Gretchen Peters - Blackbirds
Like an under-screened independent film, Gretchen Peter's release “Blackbirds” received nary a listen from radio or critics. And each and every one of her releases raises the stakes on American roots song writing. This stark, riveting collection of modern southern Gothic tales is so harrowing and so rich in adult lyrical depth as to put all other folk country music to shame. Try and get through “The Cure for the Pain” without tears welling as you reflect on friends or family who have dealt with cancer, where the answer, to what is the cure for the pain, “is the pain”. The chilling witnesses to a rural atrocity are “Blackbirds”. And she lays bare the struggle, timely with PTSD haunting our vets, with “When All You Got is a Hammer”, to cope with killing - “They show you how to shoot, and they show you how to kill; but they don't show you what to do with this hole that you can't fill”. This is excruciating and relentless, but wholly elegiac and lovely soul-searching in the best way.
El Vy - Return to the Moon
Knotty, poppy side project from The National's Matt Berninger, El Vy (plural of Elvis) includes Brent Knopf as partner (Ramona Falls). Though uneven, the title track's bouncing bass and snappy rhythms are worth it alone. Berninger mixes aberrant & farcical lyrics, percolating drums, chirpy synths and a lighter pop sensibility governs. Berninger drolly intones his slightly dark world view through tunes like “Paul is Alive”, a semi-autobiographical paean to his mother and the ascendant world view defined by Beatlemania. There's the tinkly electric piano of the somnolent to jagged “Sleeping Light” And you just know that it is not about “Happiness, Missouri.” All vocals delivered in that mordant, semi-enunciated vowel unfurling drone, dancing between sardonic and eloquent. Draggy in spots, crunching and anthemic in bursts; for fans of The National and quirky pop-rock.
Josh Ritter - Sermon on the Rocks
The reigning poet laureate of folk-rock, Ritter is more focused and rambunctious on this latest song cycle orbiting around religious themes (“Young Moses”; Getting Ready to Get Down”) and a cruel, crazy fractious small town life. Pounding piano and thumping drums lend an early Billy Joelesque sonic palette. Ritter still excels at rapid fire proverb-quoting and metrical romantic verse. A life-questioner and relentless self-examiner, the album's zeitgeist is summed up in the magnificent clockworks “Homecoming”, laying out all his magnified fears and euphoric celebrations of the most base desires and human explorations. Add the reflections “The Stone” and “My Man on a Horse” to counterbalance the effervescence. Much credit to a frisky, crack new band with linear stinging guitars, punching bass & drums and lunging piano. Ritter is rejuvenated from his breakup record of two years hence, and reviving his song filled spirit.
Amy Helm - Didn't It Rain
The daughter of genre defining elder statesman Levon Helm, Amy has matured fast, and her image-rich laments and blues mine the same vein as her fathers seminal group The Band. This is a smart collection of originals and covers, including a country-folk take on Sam Cooke's “Ain't That News”, and lovely harmonies of Mary Gauthier and Beth Nielsen Chapman's “Gentling Me”. There are prayers for compassion, thankfulness and regret. The session players supply crackling strummed and slithering slide electric and acoustic guitars and the cooing, burbling organ beds of John Medeski; it shuttles from rocking and reflective –parsing out the emotions in a controlled program.. The lyrics are spare, folk ballads and Helm is alternately sweetly soulful and brashly shoutful. There are shuffles, waltzes and rustic rockers; ruminations on family, love lost and found, requested redemption; this is heartfelt country rock with a deep soul.
Brandi Carlile - The Firewatcher's Daughter
In a coming of age similar to Amy Helm, Carlile has hit her stride with this confident collection of roots-folk compositions. From the storming confirmation of “Wherever is Your Heart” and the lovely “The Eye” - which postulates that “you can dance in a hurricane, but only if you're standing in the eye”. Carlile charts journeys of regret and loss, (“Alibi”) finds warmth and comfort and occasionally gives in to despair. These are compact treatises on relationships. The band blasts away on the ironic “Mainstream Kid”, of which Carlile has never been.
Much credit to the Hanseroth Brothers, Tim and Phil, who have helped craft a palette and sonic template perfectly suited to Ms. Carlile. The three harmonize as if they are ALL siblings – bright, crisp, balanced – keening country-folk splendor. The Hanseroth's guitars and bass and co-writing skills have aided in the coalescing of Carlile's vision and style – crying, hollering and murmuring of life's heartbreak and life's exultation.
Jason Isbell - Something More than Free
Talk about hitting your stride; Isbell follows up the outstanding “Southeastern”, with this equally gripping set of soon to be covered country rock standards. Not possessing of the greatest voice, Isbell can add a bit of grit to his slightly sandpapered wail; the guy has an ache. “24 Frames” is a steady folk-rocker asking “what happened to that part of you that noticed every changing wind?” And the gently, effortlessly propulsive “How to Forget”, provides this refrain - “Teach Me How to Forget, Replace the Character Set. Teach Me How to Unlearn a Lesson”.
Isbell has gotten sober, married, become a father and it all suits him. His songs are still probing, unabashed examinations and criticisms of his past. But his writing is confident, poetic and plain-spoken. His new wife Amanda Shires, a respected Nashville solo artist, adds country fiddle flourishes and hand-glove vocal harmonies with her hubby.
Leon Bridges - Coming Home
If your toes are not tapping within four bars of “Smooth Sailing”, one of the standout tracks on Mr. Bridges debut, then you better schedule your appointment, as it is a silky, sexy sax-driven R&B excursion straight out of the 1960's. How a 26-year-old croons in an archival soul voice as if Sam Cooke were still alive and relevant, is a risk, but this is no mere mimicry. Though steeped in retro-soul, the song cycle is of the 21st century vibe. Horns are less splashy or urgent than 50-60's funk-soul, and the subject matter, save for a few songs, are smoldering, not fully ignited, love songs. Modestly urgent, but an assured debut.
Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands
Critics love to bash Dawes, and I am uncertain why. This four piece is not charting new territory, nor are they claiming to be change agents, but are forthright song-smiths with fluid harmonies and tuneful compositions. Will we look back at the is as one of 21015's “Blood on the Tracks”? No, but ear-nabbing songs like “Somewhere Along the Way” and the title track is a part naive, part sardonic anthem to love lost, friends celebrated and times gone. And Dawes sounds very strong, assured and well... professional throughout. Their polish is off-putting to those who believe authenticity lies only in craggy banjos and slam-bang country rattle. They wear their hearts on their sleeves – that is fine with me.
Bob Moses - Days Gone By
From the first lightly scalding electric piano notes of “Before I Fall”, I was hooked on this new release by Bob Moses; a cool house music duo based in Brooklyn but formed in Vancouver years ago. Skimming along on electric keyboards and gauzy, sometimes cheesy Fender Rhodes, this is great nighttime atmospherics. “Tearing Me Up” cashes in on a dusky noir-lite vibe but yet is insistent. The aforementioned “Before I Fall” drops a hefty bombing back beat against swelling keys and echoey, pleading vocals. One critic rightly name checks James Black and others have linked the gooier, calm tracks of New Order. Clip clopping rhythms, reverberating pianos and panging soft, maybe a tad bland vocals. Darkly chill, melodious and ingratiatingly taunting. Beat worthy too.
Also Noted: Songs; and Artists of 2015 we also liked:
The Weepies | “Sirens” -- This husband-wife duo are one of the lesser known (to the overall music world) gems of folk-pop. Confectionery, simple arrangements, chiming or rocking six-strings, and their trademark guy-gal harmonies; Deb Talan of the plangent and sweetly dry voice and Steve Tannen of understated calm. The album is a bit triumphant and a tad reflective as Talan is is remission from stage three breast cancer. Much of the introspection surrounds their marriage, their children, and the uncertainty which frustrates and excites us all. From the mournful rocking of “No Trouble” to a chiming cover of Tom Petty's “Learning to Fly”. Their sweet harmonies light up the gently strummed "Sunflower” - a ray of illumination on their past years of physical struggle. How can anyone not love this music?
Boz Scaggs | “A Fool to Care” -- Boz' adenoidal croon is mellower than ever. A languorous reading of Richard Hawley's “Storm Comin'” and throw in a sizzling duet with Bonnie Raitt on the chugging “Hell to Pay”, and you have a masterful set by our great son of American music.
Kacey Musgraves | “Pageant Material” -- Overlooked and under appreciated by the commercial country airwaves, this album nicely bookends with last years “Same Trailer, Different Park” harnessing strings and aching steel guitar with folk-country flourishes. Mature and steeped in country tradition, the songs are varied, tuneful and subtly shaded in production, the first five songs are better than anything heard on country radio in 2015.
Joan Shelley | “Over and Even” -- The second coming of Sandy Denny – the album is a bit histrionic, but earnest and pristine with stark arrangements showcasing her mellifluous voice. This Louisville based singer-songwriter recaptures the glory of simple, not simplistic, songcraft with these timeless, rustic without cloying word-poems. Back porch mesmerizing.
And just a few more: “Bashed Out” - The Kit; “Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I just Sit” - Courtney Barnett; “Perfect Animal" - Becca Stevens Band; “Currency of Man” - Melody Gardot (“Preacherman” alone makes this album worth it); “Tomorrow is My Turn” - Rhiannon Giddens; “Birds Say” - Darlingside; and “Still” - Richard Thompson.