Jangling Sparrows (from the album Telecoaster available as a self-release) (by Bryant Liggett)
Paul Edelman has this Rock’n’Roll thing figured out. Recording as Jangling Sparrows, his 2020 release Bootstraps and Other American Fables was a fierce blast of hard Americana, and his follow up, which dropped in late 2021, follows to a place where FM rock and Indie-Roots score an Alt Country party. Telecoaster is more Roots melodies and solid lyrical quips barked out like life affirming orders, and at least one timeless anthem you’ll wish you heard as a teenager just so you could sing along to it at the top of your lungs.
A loose horn-section kicks the record off with “Ready or Not”, an intro that is ass-kicking advice in a song, and that zips into “Hey There, Brother”, a cut that has a styling R&B groove that weaves throughout the roots rock. “I Still Love Rock and Roll” is that song you needed as a teen; Edelman singing of things that keep you down, from social media to vanity, claiming ‘we’re all obsessed with youth and beauty and success, it’s always been this way I guess but now it’s worse than ever’. That’s just one small line in a cut loaded with pearls of thought, but he always comes back to the line “I Still Love Rock and Roll” that you’ll bark along to. It’s fantastic.
Jangling Sparrows drop Psychedelic Pop in “Photograph” and lazy ballads via “Americana B Roll” but what Paul Edelman and the band really nail are short phrases. The writing spurs a rewind from multiple ‘what did he just sing?’ moments, and those come often in some songs you’ll keep forever.
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Grant Dermody and Frank Fotusky (from the album Diggin’ In John’s Backyard as an independent release) (by Lee Zimmerman)
Tribute albums are often a mixed bag. No matter how adept the attempt, it’s inevitable that comparisons will be made to the original offering. There are exceptions however. When the artist that’s being covered is relatively obscure, those attempting to put their own stamp on the sound need not be as concerned with being measured against the same standard. Instead, it offers an opportunity to not only emulate those earlier efforts, but to lay claim to them as well.
Blues harp player Grant Dermody and guitarist Frank Fotusky had all the right intentions when they decided to team up and salute the late John Jackson, a Blues guitarist who was known for pursuing — and perfecting — a rustic country style known as Piedmont Blues. Sadly, his work didn’t get the wider recognition it deserved. He retired from making music in 1949, only to experience a limited revival at the start of the ‘60s.
Both Fotusky and Dermody had the good fortune to meet Jackson in their early years, and each absorbed his profound influence on their careers. Consequently, the pair’s new album, Diggin’ In John’s Backyard, reflects the music of the man both considered a mentor.
To be sure, only one track in this baker’s dozen sampling of classic country blues was written by Jackson himself, that being his would-be classic, “Boots Up River.” Nevertheless, the remainder of the set is clearly in the same vein, and given the fact that any number of archival artists are represented — Blind Blake, Skip James, Charlie Patton, Rev. Gary Davis, and Sonny Boy Williams, among them — the authenticity in their approach is all but assured. The songs all share a similar style, and the fact that Dermody and Fotusky are solely responsible allows the pair to maintain a rugged, rootsy resolve. While several of the songs may be known to a novice — “Good Morning Judge,” Alberta,” Death Have No Mercy,” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” in particular — these unembellished arrangements take on a treatment and tone that’s far removed from the edge and intensity manifest in most rock reboots.
Consequently, Diggin' in John's Backyard stays true to the seminal sound of vintage Blues, while also investing the music with a dedication and devotion that’s manifest in an approach that’s both sobering and sublime. Ultimately, it’s more than simply a tribute. Rather, it’s about honoring tradition and the need to look back while bringing music forward towards the future. (by Lee Zimmerman)
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She Brought Me Gasoline (from the album There Were Times available as an independent release) (by Bryant Liggett)
It’s not every day you get to dig into Roots bands from Croatia. It’s actually not every week, month, or even year. However, calling Roots-tinged music that comes across lonely, worn, and sad with a slight chug of twang Americana is selfish, like a country that places its own name on a sport that’s called a different name everywhere else on the planet. Those themes and those melodic sounds can exist everywhere and can be explored by anyone, as Croatia’s She Brought Me Gasoline does on their latest effort There Were Times.
There are cuts that are empty, late-night road lonely, like “Above the Regular Crowd” and “The Road”, the latter ultra-slow, super-desolate. “Rabotny” is an instrumental cut where stringed instruments meander, “Last Night I Had a Dream” is a fantastic Roots-noir ballad, and “Let Me Move On” is another to add to the ever-growing canon of Roots train songs.
She Brought Me Gasoline’s sound picks up where The Gourds left off. Cuts where the banjo is front and center, wonderful guitar fills in all the right places, and the lonely melodies that seem to be patched together with thin stitching give the whole record a raggedy feel. It is that looseness that makes the record so appealing. There’s front porch picking parties everywhere, twang isn’t regional, and There Were Times is a prime example of Global Americana.
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Steve Poltz (from the album Stardust & Satellites on Red House Records) (by Lee Zimmerman)
Always eager and self-effacing, Steve Poltz is a natural entertainer. His concerts prompt laughter from songs that are clever, entertaining and always enticing. Consequently, when the opening track of his ever-engaging new album Stardust & Satellites begins by stating ‘you’re about to watch a show starring me, I don’t know what you’re about to hear or see’, he’s not exaggerating. ‘It’s music, sweet music, I’m Emo, I’m Screamo, I’m Country and I’m Folk, Americana if you wanna, I’m old-fashioned but I’m woke’.
While Poltz’s irrelevant attitude seems to take him to extremes, he’s also spot on. His approach often seems spontaneous, as in this case when he veers from the sympathetic sheen of “Conveyor Belt” and the lilting balladry of “Frenemy” to the ragtag excess of “Can O’ Pop” and the noisy devotion of “Lord and Savior”. Nevertheless, no matter what form they take, there’s not a single song here that doesn’t put his personality in perspective, from humor to happenstance, tears to triumph. It’s the quality that makes Steve Poltz come across as a man who’s genuinely human and unerringly relatable, the same qualities that make him an audience favorite and, in fact, a genuine delight.
More evidence of that unassuming attitude can be summed up on the whimsical repast “It’s Baseball Season”, a jolly ditty that details his love of the sport, an exuberant afternoon, and the full flush of new love. One can’t help but feel Steve Poltz’s delirious delight as he shares his reflections of a day well spent. So too, his acknowledged theme song of sorts, “Up with People” — its title taken from his early experience with the cheery all-American outfit of the same name — recounts tales of a misguided youth, when smoking weed and trying to get the attention of a girl were the sole focus.
That said, while Poltz often comes across as a happy-go-lucky joker, he’s also an uncommonly sensitive soul. When he utters the line, ‘we’re all moving parts and broken hearts’ in the title track, he effectively sums up the sadness and insecurity that plagues so many people these days. Listening to this tender tune brings to mind the kind of connection Steve Poltz is known for, giving further reason why he’s one of the most engaging entertainers making music today. He is, in effect, a spokesperson for the Everyman (and Everywoman), and we ought to be damn pleased to have him in our corner. If nothing else, he’s earned an A plus on personality alone. (By Lee Zimmerman)
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Erin Rae (from the album Lighten Up available on Good Memory Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Erin Rae may have cornered the Country Lounge market. Perhaps she even invented the genre. Her latest release, Lighten Up filed somewhere between Cocktail Jazz and singer/songwriter Folk, twangy Roots and Psychedelic Pop. All apt placement, as Lighten Up is an interesting package of spinning wheel musical goodness. Dig below the simple descriptor of ‘Pop’ and give a listen for pedal steel and groovy organ, as this is a record with meandering melodies, wonderful vocals, and hip instrumentation.
“Candy + Curry” is a spacey and Psychedelic, free-floating opener with Erin Rae singing about making ‘candy and curry’ as she thinks of ‘needing someone more than ever’ while picking flowers. “Can’t See Stars”, featuring Kevin Morby, has a two-stepping trot while “True Loves Face” is a trippy groove, where one set of keys keeps a solid beat, while another swirls behind the vocals.
“Cosmic Sigh” begins with the Folk simplicity of a guitar but ends with big sweeping, classical strings. Lighten Up is like your soundtrack for a trippy dream. Its Psychedelic though not in a Rock sense, but in a dream sense, where everything plays out like an animated, weird yet charming story playing out in a slumbering head. With its layered vocals and hidden gems of instrumentation, Erin Rae moves well beyond singer-songwriter offerings and gives us a record that’s as playful as it is catchy. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Joan Osborne (from the album Radio Waves on Womanly Hips/MRi Entertainment) (by Lee Zimmerman)
It’s inevitable that Joan Osborne will always be known for one tune in particular — “One of Us” — a song that tried to define God in human terms by questioning His (or Her) humanity. Nevertheless, with a 25-year career under her belt, the extent of her accomplishments far eclipses any single song. Consequently, she has a treasure trove of radio appearances, demos and unreleased recordings that were well worth a second look when it came time to compile a rarities release.
That was the effort Osborne undertook on while forced into confinement during the pandemic. She scoured her archives, focusing mainly on live radio appearances that found her mostly performing other people’s songs. The results evolved into Radio Waves, now an ideal showcase for Osborne’s interpretive skills. To be sure, she didn’t negate her own originals — an unadorned version of “One of Us”, a rousing remake of “Shake Your Hips”, and a mostly stripped down revisit to “Little Wild One”, are drawn from her back catalog and effectively affirm her own imprint.
That said, it’s her reverence and respect for others that takes center stage. Her take on “Dream a Little Dream”, “My Love Is Alive”, “Only You Know and I Know”, and “Love’s in Need of Love” are faithfully rendered with little change from the initial templates. The most obvious exception comes with the tenacious treatment she affords “How Sweet It Is”, a song that has its contentment and contemplation overridden by an edgy intransigence. On the other hand, her version of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” strips down the sentiment and adds a tender touch only implied in the original.
Albums that troll the standards can be interpreted in different ways — as a stopgap measure, an indication that the artist involved is dealing with writer’s block, or as an effort to revel in the roots. Whatever the case, Joan Osborne’s affection for the music is never in doubt. (By Lee Zimmerman)
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North Mississippi AllStars (from the album Set Sail available on New West Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Early on the North Mississippi AllStars banged out Blues at a breakneck speed. It was a formula that caught ears and eyes: a powerhouse trio that blistered through classic Blues cuts. That Punk DIY power may now sit on a backburner, yet NMAS remain just as fierce, these days dropping gallons of groove on their latest Set Sail. A quarter century in and North Mississippi AllStars are a rocking Roots band, fresh as day one.
‘Groove’ is a word that can’t be overused on this album; it is everywhere. It is all over “Part I” of the title track, a twangy roller that features Lamar Williams Jr. adding vocals along with Luther Dickinson. There’s a Folk, Country vibe to “Bumpin’” and “See the Moon”, which again features Williams along with Sharisse Norman on vocals is a blast of Gospel Funk.
“Didn’t We Have a Time” throws a curve with a dreamy, Pop feel while “Never Want To Be Kissed”, Stax Records royalty and Memphis hometown hero, William Bell, on vocals is a touch of timeless Bluff City R & B, sounding like the Dickinson brothers plucked it out of 1965. “Part II” of the title track is a loose package of horns and Luther playfully plucking the guitar. The fun and funkiest cut of the bunch comes via the laid-back groove of “Juicy Juice.”
North Mississippi AllsStars crafted a formula, and with Set Sail, another drop of fresh Funk that also nods to timeless southern Rhythm & Blues. It’s all in the groove.
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Lord Nelson (from the album Transmission available on ) (by Bryant Liggett)
With a vibe that is bar band friendly and a Southern Rock foundation, Charlotteville’s Lord Nelson deliver thick instrumentation to back tales of a universal life we have all lived, one life of another. Lord Nelson are the soundtrack for a gathering of your funest and most rowdy friends. Transmission, the recent Lord Nelson release is serious songwriting coming at you in a loose, rambling fashion. A Southern Rock riff opens Transmission with a tale that finds a stolen bottle revealing a love song in “Tooth and Nail”. The cut huffs and puffs right into another stellar entrance to an outlaw’s tale when “Hell or High Water” starts life watching someone ‘face down on the pavement’. Again, you have lived these tales, welcome or unwelcome, from a collective past.
Lord Nelson let the rhythms chug for the leave-me-alone and I’m-leaving-you-behind story in “Drag Me Down” as they nod to band life with “Putting in the Time”, the tale namechecking the beautiful town of Crozet in Central Virginia while painting a real-life picture of a touring band. It is a reminder of the days on the road you hate when happening yet miss it when it all ends. Lord Nelson dig into the gritty 70s Rock forms for “Cheap Red Wine” and end Transmission with the boogie beat of “Julia”. Lord Nelson offers two recipes for success… strength in the story and solid riffs, and once the base is set, deliver serious tales taking a musically nostalgic sonic trip. That sound raises its voice with air guitar worthy riffs and solid solos, all arriving via the smart grooves and intuitive jams of Lord Nelson.
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Maya De Vitry (from the album Violet Light available on Mad Maker Studios) (by Bryant Liggett)
Maya De Vitry delivers a record slow and soft, gentle and graceful. Exploring acoustic Soul and ambient Folk, Violet Light is influenced by Appalachian twang and more urban sounds. It is a solid and happy medium, an unlikely combination of musical middle ground with former Stray Bird De Vitry keeping feet firmly planted in both worlds, as she describes perfectly as a life goal in “Never on the Map”. Throughout Violet Light Maya De Virty’s vocals are a lush hush. Album opener, “Flowers”, setting a soulful tone where her lyrics are delivered in a soft whisper over the quieter drift of organ notes.
Easy-going 70s Rock is curated in “How Bad I Wanna Live” with De Vitry’s band laying down a slow groove, including a gritty guitar, tasty horns, and layered harmonies. Ambient banjo and cello notes lay melodic groundwork for “I Don’t Ask Trees” and “Watches Out of Diamonds” offers a front porch sing-a-long, the track the twangiest of the bunch, Maya’s kazoo adding an animated vibe.
Maya De Vitry presents dense vocal work coupled with an array of instruments to back her voice, the combo of Soul and Folk an appealing offering. Banjo to keyboard to vibraphones; no one sound dominant, all offered with a careful, delicate touch. Violet Light is a whole batch of songs presented as a gift placed lovingly on a soft pillow.
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MohaviSoul (from the album Stories and Memories available as a self-release)
Like the Southwest sand the players nod to in the group moniker, MohaviSoul spin hard-worn songs. Dusty and driven by rhythm, the harmonies and picking of MohaviSoul provide warmth and weight to the tracks running across Stories and Memories, the latest release from the San Diego-based band. West Coast Bluegrass married to soulful vocals is the theme of the album. A line of notes walks quietly into the opening of Stories and Memories on “The Righteous Path”. “Bluegrass Breakdown” sings an audio snapshot of touring troubles while “This Old House” slows the groove to a sway as “Lonesome Evening Blues” shuffles its feet to a sad song and “Self-Imposed Highs and Lows” tackles hangovers with experiential advice sitting behind the wheel of a runaway rhythm.
Redemption through reconciliation writes the storyline in “Fourteen Days” while MohaviSoul hold tight to the promises of love in “Won’t Bring You Down” and drifts on light desert breezes to hear the tale of a wandering soul in “Nomad’s Blues”. Formed in 2012, MohaviSoul are the gatekeepers for mountain music kicking up sand when Stories and Memories seeks direction with “Sinners and Saints”, picking up the beat to head down “Two Roads” as they stack up Mark Twain tall tales to form a frame for “Make It Up”.
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