Michelle Malone (from the album 1977 available on SBS Records)
Atlanta, Georgia-based songwriter Michelle Malone has made a career bringing the Sounds of the South to a worldwide audience. Southern Rock, Blues, and Country Folk have all been part of the arsenal that Michelle has used to craft her songs. There is no major shift on 1977., the recent Michelle Malone release. The sound of 1977 (the album) holds a mirror up to the year that bears its name, expanding on her catalog while sonically celebrating its birth year. Soft Rock was the go-to radio station selection as baby boomers aged begrudgingly, refusing to give up the Rock side of the recreational listening. Michelle Malone rents a live/work space in Laurel Canyon digs, keeping her Venice Beach residence for weekend writing excursions. The righting of decades that occurred in the 1960/1970’s is heard in the sharp edges of “Dust Bowl Man” as desperation from the main character demands to be heard. Family is championed with the CSN-strums of “Buck Knife Man” as a snare marks the steps for “Daggers”, and “Even the Queen” speaks hope and inspiration as it chases its dreams.
Foregoing guitars turned up to 11, Michelle Malone follows the steps of acoustic Rock forebearers such as Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, and Fleetwood Mac, the artists that put California Country on the map. Six-string jangle sparkles like fireflies for the confessions of “Not Who I Used to Be” as Michelle Malone lights a sloooow fuse for “Powder Keg” while a gaggle of girls surround the crafting of “River Song” as 1977 proudly stamps “Georgia Made” in its song roster and surfs waves of reverbed chords to underscore the come-on lines of “Know My Name”.
For more information and purchase options, please visit the Michelle Malone website
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Ferris & Sylvester (from the album Superhuman available on Archtop Records) (by Lee Zimmerman)
Between the two people inherently involved, the duo that refers to themselves as Ferris & Sylvester seem to possess a singular old soul. Their debut effort Superhuman boasts a retro style — some genuinely inspired R&B, a sizable quotient of barn-burning rock and roll, and the robust ability to make it all meld within a synchronized setting. Despite whatever the title seems to suggest, the album doesn’t exactly hint at any preternatural powers, but it is upbeat enough to provide potential that they could eventually evolve into headliners with the credence and confidence necessary to bring an ever-growing number of fans into their fold.
That’s apparent at the outset, courtesy of the tracks that dominate the set overall. The title track, “Golden”, and “Demons” establish a combination of full-throttle R&B and a relentless rock and roll attitude, one reminiscent of such classic and contemporary combos as Delaney, Bonnie and Friends, Stone the Crows, and the Tedeschi-Trucks Band. The approach they take throughout is both brash and brazen, a no-holds-barred, all-out delivery that eschews the usual cuddly boy-girl chemistry in favor of a power duo possessing energy and commitment to spare.
Various emotive offerings are interspersed in the midst of the angst and edge, providing further evidence of the pair’s adroit expression. They range from the tender (“Sickness”, “Breadwinner”) to the tempestuous (“This Is How My Voice Sounds”, “Special”, “Thunder Love”), the latter songs conceived as definitive power ballads that soar on the sheer strength of their drive and determination.
Ultimately, Superhuman is an able debut, one which suggests Ferris & Sylvester have the potential to develop as heavy hitters once they’re able to refine their material by tempering their verve with some variety. One they accomplish that, any true superhuman factor will likely appear that much more apparent. (By Lee Zimmerman)
For more information and purchase options, please visit the Ferris & Sylvester website
Justin Golden (from the album Hard Times and a Woman available on Justin Golden Music) (by Brian Rock)
Justin Golden blends Blues themes with Indie Rock arrangements on his debut, Hard Times and a Woman. Recorded in Richmond, VA in the heart of the Piedmont region, Golden naturally gravitates toward the Piedmont style of Blues finger-picking. Producer Chip Hale recruited a regional all-star cast of musicians to help flesh out Golden’s Blues with fuzzed-out guitars, electric organ, and harmonica to create a more robust, Americana sound.
“Why the Sun Goes Down” epitomizes the creative synergy between old school Blues and modern Americana. With a full band and backing vocalists, Justin Golden plays uplifting major chords on his electric guitar as he shares the joy of reuniting with his lover. Singing, ‘now I know why the sun goes down; it’s another day closer till you come back around’; he exudes a Jackie Wilson level of happiness. The backing vocals and electric organ add a subtle Gospel flavor to the Indie Rock/Blues fusion.
“Can’t Get Right”, “Lightning When She Smiles”, and “If I Keep It Together” continue the Blues/Rock partnership. Part Stone Temple Pilots and part Blues Traveler, Justin Golden puts a distinctive Blues spin on 90’s Indie Rock rhythms but Golden also unplugs to pay a more authentic tribute to his Piedmont roots. “Moon Far Away” showcases his acoustic finger picking style. Again, using uplifting tones, he sings ‘when I get up and when I sleep, I’m gonna spend my whole life lovin’ on you’. Proving that Blues doesn’t have to equate with sadness, Justin Golden captures the spirit of Taj Mahal and Vance Gilbert to create a vibrant ‘joy of living’ Blues. He continues that same theme and tone with added harmonica on “No Riches”. “Must Be Honey” is every bit as sweet as it sounds. And “Oh Lord, Oh Lord” adds Bluegrass/Gospel elements to offer up a prayer for guidance in a turbulent world. But in the end, Blues is Blues and Golden can’t resist the call of the Delta. “Ain’t Just Luck”, “The Gator”, and “Pulling Weight” add a layer of swamp-tinged rhythms to his music. Facing life’s darker side head on, Justin Golden deals with heartache, poverty, and bad luck. “Pulling Weight” addresses this darker side of the Blues with the line ‘I got a burden I can’t tame. It knows my soul. It knows my name. Lord, I got to keep moving, so I’m pulling this weight’. From despair to triumph and from acoustic to electric, Justin Golden knows his way around the Blues. Like different facets of the same gem, Hard Times and a Woman shines from every angle. Rock Blues, Piedmont Blues, and Delta Blues all sparkle with Justin’s Golden touch. (by Brian Rock)
For more information and purchase options, please visit the Justin Golden website
Erika Lewis (from the album A Walk Around the Sun available on Erika Lewis Music) (by Bryant Liggett)
Erika Lewis’s solo debut finds the vocalist putting the sounds she cultivated with her band, Tuba Skinny, on the back burner. There are no spirituals, New Orleans Blues or Jazz nor jug-band music. There is Roots music mining a Country vein in A Walk Around the Sun, pedal steel driven Folk tune weaves a solid collection of soundtrack heavy cuts in Country, Folk, and Americana.
The title track opens A Walk Around the Sun with fiddle and pedal steel supporting a weepy, slow two-stepper, and that dancing rhythm carries into the AM Gold of “If You Were Mine” and the dreamy “First Love” “Loser” has a cocktail lounge, old-school croon, “Walk Around the Sun” is slow and dreamy, “Unsatisfied (tiny pictures)” has an upbeat, slow-bounce shuffle, and “Wild Thing” has reverb-heavy twang guitar that pokes out in all the right places in a cut that’s part Western Noir, part 70’s soft Rock.
The pedal steel places this record into the old-school Country realm but it’s not a defining categorization as this record whispers sounds of Indie Folk and singer-songwriter ballads. Erika Lewis is a voice perfect for Country ballads like “Into the Lowlands”, slow Blues alongside Soul or R&B slow dancers. On A Walk Around the Sun Erika Lewis delivers a sultry and aching serenade that carries you into a sad narrative. (by Bryant Liggett)
Caroline Spence (from the album True North available on Rounder Records/Concord Records) (By Lee Zimmerman)
Given the praises she garnered for her 2019 critically acclaimed effort Mint Condition, it would seem Caroline Spence had a lot to live up to as far as her new release True North is concerned. Fortunately, having producer Jordan Lenning at the helm helped boost her chances of achieving a similar level of success. Still, one has to credit Spence herself for finding her creative core. Both introspective and enlightening, True North finds her peering inward at her own insights, emotions, and insecurities while trying to find a salve of some sort, not only for herself, but for all those who may have lost their way during these times of upheaval and uncertainty.
Like many artists, Spence spent much of her time touring prior to the pandemic, but when forced into isolation, she had time to reboot and rethink. True North is the result. Like the compass referenced in the title, it finds her taking a steady course towards fulfillment and assurance, and the music that resulted from that prolonged period of respite from the road stays true to that destination. The songs shared here survey a wide gamut of feelings, from the poignancy and passion of “Mary Olivier” to the dreams and desire shared in “The Gift”. Mostly though the album is dominated by songs of wistful reflection — “Clean Getaway”, “I Forget the Rest”, “The Next Good Thing”, “I Know You Know Me”, and the title track being among the most obvious examples. Nevertheless, despite that lingering sense of longing, the material leaves an emphatic imprint, haunting, harrowing and thoroughly compelling in equal measure.
Ultimately, Caroline Spence achieves a certain clarity that invites the listener to become immersed in the exquisite beauty and sense of realization found in each of these songs. When, on “Icarus”, Spence suddenly picks up both the volume and tempo, it comes as something of a jolt, an unexpected counterpoint to the mellow, meandering tone established elsewhere in the proceedings. Yet, it also allows for some emphatic emphasis as far as the premise overall. Impactful and profound, True North never veers from its determined direction.
(By Lee Zimmerman)
For more information and purchase options, please visit the Caroline Spence website
Old Crow Medicine Show (from the album Paint This Town available on ATO Records) (by Brian Rock)
String band extraordinaire, Old Crow Medicine Show, colors outside the lines on their eighth studio release, Paint This Town. The alternating nostalgic sepia tones and cheery technicolor flourishes OCMS have previously worked with are replaced on Paint This Town with shades of gray and post-apocalyptic neon. As the band takes a somber look at weighty social issues, the lyrical themes take on a darker hue. Dealing with contemporary subjects such as divorce, addiction, small town decline, ecological ruin, and general societal decay; Old Crow Medicine Show add their voice to the already crowded chorus of doomsayers. Only their musical virtuosity keeps these topics from collapsing under their own weight. Their mastery of Bluegrass, traditional Country, Texas Swing, and Piedmont Blues adds a humanizing element of empathy to the bleak subject matter they tackle.
The title track, “Paint This Town”, starts off with “Pink Houses” era John Mellencamp acoustic rhythms as lead singer Ketch Secor sings about the joys of chasing excitement when you’re underage in a small town. However, the thrill of joyriding wanes as the town crumbles around our hero and, ‘all these trailer park kids grow up thinking this is a place they will survive, and you and me babe we just fade away’. The trademark OCMS ebullience is replaced by a nihilistic cynicism, but the earthy rhythms and spirited harmonica manage to add a silver lining to the cloud-gray lyrics.
“Bombs Away” employs the full throttle fiddle and banjo attack that OCMS is so rightfully famous for. Again, the lyrics turn cynical in this ‘don’t give a damn’ take on divorce. There’s no exploration of pain or regret or anger, there’s only an attitude of defiance. And again, the bouncy Bluegrass rhythms keep the song from becoming a bitter screed. “Painkiller” offers more frenetic Bluegrass to address the scourge of fentanyl and opioid addictions. “Reasons To Run” is an introspective ballad about the cumulative fatigue of life on the road. “John Brown’s Dream” is a Bluesy, percussive, decidedly defiant tribute to the militant abolitionist. The band experiments with staccato syncopations in the tale of eco-ruin, “Used to Be a Mountain”. “Gloryland” incorporates gentle fiddle strains and piano chords to sing about societal decay, as Dol Crow Medicine Show sing ‘people going crazy, whole world’s insane and it’s getting hotter, I’ll be damned. Flood water rising with poison rain - locked out at the gates of Gloryland’. Of course, all of these topics are relevant but pointing out darkness doesn’t increase the light. Only shining more light increases the brightness. Love, compassion and faith increase the shining light. Singing about what you love increases the light. And when OCMS focuses on life’s simple joys, no one is better at shining their musical light.
“Lord Willing and The Creek Don’t Rise” is a shot of pure musical adrenaline. Blowing away the cloudiness of the more somber songs, this is OCMS at their jubilant, rockin’ best. Incorporating a touch of Rockabilly and Jump Blues; the song celebrates meeting friends at the ol’ swimming hole. It makes you want to grab your swim suit (or birthday suit) and join the festivities. “Hillbilly Boy” is up-tempo Piedmont Blues with touches of Ragtime recalling the early days of wireless radio and outdoor fiddle festivals. “Deford Rides Again” is another tribute to the music of days gone by. This time, OCMS pay tribute to Deford Bailey, the first African-American to appear on the Grand Ol’ Opry. Known for his Blues harp playing, the song, fittingly, adds a healthy dose of lively harmonica. Even when they slow it down a notch, they can still evoke a sense of nostalgic joy as in the Charlie Daniels inspired “Honey Chile”. Borrowing a riff from their own “Look Away” (from 2018’s “Volunteer”), the song floats along on a meandering fiddle line like a lazy river float on a warm June day. “New Mississippi Flag” offers an optimistic path forward from the politics of racial division, singing ‘she’ll have a diamond for Elvis. Eudora Welty lines. Railroad dust for the brakemen singing Blue Yodel #9. She’ll have a stripe for Robert Johnson and one for Charlie Pride”, they celebrate the achievements and heritage of Americans of all races. Making reference to the wrongs of the past and those who risked everything to confront those wrongs, they don’t wallow in the pain of the past. Rather they shine their light on the good things from passing years, the beauty of our shared present environment, and the hope of a brighter, unified future. This is a message that truly deserves to be shared. When they focus on the positive, no band is better at making down-home, feel-good music. Although this album trades in their ‘glass is overflowing’ optimism for a ‘glass half empty’ pessimism, musically, Paint This Town proves that they can still create full force gale Bluegrass that blows away your Blues, even if some of their lyrics gave you the Blues in the first place. (by Brian Rock)
For more information and purchase options, please visit the Old Crow Medicine Show website
Bart Davenport (from Episodes on Tapete Records) (by Lee Zimmerman)
Bart Davenport could be considered an undiscovered treasure, a situation tantamount to criminal neglect. Despite a wealth of solo albums released over the course of the past 20 years, he somehow remains well below the radar, and unjustifiably so. A purveyor of pure, unpretentious Pop, he’s evolved into a superior singer/songwriter whose latest album, Episodes, epitomizes the skill and savvy he consistently invests in each of his endeavors. He specializes in sounds that range from ornate offerings like the delicate “Alice Arrives”, “Creatures In Love”, and “Wireless Moon” to the ebullient enthusiasm of “It’s You” and “Holograms”, while never faltering any step of the way. Davenport’s songs are articulate, exquisitely executed and pleasing throughout. The gentle lilt of “Easy Listeners” and “All Dressed in Rain” provide sweet serenades, while the descriptive narratives shared by “Billionaires” and “Naked Man” offer praise to some unlikely heroes.
Part of Davenport’s success lies in his ability to fashion lush arrangements that underscore a delightfully wistful point of view. In listening to the new album, one is reminded of some Brit-rock heroes of yore, Ray Davies in particular. Likewise, the intro to “Strange Animal” with its psychedelic suggestion sounds like it was plucked from a half-forgotten hit by The Hollies. On the other hand, the relentless refrain of the instrumental “99 Forever” brings to mind the 12-string surge of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”. So too, his low-lit melodies often recall the lonely laments of Nick Drake and those who specialized in the folk finesse that graced the more soothing sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s English Invasion. Bart Davenport is adept at recreating the baroque sounds of another era, when craft and creativity found common ground.
It’s been said that Davenport was initially inspired by his parents’ record collection, and in fact, it’s easy to hear the influences that ring through this set of songs in particular. The sound is precious and postured, but always on point, indicative of the skill with which the music is so adroitly executed. Ultimately, Episodes is a wonderful discovery, and one that begs visits to Bart Davenport’s earlier efforts as well. Given the evidence offered here, it’s likely every episode deserves special scrutiny. (By Lee Zimmerman)
For more information and purchase options, please visit the Bart Davenport website
Charlotte Rose Benjamin (from the album Dreamtina available on dreamtinarecords) (by Bryant Liggett)
The debut from Charlotte Rose Benjamin is a fine mix of Indie, and not so Indie. With Dreamtina expressing just enough lo-fi for the hip and hipster record collector, and just enough sugary Pop melodies to delight the youngsters and Pop-music lovers. Charlotte Rose Benjamin conveys a solid combination of low-key angst and allure; the cool kid your parents didn’t like hanging outside of your party. She is a Pop songstress that is leaning against the wall of that Pop world, hanging back just enough to keep with the cool kids and never commit her style choice fully. Her caution is respectable.
The distorted vocals of “Hayden Panettiere” and “Louis” aid to its outsider, rough around the edges vibe. They are glorious in their lack of over-production. “Slot Machine” has a groove, a slacker bounce as Charlotte Rose Benjamin seems to sing about just kicking around with her own thoughts, admitting she’s ‘just a vegetable trying to stay alive, the line one of many in an album loaded with funny quips. “Cumbies Parking Lot” closes with wonderful, 90’s throwback alternative guitar, Benjamin has written one of those songs-of-the-summer singalong ballads in “Heatstroke Summer” while “Friend” drops references to films and actors and has wonderful laid-back, monotone harmonies.
A soundtrack to a lazy summer day of sunshine and before noon-beers, Charlotte Rose Benjamin has concocted a delightful dose of dreamy ballads, dig-it Folk-Pop, and Indie Folk Rock. (by Bryant Liggett)
For more information and purchase options, please visit the Charlotte Rose Benjamin website
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Dean Owens (from Sinners Shrine available on Eel Pie Records) (by Lee Zimmerman)
After the series of EPs that went into his Desert Trilogy outlay, Dean Owens comes full circle with Sinner’s Shrine, an album that borrows several of the trilogy’s songs and, in turn, transports him to the American Southwest where he recorded the album with the like-minded members of Arizona’s own native sons Calexico. The results are what one might expect given the input of drummer John Conventino and bassist Joey Burns, but with the mournful brass shared on “New Mexico” and the somber sentiment of “The Hopeless Ghosts” — a song Owens claims was inspired by Townes Van Zandt — he sounds as if he’s been ensconced in those high desert environs his entire life.
Not surprisingly, the melodic strains of Calexico’s latest album, El Mirador, spill over here, particularly in the slow sobering strains of “Compañera” and the high desert melancholia of “Here Comes Paul Newman” and “The Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping”, the latter two sounding like they were plucked from the soundtrack of a Sergio Leone western. Owens then proceeds south of the border with “La Lomita” and “Land of the Hummingbird”, each of which plod along at an easy tropical pace. Mexicali horns underscore the former while Gaby Moreno’s harmonies, sung in Spanish, add to the breezy ambiance of the latter. In either case, it’s easy to imagine a pair of dancers taking up a tango in response to their seductive saunter.
The rest of the album takes the same tact, from the loping Latin rhythm of “We Need Us” to the romantic sway of “Summer in Your Eyes”. Suffice it to say that if the ultimate definition of a troubadour/folk minstrel is the ability to reflect the culture in which or she is out to emulate, then Owens fits the role precisely. Ambition and intent led to a cultural crossover, and, in the end, Owens accomplished it with his credence intact. (By Lee Zimmerman)
For more information and purchase options, please visit the Dean Owens website
Karen Dalton (from the album In My Own Time (50th Anniversary Edition) available on Light in the Attic Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
One of the unsung (no pun intended) lights of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, Karen Dalton released only two studio albums in her short lifetime, passing away at the early age of 55. Karen Dalton was a singer, guitarist, and banjo player with an extraordinary Blues-soaked voice. Modern luminaries such as the wonderful Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart have latterly championed Dalton's music, and it's fantastic to see this special 50th anniversary release of Karen Dalton's In My Own Time hit the shelves via Light in the Attic Records.
With this edition we get the original album plus three alternate takes and six live recordings, four of which are taken from Karen Dalton's performances at the 1971 Montreux Golden Rose Pop Festival. The singer rarely sang her own compositions, and In My Own Time is no exception, consisting as it does of a mix of traditional songs and a variety of covers.
The set begins in captivating fashion with Dalton's interpretation of “Something On Your Mind”, a track originally penned by Dino Valenti (of Quicksilver Messenger Service). It's a fine, flowing take, with Dalton's band providing a lush, gently rocking background for the singer's unmistakable tone. For those who have yet to experience Karen Dalton – she delivers her vocals in a highly affecting, fragile-yet-strong voice, which it seems might break apart at any moment from sheer emotion.
A word on that backing group – Richard Bell (who worked extensively with Janis Joplin) provides piano while Bob Dylan band alumnus Harvey Brooks contributes bass. Add banjo virtuoso Bill Keith, Paul McCartney/Wings drummer Denny Seiwell, Electric Flag violinist Bobby Notkoff, and guitarist's guitarist Amos Garrett (cited by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, among others) and you have one hell of an outfit. Putting great players together doesn't always work, but here you can expect nothing but the best.
On the wonderful Soul standard, “When A Man Loves A Woman”, Karen Dalton's world-weary, earnestness makes for a perfect fit. Once again, the band provide first class backing, finding a territory somewhere between the folk-rock of The Band, the sophisticated pop of the The Beatles, and the slick Chicago Blues style. Horns, strings, drums, bass, and piano slip and slide in glorious fashion.
“How Sweet It Is” (written by the crack Motown team of Lamont, Dozier, Holland) skips by in a beautiful, Jazzy, shuffle. Dalton's voice here is as light, stylish, and piercing as any Miles Davis horn solo. Equally enjoyable are the instrumental passages, which glide by, cool and hot, providing plenty of foot-tapping fun.
The Band's own “In A Station” is an absolute delight, with a curiously psychedelic-sounding edge. The traditional “Same Old Man” mixes Bluegrass Folk with an ominous undercurrent to lasting effect. “Are You Leaving for the Country” makes for a lovely finale, a wistful, swaying number full of summer promise and summer pathos.
The alternate takes are interesting, if not vital. The live performances are fantastic to hear, even if the sound quality isn't quite up to scratch. Really, though, even the standard set alone would be worth the price. This is an absolutely vital album from Karen Dalton, one of the great forgotten talents.
For more information and purchase options, please visit the Light in the Attic Records website