featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
December 9, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
* * * * * * * *
WHAT's SO GREAT ABOUT 2018?!!
or FAVORITE ALBUMs
This Episode, we stick an oversize red bow on the year with a look back at music that really really mattered in 2018. Back when I was a kid, I would spend all my allowance on comic books and records. Grants Pass, Oregon actually had a pretty good record store in those days called Rare Earth. Young Scott didn't go there much, however, since it smelled like hippies. Besides, I found everything I needed at Pay Less Drugstore, where I would flip eagerly through the LPs in search of a record cover that caught my eye. They also sold 45s, carefully arrayed in weekly chart order. Of course, things have changed, and while I will visit Denver's excellent Twist & Shout now & then, I find it really hard to justify paying $30 for a record. I understand the market forces in play, and recognize the benefits of today's streaming and music distribution services. But what I want for this Christmas is a Pay Less Drugstore with a record section right here in Longmont. And I guess I've been pretty good mostly, I think.
I'd say that every year is a pretty good year for music. Artists continue to make music that matters, and there's hardly a Friday that comes around without at least a couple worthy albums for our exploration here at R&B hq. I increasingly see our humble web abode as a niche thing, a site that enjoys new music the old fashioned way. We'll share the occasional self-standing single, but albums still matter to us. An angel gets its wings when we can add a forthcoming release to A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster. And we continue to be driven by the Spirit of Music Discovery.
My hope is that your regular visits to Routes & Branches feel a little like my trips to Pay Less. You never know what you'll find, but you can trust it'll be worth your $8.99. From my side of the aisle, I trust that no matter the vehicle we'll continue to bring you the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music as long as it makes sense for us to do so. So enjoy the following thirty records, carefully displayed for you in chart order. Until next week when we're sold to Thrifty and the album section is replaced by pyramids of budget cola.
Where possible, I've quoted my own reviews. Where I haven't had the chance to publish a formal review, I've written something shiny new.
30. Jeff Tweedy, WARM (dBpm, Nov 30)
Jason Isbell, a man who has wholly embraced the sort of alt.country Jeff Tweedy eschewed years ago, recently tweeted: "I think we can now safely say that both Son Volt and Wilco have turned out to be better than Uncle Tupelo". So would it work to see Jay Farrar and Tweedy side-by-side again? Did it ever really work in the first place? Who knows. Between you and me, who cares? Our musical lives are far richer for what's come our way over the past twenty-five years.
29. Cody Jinks, Lifers (Rounder, Jul 27)
After an under-the-radar shot with 2016's I'm Not the Devil, the Denton songwriter takes a step into the spotlight with his highest profile project to date. While there's a bit more shine to his first Rounder record, Jinks never strays far from the insurgent country that brought him to this point. Jinks' motivation is simply to make more music that appeals to his dearly devoted fan base. If that means he inches closer to country mainstream success, that'll work too.
28. Adam Remnant, Sourwood (Anyway, Aug 17)
The spirit of Sourwood ranges from lush to fragile, from ambitious gestures to the sound of a man recording in his basement. While Adam Remnant has surrounded himself with a capable cadre of accompanists, these are intensely personal statements. It's not simply the continuation of his labors with Southeast Engine, but rather a wholesale reassessment of his musical expression
27. Adam Faucett, It Took the Shape of a Bird (Last Chance, Aug 24)
His songs look deep into the dark of our lives, but also leave room for connection between the cracks … For my part, I neither pursue nor avoid dark content. I tend to find myself drawn to what might be termed "Southern gothic" writing, contemporary heirs to Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, but more for their grace with language as opposed to their haunted themes. My perspective is that if a writer is successful in fostering a certain mood, if they're trading in honest emotions I'm along for the ride. On his new CD, Adam Faucett speaks from this tradition, and it's hard to look away.
26. Chuck Westmoreland, Long Winter Rodeo (Black & Gold, Jun 1)
Here stands the black sheep of this year's flock of fine records. Don't know why I flipped past online mentions of this gem, but when I finally settled in for a good listen (weeks after its release) I couldn't tear my ears away. Given a couple more weeks, there's a fair chance Long Winter Rodeo might've even climbed higher into my list. The Portland writer is an uncommon lyricist, laying the stories of his characters out for all to hear in stark, loving detail.
25. John Calvin Abney, Coyote (JCA, May 18)
Like recent stuff from Andrew Combs or Caleb Caudle, there's an impressive confidence to Coyote, as evidenced by a willingness to range across vast musical territories which serve as destinations and ruts for other artists. During a time when John Calvin Abney is receiving some recognition for his work as a collaborator, reviewers would do well to check out the music he's making between the bars.
24. Becky Warren, Undesirable (Warren, Oct 19)
Undesirable is at its best on songs like "Drake Motel" and "Half-Hearted Angel". Becky Warren is not a rising star, timidly testing her voice. She is a fully established artist awaiting the attention of the roots music masses. She didn't quite spring out of thin air, having served as the frontperson on a couple releases with The Great Unknowns. But with her first two albums she presents herself as among our most deserving writers. Like Mary Gauthier, her stories emerge direct from the trouble and clutter of our daily lives. Like Eliza Gilkyson, she spreads her poetic wings to soar beyond it all.
23. JP Harris, Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing (Free Dirt, Oct 5)
Harris' third full-length record allows him to stretch as a singer and a writer beyond his arguably cartoonish origins. It's as though he began the sessions with a checklist of country and western subgenres, ticking them each off as he finished one song and moved on to the next. Whether it's honky-tonk, 70s country, outlaw or folk, Harris proves himself an able competitor, an imminently credible singer-songwriter.
22. Brent Cobb, Providence Canyon (Elektra, May 11)
Providence Canyon is what I'm looking for from an established artist. Brent Cobb has found his writerly voice, and simply trusts his instrument. The new collection finds him getting better at what he's already good at, not stretching for the sake of novelty or losing traction in an effort to attract new ears. It's one of the most authentic sounds in our kind of music, an artist who's digging in his heels for a long and rewarding career.
21. the Pollies, Transmissions (This is American Music, Sep 28)
Just give it a couple listens and it'll sneak up on you. Give The Pollies' Transmissions a few turns, and you'll agree that they've been underestimated. It's time for us to move The Pollies from the dusty shadows of americana into the light of day. The band's website reminds us that The Pollies have never fit too snugly into the usual "roots rock 'n soul" that we associate with their Muscle Shoals area homebase. That said, over the space of two full-length records and a quality EP with the late Chris Porter, The Pollies have never sounded quite like this. The Pollies have never so fully and confidently embraced the magic mix of garage pop and soul as heard on Big Star, or the radical free-range departures into noise a'la Wilco.
20. Parker Millsap, Other Arrangements (Okrahoma, May 4)
Millsap's first couple releases only hinted at what hits us on Other Arrangements. Elements that played a part in those early gestures are given full rein here, from blues influences to heavy electric guitar and even pop sheen. The Oklahoma artist reportedly sought to let loose and have a little fun. The songs here give listeners permission to do the same.
19. Andrew Bryant, Ain't It Like the Cosmos (Last Chance, Mar 9)
Cosmos is bold in its soul mining and revelation. Bryant sidesteps the troubled shadow of his forebear on "I Am Not My Father's Son", ticking off his conscious efforts to avoid the sins of the father. The refrain "I am not my father's son" can be heard as both a declaration and a mantra, a reminder-to-self that things will be different. As with Tenkiller, Cosmos features moments of great instrumental drama, though Bryant is more likely to add subtle studio touches and synth textures to achieve his sonic goals.
18. Trampled by Turtles, Life is Good on the Open Road (Banjodad, May 4)
Rafter-rousing or reflective, the songs of Life is Good on the Open Road are smart, instrumentally impressive and truly nourishing to the soul. After eight studio records (and an exceptional live document), Trampled by Turtles could easily cruise on the fumes of goodwill. Concert crowds are packed with dedicated followers - enough to fill Red Rocks here in the wilds of Colorado. While this new collection gives the people what they want, Simonett and company never take their musical choices for granted. It sounds like Dave Simonett and cohorts weren't ready to release another record without having a worthy message to deliver.
17. Lori McKenna, The Tree (CN, Jul 20)
Lori McKenna's new collection is a wise and stirring account of what life's still like well beneath the bustle and noise of what passes for popular dialog. Like Mary Chapin Carpenter or a more down-to-earth Patty Griffin, her songs are typically cast in acoustic country-leaning folk settings. With its steady going beat and lyrical flow, there's no reason "Young and Angry Again" couldn't be picked up by any number of famous faces. Her second consecutive project with producer Dave Cobb features several of these moments, when we recognize that McKenna might be one of the best country writers of her generation. She's certainly among our most eloquent documenters of small town iconography.
16. John R Miller, Trouble You Follow (Emperor, Aug 31)
I spend more than my fair share of time stalking new music, so it's pretty rare when something evades my attention like Miller's new CD. Once I was able to catch up, I haven't been able to let go. Supported by his band, The Engine Lights, Miller realizes the promise he's shown in acts like Fox Hunt and Prison Book Club, but he does it in such a casually brilliant way that it's almost easy to overlook. Like this year's Chuck Westmoreland disc, I'm not quite sure if Trouble You Follow won't prove itself as even more worthy with future listenings.
15. Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Years (Bloodshot, Apr 6)
Between you and me, Sarah Shook is one of the best things happening in our kind of music. Her edge and grit come from such a refreshingly genuine place that even her occasional missteps can be intriguing. Where Lydia Loveless veered into pop territory after her Bloodshot debut, my sense (and my hope and expectation) is that Shook will simply dig her heels further into the dirt with her subsequent projects.
14. Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, Tearing At the Seams (Concord, Mar 9)
I was a dedicated fan of Rateliff's earlier solo work, idiosyncratic indie folk that sounds very little like his subsequent work with Night Sweats. That said, this second studio project feeds all my roots rock 'n soul monsters, single-handedly covering the vast and sprawling range of musics that we embrace here at R&B. It's retro- and evocative, but it remains true to its muse without simply being a tribute act.
13. Jamie Lin Wilson, Jumping Over Rocks (JLW, Oct 26)
2015's Holidays & Wedding Rings was a fine debut, though there's no reason we should've expected this. Wilson's sophomore collection is as strong as Margo Price, and deserves the attention folks are giving to artists like Lori McKenna. Jumping is neck-deep in great songs, tunes that are immediately engaging and capable of sinking quickly into your musical memory. Like Kelly Willis, Wilson knows her way around the country vernacular, and she delivers her unassuming work in a voice that goes down so easy. Her sweet duet with Jack Ingram on Guy Clark's "Instant Coffee Blues" should be enough to get the mainstream to open the door.
12. Ruston Kelly, Dying Star (Rounder, Sep 7)
I like dark. I'm a fan of irreverent. I need my music to be smart. Ruston Kelly's second CD falls straight into my wheelhouse, even as it's also received some attention from perennially edge-averse mainstream country. Dying Star is constructed with contemporary sounds (see "Son of a Highway Daughter"), though it never panders to trends. Perhaps Kelly has benefited from his high-profile marriage to this year's model Kacey Musgraves, but he demonstrates remarkable talent and direction that cement him as a true original. This is simply a great-sounding collection.
11. Alejandro Escovedo, The Crossing (Yep Roc, Sep 14)
Escovedo has done this before, building an album around a single narrative arc. But his work has rarely seemed so timely, so relevant as it does on this record-length story of identity, borders and the transformative power of music. The legend reported on his previous CD that he was considering hanging up his guitar, but on these new songs he sounds reinvigorated, fronting a young and energetic Italian band called Don Antonio. At this point, the only reason I'd like to see Escovedo hang up his guitar would be to devote some time to what would surely be a fascinating memoir.
10. Ryan Culwell, Last American (Culwell, Aug 24)
Most of our parents did their best to bequeath to us their faith in the American dream. On Last American, Culwell wonders how to do the same with his children. How do we speak honestly and with love about the world into which they're growing? The nights that keep us awake with preoccupation tend to outnumber the times when we feel like we're getting it right. While Ryan Culwell's new songs offer us few comforts, it's at least heartening that he's so able to set our feelings to such rewarding music.
9. Sons of Bill, Oh God Ma'am (Gray Fox, Jun 29)
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.
8. Marie/Lepanto, Tenkiller (Big Legal Mess, Jan 26)
Tenkiller succeeds in advancing the respective sonic palette of both artists, reigning in Johnson's tendency for sprawl 'n squall (not complaining), while simultaneously pushing the limits of Kinkel-Schuster's quieter acoustic work (still not complaining). Aside from producer Jeff Powell, the duo are responsible for every bit of Tenkiller's thick, rich sound, from writing and playing to sharing the vocals. The songs respect the unique spirit of both, without sounding fractured or schizophrenic.
7. Kristina Murray, Southern Ambrosia (Loud Magnolia, Sep 21)
Much of what sets this new collection apart from Murray's debut is her emerging confidence as a songwriter, especially as heard on some of the album's more measured tracks such as "Strong Blood". She lets the humidity of the South seep into her delivery on the inventory of life as seen from the kitchen window: Eatin' a cling peach / Over the kitchen sink / Southern ambrosia. It's a lovely work that brings to mind the eloquent drawl of Gillian Welch, fully embracing her inheritance. "Pink Azaleas" completes this picture of home, from Amazing Grace from a hymnal page / Taped to the fridgerator door to Sunday drink of vodka and tomato juice with salt on the rim. Like a calling card reminding us of her deep roots, Murray also dives into the true-to-trad "Tell Me", sounding not unlike a long lost Patsy Cline cut.
6. Austin Lucas, Immortal Americans (Cornelius Chapel, Aug 17)
To my ears, these two forces come together most effectively on "Monroe County Nights", a more driving tune that sounds like a collaboration between Austin Lucas and Will Johnson. Like a contemporary Edgar Lee Masters of song, Lucas takes a bird's eye view of the Bloomington home to which he has returned, touching upon how time has changed the people and the place, and how we are changed in return: By and by / We all are shackled / Caged by county lines / Wired, blood-drunk and born into the fight. By relaxing into what comes naturally, by welcoming a degree of intimacy and uncertainly into his music, Austin Lucas has created the most honest and direct music of his career.
5. Caleb Caudle, Crushed Coins (Cornelius Chapel, Feb 23)
There is more of a confidence and a cohesiveness to Caleb Caudle's musical vision on Crushed Coins. Beyond writing good songs, he strives for overarching messages and thematic gestures, elements that can be followed like a ribbon from song to song. Sometimes this is accomplished by juxtaposing diverse bits. The newfound hope of "Love That's Blind" vs the abandonment and finality of "Six Feet From the Flowers": The tools have gone to rust / With no one left to impress / I haven't built a thing / I reach into my pocket / And hold your wedding ring. Caudle himself has drawn the lines to define the theme as "trying to find hope in a dark place ... relying on the people and the things that you love".
4. Courtney Marie Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain (Mama Bird, Mar 23)
At a time when decency is hard to find in the public sphere, kindness can be revolutionary, and personal connection can be essential: When you're trying to be tender / But instead you come off cold / When your sweetness surrenders / To the cruelness of this world. The songs on May Your Kindness Remain aren't political in the protest sense of the term. But Andrews does indirectly acknowledge the current state of affairs through these stories. The title track locates some small salvation in the simple wish that we hold fast to that spark of kindness, of humanity, even as our other trappings may fade: If your money runs out / And your good looks fade / May your kindness remain ...
3. Lucero, Among the Ghosts (Liberty & Lament, Aug 3)
When your longtime favorite below-the-radar alt.country act appears on CBS This Morning, it's time to reassess your definitions. Without the horns and Memphis groove that defined their past couple records, Ghosts is a bit of a throwback to earlier days. On the other hand, Lucero has never sounded this focused, songs have rarely been this ambitious, and the band sounds more cohesive than ever. Most impressively, these sessions mark an evolution in Ben Nichols' identity as a writer who ventures outside the usual lines to deliver stories steeped in history and literary detail.
2. American Aquarium, Things Change (New West, Jun 1)
But ... Things Change, and it's up to each of us to find a way forward. BJ Barham and his new comrades aren't reinventing American Aquarium as much as they're charting the next step in the band's evolution. With the support of a new label and with a family waiting at home, Barham's priorities have become clearer, his mission better defined, embracing his status as a bit of a spokesman for the working class. With the losing side of twenty-five distant in the rearview mirror, we have no choice but to look forward.
1. Neko Case, Hell-on (Anti, Jun 1)
Each year, I do my best of honor our commitment to playing music that matters (insert fancy trademark sign here). This year, that means recognizing one of the most fearless, uncompromising voices in all of music. While the music world pats itself awkwardly on the back for a cursory celebration of women in music, I'd say that there's not an artist that has presented such a literary masterpiece, not a performer who has exhibited such strength and such fury in the past twelve months. Case not only stares down the monster, she grabs it by the jaws and devours it. In a year when Important Statements are in fashion, she simply does what she has done for years. Neko Case messes with our mythologies, and defines 2018.
Finally, in the Great Spirit of Music Discovery, we'll compensate for all that looking back by looking forward into the first several weeks of 2019. Rather than populate our ROUTES-cast with songs from the albums above, we've featured thirty songs from forthcoming records of great promise. Consider it your forbidden peek over the horizon and around the corner.
- Hayes Carll, "Jesus & Elvis" What It Is (Dualtone, Feb 15)
- Mercury Rev, "Sermon (feat. Margo Price)" Bobbie Gentry's Delta Sweete Revisited (Partisan, Feb 8)
- Liz Brasher, "Blood of the Lamb" Painted Image (Fat Possum, Jan 18) D
- Quaker City Night Hawks, "Better in the Morning" QCNH (Lightning Rod, Mar 1)
- Durand Jones & the Indications, "Don't You Know" American Love Call (Dead Oceans, Mar 1)
- Delines, "Eddie & Polly" The Imperial (Decor, Jan 11)
- Phil Cook, "The Truth" single (Psychic Hotline, Dec 4) D
- Lily & Madeleine, "Self Care" Canterbury Girls (New West, Feb 22) D
- Mandolin Orange, "Golden Embers" Tides of a Teardrop (Yep Roc, Feb 1)
- Cactus Blossoms, "Please Don't Call Me Crazy" Easy Way (Walkie Talkie, Mar 1) D
- Yarn, "Undone" Lucky 13 Vol. 1 (Yarn, Dec 4) D
- Greensky Bluegrass, "Do It Alone" All For Money (Big Blue Zoo, Jan 18)
- Deer Tick, "Strange Awful Feeling" Mayonnaise (Partisan, Feb 1)
- Blank Range, "Proximity" In Unison (Sturdy Girl, Feb 1) D
- Howe Gelb, "Thousand Kisses Deep (feat. M Ward)" Gathered (Fire, Mar 8)
- JS Ondara, "Saying Goodbye" Tales of America (Verve, Feb 1) D
- Jessica Pratt, "Poly Blue" Quiet Signs (Mexican Summer, Feb 8)
- Michael Chapman, "It's Too Late" True Blue (Paradise of Bachelors, Feb 8)
- Pedro the Lion, "Model Homes" Phoenix (Polyvinyl, Jan 18)
- Ryan Bingham, "Wolves" American Love Song (Axster Bingham, Jan 15)
- Sean McConnell, "Shaky Bridges (feat. McCrary Sisters)" Secondhand Smoke (Big Picnic, Feb 8) D
- Seth Walker, "Giving It All Away" Are You Open (Royal Potato Family, Feb 15) D
- Steel Woods, "Southern Accents" Old News (Woods Music, Jan 18)
- William the Conqueror, "Curse of Friends" Bleeding On the Soundtrack (Loose, Feb 15)
- Adia Victoria, "Dope Queen Blues" Silences (Atlantic, Feb 22) D
- Steve Gunn, "Stonehurst Cowboy" Unseen In Between (Matador, Jan 18)
- William Tyler, "Fail Safe" Goes West (Merge, Jan 25)
- Robert Ellis, "Fucking Crazy" Texas Piano Man (New West, Feb 15)
- Boo Ray, "A Tune You Can Whistle" Tennessee Alabama Fireworks (Boo Ray, Feb 15) D
- Yola, "Ride Out in the Country" Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound, Feb 22)
There's a pretty fair chance that at least a couple of the above will show up on my year-end albums list for 2019. Thirteen of the CDs I tagged for 2018's half-year favorites list actually made it to the finish line six months later. For folks who share my insatiable appetite for novelty, you'll want to bookmark the link down the right side of your screen, A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster. That's our obsessively, lovingly updated release calendar where you can track what's being released when by whom. As we inch ever further towards the unknowns of the New Year, here's your ROUTES-cast for the week: