Levi Parham (from the album It’s All Good available on Horton Records)
Adding audio mixologist to his credentials of a man of words and music, Levi Parham combines the groove of his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma with the Rhythm and Blues of the Mississippi Delta on his recent release, It’s All Good. Levi called out road trip and was joined by top shelf Tulsa players on his journey to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record It’s All Good at Portside Sound. On board as backing band and harmony were Okie musicians Paul Benjaman, Lauren Barth, John Fullbright, Jesse Aycock, Dylan Aycock, Aaron Boehler, Dustin Pittsley, Michael Staub, and Lauren Farrah channeling the echoes of predecessor albums from Derek And The Dominos, The Band and The Rolling Stones recorded in Muscle Shoals. Levi Parham brought his vision into life, offering that ‘I’ve always been a big admirer of the music that’s been made in Muscle Shoals, from Aretha Franklin to The Allman Bros., so I got this idea to bring the 'Tulsa Sound' and mix it with the 'Muscle Shoals Sound' and see what happens’.
What happened gets two thumbs up in the album title of It’s All Good as the album rides a rhythm into the rough country of OK to introduce “Badass Bob”, tenderly picks out notes to wrap around the sadness in “All the Ways I Feel for You”, sends a groove-filled postcard from a Euro tour for “Boxmeer Blues”, and puffs out its chest, strutting with rock’n’roll confidence through “My Finest Hour”. The songwriting traditions of the Southwest, particularly Levi’s native Oklahoma, are on full display in It’s All Good. A kaleidoscope of thick guitar notes revolves like the rhythm rotation that spins “Shade Me” with “Turn Your Love Around” punching its way into life to let the melody and story unravel slowly. Southern Soul is the backdrop for Levi Parham to make his request of “Kiss Me in the Morning” as he stages the cinemagraphic pull of “Borderline” on Southwestern breezes while “It’s All Good” puts a Bourbon bounce into the Dixieland stroll of its title track.
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Tim Easton (from the album Paco and the Melodic Polaroids)
On his recent release, Paco and the Melodic Polaroids, Tim Easton puts love for his longtime traveling companion, Paco, on full display. Relationships become slightly one-dimensional if limited to only the living and breathing. Real life relationships are deeper, going from two-legged humans, upgrading to four-legged with furry friends, and removing limb driven movement to include wings and fins. There is a connection between men/women and the objects around them. We have lot of contact with beds and couches, always hold a hand out to our refrigerator door, and rarely spend much time away from the driving wheel and the volume dial. The relationship between Tim and Paco is one of man and guitar. For thirty years, Paco, a Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar, has been at Tim’s side, and often in front of him between his words and the world.
The dialogue between Tim Easton and his guitar is captured clearly, Paco and the Melodic Polaroids recorded direct to lacquer, a process that foregoes tape and goes beyond analog by recording directly to vinyl. The vibration of the strings reverberates in your chest with the playing, and the message, of “Another Good Man Down” as you feel the pull of notes and strums turning the rhythm wheel in ‘Old New Straitsville Blues” while you can feel the thump from the boards under Tim Easton’s foot tapping out “Traveling Days”. The story is one of experience, the ways of the road as familiar to Tim as his guitar. After a childhood split between Ohio and Tokyo, Tim Easton became a Europe-based traveling troubadour for seven years, living in Paris, London, Madrid, Prague, Dublin prior to returning the U.S. and taking up residence in New York City, Los Angeles, Austin, Joshua Tree, CA, and Alaska before settling in Tennessee. Sharp-edged picking accents the determination of “Never Punch the Clock Again” while Paco and the Melodic Polaroids follows another traveler through “California Bars” as Tim Easton promises the party begins and ends with “Elmore James”.
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Nicki Bluhm (from the album To Rise You Gotta Fall available on Compass Records)
The entire mood backing the recording of her new release To Rise You Gotta Fall was personal for Nicki Bluhm. The stories mirrored her life, a time when she was losing hold of a marriage and of her band, The Gramblers. Opting to not get stuck in a moment, Nicki Bluhm chose the rip the band-aid off quickly model, moving from her west coast home-base to Music City, recalling that ‘Nashville was inspiring because of the all the songwriting going on here. When I would come to Nashville on writing trips it was just percolating…it was intoxicating. So I very hastily, in a matter of days, decided to move. I just had this gut feeling’. A clean slate of options appeared, Nicki Bluhm recording To Rise You Gotta Fall in Memphis, a new location, and a new producer, Matt Ross-Spang, helping her begin a new phase with the only baggage the words to the songs she took into the studio. Nicki Bluhm knew that ‘these songs are quite personal. They are the conversations I never got to have, the words I never had the chance to say, and the catharsis I wouldn’t have survived without. I began writing the songs for this record when I was in a failing marriage to a man who was not only my husband but also my musical partner, mentor, and bandmate. The earliest song written for the album is “How Do I Love You” and was essentially a plea to understand how to make the communication better in a marriage I was desperate to save. “Battlechain Rose” is a coming to terms with the reality of deception and betrayal while “To Rise You Gotta Fall” (the title track) is a more hopeful message born out of a lot of therapy, contemplation, time, self-help and healing’.
Self-inflicted accusations become mantras with a message to be listened to as To Rise You Gotta Fall reminds “It’s OK Not to Be OK” on raggedy rock’n’roll as heartbreak slows the beat for the realizations and regrets of “You Stopped Loving Me” and sets seemingly unachievable goals with “I Hate You”. Nicki details her thoughts and actions in three and four minutes snippets, stacking up the emotions and moods without sinking into melancholy. Sweet Soul music sets the pace for the final decisions of “Can’t Fool the Fool” as Nicki Bluhm rides a Country sway into “Something Really Mean” and draws the curtains on To Rise You Gotta Fall on the dreamy melody of closing cut “Last to Know”.
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The Lied To’s (from the album The Lesser of Two Evils)
When Boston, Massachusetts-based duo The Lied To’s looked around for stories to fill their second album release, The Lesser of Two Evils, the state of the world passed plenty of notes as fodder to tell the tales of perilous times. A weariness carries its weight through “Windtalker” as The Lied To’s envision a bloodline connection wrapping around the globe in “Diamond Rain”, scratch out a train-track beat to spit out harsh realities for “Cruel World”, and toss out troublesome wishes on “One String”. The secret to life is told a series of bullet points in the title track as “The Lesser of Two Evils” puts the crossroads under a microscope, The Lied To’s examining the space between the what-is and what-if’s.
Susan Levine and Doug Kwartler (The Lied To’s) met at a Folk festival as they were both finding their way out of bitter divorces and the emotional/financial wreckage left behind. First working as musical partners, they soon went beyond the stage as The Lied To’s became full-time partners in life, both bringing two kids each into the new family. Music was a starting point that brought The Lied To’s together, and the pair continue to balance and juggle family with career, borrowing freely from family life for the stories in songs, knowing that ‘like everyone else is feeling right now, except maybe the 1%, you just go about your day looking straight ahead trying to get things done. You work, pay bills, take care of your kids, have a relationship, and deal with your past…oh, and we also try to make music. The new record covers all that. While the songs are not purely autobiographical, the emotional truths definitely come from everything we've been through’. Refugees make their way across The Lesser of Two Evils, the story the same in the front seat with the couple heading to “Buffalo” as with the displaced lives in Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”. Optimism rises from the darkness on the album as The Lied To’s give it one more try for hopes with “Wishes” and find the answer is belief to the question of “What Keeps Us in This World”.
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The Pinkerton Raid (from the album Where the Wildest Spirits Fly)
Over an ever-rolling rhythm, The Pinkerton Raid offer an invitation with “Thin Place”, the story namechecking the title of their recent release, Where the Wildest Spirits Fly. The track showcases the distinctions The Pinkerton Raid use for separation of words and music. The tales on Where the Wildest Spirits Fly are short stories, the playing becoming the foundation that allows the characters to stand tall as “The House of Green” tells its history over African rock’n’roll rhythms. The Pinkerton Raid head north from their Durham, North Carolina-base to north of Boston, Mass to visit “The Boys of Lowell”, questioning modern America as a whole in “These Colors Don’t Run” and speaking to their own southern neighbors about letting go of the past with “Jefferson Davis Highway”.
Within the individual stories on Where the Wildest Spirits Fly is an emotional theme, the album relating vignettes that search for meaning in the length of a song. On album number four, The Pinkerton Raid celebrate the human race as one community, drawn together whether the back story is in an Indiana cornfield (“Windmills in the Fog”), toasting the art of giving with a beer garden beat (“Sweet Pitchers of Mercy”), or floating “Stella Maris” on rhythmic waves of guitar notes and percussion. Where the Wildest Spirits Fly makes a complete circle around the sun as The Pinkerton Raid look skyward to watch revolutionary freedom get lost in orbit on the opening cut “Meteors” and remember the place where the heart stops, closing out the album with “Home”.
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Mike Zito (from the album First Class Life available on Ruf Records)
Tattooed on his knuckles, the word ‘Blues’ is just one reminder that Mike Zito has made the right choices. Another indicator is the First Class Life Mike Zito owns, and uses as title for his recent album release. The title track is a rowdy Country Blues romp through the equally bumpy early life of Mike Zito, the tune smoothly transitioning from time in addiction to success stories. From a safe spot in the present, First Class Life looks back to the struggles that led Mike Zito to grab at the golden ring of sobriety. The weight of responsibility is the “Back Problem” that plagues Mike Zito as he draws a dividing line in love with “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me)”, feels the weight again as “The World We Live In” slowly trudges on heavy Blues, and puts a boogie under the ways he is “Trying to Make a Living”.
The gratitude that Mike Zito has for the course his life has taken can be felt in the electrified guitar licks and sweet vocals that slide through “Mississippi Nights”. Promises broken (“Damn Shame”) and promises made (“Dying Day”) leapfrog across First Class Life as Mike Zito stitches a Koko Taylor rule about no-guitar-effects into “Mama Don’t Like No Wah-Wah”.
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Mark Huff (from the album Stars for Eyes)
The sonic touches added to the songs on Stars for Eyes take the tunes on the recent release from Mark Huff skyward. A conversational tone to the vocal delivery grounds the stories on Stars for Eyes as the title track sparkles with twinkling note patterns while breaths of beats put a chugging rhythm underneath “Albatross”, life continues as love slows the emotional blood flow in “Heart Beating Without You”, and the groove becomes a series of pecks and jabs in “Burning Letters”. The recording process for Stars for Eyes saw Mark Huff rip out the edit button when the Nashville, Tennessee-based songwriter let the instrumentation carve out its own spot around each song providing a more cinemascopic backdrop for his stories.
His personal life affected the mood on Stars for Eyes, Mark Huff recalling that ‘when I was writing many of these songs, I’d also been in a relationship—and clearly I did not get the girl, so that affected by perspective. And I knew that since I was ready to really get personal with these songs, I didn’t want it to be a typical Nashville sounding album, so I decided to work with Chad (producer Chad Brown) and to get a diverse group of musicians who could play deeply rooted music with an ambient sonic approach’. Soft rounded rolling chords of rhythm revolve around Mark Huff as he pours his heart out for “Carolina Blue”. A starkness immediately invades “I Know You Don’t Want My Love” as ambient guitar electrics flicker while Stars for Eyes lets percussion take the lead for the jazzy solemnness of “Almost Like the Blues” and makes use of a rock’n’roll beat to kick down “Prison Door” as Mark Huff asks “Nightingale” to sing its tale on a Country romp.
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Cicada Rhythm (from the album Everywhere I Go available on New West Records)
Summer is here and the time is right for rolling down the car/van windows and hitting the highway as Cicada Rhythm suggest and prime the pump on “America’s Open Road”, the opening cut on their latest album release, Everywhere I Go. The beat is a blast of sunshine, and while the moods of the stories shift between longing (“Roses by My Side”) and reverie (“Dream Alone”) as the rhythms ride a snarling groove (“Do I Deserve It Yet?”) and kick up some Country dust (“Out Alive”), the harmony and melodies of Cicada Rhythm keep optimism and possibilities within reach.
Born and raised in Georgia, Cicada Rhythm found footing in the Indie dive bars of Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. Intricate playing and graceful delivery back the decision of Cicada Rhythm to modernize Folk music. Strings circle and weave through “Even in the Shallows” as the track grows from Folk Rock with an orchestrated swell while idyllic rhythms play a musical march as 1930’s-era Blues siren vocals sing a sad song with “As the Dogwood Dies”. Everywhere I Go sways gently as it lets the story of “Kaleidoscopic Rose” open to greet the world as Cicada Rhythm stomp and holler in “Shake Up” before waving goodbye to the album, exiting on the universal understanding of common goals found in “Back Home”.
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Mike and The Moonpies (from the album Steak Night at the Prairie Rose)
The neon sign blinks Steak Night at the Prairie Rose on the cover as the title for the recent release from Mike and The Moonpies, the song and the story a page ripped from the life of Mike (Harmeier). The Prairie Rose, particularly the once-a-week steak night, was where a younger version of the man fronting The Moonpies had his first gig at fourteen years-old. The memory is wistful, the honesty thick as the cut of beef served up for the dinners. Steak Night at the Prairie Rose showcases the band’s ability to wrap Texas Country chords around the styles they stretch across their honky tonk nature, opening “The Last Time” guided by the perfectly-rounded bubble notes of a Wurlitzer organ as they paste song titles into lyrics for “Wedding Band”, and wrangle guitar licks into line as they cruise through Louisiana into Mississippi to visit “Beaches of Biloxi”.
Steak Night at the Prairie Rose opens its doors with the first cut high-fiving the team hauling the gear with “Road Crew” as Mike and The Moonpies recount tour stories and questionable decisions in “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be”, wrestle with lead guitar riffs as the wriggle through “Might Be Wrong”, and decorate their house with honky tonk humor for “Getting’ High at Home”. Recorded at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas with producer Adam Odor, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose expands the borders of Country music while curating its traditions of representing the lives of Country music fans. Mike and the Moonpies set the stage on fire as they wrap up their set, exiting Steak Night at the Prairie Rose with “We’re Gone”.
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Mandy Rowden (from the album When That Day Comes)
The album title of When That Day Comes is appropriate for the recent Mandy Rowden release. While in college, Mandy was introduced to Americana music, and when that particular day came, Mandy Rowden heard her calling. While that is not necessarily a unique story, for Mandy Rowden, her earlier life shows that little step as a big leap. Born into a fundamentalist Baptist household in East Texas, her musical intake consisted of gospel and classical music. Adhering to the strict borders of her family, classical violin and piano lessons began at six years-old. On a marching rhythm, Mandy Rowden opens When That Day Comes with the title track as the first cut, using the story to erase wrongs as she trudges towards a new day. In her own life, hearing Americana music set her free, walking away from the classical music scene to find her voice in Roots music.
A soft Country sway finds Mandy Rowden far from home as she tries her hardest to blur the past with “Pedal Upon Metal”. When That Day Comes quiets to a rhythmic rumble for the tale in “A Chance to Give You Love”, questions “Ana Maria” about her heart on a stop/start beat, picks out notes for the acoustic ramble of “Lucy’s Song”, and admits “Bad Things Happen” on a quick-feet waltz. Mandy Rowden captures reverie as she pulls into “San Antonio”, using holiday travel to map out “Christmas in Durango”, and whispers a Tex-Mex melody for the border tale of “Pecosita” as When That Day Comes offers a tribute for a fellow musician in “Angel Dream #2”.
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