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Rayland Baxter – Imaginary Man

Some roots rock performers go far out of their way to convince you of their down-home bona fides, but Rayland Baxter‘s music sounds as easily and unaffectedly Southern as a glass of sweet iced tea enjoyed on the back porch on a warm and slightly humid day. There’s not a lot of twang in Baxter‘s music (or his voice), but his melodies and arrangements are evocative in the manner of a good novel, painting a vivid portrait of time and place, and there’s a laid-back but emotionally powerful vibe to his lyrics and vocals that’s smart but unpretentious, and generates a sense of drama that feels low key on the surface, but inside is as potent as vintage Tennessee Williams. Rayland Baxter‘s second album, 2015’s Imaginary Man, shows he’s not afraid of being a grand-scale romantic, portraying himself as a regretful heartbreaker on “Yellow Eyes,” painting regret in several different colors in “Mother Mother,” and opening up his heart on “Rugged Lovers” and “All in My Head.” Baxter‘s songs are supported by concise but colorful arrangements (with thoughtful string charts and occasional pedal steel work from Rayland‘s father, Bucky Baxter) that make clever use of echo and reverb to give the performances a rich, powerful sound that makes their case without weighing down the music. And if Baxter isn’t quite the virtuoso as he is a singer, he knows instinctively how to tell his stories and make his characters seem real and compelling. Imaginary Man presents Baxter and his material in a manner that’s vividly passionate and a little swampy while avoiding cliches as he offers these sketches on life and love in the American South; it’s a big step forward for Baxter, and will hopefully help him gain the audience he deserves.

 

Sledding With Tigers – Come on and Slam

To date, it has been retweeted 1,084 and the band has made good on their promise. They are releasing Come On and Slam, a seven-track concept album based on the Bill Murray/Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny classic. Man, the internet is an extremely powerful tool for either good or evil. Be careful what you do with it! Anyway, since this premise is ridiculous enough, let’s let Sledding with Tigers’ Dan Faughdner explain it:
“Halfway through this process, I think I really started to regret ever telling anyone that I would write an entire concept album about Space Jam, but now, I’m actually pretty stoked on it. I think I might be the only person self-centered enough to take the plot of a 90s children’s movie, and end up writing a bunch of songs that are secretly about myself. I really hope people like it, but the most important part is that my friends and I had a ton of fun making it.”
Well, folks, here’s your chance, do your dance, to this album about Space Jam. Listen to the song “Take It from Me, Michael Jordan.”

Pharis & Jason Romero – A Wanderer I’ll Stay

 

Haunting harmonies, deep truths
From my first ever listen of Pharis and Jason Romero it was evident to me that these were two extremely talented Americana artists. They sound like they could have been performing music literally at any point in the past century. The duo preserve the authenticity of the mountains, the sincerity of the olden days, and a kind of soothing harmony that is rarely found in any music, let alone such a vintage style. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is a fantastic album that avid readers of this blog will be thrilled to have.
The eponymous opener introduces listeners to the haunting harmonies of Pharis and Jason. There are well placed minor chords, creating just the right kind of tension. It’s not the kind of song we’d expect to hear on the top forty and that’s precisely what makes it great. “There’s time, honey.” It’s a song that highlights melancholy and simplicity; it’s about a lifestyle that rejects the ordinary and the hustle. It’s a wonderful way to begin the album.
“Ballad of Old Bill” has some great picking and engaging lyrics. It’s about how the world is “wicked’ when you’re alone. It’s also about trying to endure the difficulties of life by riding on. It has that quintessential Americana theme work about life retrospectives that tell a moral story. The song’s underlying lesson seems to be that life is hard. It’s definitely not uplifting, but it is a good song.
“There’s No Companion” has a different feel to it. Rather than seeming like a throwback, it seems like an update on an old fashioned style. The well-placed fiddle highlights serve to make the track have a bright coloring. The syncopated rhythm gives the listener a gentle sway at minimum and might just get some folks to dancing. In contrast to the preceding song, this one uses a generous sampling of “joy” and harmonies to provide a delightfully hopeful tune.
“New Lonesome Blues” are almost atmospheric in the way they hum along. It’s not a conventional blues song for sure. It looms with the brooding fear of “that judgement day” as one of the lyrics alludes. Sticking with the lonesomeness theme, the following track “Lonesome and I’m Going Back Home” has a totally different feel. It’s much more of classic Americana, with Pharis’s lead vocal absolutely stunning the listener. The harmonies from Jason in the second half of the song are just exquisite. It’s a timeless song about poverty and loss that just might be the best track on a really, really good album.
“Goodbye Old Paint” highlights the banjo from the very start. It’s a wonderfully rolling tune. It almost feels like plodding along on a horse. It’s a travelling song about “leaving Cheyenne.” The song has a genuine western appeal to it. It’s not just about a horse, though. It’s about freedom and love and commitment. What makes it work the most is that the song is old fashioned, but still feels really fresh. It’s definitely new and unique, even if it’s a tradition that is many decades old.
The moral high ground of “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” is not all that high. Listeners can tell from the playful melody at the outset. The steel guitar does great work to introduce the gorgeous harmonies about love. “Be sure it’s true when you say I love you. It’s a sin to tell a lie.” It’s quaint. It’s the kind of song you can picture the residents at the old folks home tapping their feet to. I say that with utmost respect to the song itself, too. It sounds like it could be a song straight from the 40s or early 50s… you know the type your grandma thinks you should know too, even though it was decades before you were born. It’s sweet-as-honey Americana.

<a href=”http://pharisjasonromero.bandcamp.com/album/a-wanderer-ill-stay”>A Wanderer I’ll Stay by Pharis & Jason Romero</a>

“Poor Boy” is as rough as some of the other tracks are smooth. That isn’t to say there’s anything wrong about the performance, but rather the character of the song has a coarseness to it. It’s about empathy to an extent, but it’s also about hard work and calloused hands. It’s a front porch tune, for sure. “Cocaine Blues” is a bit unexpected on this album. It’s not that country folk don’t do drugs; of course they do. But it’s surprising to have this sort of O’ Brother Where Art Thou timeless charm with lyrics about, essentially, buying drugs.
The final track “The Dying Soldier” is an old classic tune, given phenomenal and vibrant new life here. In fact, it really challenges for the best song on the album. It has this brilliant confluence of love and life intersecting with pending death. Beyond that, the steady banjo and again the incredible harmonies make the song really thoughtful and emotional. It’s an exceptional way to end the album.
This is a must-buy album for fans of Americana. From clever, well-composed originals to a few classic tunes, it’s the kind of album you can easily put on and enjoy without skips. It’s solidly in a musical tradition of Ameriana and roots country music, but it is extremely well polished. It is a product of two exceptional musicians with a real heart and passion for storytelling and breathtaking harmonies.

Sam Lewis – Waiting On You

The first line of this album’s first song, an easy country rocker called “3/4 Time,” goes like this: “It’s the same old story, the same old song and dance.” Not great poetry that. But critics who would make such heavy artillery of such small ammunition belong not in the brotherhood of judges, for they will have missed the point. Lewis’ stock and trade is slipping into these simple expressions with the kind of ease one slips into a pair of 15-year old cowboy boots. He does it with a richly interesting voice, one that oscillates between the clean-cut, white hat cowboy sound of Charley Pride and the pre-disco swagger of Boz Scaggs (though he, himself, has the post-modern hippie look of a Berkeley bistro owner). As Lewis’ voice slips into its cowboy boots, his crackerjack band of A-list Music City sessioneers like guitarist Will Kimbrough slip into the groove with equal assurance, akin to a pair of 5-year-old Levis to go with those well-aged Tony Lamas.
The result is a record that’s really quite good, a studious blend of modern Americana and Memphis soul (that, by the way, becomes more lyrically catchy as time goes on).  The aforementioned “3/4 Time” picks up energy with the first chorus, thanks to Kimbrough, who contributes some nice slide lines on the Telecaster and Lewis himself, who supplies some slick “oom-bop-bop” harmonies a la The Jordanaires. Lewis lights gently in the land of early Boz Scaggs on “Love Me Again,” tapping the fabulous McCrary Sisters for the harmonies, Gabe Dixon for a whirl on the Wurlitzer and Kimbrough again for some tasteful Telecaster touches.
Lewis opens the title cut with a nice sentiment, confessing he’s “Waiting for the time it takes to wait on you, thinking of all the things (he wants to) do.” The arrangement here is near perfect, once again opening the soundscape to simple dashes of Dixon’s electric piano and a bit of gospel humming from the sisters. “Maybe I’m just fishing in the ocean,” he concludes, saying “I’ll keep catching and releasing until I find you.”
Lewis and company play straight from the three-chord, slow blues songbook on “She’s A Friend,” then gratefully amp up the tempo a little on bluesy shuffle of “Things Will Never Be The Same.” Whether or not they truly reinvent the bues on the Monday-to-Sunday shuffle of “Reinvent The Blues” could be debated, but there’s no question Sam and his band own every bit of this tune (with Lewis reprising his Jordanaires act once again).
“I thought I’d see you one more time before never again,” he sings with James Taylor vulnerability on “Never Again,” with Kristina Train and Darrell Scott providing gorgeous harmonies and pedal steel. The ever-permeating influence of Townes Van Zant comes home to roost on “Texas”; “Little Time” is a clever bit of backbeat country.
By the time he closes the record with the gentle ballad “I’m Coming Home,” Lewis has made a solid statement: that this Nashville transplant has something to say and the skills to say it well.

Anderson East – Delilah

The trouble with blue-eyed soul singers, especially in the 21st century, is they usually seem convinced that in order to prove they’re worthy of singing R&B in the classic style, they have to try three times as hard as the folks who inspired them, and as a consequence they sound histrionic and over the top rather than honest and passionate. Thankfully, Anderson East (aka Mike Anderson) is smarter than that; on his 2015 album Delilah, the man clearly knows that dynamics are his friend, and in the manner of Joe South and Tony Joe White, he’s embraced the great Southern tradition of sounding committed and laid-back at the same time, an excellent fit for his rough but sweet vocal timbre. Delilah was produced by Dave Cobb, on a run after helping Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell make career-defining albums, and he’s done a splendid job with East on Delilah, setting him up with a studio band whose slightly swampy groove evokes the sound of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section or the Fame Recording Studios crew, steeped in the traditions of vintage soul but sounding tight and aware of the notions of the present day. As a songwriter, East reveals himself as a good but not great talent on Delilah; most of these tunes sound like the work of a guy who loves Southern soul of the ’60s and knows how to emulate the sound, but the finished product suggests the songs were sometimes built from a kit providing the requisite melodic tricks and lyrical tropes rather than drawing from his heart, soul, and inspiration (there’s a reason why his cover of George Jackson‘s “Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em and Forget ‘Em” is a standout here). But if East tends to follow a template as a writer, the work is good despite the familiar building blocks, and when he sings, it’s easy to forgive his minor flaws as a tunesmith. East is clearly a talent to watch, and if you’re looking for retro-soul with a smoky Southern flair, Delilah is well worth your time and attention.