Shovels & Rope from the album By Blood available on New West Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Shovels & Rope have always played it kind of punky and kind of country. The duo’s rough around the edges sound that surrounds the song like a candy shell, giving way to sweetness on the inside. Keeping to their established tradition, Shovels & Rope feature jug-band sing a-longs that bounce down the road alongside not-so-tender ballads, where the harmonies are shouted as much as they are sung. By Blood opens with “I’m Comin’ Out,” perhaps a nod to the growing family of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, making one of their offspring the narrator in the opener singing ‘I’ll show up to battle in my best suit’.
Indie rock drums come and go quick to make room for the same shout/sung harmonies on “Mississippi Nuthin’”, the cut giving way to a twangy guitar lead in on “The Wire.” By Blood presents “C’Mon Utah!” as an old-school folk ballad, simple in its instrumentation with guitar and harmonica while Shovels & Rope deliver “Twisted Sisters” as a call and response R&B tune with a slight hint of twang, the band following the rave-up with the reflective and somber “Good Old Days.” The fiddle in “Hammer” paired with the chain-gang rhythm becomes an old-school work song with aggravated complaints yelling ‘they shut my water off, I got a nasty cough, I’m out here every day with my hammer’. Peel back the layers and you will find Shovels and Rope cram a lot into their album production package on By Blood. Beyond the rootsy and playful bounce, along with a raw sound, Shovels & Rope have a reverence for their doses of lyrical honesty. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Carson McHone (from the album Carousel available on Nine Mile Records)
It is tough to take notes with a guitar in your hand and a microphone attached to your lips. Luckily for her songs, Carson McHone has a good memory. She recalls dancers swinging by the front of the stage and from her perch can see clear to the back of the dancehall, collecting tales from the shadows and stories basking in the glow of neon. Much like Carson McHone, who spent formative years playing one-night stands, unwraps the songs given birth in the same bars. Carson McHone opens her recent release, Carousel, with “Sad” sharing secrets of time spent pulling the darkness in closer as the album taps out a rhythm for “Dram Shop Gal” and follows solo piano notes that decide the beat for “How ‘Bout It”.
Musically,Carousel spins with swirls of Folk, Classic Country, and blue-eyed Soul, Carson McHone carrying the torch of Country music forward by giving the genre breathing room remembering that ‘there was a time when I wanted to champion traditional country, mostly because I wasn’t hearing it in what was being called ‘Country’. I think a lot of roots influenced artists feel the need to defend tradition in this way. Today though, I want to do more with the form, push myself past where I understand it to be’. Drama unfolds on a honky tonk rhythm when Carson McHone crosses her fingers and hopes “Maybe There Just Close Friends”, puts a triphammer beat and caffeinated twang underneath “Good Time Daddy Blues”, and turns a hurdy gurdy handle to cradle the promises of “Spider Song”. The night time breeze brings back a familiar sway as the past rushes in when Carousel tries to extinguish the still-burning flame in “Gentle” as Carson McHone makes a desperate plea for “Drugs”.
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Over the Rhine from the album Love & Revelation available on Great Speckled Dog Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Love & Revelation begins on a break-up ballad and a get out of town tune with “Los Lunas,” the opening cut on the latest from Over the Rhine. The track paints those two scenarios, situations that have been captured in song countless times; your relationship ends, and the one place you want to be is anywhere but here…. ‘I cried all the way from Los Lunas to Santa Fe, and on to Raton. None of us wanted things to end this way, but one of us had to be wrong’. That is the setting for the Love & Revelation’s overall mood; quiet and contemplative, sad but hopeful. Backed by a band who lay a solid and soulful foundation, singer-songwriters Karin Berquist and partner/husband Linford Detweiler deliver honest ache, handing it to you with soft care.
The title track of Love & Revelation is a beautiful dose of AM Gold, tuning into radio of the 1970’s. The guitar work that kicks off the following cut, “Making Pictures”, gracefully leads into a beautiful ballad. “Rocking Chair” is another highway song, an acceptance of life on the road while missing things that stay back at home where you lay your head, ‘goodbye rocking chair, the long road beckons and you’ll find us out there, lookin’ for the song in a traveler’s prayer, who’ll watching over our rocking chair?’ The Love & Revelation finisher in “An American in Belfast” stays mostly in instrumental territory; Karin Berquist providing a subtle hum over a plucked guitar, quickly joined by an ambient pedal steel. It’s an apt closer for an album that drips emotion. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Beat Circus (from the album These Wicked Things available on Innova Records)
The soundscapes for These Wicked Thingsvary though the styles juggled and held accountable by Beat Circus are all staged consistently against Black and White imagery. Kettle drums thump an opening for These Wicked Things as fractured notes and snippets of dialogue freefall in the first cut, “Murieta’s Last Ride”. Formed in Boston, Massachusetts in 2002 by band mainstay Brian Carpenter, These Wicked Things is the first release from Beat Circus in ten years. Audio allegiance switches as adrenaline leads the rhythm through “Just a Lost, Lost Dream” while thick South of the Border reverb, Spanish guitar, and mariachi horns provide the soundtrack for “Rosita (Tango)”. Experimental music cries out in “The Evening Redness in the West” as a spaghetti western soundtracks “The Girl from West Country” while a psychobilly groove unlocks an edge for “Bad Motel” and nightmare melodies issues warnings in “Crow Killer” in These Bad Things as Beat Circus blend swirling world musical ghosts in the rumbling distorted words and music in the title track’s tale.
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Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves (from the album Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves available on Free Dirt Records)
Young Old-Time musician is a new category though the music of Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves can claim heritage far back in the history of the Appalachian hills and valleys that gave the sound birth. The songs of Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves follow the same roots back into time, creating the music of the album with two instruments, banjo and fiddle. Both musicians carry pedigree, Allison de Groot (Molsky’s Mountain Drifters) and Tatiana Hargreaves (Gillian Welch, Laurie Lewis) focusing on the blending of their fiddle and banjo duets to serves as their debut as a duo. Mountain music gathers songs, tossing out a tune from a Kentucky maiden content with her single status (“I Don’t Want to Get Married”) as the pair sing a sad song (“Who Wouldn’t Be Lonely”) and bid goodbye on a bright reel (“Farewell Whiskey”). Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves mine western songbooks (“Buffalo Gals”) and murderous tales (“Beaufort County Jail”) as they spin through the countryside in ¾ time (“Green Valley Time”), and barrel along on a train-track sway (“Wabash Blues”).
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Head for the Hills (from the E.P. Say Your Mind available as a self-release)
Colorado-based Head for the Hills stuck close to home in the creation of recent E.P. release, Say Your Mind, recording at Swingfingers Studios in Fort Collins, CO. Fifteen years together as a band gives the trio a wide range of sounds to choose from for the songs, Say Your Mindinfusing the title track with tight harmonies and string band playing over a solid backbeat. A slightly drunken groove meanders between crisp chord strums, horn section guidelines, electric piano riffs, and a touch of twang in “Can’t Stay This Way for Long” while Head for the Hills catch western breezes as they drive “Darkness Meets the Day” on a Country ramble.
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M. Lockwood Porter (from the album Communion in the Ashes available on Black Mesa Records)
A testament to the power of rock’n’roll salvation springs from the guitar optimism of “Waiting for a Sign” as M. Lockwood Porter nears the point of no return watching his life spiral down a blues-lined drain. The cut is on the recent M. Lockwood Porter release, Communion from the Ashes, the album backing tales of a heartbroken man (“Didn’t Know What Love Meant”) while it slices at the status quo with guitar pick razors (“Anything for Greed”), crawls out of the shadows towards a morning promise (“Broken Light”), and pounds out a path with the righteousness of rock (“The Dream Is Dead”).
Americana does its best to describe music in terms of honesty and powerful belief systems, and aligning with that template, M. Lockwood Porter does a show and tell match with words and music on Communion of the Ashes. The former San Francisco, California-based songwriter had a birds-eye view of the digital-era changes, feeling that ‘the tech boom of the last ten years has totally transformed the whole Bay Area, and has essentially made it a playground for the rich. Working-class folks and artists aren't welcome there anymore, and this has manifested in rising housing costs, closure of music venues, and the proliferation of homeless tent cities. In the last verse of the title track, I can see in hindsight that I was saying a ‘goodbye’ to the Bay Area, even though I didn't know that I'd be leaving at the time’. Communion from the Ashes blasts open the doors of the album with the title track, M. Lockwood Porter carving out a pulpit with drums and guitars as he becomes the preacher man spitting out a survivalist sermon in “Get Back to the Wild”. Communion of the Ashes provides a DIY guide to root out personal limitations with “This Fear Won’t Control Me” while echoed piano chords drum a dirge as the beat encourages M. Lockwood Porter to toss off the chains of mediocrity, kicking down walls and taking to the streets in “I Will Do No More A-Prayin’”.
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Cascade Crescendo (from the album Chasing the Sun available as a self-release)
The genre of Bluegrass continues to be defined by the band’s choice of instruments rather than strict allegiance to rules on Chasing the Sun, the recent release from Cascade Crescendo. Musically, Chasing the Sunis an orchestrated jam, freeform playing taking flight over carefully mapped out territory. Cascade Crescendo hold on tight to hometown pride in album opener, “Bridgetown”, as band fall through an audio rabbit hole of notes flashing by while “All Been Done” style-shifts its playing between flamboyant Gypsy Jazz and downhome riffs. For Cascade Crescendo, the only constant is change, the music finding footing in the band’s intuitive delivery when “Straight to the West” takes a rough-shorn rhythmic road while “Go Fiddle Yourself” collects a kaleidoscope of cleanly played notes to twirl, and caffeinated picking backs the frenetic requests of “Give Me Space”. Taking their name from the Cascade Mountains that ranges through the group’s Portland, Oregon homebase, Pacific Northwest Jam Grass stirs their strings for “Spun Like a Record” as Cascade Crescendo search for a memory of where they have been in “Empty Trains”, and ride dark waves realizing ‘you can’t sail far on a lake even when their great’ in “Sailboat”.
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Yola (from the album Walk Through Fire available on Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Records)
Country and Soul is one bloodline in the music of Yola. The British-based singer offers a smoky twang as she makes a daily plan for survival in “Love All Night (Work All Day)” from her recent release, Walk Through Fire. Yola follows a marching rhythm into Walk Through Fireon album opener “Faraway Look”, the song and songstress exploding in sky-reaching vintage 60’s British Soul while she sways on a soulful southern breeze in “Rock Me Gently”, drapes Country on the R&B of “It Ain’t Easier”, and floats on a fantasy through “Deep Blue Dream”.
Produced by Dan Auerbach (solo, The Black Keys) in his Nashville, Tennessee studio, Easy Eye Sound, Walk Through Firetakes the best of several decades of production twists and twirls to create a vintage sound with fresh-baked flavor when “Still Gone” bounces in on Pop-sweetness and a vocal growl while a smooth groove falls under the spell of the rubber hitting road rhythms of “Ride Out in the Country’. Yola taps into a rich vein of Country/Soul gold, mining territory worked out by albums such as Dusty in Memphis as she walks into a sad story, counting the hours until dawn with “Lonely the Night”.
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Mary Bragg (from the album Violets as Camouflage available on Tone Tree Music)
The melodies have a relaxed sensibility on Violets as Camouflage, the recent release from Mary Bragg. Rhythms flow steadily underneath clearly drawn characters, their revolutions turned over in support of the experiences found in the storyline. Warm notes comfort as they embrace the love offering thanks in “You Rescue Me” while “Fixed” plucks a heartbeat from lightly picked strings and hurried breaths whisper memories as afterthoughts in “I Thought You Were Somebody Else”. Violets as Camouflagepeaks behind closed curtains to find the truths hidden behind pretty displays and window dressings when sharp-edged acoustics build a backbone for “Faint of Heart” to match the indominable perseverance of the tough folks facing an uphill climb to middle ground as bright strums sparkle alongside the inspiration pouring from the act-now advice in “More Than You Do”.
Electric guitar chords slashes are the clarion call when Mary Bragg gathers the spirit of a community, using their determination to describe life in “Runaway Town”. Soft Country strums back the sad story for the left-alone lover in “A Little Less”, keeping the style on board for the wagon sway rhythms of “Trouble Me Anytime” while Violets as Camouflageuses microphones to face off as the weapons of choice when love takes sides as Robby Hecht duets with Mary Bragg in “Fight”. Going against the expectations of her formative years, Mary Bragg directly addresses hardships as she kicks in the doors of adversity, citing her Georgia upbringing as a place ‘where it's not super common to come right out and say what you feel or talk openly about your intimate emotional experiences’. Distorted sonics are thunder merging with the clouds of fractured emotions forming in “This Feeling” while Violets as Camouflagedefines a groove with train-wheel rhythms on “The Right Track” and Mary Bragg dreams of a future with no “Sad Stories”.
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