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Thursday, March 23, 2017

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
March 21, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Fun fact:  I'm not a fan of alcohol.  I drink it on occasion, maybe a finger or two of scotch prior to bedtime.  Got nothing against it, other than I really don't care for the taste of beer.  In Scott: the College Days, I have distinct memories of visiting the neighborhood grocery in my most deliberately dour goth attire, my long black hair shading my kohl'd eyes as I waited for my brother to purchase our wine coolers. I recall record store coworkers sneaking me into a sad little bar for my 19th birthday, becoming violently ill on Bud Lites and sleeping it off on my bathroom floor.  Youthful flirtation aside (sure, there are other stories, but maybe there are impressionable kids listening), I got over the stuff pretty fast.  Then there was marriage, the kids, work, stuff that makes some people want to hit the bottle, but mostly made me want to take long baths and to sleep.  Eventually, I started taking a medicine that my doctor told me wouldn't probably go well with the drink.  Even after I dropped the medicine, any taste for alcohol was simply gone.  I enjoyed smelling my wife's wine and her beer on occasion, but ...  And while I have a stronger than normal aversion to watching folks get their drink on, I never came at it from a moral perspective.  Beer just tastes like ass.

Perhaps you have noticed how many americana, and roots music songs are about alcohol.  I mention this simply by way of saying that drinking songs don't make me want to imbibe and more than murder ballads make me want to take a life.  I also steer clear of drugs, hate the smell of cigarettes and The Evil Weed, and have only recently re-abandoned myself to the demon caffeine.  Hate being tipsy, find losing control embarrassing, haven't grown a beard in nearly a decade.

Let me know when I start breaking hearts and shattering preconceptions.

So what's my response upon hearing Old 97s' excellent new Graveyard Whistling record, especially during songs like "Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls" or "Drinkin' Song" (I'll leave you to figure what that one's about)?  By my book, I don't think there's a band around that might be more fun to hoist a pint to, to shoehorn myself into a crowded and sweaty bar with my peers and abandon myself to THE GREATEST ALT.COUNTRY BAND of OUR TIME.  .

Of course, the guys' early stuff pretty much defined the genre.  I'd hold up Too Far To Care, Fight Songs and Satellite Rides against any three other consecutive contemporary records.  And if Old 97s wandered a bit after that, there's was always a reason to listen to each consecutive record.  Then 2014's gloriously debauched Most Messed Up served to remind us that all who wander are not lost (to quote Rhett Miller by way of Bilbo Baggins).  Frontman Rhett Miller is the Peter Pan of the roots world, the ageless and, let's face it, unnecessarily handsome Dorian Gray of our kind of music.  While he could have easily chosen to ride those looks and that hair all the way out of the ghetto to Superstardom behind the strain of syrupy ballads and smoldering romantic glances, he's always played more of the clueless best friend, the brainy geek who could turn heads simply by removing his coke bottle lenses and investing in a more effective conditioner.

Like several of the songs on Graveyard Whistling, "I Don't Wanna Die In This Town" is built on a dirty coal-fueled chug, a wild wild west spirit that the band honors on a record jacket photo of the boys peering out from behind bandannas.  Guitars blaze like six-string six-guns, while drums stumble like a drunken cowboy who's accidentally found the basement stairs.  And while the music is hell bent for leather, it's far from vapid stuff.  Sure, there's those drinkin' songs, but they're thinkin' man's drinkin' songs.

And just as Sunday morning follows Saturday night, Rhett & co. ponder the tick-tick-tick of their days on tunes like "Good With God".  In a genius stroke, Brandi Carlile plays the voice of god herself, countering Rhett's confident swagger with some food for doubt:  You should be scared / I'm not so nice. / Many a man has paid the price ... / I'll break you down. / I'll do it slow how does that sound? / You're just a joke that's goin' round.  The song is one of the best of the roots music year, especially when paired with a chaser of "Jesus Loves You".  Another burner, it's also the record's biggest laugh:  He's got the whole world in his hands / I've got a Lone Star in cans. And I'm bringin' one over to you.

Not necessarily grad level theology ... But what saves the group from being simply another band with whiskey, weed and women on their agenda is that there's some depth to songs such as "All Who Wander" or 'Turns Out I'm Trouble".  Don't go so far as to call it soul searching, but there's some conscience and self awareness to lyrics like this:  My trashcan heart just rattles 'round / I promise you I'm nothing but trouble / You got to turn me down.  Rhett warns that he's trouble, but he does it as often to admit his brokenness as to brag on himself.

"All Who Wander" strikes the LP's truest chord, soft touch acoustic verses trading with a singalong chorus for the ages.  I must cling to that which kills me. / I must lose my heart's desire. / I must wind up warm and wasted. / With a flat screen for a fire.  While it's the drinking songs that will garner the spins, I'll predict that these more mindful tracks will carry the day on Routes & Branches.  Graveyard Whistling isn't the sound of a band of dads raging embarrassingly beyond their expiration date.  It's a collection that's thoughtful as often as it's kick-ass.  The songs endear you with their charms and then knock you off your chair with their sheer energy and zeal.

So ... raise one for me next time you're sharing your personal space with bearded men and tattooed ladies when you're lucky enough to catch this praiseworthy outfit in their element.  Build your buzz while Rhett intones sagely, Hell yes hell yes hell yes hell yes / Right on right on right on    ...   .  And please don't judge me for my shortcomings.

- Lucinda Williams, "Sweet Side" World Without Tears  (UMG, 03)
- Lindi Ortega, "What a Girl's Gotta Do" Til the Goin' Get Gone  (Shadowbox, 17)
- Ha Ha Tonka, "Going That Way" Heart-Shaped Mountain  (Bloodshot, 17)
- Justin Townes Earle, "Champagne Corolla" Kids in the Streets  (New West, 17)
- Scott H Biram, "Still Around" Bad Testament  (Bloodshot, 17)
- Pieta Brown, "Station Blues" Postcards  (Lustre, 17)
- Dead Man Winter, "I Remember This Place Being Bigger" Furnace  (GNDWire, 17)
- Will Johnson, "Every Single Day of Late" Hatteras Night a Good Luck Charm  (Undertow, 17)
- Craig Finn, "Tangletown" We All Want the Same Things  (Partisan, 17)
- Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Jump For Joy" What in the Natural World  (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Timothy Seth Avett as Darling, "Disappointing You" IV  (Ramseur, 17)  D
- Robyn Hitchcock, "Hurry for the Sky" Goodnight Oslo  (Yep Roc, 09)
- Sharon Van Etten, "End of the World" Resistance Radio: Man in the High Castle Album  (Sony, 17)  D
- Jade Jackson, "Finish Line" Gilded  (Anti, 17)  D
- North Mississippi Allstars, "Long Haired Doney" Pray for Peace  (Songs of the South, 17)  D
- RL Burnside, "Snake Drive" Mr Wizard  (Fat Possum, 97)
- Hurray for the Riff Raff, "Life to Save" Navigator  (ATO, 17)
- Valerie June, "Love You Once Made" Order of Time  (Concord, 17)
- Blackfoot Gypsies, "I Had a Vision" To the Top  (Plowboy, 17)  D
^ Old 97s, "All Who Wander" Graveyard Whistling  (ATO, 17)
- Angaleena Presley, "Only Blood" Wrangled  (Mining Light, 17)
- Colter Wall, "Thirteen Silver Dollars"  Colter Wall  (Young Mary's, 17)
- K Phillips, "Dirty Wonder" Dirty Wonder  (Rock Ridge, 17)
- Ags Connolly, "Slow Burner" Nothin' Unexpected  (At the Helm, 17)
- Bobbie Gentry, "Mississippi Delta" Ode to Billie Joe  (Capitol, 67)
- Casey James Prestwood, "King of All Losers" Born Too Late  (CJP, 17)  C
- Holly Macve, "No One Has the Answers" Golden Eagle  (Bella Union, 17)
- Fifth on the Floor, "Distant Memory Lane" Dark and Bloodied Ground  (Fifth, 10)
- Rodney Crowell, "East Houston Blues" Close Ties  (New West, 17)
- Whiskey Gentry, "Dead Ringer" Dead Ringer  (Pitch-a-Tent, 17)  D

ROUTES-cast on the rocks:

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

a home for the americana diaspora
March 14, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

It's not enough to have a voice for the angels.  A singer has to communicate authenticity.  To use some obvious female examples, a young Linda Ronstadt wrung pure emotion from her voice.  My first exposure to Iris DeMent was a revelation.  Maria McKee, Lucinda Williams, Lydia Loveless.  Last year about this time I was basking in the backalley glow cast by Sarah Shook (whose 2016 record will soon be re-issued by Bloodshot).  Today, I'm flirting with Holly Macve, whose Golden Eagle swooped down upon us this week from Bella Union Records.

Just to set the stage, Ms Macve was born in Ireland and raise in England.  She recently assembled a playlist of music that populated her childhood and inspired her debut record at the tender age of 21.  Artists on that mixtape included Leonard Cohen, Gillian Welch, Angel Olsen, Ryan Adams and others.  Accordingly, her music tends to dwell on the dark side of country.  Think dusk and long shadows and neon just flickering to light.  AllMusic's recent review likened her to "a yodeling Lana Del Rey" ...

Likely not the review she cut out and posted on her fridge.  But the idea isn't entirely without merit.  Macve definitely hails from the country side of the avenue, wielding an unmistakable high lonesome sound that would be proof enough to earn her entrance to any classic country roadhouse.  Check out "Heartbreak Blues".  Macve's voice is a keening, breaking wonder, a multipurpose tool capable of slicing, swooping or caressing at will.  It's complimented by sad sad pedal steel, picked electric and a dancefloor-ready drum track.  The song grabbed my attention the instant I heard it, settling easily onto my ears.  I had to hear more.

"No One Has the Answers" has a similar appeal, as well as revealing more of a 60s folk strain.  There's a fuller, more contemporary arrangement, characterized by a tambourine's jangle, a strummed acoustic and otherworldly atmospherics.  Macve's voice is a bit wilder here, stronger and more confident in its deep twang.

Even more captivating are Golden Eagle's more hushed tracks, featuring little more than voice and guitar or piano.  The title cut is a hymnlike piece that showcases Holly Macve's voice at its barest and most genuinely beautiful.  "All of Its Glory" draws its inspiration from writers like Leonard Cohen, and reveals a different shade of her singing while remaining with the piano/voice arrangement.  Remarkably, the song also drops almost any hint of country roots.  This is also where I hear more of a resemblance to Lana Del Rey.  Or Angel Olsen, if you'd rather.

Somewhere between Macve's extremes lies a song like "Corner of My Mind".  Like Courtney Marie Andrews or the ladies of First Aid Kit, she demonstrates an uncanny ability to communicate a mood with her voice.  Classic elements intertwine with contemporary touches, leaving us with the promise that Holly Macve is more than just a costumed girl at the state fair with a pretty good Patsy Cline imitation.

I don't automatically enjoy spoken word stuff, but when it's done right, it can be great (see "I'm New Here" by Gil Scott-Heron and/or Bill Callahan, the occasional Willy Vlautin and "Kiss and Say Goodbye" by The Manhattans).  We'll add to that list Craig Finn's "God in Chicago".  Also this week, make room make room for new Benjamin Booker!  Also, there's some Camper Van Beethoven, which it turns out is Just The Thing.  And let's all agree to look forward to Colter Wall's self-titled production.

- Romantica, "Let the Light Go Through You" Shadowlands  (Last Chance, 17)
- Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band, "Let the Light Shine On" Front Porch Sessions  (Family Owned, 17)
- Nikki Lane, "Send the Sun" Highway Queen  (New West, 17)
- Samantha Crain, "Oh Dear Louis" You Had Me At Goodbye  (Ramseur, 17)
- Ha Ha Tonka, "Arkansas" Heart-Shaped Mountain  (Bloodshot, 17)
- Phosphorescent, "Joe Tex, These Taming Blues" Aw Come Aw Wry  (Misra, 05)
- Will Johnson, "Childress (to Ogden)" Hatteras Night a Good Luck Charm  (Undertow, 17)
- Craig Finn, "God in Chicago" We All Want the Same Things  (Partisan, 17)  D
- Kasey Chambers, "Hey (w/Paul Kelly)" Dragonfly  (Essence, 17)
- Gasoline Lollipops, "Jesus" Resurrection  (GasPops, 17)  C
- Banditos, "Fine Fine Day" Visionland  (Bloodshot, 17)  D
- Son Volt, "Static" Notes of Blue  (Transmit Sound, 17)
- Leif Vollebekk, "All Night Sedans" Twin Shadows  (Secret City, 17)
- John Moreland, "It Don't Suit Me (Like Before)" Big Bad Luv  (4AD, 17)
- Angaleena Presley, "Good Girl Down" Wrangled  (Mining Light, 17)
- Ryan Adams, "Shiver and Shake" Prisoner  (PaxAm, 17)
- Camper Van Beethoven, "Sad Lovers Waltz" II & III  (Cooking Vinyl, 86)
- Rodney Crowell, "Nashville 1972"  Close Ties  (New West, 17)
- Charlie Worsham, "Southern By the Grace of God" Beginning of Things  (Warner, 17)  D
^ Holly Macve, "Heartbreak Blues" Golden Eagle  (Bella Union, 17)  D
- William Matheny, "Blood Moon Singer" Strange Constellations  (Misra, 17)
- Quaker City Night Hawks, "Bible Black Lincoln" Torquila! Torquila!  (Wizardvizion, 11)
- Benjamin Booker, "Witness" Witness  (ATO, 17)  D
- Shinyribs, "Tub Gut Stomp & Red-Eyed Soul" I Got Your Medicine  (Mustard Lid, 17)
- Mavericks, "Damned (If You Do)" Brand New Day  (Mono Mundo, 17)
- Sunny Sweeney, "Bottle By My Bed" Trophy  (Aunt Daddy, 17)
- Bonnie "Prince"  Billy, "Mama Tried" Best Troubador  (Drag City, 17)  D
- Caroline Spence, "Slow Dancer" Spades & Roses  (Tone Tree, 17)
- Jamie Wyatt, "Your Loving Saves Me" Felony Blues  (Wyatt, 17)
- Colter Wall, "Thirteen Silver Dollars" Colter Wall  (Young Mary's, 17)  D

Thursday, March 09, 2017

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
March 7, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

The songs of Will Johnson's new album epitomize everything I want Routes & Branches to sound like.  They're beautiful, crunchy, evocative, enigmatic.  For years he has explored his louder, mightier tendencies with Centro-matic and his more esoteric, introverted ideas with South San Gabriel.  Johnson has collaborated with artists from Jason Molina to David Bazan.  He has been a Monster of Folk and has joined Jay Farrar, Anders Parker and Jim James in the shadow of Woody Guthrie for New Multitudes.  With his first solo project since drawing the curtain on Centro-matic, Will Johnson seems ready to gather all these musical forces under one roof.

Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm is Johnson's most immediately tuneful record to date.  By and large, the songs embrace a dusty, roots rock spirit, often heavy on the guitar and with a layered approach to vocals.  It's rarely a "crowded" sound, but its a step or three beyond the quiet living room acoustic/pedal steel project Johnson had originally envisioned.  Some of Hatteras Night's sweetest moments do actually come from the record's more sonically restrained bits.  "Childress (To Ogden)" is a gorgeous meeting of Jason Molina and Townes Van Zandt:  There's a blood moon at my window / And a young wolf at my side.  The song "Hatteras" follows in this same vein:  For I have worked, and I have traveled / And I am calloused, and I am beat.  Without showing his cards with easy lyrics, Johnson sounds truly vulnerable here, in a revealing acoustic session.  In the former, haunted backing vocals blow through like lonely tumbleweeds.

In early published interviews, he tells how his record coalesced around a loose story and a small cast of characters.  "Ruby Shameless" names names, told from the standpoint of a man smitten by a dancer.  The song is a ballad built on electric guitar, a spare sound that could be heard either as protective or as sinister and possessive.  Just a little crush of flesh / A cigarette burn / Or a spice across your chest.

But much of Hatteras Night makes a noise that counters these more tender tendencies.  "Predator" recalls Johnson's work with M Ward, Jim James, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis in Monsters of Folk.  A full band surrounds the singer with piano, pedal steel and percussion seemingly borrowed from the soundstage of a spaghetti western.  That old time sound came flooding back around / Like a predator / That knew I wanted to be found.  "Filled With a Falcon's Dreams" paints with patchouli scented SoCal country-rock textures a'la early Neil Young.  It's follow close behind by one of the most unraveled pieces on the record in "Heresy and Snakes".  Fuzz and tremolo guitars are distorted almost beyond recognition, and a deep and troubling rumble underlies it all.

That spirit achieves its pinnacle in "Every Single Day of Late".  As the song grows, the knot of guitar noise unfurls in an almost manic direction.  Syncopated percussive slaps and metallic clangs argue with the guitar squall for an industrial racket.

Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm is a lullaby for a sleepless night.  It's a sound that could just as easily comfort as it could let in the dark and leave one haunted.  That said, it's a career-defining album for Will Johnson, one that could easily weave its way into your dreams.

By the time you finish our weekly playlist, you'll have enjoyed an embarrassing wealth of new stuff from Justin Townes Earle, Lindi Ortega, Pokey LaFarge, Sam Outlaw and more.  And yes, John Moreland has released his first volley from a record that will certainly raise him to rarefied heights.  I am so embarrassed on your behalf.

- Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, "Torpedo" Way Out West  (Superlatone, 17)
- Los Straitjackets, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" What's So Funny About Peace Love & Los Straitjackets  (Yep Roc, 17)  D
- Ben Nichols, "Stormy Eyed Valentine" Love Me / Love Me Not  (Amazon, 17)
- King Wilkie, "Wrecking Ball" Low Country Suite  (Rounder, 07)
- Kasey Chambers w/Keith Urban, "If We Had a Child" Dragonfly  (Essence, 17)
^ Will Johnson, "Every Single Day of Late" Hatteras Night a Good Luck Charm  (Undertow, 17)  D
- Leif Vollebekk, "Big Sky Country" Twin Shadows (Secret City, 17)
- John Moreland, "It Don't Suit Me (Like Before)" Big Bad Luv  (4AD, 17)  D
- Ha Ha Tonka, "Everything" Heart-Shaped Mountain  (Bloodshot, 17)  D
- Whiskey & Co, "Damn I Miss You" Ripped Together Torn Apart  (No Idea, 17)  D
- Jason Eady, "Barrabas" Jason Eady  (Old Guitar, 17)
- Johnny Cash, "Johnny 99" Johnny 99  (Sony, 93)
- Pieta Brown w/Mason Jennings, "How Soon" Postcards  (Lustre, 17)
- Sam Outlaw, "Trouble" Tenderheart  (Six Shooter, 17)  D
- Andrew Combs, "Blood Hunters" Canyons of My Mind  (New West, 17)
- Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Furniture Man" What In the Natural World  (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Chatham County Line, "I Got Worry" IV  (Yep Roc, 08)
- Pokey LaFarge, "Riot In the Streets" Manic Revelations  (Rounder, 17)  D
- Big Blue, "It Ain't Easy" Gold Star  (Autumn Tone, 17)
- Old 97s, "Bad Luck Charm" Graveyard Whistling  (ATO, 17)
- Lindi Ortega, "Til the Goin' Gets Gone" Til the Goin' Gets Gone  (Shadowbox, 17)  D
- Sunny Sweeney, "I Feel Like Hank Williams" Trophy  (Aunt Daddy, 17)  D
- Town Mountain, "Southern Crescent" Southern Crescent  (Town Mt, 16)
- Justin Townes Earle, "Champagne Corolla" Kids in the Streets  (New West, 17)  D
- Angaleena Presley, "Motel Bible" Wrangled  (Mining Light, 17)  D
- Hurray For the Riff Raff, "Navigator" The Navigator  (ATO, 17)
- Caroline Spence, "Hotel Amarillo" Spades & Roses  (Spence, 17)
- Molly Burch, "Downhearted" Please Be Mine  (Burch, 17)
- Christopher Paul Stelling, "Bad Guys" Itinerant Arias  (Anti, 17)  D
- Heath Green & the Makeshifters, "Ain't Got God" Heath Green & the Makeshifters  (Alive Naturalsound, 17)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

a home for the americana diaspora
February 26, 2017
Scott  Foley, purveyor of dust

I like to know stuff about the music I play, and I like to share that info with R&B readers and listeners.  On the off chance someone has told me how much they enjoy my work, it's not unusual that they'll tell me how much they appreciate the fact that I try to include more than the basics when talking about music.  They learn something.

On the other hand, none of this would mean anything if the music I share didn't also speak to the heart.  I've known a good number of artists who are remarkable technically but whose music fails to reach me at an emotional level.  I call this music bluegrass.  JKLOL ...

Jake Xerxes Fussell takes the stage with quite a pedigree.  Somewhere in his home he has a framed degree in Southern Studies from University of Mississippi.  As a child, he would follow his folklorist father along backroads where he met real people who played real music not in hopes of procuring a record deal, but because it was simply in their blood.  One story tells how young Jake would chauffeur treasured Piedmont guitarist Precious Bryant to her shows.  During these travels, he would learn folkways and collect songs that flowed like a river through these communities.

2015 saw Jake Xerxes Fussell releasing his self titled debut collection.  Produced by fellow folk innovator William Tyler, that highly touted record introduced the guitarist's practice of fiddlin' with folk music.  While none of the songs were twisted beyond recognition, Fussell reimagined roots music from across the country and throughout the years, adding a drone here or a lyrical twist there for a rare folk record that sounded both trad and cutting edge.  He remarked during one interview, "Traditional music is not an insect in amber. If you mess around with it, I think that's OK, there's not really any laws there."

This maverick spirit is woven through Fussell's second release as well.  RIYL Phil Cook, Nathan Bowles, Daniel Bachman or Joan Shelley, What In the Natural World plays in the wide ranging meadow of folk, blues and country, messing around with it all for results that feed the soul.  Like his debut, familiar trad tunes shoulder up to lesser known entities, each piece arriving with its own story, run through with its own deep grain, greasy with the fingerprints of generations.  The most familiar of these, "Bells of Rhymney", was set to tape around 1958 by Pete Seeger.  Over the years, the song passed through the hands of the Byrds, Dylan & the Band, Cher, the Alarm, Robyn Hitchcock and more and more.  In the hands of Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Bells" is shocked to life with a largely electric arrangement, more blues than folk, more reckless and rambling than reverent:  "They have fangs they have teeth / Shout the loud bells of Neath / Even God is uneasy / Say the moist bells of Swansea."  

Fussell actually tends to grow his folk from a bed of electric guitar, creating a true chemistry here with players like Nathan Bowles, Joan Shelley, Casey Toll (Mt Moriah) and Nathan Golub (Mt Goats).  This collaboration is applied to best effect on an unfamiliar (to me) piece by Georgia farmer/electric bluesman Jimmy Lee Williams.  "Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine" trips along on some syncopated drumming and an entrancing electric guitar line, Fussell's vocals coming across loose and lazy like Paul Burch or MC Taylor.  The song epitomizes both the absurdist humor and the connections to the natural world that pervade the collection.

At their root, folk and blues are peoples' music, so there's also plenty of politics and wry social commentary to be had on pieces like 1925's  "Furniture Man".  Fussell takes a song that tends to be played as a rag or a 'grass and allows it to float casually atop a sighing cloud of pedal steel.  The narrator watches as his property is repossessed by "a devil born without horns".   "Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine", attributed to Helen Cockram in the 70s, plays closer to trad than any other piece on Natural World.   Daniel Bachman actually shed light on the original for a Spotify playlist of Virginia music he lovingly assembled in 2015.

Far less typical is "Jump for Joy", borrowed from a controversial 1941 Duke Ellington revue intended to counter popular stereotypes of black life in America.  "Don't you grieve, Little Eve / All the hounds I do believe / Have been killed."  It's a barebones gospel-tinged gem featuring little more than Fussell and his guitar but as engaging as any full band production.

The kind of intimate knowledge of folk music that Jake Xerxes Fussell wields by no means assures a satisfying musical product.  It can exist for its own sake and end up rattling around inside the brain like stale trivia.  Fortunate for us, when nurtured and "messed around with", it can also spend a lifetime seeping into the blood, pumping through the heart and running like electricity through the fingertips.  The adapted American roots music on What in the Natural World comes to us still warm, smelling of fertile soil and echoing with the voices of generations.

A brief but heartfelt bow to North Carolina's worthy Paradise of Bachelors label.  In addition to Jake Xerxes Fussell, they've brought us new stuff from Itasca and Michael Chapman over the past couple months, in addition to an essential re-issue of Terry Allen's iconic Lubbock (on everything).  See also: Nathan Bowles, Promised Land Sound, as well as early essentials by Hiss Golden Messenger and Steve Gunn.

This Episode also offers a beautiful new collaboration between Pieta Brown and Calexico, an unexpected pop gem from Samantha Crain, and a generous handful of soul.  We also poke around Kasey Chambers' Dragonfly, and we color outside the lines with some Molly Burch and something new from Leif Vollebekk.  Please get you some Spotify and indulge in this week's ROUTES-cast following the playlist.

- Sons of Bill, "Broken Bottles" One Town Away  (Gray Fox, 09)
- Jaime Wyatt, "Your Loving Saves Me" Felony Blues  (Wyatt, 17)
- Alejandro Escovedo, "Beauty of Your Smile" Burn Something Beautiful  (Concord, 16)
- Bap Kennedy, "Nothing Can Stand In the Way of Love" Reckless Heart  (Last Chance, 17)
- Low, "Holy Ghost" Invisible Way  (Sub Pop, 13)
- Molly Burch, "Wrong for You" Please Be Mine (Burch, 17)  D
- William Matheny, "Living Half to Death" Strange Constellations  (Misra, 17)
- Chuck Prophet, "Rider or the Train" Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins  (Yep Roc, 17)
- Candi Staton, "Heart on a String" I'm Just a Prisoner  (Parlophone, 69)
- Jason Isbell, "In a Razor Town" Sirens of the Ditch  (New West, 07)
- Ryan Adams, "Anything I Say To You Now" Prisoner  (PaxAm, 17)
- Leif Vollebekk, "All Night Sedans" Twin Solitude  (Secret City, 17)
- Romantica, "Lonely Star" Shadowlands  (Last Chance, 17)
- Bash + Pop, "Not This Time" Anything Can Happen  (Fat Possum, 17)
- Peter Wolf & Mary Chapin Carpenter, "Cry One More Time" Love Me / Love Me Not  (Amazon, 17)
- Kasey Chambers, "Ain't No Little Girl" Dragonfly  (Essence, 17)  D
- Black Joe Lewis & Honeybears, "Sexual Tension" Backlash  (BJL, 17)
- Charles Bradley & Menahan St Band, "Heartaches & Pain" No Time For Dreaming  (Daptone, 10)
- Scott H Biram, "Red Wine" Bad Testament  (Bloodshot, 17)
- Rev Peyton's Big Damn Band, "When My Baby Left Town" Front Porch Sessions  (Family Owned, 17)
- Tift Merritt, "Proclamation Bones" Stitch of the World  (Yep Roc, 17)
- Great American Taxi, "Home" Dr Feelgood's Traveling Medicine Show  (GAT, 17)  C
- Mavericks, "Easy As It Seems" Brand New Day  (Mono Mundo, 17)
- Perry Brown, "Pray for Me" Become My Blood  (This is American Music, 17)
- Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, "Way Out West" Way Out West  (Superlatone, 17)
- Gurf Morlix, "Right Now" Soul & the Heal  (Gurf, 17)
- Samantha Crain, "Antiseptic Greeting" You Had Me at Goodbye  (Ramseur, 17)  D-
- Caroline Spence, "Southern Accident" Spades & Roses  (Spence, 17)
- Ags Connolly, "Neon Jail" Nothin' Unexpected  (At the Helm, 17)
- Pieta Brown, "In the Light (w/Calexico)" Postcards  (Lustre, 17)
- Over the Rhine, "I Painted My Name" Patience  (IRS, 92)

Friday, February 17, 2017

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
February 11, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

My younger son engages me with a game now and then, where he'll play a snippet from a song and it's my job to Name That Tune.  Anything from the 60s thru the early aughts - hardly a problem as long as forgetfulness and wandering attention stay at bay.  A lot of stuff from the past decade, however, poses a problem for me.  I'll often recognize the song pretty quickly, but it's harder for me to retrieve the artist from my mental musical database.  Have I finally arrived at that regrettable place in my life when "You kids! All your music sounds the same!"?  As a man who identifies as an equal opportunity musical elitist, I'd like to think I can scroll through the iTunes Top Songs and find at least some artistic sanctuary.  Chainsmokers?  Alessia Cara?  Rae Sremmurd?  Have I become irrelevant?  Have I lost my beloved edge?  Or does music suck more than it used to?

Of course, I have no challenge finding New Music That Matters, even on a weekly basis.  This Episode, we embrace stuff from the admirably talented Gurf Morlix, and we even allow for some Alison Krauss (which is sorta unusual).  I spent a good amount of the week cruising around the 61 tracks that make up Amazon's new Love Me / Love Me Not playlists, including some good offerings from Amanda Shires, Blank Range, Doug Paisley, Okkervil River and more - not to mention the couple things I drop in this week's playlist.

In the video that introduces the making of Romantica's first record in nearly a decade, frontman Ben Kyle is instructing the others of a certain sound for which he's reaching.  In a warm wooden barn, Kyle asks for space, for room to let the emotions work their magic.  Indeed, there's plenty of quiet on Shadowlands, a good deal of magic too.

Turns out a couple of Shadowlands' songs were present the last time the group assembled in an effort to produce an album.  This was about 8 years ago, before Romantica was sidelined for personal and professional reasons.  Over the ensuing years, the band's lineup has evolved, families have grown, and Ben Kyle has apparently been through a personal crucible while producing a solo record and an EP with Carrie Rodriguez.  There's a palpable melancholy to many of these songs.

Originally from Ireland, Kyle is the keystone and the visionary behind Romantica.  On songs like "Harder To Hear" he is a deeply feeling artist who brings a real sense of the soul of folk often heard in the music of his homeland.  His smooth and expressive delivery can draw you nearer to the song, sometimes like John Ritter or like Rhett Miller on the more upbeat numbers.  "Harder To Hear" begins barely above a whisper, with that voice supported by nothing more than the shimmer of caressed strings.  Kyle addresses our age of noise and distraction, how we can lose track of our own voice in the clutter of culture and commentary:  "It's getting harder to hear from god these days / There's so much religion in the way."

Raising the tempo just a bit, "St. Paul City Lights" paints a loving portrait of the band's adopted hometown.  Originally recorded for that solo collection, the piece comes across as more ethereal and fleeting here.  Like the lovely "Blue Heart", it's a mature strain of as processed through a lifetime of experience.  For more upbeat appeal, "Cecil Ingram Conor" is a heartfelt reflection on the short but bright life of Gram Parsons.  "Cecil" is a standout here, driven by abandon, almost to the point of floating away on a gospel spirit with joyful barrelhouse piano and pure twang pedal steel.  "Oh lord / My lord / No angel had a voice could ring like that!"  Likewise, "Lonely Star" evokes mid-period Old 97s.  The catchy roadsong is Shadowlands' most easily caught fish.

Most promotional material from artists, labels and promoters arrives with suggested cuts for play.  I tend to ignore these and to trust my own ear.  Only after listening will I peek to see how one man's ear deviates from or buys into the party line.  My early passes through Shadowlands found me gravitating towards the more immediately accessible tracks.  Having lived with the record for a couple weeks now, the beauty and significance of the quieter, deeper songs has become more evident.  "Let the Light Go Through You" is the unlikely heart of the album, telling of Ben Kyle's disillusioning experience with a spiritual community in the Netherlands.  Strains of pedal steel flash like bright light shot through stained glass:  "Singin' hallelujah / Let the light go through you / Let the sunlight shine through the shadows in our minds / Til we're true."  Kyle calls it the space "where my spirit meets my bones."  The heart of Romantica's new collection dwells in this silence and shimmer.  The quiet.

- Split Lip Rayfield, "This World" On My Way  (Gottstine, 17)
- Bap Kennedy, "Reckless Heart" Reckless Heart  (Last Chance, 17)
- Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough, "Broken Fences" Mockingbird Soul  (BDM, 17)
- Mavericks, "Brand New Day" Brand New Day  (Mono Mundo, 17)  D
- Southeast Engine, "Cold Front Blues" Canary  (Misra, 11)
- William Matheny, "Blood Moon Singer" Strange Constellations  (Misra, 17)
- Ben Nichols, "Stormy Eyed Valentine" Love Me / Love Me Not  (Amazon, 17)  D
- Austin Lucas, "Dead Factories" Common Cold  (Magic Bullet, 08)
- Hip Hatchet, "Great Divide" Hellhound in the House  (HH, 17)
- John Craigie, "Bucket List Grandmas" No Rain No Rose  (Craigie, 17)
- Nikki Lane, "Companion" Highway Queen  (New West, 17)
- JD McPherson, "A Little Respect" Love Me / Love Me Not  (Amazon, 17)
^ Romantica, "Lonely Star" Shadowlands  (Last Chance, 17)
- Sadies, "There Are No Words" Northern Passages  (Yep Roc, 17)
- Dead Man Winter, "Destroyer" Furnace  (GNDWire, 17)
- Albert Lee, "Country in Harlem" Black Claw & Country Fever  (LINE, 91)
- Natalie Hemby, "Cairo, IL" Puxico  (GetWrucke, 17)
- Gasoline Lollipops, "Mary Rose" Resurrection  (GasPops, 17)  C
- Otis Gibbs, "Great American Roadside" Mount Renraw  (Wanamaker, 17)
- Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "I Send My Love To You" Sings Greatest Palace Music  (Drag City, 04)
- Son Volt, "Sinking Down" Notes of Blue  (Transmit Sound, 17)
- Alison Krauss, "I Never Cared For You" Windy City  (Rounder, 17)  D
- Gurf Morlix, "Love Remains Unbroken" Soul & the Heal  (Gurf, 17)  D
- Old Crow Medicine Show, "Black Eyed Quebecois" Best of OCMS  (Nettwerk, 17)
- Pieta Brown, "Street Tracker" Postcards  (Lustre, 17)
- Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Furniture Man" What in the Natural World  (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Andrew Combs, "Dirty Rain" Canyons of My Mind  (New West, 17)
- Scott H Biram, "Righteous Ways" Bad Testament  (Bloodshot, 17)
- Kieran Kane & Kevin Welch, "Till I'm Too Old To Die Young" You Can't Save Everybody  (Dead Reckoning, 04)
- Caroline Spence, "Southern Accident" Spades & Roses  (Spence, 17)  D
- Nathan Bowles, "Moonshine is the Sunshine" Whole & Cloven  (Paradise of Bachelors, 16)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

a home for the americana diaspora
February 8, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Was a time I'd say that I prefer my roots music cut with a dose of rock.  Nowadays, I seem to be correcting for that indiscretion.  In other words, I'll take a tall glass of rock with a touch of roots, please.  Thinking Centro-Matic, Roadside Graves, American Aquarium, Glossary, Southeast Engine.  William Matheny has served as a keyboard and utility guy with the latter, Southeast Engine from The Other Athens (Ohio), a band that also gave us Adam Remnant and Adam Torres. Turns out Matheny's the high card in that suit, as demonstrated on his unexpectedly full full-length, Strange Constellations.  I say unexpected, because who would imagine the keyboard guy would reveal such a wickedly evolved sense of a lyric?

Think a rootsier Craig Finn, or maybe even a Nick Lowe/Elvis Costello hybrid, with a bit of a country pedigree.  Constellations finds Matheny perched precariously on the ridge rise between youth and adulthood, taking a long look over his shoulder and speaking from a tentative maturity.  He says of the agit punk rave "29 Candles", "It took three decades to write, but it only takes three minutes to hear".  The same could be said of the record as a whole, packed with perfectly paced blasts of smart, middle-of-the-plate rock 'n roll.

Wisdom comes with age (I'm not the first to say that), and it seems that there are few really good songs focusing on what wise choices we made in our youth.  Matheny indulges in this perennial regret on songs like "Teenage Bones".  Piano pairs with chimey guitar as he sings, "I used to walk to your house in the summertime / Let the car wash spray get me wet / Leave my shoes by the door / And sit all day on your floor / And say things I'd one day regret".

Strange Constellations also acknowledges the rickety ladder of experience we cling to on our climb to adulthood.  "God's Left Hand" features some of the record's most rewarding Southern rock guitar, along with a touch of high shelf keyboarding.  Matheny recognizes the balance between focusing on the immediate work at hand while wanting to keep track of our bigger picture goals.  "This ribbon I'm threading / Is never gonna turn to gold"  he sings.  And elsewhere, "I was crawling through the seconds / While I was racing through the years".

No need to worry that the record is just another self indulgent "look how far I've come" sesssion.  Turns out William Matheny has a bit of a pedigree, hailing from a family that boasts a longtime romance with the music industry.  This is addressed on one of the tunes that shines a light on a different side of the singer, "My Grandfather Knew Stoney Cooper".  Closer to pure country than most of the alt. pieces on the record, the song paints a loving portrait of Matheny's forebear:  "He hung up his belt on the bedpost / And laid his badge down in the bottom drawer / Then his dead left hand made him break up the band / And drag his cane across the floor".  A similar deft country hand is played on songs like "Funny Papers".

The heart of Strange Constellations lies with songs like the hard hitting "Blood Moon Singer", or the masterful "Living Half to Death".  Hammered drums propel the latter tune, defined by those Craig Finn-y lyrics focusing on youthful indiscretion:  "I used to go out to parties / Stand in the kitchen and stuff / Man I could talk until the morning / But I'd never say very much / I used to rave about insight / But I should've kept it to myself / Cause I understood nothing / When I was living half to death".

Also on this Episode, we enjoy a look at the evolution of Andrew Combs.  Hip Hatchet raves against recent political developments, and Romantica returns with some words about Mr Gram Parsons.  Below the playlist, you'll want to give a spin to this week's ROUTES-cast, replete with regular interruptions and The Sounds of My Basement.  Please enjoy with your loved ones.

- Calexico w/Iron & Wine, "Prison on Route 41" He Lays in the Reins  (Overcoat, 05)
- Tift Merritt, "Eastern Light (feat. Sam Beam)" Stitch of the World  (Yep Roc, 17)
- Jason Eady, "Why I Left Atlanta" Jason Eady  (Eady, 17)
- Cory Branan, "Imogene" Adios  (Bloodshot, 17)
- Split Lip Rayfield, "Drunk and Sad" On My Way  (Gottstine, 17)
- Townes Van Zandt & Doug Sahm, "Two Girls" Texas Rain  (TVZ, 01)
- Andrew Combs, "Dirty Rain" Canyons of My Mind  (New West, 17)  D
- Ags Connolly, "Haunts Like This" Nothin' Unexpected  (At the Helm, 17)
- James Hand, "In the Corner, At the Table, By the Jukebox" Truth Will Set You Free  (Rounder, 06)
- Shinyribs, "Ambulance" I Got Your Medicine  (Mustard Lid, 17)
- Alabama Shakes, "Be Mine" Boys & Girls  (ATO, 12)
- Hip Hatchet, "Hellhound in the House" Hellhound in the House  (HH, 17)  D
^ William Matheny, "(I Pray) You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone" Strange Constellations  (Misra, 17)  D
- Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, "Bitter and Low (w/Fantastic Negrito)" Kings & Kings  (File Under: Music, 17)
- Old 97s, "All Who Wander" Graveyard Whistling  (ATO, 17)
- JP Harris & Kelsey Waldon, "If I Were a Carpenter" Why Don't We Duet In the Road  (Demolition & Removal, 17)
- Rev Peyton's Big Damn Band, "We Deserve a Happy Ending" Front Porch Sessions  (Family Owned, 17)  D
- Perry Brown, "Patchwork" Become My Blood  (This is American Music, 17)
- Valerie June, "Two Hearts" Order of Time  (Concord, 17)
- Cowboy Junkies, "Horse in the Country" Black Eyed Man  (BMG, 92)
- John Craigie, "Broken" No Rain No Rose  (Craigie, 17)
- Band of Heathens, "Road Dust Wheels" Duende  (BoH, 17)
- Casey James Prestwood, "Beer Tear Saturday Night" Born Too Soon  (CJP, 17)  C
- Romantica, "Cecil Ingram Conor" Shadowlands  (Last Chance, 17)  D
- Joe Purdy, "Maybe We'll All Get Along Someday" Who Will Be Next  (Mudtown Crier, 16)
- Lucinda Williams, "Sharp Cutting Wings" Happy Woman Blues  (Smithsonian, 80)
- Michael Chapman, "A Spanish Incident (Ramon &  Durango)" 50  (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Bash + Pop, "Anything Could Happen" Anything Could Happen  (Fat Possum, 17)
- Angelica Garcia, "Orange Flower" Medicine for Birds  (Warner, 16)

Friday, February 03, 2017

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

What a rush and a gut kick to have a new record from this Kansas trio, their first in about 8 years, and only their second without founding force Kirk Rundstrom.  I tripped across Split Lip Rayfield's lime green beauty unexpectedly whilst traipsing thru Bandcamp.  While I've been a fan of SLR since way back, let's admit that it's been awhile.  As founding fathers of the roots punk thing, who could blame them for losing a step to age?

Well, good news:  Not only have Wayne Gottstine, Jeff Eaton and Eric Mardis kept their edge honed, they've even seen fit to push out in some new musical directions for On My Way.  Sure, you've still got the firey fingers banjo and the legendary gas tank one string bass upon which the group built their reputation (see "All Alone" or "Used To Know Your Wife" for this fix).  But listen to the sinister minor key haunt of "Start the Fire", where a near-metal vocal almost makes you forget that all the noise is being generated by three guys with acoustic instruments.  And you'd be forgiven for expecting another raver from "All Fucked Up", which turns out to be a downcast, tuneful moment of introspection and self-doubt:  I'll just lay down right here in the yard / Like an old piece of trash, it's time to mow the grass / The wind makes me cold. / Would you help a broken fool who's lost in the rain.  And like most of the collection, the song is instrumentally remarkable.

Another sweet moment comes from "This World", riding a rubberband riff from that unexpectedly expressive bass.  This world ain't nothin' but a place for you and me to laugh and sing.  Even more soulful is "Drunk and Sad", which features the trio's deceptively tight harmonies on a heartfelt plea for moderation.

Of course, longtime listeners will cherish SLR's more freewheeling moments like "That's My Girl".  A loose and loping romp with a bluegrass bite and your fair share of banjo.  If bass is more your thing, dip into "I Don't Need a Gun", another acoustic metal go-for-broke moment.  With some of the record's most rewarding instrumental work, the song reminds us that Gottstine, Eaton and Mardis aren't simply on a state fair victory lap.  We're dealing with deserving trailblazers.