Pokey LaFarge (from the album Rock Bottom Rhapsody available on New West Records)
Bordering his recent release with short musical interludes, Pokey LaFarge creates a Rock Bottom Rhapsody. A lush string section opens up on the full-bodied title track with a gaggle of violins centering the recording with an instrumental memory in the middle of the song roster (“Rock Bottom Reprise”). The album closes out with fading applause and a lonely piano ramble (“Rock Bottom Finale”). By definition, a rhapsody is ‘a musical composition of irregular form having an improvisatory character’. The description fits the sound of Rock Bottom Rhapsody, explaining the music in a rhapsody while the character reference fits the soul wandering through the stories, the tales dogging his steps towards the rock bottom. Pokey LaFarge makes ‘regular guy’ his goal as he shares the good news of a love turnaround over a piano and bass duet in “Lucky Sometimes”. Rock Bottom Rhapsody builds walls with the regimented rhythms tramping to protect Pokey’s heart on “Fallen Angel” while it provides a DIY guide for trouble as echoes of Ricky Nelson can be heard in the sock hop sway of “Ain’t Comin’ Home”.
Trudging across the songscape of Rock Bottom Rhapsody, Pokey LaFarge marches over a slammed-shut book beat as he enters a plea for “Fuck Me Up”, his character making the song title a mantra to help him shed the skin of a ‘wholesome Midwestern boy that you wanna bring home to your momma’. The melody is a roller coaster conga line as the piano leads the notes low when Pokey LaFarge introduces a female flame bound to leave a mark in “Bluebird”. He circles back to the lovable loser star of his songs as Pokey LaFarge reaches the “End of My Rope” and finds himself locked-out of love in “Storm A’Comin’” as Rock Bottom Rhapsody watches a performer wipe off her make-up, hiding and ‘disguised as herself’ in an effort to get “Lost in the Crowd”.
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Sea Wolf (from the album Through a Dark Wood available on Dangerbird Records)
A little over a decade into a musical career as Sea Wolf, Alex Brown Church has a new release, Through a Dark Wood. As a brand for his sound, Sea Wolf has continued the same path over the course of his recordings, the words and music of Sea Wolf claiming dual-citizenship. Sonically, the backing of the stories share airwaves with seemingly disconnected styles, the recording within the studio process presenting a clean patina, an Folk Pop texture that courses across Through a Dark Wood, crisp beats and a rubbery groove of instrumentation (“Moving Colors”), percussion heavy rambles grounding guitar atmospherics (“Blood Pact”), ambient dreamscapes with a heartbeat (“Frank O’Hara”), and a subtle Rock rumble the foundation for a poet’s diary (“I Went Up, I Went Down”).
As the music paints Through a Dark Wood with a variety of soundscapes, the stories of Sea Wolf choose a Rock confessional approach for the bare-boned admissions of “Break It Down” and float on the freefall rhythms that propels “Back to the Wind”, both cuts offering a contemporary audio track for the grandeur of the tales. An NYU film school graduate, Alex Brown Church screens the imagery of his stories out with sweeping cinemagraphics rushing by in the orchestral melodies of “Two of Us” as the dramatic tones of “Forever Nevermore” walk city street beats lit by the fractured sounds flashing like passing headlights. Recording studios get the devils-blame for stealing soul. Sea Wolf uses the process to find the magic in the songs, polishing the tracks so that there is a reflection of the artist making the music rather than seeing the face clearly in the production. Matching the big screen presentation of the songs, Sea Wolf tells the tales with a literary approach to the reading, the words tumbling out in the self-aware confessions of “Fear of Failure” while Through the Dark Woods runs its guitar jangle over the never-bending beat of “Under the Spell Again”.
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Lucinda Williams (from the album Good Souls, Better Angels available on Highway 20 Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
She is a singer/songwriter who is equal amounts tender and tough in both words and music. The territory is fertile ground for Lucinda Williams, as she is nimble enough to balance herself right in the middle, the bite coming across via songs that call out or criticize today’s headlines, the sweetness revealing itself in songs of self-contemplation. On her latest release, Good Souls, Better Angels, presents Lucinda Williams and band punching it up or laying it back as needed, her vocal delivery a long and lazy drawl living comfortably between a lecture and a lyric.
“You Can’t Rule Me” is the dirty Blues opener for Good Souls, Better Angels, where the rowdy Lucinda Williams dares you to knock something off her shoulder. Good Souls, Better Angels hoists a platform for a pair of critical observations; “Bad News Blues” with Williams ‘knee deep in it’ as she asks ‘whose gonna believe the liars and lunatics, fools and thieves and clowns and hypocrites?’ while “Man Without A Soul” calls out ‘a man bought and sold, you bring nothing good to this world beyond a web of cheating and stealing’. Amidst the burning Blues and gritty guitar riffs, Lucinda Williams sings the hopeful thought of the man in the song ‘coming down’. “Wakin’ Up” has Punk Blues punch, “Bone of Contention” is a gravelly duet, and “Down Past the Bottom”, with its cascading power chords, is dark and dirty. “Big Black Train,” “Shadows and Doubts” and “Good Souls” are ballads, the band laying back behind as Lucinda Williams aches. Rebellious and angry, Good Souls, Better Angels is a Blues record that comes complete with gloriously (and welcome) defiant sneer at the powers-that-be, one that may have fans used to the more ethereal Lucinda Williams by surprise. Forget genre-tattoos of Americana, Folk, when Lucinda Williams shares the stage on Good Souls Better Angels with a Punk and hard-edged Blues crowd. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Webb Wilder (from the album Night Without Love available on Landslide Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Webb Wilder has always been known as an unpredictable musician without the need to be obvious about it by throwing a bunch of curveballs. It’s a given that eleven albums into a career, what you can expect from Webb Wilder is loose Rockabilly and Classic Country, some fringe-riding Surf Rock, Electric Folk and revved-up Blues. That is the Webb Wilder recipe for Rock’n’Roll, the taste of his treats all that is needed foregoing trappings of a full-on Rockabilly cat, a Country crooner or a Blues dude. Night Without Love delivers all of the above. The album is quirky and fun, melodies that stick zipped up and delivered by a crack band.
Webb Wilder’s choice of covers on Night Without Love reveal that his personal interests run from under-the-radar album cuts to virtually obscure compositions. Album opener, “Tell Me What’s Wrong”, originally recorded by Brit band The Inmates, is straight ahead Pub Rocker while “Holdin’ On To Myself” is two-stepping dancehall Country, and “Be Still” from Louis Perez and David Hidalgo, of Los Lobos, is a tender South of the Border cut: all tracks presented with a Wilder flair for romance and romp. The Night Without Love title track is a skip down the sidewalk completed by a carefree whistle as Webb Wilder sings of the baffling mess that is love while “Buried Our Love” is a bouncy song of regret where Wilder doles out advice, ‘the only thing worse than crying like a baby is crying like a grown up’. “Sweetheart Deal” is old school, slow dance ballad and the playful “Ache and Flake (Go With The Flow)” offers up the best advice for digging into Webb Wilders genre-jumping sound, claiming ‘you wanna get a grip, you gotta let go, and go with the flow’. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Bobby Bare (from the album Great American Saturday Night available on RCA/Legacy) (by Bryant Liggett)
Doing double-duty, Great American Saturday Night is a record that is funny and musically entertaining. Bobby Bare supplies pre-song banter for the live recording that introduces the Shel Silverstein penned-cuts that make up all of Great American Saturday Night, giving the album a loose comedic feel without running the risk of becoming a Red Sovine or CW McCall-influenced novelty cuts, even if some of the songs he leads into carry an air of contemplative seriousness.
The anthemic, title-track opener toasts a universal Saturday night party theme of ‘anybody here want to f*** or fight?’ as the study of the Great American Saturday Night continues throughout the recording. “Red-Neck Hippie Romance” clearly defines the dividing line between hippies and red-necks, one of many irreverent blasts of humor that offer bar stool opinions on Great American Saturday Night. “The Diet” is a song about keeping things slim, “They Won’t Let Us Show It At The Beach” champions the issue of banning nude beaches violating our constitutional rights, and “Whiplash Will” is a laughable tale of a man willing to take on a Saturday night car crash to bulk up his wallet. Bobby Bare throws out some ballads in “Time” while “Me and Jimmie Rodgers” and “Someone To Talk To” are heftier cuts, vivid and image heavy stories of aging and loneliness. Sitting on the shelf since it was recorded in the late 1970’s, Great American Saturday Night is a strong dose of a classic era of Country before the genre was infiltrated and infected by Pop music. Bobby Bare is a humorous and charming frontman, his band laying out a perfect bed for his re-telling of a batch of Shel Silverstein tales. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Jesse Daniel (from the album Rollin’ On available on Die True Records)
The team behind Jesse Daniel chose a quote from Shooter Jennings to lead the press pitch for the musician. ‘Jesse Daniel is badass’ was the simple statement from Shooter on his radio show, the brevity of the message blowing the words and music of the California Country singer to billboard size. Rollin’ On supports the claim admirably, the guitar chicken-picking its way into the album on “Tar Snakes” as the opening cut sings a sad song for the open road. Jesse Daniel strums a campfire introduction with “Son of the San Lorenzo” as the Rollin’ On title track pounds out honky tonk Rock’n’Roll, shares the story of “Mayo and the Mustard”, and deals out whiskey wisdom for “It’s Only Money, Honey”.
The California Country cred that backs the tunes on Rollin’ On pays homage to Central Valley originators Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. The stories on the album mirror-images of the California honky-tonk farmers and truck drivers that call the farm belt of the Golden State their home. The jukebox drops its needle on advice in “If You Ain’t Happy Now (You Never Will Be)” and picks up the pace to stir up sawdust with “Bringin’ Home the Roses”. Jesse Daniel deserves the badass crown, his songs are true believers, cherished treasures much like the trophy that “Champion” carries in his Tex Mex tune while Rollin’ On sways on the slowly-churned rhythms of “St. Claire’s Retreat” and puts a single spotlight on the solo guitar man performing in “Old at Heart”.
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Watkins Family Hour (from the album brother sister available on Family Hour Records)
Sara and Sean Watkins present stunning works of art in song, the pair sticking to simple instrumentation for their song portraits on the recent Watkins Family Hour release, brother sister. Creating magnificent soundscapes that soar and burrow (“Snow Tunnel”), percolate on heavy breaths of rhythm (“Just Another Reason”), swirl in a frenzy (“Bella and Ivan”), and whisper (“Neighborhood Name”), the Watkins Family Hour collective become a small circle of friends on the recording. Recalling the intention she had for brother sister as Watkins Family Hour entered the studio, Sara Watkins shared that ‘it felt really good to dig into the potential of two people…the primary goal of this record became to see what we could do when it is just the two of us. The arrangements and the writing were all focused on that. Listening now, I’m really proud of what we did. These are songs that would not have come out of either one of us individually and it feels like a band sound, like this is what we do, the two of us’.
In 1989, Sara and Sean Watkins, along with Chris Thile, released their debut album as Nickel Creek, the trio becoming flagbearers for the progressive Bluegrass world that followed their lead. Watkins Family Hour began as an informal musical variety show at Los Angeles cabaret and nightclub, Largo (Largo at the Coronet) in 2002. Celebrating eighteen years in the residency, Watkins Family Hour released their debut album of covers. For brother sister, the pair offer their own material, re-imagining three covers on the album including a tender version of Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr”. Sean Watkins hopes that “Lafayette” remembers him with warmth as the California sun sets in his rear-view mirror, Watkins Family Hour offering the strength of human numbers against troublesome times in “Miles of Desert Sand”. Following guitar and fiddle rambles, brother sister begins its song cycle with a confident stride into first cut “The Cure” as it carves sharp angles with notes and beats for “Fake Badge, Real Gun” while Watkins Family Hour exits the album with a PSA boogie for “Keep It Clean”.
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People Years (from the album Animalism available on Cornelius Chapel Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
It is a sound mash-up where subtle Pop music meets audio fringe experimental, or where post Punk and Indie Rock brush up alongside layers of electronic rhythms while sharp guitar riffs takes a stab wherever they please. Animalism from Alabama supergroup People Years scratches a dreamy, ambient itch while claiming appealing Psych and Garage Rock. People Years get the ‘supergroup moniker due to its members holding down key roles in some of Alabama’s more revered bands; Vulture Whale, Warm in the Wake, and The Makeshifters, leaking the secret that Alabama is a hotbed of Indie music. Catchy pop is explored in album opener “Recognizable Animal”, explored further but with a hint of edge in the bouncy and optimistic “Commonly Known”. “Not Really Surfing” has an air of California dream-rock while the six-minute plus “Roadkill,” which begins life light and ambient, playing out electronic music as a pulsing rhythm that builds as the song meanders into spacey, guitar heavy Jam band territory.
A jangling, loose and bending guitar lines comes and goes in “You Don’t Do Nature” and “Your Locket” while “Fall in Line”, with its electronic undertones, has 1980 New Wave appeal. A no-bones guitar riff introduces album closer “Fear Culture” with the rest of People Years quickly jumping in on what is the most straight ahead Rock’n’Roll cut on Animalism. A curiosity for exploration brings forth great music. At the surface, People Years is a great Rock’n’Roll band and their willingness to explore electronic musical ideas, vintage New Wave, and neo-Psychedelia is an invitation to join in a musical journey to glorious uncharted territory. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Sarah Peacock (from the album Burn the Witch available on Road Dog Enterprises)
Pounding drumbeats create a trance. Sarah Peacock materializes as the sorceress, her wand orchestrating the theatrics both musically and lyrically for the Burn the Witch title track, the cut a calling card hinting at the musical magic circulating like smoke throughout the album. Her voice is a powerhouse, Sarah Peacock seasoning her natural hint of Country with the cascading Americana atmospherics that drift across “Take a Little Time” and the sole source of comfort in the heaving rhythms matching the final breaths of “Thomas”. Burn the Witch shows tenderness with the Folk finger-picking of “Hold Me in Your Heart” as Sarah Peacock saddles up a Country gold that shimmers like midday heat in “Mojave” while she follows a toy piano march into the Southern Gothic tale of “Keep Quiet”. Smoothly sliding over a triphammer beat taking “The Cool Kids” on a ride for stories of their equally bumpy lives, the message of perseverance and triumph in facing of dead ends a template for Burn the Witch.
For the theme of Burn the Witch, Sarah Peacock looked to her own personal hurdles, recalling a moment in the not-to-distant past when Sarah questioned her choices. While on a four-month tour in 2016, Sarah Peacock, band, and crew stopped for a bite to eat, returning to their ride to find a generator fire had burned everything on board. Shortening the step-by-step process that helped her find her stage legs, Sarah Peacock shared that ‘after the fire, I signed with a Nashville label when I came home from the tour. I did two records for American Roots Records prior to parting ways with them in the fall of 2018. There was Beauty in the Ashes (2017) and then Hot Sheet Motel (2018). I think the connection piece and synergy between the bus fire and Burn the Witch was that the bus was a pivotal moment where I realized people really were listening. The fans showed up for me when I was ready to quit, and that made me internalize (probably for the first time) that the world was actually paying attention. I started writing differently. I wrote like the fate of the social climate depended on it. Burn the Witch is what happened after really letting the juices of that experience and those last two records soak in. It’s about the music, the songs, and the power they have to plant a seed of change’. Speaking to the face across the table or the smiles looking up from the edge of the stage, Sarah Peacock sings a love letter in “The One”, haunts “House of Bones” with deathly wishes and the ghostly sound of footsteps trailing whileBurn the Witch carves a funky groove out of sharp-angled chords and tight-curve rhythms in “Colorado”.
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The Claudettes (from the album High Times in the Dark available on Forty Below Records)
Turn the clock back a moment to a place in time when a young Johnny Iguana took to the stage. While little Johnny was a solo performer, climbing the stairs beside smaller feet was the sound of The Claudettes. From that minute when Johnny Iguana was crowned the madcap minstrel of his local elementary school, through the years, and into the recording of High Times in the Dark, their recent release, the constant has been the beautiful mash-up of coordinated chaos that is The Claudettes. Instruments and their players have been drawn to the sound of The Claudettes like satellites, true believers tugged by the gravitational pull of a soul-saving boogie. Michael Caskey was part of The Claudettes when the sound was just piano and drums, and he continues to subtly guide the groove with a solid backbeat in “Don’t Do That Stuff Anymore”, tapping out a path for the band in “One Special Bottle”, and the source for an earthly rumble underneath “I Swear to God, I Will”. Completing the rhythm section, Zach Verdoorn on bass completes the magic power of three with Johnny and Michael as The Claudettes hammer out a highway song with “Creeper Weed” and weave gypsy accents into the majestic theatrics of “You Drummers Keeps Breaking My Heart”.
Steering the stories is Berit Ulseth, her vocals holding firm to the wheel as she cruises into High Times in the Dark, high-stepping in the carnival cabaret of “Bad Babe, Losing Touch”, casually commenting as she shares a duet and commitment in “I Don’t Do That Stuff Anymore”. High Times in the Dark sets up as main stage, big tent, taking the audience away from the troubles of day-to-day life with the merry melodrama of The Claudettes. The band put the bomp into pomp with the see-saw sway of “Grandkids, Wave Bye-Bye” as The Claudettes make a counter-offer to full-on love in “24/5” as they fall in line behind effervescent notes in “Declined” while High Times in the Dark wraps the echoes of a church basement piano around the accusations confronting a cold-hearted lover in “The Sun Will Fool You”.
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