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Thursday, February 04, 2016

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
January 30, 2016
Scott Foley


January has proven an unusually generous month with regards to glimpses into forthcoming records.  Lots of stuff to look forward to.  As I look back, however, I haven't had the opportunity to listen from front to back to too many records yet. While I have my hunches, the final verdict on February albums by Caleb Caudle, Mount Moriah and March's Margo Price will have to wait a couple weeks.  Following are my five favorite records for the last couple weeks. 

Always game for a strong new artist, January brought its fair share, beginning with our intro to Chapel Hill's Sarah Shook & the Disarmers.  With vets Eric Peterson and John Howie Jr alongside, Sidelong features moments of amateurish daring as well as a refreshingly cocky confidence.  Americana is a pretty safe musical vehicle frequently in need of some rough edges, which Shook provides in spades.  Best of all, when she discovered my vocation she wrote, "I have a shit ton of respect for librarians"  -  quite possibly the first time it's been expressed in such a cool fashion.  Feeling's mutual.

While the sound of Austin's Harvest Thieves bears a definite polish and professionalism, their debut Rival also boasts that edge.   Harvest Thieves are that smart guy at the bar; you wonder why he's there at the same time you're glad that he classes up the joint just enough.  Guitars are played hard and sharp while the unexpectedly close vocal harmonies lend it all an immediately appealing melodicism.  Harvest Thieves are one of those rare bands that seem to arrive on the scene almost completely formed, awaiting only that perfect wave to lift them to national prominence.

Aubrie Sellers provides January's cool dip in the troubling waters of mainstream country. New City Blues is proving quite the deep record, especially for a debut.  What at first sounds like a quality contemporary country collection with further listens reveals its deeper vision.  New City can be a dark place, dealing in noir not unlike Lera Lynn, with lovely, trashy guitars that mess everything up just perfectly.  File this one along with Margo Price's forthcoming CD as 2016's Brandy Clark / Ashley Monroe / Kasey Musgraves ...

Freakwater won't impress your country loving friends.  They might complain that Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin can't sing, and that the songs are depressing (plus, sometimes they don't even rhyme).  Your indie hipster friends might ask why you're listening to Hee Haw.  Fact is, I won't recommend their long awaited new Scheherazade album to anyone I don't think will get it.  To those of us who have followed the ensemble since their early 90s inception, their new songs are objects of rough hewn beauty.  For the fiercest goosebumps, try some of the quieter cuts, where Irwin and Bean harmonize unlike any other two voices on record. 

Poet Miller Williams, Lucinda Williams' father, passed away the first day of 2015.  While she works in a somewhat different medium, the daughter has definitely inherited many of the tricks of her father's trade.  The nine-plus minute "Louisiana Story" that ends disc 1 of her new Ghosts Of Highway 20 is nothing less than a biographical poem set to the elegiac guitar duo of Greg Leisz and Bill Frisell:   God knows it rains / In Louisiana / But not enough to wash away / Sins of the father.  The reverie carries onto the first track of disc 2, the title cut:   Every question, every breath / Every exit leaves a little death / In its wake and a memory / That will wander with the ghosts of highway 20.  The two pieces brilliantly dovetail, meeting where the mythological shadows the personal.  A loose and bluesy "Bitter Memory" compliments the sweeter waltz rhythms of "Place In My Heart".  Ghosts features some painfully sweet moments ("Can't Close the Door On Love"), but never more than a song away from darker, troubling moments ("Death Came", f'rinstance).  The spirit generated by Frisell and Leisz shouldn't be understated, building such a pervasive mood for Williams' meditations.  I've opined previously that there is value in any genuine musical emotion, joyful or mournful.  Williams' second double-CD collection in 2 years has some gorgeous moments on both of these fronts.  Because there's such an emotional weight to so many of the cuts, it's easy to overlook the simpler, more direct songs such as the hymnlike "If There's a Heaven" (written in memory of her father):  I've seen the face of hell / I know that place pretty damn well / But when you go, you'll let me know / If there's a heaven out there.

* Cactus Blossoms, "Mississippi"  You're Dreaming  (Red House, 16)
* Paul Burch, "Fast Fuse Blues" Meridian Rising  (Plowboy, 16)
* Jayhawks, "High Water Blues" Mockingbird Time  (Rounder, 11)
* Mount Moriah, "Baby Blue" How To Dance  (Merge, 16)
* Blitzen Trapper, "Mystery and Wonder" Mystery and Wonder  (Vagrant, 16)
* Richmond Fontaine, "Don't Skip Out On Me" You Can't Go Back If There's Nothing To Go Back To  (Decor, 16)
* Harvest Thieves, "Upstage On the Front Page" Rival  (Holy Mt Sounds, 16)
* Waco Brothers, "Receiver" Going Down In History  (Bloodshot, 16)
* Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, "Keep the Home Fires Burnin'" Sidelong  (Disarmers, 15)
* Devil Makes Three, "Hand Back Down" I'm a Stranger Here  (New West, 13)
* Javier Escovedo, "Beaujolais" Kicked Out Of Eden  (Saustex, 16)
* Jon Dee Graham, "Big Sweet Life" Summerland  (New West, 99)
^ Lucinda Williams, "Bitter Memory" Ghosts Of Highway 20  (Hwy 20, 16)
* Anderson East, "Learning" Southern Family  (Elektra, 16)
* Lake Street Dive, "I Don't Care About You" Side Pony  (Nonesuch, 16)
* Malcolm Holcombe, "Papermill Man" Another Black Hole  (Gypsy Eyes, 16)
* Buddy Miller w/Jill Andrews, "Come Early Morning" Cayamo Sessions At Sea  (New West, 16)
* Rachel Brooke, "Delilah" World's Greatest Anchor  (Brooks Robbins, 16)
* Chuck Ragan, "Gathering Wood" Flame In the Flood  (Ten Four, 16)  D
* John Moreland, "You Don't Care For Me Enough To Cry" High On Tulsa Heat  (Old Omens, 15)
* Freakwater, "Number One With a Bullet" Scheherazade  (Bloodshot, 16)
* Hackensaw Boys, "Content Not Seeking Thrills (Ain't You)" Charismo  (Free Dirt, 16)  D
* Brothers Comatose, "City Painted Gold" City Painted Gold  (Swamp Jam, 16)  D
* Caleb Caudle, "Broken Hallelujah" Carolina Ghost  (This Is American Music, 16)
* Carrie Rodriguez, "Z" Lola  (Thirty Tigers, 16)  D
* Hayes Carll, "Love That We Need" Lovers & Leavers  (Thirty Tigers, 16)
* Gram Parsons, "Sleepless Nights" Sleepless Nights  (Warner, 76)
* Parker Millsap, "Tribulation Hymn" The Very Last Day  (Thirty Tigers, 16)  D

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