Evan Phillips (from the album Cabin Vibes Volume One)
The tempos and volume may be toned down, but emotion rings just as loud from the songs Alaska musician Evan Phillips has written and recorded since his time in rock band The Whipsaws. Southern-rock, alternative country, and cow-punk may have all taken center stage at a Whipsaws show, but they were also a quartet with its share of heartbreak ballads and an ability to slow things down for the sake of the exploration of the song; feedback and Marshall stack or not, Phillips has always been a champion of the tune. Cabin Vibes Volume One is another ripe for the picking work revealing that Alaska also has its share of people making great music, and proves Phillips is gaining more deserved ground as one of the great current indie-folkies, a songwriter crafting subtle rock songs that may lean to country or pop, yet also not afraid of some studio and instrument experimentation; he’s certainly more than a dude with a guitar.
Album opener “Close to Me” starts with a few blips melting into steady drums and ambient pedal steel. It’s a dreamy highway song that quickly moves from singer-songwriter territory to a world of psychedelic folk. “I Come Alive” sounds as if Phillips has done some Kurt Vile homework while drawing on the music of 1970’s Laurel Canyon. Spacey pedal steel and piano kick off “Old Dirt Road,” instrumentally pulling from a western-noir score, and a lyrical nod to a favorite place to drive. Phillips falls somewhere between straight-shooter storyteller and ambiguous poet; musically its subtle and beautiful. Lyrically, Cabin Vibe Volume One is an album whose characters say a lot yet leave their stories to the imagination of the listener. By Bryant Liggett
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Clay Harper (from the album Bleak Beauty available as a self-release)
Death became a muse for Clay Harper, his recent release Bleak Beauty, the soundtrack of tough times as he worked through the passing of his longtime partner, Stephanie Gwinn. For the songs, Clay Harper felt that ‘this record is really not about her, it’s more about me…my feelings of love, fear, and loss. Feelings that are certainly not unique to me but are personal and unsettling. Sometimes life comes down to just sadness and coping. That’s now, and that’s this’. Bleak Beauty is wide landscape, backing the outpouring of thoughts with funk (“Friday San Francisco”), dark noir jazz “Let Me Sleep I’m So Tired”), wistful Folk (“Pretty Victor”), and somber tones (“Stephanie Sleeps”). A mix of sound and poetic passages, Bleak Beauty holds a mirror up to the darkness of difficult moments in life as Clay Harper speaks over scattered notes, offering thanks with “The Kindness of Strangers”, filling a dreamlike melody with real-time hopes in “We Still Have Time”, and testifies in the title track backed by stark piano and ethereal harmonics.
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Clay Parker & Jodi James (from the album The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound available as a self-release)
Woody Guthrie plays a part in the daily existence of Clay Parker and Jodi James. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana duo adopted life and song styles from the Oklahoma songman. Their recent release, The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound grabs a line from a Guthrie tune as it title. Clay Parker and Jodi James enter with “Easy, Breeze” opening the album on a sway, The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound quietly turning the wheel in “Cumberland Mill (No Pain)”, picking out an English Folk melody for “Gallows Tree”, amping up the pace to head into “Yazoo City”, and saddling up Country and Western rhythms that gets lost in the hum of the highway for “Every New Sky”.
Clay Parker and Jodi James strum Folk music for dusty desert landscapes and travelers camps, the songs dipped in California Country psychedelia and Cosmic American soundscapes. Jodi James explains the nomadic troubadour life of the pair, sharing that ‘I think we both appreciate old-fashioned methods and ways of doing things. We’d rather play a different town every night like artists used to…traveling and bringing our music to all these different people and places organically ‘. A dreamy reverie walks “Killin’ Floor” while Clay Parker and Jodi James ramble “Down to the Garden” on a Folk Rock rhythm and find a determined shuffle for “Katie’s Blues”.
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Suburban Dirts (from the album I Want Blood available on Old Jank Records)
Black-hearted is the best description of the Harpe Brothers, ‘Big’ Micajah and ‘Little’ Wiley. Herfordshire, England-based band Suburban Dirts tackle the tale of America’s first serial killers on their recent release, I Want Blood. The album’s first line cites the pair’s body disposal methods in “The Harpe Brothers Theme”…. ‘we cut them open, carve out their guts, and fill their innards up with stones’ and the mood is set for I Want Blood. Dark melodies keep the edges sharp, the tension surface level as Suburban Dirts strum hushed Country Folk for “To Dance with You Again” and picks out notes for a closing time tune in “This Ain’t No Place Like Home”. I Want Blood expands from a piano ramble into a persistent rhythm leading into “Eli” and seeks salvation on the gospel rock shudder of “Where There’s a Will”. The Harpe Brothers were mobile soldiers of fortune, mercenaries in the American War of Independence, highwaymen, and river pirates. They wore black hats to match the spot where a heart should have been, their methods appalling even to peers. I Want Blood uplifts bleak topics by making use of Americana’s musical possibilities to tenderly play an instrumental in “Home” and put a rumble underneath the “Ballad of Little Harpe” as Suburban Dirts offer a bared-soul confession in “The Sadness” and fondly recall a hometown with Siobhan Parr behind the microphone for “Lost & Losing”.
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Willie Nile (from the album Children of Paradise available on River House Records)
The relationship between a human and a guitar takes many paths, six strings and five fingers can bring comfort and ease troubled souls as well as leading a sing-a-long. The words attached to the song provide options, the guitar supporting with a rhythmic drive to match action with thought. Willie Nile is part of a long-standing tradition of NYC Folk singers, words and music that make difference as the message becomes a mission. On his recent release, Children of Paradise, Willie Nile once again clearly shows he is not your grandma’s Folk singer as he plugs his six strings into an amplifier and turns it up loud. Children of Paradise plants “Seeds of a Revolution” as an album opener, chiming guitars leading a worldwide community of the men and women into the streets. Willie Nile has a spit and snarl delivery that checkmarks the abuses to our planet in “Earth Blues”, underlines “I Defy” in blood red beats, sways on a Folk Rock Country rhythm to remind that it is “Getting’ Ugly Out There”, and opens his heart to show a “Secret Weapon” of love.
Saving the world starts at home, and for Willie Nile, the catalyst for the songs on Children of Paradise was to fill personal needs, stating that ‘I made this album because I needed a pick-me-up from the blues that’s all around us. The music always lifts my spirits, and that’s what these songs do for me and it’s why I wrote them. Hopefully they can lift others’ spirits as well’. While politics pushes the pen of Willie Nile, Children of Paradise carves out some fun for its characters when the revolution for the lady in “Rock’n’Roll Sister” comes from the purr of the engine pushing her down the highway as a motley crew heads out for a night on the town in “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go”. Subtlety gets stomped under the pound of drums as Willie Nile leads the faithful into a chorus of “don’t let the fuckers kill your buzz’ in “Don’t” and keeps the beat going to shout-out a prayer for the Children of Paradise title track.
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Coco O’Connor (from the album This Ol’ War available from Satarah LLC)
Dreams take Coco O’Connor around the world in song as she carefully puts flesh and blood into her words on her recent release, This Ol’ War. The woman stitching soles on shoes traveling far from “Crenshaw County” as she sits on the line at an Alabama shoe factory. Hope is at an exit further down the road as This Ol’ War makes plans for a future found “South of Santa Fe” and relates family history held in “Daddy’s Arms”. Voices are heard in the rhythmic rumble of the title track as “This Ol’ War” questions a relationship in turmoil.
Finding lessons to be learned though no place to plant her own Roots, Coco O’Connor moved from Nashville, Tennessee to a home in New Mexico, feeling that ‘Santa Fe is more reflective because of the landscape. It makes you introspective because you feel, by default, small. You’ve got the majestic mountains and you’ve got the big sky. You’ve got all this glorious bigness around you, so it makes you look inward to yourself to do some soul searching’. Returning to Nashville to record, Coco O’Connor and producer captured the tracks for This Ol’ War, the five-month process allowing the tunes to breath and grow organically like the southwest stories in her songs. Drifting desert melodies float over “Abilene” as This Ol’ War slashes guitar chords to frame “Free State of Winston” while Coco O’Connor tells the tale of “The Devil, A Wounded Man, and Me”.
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John Batdorf (from the album Me and My Guitar )
Summer forest fires and smoke kept singer/songwriter John Batdorf indoors where his creativity gave him room to move by taking the solo performer back to his time as a duo (Batdorf and Rodney) and band member (Silver). The success of a Silver track that found itself featured in Guardians of the Galaxy II softened John Batdorf to a song he never embraced (“Wham Bam Shang-a-Lang”). John recalled that ‘as I have been touring as a solo act for fourteen years, I never played songs from Batdorf and Rodney or Silver days that I didn’t write mainly because I was forced to do them by the record company. I started messing around in the studio and came up with an acoustic version of “Wham Bam”’. The results of heading back to previous material is collected on the recent release, Me and My Guitar, John Batdorf re-working music from past recordings as well as two new songs “Thanks to Me” and “Time to Say Goodnight”.
Opening with the acoustic doo-wop of “Wham Bam Shang-a-Lang”, John Batdorf sings a song for his longtime companion on the Me and My Guitar title track, listens as thoughts of ‘what-if’ play tag in “Never See His Face Again”, finds resolve in “Life is You”, comforts with the laidback sway of “It’s Gonna Be Alright”, and promises devotion with “You are the One”. Taking songs from his past, John Batdorf stitches a sonic tapestry that reflects that man he is in present time. Me and My Guitar is guided by the vocal hold that John Batdorf puts into every song, his voice seductive as he draws a line in the sand with The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time”, rolling with the rhythms underneath the hopes and memories in “Poor Man’s Dream”, crawling into the soul of another for the multiple skins worn on “Working Man, Blind Man”, and picking out notes as tender as the sentiment of “You are a Song”.
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Cowboy Junkies (from the album All That Reckoning)
The discoveries unfold along with the constant sonic rise of instrumentation in “All That Reckoning, Pt. 1”, the title track from the recent release from Cowboy Junkies. The constant throb of the rhythm undulates throughout the opening segment of the track in “Part One”, the companion piece presenting the same thoughts as more anxious, the tension felt in the sound of distorted guitars flashing like lightning around a dialogue and delivery perfectly matched to its first part for “All That Reckoning, Part 2”. Throughout a career that began in the late 1980’s, Cowboy Junkies have stayed true to the musical intentions heard on their breakthrough second album release, The Trinity Sessions. Moody melodies that wrap around conversational vocals delivered in an intimate near-hushed whisper.
Siblings Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (guitar), Peter Timmins (drums) along with bassist Alan Anton formed Cowboy Junkies in 1985. The band has kept active over the course of sixteen albums, branding their own style of Alt Country that showcases influences of Country, Blues, Rock’n’Roll, and Folk. All That Reckoning drifts on “Mountain Streams”, the memories in its storyline meandering like the cascading rolls of rhythm on the track. Cowboy Junkies read the headlines of hate in daily newspapers, offering opinions of our ways in “Things We Do to Each Other” as they crunch chords to take a bite out of current times in “Sing Me a Song”. All That Reckoning climbs “Wooden Stairs” on slow traveling clouds of sonics, frames “Missing Children” in sharp-angled chord borders, and floats on rotating rhythms for “When We Arrive” while Cowboy Junkies look for the flaws that exist behind “Shining Teeth”.
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Hawks and Doves (from the album From a White Hotel available on Jullian Records)
The exact location of the building Hawks and Doves us to house their recent release, From a White Hotel, is not clear though the rock’n’roll that backs each story makes the men and women walking through the tales connected by bloodlines. Staged on city streets, there is grit in the words, bite in the guitars as From a White Hotel speaks of personal experience as Hawks and Doves own their mistakes in the title track, the journey led by a solid backbeat and billowing sonics. No punches were pulled in the telling of these tales as From a White Hotel gets a birdseye view from the passenger seat of a car ‘burning through the bible belt’ in “Bulletproof Hearts (for Laura Jane)”, rips off the rearview mirror and hits the highway for “Chasing the Sky”, and slogs across a molasses thick groove to describe “Lithium Blues”.
Hearts beating loud in defiant chests create the beat for “The Dangerous Ones”, Hawks and Doves taking a stand, the realization that ‘white boys with money make the whole world run’ the needed straw to take to the streets. Hawks and Doves have an endorsement from three-chords-and-the-truth, utilizing the gift to full benefit of the songs on From a White Hotel. A hesitant beat shuffles underneath the carnival story of “Geek Love” while From a White Hotel squeezes out keyboard breaths that circle “Lover’s Waltz”. Hawks and Doves put a little funk in the tour-stop strut of “Every Once in a While”, punch out a pulp fiction tale for “Get Low”, and tenderly offer “Clothes Off My Back” as a message of love.
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Kevin Gordon (from the album Tilt and Shine available on Crowville Media)
The guitar on Tilt and Shine is early morning swamp fog, skimming across the surface of the songs, thick tendrils of weaving musical patterns clinging to the melody as wisps of riffs break free and wander. Chords that reverberate like waves of heat rising in the still of a southern summer and bright notes that sparkle like stars shining above the darkness of open water. In the hands of Kevin Gordon, six strings seemingly gain options, investigating more possibilities as his playing moves from background support to an integral part of the story. A history seen through the eyes of a child, viewing the world at the end of your fingertips with wonder, the tales witnessed in the memory of an older mind. Kevin Gordon peals notes from his guitar to open Till and Shine with “Fire at the End of the World” as he recalls a search that began in school and followed its characters into later life. Tavern lights land on the bar stool stage for “Drunkest Man in Town” while stark strums and beats echo off the walls of “DeValls Bluff” as rolling chords and rhythms churn underneath “Saint on a Chain”, billowing out like the small-town tale it tells.
If the music on Tilt and Shine is the sound of the southlands, the stories are reflections of the life passing by. Growing up in Louisiana, Kevin Gordon never needed to learn acceptance, his experiences were the only normal, which he remembers stating ‘one of the things I like about it, and am mystified by, is that what passes for normal in Louisiana would not make the grade elsewhere’. Guitar and stories, words and music, are one, Kevin Gordon steering the message to a friend in “Get It Together” down a rumbling road of guitar strums as he confidently strides into “Right on Time” with chords slashes picking up the excitement of heading home found in his heart while Tilt and Shine shares an audio snapshot of prisoner rodeo stars on clouds of distorted sonics in “One Road Out (Angola Rodeo Blues”).
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