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Friday, July 15, 2016

ROUTES & BRANCHES  
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
July 9, 2016
Scott Foley

The appeal of music happens deep deep down below charts, social media or fashion.  How else can we explain the impact of just a couple lines of evocative lyric:  It's alright to feel okay (Mando Saenz);  Eight years old, running with a dime in my hand  (Springsteen).  There's no easy formula to the music that reaches us.  This is where we get the idea of "guilty pleasure" - I really shouldn't like this Hanson song ("Mmm Bop"), but god help me I do!  I head into every week hoping against hope that I'll trip across an artist, an album, a song that will make that rare trip on the expressway to my heart.  I page through countless widecast emails from promoters asking me to "push" or "give some love" to their very average projects (and each wants me to know what they've done with their weekend).  I make regular visits to blogs that hemorrhage superlatives in praise of a different record everyday.  And then it accidentally happens, and I decide that maybe it's not a waste of my time after all.  R&B is driven by an exceptionally personal musical vision, stuff that resonates for me but that I fully expect many listeners simply won't get.  My hope is that for every hundred people that dismiss me as "playing music that nobody's ever heard of" (maybe my new tagline?), there might be one person who feels like they've found a new musical home.
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It's especially worthy when that connection happens with an under-the-radar band like Florida's Big Shoals trio, whose Hard Lessons landed this week.  I file them loosely alongside acts like Fire Mountain, Sons of Bill or certain strains from fellow Gainesville son Tom Petty  -  fully realized artists that follow the Jayhawks into the roots-pop realm.

This is where I insert my public service announcement reminding you that "pop" is never a bad word in my lexicon.  It means having the capacity to paint with primary musical colors and broad, tuneful strokes, as heard on tracks like Big Shoals' perfect summer rock-a-roller "Happy For a While".  Pounded piano meets riffy electric guitar in your favorite bar:  For 26 years I ain't got much to show / Maybe I been doin' it wrong ... I just wanna be happy for a while.  It's an apt name for the record, Hard Lessons, written on the line between young adulthood and just plain adulthood.  "Only Queen" alternates between weepy steel and a more beat happy chorus:  Been holdin' onto my youth / It's my last piece of gold.

I'm by no standards an audio wonk, but I love the sound of this album, full of thoughtful arrangements and a sound that balances clean separation amidst the clutter and racket of frequently buzzing guitars.  I fully expect "You Ain't Nothing Like the Girls Back Home" to earn a place on my list of the year's most engaging cuts.  Leading with a great guitar line, Lance Howell's vocal recalls a young Jason Isbell:  I wanna make a bad decision / I wanna make a mistake / I wanna take a chance on losin' / I'm tired of playin' it safe.  You'll hear Isbell as well on the sprawling "Losing Hand", which takes its sweet time to unfurl into the record's most ambitious and mature track.

Alas, man cannot subsist on sad bastard songs alone, and I would argue that Bad Decisions doesn't come across as any more of a downer than, say, American Aquarium's reflection on maturity, Wolves.  We find our narrator accepting his fate on "Only God Knows", and recognizing the difficulty of reconnecting with the past on "Way It Goes":  I know time will change you / Hell it's changing me too / Back then it used to move so slow.  Where 2014's Still Go On boasted a harder, more immediate sound, Big Shoals' sophomore collection makes some less obvious choices for a more satisfying effect.

Elsewhere on this Episode:  Matt Woods makes a mighty leap forward with the debut single from his pending How To Survive.  It comes to my attention that Robert Rex Walker Jr from I See Hawks in LA has released an album of covers.  And I really (really) miss the Scud Mountain Boys.

- Adia Victoria, "Lonely Avenue / Dead Eyes" Beyond the Bloodhounds  (Atlantic, 16)
- Band of Horses, "Throw My Mess" Why Are You OK  (Interscope, 16)
- Bottle Rockets, "Gravity Fails" Brooklyn Side  (Tag, 94)
- Massy Ferguson, "Makin' It" Run It Right Into the Wall  (MF, 16)
- Big Shoals, "You Ain't Noting Like the Girls Back Home" Hard Lessons  (Big Shoals, 16)
- Matt Woods, "American Way" How To Survive  (Woods, 16)  D
- Joe Purdy, "Maybe We'll All  Get Along Someday" Who Will Be Next  (Mudtown Crier, 16)
- Rod Picott, "Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues" Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues  (Welding Rod, 01)
- BJ Barham, "American Tobacco Company" Rockingham  (Barham, 16)
- Lucinda Williams, "If There's a Heaven" Ghosts of Hwy 20  (Thirty Tigers, 16)
- Hayes Carll, "Let's Get Drunk and Get It On" Desperate Times  (Jeff Neely, 16)
- Richmond Fontaine, "Tapped Out In Tulsa" You Can't Go Back  (Fluff & Gravy, 16)
- Scud Mt Boys, "Holy Ghost" Massachusetts  (Sub Pop, 96)
- Western Centuries, "Rock Salt" Weight of the World  (Free Dirt, 16)
- Amy Blaschke, "Breaking the Blues" Breaking the Blues  (Bird on a Lyre, 16)
- Levi Parham, "Chemical Train" These American Blues  (Music Road, 16)
- Sean McConnell, "Ghost Town" Sean McConnell  (Rounder, 16)  D
- Paul Westerberg, "Lookin' Up In Heaven" Folker  (Vagrant, 04)
- Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, "L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore" Shine a Light  (Cooking Vinyl, 16)
- Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, "Headed South" Constant Stranger  (Big Legal Mess, 16)
- Chuck Ragan, "Flame In the Flood" Flame In the Flood  (Ten Four, 16)
- White Buffalo w/Audra Mae, "I Got You" Love & the Death of Damnation  (Unison, 15)
- Shovels & Rope, "I Know" Little Seeds  (NewWest, 16)
- Ana Egge & the Sentimentals, "Promises to Break" Say That Now  (Grace, 16)  D
- Robert Rex Walker Jr, "Counting My Lucky Stars" Fancy Free  (Walker, 16)  D
- Jason Boland & the Stragglers, "Dark and Dirty Mile" Dark and Dirty Mile  (Proud Souls, 13)
- Porter, "Harder Stuff" This Red Mountain  (Porter, 15)
- Jason Isbell, "Travelling Alone" Southeastern  (12th St, 13)

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