Various Artists - Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots available on Bloodshot Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Dubbed The Second City, Chicago, Illinois should be considered first when it comes to lively music scenes, particularly when considering insurgent country, as continues to be a leader for musicians that have found a way to Punk up Classic Country. A major player in that scene is Bloodshot Records, who had a logo to match the music with a skull sporting a pompadour. The Chicago-based Indie label proudly promotes bands who find influences like Black Flag as important as Johnny Cash. Any compilation from Bloodshot Records is a who’s who of Alt Country artists to fill out a playlist. The latest is Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots, a 22-song collection of weepy ballads and twanged-up cover tunes.
Wild Earp & The Free for Alls kick off Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots with a hopefully tall tale, a sad ode to “The Last Honky-Tonk in Chicago,” where ‘all the bar flies have all been rendered homeless, all the cowboys are wandering the town’. Bloodshot Records’ Jon Langford and his band Hillbilly Lovechild lead with a classic Langford stomper in “I Am a Big Town” while Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds bring some psychedelic gutter rock to the assembled tracks with “Lay Me Down”. Robbie Fulks tosses in a twangy bluegrass ballad with “Love Ain’t Hardly Alive” as Freakwater make a minimalist heartbreaker with a cover of The Rolling Stones with “Sway” while Kelly Hogan is super sultry with the lounge-ready “Gotta Have My Baby Back.” The Handsome Family lend the album a taste of electro-goth with a take on Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”, where ambient pedal steel riffs layer over programmed drum-beats and synth-effects. The cut is an ending that fits with the overall vibe of Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots where liberties are expected and necessary as Bloodshot Records lobs curveballs as the pitch of choice. (by Bryant Liggett)
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New Riders of the Purple Sage from the album Thanksgiving in New York City available on Omnivore Recordings (by Bryant Liggett)
While many of the bands from the San Francisco Psychedelic Rock era put toes in the waters of Classic Country, the New Riders of the Purple Sage did a gainer off the high dive, going deep into the waters of a Country musical pool, becoming a poster band for burgeoning Country Rock genre of the period. The marriage of Psychedelic Rock’n’Roll to Classic Country was a parent to the West Coast branded Cosmic Country, and Thanksgiving in New York City captures a 1972 show where NRPS lasso the style with a loose, laidback performance. A live offering that makes Country fans of diehard hippies and Rock fans out of their opposite equals in legions of Country music lovers.
Purists may piss on the muted sound quality, it is easy to pick up the vibe of the twangy groove. Gene Pitney’s “Hello Mary Lou” has a Country Funk style while “She’s No Angel” has a nu-grass feel, and “Take a Letter Maria” chugs and rumbles. “Long Black Veil” is a forever haunting, “Truck Drivin’ Man” is bouncy fun, and the New Riders take on The Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” captures the Mick and Keith swagger in a number that is borderless and beautifully loose. On “Willie and the Hand Jive”, New Riders of the Purple Sage show their psychedelic selves by stretching the jam past the ten-minute mark, much of that time showcasing gutsy and rough around the edges guitar work.
Thanksgiving in New York City features guitar playing that is steeped in Blues, dirty, greasy Blues. The standout performance, however, is Buddy Cage. New Riders of the Purple Sage was Jerry Garcia’s place to play pedal steel, so Buddy Cage had celestial shoes to fill, and they are a perfect fit for his playing. The airy fills show up in all the right places while Buddy’s solos make the songs soar as the NRPS gives the tracks a country swing. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Sam Price & The True Believers from the album Dragonfly available as a self-release (by Bryant Liggett)
The latest release from Sam Price and his True Believers is a textbook template of New Orleans music. While the Crescent City claims any and all genres as its own, there is a sound that describes New Orleans. Not strictly Cajun. Not Jazz nor Blues. The heartbeat of New Orleans is a mixture of all of the above. Feel good music for a sunny day, get up and dance festival set, where a funky organ bumps up against a heavy horn section backed by a potent rhythm section that plays host to sleazy swamp rock guitar riffs.
File Dragonfly in the section. The latest release from New Orleans staple Sam Price and The True Believers, Dragonfly is upbeat dance music that runs a wide-emotional range from good time dance cuts to songs sad and contemplative. Dragonfly opens with 22-seconds of beautiful Gospel vocals in “Hope,” giving way to the keyboard funk of “Nothing but Love”. “Old Jim Crow” comes is haunted with a spooky voodoo feel; muted trumpet and sung/spoken vocals, Sam Price stating ‘Old Jim Crow, don’t you know, it’s all over now’. “God Song” is a somber gospel ballad, lyrically questioning all the bad in the world and asking a simple question of the human race… ‘can we rise above’. The instrumental “Stand Up” starts with solo bass notes before the drums pound into place, immediately kicking into a Washington DC inspired Go-Go Music beat rounded out with funky keys and guitar. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Kevin Daniel from the album Things I Don’t See available as a self-release (by Bryant Liggett)
Kevin Daniel’s musical resume stretches into an exercise in genre shifting, Bluegrass and Ska Punk, Jazz and Blues all part of his musical travels. Things I Don’t See finds the musician exploring all things roots. Backed by a kickass band capable of plugging in for electric or sitting around a camp-fire for acoustic quiet, the players dig into contemplative Folk Rock, Classic and Alt Country, jammy Blues alongside Rock’n’Roll. “City That Saves” is a laidback album opener that nods to a place that ‘gives me power in my darkest hours’. Trumpet and trombone slowly creep into the tune, delivering a New Orleans second line rhythm that perhaps is a reveal for the city that does save.
“Feeling Good” is true to its title as a feel good cut ready for festival stages while “Pour Me a Drink,’ with its sad pedal steel and dirty slide guitar riffs, and “22” with a bowed bass, lend an orchestral feel to Kevin Daniels ability to toss in heartbreaker ballads. “Xanax, Cocaine & Whiskey” collects the obvious a one statement of ‘when you put them together, you’ll forget the whole night’, the story a regretful reminiscing that is a playful, tongue-in-cheek barroom singalong. “Name of Fame” showcases Kevin Daniels Bluegrass chops, featuring beautiful vocal backing by Shannon Soderlund and hot fiddle work by Alex Hargreaves, both players shining brightly on “Time to Rise.” The album closer, “All I Need”, begins with 8 seconds of a Classic Country chug before turning into a rootsy Country Rocker in a song where Pedal Steel and six-string guitar fight to take the lead as Judd Nielsen’s organ pulls off, and provides, the star instrumental solo. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Todd Snider from the vinyl re-issue East Nashville Skyline available on Aimless Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Todd Snider is a songwriting treasure. Warts and all, his songs can be a history lesson, a self-deprecating look inward, or a sharp, poignant gaze outward. Words that inspires, critiques of the world around you that (perhaps) provide the ability to poke a little fun at yourself… or anyone within heckling distance. Todd Snider’s 2004 album East Nashville Skyline is celebrating its fifteen-year anniversary as a vinyl reissue, the release shows why Todd Snider is at the top of his game as a lyricist and storyteller. “Age Like Wine” kicks things off East Nashville Skyline with Todd Snider voicing an ache that carries itself from the tracks beginning to end as the singer contemplates aging in his world of ‘beer joints and concert halls’.
Todd Snider tells a tale of getting your ass kicked by the law with some humor in “Tillamook County Jail,” offers history lessons in the Crazy Horse sounding “Alcohol and Pills” and “The Ballad of the Kingsmen” while he delivers solid covers of Fred Eaglesmith’s “Play a Train Song” and Billy Joe Shavers’ “Good News Blues”. The story on “Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican Straight White American Male” appears more powerful than in its original telling fifteen years back. Todd Snider leaves the folk-singer label behind on the hyper-punky “Incarcerated” while bringing out some Jerry-Lee Lewis Rock’n’Roll boogie on “Nashville.” Never one to shy away from a good-time, Todd Snider closes East Nashville Skyline with a tender and quiet singalong-inducing version of Carl Sigman and Herb Magidson’s 1949 hit “Enjoy Yourself”. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Joe Henry from the album The World According to Water available on earMUSIC (by Bryant Liggett)
Musicians often may take the approach to treat each record like it could be your last. That could have been in the mind of singer-songwriter and Grammy winning producer Joe Henry, whose latest release The Gospel According to Water came via a burst of songwriting following the November 2018 news of his prostate cancer. We should all be so bold when faced with such tragedy; get to work, write songs, and find some time to make an album to leave as a last hoorah. Joe Henry isn’t obsessing on dark goodbyes nor making a statement to end a steady career; he has made an album of ambiguous stories acted out on dimly lit stages, dilapidated homes filled with hopeful lovers. Dark at initial listens, the beauty of The Gospel According to Water is in its simplicity; quietly plucked guitar, ambient touches of a clarinet or saxophone here and there, and distant drum beats.
The stories of The Gospel According to Water remain quite mysterious over subtle instrumentation; the clarinet frolicing over bluesy acoustics in “Mule” while “Orson Welles” inspires as a song of acceptance and meeting someone in the middle, asking them to ‘provide the terms of my surrender, then I’ll provide the war’ while quiet saxophone breaths playing the instrument as audible than the notes being played. “Bloom” sings of taking ownership of everything, as ‘treachery and love are ours to keep for all their worth’ while Joe Henry sings of partnership and acceptance in “Salt and Sugar.” The tone remains the same from start to finish, the tales left open to your own interpretations. The beauty of The Gospel According to water lies in the mysteries Joe Henry has created. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits – Various Artists from the album Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits available on Dualtone Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Tom Waits may find a new audience thanks to the women paying tribute to the man by covering his songs with Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits. Most won’t argue Waits’ songwriting prowess and musical contributions of the last four decades, his limits for his own recordings is the delivery in a gruff, gravelly, drunken growl of a voice. His songs have become major hits a cover tunes for other artists, proving how his music lasts, standing the tests of time. The twelve cuts covered by the ladies on Come on Up To My House: Women Sing Waits are given life via a sweet dose of seventies AM-Gold in the recordings.
Audiences were treated to the female treatment of “Hold On” when it was sung by a character in the television show The Walking Dead, Aimee Mann’s take turns the tune into a sparkling sad gem. “Ol’ 55” may be a forgotten as being penned by Tom Waits tune thanks to ownership that the Eagles placed on the track while “Jersey Girl” gets Bruce Springsteen seems to have sprung directly from The Boss’ bloodline. For Come on Up to the House, “Ol 55” features a remake with beautiful harmonies by Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer while “Jersey Girl” by Corinne Bailey-Rae becomes a dreamy lullabye. “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” is an ethereal cut with Kat Edmonson sounding like she’s stepping in from 1948 and “House Where Nobody Lives,” already the saddest song of the bunch in title alone, is a full-blown drama as an Iris Dement weeper. Tom Waits’ work has always been theatrically dramatic. Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits, which also includes contributions from Rosanne Cash, Patty Griffin and The Wild Reeds among others, shines a new light on Waits timeless work. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Fastball from the album The Help Machine available on 33 1/3 Records (by Bryant Liggett)
Fastball is one of those bands that sound similar to many other bands while still managing to sound like no one else but Fastball. Muses have helped pearls of audio wisdom creep into writing and rehearsal sessions of Fastball, influential whispers of art and Roots Rock accentuated with big doses of Power Pop.
The latest from Fastball is The Help Machine, a solid and on-point dose from the Austin, Texas-based power trio. Fastball are a band with two songwriters and co-frontmen in Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga, who along with drummer Joey Shuffield have had no shifting roles nor come and go members since forming in 1995.
‘You and I will never know which way the wind is gonna blow’ is the infectious line in “Friend or Foe,” the psych-pop opener for The Help Machine. “White Collar” is a funny look at the West Coast’s upper-middle class, victims of a ‘sunshine overdose’ living for the weekend to be the ‘grand wizard of the weenie roast’. “Holding the Devils Hand” is experimental indie-rock with breaks of prog-Jazz while “Redeemed” is an aggressive gospel number. Big and catchy, “The Girl You Pretended to Be” and “Doesn’t It Make You Feel Small” are beautiful throwbacks to the blurred lines where punk and new-wave danced with traditional Rock’n’Roll. Fastball close The Help Machine with “Never Say Never”, a folk ballad that features Spanish guitar. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Big Band of Brothers (from the album A Jazz Celebration of the Allman Brothers Band available on New West Records)
The Allman Brothers deserve props across the board. Whether tributes come via Bluegrass, Jazz, or Rock’n’Roll records delivering accolades, The Allmans remain a band with an extraordinary contribution to the musical canon. Rounding up over a dozen Jazz musicians hellbent on beefing up Allman Brothers tunes with big band horn sections while giving the rhythms a Jazz groove was the plan that became Big Band of Brothers and the recent release, A Jazz Celebration of The Allman Brothers Band. “Statesboro Blues” kicks the record off with loose piano, a Jazz riff until the horns kick in right alongside the slide guitar intro. Featuring Marc Broussard on vocals, Big Band of Brothers play it straight with heavy horns trading off runs with the guitar licks. Ruthie Foster jumps in on “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’”. “Hot ‘Lanta” is a Hammond-heavy, grandiose jam, while “Whipping Post,” with its familiar dirty riff, has horns that come on like a heavyweight punch while “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” comes in at a short and succinct seven minutes, the guitar solo creating a prog-rock vibe.
Big Band of Brothers have done it right on A Jazz Celebration of The Allman Brothers Band, keeping just the right amount of guitar because what is any Allman Brothers tune without guitar? Where the Band of Brothers leans back on guitar they lay heavy on the horns, and they’ve done the songs right enough that any Allman Brothers fan would say it’s all okay.
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The Mavericks (from the album Play the Hits available on Mondo Mundo Recordings)
The Mavericks have a sly fashion sense and the Miami, Florida-based band always keep style front and center. Given their ability to dress bright the transition is simple, The Mavericks becoming a jukebox spinning the top tunes from decades past in the world of honky tonks with their recent release, Playing the Hits. Starting the song cycle, Playing the Hits takes a track from the top of the charts, its first cut “Swingin’” a John Anderson #1 from January 1983. While living its life as a minor hit, The Mavericks softly deliver a slow dance with the Patsy Cline track “Why Can’t She Be You” while Playing the Hits puts a Latin rhythm underneath Patty Loveless’ “Blame It on Your Heart”, soaks Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” in Saturday night horns, and puts a border beat into Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel”.
Though many covered “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”, it was the Freddie Fender’s version that found the #1 spot, The Mavericks tenderly honoring the tune with their re-imagining while Playing the Hits retells of Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” remaining subtle in its quiet guitar notes as Raul Malo’s stunning vocal stops the world spinning for 3:59. A fat saxophone note beckons, holding out a hand in “Once Upon a Time” when Martina McBride joins The Mavericks while Bruce Springsteen takes his place in spirit next to the boys in the band’s version of his tune “Hungry Heart” as Playing the Hits makes its exit with “I’m Leaving It All Up to You”, originally brought to the #1 spot on the charts in 1963 by duo Dale and Grace, later taken to the top five by Donnie and Marie (1974).
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