ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
May 20, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
Back in my radio days, I would enjoy opportunities to serve as a substitute host for other programmers. Over the years I broadcast a fill-in blues show, a bluegrass show, a world music show and countless "mix" programs. Invariably, I would receive calls from listeners wondering what had happened to their beloved host, and why I wasn't playing blues, bluegrass, etc.
Bottom line is that I thought I was playing blues, bluegrass, etc. But I'm so drawn to hybrids and cross-genre-pollination that my definitions tend to be much wider than those of aficionados. The same goes for the lines I draw around our kind of music here at R&B. Matter of fact, I think I've mentioned before that my alternate name for the show more than a decade ago was Shades of Gray. I'm a fan of outliers, mavericks and exceptions to the rule.
Which is all to say that even if this ain't your father's Sons of Bill, Oh God Ma'am (June 29, Tone Tree) is a brilliant and bold step into the light. The Virginia band's fifth record is a far cry from 2006's Far Cry From Freedom or One Town Away, and it continues the evolution begun with 2012's Sirens and 2014's Love & Logic.
The new project arrives on the heels of a fluke episode that nearly cost frontman James Wilson the use of his guitar-playing hand. Which is a bit ironic considering that Oh God Ma'am is Sons of Bill's most guitar-centric record to date. Electric guitars pulse and soar and chime across the ten-song set, with hardly a twang to be heard. Having debuted as an americana rock act, the band of brothers have become more War on Drugs than Reckless Kelly .
The album's first single, "Believer/Pretender" is built on those chiming guitars, treated drums and vocals awash in reverb. And it's beautiful. The song speaks to our perennial battle between the self we pretend to be and our true identity. Expressed in musical terms, an act either strikes us as genuine and heartfelt, or hollow and plastic. While the sounds on Oh God are less organic, less readily classifiable, they plumb deeper into the Wilsons' soul. They emanate from nearer the heart.
On "Old and Gray", whipcrack drums compliment ringing guitars and the vocal reverb that echoes throughout the record. Lyrics engage in the sort of personal accounting and psychological inventory in which the Wilsons have become experts. All this introspection doesn't readily lend itself to your boot scootin' Friday night to-do. It's thinkin' music as opposed to drinkin' music ...
"Firebird 85" is one of Oh God Ma'am's most rewarding tracks, providing a suitable bridge between Sons of Bill's earlier and more recent expressions. These songs are more sweeping and cinematic than twangy and grainy, though James Wilson's low-slung vocals continue to express some of those deeper roots. Duet partner Molly Parden provides a beautiful compliment on the moving and evocative "Easier".
These flights are firmly anchored in the skin and soil of real life. Like Matthew Ryan's excellent recent work, there is a deep intimacy to songs like "Sweeter Sadder Farther" that prevents these from being simply dreamy departures. "Sweeter" features a moving vocal, supported by little more than a piano and ambient electronics. It would've sounded out of place alongside earlier material like "Roll on Jordan" or "Broken Bottles" or even "Life in Shambles" from the relatively recent Sirens. But these are different days, and they evoke a more somber, measured response. Oh God Ma'am may not win Sons of Bill new fans in the sometimes superficial roots music world, but such an honest and soul-baring effort earns on space on any playlist that features music that matters.
- Vandoliers, "Wild Flower" Ameri-kinda (State Fair, 16)
- Ruen Brothers, "All My Shades of Blue" All My Shades of Blue (Ramseur, 18)
- Luke Winslow-King, "Born to Roam" Blue Mesa (Bloodshot, 18)
- Lake Street Dive, "You Are Free" Free Yourself Up (Nonesuch, 18)
- Blitzen Trapper, "Furr (live)" Live in Portland (BT, 14)
- John Calvin Abney, "Broken Bow" Coyote (Abney, 18)
- Trampled by Turtles, "Annihilate" Life is Good on the Open Road (Banjodad, 18)
- Johnny Irion, "Salvage the Day" Driving Friend (Irion, 18)
^ Sons of Bill, "Easier (w/Molly Parden)" Oh God Ma'am (Tone Tree, 18)
- Lindi Ortega, "Lovers in Love" Liberty (Shadowbox, 18)
- Shooter Jennings, "Fast Horses & Good Hideouts" Shooter (Elektra, 18) D
- Chris Knight, "Oil Patch Town" Pretty Good Guy (Drifter's Church, 01)
- Pat Reedy & Longtime Goners, "Nashville Tennessee at 3am" That's All There Is (Muddy Roots, 18) D
- Jason Boland & the Stragglers, "Tattoo of a Bruise" Hard Times are Relative (Proud Souls, 18)
- Ike Reilly, "She Haunts My Hideouts" Crooked Love (Rock Ridge, 18) D
- American Aquarium, "Work Conquers All" Things Change (New West, 18)
- Charles Lloyd & the Marvels w/Lucinda Williams, "We've Come Too Far to Turn Around" Vanished Gardens (Blue Note, 18) D
- Ronnie Fauss, "Night Before the War" I Am the Man You Know I'm Not (Normaltown, 12)
- Nude Party, "Chevrolet Van" Nude Party (New West, 18) D
- Kelly Willis, "Don't Step Away From Me" Back Being Blue (Premier, 18)
- Phil Cook, "Another Mother's Son" People Are My Drug (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Brent Cowles, "How to Be Okay Alone" How to Be Okay Alone (Dine Alone, 18)
- Gretchen Peters, "Wichita" Dancing With the Beast (Scarlet Letter, 18) D
- Neko Case, "Curse of the I-5 Corridor" Hell-on (Anti, 18)
- T Hardy Morris, "Homemade Bliss" Dude the Obscure (Normaltown, 18) D
- Lucero, "Loving" Among the Ghosts (Liberty + Lament, 18)
- I See Hawks in LA, "Ballad for the Trees" Live and Never Learn (ISHiLA, 18) D
- Kasey Chambers, "Harvest & the Seed (w/Emmylou Harris)" Campfire (Essence, 18)
- Amanda Shires, "Leave it Alone" To the Sunset (Silver Knife, 18) D
- Joey Kneiser, "To My Younger Self" The Wildness (TiAM, 15)