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The Wood Brothers – Paradise

 

Recorded at Black Keys guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach‘s East Eye Sound Studios in Nashville, Paradise, the Wood Brothers‘ Honey Jar Records-issued fifth studio long-player and follow-up to 2013’s The Muse, is their first outing to be written by all three members of the trio, Oliver Wood, Chris Wood, and Jano Rix. It’s also the first set of recordings from the group to feature bassist Chris Wood swapping out his upright for an electric four-string, but plugging in has done little to dampen the trio’s penchant for crafting experimental yet always emotionally resonant slabs of funk-tinged folk and jazz-inflected Americana blues.

Leftover Salmon – Aquatic Hitchhiker

Eight years is a long time to wait for a new helping of Cajun-infused bluegrass poly-funk, but it was definitely worth the wait.  Aquatic Hitchhiker, Colorado jam legends Leftover Salmon’s new studio release, delivers with an album that defies genres.  Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt started the group with banjo master Mark Vann more than twenty years ago, and after Vann’s passing from cancer in 2002 they tried press on, but went on a hiatus in 2004, much to the dismay of their fans.  They reunited a few times, including six performances in 2007 and a smattering of shows since, periodically delighting supporters with their signature high-energy performances.  Since then, young banjo picking virtuoso Andy Thorn, winner of the coveted Rockygrass banjo and band contest in 2003, has joined forces with Hermann and Emmitt and brought new energy to the band not seen since Vann’s passing.
Aquatic Hitchhiker opens with a Cajun inspired nod to the Gulf oil spill with the song “Gulf of Mexico.” With a funky backbeat , some impressive mandolin and keyboard work, and lyrics that complement the composure well, “Things a little different round here these days.  Since the storm and the spill drove everybody away”- it’s pure Salmon.  The title track “Aquatic Hitchhiker” starts soft and slow, then explodes into a mad picking fest with a driving beat reminiscent of old-school bluegrass.  Thorn really flexes his musical muscles, trading banjo licks with Emmit on the fiddle.  The song “Bayou Town” reflects Leftover Salmon’s dexterity, with a swinging old time country-waltz style twang, and “Kentucky Skies” is sure to be a crowd favorite – because what Leftover Salmon fan wouldn’t appreciate a tune about moonshine, Bill Monroe, bluegrass festivals and playing guitar around a campfire under the night sky?
Not that every song on the album is pure Leftover Salmon “poly-ethnic Cajun slam-grass.”  “Light Behind the Rain” is a lyrically rich ballad written by Andy Thorn and Benny Galloway, who also wrote all of the tracks on Yonder Mountain String Band’s 2003 progressive bluegrass release Old Hands. The song “Here Comes the Night” also deviates from Salmon’s norm, sounding like a 70’s pop song with the band trading guitar chords for furious picking, but it grows on you after you hear it a few times.
Acquatic Hitchhiker, which was produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, is a well put-together studio effort from a band known for their amazing, high energy live shows.  Although LoS is known as a jam band, they defy genres and their energy and passion shines through on this twelve track offering.  They deliver an impressive set of funk, rock, country, folk, jazz, and of course, they didn’t forget the ardent fans of the good old-fashioned ”poly-ethnic Cajun slamgrass” that only Leftover Salmon can deliver.

Greensky Bluegrass – If Sorrows Swim

Michigan’s perennial string band Greensky Bluegrass deliver the follow-up to their breakthrough 2011 album Handguns with the equally robust If Sorrows Swim. In the three years since Handguns hit number three on Billboard’s bluegrass chart, the progressive Kalamazoo quintet have honed their distinct style which blends the earthy warmth of traditional bluegrass styles with a more muscular, darkly hued rock tone. The fifth studio album in their 14-career, If Sorrows Swim contains contributions from dueling songwriters, mandolinist Paul Hoffman and guitarist Dave Bruzza, whose differing styles create a complementary whole that is a major part of the band’s identity. Full of the top-notch playing fans have come to expect, it’s an album grounded in the lonesome rural sound, but with plenty of punch and immediacy.

The Travelin’ McCourys and Keller Williams – Pick

I’m not a big Keller Williams fan. With his reliance on electronic looping and hokey humor, he’s an acquired taste that I haven’t quite acquired.
On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Del McCoury’s band, both when they play behind the best hair in bluegrass and when they’re out on their own as The Travelin’ McCourys.
So I had mixed feelings before listening to Pick, the new release by Keller Williams and The Traveling McCourys on SCI Fidelity.
But after numerous listens, I can tell you this: It works. And the reason it works is the masterful picking of Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Rob McCoury on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass.
These guys are solidly grounded in bluegrass but not afraid to jump into the deep end and try something risky.
Williams’ songs are paired here with some tunes the McCourys have been playing for a long time and one new one penned by Bartram. The result is an exercise in fun and proof that bluegrass instruments played masterfully can bring a jolt of energy and excitement.
Highpoints on Pick are The Graveyard Shift, What a Waste and Bumper Sticker. Fans of the McCourys will recognize The Graveyard Shift because Ronnie McCoury has been singing it for years and the band first did it with Steve Earle. And Bumper Sticker, written by Williams, pays homage to bluegrassers who weren’t afraid to test the boundaries of the genre at times, including John Duffey and Del McCoury, who makes a guest vocal appearance to wind up the song and the CD.
But one of the best marriages since peanut butter and chocolate is on What a Waste. The song has everything: a lover pining for his girl who died too soon, moonshine, a bit of religion and humor. It’s a song the boys had performed with Del before they met up with Williams, and is a perfect fit here. It sounds like something Williams would write. Here’s a taste:

Oh what a waste of good corn liquor
From the still they pulled the plug
Now the revenuers snicker
‘cause she melted in the liquor
and they had to bury poor Lily by the jug.

The musical pairing came about when the band met up with Williams at a mutual friend’s Nashville studio. “We played a few songs and decided let’s try to make a record,” Ronnie McCoury recalled in a phone conversation while he was, well, traveling. “I can’t say enough good things about playing with him. Keller’s pretty prepared. He’s got a pulse on today’s music.”
The McCourys add what Ronnie called “a little boost. We give a bluegrass spin to his songs. From the start, he’s been very grateful. He just says all the time, ‘Thank you for letting me into your world.’ ”
Ronnie and the others are eager, even a bit anxious, to see how Pick goes over. But they’ve already passed on key test.
“My dad and mother absolutely love this record,” Ronnie said. “My mom texted us and said ‘we’re listening to it again.’”

Hot Rize – When I’m Free

Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster all maintained solo careers, and Hot Rize never seemed to tour or record with regularity, but the band was always something to look out for, or look forward to. They used a broader palette of musical colours, including electric instruments from time to time, and featuring Wernick’s phase-shifted banjo.
They didn’t need gimmicks — even though they had lots of them, most obviously their alter egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers — and those kind of things were just diversions which, for the most part, were welcome. The strength of the ensemble, and the vast experience that the players brought to it, often was a reminder of just how good bluegrass music can be. They are also a reminder that, no matter how good the parts, the whole is an ensemble; these aren’t players that sit back and wait for their solo, rather they are constantly in tune and contributing to what’s going on.
With Bryan Sutton on guitar, the band is certainly as good as ever, and also gives us a welcome chance to hear Sutton, as well as O’Brien, in a standard bluegrass unit. The voices dip in and out, circling around each other in “Sky Rider,” one of two instrumentals on this disc.
The writing is strong — as on “Western Skies” and “You Were on my Mind” — as of course it would be given that O’Brien is one of the best writers in the genre. “Doggone” is a nod to the blues-rock influence that we’ve heard from Hot Rize before, though the album as a whole stays very close to the core of what Hot Rize is all about.
Ultimately, “When I’m Free” may be the band’s strongest release ever, and with 24 years since the last studio recording, it certainly doesn’t come a moment too soon.

Tom Brosseau – Perfect Abandon

 

What has been most remarkable about singer/songwriter Tom Brosseau is not, amazingly enough, his songs. Since the beginning of the century they have been almost uniformly fine in craft, but it is the grain of his voice when delivering them — on recordings and on stages — that casts a pervasive spell. Almost since the beginning, on 2002’s North Dakota (named for his home state), Brosseau has been spinning tales with a timeless brand of popular song that descends equally from gospel, early country and bluegrass, folk music, and the Great American Songbook. Perfect Abandon is his ninth album. It was produced by John Parish and engineered by Ali Chant in an old community theater in Bristol, England. The collective approach was to record a pretty spare band — acoustic and electric guitars, two-piece drum kit, and double bass — around a single microphone. The feel of early Sun Records sessions haunts the fringes of the sound a little — especially since Parish initially thought to record there — but it’s in the electric guitars rather than anywhere else. Brosseau‘s songs are as enchanting as ever. The spoken word opener, “Hard Luck Boy,” is a heartbreaking tale delivered in spoken word with musical accompaniment. Brosseau expects no sympathy and gives no quarter; without guile or artifice he simply tells the story accompanied by the band — its content needs no embellishment to resonate. First single “Roll Along with Me” is a country song delivered with Johnny Cash‘s early cut-time two-step, but his voice floats and hovers, seeing the road wide open as he invites the listener along for the immediacy of the experience. “Take Fountain” has a straight country rockabilly backdrop; its fluid observations are fleet yet fluid, in the moment, full of loneliness and wonder. “Landlord Jackie,” a tale of fantasy, is half spoken, half sung; it sounds made up in the moment, a straight yet dark recollection of a woman desired by a guy so inside his own head he couldn’t get out if he wanted to. “Goodbye Empire Builder” has its own instrumental intro, and is a slow, 4/4 boogie with a melody straight out of the 1940s, but Brosseau lets the lyric move through his throat before running out of his mouth like water, just behind the beat. “Island in the Prairie Sea,” an unaccompanied acoustic number, drips with ache and reverie. Throughout Perfect Abandon‘s nine vocal songs, Brosseau‘s unhurried delivery transports the listener from her own world into his seamlessly. Everything stops, gets very small, and opens wide into a panorama of moments that link to one another and toward the horizon and beyond.

William Elliott Whitmore – Radium Death

William Elliott Whitmore is well-known for his raw, poetic, rural folk albums. On all of them, his rough-hewn growl of a voice is skeletally accompanied by only his banjo or acoustic guitar. Whitmore‘s always played in punk clubs, and he’s claimed bands from the Jesus Lizard and Bad Brains to the Minutemen as influences on his own music. It’s been somewhat difficult to hear that influence until now. Radium Death still contains Whitmore‘s hard folk roots. A third of these songs find him solo, spitting out his love for the land and his rage at those who would destroy it and his way of life. The rest range from rock & roll and folk-rock to country songs that find him backed by a varying assortment of musicians who played live in the studio. Recorded over two years, Whitmore drove two hours from his Lee County farm to Iowa City to work with producer Luke Tweedy. They cut various versions of tunes and decided on the arrangements as they went. Whitmore‘s strengths as a songwriter have always been in very simple, direct melodies and in lyrics that cut through the veneer and get to the soul of things. The larger — but by no means excessive — arrangements underscore their poignancy. And, while always strong, his delivery just roars here at times. Check the blistering, clattering opener “Healing to Do,” which pairs the heat of a punk band with the blues moan in Them‘s “Gloria.” “A Thousand Deaths,” played solo on a slightly out of tune electric guitar, is a garage folk song worthy of Phil Ochs. “Don’t Strike Me Down” is a blistering, full-band country boogie with a pumping, upright piano balancing the distorted guitar and drum attack with a full “ooh-ooh” female backing chorus to add some sweetness to the sweat. “Can’t Go Back” is a country waltz complete with pedal steel and a walking bassline. The solo work isn’t gone, however — the ragged tenderness in “Civilizations” and the agony in “Have Mercy” find Whitmore importing his lived-in, time-worn wisdom with only his banjo and guitar, respectively. “Ain’t Gone Yet” closes the set as a humanist, honky tonk gospel-waltz. A backing chorus, electric piano, and shuffling drums amid the acoustic and electric guitars bear witness to Whitmore‘s paean to his presence in the moment as a man on earth, and his belief he will return to it, not Jesus. Radium Death finds Whitmore at his songwriting and singing best. That said, his successful indulgence in rock & roll’s various forms makes one wish he had just put the entire album on stun.

 

Nathaniel Rateliff – Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

 
 Songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff established himself as a critically celebrated folksy Americana singer/songwriter on 2010’s In Memory Of Loss, his Rounder Records debut. Though he played in straight-ahead rock & roll bands before then, his independent releases since have been of intimate, poignant, and pensive songs. Until now. This self-titled offering on Stax is a hard-swinging, house-rocking affair that draws heavily on vintage R&B, soul, and proto rock & roll. Though Rateliff has displayed emotion in his vocals since the beginning, even fans have never heard him like this. Influences from Sam & Dave to Van Morrison to Sam Cooke range freely on this set — and he has the voice to pull it off. The sessions were helmed by producer Richard Swift, who captured Rateliff and his large band — complete with a swaggering horn section (and occasionally subtle strings) — with just enough reverb to make it sound live. “I’ve Been Falling,” with its upright piano and handclaps, delves deep into vintage Morrison territory without really emulating him (though Rateliff comes closer on the album’s last track, “Mellow Out”). The raw soul passion in “Trying So Hard Not to Know” evokes the historic Stax ethos perfectly, while sidling up to the Band‘s Big Pink era. “S.O.B.” has verses saturated in Southern gospel, with foot stomping and handclaps as the only accompaniment, before the entire band erupts in a carousing chorus. This reverses gospel’s usual Saturday-night-to-Sunday-morning course; it is one of the rowdiest broken-heart songs you’ll ever hear. “I’d Be Waiting” is a tender, wide-open love song with a late-night jazzy soul feel. The singer’s voice is haunted equally by the spirits of Cooke and Bobby “Blue” Bland. If this album has a weakness — and it does — it’s that Rateliff‘s use of these forms and styles in his writing is not only basic — which is fine — but overly formulaic. Only the pedal steel-driven Americana in the absolutely lovely “Wasting Time” — which recalls the Gregg Allman of Laid Back — deviates; one or two more songs in this vein (especially with this band) would have made all the difference. That’s a small complaint, one that will deter few. Rateliff‘s world-weary, deeply expressive tenor and lyrics place him on a different level than any of the current crew of revivalists. 

Old Man Luedecke – Domestic Eccentric

In times when uninspired sameness and unjustified experimentation appear to be the norm seeing some old-school cool in the music industry is refreshing. With his upcoming album “Domestic Eccentric” Canadian singer-songwriter Chris Luedecke does justice to his stage name “Old Man” and delivers craftsmanship quality proper of yesteryears.
Each and every song in the record is a different take on family affairs. They talk about relationships, adulthood and the perks/troubles of being a parent – a reflection, thus, of the artist’s situation at the moment, his life in a backwood cabin with wife and baby twins. When art tries to replicate reality the results are often enticing.
That is why the studio of choice for this record was his own house: there’s no better place to deal with private matters than one’s own backyard. The only “intruder” Luedecke allowed in his personal statement was long-time friend and Grammy award-winner Tim O’Brien. Because, well, the multi-instrumentalist knows how to work his strings.
“Tim is my favourite musician,” explains Luedecke. “Working with him in a duet environment in a cabin at home was a waking dream.” The two had paired twice before (including for 2012’s “Tender is the Night”, which won Album of the Year at the East Coast Music Awards), but this time around the partnership sounds even more fluid and organic.
Songs like “Prologue: Yodelady” and “The Briar and the Rose” are simply delightful and good examples of the balanced arrangement the duo managed to apply throughout the entire disc. All in all, “Domestic Eccentric” sounds subtle and fun without ever losing contact with the message it is trying to convey in the best traditions of the folk and country music.
Luedecke’s fine way with language – “We’re saving up for date night so we can have our fight,” he sings in “The Early Days” –  is a perfect match to O’Brien’s skills. The poetry one writes probably wouldn’t have the same power without the accurate adorning provided by the other. Together, however, they are unison.
“Domestic Eccentric” is the seventh album by Canadian singer-songwriter Old Man Luedecke, third recorded alongside Tim O’Brien, and will be released online and in stores on 24th of July.

Yep, one of the quirkiest love songs I ever heard.