Caitlin Sherman from the album Death to the Damsel available on Small Batch Records)
There is a darkness in the album art where Caitlin Sherman peers from the shadows, engulfed by a haze of amber liquid and wafting cigarette smoke. Get used to it. The songs on Death to the Damselstay away from the sunny side of the street, the slow roll drawl of Caitlin Sherman wading into the album in a memory that recalls a melody more than a male in “If Not the Man”, stuttering as she tries to lasso the storyline for “The All-Seeing”, lazily drifting across the ‘kitchen-table debate’ of “Cosmic or Chaos”, and marching confidently into warrior skin with “Find Me a Fire”.
The shedding of old musical and personal skin of the past was the backdrop when Caitlin Sherman constructed her solo debut, Death to the Damsel. Spending time in bands (Evening Bell, Slow Skate) and relationships (girlfriend, wife) Caitlin Sherman is single in many ways under the album banner of Death to the Damsel, the title track saddling up a Country rhythm as Caitlin banishes white knights to a territory beyond the borders of her table-for-one nation. The boots of Caitlin Sherman are walking when they step to the Country beat waging “War for You” as she confesses on “Mother’s Daughter” and wobbles to stay in line with the groove in “Up the Street, Driving Down”. Accented by surly guitar swipes, rambling piano notes, and sly wit, Death to the Damsel wishes on a star as it dances with old love for “Big Bang” and orders another round with “Some Paradise Unseen”.
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Michael Doucet (from the album Lâcher Prise available on Compass Records)
A major multi-tasker, Michael Doucet (Beausoleil) debuts a new band, Lâcher Prise, titling the group’s album debut, Lâcher Prise. A full plate, though for the master fiddle player, Michael Doucet took the playing in stride AND came up with the answer to the question that has plagued men and women for centuries….why are we here? Michael’s answer cut to the basics…‘to have a good time, that’s why we’re here. It’s pretty simple when you break it down’. Lâcher Prise stays true to the sonic template that Michael Doucet has given to the world over his four decades fronting Beausoleil while expanding on the Cajun music that birthed the band by presenting sounds that represent Southern Louisiana as a whole. “Cajun Gypsy”, led by Doucet’s fiddle, wanders through a kaleidoscope of strings while “Dites Moi Pas” moves to a Folk Country sway and the rumble of percussion puts an edge of tension into “Chere Emelie”.
Michael Doucet explains that ‘in French, Lâcher Prise means ‘let go’. It’s also a Buddhist term. When it came to making this music, it was just total freedom. The new songs were different from what I typically do, so we formed a group of great people and musicians. I’ve reached a point in my life and career where I can do whatever the hell I want to do. There’s freedom for everybody because of the mutual respect though’. The members of Lâcher Prise play that freedom over and over in the songs of the band’s debut. Michael Doucet leads Lâcher Prise
into the album with a tune that sings of southland hurricanes in “Water, Water” as they spend a February day in the French Quarter with “Walking on a Mardi Gras Day”. Borrowing a reel from fellow Lousian’ songman Boozoo Chavis, Michael Doucet advises “Lula Lula Don’t You Go to Bingo” and walks into misty Americana muttering resentment for “He Got All the Whiskey”.
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The Ballroom Thieves (from the album Unlovely available on Nettwerk Records)
The name that The Ballroom Thieves give to their recent collection of songs is a statement on the current cultural mess, not a personal judgment. For the third album release, The Ballroom Thieves offer Unlovely, the title an overview of the times we live in, a description of the emotional and political demands on our psyches and the non-stop barrage of sleight of hand dealings betting on our future. Both sides of the turmoil are displayed in “Tenebrist”, the term taken from an Italian art movement defined by its violent contrasts of dark and light, the story optimistically embracing the medium with the affirmation ‘we need the dark to know the light’.
The Ballroom Thieves wrap their observations and guidance in gentle Folk with “For Hitchens”, the chorus urging ‘don’t let ‘em lie to you’ as they use rhythm to put their stamp on the resume reading of “Vanity Trip”, dab Jazz samba stylings on the tough love spinning through “Don’t Wanna Dance”, and spit out reasons to say yes in “Love is Easy”. The three voices of The Ballroom Thieves (Callie Peters - cello, bass, Martin Earley - guitar, Devin Mauch – percussion) see Unlovely as a way for the group to make sense of the chaos, Martin Earley feeling that ‘we write about the things that are important to us and right now, it’s impossible to ignore the inadequate state of the world. We just wrote the songs that came out of us and they happened to be largely political. In an ideal world, we would never write a political record—there’d be nothing extreme enough to warrant it’. Unlovely opens with the title track, The Ballroom Thieves joined by Darlingside while marching horns and harmonies lead the way across “Roll the Bones” and “Homme Run” airs its grievances as “Begin Again” stomps and hollers.
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Puss N Boots (from the album Sister available on Blue Note Records)
Gathering recently for a Dolly Parton tribute in NYC, Puss N Boot include the Dolly-penned cut, “The Grass is Blue”, on their second album outing. Sister is the release from Puss N Boots, the album opening on the percussive rumble of “Jamola”, the track a wondrous mix of rhythms, atmospheric guitar lines, and sultry harmony. The three voices meet on the gentle sway of “It’s Not Easy” while Sister trots out “The Razor Song” on a Country and Western saunter, strides slowly over the requests of “The Great Romancer”, and snaps electric guitar chords to vow “Nothing You Can Do”.
Side projects are excellent escapes for the creative community though for the three women of Puss N Boots (Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson, and Catherine Popper), the trio is a safe haven for their art. Norah Jones feeling that ‘we feed off of each other’s eagerness to jump in, sink or swim’ with Sasha Dobson weighing in that ‘for me this band has always been an incredible and uniquely safe outlet for trying new things’ and Catherine Popper able to breath knowing that ‘it’s been a great learning experience for me about setting my ego aside and taking a chance’. In addition to the Dolly tribute, Puss N Boots give a nod to other artists favorites with covers of Tom Petty in “Angel Dream”, Paul Westerberg on “It’s a Wonderful Lie”, and Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde) with “Joey”. Sister has the feel of friends solving world problems over a cup of coffee as Puss N Boots advise on the days rushing by with “Lucky” and commiserate on problems as they join in the harmony of hope to ward the “Same Old Bullshit”.
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The Saints (from the album Tassajara Road available as a self-release)
Cutting across some of the beautiful landscape of California, Tassjara Roadparallels the coastline, moving through Monterey, Carmel, and other west coast towns. The Saints tell stories of the locales, naming their recent E.P. release for the asphalt that carries the tales, Tassajara Road. The Saints share secrets of the not too distant past with “John Steinbeck Drank in Here” and paint a picture of “Oildale” on a canvas of California Country strums and rhythms.
The Saints are torchbearers and curators of the California Country sound, Herb Pedersen (vocal, guitar, banjo) has played, performed, and influenced artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Rivers, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Chris Hillman, John Denver, Gram Parsons, Dwight Yoakam, Jackson Browne, Clarence and Roland White, The Desert Rose Band, Lester Flatt, Kris Kristofferson, The Dillards, The Pine Valley Boys, Jerry Garcia, John Prine, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, The Laurel Canyon Ramblers, Stephen Stills, and Tom Petty. Mike Beck’s history with the National Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering in Elko, Nevada, along with his love of the west coast sounds, were a match for Herb Petersen’s Country Rock credentials when the two envisioned The Saints. The group is filled out with Mark Fain (Ricky Skaggs) on bass, Bluesman Pete de Costa on drums, and Steve Hinson (Randy Travis/George Jones) on pedal steel guitar. Tassajara Road opens on the sunny day strums of “Livin’ in the Arts” as the story spirals through the wide range of emotions found within the creative community as The Saints add “Amanda” to the legends of the West.
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The Lone Bellow (from the album Half Moon Light available on Dualtone Music)
The Lone Bellow has established Gospel Folk as ‘a thing’. The style does not overtake Half Moon Light, the latest release from The Lone Bellow, the inspirational feel dominates the album. Though as spirituals, these tunes may never be heard at a Sunday morning service, and the recording may be a little forward thinking for Folk traditions, however Half Moon Light proves that the genres can be next door neighbors, swapping styles like gossip over a back fence or bar stool. Twenty-seven seconds of a church piano intro leads the way in to the tender "I Can Feel You Dancing", the track giving way to "Good Times”, where The Lone Bellow prove an ability to make some noise, the tempo building into the second half of the tune is punctuated with guitar and horns.
Like many of the cuts on Half Moon Light, "Wash it Clean" begins with whispered tones that add to the sad lonely that accompanies a line like ‘all my life I tried to let you go’. Kanene Donehey Pipkin's vocals are soulful on "Just Enough to Get By" while the layered harmonies of “Martingales” dole out the advice, ‘if yesterday is too heavy, put it down’. The heartbreaker of Half Moon Light is based on the true tale of a mother and child separated at the border; "Illegal Immigrant" speaking words from the mother’s press conference plea, ‘here I am, you'll never be alone again’. It is an all too real tale in these much too real times. The gospel feel comes from the rich layered choral harmonies of The Lone Bellow, and with an "Intro," "Interlude" and "Finale" there is a story concept to Half Moon Light, giving the whole melancholic, emotionally rich dramatic tone of a record a beginning, middle and ending.
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The SteelDrivers (from the album Bad for You available on Rounder Records)
The music percolating within The SteelDrivers is an audio version of the little engine that could as the Grammy award winning outfit return with a new vocalist. Kelvin Damrell takes The SteelDrivers back to sonic origins when the lead vocal driving the group came from co-founder, Chris Stapleton. The sound of Soul dominates the stories of Bad for You over a bed of Bluegrass picking and strumming. A confession comes with pride for a life lived as a brother and husband in “Innocent Man”, the Soul Bluegrass of The SteelDrivers surrounding the words with dark clouds of sound that swirl and twist over the storyline. Bad for You takes a deep breath of fiddle before launching into “Glad I’m Gone” as The SteelDrivers listen to “The Bartender” tell his story, fire off a flurry of notes that percolate under the sad of “When a Heart Breaks”, and toast midnight in “12 O’Clock Blues”.
Twenty-five-year-old Kelvin Damrell grew up in Berea, Kentucky a rocker, foregoing the Bluegrass that ran like mountain streams through the hills, preferring Cinderella to the front-parlor picking he heard on his grandparents couch. He was the new kid in the core band of Tammy Rogers (fiddle),
Richard Bailey (banjo), Mike Fleming (bass) and Brent Truitt (mandolin), and for Kelvin Damrell, it was the playing of The SteelDrivers that hooked him, he immediately heard that ‘everybody in the band were virtuosos, and I’d never seen that side of Bluegrass. I thought it was just that old foot-stomping traditional stuff, so I was surprised to hear this. And I knew I had a lot of work to do to keep up’. Bad for You opens with its title track slowly peeling the melody from a persistent march of strings supporting promises of love trouble. The SteelDrivers play a Country waltz with “Lonely and Being Alone” and put a rumble on the vow to “Forgive” as Bad for You lets the music do the talking in instrumental “Mama Says No”.
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John Moreland (from the album LP5 available on LP5 available on Old Omens Records)
John Moreland is providing the soundtrack for the troubled times. Those troubled times could look back into twnety years ago or forward into twenty years from now, proof that the Tulsa-based singer/songwriter keeps an ear to the ground as he chronicles plight and personal issues never changing. LP5 remains stripped down and honest with subtle layers, and a few tricks, from the instrumentation that give the LP5 a push beyond the typical folk offering. Album opener in “Harder Dreams” is timed for primary ballot delivery with the observation ‘all the gods are watching wars on television’. John Moreland is prepping the youngsters ripe for a first go-around in the voting booth to ‘graduate to harder dreams’.
“A Thought Is Just a Passing Train” features a blippy beat and organ groove, “Two Stars” is a wake-up instrumental, paired with “For Ichiro”, that comes further on in LP5, showcasing a John Moreland knack for instrumental noir. “Terrestrial” sings of ‘candles that burn at both ends’ while the music is a bed of laid-back folkie funk. “When My Fever Breaks” is a hopeful love song, one of the most up-tempo of the eleven on the record where John Moreland aches ‘you’re not here and I can’t be still, I don’t think I’ll sleep until I see you’. LP5 takes liberties with the traditional folk approach. While John Moreland has history in Punk Rock, he proves he also has got some chops in the digital world, building some beats that live comfortably beneath a folkie grit.
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Rebekah Meldrum (from the album Rebekah Meldrum available as a self-release)
The album art brings to mind a well-worn 12” cover, a semi-circle carved in the image from rubbing against other records in the collection. The Blues of Rebekah Meldrum runs the same course. The swampy riffs of Paul Holden’s guitar beckon in to the self-titled release, Rebekah Meldrum’s voice snaking like thick mist as six-string and voice duet on album opener “Set Your Soul Free”. Whether leading the way in a sad soulful ballad (“Far Away”), stepping lightly between funky guitar wiggles (“Coat Tails”), or turning the lights low for late-night Blues (“Whiskey and Wine”), Rebekah Meldrum guides the music with a loose hold on the rhythm and a tight grip on the heat. She is the “Gypsy” with the ‘rebel heart’ and Rebekah Meldrum is the friend in need talking hands for solace and to walk into a street parade with “I’m Here”.
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Jack Mack and the Heart Attack (from the album Live from Centennial Park, Atlanta, 1996 available on Free Roll Entertainment)
California Soul extended its reach into the world when Jack Mack and the Heart Attack formed in Los Angeles 1980. The band made use of hometown accessibility, finding themselves in many films with both music and appearances, becoming the house band for The Late Show. The music took the band around the globe, and they found themselves in the path of history when they were on-stage in Atlanta, Georgia in Centennial Park 1996. The group was performing at the 1996 Summer Olympics when a pipe bomb exploded. The event was chronicled in the recent Clint Eastwood directed, Richard Jewell, and when the production contacted Jack Mack & The Heart Attack about footage, the search through old tapes resulted in the release of Live from Centennial Park, Atlanta 1996.
Fittingly the album ends with “I Walked Alone”, the song Jack Mack & The Heart Attack were performing when the blast occurred. The track wraps up a set a sweet Soul music, Jack Mack & The Heart Attack offering Staple Singers standards “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” alongside James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”. The set balances originals with covers, including a medley of Sly Stone songs, the set the full recording from the night in Centennial Park.
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