Sunday, December 03, 2023

STATE of the GENRE 2023

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
December 3, 2023
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

I'm rooting for the americana genre. I'm hoping the artists, the labels, reps, the listeners will appreciate that the only way forward in this genre that's largely defined by the past is to loosen those ties and embrace what the future holds. There's a lot of good being done in our kind of music, which is why I enjoy assembling this State of the Genre list at the close of each year. 

These aren't necessarily the best of the genre, or even our own personal favorites. For this list, we pull together the artists that are leading the americana charge, folks whose artistry defines what the genre sounds like today, and those who might be tugging the notoriously stubborn genre in new directions. Some of these records are ensuring a wider reach, a more inclusive identity to a categorization that has too often been homogeneous. Sometimes this means addressing societal issues, pushing back against the status quo, ensuring that the kernel of rabble-rousing that once gave roots music its edge still has a voice. 

Not all of the albums below are even snugly classified as americana. Some hail from the indie or alternative genre, where acts like Wednesday and Ratboys add pedal steel and the suggestion of twang to their grungy mix. boygenius, Waxahatchee, Jess Williamson and singer-songwriters from the indie folk ilk are drawing the attention of more nonpartisan listeners, critics, and bloggers. And the slow leak of soul into our kind of music continues with Allison Russell, Kara Jackson and others. In a similar fashion, you'll find Charles Wesley Rogers, Taylor Childers, and Zach Bryan influencing more mainstream country listeners to widen their own genre lines. This diversity happens not just sonically, but culturally. Sexually, racially, socially, politically. Whether it's the intention of these acts or not, these forces are altering how many of us regard americana, and the push, the pull, and the dialog are all very welcome. 

In the weeks to come here at R&B HQ, we'll be celebrating our own favorite songs and albums of 2023, several of which might (or might not) appear below. But this is a good place to start in surveying the twelve months passed. This Episode officially marks the launch of our monthlong celebration of what has mattered to us in 2023. We'll lay these out in order of appearance. 

STATE of the GENRE 2023
listed in order of appearance

- Margo Price, Strays and Strays II  (Loma Vista, Jan 13 and Oct 13)
- Sunny War, Anarchist Gospel  (New West, Feb 3)
- Brit Taylor, Kentucky Blue  (Cut a Shine, Feb 3)
- War & Treaty, Lover's Game  (Mercury, Mar 10)
- boygenius, the record and the rest ep  (Interscope, Mar 31 and Oct 13)
- Wednesday, Rat Saw God  (Dead Oceans, Apr 7)
- Kara Jackson, Why Does the Earth Give Us People To Love  (September, Apr 14)
- Esther Rose, Safe To Run  (New West, Apr 21)
- Bella White, Among Other Things  (Rounder, Apr 21)
- Joy Oladokun, Proof of Life  (Amigo, Apr 28)
- Jason Isbell & 400 Unit, Weathervane  (Southeastern, Jun 9)
- Jess Williamson, Time Ain't Accidental  (Mexican Summer, Jun 9)
- Tommy Prine, This Far South  (Nameless Knight, Jun 23)
- Joanna Sternberg, I've Got Me  (Fat Possum, Jun 30)
- Gabe Lee, Drink the River  (Torrez, Jul 14)
- Colter Wall, Little Songs  (Black Hole, Jul 14)
- Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, City of Gold  (Nonesuch, Jul 21)
- Turnpike Troubadours, Cat In the Rain  (Bossier City, Aug 25)
- Zach Bryan, Zach Bryan and Boys of Faith EP  (Belting Bronco, Aug 25 and Sep 22)
- Allison Russell, The Returner  (Fantasy, Sep 8)
- Tyler Childers, Rustin' In the Rain  (Hickman Holler, Sep 8)
- Margo Cilker, Valley of Heart's Delight  (Fluff & Gravy, Sep 15)
- Charles Wesley Godwin, Family Ties  (Big Loud, Sep 22)
- John R Miller, Heat Comes Down  (Rounder, Oct 6)
- Abby Hamilton, #1 Zookeeper (of the San Diego Zoo)  (Blue Gown, Oct 13)
- Flatland Cavalry, Wandering Star  (Interscope, Oct 27)
- Jaime Wyatt, Feel Good  (New West, Nov 3)
- Jeffrey Martin, Thank God We Left the Garden  (Fluff & Gravy, Nov 3)
- Chris Stapleton, Higher  (Mercury, Nov 10)
- Daniel Donato, Reflector  (Retrace, Nov 10)

Next Episode: Our Favorite Songs of 2023
Dec 17: Christmas Christmas
Dec 24: Our Favorite Albums of 2023
Dec 31: Our Favorite Covers of 2023

ROUTES-cast December 3, 2023

- Ruston Kelly, "Belly Of the Beast" single  (Rounder, 23)  D
- Wyatt Flores, "Orange Bottles" Life Lessons EP  (Island, 23)
- Ashley Monroe, "Over Everything" single  (Monroe, 23)  D
- Cody Jinks, "Sober Thing" Change the Game  (Late August, Mar 22)  D
- Corb Lund, "Out On a Win" El Viejo  (New West, Feb 23)
- Mike & the Moonpies, "Three Marlenas" single  (Prairie Rose, 23)
- Charles Wesley Godwin, "Winter's Come and Gone" Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes  (Geffen, 23)
- Zach Russell, "Playing House" Where the Flowers Meet the Dew  (Carlboro, 23)
- Cactus Lee, "Big Rattler" Big Red  (709 Recording, 23)  D
- John Vincent III, "That's Just the Way It Is Babe" Songs For the Canyon  (Concord, 23)
- Low Water Bridge Band, "Clarke County Clay" Back To the Valley  (Low Water, 23)  D
- Chatham County Line, "Magic" Hiyo  (Yep Roc, Jan 26)
- Jon Dee Graham, "Goin' Back To Sweden" Only Dead For a Little While  (Strolling Bones, 23)
- Mol Sullivan, "Eggshells" Goose  (Sullivan, Jan 26)
- Addy, "Hudson" Temperance  (addy-4addy, 23)  D
- Johanna Warren, "Lunar Landing" Rockfield Sessions Vol 1  (Warren, 23)
- Matthew 'Doc' Dunn, "Camerawoman" Fantastic Light  (Cosmic Range, 23)
- Matthew Logan Vasquez, "Parade - Frank's Full Moon Saloon" Frank's Full Moon Saloon  (Vasquez, Feb 16)  D
- Frontier Ruckus, "On the Northline" On the Northline  (Loose, Feb 16)  D
- Futurebirds, "Rodeo (live)" Thanks Y'All (Live)  (No Coincidence, 23)  D
- Mama Zu, "Lip" Quilt Floor  (Cosmic Twin, Feb 23)  D
- Cody Dickinson, "All Night Long" single  (Petaluma, 23)  D
- JJ Grey & Mofro, "Rooster" Olustee  (Alligator, Feb 23)
- Swamp Dogg, "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" Light In the Attic & Friends  (Light In the Attic, 23)
- Cut Worms, "Cigarette Burns Forever" Moping In Style: Tribute To Adam Green  (Capitane, 23)  D
- Jenny Lewis, "Puppy and a Truck (Live From Eastside Bowl)" single  (Blue Note, 23)  D
- Grandaddy, "Cabin In My Mind" Blu Wav  (Dangerbird, Feb 16)  
- Langkamer, "Jenny" single  (Breakfast, 23)  D
- Ma'aM, "Filthy Hound" Rules 2 Ramblin'   (Ma'aM, 23)  D
- Delines, "San Leandro Lament" single  (El Cortez, 23)  D


To enjoy our weekly Spotify ROUTES-cast, just open Spotify and search for "routesandbranches" to access this most recent playlist, as well as many others from past months.  Or click here for a preview:

Sunday, November 26, 2023


featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
November 26, 2023
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

In a few weeks, we'll be celebrating our favorite cover songs of the year. For that Episode, we'll also be holding court on what makes for an effective cover. Cat Power's recent live, album-length tribute to Bob Dylan, for instance, deserves recognition, though it may not be on our list, since Bob Dylan genuinely doesn't need more artists playing his songs. In short, a great cover surprises us. Perhaps it crosses genres, or draws our attention to an artist with whom our familiarity is tentative. No spoilers here, but Kevn Kinney might be such an artist. 

Kinney is not an unknown, though few probably appreciate the extensive nature of his work. This will hopefully change with the ongoing release of the songs that make up Let's Go Dancing: A Celebration of Kevn Kinney (Tasty Goody). Begun by Kinney's wife Anna Jensen (who also provides the artwork for each of the singles), the compilation was intended to be a 60th birthday gift, reaching out to friends and fans in hopes of having them contribute a cover from the songwriter's rich catalog. Per Jensen, the results will be shared over the next several months, resulting in one-hundred songs over the space of four records. The first of those is now available via Tasty Goody Records

Let's Go Dancing: Said the Firefly To the Hurricane boasts an absurd wealth of talent, playing a rich assortment of Kevn Kinney's work, from Drivin' N' Cryin' thru solo work and collaborations with the Golden Palominos, his Sun Tangled Angel Revival supergroup, and others. On this first volume, you'll find Jason Isbell's tear through DNC's "Look What You've Done To Your Brother" from 1990's Fly Me Courageous record, featuring more electric guitar than we've heard since Isbell's early days with Drive-by Truckers. Patterson Hood is joined by Peter Buck's mandolin on the outstanding "Let's Go Dancing", originally on that same DNC release: So what do you know about revolution / When all you've taught is patience / And waiting, and making a statement

That 2012 excellent Golden Palominos collab, A Good Country Mile, included contributions from Aaron Lee Tasjan, Eleanor Whitmore, and Anton Fier on one of his final sessions. Those tracks are represented here by a wonderfully grimy take on "Gotta Move On" from former Milwaukee accomplices Gordon Gano and Boy Dirt Car - Kinney's first Atlanta performance was in support of Gano's Violent Femmes; he's called this his "Violent Femmes ripoff". The legendary Alejandro Escovedo reaches back to Drivin' N' Cryin's 1986 debut for "Another Scarlet Butterfly", a tune Kinney revisited on last year's overlooked Think About It. Kinney has acknowledged the strong influence of the Athens scene of that time on his music, a debt that's represented by the inclusion of Vanessa Briscoe Hay's reborn Pylon on the early, edgy "Count the Flowers". 

Kevn Kinney has issued nine solo albums, the first of which was 1990's MacDougal Blues, which took his band's Southern rock in an urban folk direction a'la Chuck Prophet or Peter Case. Shovels & Rope cover that record's "Gotta Get Out of Here", with wailing harmonica and untethered guitar squeal: Everyday I get up / I walk down the same street / I stand on the same bus stop / And I catch the same bus downtown / I sit in the same seat / With the same lady with a gallon of Walgreens perfume on ...  The ageless Wreckless Eric turns that collection's acoustic "House Above Tina's Grocery" into a shambling, feedback-laden punk ode. Elsewhere on Said the Firefly, the voice of the long-lost Shelly Colvin echoes across "Save For Me", a reverb-heavy country ballad from Kinney's lesser-known 1994 Down Out Law. Singles have already been released from future collections, including tributes from Mike Farris, Scott McCaughey, Great Peacock and more. 

Of course, the ideal response to a collection like this is to drive listeners back to Kevn Kinney's original stuff, most of which is available here and there. At heart, especially with his band, Kinney managed to span the chasm between Southern rock and the Mtv crowd, at a time when it was possible to catch acts like Georgia Satellites, Black Crowes, and Cracker, not to mention REM's unlikely ascendancy. At R&B HQ, we'll continue to share from this ongoing tribute series as new songs are released (and you can keep tabs at Anna Jensen's website). At Kinney's request, proceeds are being directed to a handful of worthy charities. 

Next Episode: The Year in Americana 

- Beirut, "January 18th" Hadsel  (Pompeii, 23)
- String Machine, "I See You the Same" Turn Off Anything On Again EP  (String Machine, 23)
- Iron & Wine, "Woman King (live)" Who Can See Forever Soundtrack  (Sub Pop, 23)
- Bonnie Prince Billy, "Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You" single  (Drag City, 23)  D
- Johanna Warren, "Black Moss" Rockfield Sessions Vol 1  (Warren, 23)  D
- John Craigie, "Absolutely Sweet Marie (ft TK & Holy Know-Nothings)" single  (Craigie, 23)
- John Moreland, "You Don't Care For Me Enough To Cry (live)" Live At Third Man Records  (Third Man, 23)
- Mol Sullivan, "Still Tryin'" Goose  (Sullivan, Jan 26)  D
- Haley Heynderickx, "How Does the Horse Go Home (ft Max Garcia Conover)" Among Horses III (Fifth Anniversary Edition)  (Son Canciones, 23)  D
- Willy Tea Taylor & Fellership, "Fightin' Man" Great Western Hangover  (Blackwing, 23)
- Matthew "Doc" Dunn, "Under Thumb" Fantastic Light  (Cosmic Range, 23)  D
- Elliott BROOD, "Stars Align" Town  (Six Shooter, 23)
- Dori Freeman, "Good Enough" Do You Recall  (Blue Hens, 23)
- Bruce Robison, "Never Say Never" In the Woods  (Next Waltz, Feb 9)
- Wilder Blue, "Ogallala Rail" Super Natural  (Hill Country, 23)
- Victoria Liedtke & Jason Ringenberg, "Life Rides the Train" More Than Words Can Tell  (Judee Bop, Mar 22)  D
- Wesley Dean, "Burn This House" Music From Crazy Hearts  (Hall of Flames, 23)  D
- Wyatt Flores, "Life Lessons" Life Lessons EP  (Island, 23)
- Will Quinlan, "Radio Life" single  (Ironweed, 23)  D
- John Vincent III, "Lincoln, NB" Songs For the Canyon  (Concord, 23)  D
- Mike & the Moonpies, "Redbird" single  (Prairie Rose, 23)  D
- Flatland Cavalry, "Wool" Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes  (Geffen, 23)
- Vincent Neil Emerson, "Hang Your Head Down Low" Golden Crystal Kingdom  (La Honda, 23)
- Blitzen Trapper, "Millions of Billions" single  (Yep Roc, 23)  D
- MJ Lenderman, "Dan Marino (live)" And the Windn (Live and Loose!)  (Anti, 23)
- Daniel Donato, "Halfway (In Between)" Reflector  (Retrace, 23)
- Charles Bradley & Menahan Street Band, "I'll Slip Away" Light In the Attic & Friends  (Light In the Attic, 23)
- Daniel Bachman, "Leaves Lying On Each Side" When the Roses Come Again  (Three Lobed, 23)
^ Great Lake Swimmers, "Peacemaker" Let's Go Dancing: Celebration of the Music of Kevn Kinney  (Tasty Goody, 23)
- Violent Femmes, "Please Do Not Go (demo)" Violent Femmes (Deluxe Edition)  (Craft, Dec 1)


To enjoy our weekly Spotify ROUTES-cast, just open Spotify and search for "routesandbranches" to access this most recent playlist, as well as many others from past months.  Or click here for a preview:

Sunday, November 19, 2023


featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
November 19, 2023
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Has it really only been eight years since Chris Stapleton unleashed Traveller? In retrospect, the record paved the way for the artists who have mounted a campaign vs mainstream “bro country”. Even as he continues to collect awards and accolades, becoming a ubiquitous and recognizable face in popular music, Stapleton seems to work from an admirable pool of humility and good taste. No one project has eclipsed the impact of that first solo venture, though everything he’s released has been as good as we’ve gotten from a country-affiliated artist.

His fifth full-length, Higher, is more satisfying than trailblazing, less a bar-raiser than a reminder of the consistent quality of Stapleton’s artistry. A generous 14 tracks, the collection addresses love in many of its earthly expressions, from moments of weakness to abiding gratitude, from commitment to good old lust. Cowritten with Miranda Lambert, “What Am I Gonna Do” finds the narrator dreading a life without the person they’ve come to cherish, even as they recognize that the relationship may be in the rear view mirror. The mid-tempo country number bears the soulful stamp we’ve come to expect from the genre’s strongest vocalist, solidly backed by his wife Morgane’s own lovely delivery: Been drinking everything on that shelf / Feels like I’m killing myself / You’re gone and it hurts like hell / Wishing I was anybody else. A classic ode to relationship, the ballad “It Takes a Woman” is a simple and unhurried gem, destined for repeated playing at weddings and anniversaries: Whenever I’m broken / Honey you heal me / When I’m in the dark / You are the light.

Co-produced by the Stapletons with the reliable David Cobb, Higher betrays few if any missteps in its thoughtfully reliable arrangement. Their projects have always been less about purity than about a melting pot of roots-related genres. “South Dakota” is a darker blues-rock with a spidery guitar line a’la Tony Joe White. The state’s tourism board would be wise to avoid the song for any future publicity campaign: Nights are long as the day is cold / Staying alive is getting old. Grittier tracks stand out on an LP that skews decidedly towards mid-tempo and ballads. At the album’s halfway point, the phenomenal “White Horse” serves as a disrupter, going all-in on arena-ready electric guitars and throat-shredding vocals, checking boxes for cliches and familiar tropes even as it stands among the year’s best singles: If you want a cowboy on a white horse / Riding off into the sunset / If that’s the kind of love you wanna wait for / Hold on tight girl, I ain’t there yet. Blessed by Paul Franklin’s pedal steel, “Crosswind” is a textbook trucking-as-life number that grants Stapleton’s band a bit of room to stretch and loosen.

Just three of Higher’s songs feature Chris Stapleton as sole writer. Many of the record’s co-writes credit a handful of contributors, though there is a directness and simplicity to most of the collection, hardly seeming like the work of several hands. While certain songs deliver more clever or poetic turns of phrase, Stapleton is more an exceptional singer than an outstanding lyricist. The steady percolating “The Fire” asks: I hear your name / Through the wind and rain / Why can’t you see / The fire inside me. The title cut praises another as: the sunrise that turns my night into day. But even these songs bear the singer’s unmatched vocal ability. While he’s best known for his shredding delivery on songs like “Cold” or “Tennessee Whiskey”, Stapleton ventures into a lovely, breathy upper register on that title track. The songs would be less remarkable if delivered by a lesser singer. Chris Stapleton is ultimately what makes them memorable.

Like Bonnie Raitt, Stapleton’s work is remarkable in its consistent quality and decency. Rather than struggle for new heights from album to album, he has largely remained in the same pocket he established eight years ago. As a body of work, Stapleton’s recordings with the Jompson Brothers, Steeldrivers, duets, one-off singles, and solo records, he rivals only Jason Isbell in terms of reliability. Another of Higher’s outstanding songs, “Mountains Of My Mind” is notable as the sessions' only moment featuring solely the man and his acoustic guitar. As such, it is striking in its vulnerability: There’s an empty table / And a well-worn wooden chair / Just waiting for me in the middle of nowhere. The country-soul of “Think I’m In Love With You” or “Loving You On My Mind” will merit more repeated spins, but it’s in this more subtle moment that the quiet brilliance of Chris Stapleton speaks most clearly.

- Madi Diaz, "Don't Do Me Good (ft Kacey Musgraves)" Weird Faith  (Anti, Feb 9)
- Iron & Wine, "Trapeze Swinger (live)" Who Can See Forever Soundtrack  (Sub Pop, 23)
- Staves, "All Now" All Now  (Nonesuch, Mar 22)  D
- Cat Power, "I Don't Believe You (live)" Sings Dylan: 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert  (Domino, 23)
- Heavy Diamond Ring, "I Don't Wanna Know" All Out of Angels  (Cowboy Cowabunga, 23)
- Katie Pruitt, "Blood Related" single  (Rounder, 23)  D
- John Craigie, "When I'm Down (ft TK & Holy Know-Nothings)" single  (Craigie, 23)  D
- Dori Freeman, "Why Do I Do This To Myself" Do You Recall  (Blue Hens, 23)
- Bruce Robison, "Down On the E" In the Woods  (Next Waltz, Feb 9)  D
- Willi Carlisle, "When the Pills Wear Off" Critterland  (Signature Sounds, Jan 26)
- Bella White, "Burn Me Once" Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes  (Geffen, 23)  D
- Wilder Blue, "Seven Bridges Road (ft Luke Combs)" Super Natural  (Hill Country, Nov 21)
- Sam Outlaw, "Do You Really Love Me" single  (Black Hills, 23)  D
- Ashley Monroe, "Over Everything" single  (Monroe, 23)  D
- Wyatt Flores, "3/13" Life Lessons EP  (Island, 23)  D
- Cale Tyson, "City Girl" single  (Tyson, 23)  D
^ Chris Stapleton, "Fire" Higher  (Mercury, 23)
- Ashley Ray, "Animal" Animal  (Ashley Ray, 23)
- Tyler Halverson, "Tiffany Blue (ft Carter Faith)" single  (Atlantic, 23)  D
- Old Heavy Hands, "Shelter Me" Small Fires  (Spitting Daggers, Jan 19)
- Chuck Ragan, "Echo the Halls" single  (Rise, 23)  D
- Blackberry Smoke, "Hammer and the Nail" Be Right Here  (3 Legged, Feb 16)
- Parker Gispert, "Together" Let's Go Dancing: Celebration of Kevn Kinney  (Tasty Goody, Nov 24)
- MJ Lenderman, "Someone Get the Grill Out Of the Rain (live)" And the Wind (Live and Loose!)  (Anti, 23)
- Billy Allen + the Pollies, "All of Me" single  (Single Lock, 23)  D
- Frog, "Black on Black on Black" Grog  (tapewormies, 23)
- Michael Nau, "Tiny Flakes" Accompany  (Karma Chief, Dec 8)
- Lucius, "Stranger Danger" single  (Fantasy, 23)  D
- Brittany Howard, "Red Flags" What Now  (Island, Feb 2)
- Joan Shelley, "Hush the Waves Are Rolling In" Lullabies From the Archive Of American Folk Song EP  (No Quarter, 23)  D


To enjoy our weekly Spotify ROUTES-cast, just open Spotify and search for "routesandbranches" to access this most recent playlist, as well as many others from past months.  Or click here for a preview:

Sunday, November 12, 2023


featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
November 12, 2023
Scott Foley, being of light

Even as we near that dreaded time of the year when the release schedule slows and announcements can be few and farther between, we continue to add new stuff to A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster. Holiday albums seem to be at a minimum so far this year. One potentially notable exception is a seasonal collab between Alela Diane & the Hackles. It's Always Christmas Somewhere alights upon your rooftop on December 1 (Rusted Blue). JJ Grey & Mofro return from a long hiatus with Olustee. A product of Alligator Records, the album is scheduled for a February 23 release. Alynda Segarra's Navigator earned Hurray For the Riff Raff a raft of new attention. Her followup, The Past Is Still Alive, has been announced for a February 23 shelf date (Nonesuch). Following a trickle of singles and one-offs, Shane Smith & the Saints have pulled together their next eagerly-awaited full-length. Norther is expected to appear wherever music matters on March 1 (Geronimo West). Finally, Sophie & the Broken Things released an exceptional debut with last year's Delusions of Grandeur. Now recording under her own name, Sophie Gault's second LP, Baltic Street is set for an April 12 appearance (Petaluma).  

I used to work in a new age bookstore. I worked there for several years, and over time I worked to evolve it into a literary bookstore (with an unexpectedly large new age collection). We sold new age music, along with incense (some of my books still carry a slight smell of nag champa), Zuni fetishes, tarot decks, etc. The store also carried affirmations - pithy, positive statements that often came with suction cups you might use to affix them to a mirror, read them everytime you looked at yourself. But eventually we were more Chuck Palahniuk than Shakti Gawain; more Buena Vista Social Club than Enya. 

At the bottom of the landing page of Angie McMahon's website, there is a small button encouraging you to pull an affirmation card. I received the following: you have so much to give yourself now ... then, i'm trying to balance everything, and, okay you can take a break now (don't have to tell me twice). The Melbourne artist's second full-length solo collection, Light, Dark, Light Again, is far more nuanced than these little affirmations, but the spirit is much the same. 

2019's Salt was a darkhorse among our top five records that year - the haphazardly knuckled guitar, the immediacy of McMahon's vocal against a minimalist background. Light, Dark amplifies those early tentative steps with the encouragement of North Carolina producer Brad Cook, not reinventing the artist's sound as much as extending and expanding it, further revealing the music's raw beauty. I feel like an evolution of the same person, McMahon has noted. She is joined on the journey by a small cohort featuring Phil Cook, Leif Vollebekk, and Matt McCaughan.

The sound of running water introduces "Saturn Returning", before easing into piano, McMahon's vocal, and a shower of electronics, all grounded with sturdy percussion. The sounds are simultaneously earthy and celestial, rooted in our physical reality, but frequently following these personal, everyday roots to more universal sonics and themes. She sings: I'm gonna love every inch of this body / The limbs that are writing each day of this story / I'm gonna surrender my keys to the universe. Where Salt could be edgy, "Saturn" is lush and expansive, free-flowing: Nothing less that letting this jaw go loose / For the flow of the river.  An electric pulse of energy propels "Exploding", with McMahon's vocal a confident force like Florence + the Machine at their most primal. Perhaps keeping with the light/dark/light theme, many of these new songs follow a quiet/loud/quiet design, dramatic crescendos alternating with passages of hushed restraint: I hope I am always exploding / I see the stars, they're supernoving (when you're an artist, you can claim artistic license to create your own words). 

Rather than dispensing dimestore wisdom from on high, there is a sense that the affirmations on Light, Dark are hard-earned, that maybe the story of Angie McMahon's new album is actually that of an artist discovering these truths on the way through the gestation and birth of her collection. "Divine Fault Line" places us on this precipice: You're all fucked up and you're wanting to die / And that's the place where the breaking out begins / It's the divine fault line opening. The songwriter has spoken of her uncertainty in bringing new music to the studios, the emotional and artistic struggle over the past four years, not just through Covid but in and out of broken relationships and depression. On "Seratonin", McMahon has traded smoking for a yoga routine. "Letting Go" is the album's most cathartic moment, with racing, insistent guitars and pop energy, from lying on the living room floor to the realization that the trick was simply to surrender. Mantra-like repetition is deployed throughout the record, a tool for manifesting one's reality. McMahon gives full rein to her courage, unshackling her voice and shouting, It's okay, it's okay / Make mistakes, make mistakes! 

McMahon embraces these affirmations fully, not just emotionally but also embodying them physically. On the fierce "I Am Already Enough", cowritten with Meg Duffy, she sings: I think I know how to love my life ... / And if I dance like I'm goddamn sure / Then it doesn't hurt like it did before. Low fuzz guitar rips through the upbeat cut, accompanied by heavy bass and steady snare. It's an anthem of radical self-compassion, with the singer intoning I am already enough, I am already enough until it is less an encouraging affirmation and more a rallying cry. That heartbeat percussion pumps throughout Light, Dark, an element almost unheard on Salt, a dependable presence even as it shuffles through "Making It Through". McMahon shares a lesson she learned from Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron: I didn't know then / That out of ash and destruction / The ground will grow things. We need the dark in order to find the light. Light / Dark / Light again ... 

"Fireball Whiskey" starts with the sound of birds, wind through trees, nature as comforting presence. It's one of the few stories Angie McMahon tells here, using alcohol to quiet anxiety and stir courage. In the absence of chemical support, there is the acceptance that we simply have to develop a healthy relationship with fear and failure. That's the victory: This morning / I didn't want to get out of the shower / But hot water runs out / And you have to carry on don't you. We're still that anxious little mess that the songwriter identifies on "Black Eye", the collection's most straightforward country-folk arrangement. The song showcases McMahon's lovely, atypical voice, as powerful in its restraint as it is vulnerable in its stormier moments. 

In her native Australia, Light, Dark, Light Again shares chart space with Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, and the Rolling Stones. It's been nominated for Album of the Year by the country's J Awards, where she commands the stage in front of a sea of admirers. Angie McMahon isn't exceptional for expressing her insecurities or for transitioning herself stylistically in a larger, more extroverted fashion. Where the songs of others might point back in on themselves (thinking Courtney Barnett, Lydia Loveless) McMahon's work manages to lead forward and upwards on her second album. The guitars and vocals that brought us to embrace Salt are still present, but here they are deployed with increased confidence and purpose. She has mentioned, I wanted to be the War on Drugs. It seems Angie McMahon has a chance to be that, and more. Just making it through is the lesson

^ Angie McMahon, "Black Eye" Light Dark Light Again  (Gracie, 23)
- Beirut, "Hadsel" Hadsel  (Pompeii, 23)
- Cat Power, "Tell Me Momma (live)" Sings Dylan: 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert  (Domino, 23)
- Jeffrey Martin, "Sculptor" Thank God We Left the Garden  (Fluff & Gravy, 23)
- Heavy Diamond Ring, "When You're Away (ft Nathaniel Rateliff)" All Out of Angels  (Cowboy Cowabunga, Nov 17)  D
- John Moreland, "Hang Me In the Tulsa County Stars (live)" Live at Third Man Records  (Third Man, 23)
- John Leventhal, "That's All I Know About Arkansas (ft Rosanne Cash)" Rumble Strip  (Rumple Strip, Jan 26)  D
- Mindy Smith, "Little Wings" single  (Giant Leap, 23)  D
- String Machine, "Misfire" Turn Off Anything On Again EP  (String Machine, 23)  D
- Roadside Graves, "Long Death" I Won't Cry Alone  (Don Giovanni, 23)
- Frog, "New Ro" Grog  (tapewormies, Nov 17)
- Ryan Davis & Roadhouse Band, "Learn 2 Re-Luv" Dancing On the Edge  (Sophomore Lounge, 23)
- Violent Femmes, "Country Death Song (Live at Beneath-It-All CafĂ© 1981)" Violent Femmes (Deluxe Edition)  (Craft, Dec 1)
- Will Sheff, "Tommy McHugh" single  (ATO, 23)  D
- David Newbould, "Jean" single  (Blackbird, 23)  D
- Great Peacock, "The Innocent" Said the Firefly To the Hurricane: Celebration of Kevn Kinney  (Tasty Goody, Nov 24)
- Jon Dee Graham, "Death Ain't Got No Mercy" Only Dead For a Little While  (Strolling Bones, 23)
- Lori McKenna, "Wonder Drug" 1988 (Deluxe Edition)  (CN, 23)
- Boy Golden, "Aeroplane Song" single  (Six Shooter, 23)  D
- Chris Stapleton, "What Am I Gonna Do" Higher  (Mercury, 23)
- Vincent Neil Emerson, "Man From Uvalde" Golden Crystal Kingdom  (La Honda, 23)
- Zach Russell, "Take Me Back To Tennessee" Where the Flowers Meet the Dew  (Carlboro, Dec 1)
- Wilder Blue, "True Companion" Super Natural  (Hill Country, Nov 21) 
- Sarah Jarosz, "When the Lights Go Out" Polaroid Lovers  (Rounder, Jan 26)
- Daniel Donato, "Rose In a Garden" Reflector  (Retrace, 23)
- Sophie Gault, "Christmas In the Psych Ward" Baltic Street Hotel  (Petaluma, Apr 12)  D
- Jaime Wyatt, "Moonlighter" Feel Good  (New West, 23)
- Hurray For the Riff Raff, "Alibi" The Past Is Still Alive  (Nonesuch, Feb 23)  D
- Vashti Bunyan, "How Could You Let Me Go (ft Devendra Banhart)" Light In the Attic & Friends  (Light In the Attic, Nov 24)  D
- Alela Diane & the Hackles, "River" It's Always Christmas Somewhere  (Jealous Butcher, Dec 1)  D


To enjoy our weekly Spotify ROUTES-cast, just open Spotify and search for "routesandbranches" to access this most recent playlist, as well as many others from past months.  Or click here for a preview:

Sunday, November 05, 2023


featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
November 5, 2023
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

I'll start with the takeaway. You simply won't find a better lyrics sheet this year than Jeffrey Martin's Thank God We Left the Garden (Fluff & Gravy). Recorded on solo guitar to two cheap microphones in an 8x10 shack in the artist’s Portland backyard, these eleven songs show a conviction for the beauty and importance of words carefully, meaningfully arrayed. I don’t hear the clicks of the heater, the barking dogs or the trucks passing by, but I do hear the steady beating of Jeffrey Martin’s heart.

We’ve spoken well of Martin’s previous work, especially 2014’s Dogs In the Daylight and his last record, One Go Around from 2017, both starkly deployed collections of thoughtful contemporary folk. Thank God strips down those already quiet arrangements, and amplifies instead the songwriter’s reflections on matters of meaning, compassion, and moments of connection. On “Quiet Man”, Martin sings: You can meet God in a cigarette just the same as in a sermon / And the devil’s always listening to those who are deserving. It’s in this spirit that he marches out into the dark, rain-damp streets on the lullaby waltz, “Walking”: If you stay up late enough / Stoplights play for no one / The dogs are gone to dream. These are songs from that night shift.

As the title might suggest, these songs are also steeped in traditionally religious language and mythology, though Martin’s perspective is far from orthodox. On “Garden” he imagines God as delighted with the messy consequences of the Eden episode: I want to find out for certain / If I’m here on purpose / As if knowing would save me / From the things that have made me / As if the mess that I’m making / Isn’t really a blessing. In The Gospel According To Jeffrey Martin, the emphasis is not on beliefs or convictions, but rather on our common seeking, the questions we share. “Paper Crown” imagines us all as searchers: It’s okay / Everybody feels the same way / Everybody’s too afraid to say / What they haven’t found. Answers are overrated.

Even as he walks the streets, even as he strums alone in his backyard shack, on Thank God We Left the Garden, Jeffrey Martin demonstrates a great amount of compassion. “Red Station Wagon” is a genuinely moving story of a young man’s regret for neglecting a friend’s tentative confessions: You feel like a child that the God of all forgot to name / Like he gave you a heart but he did not give you a place. There are lovesongs and moments of meeting on the sessions, along with an abiding recognition of that we’re all just fumbling our way through the same questions. On the beautiful “There Is a Treasure”, he finds liberation in the beautiful unimportance of our fleeting existence, a truth that might lead us to find compassion for every person’s story. For the sake of warmth, we are drawn to one other’s briefly flickering flame.

Fellow Portland artist Jon Neufeld adds atmospheric electric guitar on a few of these cuts, most of which are built around Jeffrey Martin’s understated acoustic picking or strumming. With a gruff but soulful voice like Nathaniel Rateliff, Martin chooses the rare moments to push his vocal beyond an intimate croon. His playing is never showy, rarely more than a bed for his lyrical delivery.

In last week's "review", we mentioned that Andrew Bryant's Prodigal began as a collection of demos that producer Bruce Watson encouraged the writer to flesh out with the help of a tremendous band. Jeffrey Martin apparently intended these unadorned recordings to serve as demos for something larger. Aside from Neufeld’s very selective guitar textures, we’re hearing Martin’s demos on Thank God, and after several passes through the collection I couldn’t imagine these songs in any other setting. Any additional noise might detract from the remarkable intimacy and breathtaking beauty he achieves. 

- Jaime Wyatt, "Feel Good" Feel Good  (New West, 23)
- JJ Grey & Mofro, "The Sea" Olustee  (Alligator, Feb 23)  D
- Jon Dee Graham, "There's a Ghost On the Train" Only Dead For a Little While  (Strolling Bones, 23)
- Tucker Riggleman & Cheap Dates, "Shotgun" Restless Spirit  (WarHen, Feb 17)  D
- Willy Tea Taylor & Fellership, "Champagne On Ice" Great Western Hangover  (Blackwing, 23)
- Ryan Davis & Roadhouse Band, "A Suitable Exit" Dancing On the Edge  (Sophomore Lounge, 23)
- MJ Lenderman, "You Have Bought Yourself a Boat (live)" And the Wind (Live and Loose!)  (Anti, Nov 17)  D
- Damien Jurado, "Hello I'm Leaving" Passing the Giraffes  (Maraqopa, 23)  D
- Califone, "Comedy (V1)" villagers (deluxe edition)  (Jealous Butcher, 23)  D
- Frog, "Maybelline" Grog  (tapewormies, Nov 17)  D
- Empty Country, "Syd" Empty Country II  (Get Better, 23)
- Shooter Jennings, "Carmelita (live)" Shooter Jennings & the Werewolves of Los Angeles Do Zevon  (Black Country Rock, 23)  D
- Josiah and the Bonnevilles, "Another Day At the Factory" Endurance  (Josiah, 23)
- James Elkington, "Me Neither" Me Neither  (No Quarter, Dec 8)  D
- Rainbow Girls, "No Limits" Welcome To Whatever  (Rainbow Girls, Dec 4)  D
- John Craigie, "Bones (ft TK & the Holy Know-Nothings)" single  (Craigie, 23)
^ Jeffrey Martin, "Paper Crown" Thank God We Left the Garden  (Fluff & Gravy, 23)
- Joe Pug, "What Is Good Will Never Change" Sketch Of a Promised Departure  (Nation of Heat, Mar 8)  D
- Andrew Bryant, "Trampoline" Prodigal  (Sentimental Noises, 23)
- Ha Ha Tonka, "Mississippi River" Blood Red Moon  (Ha Ha Tonka, 23)
- Elliott BROOD, "Dried Up" Town  (Six Shooter, 23)
- Chatham County Line, "Right On Time" Hiyo  (Yep Roc, Jan 26)  D
- Flatland Cavalry, "Best Days" Wandering Star  (Interscope, 23)
- Shane Smith & the Saints, "Adeline" Norther  (Geronimo West, Mar 1)  D
- Vincent Neil Emerson, "Time Of the Rambler" Golden Crystal Kingdom  (La Honda, Nov 10)
- Old Californio, "Come Undone" Metaterranea  (Old Californio, 23)
- Joshua Ray Walker, "Voices (live)" I Opened For the Killers and All I Got Was Appendecitis EP  (JRW, 23)
- Luther Dickinson, "Beulah Land (ft Allison Russell)" Magic Music For Family Folk  (Antone's Nov 17)  D
- Cat Power, "Mr Tambourine Man (live)" Sings Dylan: 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert  (Domino, Nov 10)
- Spencer Burton, "Goodbye" North Wind  (Dine Alone, Dec 8)  D


To enjoy our weekly Spotify ROUTES-cast, just open Spotify and search for "routesandbranches" to access this most recent playlist, as well as many others from past months.  Or click here for a preview:

Sunday, October 29, 2023


featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
October 29, 2023
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

I raised my hood against the blowing snow before dawn, as my running shoes crunched into three or four inches of fresh powder. It had arrived about ten days later than Denver's typical first snowfall, ushered in by a blast of arctic wind even before the last leaves had fallen. It's a time of year that rewards introversion and reflection, the perfect mindset for year-end wrap-ups. This marks the year's final monthly accounting, as we'll be laying out our 2023 favorites throughout December: 

Year in Americana - Dec 3
Favorite Songs - Dec 10
Christmas Christmas - Dec 17
Favorite Albums - Dec 24
Covers - Dec 31

I don't wear headphones during my early morning runs, though I'm frequently thinking about music. My soundtrack is my own breathing, and the steady rhythm of my feet on pavement (or snow, as the case may be). During my less ambitious moments, however, in the car or at my desk, music is my constant companion, especially our weekly Spotify ROUTES-casts. Following are the tunes that have provided my company as Fall-ish becomes kinda-Winter. 


1. Jeffrey Martin, "Red Station Wagon" Thank God We Left the Garden  (Fluff & Gravy, Nov 3)

2. Mali Velasquez, "Medicine" I'm Green  (Acrophase, Oct 13)

3. Chris Stapleton, "It Takes a Woman" Higher  (Mercury, Nov 10)

4. Roadside Graves, "We're Not Here" I Won't Cry Alone  (Don Giovanni, Nov 10)

5. Andrew Bryant, "Gravy" Prodigal  (Sentimental Noises, Nov 3)

6. Damien Jurado, "St Gregory Hotel" Motorcycle Madness  (Maraqopa, Oct 20)

7. Cory Hanson, "Western Cum" single  (Drag City, Oct 27)

8. Uncle Lucius, "Civilized Anxiety" Like It's the Last One Left  (Boo Clap, Dec 8)

9. Molly Parden, "Dandy Blend" Sacramented  (Parden, Oct 13)

10. Pert Near Sandstone, "Clouds Are Gathering" Waiting Days  (PNS, Oct 20)

No dedicated write-ups on these this month. Instead, we'll provide a review for one of the year's most striking records. 

At one point in Present Tense: Andrew Bryant and the Making of Prodigal, midway through picking apart an acoustic track from his new record, the songwriter asks, Am I a perfectionist? The hour long doc, produced by Gerard Matthews of 19Ninety Films, addresses Bryant's question by portraying him in studio, surrounded by a spectacular band with whom he creates the album of his career. While Prodigal (Sentimental Noises, Nov 3) stands on its own merit, the video provides a remarkable account of the inspiration, collaboration, and the emotional investment that can result in such an artistic triumph. 

Andrew Bryant wasn't in need of salvation or career redirection. Since his days with the seminal Water Liars, his solo output has been exceptional, from 2015's This Is the Life through 2017's terrific Ain't It Like the Cosmos, 2020's Sentimental Noises and '21s Meaningful Connection. While he is by no means above collaboration, each record is largely the product of Bryant as an instrumentalist and a producer. Bruce Watson, who serves as producer for Prodigal, mentions in the doc that Bryant delivered his new songs as home recordings, intended as a close-to-final product. At his Delta-Sonic Sound Studios in Memphis, the producer heard more, and gathered his collaborators to flesh out the sessions with Bryant: The way I produce is I try to surround myself with the best possible musicians at my disposal, and then I just kinda give them enough rope not to hang themselves but to actually do something very good

The strength and vision of this outfit can be heard on "Gravy", from Will Sexton's fierce fuzz guitar to Rick Steff's essential piano, Alex Greene's organ, Mark Edgar Stuart's bass and Will McCarley's empathetic drumming. Add the punch of Memphis horns and Andrew Bryant's expressive delivery, his visionary lyrics: That night in the dark / I watch my mother take out the dove's heart / And cover it with gravy / In a skillet alone at the stove. Prodigal is a document of place and belonging, following Bryant down the roads of his rural Mississippi birthplace, the wide-open vistas of which define the accompanying film. In one especially poignant scene, the songwriter enters the open doors of an abandoned, dilapidated Baptist church. Beneath sagging ceilings and alongside a dusty, broken piano, he sings "Shiloh". Languid guitars peal across the track above McCarley's steady drumming, finally grounding and erupting in an incandescent solo. Bryant offers a vision from his childhood: I smell the coffee and the Christmas tree / Big star is falling somewhere over Galilee / I wrap my body in her softest quilt / Touch my hair and hide my face

These moments of sharp sensory recollect crowd Andrew Bryant's new songs, surfacing like dreams that can seem mythical. He watches on "Trampoline" as an unnamed companion takes flight, the propulsive track set aloft on soaring strings: Then I saw Christ hanging out in the garden / Picking ripe tomatoes / He took my hand in his hand and let me into the house / He made me a sandwich and asked if I was thirsty. He watches a man with admiration, probably his father, on "Certainty", a song that swells with melancholy: I know you know a thing or two / About how everything works / And I wish I had / How I wish I had / Your certainty. In Present Tense, he remarks on the presence of the past on Prodigal, how his songs have tended to dwell on the here and now: Throughout making this record I learned that the past is still with me ... because all of those things are who I am

The Prodigal sessions are rich with the language of the church, a recurring entity in Bryant's childhood with which he seeks to make some kind of peace. Reportedly written from his mother's perspective, "Tongues" features punching horns and pulsing bass, gathering urgency as it progresses: Everybody lives and everybody dies / No matter what we say / No matter how we pray. The title cut adds banjo to a pastoral setting: Brother Danny was a fisher of men / He cast his jigs across the Arkansas sands / Hooked a line on his finger and he played in the band / Every Sunday and we said amen. Solemn, acoustic folk songs such as "Wind" and "Love" provide almost hymnlike moments of clarity, though Bryant has no answers, and offers no resolution. He seems to encounter some fleeting grace at the intersection of reckoning and rapture, assembling pieces of family, place, and inheritance. Am I a son of this place, or am I not, he asks. In mythology, meaning must not only coexist alongside mystery, they are dependent upon one another. 

Andrew Bryant's apparent decision to loosen his grasp on the birth of Prodigal has vested the collection with life heretofore unheard in his earlier catalogue. It is a phenomenal sounding record, with special praise due Sexton, Steff and McCarley. The relative freedom that he achieves by sharing his process of creation with Bruce Wagner and his once-in-a-lifetime band has given Bryant room to expand into his still very personal muse, making this new album the most natural, dare we say the most freewheeling of his career. 

- Adam Remnant, "Sunrise At the Sunset Motel" single  (Coiled Myth, 23)  D
- Willy Tea Taylor & Fellership, "The Nurse (ft Anna Tivel)" Great Western Hangover  (Blackwing, 23)
- Martha Scanlon & Jon Neufeld, "XO" single  (Jealous Butcher, 23)  D
- John Craigie, "Where It's From (ft TK & the Holy Know-Nothings)" single  (Craigie, 23)  D
- Maybel, "Splinters" Gloam  (Idee Fixe, 23)
- Night Beds, "Knoxville" single  (Arkansas Blues, 23)  D
- Sun June, "Moon Ahead" Bad Dream Jaguar  (Run For Cover, 23)
- Austin Lucas, "Just a Girl" single  (GrindEthos, 23)  D
- Israel Nash, "Going Back" Ozarker  (Desert Folklore, 23)
- Cory Hanson, "Can't Keep My Eyes Open" single  (Drag City, 23)  
- Old Heavy Hands, "All the Time In the World" Small Fires  (Spitting Daggers, Jan 19)
- Harvest Thieves, "Avenue A" As the Sparks Fly Upward  (Harvest Thieves, 23)
- Flatland Cavalry, "New American Dream" Wandering Star  (Interscope, 23)
- Joshua Ray Walker, "Outlaw (live)" I Opened For the Killers and All I Got Was Appendicitis EP  (JRW, 23)  D
- Cale Tyson, "Hope You're Hungover" single  (Tyson, 23)  D
- Jon Snodgrass, "Go" Let the Bad Times Roll: Tribute to the Replacements  (Creep, 23)  D
- New Pornographers, "Firework In the Falling Snow (acoustic version ft Aimee Mann)" single  (Merge, 23)  D
- Cat Power, "Like a Rolling Stone" Sings Dylan: 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert  (Domino, Nov 10)
- Grandaddy, "Watercooler" Blu Wav  (Dangerbird, Feb 16)  D
- Angie McMahon, "Divine Fault Line" Light Dark Light Again  (Gracie, 23)
- Ryan Davis & the Roadhouse Band, "Junk Drawer Heart" Dancing On the Edge  (Sophomore Lounge, 23)  D
- Third Mind, "Little Bit of Rain" Third Mind 2  (Yep Roc, 23)
- Old Californio, "Old Kings Road" Metaterranea  (Old Californio, 23)
- Adeem the Artist, "Fast Cars" single  (Four Quarters, 23)  D
- Dori Freeman, "Movie Screen" Do You Recall  (Blue Hens, Nov 17)
- Duff Thompson, "Bring It To You" Shadow People  (Mashed Potato, 23)
- Nora Jane Struthers, "Oh To Be Home" Back To Cast Iron  (Blue Pig, 23)
- Dead South, "Tiny Wooden Box" Chains & Stakes  (Six Shooter, Feb 9)  D
- Shakey Graves, "True Love Will Find You In the End (ft Jess Williamson)" Texas Wild  (Lower Colorado Record Authority, 23)
- Josiah and the Bonnevilles, "Kentucky Flood" Endurance  (Josiah, 23)  D


To enjoy our weekly Spotify ROUTES-cast, just open Spotify and search for "routesandbranches" to access this most recent playlist, as well as many others from past months.  Or click here for a preview:

Sunday, October 22, 2023


featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
October 22, 2023
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

There are few artists in our kind of music as recognizable as Israel Nash. His arrangements are typically thick with sound and reverb, both acoustic and electric, organic and cosmic, intimate and open to the heavens. Nash's familiar voice echoes across the tracks, craggy and textured as Neil Young but very capable of carrying a tune with soul. His brand of roots rock is commonly labeled heartland, even if it is well-rooted in the soil of his Dripping Springs, Texas studio. Israel Nash is too often likened to Petty, Seger, and Springsteen, but after seven studio projects he merits his own lane for his ambitious, swarming sonic stamp. 

That seventh project, Ozarker, is the first of four full albums (!) Israel Nash has promised over the coming months via his Desert Folklore label. While recent records like 2018's Lifted and 2021's Topaz were built around the people and places and nature surrounding his current Texas Hill Country environs, the new sessions find inspiration from stories of his family and fellow Ozarkers of his Missouri birthplace. The narrator for the reflective "Lost In America" is haunted by his wartime PTSD, spectres of which can't help but effect his family as well: My brother Ron looked up to me / Now he comes by the apartment twice a week / Just to make sure that I'm doing okay. The fiery "Going Back" channels the theatrical melodrama of Jim Steinman as the singer joins his brother for one last heist to cement their legend: I am old, but there was a day / They'd say my name from Laredo to Cheyenne

Ozarker is coproduced with veteran boardman and instrumentalist Kevin Ratterman, who has worked most notably with My Morning Jacket, New Multitudes, and Strand of Oaks, in addition to joining Israel Nash on Topaz. New songs like "Can't Stop" and "Travel On" epitomize the guitar- and drum-heavy arrangements on sessions that favor the anthemic and the soaring. The former percolates with 90s roots pop fervor, the singer spinning these wheels in his eagerness to leave the shadows of his hometown far behind: Not sure where it starts / But this is where it ends. Curtis Roush from Bright Light Social Hour fuels many of the album's incandescent guitars, with Patrick Hallahan serving on drums. "Travel On" is a passionately hopeful call to escape the pull of the city for kinder horizons. Synths amplify many of Ozarker's tracks, never taking center stage but widening Nash's arrangements. 

While reviewers have praised his music as cinematic, the storytelling nature of some of these new cuts adds more of a literary quality to Nash's vision. The ominous "Shadowland" paints a stark picture of life in the Ozarks: I'm living in a circle drawn for me long ago ... From Belton to Ozark / And back to the hill / Down at the bottom / And getting up still. The measured acoustic strum of "Pieces" adds to this picture: Feel a little lost in a place I know. Israel Nash's sound remains expansive, and most of his songs are still driven by yearning and heart, but these story elements root many songs in the daily struggles of real folk. 

Especially since his one-two punch of Rain Plans and Silver Season, this thread of hope and uplift has been Israel Nash's sonic calling card, even amidst the soulful horns and divisive politics of Topaz. The brightly-burning "Roman Candle" presents Nash at his hot and dangerous best, a melodic comet: Wolves may be circling me / But I don't let them in. With its shalala chorus and cosmic chiming electric guitars, the album's title track is another highwater moment, an infectious number that's Rambling and rugged / Rough and tumble as they come

You'll be able to track Israel Nash's stuff on his new Cosmic Eagle substack (it's like an IN social media profile on really good psychedelics, he promises). While listeners may identify certain of Petty's American heartland mythologies, or may spot signs of Springsteen's glory days, you'll also hear the urgency of War on Drugs and the soulful heart of Nathaniel Rateliff. Ozarker is more than the sum of its influences, however, and Nash leads his cohort into hard-won sonic territory that he's carved out in the years since his 2009 debut. In the end, Israel Nash simply sounds like Israel Nash. 

- Great Peacock, "Damn Good Feeling" single  (Great Peacock, 23)  D
- Jaime Wyatt, "Back To the Country" Feel Good  (New West, Nov 3)
^ Israel Nash, "Pieces" Ozarker  (Desert Folklore, 23)
- Duff Thompson, "Shapeshifter" Shadow People  (Mashed Potato, Oct 27)
- Zach Russell, "Milk & Honey" Where the Flowers Meet the Dew  (Carlboro, Dec 1)
- Sierra Ferrell, "Fox Hunt" single  (Rounder, 23)  D
- Pert Near Sandstone, "Clouds Are Gathering" Waiting Days  (PNS, 23)
- Wilder Blue, "Super Natural (ft Brent Cobb)" single  (Hill Country, 23)  D
- Willi Carlisle, "Critterland" Critterland  (Signature Sounds, Jan 26)  D
- Charley Crockett, "Killers Of the Flower Moon" single  (Son of Davy, 23)  D
- Abby Hamilton, "Lucky" #1 Zookeeper (of the San Diego Zoo)  (Blue Gown, 23)
- Vincent Neil Emerson, "Golden Crystal Kingdom" Golden Crystal Kingdom  (La Honda, Nov 10) 
- Cody Jinks, "Outlaws and Mustangs" single  (Late August, 23)  D
- Cactus Lee, "Southwestern Bell" Caravan  (Org Music, 23)
- Morgan Wade, "Halloween" single  (Ladylike, 23)  D
- Jon Dee Graham, "Lost In the Flood" Only Dead For a Little While  (Strolling Bones, Nov 10)
- Harvest Thieves, "Friendly Fire" As the Sparks Fly Upward  (Harvest Thieves, 23)
- Mightmare, "Killer Killer" single  (Kill Rock Stars, 23)  D
- Andrew Bryant, "Shiloh" Prodigal  (Sentimental Noises, Nov 3)
- Ha Ha Tonka, "Carry It Around" Blood Red Moon  (Ha Ha Tonka, 23)
- Nathan Graham, "Pride" Saint of Second Chances  (Pravda, 23)  D
- Holly Macve, "Suburban House (ft Lana Del Rey)" single  (Macve, 23)  D
- Michael Nau, "Shiftshaping" Accompany  (Karma Chief, Dec 8)  D
- Allison Russell, "Take Me To Church" Spotify Singles  (Fantasy, 23)  D
- Mali Velasquez, "Horse Trough" I'm Green  (Acrophase, 23)
- Jeff Tweedy, "Filled With Wonder Once Again" single  (Dead Oceans, 23)  D
- Molly Parden, "Weakest Link" Sacramented  (Parden, 23)
- Dylan LeBlanc, "Dust" Coyote  (ATO, 23)
- Sun June, "16 Riders" Bad Dream Jaguar  (Run For Cover, 23)
- Daniel Bachman, "Someone Straying Long Delaying" When the Roses Come Again  (Three Lobed, Nov 17)  

New this week on A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster: Iron & Wine's first full live recording is the companion piece to a forthcoming documentary chronicling a North Carolina concert performance. Who Can See Forever is set for a November 17 release date (Sub Pop). On the heels of last year's excellent Peculiar, Missouri, Willi Carlisle has announced a follow-up. Produced by Darrell Scott, Critterland will be the songwriter's first project for the Signature Sounds label, expected on shelves January 26. The Canadian alt.bluegrass outfit Dead South ventured to Mexico City to record their new album. Chains & Stakes arrives February 9th courtesy of the Six Shooter label. A one-time member of Prison Book Club with William Matheny, John R Miller, and Adam Meisterhans, Tucker Riggleman will be sharing a new collection with his Cheap Dates band. February 17 is the planned date for Restless Spirit. Finally, Corb Lund's next record will be dedicated to Ian Tyson. The all-acoustic El Viejo will appear via New West Records on February 23. 


To enjoy our weekly Spotify ROUTES-cast, just open Spotify and search for "routesandbranches" to access this most recent playlist, as well as many others from past months.  Or click here for a preview: