ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
December 26, 2016
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long... -- George Bailey
Sure, we all have dreams. We dream big. We want little things to become bigger things, bad things to become better. With time, some of these wishes are granted, others are forgotten and still more are harbored for a lifetime as hot little spots in the heart. I've said it before that I always wanted to be a dj. When given the chance, I did my best, building a radio home and furnishing it with all the best music I could find. About this time last year, I predicted that I would burn down my radio home, and a couple months ago I did. God help me, I miss being on the radio, sharing music with anyone who just might by happenstance trip across the exact right place on the dial and accidentally share my passions. But I made the right choice to step away. And in the meantime we have these short reviews and these playlists that still focus on all the great music I find, all the hard working independent artists who populate these pages.
Make no mistake, 2016 brought us some fine music, stuff to stir our heart. Music to fuel my trips down Hwy 287 and back, to make us thrill to be alive, at least for that moment. While I started the list below several weeks ago, bigger and mightier blogs than mine have already shared their lists. While I breathe it all in, the last twelve months of music, I'm once again grateful and humbled to put this stuff on the webs. I dream that some kindred musical treasure hunter somewhere will find it, and that they will call it good. I love what I do (and I hate it), and I know it's a musical vision that has real merit. Beyond all hope, December has been the busiest traffic month ever for this blog, almost nine years old now. I'll keep it going during 2017. I won't burn it down, but will challenge myself to continue tilting against the windmills of popular music, pushing back against an industry that incorporates an ever thinner slice of what's out there. And in twelve months we'll take another look and see if we're any closer to realizing that vague dream.
6. Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like a Levee (Merge, 10/7) You want an artist to go places, to evolve and to change. MC Taylor's journey as HGM has followed him from a quiet, introspective folkie to today's soulful bandleader. While Levee began as a vehicle to tell stories about others, Taylor followed his muse back home for these reflections on obligation and distance. I would argue that the companion "bonus" disc that accompanies deluxe editions of the album is almost as revealing and rewarding as the original, even as it allows the artist to turn inward once again.
7. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, Constant Stranger (Big Legal Mess, 9/30) The most effective solo projects are those that allow an artist to stretch in new ways, to explore sounds and directions not available to the group. JPKS parses Water Liars' fuzzy noise for a sparse and focused acoustic collection that exceeds even the expectations of a big fan. The folks at OurVinyl have released a 3 song single that features the artist and his guitar alongside a lake. Burbling brook aside, it's a bit redundant, since there's not a more lovely, more quiet, more intense record out this year.
8. Richmond Fontaine, You Can't Go Back ... (El Cortez, 3/18) And it's true, you can't go back to the early days of Winnemucca or the classic Post to Wire. But if Willy Vlautin & co. are calling it quits with one last volley, it might as well be a record like this. "Tapped Out In Tulsa" and "Wake Up Ray" are the quintessential wedding of the band's early alt.country and Vlautin's more recent departure into narration.
9. Mount Moriah, How To Dance (Merge, 2/26) I haven't seen Mount Moriah's third album on too many year end lists to date. I have found Heather McEntire's songs inescapable since the record's February release, whether the heavy guitar of "Cardinal Cross" or the elegiac strains of "Baby Blue", another of my favorites for the year. The trio strikes a rewarding balance between tuneful country and lush indie folk.
10. Austin Lucas, Between the Moon and the Midwest (Last Chance, 5/27) Always an admired singer and songwriter, Lucas forged new territory on this superb collection. It's at once his Metamodern Sounds and his Tulsa Heat, a CD that is bigger than anything else he's done while remaining well rooted in story. Plus, it's bolstered by some notable contributions by Cory Branan, Lydia Loveless and John Moreland himself, who plays a supporting role on the spirited "Ain't We Free". In the end, it's the more traditional, pared back "Pray For Rain" that serves to remind us that it's Lucas' angelic voice that's carried us this far.
11. Sturgill Simpson, Sailor's Guide to Earth (Atlantic, 4/15) Am I wrong to keep Simpson from my top ten when so many others gave him top billing? I loved the record as much as any of these others, with its ambitious arrangements and unexpected evolutions. Strings bleed into Stax soul horns. We're as likely to hear variations on country as we are to catch psychedelic rock or skronky sax. It's a fractured puzzle of an album, less song oriented than Metamodern Sounds, but one that satisfies with its surprises. Perhaps it's telling that my favorite song from Sailor's Guide was Simpson's sweet and syruped take on Nirvana's "In Bloom".
12. BJ Barham, Rockingham (BJB, 8/19) Composed both of new songs and American Aquarium tunes reinterpreted, Rockingham is the year's best portrait of small town blue collar America. Appropriately, I enjoyed this while driving across the vast and open states of the Western US, pulling into small towns and judging them by their cafes and their political signs. Primarily an acoustic affair, it's a glimpse into a Barham not often seen through the heavier noise of his day band.
13. Caleb Caudle, Carolina Ghost (This is American Music, 2/26) Carolina Ghost is the sound of taste and restraint, soul and grace and genuine goodness. Nearly every song has worn a gentle and patient path into my musical soul, becoming smooth and familiar with time. The pedal steel is parceled just perfectly, and no other instrument tries to hard to make an impression. And Caudle simply writes an indelible song.
14. Justin Wells, Dawn in the Distance (August, 8/5) So what's the difference between the perfectly good country rock of Kentucky's Fifth on the Floor and the superb debut record from former member Justin Wells? Perhaps it's simply that Dawn is the sound of one man, one artist exploring his vision. While the group could push the pedal as a way of proving their mettle, Wells simply writes a great song. It's got more soul than Fifth, and seems a more genuine statement, from the midtempo rock of "Going Down Grinnin'" to the runner up for my favorite song of the year, "The Dogs".
15. Kent Eugene Goolsby, Temper of the Times (KEG, 11/11) True confessions: I actually went and double checked that Kent Eugene Goolsby is the same person as the Kent Goolsby whose fine music I've followed for a couple records. Turns out that it's just been a really good year for the writer, taking great strides in writing and adding a nice handful of grit to his new work. There's some unexpectedly deep soul diving on "Loveless Prayers" and "Great Confessor", songs that find Goolsby examining his own ways and taking the temperature of our country.
16. Freakwater, Scheherazade (Bloodshot, 2/5) God bless Freakwater. Bless the broken and beautiful voices of Janet Bean and Catherin Irwin, the haunted and creaking trad folk that sounds like everything and nothing we've heard before. When even the best stuff on this list admittedly sounds like other stuff, nothing sounds like Freakwater. Just the thing we need after close to ten years of quiet.
17. Brent Cobb, Shine On Rainy Day (Elektra, 10/7) Yet another Nashville songwriting machine who has held back some of the better stuff for himself. Such a smooth and soulful effort, Cobb is able to recall 70s a.m. country rock without losing his current vibe or his relevance. Moments like "South of Atlanta" and "Country Bound" bring Isbell to mind, while the title cut and "Black Crow" don't fall far from early Tony Joe White or JJ Cale at his most engaged.
18. Honeycutters, On the Ropes (Organic, 5/20) Just part of my perennial campaign to assure that Amanda Anne Platt gets her due as a great artist. Lori McKenna is garnering a wheelbarrowfull of accolades for her excellent '16 release. I would argue that Platt rivals McKenna for her steady stare at the hard times, while pairing her unflinching lyrics with more engaging, more eclectic arrangements.
19. Jayhawks, Paging Mr Proust (Sham, 4/29) Granted, Gary Louris & co. have never revisited the rarified air of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. But they've also never floated a hollow, soulless effort. On "Dust of Long Dead Stars" and the pop perfect "Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces" the classic Louris - Perlman - O'Reagan - Grotberg lineup deliver what we've come to expect and to appreciate from a band in its longtime pocket. While Mark Olson paid a fleeting visit for '11's folky Mockingbird Time, Proust reminds us that the Jayhawks remain more than the product of their shuffling parts.
20. Left Arm Tan, Lorene (LAT, 4/1) By all means, LAT should be americana allstars. Heck, with the right publicity they could cross over into mainstream country and red dirt audiences. For now, their tuneful brand of roots rock has earned a home on R&B with good humor and heartfelt lyrics on tunes like "Blacktop Blues" and "Break Even". A generous 18 tracks of the good stuff!
21. Two Cow Garage, Brand New Flag (Last Chance, 10/14) In some ways, the arc of 2CG's career has mirrored the realization of Micah Schnabel's unique songwriting gift. Part alt.country, part punk and part beat poet, he's a throwback to a time when artists and listeners forged a strong bond over lyrics that are deeply personal while at the same time seeming to speak directly to the ostracized masses. Try the title cut or "Let the Boys Be Girls" for a draught of this liquid courage.
22. Matt Haeck, Late Bloomer (Blaster, 6/3) Another name that was pretty much off my radar until 2016. Matter of fact, Haeck took the slow lane to his first record, a road that led through seminary, career dead ends and personal demons. End of metaphor. That's apparently given him more time to hone his songwriting skills on "Tennessee" and the lovely "Cotton Dress" with Caitlin Rose. The understated "Lucky Cigarette" landed on my list of favorite songs for the year.
23. Shovels & Rope, Little Seeds (New West, 10/7) I love that Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent continue to make lots of noise, even as they settle into their well earned spot as one of the foremost americana acts of the day. There's nothing safe to songs like "I Know" or the abrasive "Buffalo Nickel", and quieter bits like "St Anne's Parade" and "This Ride" can be revelatory. No duo makes more beautiful noise, and no two voices blend so recklessly.
24. Becky Warren, War Surplus (Warren, 10/14) Onetime frontman for the Great Unknowns steps out on her own to tell the story of an armed services survivor returning to a world that no longer makes sense. It's one of the real welcome surprises of the year, a relative unknown who emerges as a fully formed writer who can do sassy, heartfelt and pissed as well as any bigger name.
25. Lucinda Williams, Ghosts of Hwy 20 (Hwy 20, 2/5) As you pick your way thru the above list, you might notice how many familiar names from the americana genre are conspicuously absent: Hayes Carll, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle, John Prine all released pretty good new stuf in 2016. Lucinda stands as one of the Old Guard who continues to make music that matters. "Dust" aches, "Can't Close the Door On Love" breaks hearts, and "Place In My Heart" is just plain sweet. It's sparse, intimate and quietly, confidently brilliant.
No playlist this week, as this is stuff that I've shared many times during the year. Still exploring the legal requirements of podcasting, since I really want to do it right (and don't want to spend the money on licensing if I can avoid it). Nevertheless, I did invest in a shiny new mic this week, so ...
Here's to a Routes-worthy 2017! Many Thanks for following me this far!