Rob McHale (from the album Prophets on the Boulevard)
Like the country that is the backdrop for Prophets on the Boulevard, Rob McHale colonizes the territory of the album with multiple topics and varied Roots that all find common ground on the release. The theme of a united world walks proudly into Prophets on the Boulevard as the album begins its journey by taking a stroll through Boston Commons, gaining strength of purpose with the levelling of the barriers between diverse cultures. Social commentary strides with the same determination into the songs, Rob McHale spending time discussing the ways of humans through his observations on their love and lives, their history and their environment. A slow-moving rhythm revolves around “Mother Earth”, Rob McHale stands in “Woody’s Shoes” to relive the goals of a young man sitting intently listening to Woody Guthrie on the radio, and takes a stand on “Blair Mountain” beside coal miners striking for a better way of life.
Moods swing like a pendulum on Prophets on the Boulevard, guided and captained by the calm assurance in the voice of Rob McHale. Tenderness speaks the words as sadness pulls the strings on “Keep Me Warm” while the light of “One Star” is found in a single smile as two heartbeats find their steps in time for “When the Sun Shines In” and a bluesy breeze ruffles the feathers of “Little Red Rooster”. Recorded in his home state of North Carolina, Rob McHale recorded Prophets on the Boulevard in the mountains, digging deep into musical Roots for the cultivated Folk and Bluegrass buried in the fertile ground. Street corner preaching begins the story of the title track as “Prophets on the Boulevard” turns a 360 degree circle to view the faces surrounding us all while Rob McHale sings of finding hope in the memory of loss with “Old Man on the Road” and watches red fill the water with blood for “Deep in the River”, tracing the legacy of John Brown as it continues to bleed into modern times.
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Donovan Woods (from the album Both Ways)
You have to lean in to listen as Donovan Woods whispers his words over stark banjo notes to open his recent release, Both Ways. Hushed thoughts select images from his mind, Donovan Woods walking through memory, wondering and possibly worrying about his part in a past relationship with “Good Lover”. The song sets the standard for Both Ways, the album choosing sides in love, the stories each picking partners for the push/pull motion as hearts give, take, move forward or get stuck in a moment. There is a reverence to Donovan Woods vocal delivery, a respect for the music that subtly courses underneath the tracks as he makes a last wish with “Our Friend Bobby” over percussive bubbles of rhythm, tugs a tale out of static airwaves for “Read About Memory”, and struts on the assured beat and decisive actions, fixing the world as he moves down “Easy Street”.
The songs of Both Ways are interactive, Donovan Woods staging the scene, dressing his characters without needing to announce a spoiler alert as the listener picks up the development of the story line. That style suits Donovan Woods, his choice for songs staying close to his belief that ‘the writing I always liked is about things that are indicative of a world but not the entire world. They lead you into the room and then let you fill in the details. One detail that makes you go, ‘OK, I feel like I understand.’ As long as you find that one detail, that’s the key. That’s the one you stick with and the rest is up to people’s imagination’. Time with family and friends winds towards the future while the present picks up the pace to reach tomorrow in “Next Year”. Both Ways packs a “Truck Full of Money” with the help of a solid backbeat and crosses the finish line in “Great Escape” with a suitcase full of what-if’s while Donovan Woods shares secrets with the hammering heart beats of “I Live a Little Lie” and strums acoustic chords to admit “I Ain’t Never Loved No One” in a duet conversation with Rose Cousins.
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Marcia Ball (from the album Shine Bright available on Alligator Records)
Texas roadhouse Blues and New Orleans Funk headed into the studio with Marcia Ball to record Shine Bright. Though based in Austin, Texas, Marcia Ball rules a territory that reaches over land to the sea. She wears the crown of Queen of Gulf Coast piano boogie and on Shine Bright offers a hatful of musical gems recorded in Austin with local musicians and band members and in Louisiana Cajun country backed by bayou heroes Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars. Produced by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Shine Bright achieves the goals set by Marcia Ball. She fulfills her desire to make create meaningful music and make it move, admitting that ‘it is a ridiculously hopeful, cheerful record’ confessing that her secret is ‘to set the political songs to a good dance beat’. On a personal side, Marcia Ball shoots for simple goals on a Crescent City R&B groove with “I Got to Find Somebody” as Shine Bright quiets to let in the light of a better tomorrow on a global level for “World Full of Love”.
There is history for women and pianos in Marcia Ball’s family, and in her formative years she blended ancestral history with marquee musicians of the time, hearing the music of Little Richard and Fats Domino as a target she was looking to hit with her own playing. She landed in Austin in 1970, falling for the city and cancelling plans for a San Francisco destination. Around the same time, she heard Professor Longhair, setting up her style as she set up a new home. Shuffling in with pride for choosing the right direction Marcia Ball takes joy in the decisions of “I’m Glad I Did What I Did” as she opens her umbrella and strolls down to the parade in “When the Mardi Gras is Over”, tributing the music that has given her lifelong soundtrack in “Take a Little Louisiana”. Shine Bright basks in the glow of funky riffs as it circles the sun on the title track while it drifts south to dial in Caribbean rhythms on “Life of the Party” as Marcia Ball advises to grab and give away the gold ring in “Once in a Lifetime Thing” and rumbles in on barrelhouse beats to roll out memories with “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That”.
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John Prine (from the album Tree of Forgiveness available on Oh Boy! Records)
In an age of full disclosure, I feel the need to disclose. As I write the review for the new John Prine album, Tree of Forgiveness, I am wearing a sweat shirt that reads I Don’t Need Therapy I Just Need to Listen to John Prine. I wear the shirt often, I do not often get to mention why that line is 100% correct as much. Here is why…..
The clue for Tree of Forgiveness album title is found in the final cut on the album, “When I Get to Heaven”. Following a transitional harp tone, John Prine walks his first steps into the Great Beyond, taking time to say thanks before he picks up a guitar, gets a band, opens a nightclub called Tree of Forgiveness, and remember to forget all past transgressions against his person. There was also mention of a cocktail and a nine-mile long cigarette. While the past albums of John Prine have all held some of the author in the stories as well as offering plenty of space for other characters, Tree of Forgiveness is the most obviously personal collection of words and music from John Prine. There are moments of mortality and frivolity that leapfrog through the songs, frequently appearing in the same sentence. Faith is strong on the album, John Prine seeing the deal as between just two, the man and the heavenly house, as “God Only Knows” reveals the innerworkings of a mind as decisions roll like credits across a screen. Tree of Forgiveness opens its doors for choices on a larger scale as it watches a long line of humanity approaching in a “Caravan of Fools” while John Prine pens a love letter thank you note with “Boundless Love”.
Where do songs come from? John Prine found the songs for Tree of Forgiveness living within the four walls of a hotel room. John’s wife was familiar with his comfort zone, booking him a room at a local Nashville hotel. It was the perfect setting for man and muse to hang out, John worrying slightly as he checked in recalling that ‘I said, ‘If anybody sees me checking into the Omni, they’ll figure Fiona and I are on the outs. I grabbed my stuff just as fast as I could. She knows that after being on the road so many years, I function better in a hotel, so that’s what I did. I ordered room service and worked and watched my quiz shows. No pressure. This way, if I wanted to write at 3 in the morning, or 3 in the afternoon, I could. I’d go out to the swimming pool and go eat at the steakhouse. It worked out because by the end of the week, I was ready to go into the studio’. Produced by Dave Cobb and recorded in Nashville, Tennessee in historic RCA Studio A, Tree of Forgiveness welcomes friends with Brandi Carlile featured on “I Have Met My Love Today”, Jason Isbell plugging in electric guitar for “No Ordinary Blue”, and Amanda Shires with fiddle and background vocals on the Phil Spector co-write, “God Only Knows”. Using Tree of Forgiveness as a platform to vent, John Prine voices his displeasure at the planet Pluto being marked-down (“The Lonesome Friends of Science”) as he shares a smile looking at times when local farmers left the door open and young roosters came to call (“Egg and Daughter Night, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967”). Heart and humor have been the ink in John Prine’s pen for over fifty years, decades of memories becoming seasonal breezes blowing warm winds through Tree of Forgiveness with “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” and the tender beckoning home of “Summer’s End”.
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Sam Morrow (from the album Concrete and Mud available on Forty Below Records)
A member in good standing, flying the flag of California Country, Sam Morrow gets musically nostalgic for his Houston, Texas birthplace with new songs. On his recent release, Concrete and Mud, Sam tells the story of a traveling troubadour as a classic Texas singer/songwriter on “Coming Home” while he touches “Mississippi River” with Delta Folk Blues. Sam Morrow stretches on other tracks of Concrete and Mud, staying true to his Roots style, adding Country to Western as he pulls off the highway, signing a honky tonk tab as “Paid by the Mile” while he uses guitar notes to mark the pros and cons in “Good Ol’ Days” and partners with Jaime Wyatt in “Skinny Elvis” to select preferences for The King in a song.
Songman becomes bandleader on Concrete and Mud, Sam Morrow recording with Eric Corne producing, capturing the album live in studio on a vintage Neve 8068 console. A Little Feat groove opens Concrete and Mud in “Heartbreak Man”, thinning the playing to a sparse noir rhythm carrying “Weight of a Stone” as a funky beat snakes like tendrils of smoke from “Cigarettes”. Sam Morrow bakes a desert melody into the story of a guitar player heading west as Concrete and Mud trades a home address from San Angelo, Texas to “San Fernando Sunshine”.
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The Claudettes (from the album Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!)
Psychobilly, 1960’s Rock’n’Soul, and Vaudeville Blues blare from the bandstand as The Claudettes theatre-whisper the news for Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!, the third, and recent, release from The Claudettes. Backing the coordinated chaos of Johnny Igauna’s frenetic piano are drums and a bass. A trio of female vocals relating the stories on Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!, chiming together for big-band era harmony over the amphetamine-drive of the music in “Taco Night Material”, chanting one-line mantras for “Bill Played Saxophone”, whirling 60’s Girl-Group Pop around in the cyclonic rhythms of “Total Misfit”, and smoothly curl around the jackhammer groove of “Give It All Up for Good”.
The Chicago, Illinois-based band headed to Georgia, recording Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! at Soil of the South studios. The Claudettes pounded out the album in ten days, setting an underground-train rumble below “Don’t Stay with Me”, demanding attention for social awareness with the marching-beat-on-steroids for “Death and Traffic”, let The Claudettes instruments run rampant within the beat borders of the title track while Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! layers throbbing rhythms underneath the smooth Blues vocals of “November”.
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The Super Saturated Sugar Strings (from the album All Their Many Miles)
On the far edges of both America and Americana, Anchorage, Alaska’s The Super Saturated Sugar Strings offer music with two intentions….stomp and swing. On their recent album release, All Their Many Miles, the six-piece band sing of the brutal Alaskan winter, safely wrapped in a “Love Cocoon”. Anchorage is a windswept town on the edge of a cold ocean. The natural motion of the cities inhabitants to gather together for warmth is brought into the group interaction, the members of The Super Saturated Sugar Strings fluid within the music insulated by the band’s structure. In live performance, the players use the drums as a centerpoint, musicians taking turns behind the kit as the air is filled with guitars, bass, trumpet, cello, violin, and piano.
Opening on the title track, All Their Many Miles builds its melody with sonic theatrics, passions rising in the playing and its voice as emotional accents. Staging the songs over All Their Many Miles, The Sugar Strings quietly walk across “Amplified”, ending the track with a bombast worthy of the song title. A piano hammers out a persistent beat as harmonies sing of an icebound history of The Sugar Strings’ homeland in “Precipice” while “The Duchess of Comfort” twirls in a dancehall march and a snapping guitar lead takes a bite out of “Crocodile”. All Their Many Miles is a sweeping musical statement, the album tenderly beginning its promise in “The Vow”, accenting its words with authoritative strums and ethereal choral harmonies as The Super Saturated Sugar Strings orchestrate Country Folk for “Long Road” and chip away at “Heart of Stone” with rhythmic snaps, Country twang, and Dixieland horns.
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Jesse Terry (from the album Natural)
On his recent release, Natural, Jesse Terry musically recasts the title track from his last album, Stargazer (2017). On Natural, “Stargazer” becomes a tender lullaby, moving the mood away from almost Beatles-esque arrangement in the earlier rendition whose added beat and lush strings made the story more of an inspirational challenge. The differences between the two albums are striking, the separation connect the releases as companion pieces. Jesse Terry delivers Natural with sparse musical backing for the stories, giving the title track guitar picking as a bed for the gentle vocals to rest upon as Jesse’s voice becomes the light guiding the tale. The tune is the only single vocal on Natural as Jesse Terry partners with women vocalists on the remaining tracks, the stories gaining a deeper emotional tug in the male/female dynamic presented. The contrasts between the two singers in each song, and their relationships, became the focus for the recording of Natural.
The tones of “Kaleidoscope” bleed colors between letting go and moving on, the heartbeat thump of the rhythm creating a foundation for the vocals of Jesse Terry and Sarah Darling. Natural welcomes duets from Erin Rae (“Beautiful Way to Get Home”) and Annie Clements (“Looking Close Enough”) as well as offering up space for a cover of Electric Light Orchestra with “Mr. Blue Sky”, Liz Longley joining Jesse Terry on the dreamy acoustics on the tune. Liz returns with a duet for “Close My Eyes”, in for a pair of cuts on Natural alongside Kim Richey, lending vocals on the rolling rhythms of “I Was an Island” and in the open thank you note to a lover in “Carry” while Dar Williams is behind the microphone pairing on “Stargazer” and for the tripping beats stuttering with “Noise”. Cary Ann Hearst (Shovels & Rope) joins Jesse Terry word-for-word as the pair confirm the power of two on a tale of how the world as a larger community blends together in “Mountain Rose”, the pair boarding a persistent guitar strum for “Runaway Town”.
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Julie Christensen and Stone Cupid (from the album A Sad Clown)
The names have all been withheld as Julie Christensen and Stone Cupid tag their characters with titles on her recent release, A Sad Clown. A mother wears the skin of the title track, admitting ‘your mama’s just a sad, sad clown’, the realization creating a confident honesty as experiential advice is passed between generations. A rhythmic shuffle introduces a “Burning Star” taking center stage in a after-hours parking lot and a dreamy audio mist plays a Springsteen song on a tourist town jukebox with “Exile on Myrtle Beach”. Stone Cupid spins the music for A Sad Clown, crafting a mountain Folk jam to launch “Slow Blue Fly”, rising like waves of heat in the lightly plucked notes of “The Sun”, quietly strumming support in “Like Nothing Hurts”, and picking up the pace for the lover’s quarrel raging in the trailer park for “Honey, Let’s Go to Town”.
Currently based in East Nashville, Julie Christensen followed her vocal prowess, having the good sense to let her magical voice lead the way into the Austin, Texas-based band Passenger before re-locating to Los Angeles, founding The Divine Horsemen with Chris D (The Flesheaters) and touring/performing as a back-up singer for Leonard Cohen. Her seventh album release, Julie is again backed by Stone Cupid, she and the band staging the stories of A Sad Clown against a musical backdrop of raw acoustics. A ragged rhythm shudders in “Cold Tennessee Rain” as Julie Christensen and Stone Cupid trudge over a persistent drive of strums for “Anything Like Home” and hop on a honky-tonk ramble with “Vienna, Illinois” as A Sad Clown re-imagines Tom Waits’ on his tune “Hold On”.
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Jennings & Keller (from the album You Can’t Go Home Again)
A decade into performing as a duo, Jennings & Keller release You Can’t Go Home Again, their fourth studio album. A background as a Shakespearian actor gives Laurie Jennings Oudin (guitar) a dual approach in her delivery for the stories on You Can’t Go Home Again, theatrical training partnering with the richness in her voice to portray a full array of emotions. Backing words with music, Dana Keller (dobro, pedal steel, guitar) touches the tales with accents and rhythms cultivated over years of performing as a backing musician for artists such as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Stevie Wonder, Larry Graham, Marvin Gaye, and Dave Mason. Together, the Florida-based duo create a gentle bed of Folk and Americana to create a Jennings & Keller branded style of Fusion Folk Americana.
Light touches on guitar strings freckle the air with flickering notes as Jennings & Keller return from the pull of wanderlust in the tale making a plaintive request for “Juliana” to come out and play. Falling deep into the emotions of the songs, Jennings & Keller use The Beatles to soundtrack the story of shy lovers in “Toll Booth Romance” as the pair follow the couple burying their own passions in “Black Satin”, shake up the rhythms for the future hopes in “Things Might Turn Around”, and cover a memory with hints of Country Folk for the memories of the title track. You Can’t Go Home Again turns its pages with tales of the heart, the duo looking into the mirror to find “Two People” as Jennings & Keller walk the trail of history in “The Great Migration” and offer optimism as “Gotta Hold On” basks in the glow of a better tomorrow.
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