ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
February 11, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
My younger son engages me with a game now and then, where he'll play a snippet from a song and it's my job to Name That Tune. Anything from the 60s thru the early aughts - hardly a problem as long as forgetfulness and wandering attention stay at bay. A lot of stuff from the past decade, however, poses a problem for me. I'll often recognize the song pretty quickly, but it's harder for me to retrieve the artist from my mental musical database. Have I finally arrived at that regrettable place in my life when "You kids! All your music sounds the same!"? As a man who identifies as an equal opportunity musical elitist, I'd like to think I can scroll through the iTunes Top Songs and find at least some artistic sanctuary. Chainsmokers? Alessia Cara? Rae Sremmurd? Have I become irrelevant? Have I lost my beloved edge? Or does music suck more than it used to?
Of course, I have no challenge finding New Music That Matters, even on a weekly basis. This Episode, we embrace stuff from the admirably talented Gurf Morlix, and we even allow for some Alison Krauss (which is sorta unusual). I spent a good amount of the week cruising around the 61 tracks that make up Amazon's new Love Me / Love Me Not playlists, including some good offerings from Amanda Shires, Blank Range, Doug Paisley, Okkervil River and more - not to mention the couple things I drop in this week's playlist.
In the video that introduces the making of Romantica's first record in nearly a decade, frontman Ben Kyle is instructing the others of a certain sound for which he's reaching. In a warm wooden barn, Kyle asks for space, for room to let the emotions work their magic. Indeed, there's plenty of quiet on Shadowlands, a good deal of magic too.
Turns out a couple of Shadowlands' songs were present the last time the group assembled in an effort to produce an album. This was about 8 years ago, before Romantica was sidelined for personal and professional reasons. Over the ensuing years, the band's lineup has evolved, families have grown, and Ben Kyle has apparently been through a personal crucible while producing a solo record and an EP with Carrie Rodriguez. There's a palpable melancholy to many of these songs.
Originally from Ireland, Kyle is the keystone and the visionary behind Romantica. On songs like "Harder To Hear" he is a deeply feeling artist who brings a real sense of the soul of folk often heard in the music of his homeland. His smooth and expressive delivery can draw you nearer to the song, sometimes like John Ritter or like Rhett Miller on the more upbeat numbers. "Harder To Hear" begins barely above a whisper, with that voice supported by nothing more than the shimmer of caressed strings. Kyle addresses our age of noise and distraction, how we can lose track of our own voice in the clutter of culture and commentary: "It's getting harder to hear from god these days / There's so much religion in the way."
Raising the tempo just a bit, "St. Paul City Lights" paints a loving portrait of the band's adopted hometown. Originally recorded for that solo collection, the piece comes across as more ethereal and fleeting here. Like the lovely "Blue Heart", it's a mature strain of alt.country as processed through a lifetime of experience. For more upbeat appeal, "Cecil Ingram Conor" is a heartfelt reflection on the short but bright life of Gram Parsons. "Cecil" is a standout here, driven by abandon, almost to the point of floating away on a gospel spirit with joyful barrelhouse piano and pure twang pedal steel. "Oh lord / My lord / No angel had a voice could ring like that!" Likewise, "Lonely Star" evokes mid-period Old 97s. The catchy roadsong is Shadowlands' most easily caught fish.
Most promotional material from artists, labels and promoters arrives with suggested cuts for play. I tend to ignore these and to trust my own ear. Only after listening will I peek to see how one man's ear deviates from or buys into the party line. My early passes through Shadowlands found me gravitating towards the more immediately accessible tracks. Having lived with the record for a couple weeks now, the beauty and significance of the quieter, deeper songs has become more evident. "Let the Light Go Through You" is the unlikely heart of the album, telling of Ben Kyle's disillusioning experience with a spiritual community in the Netherlands. Strains of pedal steel flash like bright light shot through stained glass: "Singin' hallelujah / Let the light go through you / Let the sunlight shine through the shadows in our minds / Til we're true." Kyle calls it the space "where my spirit meets my bones." The heart of Romantica's new collection dwells in this silence and shimmer. The quiet.
- Split Lip Rayfield, "This World" On My Way (Gottstine, 17)
- Bap Kennedy, "Reckless Heart" Reckless Heart (Last Chance, 17)
- Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough, "Broken Fences" Mockingbird Soul (BDM, 17)
- Mavericks, "Brand New Day" Brand New Day (Mono Mundo, 17) D
- Southeast Engine, "Cold Front Blues" Canary (Misra, 11)
- William Matheny, "Blood Moon Singer" Strange Constellations (Misra, 17)
- Ben Nichols, "Stormy Eyed Valentine" Love Me / Love Me Not (Amazon, 17) D
- Austin Lucas, "Dead Factories" Common Cold (Magic Bullet, 08)
- Hip Hatchet, "Great Divide" Hellhound in the House (HH, 17)
- John Craigie, "Bucket List Grandmas" No Rain No Rose (Craigie, 17)
- Nikki Lane, "Companion" Highway Queen (New West, 17)
- JD McPherson, "A Little Respect" Love Me / Love Me Not (Amazon, 17)
^ Romantica, "Lonely Star" Shadowlands (Last Chance, 17)
- Sadies, "There Are No Words" Northern Passages (Yep Roc, 17)
- Dead Man Winter, "Destroyer" Furnace (GNDWire, 17)
- Albert Lee, "Country in Harlem" Black Claw & Country Fever (LINE, 91)
- Natalie Hemby, "Cairo, IL" Puxico (GetWrucke, 17)
- Gasoline Lollipops, "Mary Rose" Resurrection (GasPops, 17) C
- Otis Gibbs, "Great American Roadside" Mount Renraw (Wanamaker, 17)
- Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "I Send My Love To You" Sings Greatest Palace Music (Drag City, 04)
- Son Volt, "Sinking Down" Notes of Blue (Transmit Sound, 17)
- Alison Krauss, "I Never Cared For You" Windy City (Rounder, 17) D
- Gurf Morlix, "Love Remains Unbroken" Soul & the Heal (Gurf, 17) D
- Old Crow Medicine Show, "Black Eyed Quebecois" Best of OCMS (Nettwerk, 17)
- Pieta Brown, "Street Tracker" Postcards (Lustre, 17)
- Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Furniture Man" What in the Natural World (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Andrew Combs, "Dirty Rain" Canyons of My Mind (New West, 17)
- Scott H Biram, "Righteous Ways" Bad Testament (Bloodshot, 17)
- Kieran Kane & Kevin Welch, "Till I'm Too Old To Die Young" You Can't Save Everybody (Dead Reckoning, 04)
- Caroline Spence, "Southern Accident" Spades & Roses (Spence, 17) D
- Nathan Bowles, "Moonshine is the Sunshine" Whole & Cloven (Paradise of Bachelors, 16)