featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
April 1, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
Back on the chaingang folks, after last week's generous debut. Since we took a week away from the mic, we're left with a bottleneck of new stuff for this week's Episode.
... and since we're now into April, we can officially take a backward glance at what was the first quarter of 2018. Here are my eleven favorite releases since the turn of the year, listed in order of appearance:
First Aid Kit
Mike & the Moonpies
6 String Drag
Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats
Courtney Marie Andrews
That's right. I said eleven. I don't see anyone else in this basement that's gonna stop me. This is stuff that was has already been released, and that I have had the privilege of hearing in its entirety.
Looking into the next three months, we're getting antsy about new stuff from Will Stewart, Sarah Shook, Joshua Hedley, Donovan Woods, Charlie Crockett, Trampled by Turtles, Parker Millsap, Horse Feathers, Brent Cobb, John Calvin Abney, Jason Boland and American Aquarium. Let the games begin.
I've said it before (though not too recently), that nobody casts a wider net around the world of roots music than Routes & Branches. You're welcome. Eclecticism matters here, walls be damned. John Paul Keith and Amy LaVere appreciate a broad definition of our kind of music, too, as showcased in two new projects just released on Arkansas-based Last Chance Records.
If you're unfamiliar with the solo work of either LaVere or Keith, set aside this review for a sec and track it down - maybe LaVere's 2014 Runaway's Diary, or the superb Memphis Circa 3am (2013) from John Paul Keith. It's easier to appreciate an artist once you understand where they've been (and there's a lot to appreciate from both acts). It's also telling that Amy LaVere played the part of Wanda Jackson in 2005's Johnny 'n June biopic Walk the Line. Over the space of a handful of solo records, she's collaborated with folks like Jim Dickinson, Luther Dickinson, Shannon McNally, Jimbo Mathus and Will Sexton.
Back in 2013, John Paul Keith and Amy LaVere issued a widely-heralded, seven-song EP under the moniker Motel Mirrors. For their first full-length, In the Meantime, they've added guitarist Will Sexton to the mix, creating a sticky sweet confection with a touch of roots noir.
"I Wouldn't Dream of It" introduces the outfit, a celebration of artist interplay and a dialog of talents. Everly style vocals and a walking guitar line frame the song, a rockabilly/early rock hybrid held down by LaVere's durable upright bass line. It's a thread that runs throughout Meantime, a reminder that the sum is greater than the parts (though the individual parts in this case are each remarkable talents). A more upbeat "Paper Doll" walks these same floors, a rockabilly rumble driven by a tripping drumbeat and a rhythmic acoustic strum, with those harmonies that fall somewhere between Johnny 'n June and John 'n Exene.
And speaking of the Carter-Cash clan, "Loving in the Morning" finds the Motel Mirrors paying musical tribute to Johnny 'n June with an easygoing country duet. While the instrumental arrangements through are understated, it's also perfect for the proceedings. The image that might be generated is one of the members gathered in a comfortable room, circled around a single mic and weaving their talents. "Dead of Winter Blues" showcases LaVere's appealing vocals, sounding like Lindi Ortega on a roots noir: Only eight different kinds of snowflakes / Untold kinds of cold / The weather bitter, the crisp, the deadly / And the kind that you have shown.
"Things I Learned" arrives with the kind of edge and attitude that make Lydia Loveless such a force. I know boys can be cruel sings LaVere, while simultaneously exuding strength and confidence: These things I learned without you. There's pretty and there's down and dirty on Motel Mirrors' project, from the indelible confection of "Let Me Be Sweet to You" (just enough saccharine) to the honkytonk sawdust floor weeper, "Funerals in New Orleans", In the Meantime provides more than just a momentary diversion.
But wait: There's more! John Paul Keith has also released his fourth solo album, Heart Shaped Shadow, also on Last Chance. Keith's new collection serves as a fitting companion to his Motel Mirrors disc. Created to analog tape with Sexton at the producer's helm (and the guitarist's post), the project boasts an immediate appeal, like a firsthand tour through the hallowed halls of Memphis roots rock 'n soul.
Fact is, Keith's new record arrives in the wake of a "D-I-V-O-R-C-E", and though there's hardly a downer in the bunch, Heart Shaped Shadow finds him with the ladies on his mind. If you get a call from a 901 number / Late at night when you're tryin' to sleep / ... If I were you baby / I'd just let it ring. On "901 Number", Keith doesn't present himself as the ladies' man. Instead, he is the long-suffering, well-meaning romeo sans Juliet. With its very decent guitar and underlying piano work, the song is worthy of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, maybe with Hargus Pig Robbins at the keys. Listeners hungry for more sadsack songs will want to check out "Someday Somebody's Gonna Love Me". It's a deliciously indulgent country stroll: I know somebody somebody's gonna need me / And then maybe I can stop needing you.
But we can't live on melancholy alone, and John Paul Keith is just as capable of the sort of R&B revue that has become Memphis' signature. With blazing horns and plenty of organ, "Something So Wrong" reminds us that this is Keith's native language. Songs like "Ain't No Denying" introduce workmanlike playing that stands with one foot in jazz territory. It's a cucumber-cool cut.
"Leave Them Girls Alone" launches with some gutbucket chicken-scratch guitar, a country-fueled number setting the spirit for the remainder of Heart Shaped Shadow's eclectic Memphis menu: Well I used to light a pack up every day / Everybody thought I'd burn my life away / I dropped that nasty habit like a stone / But I just can't see to leave them girls alone. Add the early rock 'n stomp of "Do You Really Wanna Do It" and stir well.
Taken as a whole, the work on Motel Mirrors and Heart Shaped Shadow flirts with the eclectic and tuneful rock 'n roll as practiced by Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello or Ron Sexsmith. Between John Paul Keith, Amy LaVere and Will Sexton, there is talent and experience enough for a dozen such projects. Just like Memphis itself, the artists speak eloquently in the language of country, rock, soul and jazz.
- Parker Millsap, "Come Back When You Can't Stay" Other Arrangements (Okrahoma, 18)
- Kacey Musgraves, "Slow Burn" Golden Hour (MCA, 18)
- Ags Connolly, "Slow Burner" Nothin' Unexpected (Sofaburn, 18)
- Vivian Leva, "Time is Everything" Time is Everything (Free Dirt, 18) D
- John Prine, "God Only Knows" Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy, 18)
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "Border" May Your Kindness Remain (Mama Bird, 18)
- Hellbound Glory, "Cold Dark Summer" Streets of Aberdeen (Black Country Rock, 18) D
- Blackberry Smoke, "I'll Keep Ramblin' (w/Robert Randolph)" Find a Light (3 Legged, 18)
^ John Paul Keith, "Something So Wrong" Heart Shaped Shadow (Last Chance, 18)
- American Aquarium, "Tough Folks" Things Change (New West, 18) D
- Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, "Baby I Lost My Way (But I'm Going Home)" Tearing at the Seams (Concord, 18)
- Jolie Holland, "Louisiana 1927" Hummingbirds & Helicopters: Benefit for South Texas (Cinquefoil, 18) D
- Bonnevilles, "Good Bastards" Dirty Photographs (Alive Naturalsound, 18)
- Kim Richey, "Chase Wild Horses" Edgeland (Yep Roc, 18)
- Anna & Elizabeth, "Ripest of Apples" Invisible Comes to Us (Smithsonian, 18) D
- Left Arm Tan, "It's Too Late" El Camino (LAT, 18)
- Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, "Downey to Lubbock" Downey to Lubbock (Yep Roc, 18)
- Kelly Willis, "Back Being Blue" Back Being Blue (Premium, 18) D
- Will Stewart, "Dark Halls" County Seat (Cornelius Chapel, 18)
- Trampled by Turtles, "The Middle" Life is Good on the Open Road (Banjodad, 18)
- Traveller, "Hummingbird" Western Movies (Refuge Fndtn for the Arts, 18) D
- Charlie Crockett, "Ain't Gonna Worry Child" Lonesome as a Shadow (Son of Davy, 18)
- National Reserve, "Standing on the Corner" Motel la Grange (Ramseur, 18) D
- Bonnie Prince Billy, "World's Greatest" Ask Forgiveness (Drag City, 07)
- Bonny Doon, "I Am Here (I Am Alive)" Longwave (Woodsist, 18) D
- Ry Cooder, "Prodigal Son" Prodigal Son (Fantasy, 18)
- Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, "New Ways to Fall" Years (Bloodshot, 18)
- Buck Meek, "Ruby" Buck Meek (Keeled Scales, 18)
- Elvis Costello, "I'll Still Love You" Johnny Cash: Forever Words (Sony, 18) D
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "Passing Clouds" single (Spacebomb, 18) D
Scott Foley, firstname.lastname@example.org