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Thursday, March 03, 2016

ROUTES & BRANCHES  
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
February 27, 2016
Scott Foley


"For every mile of road / They gotta make two miles of ditch" 

Been some time since I've oriented my attention to the north and written something about a Canadian artist.  Doing some research on Toronto resident Donovan Woods, I visited quite a few websites with ".ca" addresses.  Canadian sites are pouring praise over Woods' 4th release Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled, though I've come across only a single prominent US site paying enthusiastic attention (see my link to songsfortheday on the right margin - always a tasteful listen, thank you).  To the north, Woods' previous CD earned a JUNO nomination, losing out to Justin Rutledge.  Here, he has landed a couple of these new songs with mainstream country sorts like Tim McGraw and Charles Kelley (of Lady Antebellum).  It's this experience laboring in the music sweat shops of Nashville that inspires "Leaving Nashville":  "One day you're the king the next you're not / It's handshakes and whiskey shots / Throwing up in parking lots all by yourself".  While reaching for the glamorous golden rung in Music City, Woods was driven by his conviction that "good songs win".  If that's so, we'll soon be hearing pieces like "They Don't Make Anything In That Town" and "What Kind of Love Is That" on stations other than my own.  Rather than bellowing his good songs from the hills, he sings in a hushed whisper akin to Damien Rice or Noah Gundersen, an approach that demands a listener's close attention.  And while the songs of Donovan Woods could find equal footing in country honky tonks and folky coffee houses alike, there's also a clean thread of acoustic pop sensibility throughout.  Hard Settle opens with "What Kind of Love Is That", built on a repeated acoustic fingerpicking, but rising to an intense climax buoyed by lush strings:  "What kind of love is stronger in the broken places / Fills up the lonely spaces".  On tunes like "On the Nights You Stay Home", instrumentation can initially come across as sparse, though there are many pieces and they are perfectly balanced into a steady groove. The record's showpiece, "They Don't Make Anything In That Town", could be repurposed as a midtempo heartland anthem.  Donovan Woods chooses to pull it back to little more than piano, mournful fiddle and the ghosts of stories blowing down the empty streets.  All them chained up doors / Windows made of wood / Bad as it is now / It was never that good ... 

Now to the best things I've heard during the generous month of February.  I call it What's So Great About February?!!:

I admit I was fully prepared to dismiss Grant-Lee Phillips' first album in four years, The Narrows as no longer relevant.  Having cut his musical teeth in the 90s roots pop outfit Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips has made some very good heartland rock over the years.  Turns out Narrows carves a wide swath through the roots genre, from sparse folk to Springsteen-ish anthems.

Parker Millsap isn't the proselytizing sort of religious figure, though the language and mythology of the Christian church haunt the stories of The Very Last Day.  There's the insistent fire-and-brimstone of the opener, "Hades Pleads", balanced by the heart rending story of the young man in "Heaven Sent".  Millsap can approach the fury of punk on the violent "Hands Up", or add his own "Tribulation Hymn" to the hymnal.

Richmond Fontaine couldn't have called it quits on a higher musical note.  Appropriately called You Can't Go Back If there's Nothing To Go Back To, the new collection perfectly encapsulates their journey from a fiery alt.country outfit to a vehicle for the writerly visions of Willy Vlautin.  While the outfit's past couple albums have explored new sounds and unique approaches to storytelling, You Can't Go Back does in fact go back a bit, or at least it achieves a very satisfying middle ground.  RF will be missed, but it could be argued that after more than fifteen years they've been able to tell their story to the fullest.  For my part, I'll eagerly follow Vlautin's new Delines project for a bit. 

I think it was Pitchfork that observed that North Carolina's Mount Moriah has evolved from sounding like an indie band trying to play americana to an out-and-out americana trio.  I see it more as an instance of a band finding its sound and a songwriter honing her skills, sharpening her vision.  Heather McEntire's vocals encompass both sides of the musical story, while her cryptic and nature-based lyrics are like nothing else in the americana genre.  How To Dance boasts brighter colors and more open sounds than Mount Moriah's first two releases, but captivates just as fully. 

Where other great albums by Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson came at their reinterpretation of country music from an "outlaw" path, Jason Isbell and John Moreland owe more to the singer-songwriter tradition.  On his satisfying new Carolina Ghost, Caleb Caudle joins that quartet of excellence, but brings a new sensibility to play.  There is an immediately appealing looseness to these arrangements, an easy spirit that avoids the dark self-consciousness of the singer-songwriters as well as the outlaws' need to both buck and embrace tradition.  Caudle is becoming an impressive lyricist, a genuine Southern laureate who has begun carving his own path. 

-  Neko Case, "Danny's Song" Vinyl Vol. 1.3  (Atlantic, 16)
- Sturgill Simpson, "Sugar Daddy" Vinyl  (Atlantic, 16)
- Tom Waits, "Soul of a Man" God Don't Never Change: Songs of Blind Willie Johnson  (Alligator, 16)
- Justin Townes Earle, "Far Away In Another Town" Good Life  (Bloodshot, 08)
- Grant-Lee Phillips, "Holy Irons" The Narrows  (Yep Roc, 16)  D
- Caleb Caudle, "Gotta Be" Carolina Ghost  (This Is American Music, 16)
- Mary Chapin Carpenter, "Map of My Heart" Things That We Are Made Of  (Thirty Tigers, 16)
- Mount Moriah, "Higher Mind" How to Dance  (Merge, 16)
- Slaid Cleaves, "This Morning I Am Born Again" Broke Down  (Rounder, 00)
- Parker Millsap, "Morning Blues" The Very Last Day  (Thirty Tigers, 16)
- Richmond Fontaine, "Wake Up Ray" You Can't Go Home ...  (Fluff & Gravy, 16)
- Merle Haggard, "Going Where the Lonely Go" Going Where the Lonely Go  (Sony, 82)
- Hayes Carll, "Sake of the Song" Lovers and Leavers  (Thirty Tigers, 16)
- Northcote, "Leaving Wyoming" Hope Is Made of Steel  (Black Box, 15)  D
^ Donovan Woods, "Leaving Nashville" Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled  (Meant Well, 16)  D
- John Prine, "Be My Friend Tonight" Aimless Love  (Oh Boy, 84)
- Blitzen Trapper, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" Mystery and Wonder EP  (Vagrant, 16)
- Jayhawks, "Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces" Paging Mr. Proust  (Thirty Tigers, 16)  D
- White Denim, "Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)" Stiff  (Downtown, 16)
- Mavis Staples, "Take Us Back" Livin' On a High Note  (Anti, 16)
- Lake Street Dive, "Hell Yeah" Side Pony  (Nonesuch, 16)
- Left Arm Tan, "Gonna Find Me a Rock" Lorene  (LAT, 16)
- Sarah Borges, "Purple GTO" Good and Dirty  (Dry Lightning, 16)  D
- Trevor Sensor, "Texas Girls and Jesus Christ" Texas Girls and Jesus Christ  (Jagjaguwar, 16)
- John Doe, "Get On Board" The Westerner  (Cool Rock, 16)  D
- X, "Watch the Sun Go Down" Ain't Love Grand  (Elektra, 85)
- Robbie Fulks, "Alabama At Night" Upland Stories  (Bloodshot, 16)
- Marlon Williams, "After All" Marlon Williams  (Dead Oceans, 16)
- Malcolm Holcombe, "Papermill Man" Another Black Hole  (Gypsy Eyes, 16)

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