  (TiAM, 15)

Monday, May 14, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
May 13, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

More than twenty persons have called American Aquarium home since the band's inception just over a decade ago.  Matter of fact, the band of brothers who created 2015's superb Wolves have left and/or been replaced.  The constant voice and vision through it all has been BJ Barham.

It was a master of understatement that decided to name their new record Things Change (New West, June 1).  Aside from the mega-morphing of the band's lineup, Barham's life itself has changed, adding family members and untangling some crooked roads in his personal life.  There's also the matter of what's going on with our country.  Last November, Barham sings, I saw firsthand / What desperation makes good people do.

Barham embraces people over politics on "Tough Folks", certainly among the strongest songs he's written.  While he acknowledges life ain't fair, that's not the end of the conversation.  Neighbors aren't defined by where they place the blame. In the end, from one generation to the next our most important job is simply to find a way through.  I'm caught in the shadows, the American South / Somewhere between hypocrite and hallelujah / Six generations of barely getting by / Six generations of hate, what's it to ya.

Barham is by no means encouraging a concession to what's passing for today's status quo.  The alarm is sounded with the record's first words:  She looked out the window and said, "The world is on fire".  But what begins as fear and frustration is put in perspective by the pending birth of Barham's daughter.  "World is On Fire" is a genuinely personal anthem - a curious juxtaposition that's not uncommon in the American Aquarium songbook.  The personal is political.  What impacts each of us is an issue for all of us.  That initial anger finds expression as hope and commitment in light of such a personal event as the birth of a child.
I got a baby girl coming in the Spring / I worry about the world she's coming into / But she'll have my fight, she'll have her mama's fire  /  If anyone builds a wall in her journey / Baby bust right through it 
Things Change is produced by songwriter John Fulbright, and features guest roles for John Moreland, Jamie Lin Wilson, Byron Berline and others.  Where Wolves and 2012's Burn Flicker Die tipped the musical equation in favor of more of a Midwest rock vibe, much of this new material is delivered on the back of pedal steel, fiddle and instrumentation more common to country music.  Maybe we can look to the acoustic folk of Barham's 2016 solo project, Rockingham, as a "reset" of sorts.

Where "Crooked + Straight" conveys its story with three chords and the truth / and the ring of an electric guitar, that country spark shines through in songs like the good-natured "Work Conquers All" or "I Gave Up the Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)".  Both promise to be concert crowd-pleasers, with sing-a-long choruses and music suitable for stepping onto the sawdust floor.

On "When We Were Younger Men" Barham shows an abiding affection for his former bandmates.  In a Ford Econoline, chasing a shared dream to the soundtrack of Tom Petty, young men became older men as the reality of the commitment took its toll.  It's a heartfelt tribute to friends on the front lines, burnt bridges and all.
I still think about that Summer and how it passed us by / Petty on the radio, us Learning How to Fly / I called you my brother but you were closer than my kin / And it kills me knowing you may never pass my way again.  
But ... Things Change, and it's up to each of us to find a way forward.  BJ Barham and his new comrades aren't reinventing American Aquarium as much as they're charting the next step in the band's evolution.  With the support of a new label and with a family waiting at home, Barham's priorities have become clearer, his mission better defined, embracing his status as a bit of a spokesman for the working class.  With the losing side of twenty-five distant in the rearview mirror, we have no choice but to look forward.

- Lucero, "To My Dearest Wife" Among the Ghosts  (Liberty & Lament, 18)  D
- Lucero, "For the Lonely Ones" Among the Ghosts  (Liberty & Lament, 18)
- Goodnight Texas, "Outrage for the Execution of Willie McGee" Conductor  (Cent Bank Check, 18)
- Sons of Bill, "Firebird 85" Oh God Ma'am  (Tone Tree, 18)
- Water Liars, "Ray Charles Dream" Water Liars  (Big Legal Mess, 14)
- Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, "What it Takes" Years  (Bloodshot, 18)
- Brent Cobb, "King of Alabama" Providence Canyon  (Elektra, 18)
- Sam Lewis, "Great Ideas" Loversity  (Tone Tree, 18)
- National Reserve, "Other Side of Love" Motel la Grange  (Ramseur, 18)
- William Matheny, "Moon Over Kenova" Moon Over Kenova  (Misra, 18)
- Horse Feathers, "Born in Love" Appreciation  (Kill Rock Stars, 18)
- Leon III, "Alberta" Leon III  (Cornelius Chapel, 18)
- Patterson Hood, "Back of a Bible" Killing Oscar (& Other Love Songs)  (Ruth St, 99)
- John Calvin Abney, "Get Your House in Order" Coyote  (JCA, 18)
- Dead Tongues, "Like a Dream" Unsung Passage  (Psychic Hotline, 18)
^ American Aquarium, "Crooked + Straight" Things Change  (New West, 18)
- Hellbound Glory, "Streets of Aberdeen" Streets of Aberdeen  (Black Country Rock, 18)
- Eric Ambel, "If Walls Could Talk (w/Bottle Rockets)" Roscoe Sampler  (Ambel, 18)
- Tim Easton, "Broken Hearted Man" Paco & the Melodic Polaroids  (Campfire Propaganda, 18)
- Parker Millsap, "Gotta Get to You" Other Arrangements  (Okrahoma, 18)
- Phil Cook, "Steampowered Blues" People Are My Drug  (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Lori McKenna, "People Get Old" Tree  (CN, 18)  D
- Ryley Walker, "Spoil With the Rest" Deafman Glance  (Dead Oceans, 18)
- Joshua Hedley, "Counting All My Tears" Mr Jukebox  (Third Man, 18)
- Luke Winslow-King, "Thought I Heard You" Blue Mesa  (Bloodshot, 18)
- John Paul Keith, "Ain't No Denying" Heart Shaped Shadow  (Last Chance, 18)
- Romantica, "Love in the Winter" Outlaws  (Romantica, 18)  D
- Milk Carton Kids, "Big Time" All the Things That I Did & All the Things That I Didn't Do  (Anti, 18)
- Leon Bridges, "Mrs" Good Thing  (Columbia, 18)
- Cody Jinks, "Give All You Can" I'm Not the Devil  (Jinks, 16)

Monday, May 07, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
May 7, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Early last year, National Reserve made available a free download capturing a New Year's Eve concert they had performed at the close of 2016.  The set is notable for a couple reasons.  First, it reveals what a fiercely energetic live band they can be.  Also, with covers of tunes by Blaze Foley, JJ Cale, the Stones and more, Live Volume One speaks to the influences that have converged to create such a beast.  Like Banditos or Low Cut Connie or the amazing Texas Gentlemen, there is a sense that National Reserve can do about anything to which they put their mind.

After several years of workmanlike live performance and a couple EPs, National Reserve are ready for their full-length debut.  Motel la Grange (Ramseur, May 11) is the sum of all those parts, from Memphis rock 'n soul to Texas blues, Nashville twang to good old New York rock 'n roll ...  In other words, they're a hell of a bar band.

"No More" constructs a wall of guitar fuzz, spiked with organ.  Sean Walsh's vocals are key to the band's vibe, abrasive but tuneful, energetic but seemingly effortless.  National Reserve make some great noise, but their sound is never messy and every element plays its part.

The band sites The Band as a compass, an influence you'll hear on "Don't Be Unkind" and "Other Side of Love".  The Band were rightly celebrated for their wide ranging musical reach, all masterful instrumentalists who recognized the value of playing loose and free.  Likewise, there is a cool confidence to National Reserve, a magic thread that shines through as soul.

"Big Bright Light" brings their country roots to the fore, adding pedal steel to their mix.  And while "Motel la Grange" slows the tempo to a simmer, Walsh and company prove they'd be as comfortable closing down the honky-tonk as raising the roof of their hometown Brooklyn haunts.

"I'll Go Blind" might be the strongest track on Motel la Grange.  Built on a poppy piano line and punctuated by sharp blasts of electric guitar, the song could lend itself to repeated radio play while not losing its edge.   That's largely the appeal of National Reserve.  In the midst of a whirlwind of energy and edge, there's an easygoing spirit that underlies it all.  Even while working up a lather and giving themselves fully to the eclectic proceedings, after serving their time onstage for several years they know exactly who they want to be.

National Reserve are the rare roots act with teeth, representing music that spans genres and generations.  If they're not careful, they might just make themselves a national treasure.

- Ry Cooder, "Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right" Prodigal Son  (Palo Verde, 18)
- Paul Cauthen, "Everybody Walkin' This Land" Have Mercy EP  (Lightning Rod, 18)  D
- Sons of Bill, "Believer/Pretender" Oh God Ma'am  (Tone Tree, 18)
- Ruen Brothers, "Aces" All My Shades of Blue  (Ramseur, 18)
- Whiskeytown, "Dreams" Stranger's Almanac Deluxe Edit  (Geffen, 97)
- Kelly Willis, "Don't Walk Away" Back Being Blue  (Premium, 18)
- Charley Crockett, "Help Me Georgia" Lonesome as a Shadow  (Son of Davy, 18)
- Sam Lewis, "When Come the Morning" Loversity  (Tone Tree, 18)  D
- Tift Merritt, "Broken" Another Country  (Concord, 07)
- Brent Cobb, "Come Home Soon" Providence Canyon  (Elektra, 18)
- Band of Heathens, "Trouble Came Early" Live via Satellite  (BoH, 18)
- Trampled by Turtles, "Thank You John Steinbeck" Life is Good on the Open Road  (Banjodad, 18)
- Caleb Caudle, "Headlights" Crushed Coins  (Cornelius Chapel, 18)
- Erin Rae, "Like the First Time" Putting on Airs  (Single Lock, 18)
- Rosanne Cash & Emmylou Harris, "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore" Restoration: Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin  (MCA Nashville, 18)
^ National Reserve, "No More" Motel la Grange  (Ramseur, 18)
- Arthur Buck, "Are You Electrified" Arthur Buck  (New West, 18)
- Buck Meek, "Maybe" Buck Meek  (Keeled Scales, 18)
- Brent Cowles, "Keep Moving" How to Be Okay Alone  (Dine Alone, 18)
- Jason Boland & the Stragglers, "Hard Times Are Relative" Hard Times Are Relative  (Proud Souls, 18)
- Dillon Carmichael, "Hell on an Angel" Hell on an Angel  (Riser House, 18)  D
- Leon III, "Maybe I'm Immune" Leon III  (Cornelius Chapel, 18)  D
- Horse Feathers, "Born in Love" Appreciation  (Kill Rock Stars, 18)
- Jeffrey Foucault, "Blood Brothers" Blood Brothers  (Blueblade, 18)
- Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, "Get Together" Downey to Lubbock  (Yep Roc, 18)
- Aaron Lee Tasjan, "Don't Walk Away" Crooked River Burning  (Rockwood, 14)
- Dead Tongues, "Pale November Dew" Unsung Passage  (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Cody Canada & the Departed, "Lipstick" 3  (Underground Sound, 18)  D
- Johnny Irion, "Cabin Fever" Driving Friend  (Irion, 18)  D
- Silver Jews "I'm Gonna Love the Hell Out of You" Tennessee EP  (Drag City, 01)