Howdy, neighbors! Here are my reviews of new country, bluegrass and Americana records, from 'way back in 2001. These reviews have also been added to my genre-specific hick music guide, which includes dozens of artist profiles, and other, older record reviews. If you find this review archive useful, you're strongly urged to also check out the rest of the hick music section.
David Ball "Amigo" (Dual Tone, 2001)
An old-fashioned craftsman of bright, poppy honkytonk tunes, David Ball brings to mind Lyle Lovett, with his catchy, easygoing style of slightly-rockin', slightly-bluesy Texas shuffles. There's also a trace of Jimmy Buffett (and I mean that in a good way!) with his laid-back approach, and occasional dips into tropical-themed material (such as "She Always Talked About Mexico"). This is a fun album, with some wonderfully shameless novelty material (for example, a bar that is "Loser Friendly", and -- in his big Top 40 hit -- the super-retro patriotic twist on the old "Teen Angel" car crash epics, "Riding With Private Malone," where a guy buys a car with the ghostly former owner -- an MIA Vietnam veteran -- acting as its guardian angel...) Nice, solid album -- slick, but worth checking out.
Norman Blake "Flower From The Fields Of Alabama" (Shanachie, 2001)
Another beautiful, flawless album by this acoustic guitar whiz. What can you say about Blake? He's such a delightfully understated, pure practitioner of his art, it's hard to find fault with practically anything he sets his sights on. So what sets this album apart from all his other mini-masterpieces? Well, personally, as a public radio DJ named Joe Sixpack, I'm drawn to "Radio Joe," an original ballad about a dissolute radio performer whose days are blighted with drinking and druggin'... Not that it's purely reflective of my life, mind you... I just like the sound of the chorus! As with other recent albums, this is a strong mix of traditional and original material... Highly recommended!
Blue Highway "Still Climbing Mountains" (Rounder, 2001)
Blue Highway has become one of those great, top-flight bluegrass bands where each album is so good that you feel a little silly trying to differentiate it from ther other releases. Yeah... maybe they're getting a little slicker and softer, but the core of their sound is still quite traditional-sounding and the picking is sweet. Most impressive is the fact that all the material on this album is original, written by various members of the band. Old fans won't be disappointed; new ones may be surprised.
The Bootcuts "Awful Good" (Makewater Music, 2001)
More of them there snotty city kids using country music as an excuse for puerile humor... At least the picking is solid -- these San Francisco Bay Area hipsters can play their instruments, it's just that they're spending an equal amount of effort being "clever" with the lyrics, as well as their exaggerated hillbilly accents, and dopey nom de hick pseudonyms ("I know... let's call Lori 'Lurleen' and Ross will be 'Cletus!' Haw haw haw!!"). More lame white trash stereotypes; I wish more folks could get this sort of stuff out of their system before they make a record... It's especially sad seeing a band with this much talent simply waste it on musical poo-poo jokes.
Junior Brown "Mixed Bag" (Curb, 2001)
Oh, I know, I know... All the other kids love this guy, but I have never been able to get into Junior's act. For some reason, he just doesn't move me. Sure, his guitar work is fast and flashy... but it's not very expressive or nuanced. As a vocalist he has his moments, but he's still too self-consciously imitative of others, such as Dave Dudley and Ernest Tubb. It's odd. I think that most of Brown's songs -- his cover tunes and originals -- are pretty good, but for me his performances fall just shy of carrying the material. As I say, the guy just doesn't move me. If you're already a Junior Brown fan, though, you'll love this new album -- it's as good as anything else he's ever done, and has plenty of good novelty material. I'm not into it, but I'd recommend this disc to the Jr. B true believers.
BR549 "This Is BR549" (Lucky Dog, 2001)
I've never been a fan of these guys. Although I've been told (many times) that they're great live, their records seem uninspired and uninspiring to me, sorta fake and opportunistic, even. That being said, I will admit that their new album is the most interesting one I've heard. Rather than flatly ape the classic country sounds of years gone by, the BR549 crew has stirred themselves up to try writing new material which -- amazingly enough -- isn't overly contrived, or flashily performed. The lyrics are a admittedly a bit gimmicky, but nowhere near as hokey or white trashy as they might otherwise be, and there actually seems to be some sort of soul emerging in the band's sound. This disc doesn't blow me away, but it also didn't repel me, as their music often does. Have I mellowed... or have they matured? Is there nothing constant in the universe?
Shawn Camp "Lucky Silver Dollar" (Skeeterbit, 2001)
One of the best new records I've heard! I certainly appreciate a writer who knows how to craft a good song, and this fella has got the goods. One of the legions of songwriters who feed the Nashville machine, Camp has provided hit material for the likes of Garth Brooks, John Anderson and Randy Travis, and even made a record or two himself, back in the early '90s. Camp tilts towards the traditional end of the spectrum, and is a soulful, appealing vocalist, working in a fairly alt-y, old-school style. The whole record is pretty good, but one song, "Tune Of The Twenty Dollar Bill," stands out as a real gem. A compact little story-song (of courtship back in the good old days), this is a catchy, thoroughly enjoyable, tune, and really quite memorable. Well worth checking out -- drop in on the guy's website and check this disc out!
Candlewyck "Candlewyck" (Votive, 2001)
Progressive, new-acoustic bluessgrass made with a slew of high-powered guest artists... This disc starts off with a simply terrible 'NSync/Rascal Flatts-style harmony-vocals number ("Whatcha Gonna Say") then settles into a more nuanced set of traditional and experimentally inclined, mostly instrumental tunes. It's not entirely my cup of tea, but with guest pickers such as Terry Baucom, Don Rigsby, Tony Furtado and other, this is certainly worth a raised eyebrow or two...
Neko Case "Canadian Amp" (Lady Pilot, 2001)
Less gratuitous twang, and more sultry croon... Case follows up on the Patsy Cline-styled neo-countrypolitan vibe she explored on Furnace Room Lullaby with "No Need To Cry." It's a nice direction to head in, though after several songs at the same moderate tempo, this disc could use a little variety in the pacing. Worth checking out, though -- moody and intriguing. Fellow alt.country chantuese Kelly Hogan harmonizes nicely on a couple of tunes, and SF Bay Area power popster Chris Schneidern also pitches in on a tune or two.
The Derailers "Here Come The Derailers" (Sony/Lucky Dog, 2001)
(Produced by Kyle Lehning)
Whew. What a relief!! The Derailers recapture their hard country muse, delving a little into their Buck-like reserves, but also branching into a few other styles... The good news, no, wait, the great news is that they've "got it" again, and this is an album that will cheer up the troops and give hope for the future of honkytonk country. Sure, there are a few slower tunes worthy of Don Williams in his gruffer, early-'80s phase, but there are also winners such as "More Of Your Love" (which opens the album) and the George Jones-y "I'd Follow You Anywhere," which reaffirm their faith in good old simple country songs that are just what they are. Worth checking out.
Rosie Flores "Speed Of Sound" (Eminent, 2001)
Alternating pretty evenly between upbeat, rockabilly-ish numbers and softer torch songs, this is one of Rosie Flores' most consistent, most confident albums. Flores has long been an Americana indie darling in part -- let's face it -- because her vocal talents have always been a bit modest. She doesn't have a great range, and her phrasing can be stiff, but she's never let that slow her down, and I think that accounts for much of her charm. It's kind of like hearing your neighbor or roommate at open mic night, except that Flores has made a successful career of it... Her albums have been uneven, though, and this disc marks a bit of a turning point in that, for once, she sounds more... relaxed, as if she's not worrying about the production or whether she's coming across strongly enough. She sounds more masterful... more professional, if you will. Instead of a rugged sprinkling of gems in an unevenly paced setting (like many of her other albums), this is an evenly satisfying set -- nice from beginning to end. Over the years, I've been a quiet skeptic as far as Flores has has been concerned, but I'm pretty taken with this record. Check it out!
Robbie Fulks "Couples In Trouble" (Boondoggle, 2001)
Uh-oh. An overwrought shift into piano-pop territory... at least he has enough of a sense of humor to call his label "Boondoggle" for this one, 'cause I'd have to agree that that's what this disc represents. I mean, sure, if Fulks want to go all Billy Joel/Tom Waits/Rufus Wainwright on us, I guess that's his business. Apparently he has a lot of non-country stuff pent up inside that he feels the need to express, and one must assume he feels constrained by the alt.country genre. But I personally like him a lot more as a honkytonk firebrand, and I think he's a lot more effective working in that style. This mordant rock-opera stuff seems cluttered and torturous by comparison; I think the compactness of country songwriting may have been more of a challenge than Fulks realized, and it certainly had a better payoff. I've talked to other folks who say they don't like the downbeat nature of these songs; I think the real problem is with the unrestrained, indulgent production. It really doesn't suit his strengths.
Hadacol "All In Your Head" (Slewfoot, 2001)
For a '90s-style alt.country band whose name pays homage to an antique, lethally stupefying patent medicine, these guys show an admirable devotion to solid musicianship and catchy songwriting. There's an exaggerated devotion to twangy, forceful guitars, almost southern rock-ish in its simplistic appeal, combined with a deftness with melody that has become a bit too rare in the current twangcore scene. No lame white trash stereotypes here, just one good song after another, all written by the Kansas City-area Wickham Brothers, who also plug away admirably on piano and guitar. Next time I'm in the Midwest, I'll be sure to catch one of their shows... in the meantime, I'm sure I'll listen to the disc a time or two! Recommended.
Wayne Hancock "A-Town Blues" (Bloodshot, 2001)
Another fine album from this Austin, Texas marvel. One assumes that Wayne The Train is happy as a clam to be roosting at Bloodshot, the home of the scrappy alt-country sound. Of course, his sound hasn't changed much -- he's still got the same crackerjack band behind him, including the guitar/steel duo of Biller & Wakefield, and super-producer Lloyd Maines is still making mixing magic in the booth. Wayne's infatuation with Tin Pan Alley jazz phrasing continues to deepen, shifting his honkytonk bluesiness into a subtler, jazzier direction. Undiminished and uncompromised, Wayne Hancock continues to be one of the most authentic voices in today's modern hard country scene.
John Hartford "Hamilton Ironworks" (Rounder, 2001)
The late John Hartford's last studio album may turn out to be a litle too raspy for many listeners -- filled with craggy fiddling, but less balanced by "poppy", melodic material. It's also filled to the gills with daffy digressions along the lines of his recent Good Old Boys album, oddball asides and reminiscences of various old friends and fellow musicians. As a personal epitaph these tracks may wind up being increasingly meaningful and emotionally rich, but they do tend to interrupt the flow of the album -- there are just too many of them in one place at the same time. It's interesting, though -- Hartford seems to have chosen to transform his last few records into a kind of updated version of the old folkloric recordings of the Lomaxes and Seegers, with the microphone taking down the ramblings of some charmingly eccentric old coot with a story to tell. It may take a while for this album to grow on us, but it's certainly full of rich and interesting material.
Kelly Hogan "Because It Feel Good" (Bloodshot, 2001)
This didn't blow me away... Hogan mellows down into a crooning mode. I think she's aiming for an alt-y Patsy Cline vibe, but winds up being a bit more Vonda Shepard. I suppose if I had a more intense interest in irony and postmodern blah-blah-blah, this would have more appeal, but I'm still looking for a strong melody.
Hog Mawl "Hank Williams Jr. High" (Broken White, 2001)
I was pretty surprised by this album... I had low expectations, based mostly on the band name and album title, but figured, what the heck... I'll check it out... Instead of the twangcore slopfest I'd anticipated, this is actually a pretty sincere effort to write and play real hard country honkytonk. Songwriter Cliff Murphy has a good ear for his material -- several songs are close to top-notch, held back mainly by the amatuer musicianship, and the occassional loosely-strung lyric. But where most of today's raised-on-rock twangcore bands simply play louder and sloppier to compensate for their lack of country chops, Hog Mawl -- much to their credit -- stick it out and try to play the stuff they way it really should be played. The album's opener, "If You Don't Love Me (I'm Leavin')" could have been a '40s classic, and other tracks, such as "Who Do You Dream Of?" are similarly well-written. "Jasper," an updated version of a Porter Wagoner-style small-town-tale, is also pretty good, and could be better with a few little tweaks. Mostly, this band just needs to stick with it, and get much tighter musically than they are now -- if they can stick it out, they could become one of the best country bands of this decade.
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