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Saturday, February 28, 2015

ROUTES & BRANCHES  
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
February 28, 2015
Scott Foley

WHAT's SO GREAT ABOUT FEBRUARY?!!

I debuted the first single from James McMurtry's Complicated Game way back in November, pondering whether the cut's processed beatz and newfound slickness might mark a new and refreshing chapter for a writer who might be due for a bit of an overhaul.  Alas, in meeting the new McMurtry we realize that he's somewhat like the old McMurtry.  Still, I appreciate the writer's decision to take a holiday from political rants in order to refocus on the everyday (fun fact: I'm not especially fond of politically oriented songs).  McMurtry is an almost peerless lyricist, though he's a limited vocalist, and his arrangements lack diversity.  Nevertheless, my jury is still open regarding Complicated Game.  "Copper Canteen",  "Ain't Got No Place" and "These Things I've Come To Know" are classic McMurtry, in all the best ways.

While we've only been treated to one track from Charlie Parr's Red House debut, "Over the Red Cedar" is a promising glimpse of the April release.  And who's in the mood for an extended acoustic instrumental indulgence?!!  On Seasonal Hire, the eclectic Steve Gunn capably pairs with the Black Twig Pickers for an entrancing dip into Appalachian folk sounds, as paired with exotic modalities and drones.  Who says americana has to always sound like Steve Earle?  I'll be spinning the second cut from Dwight Yoakam's Second Hand Heart this week, and I'm eager to access the complete second LP from Spirit Family Reunion, too.  Incidentally, this Saturday we'll also try to shoehorn in debuts from Tallest Man On Earth, William Elliott Whitmore, Hip Hatchet and more and more and more.

February brought us something new and different from Nashville artist Natalie Prass.  The past week or so saw Ryan Adams endorsing Prass by covering her music and inviting her onstage in England.  Prass and producer Matthew E. White inject such heartbreak in songs like "My Baby Don't Understand Me" and "Your Fool", a pitch perfect return to the country-soul of Dusty Springfield or Shelby Lynne (channeling Dusty).  While it's evident that Natalie Prass certainly bears the stamp of White's Spacebomb production, the lush strings aren't enough to hide her songwriterly skills.

Like McMurtry, Raul Malo and the Mavericks certainly know their pocket, and they stick to it like glue on their first album in a couple years, Mono.  But let's face it, there are few more engaging vocalists than Malo, and there's hardly a more consistently fun band on record.  Absolutely nothing new to see here, but that works just fine on tunes like the automatic classic "All Night Long" or "What Am I Supposed To Do".

Cosmetics, Diamond Rugs' second record, comes across as tighter and more complete than their 2012 debut.  Problem is, I loved that album's loose chaos.  Fortunately, resulting songs like "Couldn't Help It" and "Killin' Time" retain much of the supergroup's original charm.  Boasting members from Deer Tick, Los Lobos, Black Lips and more, the sum here is just about what you'd hope for. 

Wrinkle Neck Mules have made 7 albums in their 15 years, culminating in the appropriately titled I Never Thought It Would Go This Far.  Recorded live to tape, the quintet's songs are reckless but smart.  The 'Mules make the sort of lyrically driven alt.country that's rare these days, when most artists err either on the side of folkin' it up or dumbing it down with gratuitous references to weed, women and whiskey.

February also brought Kill County's Broken Glass In the Sun in all its full splendor.  The Nebraska band has taken risks on their new material, cleaning up the production for a fuller, more calculated impression.  A glance at the lyrics will reveal that Kill County have spent some extra time on that side of the equation as well.  The results are no less melancholy, no less genuine than their earlier efforts, a gritty document of working class life that never takes the easy way out.  

February's Reasons to Live

Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass
Mavericks, Mono
Wrinkle Neck Mules, I Never Thought It Would Go This Far
Diamond Rugs, Cosmetics
Kill County, Broken Glass In the Sun

As far as Square State material, there was nothing better this month than John Statz's eloquent Tulsa.  A big step forward from his worthy 2012 release, Old Old Fashioned, Statz's new material brings to mind a singer-songwriter like Jeffrey Foucault, which is more than a coincidence in light of the fact that Foucault himself produced the sessions.  With its perfectly positioned pedal steel and backing vocals from Caitlin Canty, "Home At Last" is a certain candidate for my end of year favorite songs list. 

If weather cooperates, we should have an instudio visit from Pieta Brown on the next Episode of Routes & Branches (2/28).  If nothing else, your week will be made much richer with two hours of good music.  Onward towards March!

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