Sunday, November 26, 2017
ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
November 26, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
As we warned, with this Episode we commit to our 30 favorite roots music records for the past 12 months. Once again, the lions lay with the lambs, the sure things mingle with the surprises, and I'm left with the vague feeling that I've forgotten something back at the office.
For this take of my year-end favorites, I've chosen to quote myself, to draw from my published reviews for each of the records rather than to reinvent the wheel and find different words to express the same thing. Where a published review doesn't exist, I did write something new. Next week we'll return to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming, which will likely include a dash of holiday faire. Most importantly, we begin consideration for our favorites list for 2018.
FAVORiTE ALBUMs of 2017
30. JD McPherson, Undivided Heart & Soul (New West, Oct 6)
"Watching that short Amoeba piece, JD McPherson reveals an impressive knowledge, and depth of appreciation for stuff that came before. The truest confirmation of this is found on these more contemporary tracks, where the band applies what they've borrowed to create a new product that is more than the sum of its parts. While it's still fun to play 'name that influence' with Undivided Heart, the accolades belong fully to McPherson and his band."
29. Jason Eady, Jason Eady (Old Guitar, Apr 21)
The Fort Worth writer has never sounded so personal and immediate. By paring back his new songs to basic arrangements, Eady allows the grain and grit to show. "Why I Left Atlanta", "Barabbas" and "Waiting To Shine" stand among his strongest work to date.
28. Deer Tick, Deer Tick Vol. 1 & 2 (Partisan, Sept 15)
I bundle this pair of releases because both sides of Deer Tick are essential. The fact that their sloppy, electric songs demonstrate such as appeal only makes the heart and soul of their acoustic tracks more remarkable. McCauley has never sounded better, from the beginning of Volume 1 to the close of Volume 2.
27. Jeremy Pinnell, Ties of Blood & Affection (Sofaburn, Aug 11)
"This is his lane, Pinnell's modus operandi. He lays out a thick and satisfying country groove and tops it with lyrics not typically found rebounding off the timbers and tables of your average roadside establishment. 'I Don't Believe' launches like a classic country trucking song punctuated with pedal steel and relentless shuffle. Then he launches into the chorus: I don't believe in a long black train / Or a lake of fire / Or a 40 day rain / But I believe we can all be free / And I know that if something's wrong / Then it's gotta be me".
26. Colter Wall, Colter Wall (Young Mary's, May 12)
"The Voice. A syrupy baritone drawl, something you might hear from a long-forgotten Delta bluesman, or perhaps from a hard living 1970s outlaw who defeated the odds to survive middle age. But not something you'd expect to exit the lungs of a 21 year-old Canadian who's still working on his first full beard. Thanks to smokes and who knows what else, Colter Wall's voice is a thing of rough beauty, perfectly hewn for the harrowing tales he tells on this self-titled record."
25. Robyn Ludwick, This Tall to Ride (Ludwick, May 5)
I tend to reject lists that group artists simply because of their gender - for instance, the best records released by women. Writers like Ludwick are worthy to be compared to other writers, regardless of their sex. Melodically, these songs burrow through your ears and into your spirit. Lyrically, their frank embrace of the darker side of life equals most other Texas writers for heart-on-sleeve truth telling.
24. Old 97s, Graveyard Whistling (New West, Feb 24)
"Far and away the feel good record of the year, even as Rhett & co don't shy away from the fleeting bout with conscience. Not that they dwell overlong on matters of mortality, but the accompanying lyrics sheet will confirm that Miller remains one of the smartest writers of his generation, even in the midst of a seemingly brainless burner."
23. Parker McCollum, Probably Wrong (McCollum, Nov 10)
"The stories are hard hitting and personal. The music is remarkably tight and more wide ranging that almost any other record this year. 'Lonesome Ten Miles' is infectious roots rock, while 'Things Are Looking Up' is straight country (with a great extended instrumental outtro). Get your 'grass from 'Blue Eyed Sally', or bathe in the red dirt country of 'Memphis Rain'. Probably Wrong is one -top musical shopping."
22. Texas Gentlemen, TX Jelly (New West, Sep 15)
"It takes great talent to make a record that sounds like this much of a lovely mess. My hope for Texas Gentlemen is that the grooves get deeper, the rhythmic u-turns weirder, and the in-jokes less appropriate. The playing on TX Jelly isn't sloppy in the least. Rather, it's the production that colors so satisfyingly outside the lines, like a mutant strain of garage country-soul."
21. Lee Ann Womack, Lonely the Lonesome & the Gone (ATO, Oct 27)
"Like Shelby Lynne or Miranda Lambert, she is fearless and discerning when employing her super powers. 'All the Trouble' stands as the darkest, most swampy thing she's ever recorded. Her vocal runs can be both sexy and sinister, borrowing both from the angels of gospel and the devils of the blues."
20. Anna Tivel, Small Believer (Fluff & Gravy, Sep 29)
"These are glimpses into small lives on a trajectory towards redemption or ruin (we're rarely told which). On 'Ordinary Dance': And oh, oh my god, I wanted to do something great. Small Believer is a collection of short stories, gleaned from the constant buzz and murmur that surrounds us. The heartbreaking 'Blue World' begins with the picture of the quiet planet, sharp-focusing on the damp uncovered earth and the fallen bird. A soul escapes from the bounds of our daily details, taking flight like a sigh."
19. Ron Pope, Work (Brooklyn Basement, Aug 18)
Once this year is done, once I've picked my way through Pope's August release, I'll go back and discover what I've mostly missed to this point. Work is one of those albums I noticed because the guy on the cover looks like I like my music to sound. I stayed because of the great writing, from the spirited, full-band arrangements to the touching, acoustic stuff like "Stick Around".
18. Son Volt, Notes of Blue (Transmit Sound, Feb 17)
"Where 2013's Honky Tonk was said to be inspired by the Bakersfield sound, Jay Farrar's follow-up reportedly looks to the Delta blues for a spark. Fact is, 'Back Against the Wall' sounds like classic Farrar, and 'Lost Souls' is a touch more garage-y than we're used to from the deliberate artist ... The loud 'n messy on both fully available tracks is a nice sign of life, and the brief 'Souls' is harder and heavier than anything we've heard from Son Volt in years."
17. Ronnie Fauss, Last of the True (Normaltown, Oct 27)
From 2012's I Am the Man You Know I'm Not thru '14's Built to Break and up to Fauss' offering for this year, the Dallas area writer has unleashed quite the 1-2-3 roundhouse. With his understated humor and his workmanlike way with a lyric, he simply continues to improve his craft. And since the earliest EPs, he's also proven to be one of the best pure interpreters of other writers' songs.
16. Margo Price, All American Made (Third Man, Oct 20)
Margo Price's debut record burst onto the scene last year, reclaiming the sounds of classic country and soul and buzzing with promise. While Price's quickly released follow-up continues to showcase her blossoming confidence as a writer, All American Made plows little new ground. That said, songs like the title track and "Heart of America" are eloquent and personal glimpses into stories of the heartland.
15. Joseph Huber, Suffering Stage (Huber, Apr 21)
"Like Springsteen or Jackson Browne or Mellencamp, Joseph Huber can warn of a storm on the horizon while focusing on the particulars of one small life. Running at just over seven minutes, 'The Suffering Stage' is a patient masterpiece, handing out resonant line after resonant line as a hushed fiddle swells into an anthemic full band and the singer holds court with an expert lyric flow. 'One more day ... oh, just one more day, Lord, here on the suffering stage'. Best case scenario holds that the storm will come and the rains will nourish the fields. The families will empty onto the sheltered front porch, and at least for one moment the tentative bonds that hold us together might seem just a bit stronger."
14. Cory Branan, Adios (Bloodshot, Apr 7)
After four albums peppered with promise, it's as though Branan finally decided to buckle down and explore what it might sound like to explore his potential. The results nudge Branan from the crowded realm of capable americana singer-songwriters towards the rarefied air of classic writer. While some pieces resemble Todd Snider's more focused moments, others exceed the genre entirely with a sound better estimating Harry Nilsson.
13. David Ramirez, We're Not Going Anywhere (Sweetworld, Sep 8)
Even with the tagline "the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music", some of this stuff overflows our cozy boundaries. Ramirez has always been a thoughtful, understated singer-songwriter, but his current project deliberately challenges his own reputation. It's not just the synths and the state-of-the-art production, it's the overall spirit of the thing.
12. Nikki Lane, Highway Queen (New West, Feb 10)
"The title track of Lane's 2014 starmaking All or Nothin' is a sure thing stomper that straddles the wide divide between trad and contemporary. A classic country story is propelled by a synthy pulse, Lane's Tanya Tucker drawl is applied to the kind of rural roots rap that the mainstream country kids like these days."
11. Tyler Childers, Purgatory (Hickman Holler, Aug 4)
"Like Parker Millsap or John Fullbright from a couple states to the left, Tyler Childers delivers his stories in fully realized, soulful voice, equally conversant in the more trad folk and more contemporary alt. vernacular. 'I Swear (to God)' is a loose and good-natured ramble, one of several cuts ornamented by Stuart Duncan's bluegrass fiddle. It paints a vivid, Prine-esque portrait of the artist as a young roustabout, 'Working on a building out of hand hewn brimstone". 'Whitehouse Road' holds the signpost for the harder edge of things, boasting boldly of long evenings of questionable choices and general abandon. In this guise, Childers brings to mind a young Steve Earle."
10. Will Hoge, Anchors (Edlo, Aug 11)
"This ain't your grampa's nostalgia. We acknowledge the people and the places of the past, but we also recognize 'the reckoning', the inheritances and hand-me-down legacies that haunt us. From the 'grand charade' a couple plays for their kids and their friends to the clunker of a family truck that might be coaxed back on the road with a little new paint. It's a nostalgia that makes room for both the charm and the curse. Will Hoge isn't damning the hand he's been dealt. He's just taking a more adult perspective."
9. Justin Townes Earle, Kids in the Street (New West, May 26)
"Jump to track 5, the title cut, which opens with a delicately picked acoustic and a childhood memory. This ain't the way it was back in 1993 / Now those weren't better days / But they still meant something to me / When we was kids out in the streets. It's the sort of beautiful picture of days passed that most of us can sketch from memory, the streets, the shade, the long afternoons (even if those bygones were from '93). The guitar is joined by a sepia toned slide and a simple bass line for an evocative and melancholy effect. And while some of the songs rock and some swing and several drip with soul, Kids in the Street spends the majority of its time directing our gaze to the rearview mirror."
8. Ryan Adams, Prisoner (PaxAm, Feb 17)
"Too much ink has been shed about how Prisoner is a breakup record, and not enough has been said about what a brilliant singer-songwriter record it is, or about the guitar pop that pervades this thing. I've watched several of Adams' live appearances on various late night shows, and he seems to be in such a pocket."
7. Matthew Ryan, Hustle Up Starlings (Ryan, May 12)
"These last two releases have seen Matthew Ryan gathering a crew of conspirators, players who encouraged him to embrace 'all that punk and noisy folk with a gigantic heart'. That appeal is nearest the surface on songs like 'Close Your Eyes' and 'Battle Born', tunes that bring to mind Paul Westerberg's edgy folk. The latter invokes heroes like Chrissie Hynde and Lou Reed, artists who raged against disillusionment and complacency, screaming hope in the land of the lost. But both songs show Ryan at his most public, making music with sharp hooks and a beat to bounce to, guitars wrestling drums for top booking."
6. Turnpike Troubadours, Long Way From Your Heart (Bossier City, Oct 20)
"'Old Time Feeling (Like Before)' might be Long Way's musical high point, offering both an imminently singable chorus and a really sweet pedal steel line. Well I'm the same old me you know / Fucking up the status quo / Trouble all the way up to my neck. Perhaps you don't turn to bands like Turnpike Troubadours in search of answers to life's bigger questions. But where Isbell mines for meaning and Stapleton explores the country music archives, and while Sturgill pushes the boundaries, this band simply offers a good time well played."
5. Jason Isbell, Nashville Sound (Southeastern, Jun 16)
Hard to believe I haven't written a single word about this one since its release a half year ago. There's not an artist who better serves as the standard bearer for our kind of music, both the introverted, reflective americana and the hearty, aggressive alt.country. It's also notable that Isbell has chosen to headline his new record with the encompassing moniker The Nashville Sound. Even with his relative acceptance by elements of the mainstream crowd, he is far from a household name. It says more about the man's intent than about his reach.
4. Porter & the Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes, Don't Go Baby It's Gonna Get Weird Without You (Cornelius Chapel, Oct 20)
"We owe Cornelius Chapel Records and the band a debt of gratitude for finishing Don't Go Baby, and for releasing it almost exactly a year after Chris Porter's death. These are simply good songs, played by a band dedicated to assuring his final work is heard and appreciated. They take what could've ended at a roadside cross in 2016 and create a living, breathing document, a testament to a man's abundant talent and an honorable cap to his too-short life."
3. Will Johnson, Hatteras Night a Good Luck Charm (Undertow, Mar 24)
"The songs of Will Johnson's new album epitomize everything I want Routes & Branches to sound like. They're beautiful, crunchy, evocative, enigmatic. For years he has explored his louder, mightier tendencies with Centro-Matic and his more esoteric, introverted ideas with South San Gabriel. Johnson has collaborated with artists from Jason Molina to David Bazan. He has been a Monster of Folk and has joined Jay Farrar, Anders Parker and Jim James in the shadow of Woody Guthrie for New Multitudes. With his first solo project since drawing the curtain on Centro-matic, Will Johnson seems ready to gather all those musical forces under one roof."
2. John Moreland, Big Bad Luv (4AD, May 5)
"No doubt John Moreland is looking to capitalize on the attention he earned with Tulsa Heat, and the recent success of peers like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell might bring a larger audience to his doorstep. And, hey it certainly doesn't hurt that Miranda Lambert can't stop talking about the guy. But admidst the opportunity, and despite the changes and the new choices, he remains a genuine, strikingly eloquent artist. He is drawn by a truly personal muse, and sings with a depth of feeling like few others."
1. Lee Bains III & Glory Fires, Youth Detention (Don Giovani, Jun 30)
"Nobody has generated more of a buzz 'n racket this year than Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires. Youth Detention is punk. And, like the best punk, the double-CD gives us reason to rage while also issuing a rally cry and reminding listeners of what matters in the midst of a social shitstorm. Youth Detention is a truly remarkable document, like a shoebox jammed full with a jumble of memories, impressions, frustrations and identities."
And as we hurtle towards the New Year, god bless us, every one. And, at the risk of repurposing another Dickens quote: I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach." We could do worse than to open ourselves to music in the same spirit of welcome and discovery.