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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)

We've got debuts this week from folks like Amanda Shires, I See Hawks and ... Shooter Jennings?!  There's also a glimpse into a new project pairing Charles Lloyd, Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz.  Also, Nude Party.  Here's your ROUTES-cast:

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)

Monday, April 30, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
April 29, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

For heaven's sake.  Seems we're at the end of another month.  April has been a long one, with a wonderfully disorienting vacation in the middle.  But it's time to showcase a couple of my favorite records from the past thirty days.  These are six CDs that were released during the month, and that I've had the privilege of hearing front-to-back.

Will Stewart, County Seat
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Years
Left Arm Tan, El Camino
Old Crow Medicine Show, Volunteer
Donovan Woods, Both Ways
Charlie Crockett, Lonesome as a Shadow

Since their inception, Trampled by Turtles' "brand" has been their nitro-fueled bluegrass rave-ups.  With 2012's Stars & Satellites and 2014's Wild Animals, they've challenged their reputation admirably, venturing toward less explored sonic territory.  While I've never seen the stringband in concert, I imagine the crowd rising to their feet in riotous appreciation everytime they strike up one of those early favorites.

Following Wild Animals, the Turtles declared a hiatus.  Members scratched other musical itches, none more public or more widely celebrated than frontman Dave Simonett's Dead Man Winter.  His three (!) 2017 projects provided some of my favorite sounds for the year, with nary a rave-up to be heard.  While the voice behind DMW is a familiar one, the music won't be mistaken for TbT.

But what a kick to hear Life is Good on the Open Road (Banjodad, May 4) launch with another in their arsenal of crowd pleasers, "Kelly's Bar":  I was sinking like a stone in Red Wing Minnesota / In a bar called Kelly's right next to the train / It shakes the walls and you have to stop talking.  The red-hot fiddle threatens to veer off the rails, dragging the banjo and guitar through the dirt.  "Annihilate" applies the brakes just enough to allow the band to stretch their strings instrumentally.  The secret to some of these blazers is that they can be lyrically introspective while bashing away so generously at our ears.  "Blood in the Water" might be the most sinister bit of music they've set to tape, like a hellbound bluegrass take on a Dio track.

The reconvening of Trampled by Turtles at a member's cabin happened just as Tom Petty's passing was announced.  As many of us did, the news inspired the band to revisit several of his records, and eventually to record this new collection.  Perhaps as a result, many of the songs on Life is Good are more focused on pure songcraft, striking a satisfying balance between that earlier speed-grass and the more experimental recent stuff.

Simonett's touch as a songwriter is especially impressive on pieces like "We All Get Lonely":  It's pale here and the floorboards creak / The ceiling reaches down / Started out a big bright city, now it's a small town / Everyone you never wanted to run into again / Is sitting in a bar next to each other.  This more mannered stuff can be gorgeous, speaking to a depth of writing and a fearlessness in the face of melody.  With the occasional ecstatic vocal harmonies, some of the album's moments wouldn't sound out of place on an earlier Avetts release. It's rare for an outfit embraced by the jam-grass throngs to apply such a deft lyrical touch, and to explore the depths of feeling found in songs like "The Middle":  The wind whispers in a darkened street / Selling simple warnings to you and me / It makes me die just a little / A little every day ...  Everybody on your feet!

Rafter-rousing or reflective, the songs of Life is Good on the Open Road are smart, instrumentally impressive and truly nourishing to the soul.  After eight studio records (and an exceptional live document), Trampled by Turtles could easily cruise on the fumes of goodwill.  Concert crowds are packed with dedicated followers - enough to fill Red Rocks here in the wilds of Colorado (July 19th this year, but secure your tickets soon!).  While this new collection gives the people what they want, Simonett and company never take their musical choices for granted.  It sounds like Dave Simonett and cohorts weren't ready to release another record without having a worthy message to deliver.

Maybe I've changed / Yeah baby everybody changes / And maybe you're not where you thought you would be

- Austin Lucas, "Darkness Out of Me" New Home in the Old World  (LC, 11)
- Old Crow Medicine Show, "A World Away" Volunteer  (Sony, 18)
- Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, "Shoe Boot" Tearing at the Seams  (Concord, 18)
- National Reserve, "Motel la Grange" Motel la Grange  (Ramseur, 18)
- I See Hawks in LA, "California Country" California Country  (Western Seeds, 03)
- John Calvin Abney, "Always Enough" Coyote  (Abney, 18)
- Motel Mirrors, "Things I Learned" In the Meantime  (Last Chance, 18)
- Brent Cowles, "The Fold" How to Be Okay Alone  (Dine Alone, 18)  D
- Hellbound Glory w/Tanya Tucker, "You Better Hope You Die Young" Pinball (Junkie Edit)  (Black Country Rock, 18)
- William Matheny, "Tonight and Every Night From Now On" Moon Over Kenova  (Misra, 18)
- Kasey Chambers, "Goliath is Dead" Campfire  (Essence, 18)
- Tim Easton, "Elmore James" Paco & the Melodic Polaroids  (Campfire Propaganda, 18)
- Will Stewart, "Equality, AL" County Seat  (Cornelius Chapel, 18)
- Freakwater, "Binding Twine" Springtime  (Thrill Jockey, 98)
- Erin Rae, "Can't Cut Loose" Putting on Airs  (Single Lock, 18)
- Eric Ambel w/Syd Straw, "I Waited for You" Roscoe Sampler  (Ambel, 18)  D
- Parker Millsap, "Let a Little Light in" Other Arrangements  (Okrahoma, 18)
- Ben Danaher, "Hell or High Water" Still Feel Lucky  (Soundly, 18)  D
- Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, "Good as Gold" Years  (Bloodshot, 18)
^ Trampled by Turtles, "We All Get Lonely" Life is Good on the Open Road  (Banjodad, 18)
- Greyhounds, "Twelfth Street" Cheyenne Valley Drive  (Bud's Recording, 18)
- Caitlin Canty, "Who" Motel Bouquet  (Tone Tree, 18)
- American Aquarium, "World is on Fire"  Things Change  (New West, 18)
- Red Shahan, "Waterbill" Culberson County  (7013, 18)
- Lucero, "That Much Further West" That Much Further West  (Tiger Style, 03)
- Phil Cook, "Miles Away" People Are My Drug  (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Kacey Musgraves, "Oh What a World" Golden Hour  (MCA, 18)
- Band of Heathens, "Alabama"  Live Via Satellite EP  (BoH, 18)  D
- Old 97s, "Murder (or a Heart Attack)" Fight Songs  (Elektra, 99)
- M Ward, "Fisher of Men" Hold Time  (Merge, 09)

Sunday, April 22, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
April 22, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Back again after stepping away from the mic for a trip to Hawaii, where the music of UB40 was playing from more speakers than you might expect.  While I was away, the page for A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster just disappeared.  Apologies for the absence.  I believe I have brought it back up to date.

A vacation creates the opportunity for a healthy break from stuff, a reset that might fill the ruts and give new perspective. That, and the fact that it allows a build-up of new stuff just begging to be shared.  See below for new musical experiences from Tim Easton, Jeffrey Foucault and Sons of Bill.  There's also something from Arthur Buck, the new project combining the talents of Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck.

Nearly every new record is accompanied by a press release, and nearly every blog post cribs from that press release.  This isn't good or bad, it's just a fact.  For Routes & Branches, I write about my relationship with music.  I try to write from my individual experience, using my own words.  This is one of the reasons this will be the only piece written in praise of John Calvin Abney's new Coyote album that doesn't mention his recurring role as a sideman and collaborator for an artist whose work I have admired greatly.  The work of every artist should be appreciated on its own merits, rather than for its tangential relationships.

Coyote (Black Mesa, May 18) is John Calvin Abney's third record, following close on the heels of 2016's Far Cries and Close Calls.  I opined that it was, "a record that ranges from bright and brash sunlight to overcast and introspective ... simply engaging at the the most genuine level, appealing to our love of a true tune well constructed".  Huh.

A writer's music can be changed by the stuff of real life, and Abney has apparently experienced quite a bit of that in the past couple years. Coyote opens with "Always Enough":  Pushing towards paradise on blacktop and tar / Wondering if my soul it matched my scars.

More than other Oklahoma singer-songwriters, Abney doesn't couch his work in red dirt or Texas country.  Rather, with its piano and strings and with his Elliott Smith-like vocal, the record incorporates a healthy shot of dreamy pop.  "Always Enough" is a fitting example of the beautiful noise that Abney can make.  Arrangements are deliberate and thoughtful, never struggling to shake any vestiges of roots, but simply replicating the sounds in his head.

Another roots-pop gem, "Every Now and Then" might bring to mind Gary Louris and his Jayhawks.  Like much of Coyote, it paints a picture of a restless man, set adrift by circumstance and simply floating from city to city in the company of his thoughts and reflections.  Push the hair out of your face / Empty the lonely from your head / I guess the worst of best intentions / Could tell you to quit while you're ahead.  The song adds organ and electric guitar to the fray.  There's nothing like a barnburner here, as midtempo songs are given space to unfold, Abney unhurried in making his impression.

Roots are nearer the surface in songs like "Sundowner", a languid longing waltz polished with pedal steel and fiddle.  It's one of a couple beautiful acoustic-oriented cuts that speak to the fragility and intimacy of a life on the road.  "Get Your House in Order" is Coyote's most directly americana moment, even with its programmed drums and box of rocks percussion.  The bluesy shuffle showcases a nice bit of electric twang riding loose in the pocket.  I looked into the mirror / And I could've sworn / I saw a little calm in the eyes of that storm / Roll like a river right out of bed.

Like recent stuff from Andrew Combs or Caleb Caudle, there's an impressive confidence to Coyote, as evidenced by a willingness to range across vast musical territories which serve as destinations and ruts for other artists.  During a time when John Calvin Abney is receiving some recognition for his work as a collaborator, reviewers would do well to check out the music he's making between the bars.

Northwest whispers / Southwest speaks / The Northeast calls / And the Southeast peaks / But every highway has a voice and a dust / They ain't callin' me Mama / They're callin' for us

- Neko Case, "Bad Luck" Hell-on  (Anti, 18)
^ John Calvin Abney, "Get Your House in Order" Coyote  (JCA, 18)
- Trampled by Turtles, "We All Get Lonely" Life is Good on the Open Road  (Banjodad, 18)
- Kelly Willis, "Only You" Back Being Blue  (Premium, 18)
- Jeffrey Foucault, "Blood Brothers"  Blood Brothers  (Tone Tree, 18)  D
- Charley Crockett, "Goin' Back to Texas" Lonesome As a Shadow  (Son of Davy, 18)
- Sons of Bill, "Believer/Pretender" Oh God Ma'am  (Tone Tree, 18)  D
- Ryley Walker, "Opposite Middle" Deafman Glance  (Dead Oceans, 18)
- Karen Jonas, "Gospel of the Road" Butter  (Jonas, 18)  D
- Blackberry Smoke w/Amanda Shires, "Let Me Down Easy" Find a Light  (3 Legged, 18)
- John Prine, "When I Get to Heaven" Tree of Forgiveness  (Oh Boy, 18)
- Goodnight Texas, "Laramie" Conductor  (Cent Bank Check, 18)
- Erin Rae, "Putting on Airs" Putting on Airs  (Single Lock, 18)  D
- Parker Millsap, "Other Arrangements" Other Arrangements  (Okrahoma, 18)
- Juanita Stein, "Forgiver" Until the Lights Fade  (Nude, 18)  D
- Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, "Over You" Years  (Bloodshot, 18)
- Jason Boland & the Stragglers, "Right Where I Began" Hard Times Are Relative  (Proud Souls, 18)
- Left Arm Tan, "Give a Damn" El Camino  (LAT, 18)
- Joshua Hedley, "Weird Thought Thinker" Mr Jukebox  (Third Man, 18)
- Brent Cobb, "Morning's Gonna Come" Providence Canyon  (Elektra, 18)
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "Life the Lonely From My Heart" May Your Kindness Remain  (Mama Bird, 18)
- Jim James, "Just a Fool" Uniform Distortion  (ATO, 18)  D
- Arthur Buck, "I Am the Moment" Arthur Buck  (New West, 18)  D
- Donovan Woods, "Burn That Bridge" Both Ways  (Meant Well, 18)
- Dead Tongues, "Won't Be Long" Unsung Passage  (Psychic Hotline, 18)  D
- Ruen Brothers, "All My Shades of Blue" All My Shades of Blue  (Ramseur, 18)  D
- Luke Winslow-King, "Chicken Dinner" Blue Mesa  (Bloodshot, 18)
- Tim Easton, "Broken Hearted Man" Paco & the Melodic Polaroids  (Campfire Propaganda, 18)  D
- Chuck Ragan, "Do You Pray" Feast or Famine  (SideOneDummy, 07)
- Milk Carton Kids, "One More For the Road" All the Things That I Did & All the Things That I Didn't Do  (Anti, 18)  D

Sunday, April 08, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
April 8, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

I've spent the entirety of my vocational life in the book industry in some function or another.  While I know you can't judge a book by its cover, an evocative image can certainly make someone pick it up and maybe understand a little about what's inside.  I like the cover of Caitlin Canty's Motel Bouquet quite a bit.  A couple yellow roses, stems in a plastic bottle, plastic bottle in a red paper cup.  The bouquet is apparently in a vehicle, and the flowers are still as the world flies by through the window.  Canty mentions that these yellow roses were a gift, and that she drove them from motel to motel during a tour.

Much of Canty's third record speaks from the road, from motion or from stillness.  And there is so much stillness in her work.  A confessed musical minimalist, Canty is committed to the slow burn, imminently patient in letting a song unspool.  "Who" employs a very few select words to leave its impression:  Who put the song on your lips / Who put the swing in your hips / Who put the cotton in your fingertips.  That evocative line alone takes a full minute to weave.  It brings to mind "I Envy the Wind" from Lucinda Willliams, another masterful commander of space and time.  The song floats on a drone that blooms into an exquisite chamber folk, featuring Canty's unrivaled collaborators: Producer and stringman Noam Pikelny has assembled Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Paul Kowert on bass Russ Pahl on pedal steel and Josh Grange on percussion, along with some help from Gabe Witcher and Aoife O'Donovan.  Few ensembles are capable of such a moving hush.

Far and away, the most expressive instrument on Motel Bouquet is Caitlin Canty's voice.  Where lesser singers might communicate with volume or bombast, her voice is a breathy and restrained alto, remarkably low and cottony.  "Time Rolls By" presents Canty's instrument at its best: Wind rolls in / Clouds slip out / I've been sitting here a hundred years / With every breath counting the / Time rolling by slowly.  Why shout when you can whisper?  Listeners are drawn closer, leaning into every patiently delivered message.

Canty is a sensualist, an artist laid open to the world and its minor details.  It's revealed in lyrics that appeal to our every sense, like Anna Tivel but more attuned to the natural than the urban world.  Where the light falls slant/ She holds the river in her hands / November hits the ground / A blanket of yellow and brown, from "River Alone".  She's also a capable guide to the wilds of the human landscape on "Leaping Out", advising Hold your hand to your heart / Keep it from leaping out.

It's one of Motel Bouquet's more swinging tracks, loping along goodnaturedly on a ramble, but still in little hurry to reach its destination.  None of Canty's songs are so hurried that they will overlook the small things, the half-hearted empties, the hum of cars and wind or the basil gone to blossom.  Lest you think quiet and focused equals a dull listening experience, Canty and Pikelny have created a captivating collection.  Especially as pieces become familiar, we develop an appreciation for the mastery required to work on such an intricate scale.  "Take Me For a Ride" is one of the year's strongest singles, and "Scattershot" is a dark and dramatic storyboard.  At Canty's command, one line can tell an entire story:  She was a rose / In a jacked-up truck / Scratching off her luck.

This week finds us neck deep in one of the year's most frantic release cycles.  Under the pressure of so much good new stuff, we tend to neglect our usual practice of including some less new music on our playlist.  This week brings us our inaugural glimpse into Jason Boland's long awaited project.  Phil Cook's new collection is on the menu, and we'll gather 'round the campfire with Kasey Chambers and friends.

- Goodnight Texas, "Outrage for the Execution of Willie McGee" Conductor  (Cent Back Check, 18)
- Greyhounds, "Credo" Cheyenne Valley Drive  (Bud's Recording, 18)
- Bettye LaVette, "Times They Are a-Changin'" Things Have Changed  (Verve, 18)
- Horse Feathers, "Don't Mean to Pry" Appreciation  (Kill Rock Stars, 18)
- Old Crow Medicine Show, "Whirlwind" Volunteer  (Sony, 18)
- Vivian Leva, "Bottom of the Glass" Time is Everything  (Free Dirt, 18)
^ Caitlin Canty, "Take Me for a Ride" Motel Bouquet  (Tone Tree, 18)
- Lindi Ortega, "Till My Dyin' Day" Liberty  (Shadowbox, 18)
- Bonnie Prince Billy w/Joan Shelley, "If You Ever Get To Houston" Hummingbirds & Helicopters: Benefit for South Texas  (Cinquefoil, 18)
- Shakey Graves, "Mansion Door" Can't Wake Up  (Dualtone, 18)
- American Aquarium, "Tough Folks" Things Change  (New West, 18)
- Donovan Woods, "Our Friend Bobby" Both Ways  (Meant Well, 18)
- Bennett Wilson Poole, "Ask Me Anything" Bennett Wilson Poole  (Aurora, 18)
- Kasey Chambers & Fireside Disciples, "Campfire Song" Campfire  (Essence, 18)  D
- Motel Mirrors, "Dead of Winter Blues" In the Meantime  (Last Chance, 18)
- Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, "Damned if I Do Damned if I Don't" Years  (Bloodshot, 18)
- Rod Picott, "Primer Gray" Out Past the Wires  (Welding Rod, 18)
- Phil Cook, "Steampowered Blues" People Are My Drug  (Psychic Hotline, 18)  D
- Red Shahan, "Someone Someday" Culberson County  (7013 Records, 18)  D
- Western Centuries, "Far From Home" Songs From the Deluge  (Free Dirt, 18)
- Jayhawks, "What Would a Dreamer Do" Johnny Cash: Forever Words  (Legacy, 18)
- Ana Egge, "Dance Around the Room With Me" White Tiger  (Story Sound, 18)  D
- Son Volt, "Highways and Cigarettes" The Search: Reissue  (Transmit Sound, 18)  D
- Jason Boland & the Stragglers, "I Don't Deserve You (w/Sunny Sweeney)" Hard Times are Relative  (Proud Souls, 18)  D
- Ashley Monroe, "Wild Love" Sparrow  (Warner, 18)
- Kacey Musgraves, "Roy Rogers" Restoration: Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin  (UMG, 18)
- Kim Richey, "Whistle on Occasion (w/Chuck Prophet)" Edgeland  (Yep Roc, 18)
- 6 String Drag, "Robert & Lucy" Top of the World  (Schoolkids, 18)
- Lake Street Dive, "I Can Change" Free Yourself Up  (Nonesuch, 18)
- Erika Wennerstrom, "Extraordinary Love" Sweet Unknown  (Partisan, 18)

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
April 1, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Back on the chaingang folks, after last week's generous debut.  Since we took a week away from the mic, we're left with a bottleneck of new stuff for this week's Episode.

... and since we're now into April, we can officially take a backward glance at what was the first quarter of 2018.  Here are my eleven favorite releases since the turn of the year, listed in order of appearance:

First Aid Kit
HC McEntire
Mike & the Moonpies
Ruby Boots
Caleb Caudle
6 String Drag
Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats
Andrew Bryant
Courtney Marie Andrews
Great Peacock

That's right.  I said eleven.  I don't see anyone else in this basement that's gonna stop me.  This is stuff that was has already been released, and that I have had the privilege of hearing in its entirety.

Looking into the next three months, we're getting antsy about new stuff from Will Stewart, Sarah Shook, Joshua Hedley, Donovan Woods, Charlie Crockett, Trampled by Turtles, Parker Millsap, Horse Feathers, Brent Cobb, John Calvin Abney, Jason Boland and American Aquarium.  Let the games begin.


I've said it before (though not too recently), that nobody casts a wider net around the world of roots music than Routes & Branches.  You're welcome.  Eclecticism matters here, walls be damned.  John Paul Keith and Amy LaVere appreciate a broad definition of our kind of music, too, as showcased in two new projects just released on Arkansas-based Last Chance Records.

If you're unfamiliar with the solo work of either LaVere or Keith, set aside this review for a sec and track it down - maybe LaVere's 2014 Runaway's Diary, or the superb Memphis Circa 3am (2013) from John Paul Keith.  It's easier to appreciate an artist once you understand where they've been (and there's a lot to appreciate from both acts).  It's also telling that Amy LaVere played the part of Wanda Jackson in 2005's Johnny 'n June biopic Walk the Line.  Over the space of a handful of solo records, she's collaborated with folks like Jim Dickinson, Luther Dickinson, Shannon McNally, Jimbo Mathus and Will Sexton.

Back in 2013, John Paul Keith and Amy LaVere issued a widely-heralded, seven-song EP under the moniker Motel Mirrors.  For their first full-length, In the Meantime, they've added guitarist Will Sexton to the mix, creating a sticky sweet confection with a touch of roots noir.

"I Wouldn't Dream of It" introduces the outfit, a celebration of artist interplay and a dialog of talents.  Everly style vocals and a walking guitar line frame the song, a rockabilly/early rock hybrid held down by LaVere's durable upright bass line.  It's a thread that runs throughout Meantime, a reminder that the sum is greater than the parts (though the individual parts in this case are each remarkable talents).  A more upbeat "Paper Doll" walks these same floors, a rockabilly rumble driven by a tripping drumbeat and a rhythmic acoustic strum, with those harmonies that fall somewhere between Johnny 'n June and John 'n Exene.

And speaking of the Carter-Cash clan, "Loving in the Morning" finds the Motel Mirrors paying musical tribute to Johnny 'n June with an easygoing country duet.  While the instrumental arrangements through are understated, it's also perfect for the proceedings.  The image that might be generated is one of the members gathered in a comfortable room, circled around a single mic and weaving their talents.  "Dead of Winter Blues" showcases LaVere's appealing vocals, sounding like Lindi Ortega on a roots noir:  Only eight different kinds of snowflakes / Untold kinds of cold / The weather bitter, the crisp, the deadly / And the kind that you have shown

"Things I Learned" arrives with the kind of edge and attitude that make Lydia Loveless such a force.  I know boys can be cruel sings LaVere, while simultaneously exuding strength and confidence: These things I learned without you.  There's pretty and there's down and dirty on Motel Mirrors' project, from the indelible confection of "Let Me Be Sweet to You" (just enough saccharine) to the honkytonk sawdust floor weeper, "Funerals in New Orleans", In the Meantime provides more than just a momentary diversion.

But wait:  There's more!  John Paul Keith has also released his fourth solo album, Heart Shaped Shadow, also on Last Chance.  Keith's new collection serves as a fitting companion to his Motel Mirrors disc. Created to analog tape with Sexton at the producer's helm (and the guitarist's post), the project boasts an immediate appeal, like a firsthand tour through the hallowed halls of Memphis roots rock 'n soul.

Fact is, Keith's new record arrives in the wake of a "D-I-V-O-R-C-E", and though there's hardly a downer in the bunch, Heart Shaped Shadow finds him with the ladies on his mind.  If you get a call from a 901 number / Late at night when you're tryin' to sleep / ... If I were you baby / I'd just let it ring.  On "901 Number", Keith doesn't present himself as the ladies' man.  Instead, he is the long-suffering, well-meaning romeo sans Juliet.  With its very decent guitar and underlying piano work, the song is worthy of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, maybe with Hargus Pig Robbins at the keys.  Listeners hungry for more sadsack songs will want to check out "Someday Somebody's Gonna Love Me".  It's a deliciously indulgent country stroll:  I know somebody somebody's gonna need me / And then maybe I can stop needing you.

But we can't live on melancholy alone, and John Paul Keith is just as capable of the sort of R&B revue that has become Memphis' signature.  With blazing horns and plenty of organ, "Something So Wrong" reminds us that this is Keith's native language.  Songs like "Ain't No Denying" introduce workmanlike playing that stands with one foot in jazz territory.  It's a cucumber-cool cut.

"Leave Them Girls Alone" launches with some gutbucket chicken-scratch guitar, a country-fueled number setting the spirit for the remainder of Heart Shaped Shadow's eclectic Memphis menu: Well I used to light a pack up every day / Everybody thought I'd burn my life away / I dropped that nasty habit like a stone / But I just can't see to leave them girls alone.  Add the early rock 'n stomp of "Do You Really Wanna Do It" and stir well.

Taken as a whole, the work on Motel Mirrors and Heart Shaped Shadow flirts with the eclectic and tuneful rock 'n roll as practiced by Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello or Ron Sexsmith.  Between John Paul Keith, Amy LaVere and Will Sexton, there is talent and experience enough for a dozen such projects.  Just like Memphis itself, the artists speak eloquently in the language of country, rock, soul and jazz.

- Parker Millsap, "Come Back When You Can't Stay" Other Arrangements  (Okrahoma, 18)
- Kacey Musgraves, "Slow Burn" Golden Hour  (MCA, 18)
- Ags Connolly, "Slow Burner" Nothin' Unexpected  (Sofaburn, 18)
- Vivian Leva, "Time is Everything" Time is Everything  (Free Dirt, 18)  D
- John Prine, "God Only Knows" Tree of Forgiveness  (Oh Boy, 18)
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "Border" May Your Kindness Remain  (Mama Bird, 18)
- Hellbound Glory, "Cold Dark Summer" Streets of Aberdeen  (Black Country Rock, 18)  D
- Blackberry Smoke, "I'll Keep Ramblin' (w/Robert Randolph)" Find a Light  (3 Legged, 18)
^ John Paul Keith, "Something So Wrong" Heart Shaped Shadow  (Last Chance, 18)
- American Aquarium, "Tough Folks" Things Change  (New West, 18)  D
- Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, "Baby I Lost My Way (But I'm Going Home)" Tearing at the Seams  (Concord, 18)
- Jolie Holland, "Louisiana 1927"  Hummingbirds & Helicopters: Benefit for South Texas  (Cinquefoil, 18)  D
- Bonnevilles, "Good Bastards" Dirty Photographs  (Alive Naturalsound, 18)
- Kim Richey, "Chase Wild Horses" Edgeland  (Yep Roc, 18)
- Anna & Elizabeth, "Ripest of Apples" Invisible Comes to Us  (Smithsonian, 18)  D
- Left Arm Tan, "It's Too Late"  El Camino  (LAT, 18)
- Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, "Downey to Lubbock" Downey to Lubbock  (Yep Roc, 18)
- Kelly Willis, "Back Being Blue" Back Being Blue  (Premium, 18)  D
- Will Stewart, "Dark Halls" County Seat  (Cornelius Chapel, 18)
- Trampled by Turtles, "The Middle" Life is Good on the Open Road  (Banjodad, 18)
- Traveller, "Hummingbird" Western Movies  (Refuge Fndtn for the Arts, 18)  D
- Charlie Crockett, "Ain't Gonna Worry Child" Lonesome as a Shadow  (Son of Davy, 18)
- National Reserve, "Standing on the Corner" Motel la Grange  (Ramseur, 18)  D
- Bonnie Prince Billy, "World's Greatest" Ask Forgiveness  (Drag City, 07)
- Bonny Doon, "I Am Here (I Am Alive)" Longwave  (Woodsist, 18)  D
- Ry Cooder, "Prodigal Son" Prodigal Son  (Fantasy, 18)
- Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, "New Ways to Fall" Years  (Bloodshot, 18)
- Buck Meek, "Ruby" Buck Meek  (Keeled Scales, 18)
- Elvis Costello, "I'll Still Love You" Johnny Cash: Forever Words  (Sony, 18)  D
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "Passing Clouds" single  (Spacebomb, 18)  D

Scott Foley,