The Lied To’s (from the album The Lesser of Two Evils)
When Boston, Massachusetts-based duo The Lied To’s looked around for stories to fill their second album release, The Lesser of Two Evils, the state of the world passed plenty of notes as fodder to tell the tales of perilous times. A weariness carries its weight through “Windtalker” as The Lied To’s envision a bloodline connection wrapping around the globe in “Diamond Rain”, scratch out a train-track beat to spit out harsh realities for “Cruel World”, and toss out troublesome wishes on “One String”. The secret to life is told a series of bullet points in the title track as “The Lesser of Two Evils” puts the crossroads under a microscope, The Lied To’s examining the space between the what-is and what-if’s.
Susan Levine and Doug Kwartler (The Lied To’s) met at a Folk festival as they were both finding their way out of bitter divorces and the emotional/financial wreckage left behind. First working as musical partners, they soon went beyond the stage as The Lied To’s became full-time partners in life, both bringing two kids each into the new family. Music was a starting point that brought The Lied To’s together, and the pair continue to balance and juggle family with career, borrowing freely from family life for the stories in songs, knowing that ‘like everyone else is feeling right now, except maybe the 1%, you just go about your day looking straight ahead trying to get things done. You work, pay bills, take care of your kids, have a relationship, and deal with your past…oh, and we also try to make music. The new record covers all that. While the songs are not purely autobiographical, the emotional truths definitely come from everything we've been through’. Refugees make their way across The Lesser of Two Evils, the story the same in the front seat with the couple heading to “Buffalo” as with the displaced lives in Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”. Optimism rises from the darkness on the album as The Lied To’s give it one more try for hopes with “Wishes” and find the answer is belief to the question of “What Keeps Us in This World”.
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The Pinkerton Raid (from the album Where the Wildest Spirits Fly)
Over an ever-rolling rhythm, The Pinkerton Raid offer an invitation with “Thin Place”, the story namechecking the title of their recent release, Where the Wildest Spirits Fly. The track showcases the distinctions The Pinkerton Raid use for separation of words and music. The tales on Where the Wildest Spirits Fly are short stories, the playing becoming the foundation that allows the characters to stand tall as “The House of Green” tells its history over African rock’n’roll rhythms. The Pinkerton Raid head north from their Durham, North Carolina-base to north of Boston, Mass to visit “The Boys of Lowell”, questioning modern America as a whole in “These Colors Don’t Run” and speaking to their own southern neighbors about letting go of the past with “Jefferson Davis Highway”.
Within the individual stories on Where the Wildest Spirits Fly is an emotional theme, the album relating vignettes that search for meaning in the length of a song. On album number four, The Pinkerton Raid celebrate the human race as one community, drawn together whether the back story is in an Indiana cornfield (“Windmills in the Fog”), toasting the art of giving with a beer garden beat (“Sweet Pitchers of Mercy”), or floating “Stella Maris” on rhythmic waves of guitar notes and percussion. Where the Wildest Spirits Fly makes a complete circle around the sun as The Pinkerton Raid look skyward to watch revolutionary freedom get lost in orbit on the opening cut “Meteors” and remember the place where the heart stops, closing out the album with “Home”.
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Mike Zito (from the album First Class Life available on Ruf Records)
Tattooed on his knuckles, the word ‘Blues’ is just one reminder that Mike Zito has made the right choices. Another indicator is the First Class Life Mike Zito owns, and uses as title for his recent album release. The title track is a rowdy Country Blues romp through the equally bumpy early life of Mike Zito, the tune smoothly transitioning from time in addiction to success stories. From a safe spot in the present, First Class Life looks back to the struggles that led Mike Zito to grab at the golden ring of sobriety. The weight of responsibility is the “Back Problem” that plagues Mike Zito as he draws a dividing line in love with “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me)”, feels the weight again as “The World We Live In” slowly trudges on heavy Blues, and puts a boogie under the ways he is “Trying to Make a Living”.
The gratitude that Mike Zito has for the course his life has taken can be felt in the electrified guitar licks and sweet vocals that slide through “Mississippi Nights”. Promises broken (“Damn Shame”) and promises made (“Dying Day”) leapfrog across First Class Life as Mike Zito stitches a Koko Taylor rule about no-guitar-effects into “Mama Don’t Like No Wah-Wah”.
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Mark Huff (from the album Stars for Eyes)
The sonic touches added to the songs on Stars for Eyes take the tunes on the recent release from Mark Huff skyward. A conversational tone to the vocal delivery grounds the stories on Stars for Eyes as the title track sparkles with twinkling note patterns while breaths of beats put a chugging rhythm underneath “Albatross”, life continues as love slows the emotional blood flow in “Heart Beating Without You”, and the groove becomes a series of pecks and jabs in “Burning Letters”. The recording process for Stars for Eyes saw Mark Huff rip out the edit button when the Nashville, Tennessee-based songwriter let the instrumentation carve out its own spot around each song providing a more cinemascopic backdrop for his stories.
His personal life affected the mood on Stars for Eyes, Mark Huff recalling that ‘when I was writing many of these songs, I’d also been in a relationship—and clearly I did not get the girl, so that affected by perspective. And I knew that since I was ready to really get personal with these songs, I didn’t want it to be a typical Nashville sounding album, so I decided to work with Chad (producer Chad Brown) and to get a diverse group of musicians who could play deeply rooted music with an ambient sonic approach’. Soft rounded rolling chords of rhythm revolve around Mark Huff as he pours his heart out for “Carolina Blue”. A starkness immediately invades “I Know You Don’t Want My Love” as ambient guitar electrics flicker while Stars for Eyes lets percussion take the lead for the jazzy solemnness of “Almost Like the Blues” and makes use of a rock’n’roll beat to kick down “Prison Door” as Mark Huff asks “Nightingale” to sing its tale on a Country romp.
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Cicada Rhythm (from the album Everywhere I Go available on New West Records)
Summer is here and the time is right for rolling down the car/van windows and hitting the highway as Cicada Rhythm suggest and prime the pump on “America’s Open Road”, the opening cut on their latest album release, Everywhere I Go. The beat is a blast of sunshine, and while the moods of the stories shift between longing (“Roses by My Side”) and reverie (“Dream Alone”) as the rhythms ride a snarling groove (“Do I Deserve It Yet?”) and kick up some Country dust (“Out Alive”), the harmony and melodies of Cicada Rhythm keep optimism and possibilities within reach.
Born and raised in Georgia, Cicada Rhythm found footing in the Indie dive bars of Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. Intricate playing and graceful delivery back the decision of Cicada Rhythm to modernize Folk music. Strings circle and weave through “Even in the Shallows” as the track grows from Folk Rock with an orchestrated swell while idyllic rhythms play a musical march as 1930’s-era Blues siren vocals sing a sad song with “As the Dogwood Dies”. Everywhere I Go sways gently as it lets the story of “Kaleidoscopic Rose” open to greet the world as Cicada Rhythm stomp and holler in “Shake Up” before waving goodbye to the album, exiting on the universal understanding of common goals found in “Back Home”.
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Mike and The Moonpies (from the album Steak Night at the Prairie Rose)
The neon sign blinks Steak Night at the Prairie Rose on the cover as the title for the recent release from Mike and The Moonpies, the song and the story a page ripped from the life of Mike (Harmeier). The Prairie Rose, particularly the once-a-week steak night, was where a younger version of the man fronting The Moonpies had his first gig at fourteen years-old. The memory is wistful, the honesty thick as the cut of beef served up for the dinners. Steak Night at the Prairie Rose showcases the band’s ability to wrap Texas Country chords around the styles they stretch across their honky tonk nature, opening “The Last Time” guided by the perfectly-rounded bubble notes of a Wurlitzer organ as they paste song titles into lyrics for “Wedding Band”, and wrangle guitar licks into line as they cruise through Louisiana into Mississippi to visit “Beaches of Biloxi”.
Steak Night at the Prairie Rose opens its doors with the first cut high-fiving the team hauling the gear with “Road Crew” as Mike and The Moonpies recount tour stories and questionable decisions in “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be”, wrestle with lead guitar riffs as the wriggle through “Might Be Wrong”, and decorate their house with honky tonk humor for “Getting’ High at Home”. Recorded at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas with producer Adam Odor, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose expands the borders of Country music while curating its traditions of representing the lives of Country music fans. Mike and the Moonpies set the stage on fire as they wrap up their set, exiting Steak Night at the Prairie Rose with “We’re Gone”.
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Mandy Rowden (from the album When That Day Comes)
The album title of When That Day Comes is appropriate for the recent Mandy Rowden release. While in college, Mandy was introduced to Americana music, and when that particular day came, Mandy Rowden heard her calling. While that is not necessarily a unique story, for Mandy Rowden, her earlier life shows that little step as a big leap. Born into a fundamentalist Baptist household in East Texas, her musical intake consisted of gospel and classical music. Adhering to the strict borders of her family, classical violin and piano lessons began at six years-old. On a marching rhythm, Mandy Rowden opens When That Day Comes with the title track as the first cut, using the story to erase wrongs as she trudges towards a new day. In her own life, hearing Americana music set her free, walking away from the classical music scene to find her voice in Roots music.
A soft Country sway finds Mandy Rowden far from home as she tries her hardest to blur the past with “Pedal Upon Metal”. When That Day Comes quiets to a rhythmic rumble for the tale in “A Chance to Give You Love”, questions “Ana Maria” about her heart on a stop/start beat, picks out notes for the acoustic ramble of “Lucy’s Song”, and admits “Bad Things Happen” on a quick-feet waltz. Mandy Rowden captures reverie as she pulls into “San Antonio”, using holiday travel to map out “Christmas in Durango”, and whispers a Tex-Mex melody for the border tale of “Pecosita” as When That Day Comes offers a tribute for a fellow musician in “Angel Dream #2”.
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Sparrow Blue (from the album Rabbit in the Moon)
One fiddle, one guitar, and two voices form Sparrow Blue. The Massachsetts-based duo (Katy Boc, Todd Nickerson) gather a batch of tunes for the recent release, Rabbit in the Moon, ordering a double from the bartender to make a blur of the neon and dull good decisions long enough to enjoy the honky tonk waltz in “Bottom of a Bottle”. The fiddle sets the pace as the instrumental title track scampers and scurries while Sparrow Blue make their own way over “Hudson” as they shift gears on a drive to find love in Pennsylvania, pick out a workers tune on a Cajun rhythm for “Two Steppin’”, and make a bet to turn luck around in “Las Vegas”.
Meeting in 2014, Katy and Todd began writing songs together, going on to perform on stage, balancing recording and performing with a home life that includes five kids and multiple pets. Rabbit in the Moon begins its journey high-stepping as opening cut “Hey Baby Blues” propels forward. The rhythm stays in motion to cruise through “Another Day Older” looking for some cash to hold on to as Sparrow Blue pick out notes for a rain dance to return “Black-Eyed Susan” back to their door and darken the melody and the mood with “Rocks and Snow”.
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American Aquarium (from the album Things Change available on New West Records) by Bryant Liggett
Tell it like it is. The lyrical narrative within rock music seems to work best when said narrative brings a rough around the edges and blue collar story, often delivered like a gut-punch. B.J. Barham has always been a tell it like it is musician, a southern musician ready to buck his surroundings and swim upstream. The vehicle for his song-writing has been American Aquarium, a celebrated roots-rock band recently reinvented with all new players except Barham, acknowledging “Things Change” on every level including album title.
It’s a record built on apologies and revelation, regretful reflection, and calling out topical political nonsense. “This isn’t the country my grandfather fought for” resonates, a line in the opener of “The World is on Fire” that shows where Barham stands on current issues.
Three songs in and “Tough Folks” is a driving number that boasts family pride while questioning political promises and reminding us that life isn’t fair.
The title track in “Things Change” offers up some relationship reflection. “Shadows of You” proves Barham has done his John Prine homework, brutally and beautifully bringing up that time your heart was ripped out and handed back to you. There’s a lot of lament, a lot of knowing Jameson isn’t good for you but it’s still so good, and a big dose of political and personal questioning. Barham calls it like he sees it, even penning the hooky “Work Conquers All” in honor of the state they chose to record this record. It’s less lyrical story-telling, more lyrical observation and at times confession. Often the best narratives are the ones that aim right between the eyes, leaving the lyrical ambiguity behind to give it to you straight.
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Low Cut Connie (from the album Dirty Pictures, Vol 2)
Low Cut Connie traveled south from their Philadelphia, Pennsylavania base to record album number four, Dirty Pictures, Vol 1, at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Low Cut Connie stick with a good sound, recording their latest release, Dirty Pictures, Vol 2, in Memphis at Ardent once again. Since forming in 2010, Low Cut Connie have been on a rock’n’soul mission, the piano-fronted band (Adam Wiener-player, Shondra-piano) have curated the sonic passion of 1950’s/1960’s rock’n’roll, going towards the edges of the sound with feral attack melodies and a don’t-fuck-with-me beat. Dirty Pictures, Vol 2 stages the same raw approach Low Cut Connie developed as a brand, while offering each song with a defined connection to harder-edged performances of the past. The album opens on a distorted beat that claims “All These Kids are Way Too High”, stomping out a groove with a rigid chord pound in “Hey! Little Child” while the rhythms wriggle and squirm as a goodbye note is hammered into “Master Tapes”.
The songs of Low Cut Connie are museum pieces. Living and breathing soundbites that resonate with the first notes of rock’n’roll, representing without replicating the untamed music delivered by artists such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. A sound dangerous simply because it felt scary. The stories are not pretty, Dirty Pictures, Vol 2 making one last attempt to hold “Beverly” close before she drifts away forever while “Hollywood” looks at the flipside of glitz and glamour as “Oh Suzanne” bangs out a farewell. Doo Wop harmonies back Low Cut Connie as the band bares its heart for a spotlight slow dance in “Every Time You Time Around” as Low Cut Connie make sure the message is clear in “Please Do Not Come Home”. Rock’n’Roll changed the world, Low Cut Connie remind us of what that sounded like.
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