Sturgill Simpson (from the album Sound & Fury available on Elektra Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Sturgill Simpson was the guy who made country music that gave the past decade cool. Though it was no surprise to anyone within ears reach, Sturgill Simpson moved shifted the line with his music, placing fringedwellers on the mainstream side by moving the fence, not the fan. Defiant and mischievous, the man who in 2017 busked outside the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee as the CMA’s (Country Music Awards) took place inside, taking questions rather than spare change, and giving opinions on the current administration, gay marriage, and where his career is headed. proves he can throw a change-up. Sturgill Simpson sidesteps expectations in the same manner with Sound & Fury, the album the soundtrack to an anime film (Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound & Fury), currently streaming on NetFlix, that will challenge fans touting membership in the Sturgill Country-Club while satisfying the ones that thrive on the man’s unpredictable nature and ability to make quality music in any genre.
The stoner rock score of the instrumental opener in “Ronin,” the electro vibe of “Sing Along,” and the guitar lead from “A Good Look” run over a disco beat sonically state that Sturgill Simpson’s sound stands tall in multiple styles that does not (obviously) include Country. “Make Art Not Friends” is a trance-heavy Indie Rock cut while “Best Clockmaker On Mars” finds Sturgill Simpson borrowing from San Francisco’s In the Red record label and the Psych Rock scene it represents. “All Said And Done” might be the closest to Sturgill’s past studio work though still less like pure Country, sonically more kin to a slow cut from Brooklyn’s TV On The Radio’s catalog, “Mercury In Retrograde” is a catchy dance cut and “Fastest Horse In Town” is his show ender, a closer where the musicians walk away, leaving behind a crumbling wall of feedback. No one-word genre classification is needed other than the term ‘musical master’ when describing Sturgill Simpson, any knocks on the album are personal opinions and choices rather than testaments to an artistic comment that is appropriate as a statement and as a soundtrack. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Toronzo Cannon (from the album The Preacher, The Politician, or The Pimp available on Alligator Records)
The sound backing the title track on Toronzo Cannon’s recent release, The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp, echoes with 1970’s-era influences in the street-walking grooves of Curtis Mayfield in both words and music. Toronzo Cannon uses his pen to write the same street tales, changing the dates on events to reflect today as the issues that each songman sees remain the same. Intense guitar work and insightful lyrics are the one, two punch that Toronzo Cannon puts into this music, whether the story is a fly-on-the-wall as two lovers find common ground in “That’s What I Love About Cha’” or an open letter to inaction with “The Silence of My Friends”. The message AND the music are the important pieces for Toronzo Cannon, the Bluesman feeling that ‘it's not about the solos. It's about the songs. People get used to everyday life, so it's easy to miss the things around them. I write about those things. I know the problems of Chicago, the hardship, 'cause we're always a scapegoat. But I choose to love and respect the city because of the Chicago Blues giants that came here from down south. I'm proud to be standing on the shoulders of every great Chicago Blues musician who came before me’.
His guitar work lays down a groove for “The Chicago Way”, the track tossed down on the table as a resume for Toronzo Cannon. Born in the Windy City, a young Toronzo found his way through tough city streets to Theresa’s Lounge, an infamous South Side Blues club. He soaked up the sound and watching the larger-than-life Bluesmen like Junior Wells and Buddy Guy strut by within arms reach gave him role models. He honed his style, playing as a sideman in varous local bands, a hired-gun guitarist from 1996 through 2002, supplementing his late night income with a bus driver day gig, where Toronzo still logs four ten-hour days per week. Horns and a raucous piano lead the way into a uptown Saturday night for “Stop Me When I’m Lying” while The Preacher, The Politician, Or The Pimp owns up to what it wants with “Ordinary Woman” and goes old school with the screaming Blues guitar of “She Loved Me (Again)”. Life and love are topics for the album, Toronzo Cannon reporting on a war between just two in “Get Together or Get Apart”, taking a moment to share his health history with “Insurance”, and closes out The Preacher, The Politician, Or The Pimp on an authoritative piano riff introducing ‘the voices of those how refuse to be victims’ in “I’m Not Scared”.
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Pieta Brown (from the album Freeway available on Righteous Babe Records)
Taking an exit from the acoustic Roots backing of her earlier releases, Freeway, the recent recording from Pieta Brown, backs the dusky textures and secret-carrying tease of her vocals, granting chameleon-like changes for her delivery over an audio dream-soundscape. Recorded at Justin Vernon's April Base Studio with co-producer S. Carey (Bon Iver), Freeway puts the sweet seductions and fragile tones of Pieta Brown on marching rhythms keeping in time over rolling sonic clouds (“Before We Break”) while beats and fractured sounds cascade (“Bring Me”) and notes rise up (“Morning Fire”), flickering before being pulled into a groove as a rock’n’roll beat struts while it juggles decisions in the storyline (“The Hard Way”). The choice for a more experimental style wrap for Freeway was in place before recording occurred, Pieta Brown entering the studio with a batch of songs unfamiliar to her core backing band of co-producer S. Carey (drums), Mike Lewis (bass) and Jeremy Ylvisaker (guitar). Relying on human connection and a physical presence, Pieta Brown challenged the musicians to react to the songs, and each other. Freeway was recorded over the space of three days.
Relaxing on a lazy rhythm for “Ever a Time” Freeway opens its doors with the first cut drapes a breezy, summer Jazz feel over the rock rhythms of “Ask for More” and tenderly sways with Country Folk for “Coming Down Again”. Loss and liberation, endings and beginnings. Pieta Brown wanders through a fantasy world of musical creations, slowly reading pages from lives she passes as she shares wanderlust on an equally rambling melody with “Shelter Now”.
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Leeroy Stagger (from the album Strange Path available on True North Records)
As Roots music stretches and collaborates, the ever-evolving style wanders, digging deep into the sounds of Soul, Funk, Blues, and Rock’n’Roll. For his latest release, Strange Path, Canadian songman Leeroy Stagger builds a Rock structure for his Roots, opening the album on acoustic notes and strums for the first cut “Mother”, whispering wishes as the rhythms rise and converge into a groove when the storyline looks for a little love. A determined beat is the lifeline for “Breaking News” as Leeroy Stagger takes his words and music to the streets in the tune, waving banners of revolution against an audio kaleidoscopic background. Eleven albums into a seventeen-year singer/songwriter career, Leeroy Stagger honors his muse on the album by sidestepping sonic expectations and letting the music finds its own Strange Path.
A dreamscape of sounds reverberate like the rattle of chains when Leeroy Stagger proclaims “Leonard Cohen (Is Dead)” while Strange Path quiets the rhythms to listen to a small town exit plan in “Nobody Alive (Gets Out of Here)”, surfs a wave of glam rock grooves in “Strange Attractor”, and hammers down a beat to introduce “Jesus + Buddha”. As the musical backing of Leeroy Stagger uses a bigger canvas for its soundswaths on Strange Path, the words follow along in the same mindset as a caffeinated Country beat bounces off the prison wall staging of “Deeper Well” and walks a calculated Blues strut through the truths of “Get to Love”. Tenderness beams from “The Light” when Leeroy Stagger ends Strange Path with the cut, wrapping up the album with optimism and observations.
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Hiss Golden Messenger from the album Terms of Surrender available on Merge Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Eleven studio records in to his career, and songwriter MC Taylor, aka Hiss Golden Messenger, still have the arm to pitch curveballs. Not that Hiss Golden Messenger toss out a surprise junk pitch every time, though various web descriptions of the sound use a dozen different words to describe the sonic achievements of each release. Country, Soul, Blues, and Gospel offer jangle mixed with a touch of Swamp-pop, shaking the ingredients thoroughly as the latest release from Hiss Golden Messenger, Terms of Surrender shamelessly flirts with, and teases, style commitments.
“I Need a Teacher” is an upbeat album opener, presented with subtle jangle, swirling guitars and a hint of psychedelic fuzz while “Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now)” follows in a lazy day, laid-back groove, completely comfortable with its meandering pace. “Old Enough to Wonder Why (East Side-West Side)” plays with plucky banjo and blipped beats, the hushed chorus of ‘come meet me on the east side, come meet me on the west-side’ delivered over layers of rhythm and experimental noise. “Happy Birthday Baby” is a smooth rolling love song, the storyline a nod to Taylor’s daughter and counting the ways her presence that ‘lit up the house like a matchstick’. “Whip” curates a fragile sound, shuddering like it could fall apart at any second as the piano ballad of the title track provides an emotional ending for Terms of Surrender, Hiss Golden Messenger sending swirling soundscapes over gentle, soulful piano ramblings. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Paul Cauthen (from the album Room 41 available on Lightning Rod Records)
Admitting personal successes and hurdles seems easy for Paul Cauthen as he sings ‘you know I can write a song, you know I can kiss all night’ on “I Can’t Be Alone”. The cut is on the recent release Room 41, the stories all making use of clear words as Paul speaks of love (“Angel”) as his messages urges mercy (“Slow Down”) and sweet release (“Lay Me Down”). The words of Paul Cauthen on Room 41 are the link that connects the songs, his deep vocals granting the role of consoler and advisor. As the tales unfold, the musical foundation of the tracks becomes fluid, shape-shifts between cuts as it sonically finds common ground footing within the diversity of its styles, rhythms, and beats.
The groove of “Cocaine Country Dancing” is as infectious in taking over bodily control as its drug namesake while “Freak” walks on a rubbery rhythm line as jail-mates bond on a devils-dreamscape strut. Paul Cauthen colors outside the Country band lines as he busts a move as “The Big Velvet”, tenderly opens “Prayed for Rain” on gentle acoustics before his voice rolls like thunderclouds guiding the hot in/out breaths of the beat. Room 41 swaggers on a rambling musical interlude as it speaks of human nature in “Give ‘Em Peace” while Paul Cauthen stands tall over a shuffling-deck rhythm that deals out a mighty funk for “Holy Ghost Fire”.
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Charley Crockett from the album The Valley available on Son of Davy Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Fans of real Country music have always known the genre has remained cool despite all the Pop stars derailing its purity. There are plenty of road warrior true-believers schlepping a pedal steel onto a stage night after night, preaching to a return offender choir about how good Country music has always been here and within their reach. Charley Crockett is one of the artists appeasing and proselytizing with that same pulpit, taking all of the great wide-spread musical elements available in Roots music, from a Big Band playing Two-Steppin’ twang to a single microphone catching the recording of a murder ballad. The latest Charley Crockett release The Valley promises, and delivers, all that and more.
The hand-clap driven “Borrowed Time” kicks the The Valley off with a gospel heavy tone, followed by the title track, a reflective tale where beautiful pedal steel plays out under the narrative. “Big Gold Mine” raises some dust featuring an up-tempo dancer with fiddle, pedal steel and some whistling. The story becomes a simple love song where Charley Crockett sings ‘I don’t need no big gold mine, I just wanna make you mine’. “If Not the Fool” is a timeless slow dance, sonically falling back to a recording and release date circa 1958, the dirty saxophone with Charley Crockett’s aching vocals makes for a gem. “9-Pound Hammer” is delivered with campfire simplicity made up of plucked banjo and sparse percussion, the track followed by the gospel flair, and keyboard saturated “River of Sorrow.” An appropriate album closer is “Motel Time Again”, the song a crying in your beer cut about the doldrums of being in a traveling band, where the narrator will once again ‘find your way once more, to that old number on the door’, a reference to whatever motel/hotel room is home for the night. The Valley was recorded prior to a life-saving heart surgery for Charley Crockett that took place early in 2019. The Valley is a no frills, no tricks, recording that travels seamlessly from each note and through every heart-aching lyric.
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The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys (from the album Toil, Tears, & Trouble available on Rounder Records)
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys playing echoes a direct lineage to the music of the hills. The sound of a string bands back the stories, subtle it percolates under the vocals and pure harmonies, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys becoming a music machine as each individual player locks into a groove and trades riffs. Toil, Tears, & Troubles leads with a winner, opening the album with “Next Train South”, sonically securing The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys role as curators of Bluegrass traditions on the first cut.
While the musical traditions of Toil, Tears, & Trouble reveal their age in song, the words erase the years to show that human emotion has no shelf life when The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys lay bare the pain of war in Roy Acuff’s “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave”, singing of a hurt that echoes through generations. Civilization gallops through “Hickory, Walnut, and Pine”, the storyline changing the tree names to street signs in a subdivision of new homes as The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys watch family farms disappear (“Bidding America Goodbye”), confront personal demons (“Cold Hard Truth”), and celebrate hard-won homecomings (“Longing for the Ozarks”). The music of The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys stays true to Old Time music traditions while the stories of Toil, Tears, & Trouble holding no allegiance to any calendar date. The passions that seduce “Widow Mae” are timeless much like the goodbyes of “Ice Covered Birches” and the human spirit living beyond death in “Don’t Kneel by My Graveside”. Toil, Tears, & Trouble fast tracks the playing on the title track as its story promises fidelity as The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys become the wedding band for a marriage on the rocks in “Old New Borrowed and Blue”.
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Rick Estrin & The Nightcats (from the album Contemporary available on Alligator Records)
Most would consider Rick Estrin a true believer, playing harmonica in his native San Francisco, California at fifteen years old, coming up in the Bay Area Blues scene, playing five nights a week backing infamous Bluesman/pimp Fillmore Slim. He formed Little Charlie and the Nightcats with Charlie Baty in 1973, and fronted the band when Charlie retired from touring in 2008, adding guitarist Kid Andersen to the existing line-up and staying on the road as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats. With multiple Blues Awards for the singer and the band, Rick is the true believer poster boy, and yet on the recent release from Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, the choice is made to go Contemporary.
Happily, the mood passes quickly and the song “Contemporary” is tongue-in-cheek, the track featuring speaker-freezing bass bumps, compressed vocals, and a resume-boasting bridge. The remaining cuts of Contemporary puts the songs on the same level as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, solid vehicles of the Blues and all its many rhythms and forms. The beat is the wake-up call that snaps album opener “I’m Running” into a Blue-noir dawn while Blue Funk tinges “New Shape (for Junior Parker)” and a rhythmic ricochet sashays across “Root of All Evil”. Rick Estrin & The Nightcats become a machine on the instrumental cuts, the sound playful in “House of Grease” and frenetic in “Cupcakin’” as Contemporary locks into a Vintage Rock’n’Roll Blues groove for “Bo Dee’s Bounce”. Contemporary claims “New Years Eve” as its favorite holiday and slows the Blues to a simmer for “The Main Event” as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats share the sad story of a lover with a few loose screws in “She Nuts Up” as they read “Resentment File” on a pop and click groove.
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Janiva Magness from the album Change in the Weather: Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty available on Blue Elan Records (by Bryant Liggett)
John Fogerty has written some of the catchiest and recognizable cuts in the Classic Rock canon. Loved by fans of all genres, including the die-hards in the genres of Country, Punk and Country Punk, John Fogerty has penned songs that have solidified into the psyche of anyone that has dug into his solo recordings as well as his work with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Anyone covering Fogerty’s catalog deserves an ear aimed in the direction of their album to hear the results.
Janiva Magness and Change in the Weather: Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty dive deep into songs that span a lengthy career, from the well-known CCR cuts to some of the lesser known tracks from solo work. Change in the Weather offers some big Bluesy takes on the American Music Songbook via John Fogerty, hits and fan favorite songs.
The title track revisits “Change in the Weather,” a cut originally heard on Fogerty’s 1986 release Eye of the Zombie, the tune kicking off the record with Janiva Magness leading a charge out of the gate with steady hand claps and an up-beat gospel groove. The emotional, gut punch recordings come at tracks 2, 3 and 4, Janiva Magness delivering knock-out versions of “Lodi,” “Someday Never Comes,” and “Wrote a Song for Everyone” in quick order. The trio of tunes is followed by Taj Mahal and his country blues chops on “Don’t You Wish It Was True,” with “Bad Moon Rising” and “Fortunate Son” sandwiching the raw “Blueboy,” pulled from Fogerty’s release, Blue Moon Swamp. It doesn’t matter if it’s a solemn weeper like “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” or a front-porch picker like “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” John Fogerty has written some memorable sing-along songs and Janiva Magness has done them solid justice with Change in the Weather: Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty. (by Bryant Liggett)
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