James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg – Ambsace

Ambsace is an archaic word defined as both the lowest roll on a pair of dice and a bit of bad luck or misfortune. As the title of the second collection of acoustic guitar duets by James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg, it seems more like a bit of clever wordplay as this record is anything but unfortunate. It’s certainly tricky and a bit eccentric, but this nimble set of originals and adapted covers is bolder, craftier, and more captivating than most rock releases, and it does so without words. Elkington, an English-born Chicagoan with an eccentric rock and folk résumé (Richard Thompson, the Horse’s Ha, the Zincs) and Salsburg, a Louisville-based folklorist and curator of the Alan Lomax archives, first joined together in 2011 when they agreed to attempt a duets project in spite of never having played together. Their debut, Avos, triumphantly dovetailed American and British acoustic traditions with a subtle layer of pop bubbling through its aquifer. Acoustic guitar duet albums are rare enough and generally have little hope of finding success, so the arrival of this wonderful second volume is, like its predecessor, an unexpected treat. Composed and arranged head to head over long weekends at each other’s homes, Ambsace has an amiable Midwestern demeanor that overlays its tones of beauty, melancholy, and humor. Album-opener “Up of Stairs,” with its percussive, folksy harmonies and dazzling cascades, is one the most immediately accessible displays of the duo’s craft, which is heard more subtly on the slower, nuanced tracks like “The Unhaunted Williams” and the meandering “Rough Purr.” The slowly evolving and mysteriously titled “The Narrowing of Grey Park” features the same thrilling arpeggiated pattern over and over as double bass, violin, and other textures ebb and flow throughout. Elkington and Salsburg‘s lively cover of the Smiths‘ “Reel Around the Fountain” is another bright spot, and their take on Duke Ellington‘s “Fleurette Africaine” is almost chilling in its hushed dissonance. “Great Big God of Hands” bookends its gorgeous melodic refrain with a more pensive conversation between the two guitars and is yet another major highlight on a record with no shortage of them. Comforting and utterly compelling at the same time, Ambsace is a remarkable reprise from this inspired duo.

Mike Love – Permanent Holiday

Admittedly, not my usual style, but this is interesting enough to post. Mike takes a seemingly random assortment of syllables and makes them slowly grows into a song. The interesting part starts at 4:22.
Here is the breakdown:

I                nip-                  mind-                  in-
I rev- make cel-
I change man- words
I be I own

I be nip- late- mind- trolled in- ted
I seek rev- lat- make life cel- bra-
I be change seek- man- fest words speak-
I fuse be pris- I make own cis-

I won’t be ma- nip- u- late- d, mind- con- trolled and in- unda- ted,
I will seek the rev- e- lat- ion, make my life a cel- e- bra- tion
I will be the change I’m seek- ing, man- i- fest the words I’m speak- ing
I re- fuse to be im- pris- oned I will make my own de- cis- ions

Chris Stapleton – Traveller

Like many country troubadours, Chris Stapleton cut his teeth as a songwriter in Nashville, churning out tunes that wound up hits in the hands of others. Kenny Chesney brought “Never Wanted Anything More” to number one and Darius Rucker had a hit with “Come Back Song,” but those associations suggest Stapleton would toe a mainstream line when he recorded his 2015 debut, Traveller. This new release, however, suggests something rougher and rowdier — an Eric Church without a metallic fixation or a Sturgill Simpson stripped of arty psychedelic affectations. Something closer to a Jamey Johnson, in other words, but where Johnson often seems weighed down by the mantle of a latter-day outlaw, Stapleton is rather lithe as he slides between all manners of southern styles. Some of this smoothness derives from Stapleton‘s supple singing. As the rare songwriter-for-hire who also has considerable performance chops, Stapleton is sensitive to the needs of an individual song, something that is evident when he’s covering “Tennessee Whiskey” — a Dean Dillon & Linda Hargrove tune popularized by George Jones and David Allan Coe in the early ’80s — lending the composition a welcome smolder, but the strength of Traveller lies in how he can similarly modulate the execution of his originals. He has a variety of songs here, too, casually switching gears between bluegrass waltz, Southern rockers, crunching blues, soulful slow-burners, and swaggering outlaw anthems — every one of them belonging to a tradition, but none sounding musty due to Stapleton‘s casualness. Never once does he belabor his range, nor does he emphasize the sharply sculpted songs. Everything flows naturally, and that ease is so alluring upon the first spin of Traveller that it’s not until repeated visits that the depth of the album becomes apparent.

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell – The Traveling Kind

Maybe it was just a matter of momentum. It took Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell close to four decades to get around to making a duets album after the two first started working together in the mid-’70s, when he became a guitarist and frequent songwriter with her Hot Band. But just two years after releasing 2013’s Old Yellow Moon, Harris and Crowell have the ball rolling again with The Traveling Kind, another album built around their easy but heartfelt creative interplay as both vocalists and songwriters. Harris and Crowell co-wrote six of The Traveling Kind‘s 11 songs, and tunes like “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try” and the title track reflect Harris‘ sweet, firm, very human tone as well as Crowell‘s outwardly cocky but inwardly perceptive voice, and the sweet and sour push and pull complements them both. Harris has been singing Crowell‘s songs for years, but their collaborative efforts have a special sort of gravity when they bring their voices together, as her heavenly tone merges with his earthier instrument. Harris and Crowell also throw a few covers into the mix, and their interpretations of Lucinda Williams‘ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” and Amy Allison‘s “Her Hair Was Red” are sung with the enthusiasm and care of fans who love and respect the material they’re bringing to life. And though several of the cuts reflect the moodier, more atmospheric sound Harris first embraced with Wrecking Ball (the loose, ghostly sound of “The Weight of the World” is one of the album’s most satisfying moments), they still find room for some rough and sweet honky tonk workouts, and “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now” would be a C&W hit in an earlier, better era. Old Yellow Moon didn’t sound like the event some people were expecting it to be, and the same can be said of The Traveling Kind, but that’s mainly because, good as it is, The Traveling Kind never sounds fussed over. Instead, this is the work of two close friends and trusted collaborators who readily fall into a groove when they work together. They don’t appear to be aiming for a masterpiece; instead, they wanted to write some good songs and let them shine in the studio, and on that level, The Traveling Kind is a rousing success and a deeply satisfying work.

Andrew Combs – All These Dreams

The sophomore studio long-player from the Texas-bred, Nashville-based singer/songwriter, All These Dreams doubles down on Andrew Combs‘ ’70s countrypolitan/soft rock predilections, offering up an always melodious and warmly lit distillation of all things Glen Campbell, Mickey Newbury, Mac Davis, and Harry Nilsson — both the amiable opener “Rainy Day Song” and the easygoing “Nothing to Lose” regularly threaten to break into “Everybody’s Talkin’.” The album’s first single, “Foolin’,” perks things up a bit; with its steady, Jeff Lynne-inspired backbeat and earworm of a chorus, it finds a nice middle ground between the cool retro Americana of Caitlin Rose and the pure radio pop acumen of Traveling Wilburys-era Roy Orbison. That same architecture is revisited on songs like “Long Gone Lately” and the lovely title track, both of which strike a nice balance between fedora-wearing indie pop and heartache-heavy new and old country, but Combs is first and foremost a balladeer. Songs like the slow dance-ready “In the Name of You,” the bucolic, pedal steel-laden closer “Suwannee County,” and “Strange Bird,” the latter a sweetly sung, smartly sentimental celebration of women both won and lost that would make Jim Croce smile, are so evocative of a certain age that you can almost smell the mingling of cigarette smoke and English Leather as you walk past the jukebox to order another pull-tab can of beer. All These Dreams, much like Combs‘ expressive voice, feels lived in and authentic, and while it may lack some of the gravitas of his heroes, it certainly never does them a disservice.


Grayson Capps – If You Knew My Mind

A quick search for the “top Americana albums of 2005” reminds us of some fine records from that year by the likes of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Okkervil River, My Morning Jacket, and the ever-interesting Bobby Bare. One that didn’t get much attention back then was this excellent set of music from Grayson Capps, If You Knew My Mind, released a decade ago by the small-yet-mighty Nashville/L.A. outpost called Hyena Records.
One of the songs on the album, “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” was the title track to a movie of the same name, based on a book by Capps’ father and starring none other than John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson. One would think that would’ve generated some considerable buzz, but the film was met with mixed reviews that tended toward the negative. The soundtrack (though it was an interesting mix of Los Lobos and Helen Humes) was generally disregarded, and Capps’ album flew, most unfairly, under the radar.
Thanks to the tasteful folks at Royal Potato Family — who are behind the excellent new set from 6 String Drag — this record’s getting a well-deserved second chance with Americana music fans. And rightly so. It’s an album that’s beautifully grand in its poetry and charmingly disheveled in its presentation.
The opening line of the opening song, “Get Back Up,” says it all. “Yesterday was a very fine day, indeed,” he growls over a dirty harp-driven blues. “I got a bottle of beer, went outside, and brushed my teeth.” He puts on dirty clothes, goes back to work because he’s “got to make the money to give the money away at the rich man’s store.” There are too many great lines in the Resonator-rich title cut to pick just one but this slice of humor — “I know you’re 22 and I ruined your life. But please, pretty baby, put down that kitchen knife” — is a good place to start.
“Slidell” starts out as a story about “five people who got murdered by a drunk woman talking on her cell phone,” but is ultimately about the narrator’s own Slidell story, which includes being drunk at every turn and for every miniscule event. After the slow R&B groove of “I Can’t Hear You,” we get to witness the aforementioned “Love Song to Bobby Long,” the heart-wrenching Dylanesque story of a former football hero — a dispassionate dreamer gone drunk, an anti-hero of Bruton, AL.
“Eliza’s in the ground. Thunder is her moan,” recites Capps in the Faulknerian stream of consciousness that is “Graveyard.” Halfway through the record, Capps tears open a can of Texas blues on “Mercy,” the modern day equivalent to “Sympathy for the Devil” (and just as spine-chillingly soulful). “Yesterday I had a dream. I could fly through the sky. Then I woke up in a sweat, not dead yet, but on the ground,” Capps sings over the subtle Rhodes and Resonator arrangement of “Lorraine’s Song.” “Here comes,” he says as he counts off the lovely ballad “Washboard Lisa,” a tune as tender as the best ballads from the pens of Crowell or Clark. “Buckshot” is a blood red fuzzy guitar rock tune that bridges the space between “Washboard Lisa” and the funky rhythm and blues of “How’s I To Know.” The original recording ends with the ballad “I See You” before the RPF people tacked on a live version of the blues classic “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed & Burning” — a clever tune about how his woman ran off with an “Australian banjo player with a fake Southern accent” — and a sweet outtake of “Washboard Lisa.”
Indeed, this is a record most grand in its poetry, even though they are simple lines about simple people living simple lives. The tracks are exceptionally well-played examples of the great Southern music tradition, loosely approached but tightly delivered. This 10-year-old record is as good as anything being made today. Props to the Royal Potato people for bringing it back to light.

James McMurtry – Complicated Game

James McMurtry was an outstanding songwriter right out of the box, but learning the art of record-making took a while for him, and he was close to 20 years into his recording career when he cut 2008’s Just Us Kids, his best and most effective album. If you’d imagine that McMurtry would use Just Us Kids as a template for his next studio album, you’d be selling the man short; 2015’s Complicated Game is a similarly superb showcase for McMurtry‘s songwriting, but the feel and the themes of the album are decidedly different, and it demonstrates the man has more than one card up his sleeve. McMurtry brought in modern-day swamp rocker C.C. Adcock to co-produce Complicated Game with Mike Napolitano, and while the album doesn’t reflect most of Adcock‘s sonic hallmarks, the work has a looser and more casual feel than Just Us Kids, with a back-porch immediacy in the performances and a sound that’s uncluttered and accurate but just the slightest bit overheard, which meshes well with the tenor of McMurtry‘s songs. Small-p politics and the malaise of the George W. Bush years informed most of the tunes on Just Us Kids, but Complicated Game deals more in character studies, with McMurtry singing of people trying to make sense of life on America’s fringes rather than dwelling on the larger forces that brought them there, though it’s clear that the characters in “Carlisle’s Haul” and “South Dakota” can’t help but think they live in places that aren’t what they used to be. But the greatest strength of Just Us Kids is also what makes Complicated Game another winner — McMurtry is one of the best American songwriters in the game, inhabiting the lives of the people he writes about with an unaffected sincerity (the fact the very Texan McMurtry can sing convincingly from the point of view of a New England fisherman or a Long Island working stiff says a lot), and filling his lyrics with telling details that are sometimes witty, sometimes affecting, and always brilliantly observed. And McMurtry has learned the art of effortlessly selling his songs, both in terms of his vocals and his interplay with the studio band. The difference between the guy who made 1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland and the man who cut Complicated Game is the more mature McMurtry has figured out how to deliver the fine songs he writes and get their qualities on tape, and Complicated Game confirms he’s not only remembered this valuable lesson, he’s finding new ways to refine what he knows, and this album is another triumph for one of America’s most rewarding tunesmiths.


Jake Xerxes Fussell – Jake Xerxes Fussell

North Carolinian blues folksinger and guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell grew up in a household steeped in the heritage and culture of the American South. The son of a noted Georgian folklorist, Fussell‘s youth was spent riding around with his dad while he documented old bluesmen, string bands, and Native American artists. It’s the kind of real deal Americana education that thousands of aspiring Harry Smith scholars would kill for and, to his credit, he made the best of it, apprenticing with regional blues legend Precious Bryant, traveling the country learning songs by ear, and using his connections. Surprisingly, one of the best things about Fussell‘s self-titled debut is how loosely he adheres to notions of what is or what is not “authentic.” The material comes from the great rural blues and folk traditions of the South, but his interpretations are relaxed, unfussy, and full of his own unique personality. Produced by experimental guitarist William Tyler and aided by a motley crew of Nashville vets, Fussell rolls through an often obscure yet timeless set of early blues and folk tunes with an understated grace and easy charm. Alternating between electric and acoustic guitar, his fingerpicking style is full of nuances and his warm voice resembles a slightly more ragged Paul Burch. There’s a distinct rock edge to cuts like “Let Me Lose” and “Pork and Beans,” with their full rhythm sections, double-tracked vocals, and organ parts. Other standouts like the lovely “Star Girl” mix old-time beauty with drifting pedal steel and atmospheric guitar effects. He’s not afraid to mess with the formula a bit, but neither is he showy. The way everything hangs together so seamlessly suggests a poise beyond his years. This is the kind of subtle record unlikely to make immediate waves, but with a staying power that will call for repeated listens.

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – So Delicious

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band release their fifth album, So Delicious, on a revitalized Yazoo Records via Shanachie. Yazoo is a storied blues label and it’s a good fit for the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, a trio from the backwoods of Indiana whose members desperately wish they hailed from the Delta. Such geographical displacement has a long history in American music — in the back half of the 20th century, John Fogerty‘s swamp rock from San Francisco might be the best known — so Peyton and his crew don’t feel like charlatans: they’re Americans who like to live in their ideal fantasy world. The funny thing about So Delicious is that for showing up on a blues label, it can rock pretty hard, something the clattering opening “Let’s Jump a Train” makes plain, but the Big Damn Band aren’t the Black Keys; they don’t pump up and amplify their blues for arenas, but are happy to sit on a front porch during a hot Sunday afternoon. That’s an intimate situation and, appropriately, the group slides some sweetness onto So Delicious, such as the gentle “Scream at the Night” and the ode to family “Pickin Pawpaws” (also quiet is the spectral solo slide guitar of “You’re Not Rich,” but that haunts instead of comforts). Still, the operative order of this record is a bit of full-tilt boogie and good times, an album that acknowledges there’s nothing finer than pot roast and kisses from the one you love. In other words, this is big, burly blues whose heart belongs at home.