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Tuesday, August 04, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
August 1, 2015
Scott Foley


Here's where we explore the strongest releases for the last couple weeks.  Fact is, it's been two months since my last WHAT's SO GREAT - you might recall that last month I cast my lot for the best of the first half of 2015.  It's been a busy early summer, welcoming an unexpectedly sturdy collaboration between Warren Haynes and Railroad Earth, as well as T Hardy Morris' second release outside of Dead Confederate or Diamond Rugs.  Amanda Anne Platt and her Honeycutters helped make the world safe for country music once again, while the Revivalists bravely braved the uncharted waters at the confluence of rock, soul and roots music.  Danny & the Champions of the World continued to not release their superbly executed strain of roots 'n soul here in the U.S.,  while Leon Bridges' debut has proven inescapable.  And who expected a humble lil' split EP shared between Chuck Ragan and Rocky Votolato to earn such valuable R&B airspace?  

Has it really been three years since Denton, TX's Musical Ambassador Brent Best conducted a crowdfunded campaign for his first solo album?  No.  Matter of fact it's been five years.  Nevertheless, after setbacks, procrastination and expectations that ranged from sky high to not at all, the voice behind Slobberbone and the Drams is releasing Your Dog, ChampIn the wake of such a build up, it's simply a victory to let the thing loose, warts and all.  Champ is a patchwork quilt of a thing, threads running from song to song and arrangements that run from lo-fi solo acoustic stuff to full band rockers.  At his best, Best can match Patterson Hood or Michael Dean Damron blow for blow as a poet of the down and out.  There are cats in a bag and an aunt who's not sleeping (she's dead).  I suppose it's a lesson to those who wish to lift songwriters onto the pedestals reserved for book writers, and to those music types who want nothing more than to fulfill those expectations.  Champ is an album that's definitely growing on me, one that I'll turn to next time I'm in need of a quick shot of gritty realism, with a chaser of bleakness and depression.  Reminder: The only depressing music is the poorly made stuff. 
It was just last week that I was heaping praise upon Rod Picott's newly gruff approach to his craft.  Fortune qualifies as one of those rare records that blows my expectations out of the water.  Lyrically, there are more quotable lines per track here than on nearly any other collection I've enjoyed this year.  Always a seeming perfectionist with his sound and his arrangements, Picott lets the dust and dirt build up in the grooves, his voice wheezing and growling until he sounds reborn. 
It's my advice to The Deslondes' Sam Doores and company that they start making room on their proverbial mantels for the Americana Music Awards that they'll be collecting next year.  If nothing else, their solo release should earn recognition as the Breakthrough Artist of the year, demonstrating a breadth of sound uncommon since Band of Heathens banded forcesI suppose I'd liken it somewhat to Spirit Family Reunion's excellent CD from early 2015, such a loose and soulful celebration of roots music of all stripes. 

I have to admit that I appreciated the two albums Kasey Chambers issued with her former husband, Shane Nicholson, more than much of the Australian songwriter's solo stuff.  Even hearing her exquisite duet with Bernard Fanning on the title track of Bittersweet makes me want to hear the weeper tackled by Kasey and Shane.  Moving on, however, her first solo original collection since 2011's Little Bird is a strong and satisfying batch.  "Wheelbarrow" rocks harder than anything Chambers has done, while "Is God Real" sets a new watermark for laying her emotions bare.  Vocally, she's simply among the most appealing our kind of music has to offer. 

And what else can I say about Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free that hasn't already been said in the countless reviews that have lifted the record atop chart after chart and to the ears of an entire population of folks who have heard nothing like it.  If I had boundless time (I don't), I could publish an extended reflection on every track of Isbell's gem.  Except maybe "Flagship", but even that one has its merits.  Free demonstrates that even a sober and happily wed Isbell is capable of great things.  I simply can't/won't shake songs like "To a Band That I Loved" or "Children Of Children", and I'm regularly haunted in the wake of "The Life You Chose".  What will ultimately dethrone Isbell from the heights of the americana radio charts (and when)? 

 ... which leaves us to ponder the wonder that is the new concept album from Have Gun Will Travel.  I usually think of as a warm weather genre, especially when performed by a band from the Tampa area.  On Science From An Easy Chair, however, the quartet ambitiously tackle the story of Ernest Shackleton's ill fated Antarctic expedition.  Need I comment that this is hardly fodder for your average roots act?  It's an audacious move that brings to mind more theatrically oriented bands like Okkervil River, Frontier Ruckus or the DecemberistsCome to think of it, the voice of frontman Matt Burke isn't entirely unlike that of the men who lead those outfits.  "Spirit Of Discovery" is a gung ho declaration of mission that sets the tone for the album:  "The spirit of discovery is alive and well today / Burning in our hearts like roman candles".  It's an infectious, inspiring track, driven by galloping drums and sweeping pedal steel.  "True Believers" sets sail like Old 97s on board the Endurance, electric guitars blazing more akin to a wild west showdown than a trans-Arctic expedition:  "It's us against the world / We are the only true believers that we have".  As with Shackleton's ambitious voyage, things go wrong early on, as indicated by the ghostly banjo and accordion instrumental that accompanies the ambient sounds of the ice halting the party's progress.  These sound effects continue throughout Science From An Easy Chair, lending the collection the air of a theatrical stage production.  

I'll pause here to note that the worth in Have Gun's new release lies beyond the ambitious scope of pulling together songs beneath a theme.  A great story (and Shackleton's is the stuff of legend) doesn't automatically lead to a listenable record.  I spent much of my childhood under the spell of concept albums like Rush's 2112 and Pink Floyd's The Wall.  I could easily name two dozen lesser LPs (several of them involving the work of Roger Waters), but the success of Science is achieved because of the music behind the story.   

Onward!  One thing a concept album does do is to challenge an artist to expand their musical comfort zone.  The sound of Have Gun has been evolving in this general direction over the space of four albums, with the band establishing their reputation as storytellers since their 2008 debut.  Despite the occasional instrumentals and the pieces designed to usher the story forward, there are several songs on Science that are just plain good songs.  Besides the couple already mentioned, "Madhouse Promenade" trips along on a mix of electric and acoustic guitar and some typically inventive drumming.  "Good Old Shakespeare" slows the pace with a bluesy bar band shuffle - it's only after a couple listens that I realized the tune is about bidding adieu to the crew's beloved pooch.  The first 3 minutes of "Despair and Redemption On Elephant Island"  (read the book) are like Have Gun's Temple of Syrinx moment, before "Bottom Of the World" puts an acoustic bow on the story.  Strummed acoustics and sweet pedal steel lay the good ship to rest on a bed of stomping percussion.  

Sure it's a history lesson set to alternative country, like a Deep South episode of Schoolhouse Rock.  To paraphrase the worldly philosophy of Fat Albert,  enjoy Science From An Easy Chair; if you're not careful you might just learn something before it's done ...

* Charlie Parr, "To a Scrapyard Bus Stop"  1922  (Charlie Parr, 03)
* Phil Cook, "1922"  Southland Mission  (Thirty Tigers, 15)
* T Hardy Morris, "Littleworth"  Drownin' On a Mountain Top  (Dangerbird, 15)
* Lindi Ortega, "Ashes"  Faded Gloryville  (Last Gang, 15)
* Rod Picott, "Elbow Grease"  Fortune  (Welding Rod, 15)
* Patty Griffin, "There Isn't One Way"  Servant Of Love  (Thirty  Tigers, 15)  D
* Brent Best, "Tangled"  Your Dog Champ  (Last Chance, 15)
* John Fullbright, "Gawd Above"  From the Ground Up  (Blue Dirt, 12)
* Kevin Gordon, "Church On Time"  Long Gone Time  (Kevin Gordon, 15)  D
* Corb Lund, "Apocalyptic Modified Blues"  Five Dollar Bill  (Stony Plain, 02)
* Jamie Lin Wilson, "Nighttime Blues"  Holidays & Wedding Rings  (JLW, 15)
^ Have Gun Will Travel, "Madhouse Promenade"  Science From An Easy Chair  (This Is Amer Music, 15)
* Langhorne Slim & the Law, "Southern Bells"  Spirit Moves  (Dualtone, 15)
* Jason Isbell, "Speed Trap Town"  Something More Than Free  (Southeastern, 15)
* Sons of Bill, "Santa Ana Winds"  Sirens  (Thirty Tigers, 12)
* Black Lillies, "Hard To Please"  Hard To Please  (Thirty Tigers, 15)  D
* Martha Scanlan, "Taken Or Given"  Shape Of Things Gone Missing Shape Of Things To Come  (Up On the Divide, 15)
* Cox Family, "Good Imitation Of the Blues"  Gone Like the Cotton  (Rounder, 15)  D
* James Leg, "Drink It Away"  Below the Belt  (Alive Naturalsound, 15)
* Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, "I'm a Full Grown Man"  Under the Savage Sky  (Bloodshot, 15)
* White Buffalo, "Modern Times"  Love and Death of Damnation  (White Buffalo, 15)  D
* Turnpike Troubadours, "Down Here"  Turnpike Troubadours  (Bossier City, 15)
* Lincoln Durham, "Clementine"  Shovel vs the Howling Bones  (Rayburn, 12)
* Drive-by Truckers, "Birthday Boy (live)"  It's Great To Be Alive!  (ATO, 15)  D
* Bobby Bare Jr, "Sad Smile (live)" Don't Follow Me (I'm Lost)  (Bloodshot, 15)  D
* GospelbeacH, "Sunshine Skyway"  Pacific Surf Line  (Alive Naturalsound, 15)
* Gretchen Peters, "Sunday Morning (Up and Down My Street)"  Circus Girl  (Scarlet Letter, 09)
* Kasey Chambers, "Wheelbarrow"  Bittersweet  (Sugar Hill, 15)

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