Howdy, folks, here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in May, 2009 This page gets updated throughout the month, so check back if you can... Also, check out my full Guide To Hick Music for a bazillion more record reviews and artist profiles.
Eddy Arnold "There's Been A Change In Me: 1951-1955" (Bear Family)
The Belleville Outfit "Time To Stand" (Thirty Tigers)
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy "How Big Can You Get?" (Vanguard)
Jason Boland "Comal County Blue" (Sustain)
Dale Ann Bradley "Don't Turn Your Back" (Compass)
Ed Bruce "The Tennessean/Cowboys And Dreamers" (Hux Records)
Samantha Crain & The Midnight Shivers "Songs In The Night" (Ramseur)
Dailey & Vincent "Brothers From Different Mothers" (Rounder)
Dailey & Vincent "Teach Bluegrass And Gospel Duet Singing" (DVD) (Homespun)
Steve Earle "Townes" (New West)
Matt Flinner "Music Du Jour" (Compass)
The Gibson Brothers "Ring The Bell" (Compass)
The Cornell Hurd Band "American Shadows: The Songs Of Moon Mullican" (Behemoth)
Charlie Louvin "Less And Less/Lonesome Is Me" (Hux)
Scott Miller & The Commonwealth "For Crying Out Loud" (F.A.Y. Recordings)
Arum Rae "Arum Rae" (Hyperreallist)
Various Artists "KEEP YOUR SOUL: A TRIBUTE TO DOUG SAHM" (Vanguard)
Eddy Arnold "There's Been A Change In Me: 1951-1955" (Bear Family, 2008)
The king of the country crooners, Eddy Arnold's hillbilly era works get the major archival treatment with this impressive 7-CD box set, complete with Bear Family's trademark high-class packaging and well-research liner notes.... There's a lot more twang here than you may be used to hearing on an Eddy Arnold album, as well as a lot of goofy old country songs and and weepy heartsongs galore. There's also a glimpse of things to come: the collection ends with a 1955 pop-country session with bandleader Hugo Winterhalter which produced the big hit version of "Cattle Call," as well as several other early countrypolitan hits. This is a great and long-overdue collection, picking up where Bear Family's stunning Tennessee Plowboy collection left off.
The Belleville Outfit "Time To Stand" (Thirty Tigers, 2009)
(Produced by Bill Vorndick & The Belleville Outfit)
An interesting mix of twang, swing and swank... The Bellevilles pick up where The Hotclub Of Cowtown left off, delving into the acoustic swing repertoire and mixing it with homespun Americana-style country-folk, but in addition there's a hint of a more posh, luxurious style of pop, the sometimes schmaltzy melodicism of the pop vocals era, a hint in the ornate, note-heavy piano playing of Carmen Cavallero, or Serge Rachmaninoff, a lusher, grander style that fits in oddly well with the more rootsy elements of this band's sound. If you've enjoyed artists such as Andrew Bird, or Asylum Street Spankers, or any number of other swing-string auteurs, you might want to check these folks out as well... There's a lot going on in this lively batch of original songs -- lots of ideas, plenty of high-power musicianship, and a giddy sense of fun.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy "How Big Can You Get?" (Vanguard, 2009)
(Produced by Scotty Morris & Joshua Levy)
A sleek but swinging tribute to 1930s jivemaster Cab Calloway. The big band revivalists may have slick, modern sound, but they also really swing, and there's something special about hearing this music with all the brass and sax and muscularity that it originally had, as opposed to the scrappy enthusiasm of the alt-indie acoustic swingsters that flock about nowadays. Plus, those old Calloway classics are great songs, tunes that still pack a punch seven decades later. This disc oughta get your toes tapping and your butt in gear -- definitely worth a spin!
Jason Boland "Comal County Blue" (Sustain, 2008)
(Produced by Lloyd Maines)
An excellent album that gathers steam as it goes along. It opens on (what I consider to be) a flat note, with "Sons And Daughters Of Dixie," one of those Charlie Daniels/Hank Jr-styled the-South-is-gonna-rise-again anthems that parades the same-old, flatulent Southern victimhood stuff. Does anyone still really cling to that kind of grumpy 19th Century anti-Americanism? Or is it just some kind of antiquated historical sub-genre, like Appalachian murder ballads, that people sing for nostalgic purposes, even though it doesn't really mean anything anymore? Anyway, it all goes up from there, as Boland digs deep into the rootsy red-dirt country that he's known for... His voice seems deeper and gruffer somehow, and is songwriting is spectacular. The title track, "Comal County Blue," is drenched in delicious pedal steel (courtesy of guitarist Roger Ray) and "The Party's Not Over" is a doozy of an outlaw country singalong, basically one big rowdy chorus, with Boland trading verses with Texas indie elder Robert Earl Keen. Where he really hits home is on sleeper songs like "May Not Be Love," a bittersweet ballad worthy of Don Williams, and "God Is Mad At Me," which features the stunning couplet, God is mad at me/'cuz he things I worship you... another song where Boland reminds me, improbably, of Don Williams. I like the roughneck stuff plenty, but this poetic side suits Boland as well, and this disc is going to keep me busy hitting the "replay" button while I wait for his next album to come out. A very strong indie album that's definitely worth checking out.
Wade Bowen "If We Ever Make It Home" (Sustain, 2008)
Dale Ann Bradley "Don't Turn Your Back" (Compass, 2009)
(Produced by Alison Brown)
Dale Ann Bradley is one of the rocks of contemporary bluegrass -- she's a reliably satisfying, comforting presence, with a sweet, sincere voice, solid musicianship and impeccable taste in song selection. This is another fine album, with material from a wide range of sources. There's a nice Carter Family gospel tune -- "Fifty Miles Of Elbow Room" -- a couple of rock cover tunes (Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down" and "Over My Head" by Fleetwood Mac are two pleasant surprises) and a slew of tunes from divergent sources. Songwriter Louisa Branscomb, from the band Gypsy Heart, contributes three songs, including the title track and "Will I Be Good Enough," a sentimental but effective song about the self-doubts of parenthood. Two of the best tracks are Bradley originals, her adaptation of the traditional tune "Blue Eyed Boy" (with fine banjo plunking by Stuart Duncan) and "Music City Queen," which closes the album on a sweet, nostalgic note. Also playing banjo on a couple of tunes is album producer (and label owner) Alison Brown, who lends a measured, mellow vibe throughout. Good contemporary truegrass; Bradley and her crew keep things pretty down to earth here -- there aren't any breakneck, high-test breakdowns but the picking is solid throughout. Definitely worth checking out.
Ed Bruce "The Tennessean/Cowboys And Dreamers" (Hux Records, 2009)
A twofer reissue of a couple of albums by cowboy crooner Ed Bruce. This disc includes 1977's The Tennessean and Cowboys And Dreamers, from 1978.
Samantha Crain & The Midnight Shivers "Songs In The Night" (Ramseur, 2008)
(Produced by Danny Kadar)
This one's best suited for the indie-rock/folk-freak crowd, although there is an undeniable element of twang, 'billy and blues in there as well. Not quite my cup of tea: the music is original and compelling, but I can't get past Crain's vocals, which seem a bit too mannered and slurry, reminiscent of the whole Be Good Tanyas/Jolie Holland vortex. Interesting as they are, I find it hard to concentrate on the lyrics, and the overall effect is mildly frustrating. Of course, artsier music fans might go ga-ga over this one -- I think Crain is a unique and compelling artist and, at the tender age of twenty-two, she'll continue to have a lot to offer the indie scene. Worth checking out.
Dailey & Vincent "Brothers From Different Mothers" (Rounder, 2009)
(Produced by Jamie Dailey & Darrin Vincent)
Their previous album was one of the finest traditional bluegrass albums of the decade, and Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent keep up the pace on this fine, frolicking follow-up. There's simultaneously a greater emphasis on gospel material and a more modern, country-ish tone on a few tunes (particularly on "Years Ago," where they sound for all the world like the young Statler Brothers did on the similarly-themed "Flowers On The Wall.") Above all, though, there's the gorgeous harmonies and fine picking that define this duo's strengths. These guys sound fully committed to their music and engaged with it emotionally. They don't overdo anything, but they play and sing better than nearly anybody around, with feeling and power to spare. Highly recommended!
Dailey & Vincent "Teach Bluegrass And Gospel Duet Singing" (Homespun, 2009)
While we're on the topic, I bet this instructional video is pretty great, too. (If anyone tests it out, let me know what you think... :-)
Steve Earle "Townes" (New West, 2008)
(Produced by Steve Earle)
A real stunner, sure to rank as one of the best alt-country albums of the decade. Ragged but right, middle-aged country-rocker Steve Earle pays homage to his longtime friend, the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who he was pals with in the early 1970s, back when the Austin alt-country scene was just beginning to coalesce. Here Earle journeys through Van Zandt's catalog, embuing each track with a fierce conviction and loyalty to his friend's talent and artistic vision. Now -- ulp -- at the risk of being tarred, feathered, and drummed out of the Americana fan club, I have to confess I've never been that big a Townes fan myself -- I know, I know; hate me if you will, but that's just how it is. But Earle, performing with a ferocity and grit that the more demure Van Zandt eschewed, brings a radical new intensity to these songs that really forces us to hear them as living compositions, and not as finished works. While many fans may see Van Zandt's recordings as definitive and canonical, this record brings them into the wider world, opening them to interpretations beyond their acoustic coffeehouse folk-scene roots. With a few extra layers of electricity, grunge and grime, Earle makes Van Zandt's blues tunes sound more plausible (whereas on the originals, I often heard them as affected) and helps me hear the songs themselves, and not just Van Zandt's persona. It's a great record, packed from start to finish with strong performances and great songs -- highly recommended!
Matt Flinner "Music Du Jour" (Compass, 2009)
(Produced by the Matt Flinner Trio)
A swell set of newgrass instrumentals, with bright, bouncy melodies that don't get weighed down by cutesy arrangements or cloying overproduction. Mandolinist Matt Flinner keeps it simple and straightforward, with joyous, playful tunes and heartfelt performances. Joining him are guitarist Ross Martin and bassist Eric Thorin -- this compact trio keep the vibe light and all three contribute new songs that are both inventive and restrained. We've had plenty of overly-florid "new acoustic" music over the years, but Flinner and Co. don't go overboard, they just go for what works... Firmly rooted in old-school bluegrass, with a nice poppy lilt, these tunes are pretty fun and engaging. Nicely done!
The Gibson Brothers "Ring The Bell" (Compass, 2009)
(Produced by The Gibson Brothers)
Over the last few years, the Gibson Brothers have made remarkable, multi-layered explorations into the folk-tinged field once called "progressive bluegrass..." Here, they return full-force into the high-lonesome traditional truegrass camp, with a beautiful, compelling set of secular and gospel tunes, and plenty of sweet, hot picking. Highlights include the uptempo "Jericho" and the joyous title track, "Ring The Bell," which each have an irresistible singalong chorus. The sentimental songs are nice, as well, in particular "Farm Of Yesterday," which philosophically reflects on America's disappearing rural heritage. If you like Del McCoury or old stuff by Jimmy Martin, you might want to check this out as well. Lots of great solos and solid musicianship all around.
The Cornell Hurd Band "American Shadows: The Songs Of Moon Mullican" (Behemoth, 2008)
(Produced by Cornell Hurd, Bert Winston, Brad Moore & Alan Crider)
A sweet, funky, surprisingly heartfelt homage to 1940s honkytonk/hillbilly boogie piano player Moon Mullican, a figure long revered in the rockabilly-retro scene as an early pioneer of the 1950s rock sound. Bandleader Cornell Hurd has long been an amiable, down-to-earth figure on the Texas indie scene; here he plays host to a number of likeminded pals, including twangbar king Bill Kirchen, singers Tommy Alverson and Justin Trevino, as well as pianist Floyd Domino, a relatively refined player who still does justice to Mullican's rough-hewn sound. It's a nice set, with a mellow DIY twangtune feel, and plenty of great songs, including a few that may be shockingly raw. The album's opener, "Fools Like Me," is one of those old-time tunes that can shock modern listeners with its real-life rawness; although not sexually explicit, it sure doesn't beat around the bush about what its like to hook up with the wrong person, night after nght, while drawing your misery in the bars. There is a sad coda to this album: it is the last album recorded with Hurd's longtime lead guitarist Paul Skelton, who passed away right when the record came out. He sure got some sweet licks in on this record, though!
Charlie Louvin "Less And Less/Lonesome Is Me" (Hux, 2009)
A tasty twofer reissue of two great 1960s solo albums by Charlie Louvin, of the fabled Louvin Brothers. Less And Less was his first solo album, and it's a pretty solid effort which made a name for him in the world of 1960s Top Forty country. It includes the novelty-song title track, as well as the divorced-daddy mega-weeper, "See The Big Man Cry," and "Once A Day," which is one of his best solo pieces. Great stuff; probably Charlie Louvin at his best.
Scott Miller & The Commonwealth "For Crying Out Loud" (F.A.Y. Recordings, 2009)
(Produced by Michael Webb)
Try as I might, I've just never been able to connect with this guy. Yeah, he's well-meaning and enthusiastic and rootsy and all, but his music is a little too bar-band rock-oriented for me, reminding me of the J. Geils Band as much as anything else... It's also a little too emphatic and slightly frantic; Miller falls into the emotional/artistic range that I perceive as subtle or graceful... So even though I can appreciate the good intentions and the range of musical interests -- from acoustic-strummy to clattering and electric -- it just doesn't do much for me. The one song on here that I could see myself going back to is a duet with Patty Griffin, "I'm Right Here, My Love" (a pretty-sounding song about comforting a dying lover). Otherwise, not so much. Which isn't do say others of you out there might not dig this guy a lot... But it's just not my cup of tea.
Arum Rae "Arum Rae" (Hyperreallist, 2008)
(Produced by Michael Bongiorno)
Gritty electric blues, seen through an indie-rock/folk filter. Originally released in '06 under the title Too Young To Sing The Blues, this disc features songwriter Arum Rae Valkonen, backed by a solid band of guys that've played with pros such as Ani Difranco, Paul Simon and Tom Waits. The songs range widely, from a robust opening number, "Lookin' For Love," which echoes Lucinda Williams in her more Delta-y moments to more diffuse, spacy material that pulls us further from roots-music turf and more deeply into the orbit of indiedom and its cultural reappropriation committee. It's a strong record with a singular vision; might not be for everyone, but those who are game will really dig it. (Note: this reissue has a different sequencing and fewer songs than the original edition.)
Various Artists "KEEP YOUR SOUL: A TRIBUTE TO DOUG SAHM" (Vanguard, 2008)
(Produced by Bill Bentley, Stephen Bowen, David Katznelson & Shawn Sahm)
A star-studded homage to the late, great Doug Sahm, one of the original heros of the indie/outlaw Texas scene. Sahm started out as a child prodigy, playing country music in the early 1950s, but he flipped when he heard R&B and was in the first wave of 'Fifties rock'n'rollers. He also absorbed a love of Tex-Mex border music, and brought all these passions to his work, making him a poster child for diversity in music, and his loose-limbed, genre-busting approach was decades ahead of the indie/indiebilly explorations of the last decade or so... Although it dips into music all Sahm's styles -- garage rock, the blues,country, Tex-Mex and psychedelic pop -- this disc tilts a little towards a more muscular, blues-based sound, evoking the sweaty nights playing in bars, rather than the cool licks recorded in studio booths. Dave Alvin, Alejandro Escovedo, Los Lobos, Delbert McClinton and Joe King Carrasco are among the old-timers who pay tribute here; while young'uns such as Sarah Borges, The Gourds and Sahm's son, Shawn Sahm, also join in the fun. I personally found this too blues-heavy for me, but folks who are more in the roots-rock, house-rockin' tip might dig it a lot.
Hick Music Index
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