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Friday, January 30, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
Scott Foley


I think I've attempted this before, in the pages and pages which make up the R&B blog.  It's my sense that providing a month-end wrap-up will accomplish a couple things:  1) It will allow me to add another list to my repertoire, and 2) It may make it easier to pull together my year-end favorites list eleven months from now.  The idea is simply to select the five albums that landed on my radio radar over the past couple weeks that made the best impression on me.  As I'm able, I'll also tag a Colorado release for the month.

As always, January started with a bit of a whimper, as labels and artists and promoters shuttered their respective operations for the holidays, releasing only dust and tumbleweeds.  I tend to spend that time either catching up on stuff that fell by the wayside or perusing favorites lists from other bloggers and programmers.  Fortunately, the musical floodgates tend to open the second or third week of the new year, allowing us a glimpse into the months to come.

The first Big One to drop was Ryan Bingham's Fear and Saturday Night, marking a return to form for one of the stronger writers on the americana stage.  While I prefer tender Bingham over angry Bingham, both are present in fair measure on his new work.  There are few more worthwhile singers in the genre, and even fewer at his level who are still reaching. 

Gretchen Peters' "Independence Day" is arguably one of the best and most misunderstood contemporary country songs of the past 25 years.  She gave that one to Martina McBride, and has also provided tunes for similar mainstream country mainstays of the time like Patty Loveless and Trisha Yearwood.  Blackbirds proves that she doesn't always throw her best ones to the sharks.  Most notably, Peters' vocals are frequently revelatory, "like a Kate Bush for the roots crowd" (quoting Scott Foley here, from his stellar Routes & Branches blog).

There is a strain of heavily bearded, hard country to which I'm increasingly drawn.  Kentucky's Fifth On the Floor epitomizes the sound in their dark but thoughtful, gritty but tuneful work, culminating in their swan song EP, & After.  True, there are just four songs, at least one of which was previously recorded (plus, it's sorta a holiday jam), but when the songs are so good perhaps you only need four of them ... Looks like frontguy Justin Wells will continue on his own, though the band is presently touring with Matt Woods into February. 

I'm still the wake of my initial trips through American Aquarium's Wolves record.  I admit that I'm late to the table here, having discovered BJ Barham's music backwards from 2010's Small Town Hymns.  '12's Burn Flicker Die caught me completely, prompting me to dig back through the band's earlier work.  Wolves brings the entire procession into focus, a body of work that shows such a steady procession towards the new album's confessional masterpieces.  While the band has been more consistent of late than during any other iteration, Barham has never released a more personal statement.

I tripped across January's revelation on some music blog or other.  Sent the files by a promoter, I instantly fell for Ryan Culwell's Flatlands.  Many smart songwriters claim literary influences, but few follow through so faithfully.  Culwell's songs are so rooted in the ghosts of the Texas panhandle area that they come across like the flatlands equivalent of the voices of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.  I haven't gone back to catch up on Culwell's debut of nearly a decade ago, though my sense is that Flatlands might not have been possible without what's transpired since that early effort.  Throw out the comparisons, the Isbells, the Cleaves, the LaFaves or what have you.  Culwell is a rare original.

For my January Colorado choice, I might highlight one single song released via Bandcamp by 4H Royalty, "She Only Karaokes to the Dan".  Such a clever track by Zach Boddicker, I'd say it sounds like nothing else except that's not the case.  Matter of fact, it sounds like the great lost Steely Dan cut.  Album-wise, I'd have to give my January nod to Todd Adelman's long-in-the-works Highways & Lowways.  There are few square state americana artists with such a clear and complete musical vision. 

January's Shining Beacons:

Ryan Bingham, Fear and Saturday Night  
Gretchen Peters, Blackbirds  
Fifth On the Floor, & After  
American Aquarium, Wolves
Ryan Culwell, Flatlands

Todd Adelman, Highways & Lowways
4H Royalty, "She Only Karaokes To the Dan"

Tune into Routes & Branches tomorrow (88.9fm if yer a neighbor, or streaming sheepishly online at for new stuff to begin February's quest for quality.  I'll be debuting pieces by Two Cow Garage, Mavericks, Pokey LaFarge, Calexico y mucho mas.  Like nothin' else on your radio dial.

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