Various Artists (from the album Battle of the Blues: Chicago vs Oakland available on Delta Roots Records)
Title headlines aside, in the Battle of the Blues there are no losers. Gathering a strong showing of independent Soul and Blues artists from his time in the Bay Area, Twist Turner (drummer, songwriter, producer) presents the album with some of the talent he heard when he returned to Chicago after six years on the west coast. Battle of the Blues: Chicago vs Oakland showcases California grown Blues with the Pacific breeze guitar licks of Freddie Roulette in “Red Tide” while the lights go low to late night blue when Nat Bolden meets an after-hours drinking buddy in “Good Morning Mr. Blues” and bassman Aldwin London fronts the band on vocals for “Funny How Time Slips Away”.
Bringing a Blues shout from a homebase that runs from Sacramento through the San Joaquin Valley, Mz Sumac sets the standard, and the tone, with “Broke Ass Man”. The ‘Soul Keeper’ of Chicago, Gerald McClendon, wards off the winter chill of a lover with the warm fires of smooth R&B in “Cold in the Streets” joining fellow Chicagoan Gospel Bluesman Emery Williams Jr. (“Mama Don’t Weep”) and Mississippi-born, Chicago-based James Newman as he tells his story with words and music in “Me and My Guitar”. A stomping beat is the call for Battle of the Blues: Chicago vs Oakland to launch an attack with some Bay Area bump and grind provided by Country Pete McGill in “Hoochie Coochie Mama”.
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Amy Speace from the album Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne available on Windbone Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Amy Speace can tell a tale. Loaded with clearly defined details, the Nashville based songwriter will pen the sad ones, backing the stories with a variety of settings. The latest from Amy Speace, Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne, delivers sadness through Gospel and Indie Folk soundtracks, subtle Blues and avant-garde Roots; the songwriter not as interested in the genre as much as the tale that lives within the song. The title track is a tour story driven by somber piano, where Amy Speace touches on the loneliness of being a performer on the road, capturing the joyous highs and downbeat lows. ‘I’m out here on my own, trying to keep this thing on track. Every day I quit this job, by night I take it back’ refers to the love/hate relationship between art and artist, wanting to be on-stage in front of an audience over anything else, miles away from the velvet rope and red tape of the areas of business that come with bringing ‘art’ into a marketplace.
“Ginger Ale and Lorna Doones” shares a story about recounting a tragedy and your sole memory of the event is what you ate and drank while “Back in Abilene” stages around the killing of John F. Kennedy, Saturday afternoons at the movie theatre, describing the painted ceiling in great detail, and listing those who died in a week of war; the reading a sad poem over hushed instrumentation. Amy Speace has a knack for descriptive stories and their careful placement over delicate melodies. Call Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne an album of carefully crafted downers or a beautiful dose of poetic reality, both descriptions are synonymous phrases that nail the mood of the record. (by Bryant Liggett)
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The Highwomen (from the album The Highwomen available on Low Country Sound/Elektra Records)
The perfect musical storm comes when personal choices and causes collide. Forming as a female-centric tribute to The Highwaymen, Amanda Shires had a goal to gather musical favorites as bandmates while The Highwomen do their part to add weight on the currently out of balance gender scale for radio, performance, and touring. Their self-titled debut puts four women center-stage though the bright lights would mean nothing without the songs to snare the crowd old-school, musical hooks that hang on tight and songs that travel home as new friends for life. The Highwomen open on a melody borrowed from their brother title holders The Highwaymen, “Highwomen” telling its tale with strong female characters, voices of refugees, witches, and freedom riders, standing with band members who each take on a role, joined by Yola representing a bus rider who never returned from the freedom marches yet lives forever alongside her sisters in history. The Highwomen face mortality as they say goodbye with somber piano notes and a wandering fiddle that becomes a funereal march that shows its hero as a champion for “Cocktail and a Song” as the band acknowledge knowing what they want as well as they realize how far out of reach those dreams lie in “Old Soul”.
The Highwomen corrals four high profile current Country music players, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and casts them as the core of the project. Produced by Dave Cobb, The Highwomen plants an audio flag, looking back through the decades to find threads weaving the role of women into history with “Redesigning Women”. They shine a light on women of the world, gazing across the border, hearing the song of a young woman ‘stuck inside the “Wheels of Laredo”’ who finds an exit only in her dreams as a barroom conversation lays bare the heart of a woman warning the cowboy sitting on the next stool in “If She Ever Leaves Me”. The Highwomen update an outlaw prayer when Sheryl Crow joins the band for “Heaven is a Honky Tonk”.
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Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors from the album Dragons on Magnolia Music (by Brian Rock)
In an age of 24-hour negative media saturation, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors stand out like a light house on a storm lashed shore. Buoyed by optimistic lyrics of hope and community, they sing songs of friends and family, love and loss; and they remind us of what’s really important in life. “Family” is a prime example. Beginning with thunderous drum beats and hand claps, the song exudes joy even before Drew sings, ‘Family, all in this together. Family, we’re taking a chance. Family, like birds of a feather. Family, take off you shores and dance’. The Jimmy-Buffett-Volcano-era guitar riffs add to the celebratory feel as the band sings the praises of family – both literally and collectively.
Moving from the general to the specific, Drew and company sing a tender ballad of spousal bliss in “But I’ll Never Forget the Way You Make Me Feel”. With piano as the lead instrument, The Neighbors stack banjo, organ, stand-up bass, and steel guitar like the layers of a wedding cake to create a delicious musical confection. Of course, after marriage come children. “See the World” is a tender lullaby from loving parent to sleepy child. Singing, ‘I can’t wait to watch you see the world with your own eyes’, Drew Holcomb celebrates the mystic bond between parent and child where the parent feels twice the pain of each scraped knee and twice the joy of every first step. The family theme continues with the title track when “Dragons” finds a departed grandpa appearing in a dream, sharing the advice: ‘take a few chances, a few worthy romances. Go swimming in the ocean on New Year’s Day. Don’t listen to critics, stand up and bear witness. Go slay all the dragons that stand in your way’. Beginning with a lone, acoustic guitar, the song bursts into a Country Gospel arrangement for the chorus.
It is that ability to create textured arrangements that makes Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors stand out from so many other Folk and Singer/Songwriter artists in Americana today. Drew and company elevate the musical component of their genre from the monochromatic tones of acoustic guitar to the kaleidoscopic patterns of steel guitar, organ, banjo, piano, electric guitar, stand-up bass, and wall of sound vocal choruses. The net effect is like James Taylor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Even when Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors deal with more somber subjects on “Bittersweet”, “You Never Leave My Heart”, and “Maybe”, they still tell their stories with insightful lyrics and compelling music and an always underlying sense of hope. In “End of the World”, for instance, Drew sings ‘don’t eulogize on my behalf, I’m a long way from my epitaph. I’m only getting started on this lost highway. I am brave and I am not afraid’. We could all use some of that confidence and optimism as we face the dragons in our lives. (by Brian Rock)
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Taylor Scott Band (from the album All We Have available as a self-release)
Sparing a thought for the All We Have album title, Taylor Scott opens his recent release with a 30 second PSA, offering wisdom as ‘the day-to-day is all we have’. Backing his words with organ and tambourine, Taylor’s voice is center stage, foregoing the need to shine in the spotlight and subtly rolling out the songs with Soul on steroids that flows from his vocals on full display. The momentary light breath of music that the Taylor Scott Band use to soundtrack their opening monologue is an island of calm that prefaces the wriggling guitar licks leading into “Somebody Told Me”, the vocal a Soul shout that speaks of spirit as the Taylor Scott Band lay out funky footsteps as a foundation for the message. All We Have picks out a sunshine groove for the Southern Soul of “Salted Watermelon”, scratches strums to spark the hammering rhythms of “Carry Me Away”, and lays back on a smooth current as “The Walk” sails on a lightly jazzed-up dreamscape.
The beat shudders with anticipation before settling to a gallop that tears across “Curiosity” as All We Have tosses storyline coins into the steady rolling rhythms of “Wishing Well”, quiets the percussive stammer of “Clearance Bin” to share secret wishes through memories. Produced by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), All We Have We Have spins the style wheel for the songs, Taylor Scott’s voice remaining the constant as the soundscapes. The Taylor Scott Band are joined by Henry Garza on a Latin Jazz-tinged rock patter for “Hair of Indigo”, make a list of “Good Things” a rambling rhythm, and wonder “Where We Are Going” on a confident Country Rock-fueled stride.
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Western States from the album From the Center Out available Marquette Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Western States is a band like that kid walking along a chain-link fence. One side of the fence is the smooth instrumentation and vocals that yield a clean, Country Rock package. The other side of the fence is that Midwest rough and tumble Rock’n’Roll music inspired by Uncle Tupelo, where subtle twang takes a swing and always seems on the verge of the punch exploding. Western States as the kid by the fence keep a balance, taking in what either side has to offer, refusing to commit to one side or the other, looking at the big picture as a fence where anything fits under the Western States brand.
From the Center Out ditches the fence and the result is a backyard full of Roots Rock where the Rock doesn’t fully commit to the cowpunk to the point of the sound not overpowering the story within the song; it is a great backyard hang.
“Fire and Rage” and “Give This Town Away” kick the record off with slow burning ballads, laying comfortable groundwork for ripping guitar work heard in the road song, “Gun Feels Heavy.” “I Can Get Down,” is a Southern Rock boogie tune about a ‘riverboat casino that can barely float’, and “Details” shifts the vibe into a heartbreaking narrative; it’s a lonely-fiddle heavy ballad about making the rent and taking a look at those folks that fall short. From the Center Out closes with the anthemic “Fever,” a power-chord heavy tune that screams ‘nothing in this world is gonna break the world you put in my veins’. It’s a closer that sums up Western States whole deal, a loosely wrapped present of roots, twang and jam handed off with some Midwestern charm. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Amy LaVere (from the album Painting Blue available on Nine Mile Records)
Touches of jazz-inflected Spanish guitar acoustics face off against a decisive electric guitar riff that snaps at the melody, Amy LaVere the mediator for the musical mood as she delivers a message of love on John Martyn’s “I Don’t Wanna Know”. The cut opens Painting Blue, the recent release from the Austin, Texas musician. Her Live Music Capital of the World address finds Amy LaVere letting her memories travel, marking clock time on a Soul trance groove for “Not in Memphis” as Painting Blue feels the walls close in, a heartbeat and a sad choir harmony defining the life choices in “No Room for Baby” as it marches with a steadfast resolve into “No Battle Hymn”, the storyline looking for mercy and an exit in equal measure.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Amy LaVere’s childhood changed addresses with her dad’s jobs, taking her to various locales with notable stops in Canada, Texas, Maryland, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan. She formed her first band while still in high school outside of Detroit and over the course of a career, she has fronted bands and appeared on stage solo, becoming a player for groups such as Motel Mirrors as well as Luther Dickinson and the Sisters of the Strawberry Moon. A seductive tone, part victim, part aggressor, drives the stories of Painting Blue, Amy LaVere’s voice the velvet hammer nailing the retelling of Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” and the easy guide reporting on accordion swells and strong rhythms that wrap around the childhood reflections of “Stick Horse”. Produced by husband Will Sexton, Painting Blue softens the wreckage of a heart making wishes in “Love I’ve Missed” as Amy LaVere confidently struts on a rock’n’roll beat, exiting the album by spreading its title while it finger-points a former friend’s color choice with “Painting Blue (on Everything)”.
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Those Pretty Wrongs from the album Zed for Zulu available on Burger Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Their collective resume screams Indie Rock before style was a genre, Luther Russell fronting The Freewheelers out of Los Angeles, Jody Stephens drumming for Big Star and a major player at Memphis’ Ardent Studios. The pair coming together forming Those Pretty Wrongs with the recent debut Zed for Zulu exploring Indie Folk, Rock’n’Roll, and Psychedelic ballads. “Ain’t Nobody but Me” could be an REM outtake from their early releases before the hits starting stacking up, pulled from the Life’s Rich Pageant playbook ripe with guitar jangle and screaming Athens, Georgia circa 1980. “Hurricane of Love” has Prog Rock tendencies, a psychedelic ballad from a fusion band that never takes off on an instrumental explosive tear, leaving the sound as a beautiful, stand-alone, Folk tune.
“You and Me” begins with the line ‘the sea looks wrinkled, torn and split, the sun casts shadows over it, the harvest moon has come and gone, and the birds forget to sing their song’, a perfect nod to Yes, but what follows is a song out of The Byrds’ playbook. “A Day in The Park” is a dreamy acoustic cut and “Undertow” has a piano bounce along with a melody hook that will plant itself in the center of your head. Released on Burger Records, this may seem out of place with their roster, but Those Pretty Wrongs a solid curveball to keep the label’s fans on their music loving toes. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Sunny War from the album Shell of a Girl available on Hen House Studios (by Bryant Liggett)
The phrase ‘Punk Blues’ gets regularly tossed at Sydney Ward aka Sunny War, which may call for a re-defining of term. A second definition should avoid the take on Blues with the power of Punk from Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion or The Immortal Lee County Killers, and the description should include the laidback and hushed vocal, as heard on Sunny War’s Shell of a Girl. It is a softly quiet record, and if it is a blues record listeners should find similarities in Nina Simone and not Muddy Waters.
Quietly plucked guitar and soft percussion open Shell of a Girl with “Shell”, an opener that lays out a broken relationship; the girl in said relationship getting the bad rap, the man coming to his senses only to find ‘the girl you knew is gone’.
“Drugs are Bad” is a look at the big mess that is the result of the big pharmacy business, an equally big message tucked underneath a monotone delivery and subtle, 1970’s AM radio melody while “Love Became Pain” is the Rock number of Shell of a Girl, the most upbeat of the eleven cuts driven by a locomotive drum rhythm. “Rock and Roll Heaven” contemplates the idea that if there is in fact such a place, Sunny War has ‘made it past 27, there goes my ticket to rock and roll heaven. “XO” closes Shell of a Girl with a soft love song, where Sunny War chases the idea of being a romantic, looking for ‘one more chance, to prove to you I know a thing or two about romance’. It wraps up the record like a love letter, signing with a “good, old fashioned XO.” (by Bryant Liggett)
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Them Coulee Boys (from the album Die Happy available on LoHi Records)
Well, the way I heard it, Them Coulee Boys met at a Bible camp and honed their sound in the back valleys of western Wisconsin. Beginnings aside, what is clear is that the songs on Die Happy, the recent release from Them Coulee Boys, were born with a natural sense of the human condition, translating what they see into laser-sharp assessments of characters and a particularly unique knack of finding the middle ground sweet spot between Punk Rock, Bluegrass, and Rock’n’Roll. Memories take a lost heart back in time recalling that ‘you always said I was a better lover (dancer) than I was’ make a kind-of punk rock semi-prayer out of the title track, the cry sent up into the heavens with the TCB choir joining in the wish of ‘lord, lord, lord, let me die happy’.
The center stage spotlight finds a Folk musician’s honesty stiching slogans together for “Me & My Anxiety”, shrugging as the gas gauge runs low when Them Coulee Boys steadily percolate in the groove of “Mary’s on the Telephone”, quiet in the search for “Evangelina, and follow the funk into “Midnight Manifestos”. Graduates of the Midwest music scene, Them Coulee Boys built a base from the ground up beginning in 2013, branding the sound of an ‘Alt-Folk machine’. In the winter of 2018 Them Coulee Boys (Soren Staff, Beau Janke, Jens Staff, Neil Krause, and Patrick Phalen IV) were seeking a new sound, finding a like-minded compatriot in friend, and Die Happy producer, Dave Simonett (Trampled by Turtles), and entering Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, MN, home to landmark recordings by Nirvana, Son Volt, and PJ Harvey. Die Happy offers a two-part telling on “Hand of God”, confessing as a voice on the phone in “Hand of God, Pt.1”. Making listening to the track not only an experience but an adventure as well, Them Coulee Boys cut off the ending of the first part quicker than an 8-track tape making its own edit, linking the listing placement of Track 2 with the complimenting “Hand of God, Pt.2 & 3” (track 10) picking up the beat as a front seat conversation morphs into a gratitude list carved onto a runaway train rhythm. Die Happy opens on a heartbeat, a military drum roll, and fractured guitar chords for “Pray You Don’t Get Lonely”, the band finding their steps as they proudly march on street parade strums into the song. Them Coulee Boys carve out a story for “5’6” Monument” honoring a punk rock prairie lover as they offer advice over the hushed percussive shudders of “Find Your Muse”.
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