Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in May, 2006. This month: Axton Kincaid, Sam Baker, Tab Benoit, Casey Dreissen, Tompall & The Glaser Brothers, Alan Jackson, Rockie Lynne, Bruce Robison, The Wilders, Doug & Telisha Williams, Yonder Mountain String Band, Various Artists: "A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION", "GLORYLAND", "SAIL AWAY: THE SONGS OF RANDY NEWMAN", "THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF"
...It's not everything I heard, but it's a nice sample of stuff that either tickled my fancy or ticked me off... Many records that aren't included here are reviewed elsewhere in my full Guide To Hick Music. Enjoy!
Axton Kincaid "Axton Kincaid (EP)" (Luster Music, 2006)
Nice, down-to-earth, twangy alt-country with a bluegrassy feel, sort of like Jim & Jennie or Freakwater -- a little more settled-down and conventional, but no less enthusiastic or lively. Nice set of original tunes, mostly written by San Francisco-based singer-guitarist Kate Howser, kicking off with a catchy honkytonk/old-timey ditty, "Who's Gonna Pour My Whiskey When You're Gone?" that sets a great pace for the rest of the record. Good, solid band with a nice grasp of country music's soulful, non-novelty side... I'm always in favor of folks who take it seriously and get things right. Lookin' forward to more from these folks! (For more info, check out the band's website at www.lustermusic.com )
Sam Baker "Mercy" (Bull Creek, 2004)
A jaw-dropping singer-songwriter/Americana/red dirt tour de force. Seriously: where have they been keeping this guy? Texas-based Sam Baker's self-released debut is an astonishing synthesis of the whole windswept Panhandle storytelling tradition, bringing to mind dust-caked poets such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, as well as Terry Allen, Mary Gauthier and Robert Earl Keen... Of the lot, I honestly think only Guy Clark comes close to this guy, in terms of his self-assurance, his clarity of vision, and the consistent high calibre of his output. Like I say, it's one hell of a record. Song after song creeps up and pulls you in... each a quiet, haunting, curious jewel. Like many records in this genre, these songs are sorrowful echoes of action, the poetry of lifelong regret channeled into a hard-won, seemingly unreasonable hopefulness, a love of life, despite all the crap that drags us down. Now, normally I get tired of this stuff fairly quickly -- I think the genre as a whole has devolved into a series of overly-stylized creative writing class exercises, stilted and strained, ringing falser and less compelling the more it attempts to summon up a sense of "authenticity." Not so with Mr. Baker. He just manages to craft one alluring gem after another; the tone of the album is half dreamy, half somber, and when it ends, you'll want to hear more. This is a remarkably effective record -- both pleasantly, palpably indie and down-home, but also packed with interesting, innovative songcraft. Maybe one reason this album connects with such emotional force is that Baker isn't pretending to be a survivor, he really is one: this album was written and recorded after Baker recovered from being caught in a terrorist bombing in Peru, one that killed the people sitting next to him, and left Baker badly hurt. The passion for life instilled in him by this close encounter with death resonates through every note on this record; even his distinctive, slurred vocal style is a result of the attack... At any rate, if you like Clark, Keen, Gautier, et.al., you've gotta check this album out. It's really quite good. (For more information, see Baker's website at sambakermusic.com )
Tab Benoit "Brother To The Blues" (Telarc, 2006)
Modern urban blues is a genre that's been largely dead to me for, oh, I dunno... the last twenty years or so... Every once in a while some album or artist will float to the top and get my ear, but for the most part it all sounds so forced and flat, just lots of going through the motions and doing the same old-same old, over and over. This disc, though, is one of those welcome exceptions to the rule, a truly funky, swampy mix of styles from a Louisiana bluesman who really understands the links between country, blues, rock and soul. It's all here in this rich, lively performance, where track after track has a vibrancy and immediacy, a sense that there's actually someone there behind the mic, feeling the lyrics and making you feel them, too. Much like Delbert McClinton, Benoit covers a wide range of territory, everything from Hank Williams to Sam Cooke, with Jim Lauderdale pitching in on a trio of tracks that he also composed, and the ever-raspy Billy Joe Shaver singing on one of his as well. It's only towards the end that Benoit slips into some old-school, piercingly tin-toned lead guitar, but for the most part this is a very soulful, satisfying album. Definitely worth checking out.
Casey Driessen "3D" (Sugar Hill, 2006)
Wildly eclectic and playfully goofy, this debut album by fiddler Casey Driessen touches base with both newgrass and truegrass roots, establishing Driessen as one of the more daring, capable musicians of his generation. The album reflects Driessen's work with jazz-grasser Bela Fleck, as well as his long association with Tim O'Brien, whose sense of humor has clearly influenced his style. On a few tunes, Driessen falls into some of the more cumbersome tropes of spacegrass jazz, but elsewhere he displays a lighter touch, and on his funky, greasy cover of "Sugarfoot Rag," he seems to be channeling the anarchic spirit of the late John Hartford. For me, the album's real gem is "Good Boy Blues," wherein the squeaky fiddle prods an old hound dog (uncredited?) into a long mournful, howling duet -- it's a hilarious track, the kind of thing that would have been a late-night staple in the glory years of 1970s freeform radio. Will it launch Rover's solo career? Let's hope so: that dog's got chops!
Tompall & The Glaser Brothers "Lovin' Her Was Easier (1981)/After All These Years (1982)" (Collector's Choice, 2006)
A welcome reissue of two long out-of-print albums, 1981's Lovin' Her Was Easier and After All These Years, from 1982 -- the last two albums from this on again/off again brother act. In the late 1960s, the Glaser Brothers emerged out from the shadows of their various benefactors -- Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash -- and became a reasonably successful working band. Things fragmented in the early 'Seventies and each brother went his own way, with Tompall Glaser becoming an icon of the shambling "outlaw" country scene. These records came out after years of individually muddling along, until finally the time seemed right for the trio to reunite. Their version of Kris Kristofferson's "Lovin' Her Was Easier" was a surprise hit in '81, and led to the group's first full album in nearly a decade. It's a nice record, filled with covers of numerous old country standards, songs like "Busted," "Mansion On A Hill," a cover of Tom Paxton's "Last Thing On My Mind," and a tune or two from Tompall's solo years. Shorn of the outlaw posturing and the countrypolitan pretense of their earlier work, the Glasers delivered a nice, low-key set of straightforward country ballads -- and Tompall's vocal likeness to his onetime boss, Marty Robbins, was never more apparent. The followup record was the group's swansong -- it barely dented the charts, and they went splitsville again not long after it came out. But it's a nice record, too, of a piece with the first, even though the songs were of a more recent vintage. This disc is certainly worth checking out if you like country harmony songing, and songs sung simply and straight from the heart -- not the greatest stuff ever, but still pretty darn nice.
Alan Jackson "Precious Memories" (Sony-BMG/Arista, 2006)
(Produced by Keith Stegall)
When I saw that Alan Jackson had released an all-gospel album, I got a tingly feeling, and couldn't wait to hear it... Turns out this has more of a "contemporary Christian" feel than I'd expected -- Jackson's robust, good-natured neo-honkytonk sound is subsumed by a slower, softer, more reverential approach, which is appropriate, I suppose, since these tracks are all old hymns that he grew up with. However, the tinkly pianos of the Southern Gospel scene aren't really my bag -- I'm strictly a fiddle-and-pedal steel kinda country fan. Still, Jackson sings with refreshing sincerity and conviction, and this disc deserves the tremendous success it's had on the Christian charts. It doesn't have the same fire to it as Ricky Skaggs' gospel-grass, for example, or any of the winking humor of Jackson's own secular recordings, but if you've been enjoying Randy Travis' sojourns into gospel material, then this album will speak to you as well. Secular country fans probably won't like this one, but gospel listeners will be ecstatic. Worth checking out!
Tresa Jordan "Tresa Jordan" (South River Road, 2005)
Pretty darn good. Jordan clearly has commercial aspirations and I'll bet she can make it, if she plays her cards right. This album shows her adept at a variety of Top Country styles, from the relatively rootsy to the sappy and poetic, reaching into the Sara Evans/Martina McBride side of pop-country, while still keeping sight of some good, old gravel-road grit. I didn't expect much from this record, but I was pleasantly surprised... You might be, too.
Rockie Lynne "Rockie Lynne" (Universal South, 2006)
A generic, deep voiced, manly-man/sensitive guy Nashville dude, newcomer Rockie Lynne seems like a capable performer, and if he plays his cards right, he could become an important new voice in the top country field... What he needs, though, is better material, which is kind of harsh, since a quick glance at the songwriting credits reveals that he actually wrote or co-wrote pretty much everything on this album. Sure, some of these tracks have enough shameless hit-factory formula slathered on them to generate radio airplay, but some tunes are just plain lame. "New Branch On The Family Tree" leaps to mind, one of the most desperate-sounding novelty tunes I've ever heard, which seeks to lay claim to some sort of Big & Rich or Tim McGraw-ish genre-busting mega-crossover ethos... The chorus proclaims Lynne to be a "super-country-evangelic-rockabilly-psychedelic cowboy," clunkily sung over an equally cluttered musical backdrop. "Lipstick," the album's first single, is catchy, and some of the slower, more relaxed country ballads redeem him as well. Honestly, though, there's little on here to distinguish him from a zillion other rock-conscious hat-act young'uns. This was okay, though it didn't really wow me. (Which probably means it will become a huge success... ) To new country fans who think that Montgomery Gentry are the bee's knees, Rockie Lynne will fit in just fine... We'll see where he goes from here...
Bruce Robison "Eleven Stories" (Sustain/Universal, 2006)
Waitaminnit... Was that really Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis in that Claritin commerical on TV? It was? Wow, how weird... but good for them! How else would they be able to afford to put out such nice, understated gems such as this? A couple of top-notch cover tunes -- of the Dreadful Grate's "Tennessee Jeb" and the old Webb Pierce hit, "More And More" -- fit in nicely with a new batch of Robison originals... There are a couple of dreamy, almost indie-rockish slow songs, as well as a few tried-and-true honkytonk tunes such as the sweetly sardonic "You Really Let Yourself Go." Another winning set by this alt-country mainstay, with nice harmony vocals from Ms. Willis. Recommended!
The Wilders "Throw Down" (Rural Grit, 2006)
Listen, folks, this is the single best dang twang disc I've heard all year... At least it's the most striking -- the album opens with a blistering, foot-stomping breakdown called "Hawk's Got A Chicken And Flew In The Woods," featuring lively fiddling by Betse Ellis, then tromps along into "Honky Tonk Habit," one of the catchiest alt-country honkytonk tunes I've heard in years. This is only one of several great original songs written by the band, including the haunting post-Katrina lament, "After The Levee's Gone." Make no mistake about it: this Kansas City crew is one talented bunch of pickers... and they write some fine original songs, as well. Their sound is primarily bluegrass-based, but they are also genuinely tapped into old-school honkytonk, suggesting a much welcome blend of bluesy, Jimmy Martin-style truegrass and happy-sounding heartbreak, ala Hank Thompson or Johnny Horton. When I first put it on, this album knocked my socks off, instantly catching my attention and kept my toes tapping from start to finish. The disc was produced by old-timey superstar Dirk Powell, who adds breathless praise of his own in the liner notes... And, hey, if the Wilders are good enough for Dirk Powell, they're sure as heck good enough for me! (Note: this disc is available directly from the band... Check out their website at www.wilderscountry.com )
Doug & Telisha Williams "Rope Around My Heart" (No Evil, 2006)
Spirited, pleasant folk-country with plenty of twang and a good sense of the music's roots... Ms. Williams sings pretty much in Iris Dement's range, which comes in handy on their version of Dement's "Our Town"; almost all the other songs are originals, including several swell ones, such as the album's opener, "Bar Room Story," and the bluesy "Bad Attitude," a novelty song with, well, a bit of a bad attitude. This is a nice effort, a little ragged at times and about as indie as you can get, packed with sincerity and earnestness, and some nice contributions from friends such as Kenny Malone and Darrell Scott. The Williamses have a similar vibe to other husband-wife duos such as Robin & Linda Williams or Holly & Barry Tashian, though with a little more of a rough edge, due in part to stylistic choice as well (one imagines) to budget constraints... If you like either of those acts, you might wanna check these folks out as well. (For more info, check out the band's website at www.dandtw.com. )
Yonder Mountain String Band "Yonder Mountain String Band" (Vanguard, 2006)
YMSB are primarily known as a live act, a hippiedelic bluegrass jam band whose influences are as Phishy as they are Monroe-vian, and who love to wow the crowds at festivals and stage shows. Accordingly, their last few records have concentrated on documenting their live act, making this studio set a nice change of page. In fact, it's more than that: it's a really good record, one of the decade's most creative alt-twang albums. The Yonders make the most of the studio setting; rather than pretend they're just doing a regular old bluegrass set, they delve into the multitrack magic available to them through the production booth, creating an expansive sound that has an assured, confident feel. One gets the sense that this is exactly the record they meant to make, and there's none of the desperation to have a hit or be clever and cutting edge or to follow current trends that drags down so much of the contemporary pop scene. As a result, they sound truly innovative as well as like folks who know how to have fun while still keeping it twangy, funky and free. The songs are more tightly crafted than on their sprawling live sets, but the canny, eclectic mix of loose-limbed newgrass and light, playful indie/rock brings to mind the best work in the 1970s by acoustic pop pioneers such as the Dillards and Newgrass Revival, with just a teeny-tiny hint of Dead-ishness in the mix. I've seen others make comparisons to the folks from Nickel Creek, which I think is more a reflection of how few 'grassy alternatives there are in modern adult pop, and not so much about how similar the bands are. Unlike Nickel Creek, YMSB don't sink into cotton-candy, ooey-goo soft-pop pandering, nor do they get overly noodly, New Age-y, or self-important. This disc is multi-textured and a consistently engaging mix of styles... If you count yourself among the grassfans who wish Chris Thile & Co. would play with a little more grit or intelligence, then this disc might be for you. I liked it.
Garrison Keillor/Various Artists "A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION: ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK" (New Line Records, 2006)
The soundtrack to Robert Altman's curious film adaptation of the famed public radio series, A Prairie Home Companion... I have this whole kinda love-hate relationship with APHC... It's all because the two major NPR stations here in the SF Bay Area both play the show to death on Sundays, and many's the weekend where I've found myself with a sinkful of dishes to do and nothing to listen to but old Garrison and his guests. Well, hey, at least it's not Car Talk. The thing is, I almost always get sucked in -- Keillor's fusty, wheezing whisper and wry wit lure me in every time, and between the skits there are, of course, some dazzling musical moments. The in-house Guys All-Star Shoe Band have become a bit too set in their ways for me, but the excitement of hearing Americana icons such as Gillian Welch or John Prine, et. al. being broadcast into the heartland is, honestly, a thing of beauty. Whether or not you're too hip to hang with Keillor and his crowd, you have to admit, the man has done a great thing by keeping live radio alive, and he has consistently used his power and influence for good, championing countless folk/twang artists who otherwise would never reach even a fraction of his audience. This disc captures much of the flavor of the weekly broadcasts, but it's also kind of a curio, since it includes performances from actors such as Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin singing some of the songs and telling some of the jokes... There's not a lot of yakkin', either, just the standard show intro followed by a lot of music. Fans will love it. (And, wait... you say there's a movie, too? Now, how does that work??)
Various Artists "GLORYLAND: 30 BLUEGRASS GOSPEL CLASSICS" (Time-Life Records, 2006)
Well, let's hear it for Time-Life! Cherrypicking the best gospel tracks from Rebel Records' independent bluegrass catalog, this slam-bang, no-nonsense 2-CD set is one of the finest, purest collections of its kind. It's great stuff, with heartfelt performances by folks such as J. D. Crowe, Jim Eanes, Del McCoury, Don Reno, Larry Sparks, The Stanley Brothers, some early stuff by Rhonda Vincent and the ever-soulful Paul Williams. There are also some less well-known artists, such as the Marshall Family, whose songs of praise are every bit as spine-tingly and propulsive as the big stars mentioned above. Really, you can't go wrong with this set... If you want to hear some fine testifyin' and even finer pickin', then check this puppy out. Recommended!
Various Artists "SAIL AWAY: THE SONGS OF RANDY NEWMAN" (Sugar Hill, 2006)
Tribute albums are a tricky thing... More often than not, they raise the question of "why bother," since, if the honoree was so great to begin with, do we really need to hear a bunch of other folks tackle their work en masse? That's particularly true in the case of an artist as singular and singularly vexing as Randy Newman, the most potent bad-boy singer-songwriter of the 1970s, and scion of a three-generation musical dynasty that reached back to the early recesses of the Hollywood studio system. Newman was particularly notable for his scathing, taboo-breaking social satires aimed at the crew-cut legions of Nixon-era Southern rednecks; he took the elegant faux-Dixie musical motifs of Stephen Foster and grafted on some of the most scabrous and penetrating political lyrics of the era. Picking up the torch from Tom Lehrer and Phil Ochs, he brandished it as a weapon, jabbing the embers into the cyclops eye of American popular culture. Potentially, the Southern emphasis of Newman's early work lends itself to fruitful reinterpretation by country/bluegrass types who are willing to overlook the seeming slights to their culture, and appreciate his witty appropriations of country/folk musical modes... That's definitely the case with several songs on this twangly tribute disc, although other tracks fall wildly short of the mark. The songs that don't work are the ones that most nakedly simulate Newman's original recordings -- Tim O'Brien, Sonny Landreth and (sadly) The Duhks all make the fatal error of aping Newman's own intonation on songs such as "Sail Away," "Louisiana" and "Political Science." There was plenty of room for them to make these songs their own, but instead they slavishly copied the vocal inflections and phrasing that made these songs so compelling in the '70s, and come off as callow imitators. On the flipside, though, there are gems like Sam Bush's "Mr. President," which perfectly taps into the folkie broadside tradition that Newman was emulating, and Steve Earle's appropriately brash, in-your-face, punked-out reworking of "Rednecks," a performance that mercilessly pulls out every last strand of condemnation that Newman had lobbed at America, particularly at the hypocritical Yankee liberals who looked down their noses at the South while shunting the urban poor off into ghettos that were every bit as oppressive as the apartheid down South. Another welcome surprise is Bela Fleck's understated instrumental version of "Burn On," another one of my favorite Newman songs. Interestingly enough, no one wanted to tackle "Short People" or "I Love LA" -- heck, I would have settled for "Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear," instead of dumb old "You Can Leave Your Hat On..." But one thing I definitely agree with is that Randy Newman is one hell of a great songwriter, and hearing his songs again through this modern alt-twang filter is a fine reminder of just how good he really was.
Various Artists "THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF" (Shanachie/Yazoo, 2006)
A cool set of blues, gospel, and proto-country rarities from the early days of the record industry, harvested from the 78 RPM libraries of several of the world's old-school uber-collectors, folks who spent their youth in the 1950s and '60s canvassing the South, going door to door asking people if they had any old 78s they'd care to part with... This 2-CD set includes rare material that went unreleased over seventy years ago, and several songs that only exist today in one or two known copies, Holy Grail material found only on precious, whispered-about, highly prized solitary shellac and vinyl copies. Oh, I admit, I was suckered into buying this just because of the R. Crumb cover art -- that, plus the tagline about how this is "The Rosetta Stone Of Record Collecting" made me think this might be like the keeno Crumb-curated That's What I Call Sweet Music jazz collection from a couple of years ago... Other than the artwork, though, I'm not sure how much involvement Crumb has with this project... The provenance of this collection is a little fuzzy, but the dozen or so ubercollectors that contributed include folks like Dave Freeman, Dick Spottswood and Joe Brussard, who have been at this kind of thing for a while. And, boy, do they have some fun stuff! If you like old-timey music and rugged country blues, then this collection will definitely float your boat. It's great stuff. The liner notes are a hoot, too, full of plenty of knowing, self-deprecating jibes at the world of obsesso collector nerds, including a scary article about the Collyer Brothers, a pair of New York nutjob packrats who filled every cubic centimeter of their sprawling, four-story house with tons and tons of crap, bric-a-brac and junk, and actually died inside the labyrinth... That could never happen to me, say all the collector nerds who'll pick this set up... Oh, no. Of course not.
Hick Music Index
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