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Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds

Songwriter Gretchen Peters is a go-to for artists seeking material whose lyric depth matches its hooks. She continually goes into the marrow, revealing secrets that result in defining decisions and cathartic actions. This is especially true of her own recordings and Blackbirds takes these to an entirely new level, one shared with peers like Mickey Newbury (It Looks Like Rain) and Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska). Here she explores mortality with an unflinching gaze through a variety of unique character perspectives and musical styles. The album was co-produced by the artist with keyboardist Barry Walsh and guitarist Doug Lancio (bassist Dave Roe and drummer Nick Buda round out the band’s core). The title is a murder ballad one of three tunes co-written with Ben Glover. Lancio‘s grimy, distorted guitar recalls Neil Young‘s with Crazy Horse. Walsh‘s organ and guest Will Kimbrough‘s slide mandola color a brooding narrative that dyanmically explodes in the chorus and delivers a startling conclusion. “When All You Got Is a Hammer” is a rocker though Kimbrough tempers the tension with a charango. Jerry Douglas adds dobro and Jason Isbell‘s on backing vocals. It’s a tale about a war veteran unable to cope: “Well they show you how to shoot and they show you how to kill/But they don’t show what to do with this hole you can’t fill…” Poignancy is equally resonant on songs with gentler approaches. “The House on Auburn Street” — with Kim Richey on backing vocals — is a tribute to an absent friend. It frames the irony of suburban America as a mirror for darkness, addiction and violence. “When You Comin’ Home,” is an Americana a duet with Jimmy LaFave, thgat offers a narrative about lovers separated by addiction. On “Jubilee,” Peters sings country gospel accompanied only by Walsh‘s piano and David Henry‘s cello. Her protagonist regards death as the love’s spirit freed from the prison of the flesh; thus it can return to its origins. “Black Ribbons,” a brooding Cajun-tinged folk-blues, becomes a roiling rocker. Pump organ, accordion, electric guitars, banjo, and drums frame the protagonist saying a helpless, despairing goodbye to his wife in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The lone cover, David Mead‘s tender but steely “Nashville,” is about the death of a relationship. “The Cure for the Pain” is set in a hospital room during the waning moments of life. Peters’ protagonist experiences first anger at her plight, then moves toward the peace acceptance brings. The title cut is reprised with a different arrangement to close. Blackbirds is unsettling, but far from depressing. It is a profound, poetic, career-defining album from this recent member of Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. She knows how messy life is.

Wood & Wire – The Coast

Usually when you think of beach songs, margarita-infused numbers from the likes of Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney come to mind. For Austin bluegrass band Wood & Wire, though, the beach conjures different images. “The Sea Wall,” off their latest album The Coast, tells a darker tale about beaches, one fraught with hurricanes, erosion and the wrath of mother nature.
“Here’s a less traditional sounding tune from the album written about the Sea Wall in Galveston, TX, that was built as a result of The Storm of 1900, one of the deadliest hurricanes of all time,” the band tells The BGS. “It’s also about the rising tides and shrinking beaches in the area.
“Over my lifetime, I’ve seen the beach get smaller and smaller and seen homes in the area succumb to beach erosion. I wanted the tune to feel intense and interesting, with non-conventional chords and harmonies that evoked certain emotions. Trevor and Dom really helped me come up with a cool arrangement to make that happen”

Hank Smith & Lindsey Tims – Impulse

The knockout vocals of Charly Lowry make Dark Water Rising’s soulful roots tunes worthy of attention; the tasteful arrangements and alluring harmonies increase the allure. Banjoist Hank Smith and fiddler Lindsey Tims teamed last October to release Impulse, a masterful collection of classical-Americana crossover and progressive bluegrass instrumentals. Georgia trio Crying Wolf mark modern folk with punchy flatpicking and pretty co-ed harmonies. Raleigh’s Chris Hendricks adds pop rock.

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

Dwight Yoakam recalibrated his career with 2012’s 3 Pears, returning to his former home of Warner and reconnecting to the nerviness of his first albums. With Second Hand Heart, Yoakam continues this unfussy revival, sharpening his attack so the record breezes by at a crisp, crackling clip. Once again, he’s reviving himself through reconnecting the past but what gives Second Hand Heart life is specificity, both in its songs and sound. The former is what makes the greatest initial impression, as it seems as if he’s synthesized all the big Capitol Records acts of 1966 into one bright, ringing sound. To be sure, there’s a fair amount of Bakersfield here, especially apparent on the loping drawl of “Off Your Mind” and the crackerjack rockabilly of “The Big Time,” but the Beatles loom even larger than Buck Owens, surfacing in the chiming 12-strings of “Believe” and harmonies of “She” and evident in the general spirit of adventure that fuels Second Hand Heart. Some of Dwight’s tricks are familiar — the jet propulsion of “Man of Constant Sorrow” borrows a page from the glory days of cowpunk — but his execution is precise and he never lets the record settle in one groove for too long, not even when he tears through “Sorrow,” “Liar,” and “The Big Time” at a breakneck pace. Such sequencing gives Second Hand Heart momentum but what lasts are the songs, a collection of ten tunes — all originals save the standard “Sorrow” and the sweet denouement “V’s of Birds” — that are sturdy yet sly, their hooks sinking into the subconscious without ever drawing attention to themselves. All this means is that Second Hand Heart is prime Dwight Yoakam: traditional yet modern, flashy yet modest, a record that feels fresh but also like a forgotten classic.

Pokey LaFarge – Something in the Water

Some artists who evoke the styles of the past seem to have spent every waking moment of their adult lives struggling to sound as if they were born in a different decade. Pokey LaFarge, on the other hand, makes music that suggests he somehow passed through a wrinkle in time from 1929 to 2015, complete with his banjo in hand; LaFarge’s music never seems forced, but flows from him naturally with an easy grace, a playful insouciance, and a confidence in his talent that stops well short of arrogance. After jumping to the big leagues with his self-titled 2013 album released by Jack White’s Third Man label, LaFarge has ambled back to the independents; Something in the Water is his first album for Rounder, the venerable roots music label, but Something ranks with his best recorded work to date, maintaining the rootsy sway and swagger of his earlier albums but boasting stronger instrumental interplay and an extra dose of pep that makes the finished product especially winning. LaFarge not only sounds like a jazzbo from the age of ragtime, he writes like one, and from the vintage exotica of “Goodbye, Barcelona” and his celebration of Midwestern high life in “Knockin’ the Dust Off the Rust Belt Tonight” to his tribute to the women you don’t introduce to your mother on “Bad Girl” and the title cut, LaFarge pens songs with plenty of wit and a melodic sense that straddles the gap between vintage country and trad jazz. LaFarge is lucky enough to have a band just as committed to this sound as he is, and his accompanists help make Something in the Water pleasingly full bodied and dynamic. And producer Jimmy Sutton gives these sessions a live-in-the-studio tone that mimics the ambience of a vintage 78, but with modern-day clarity and detail. Pokey LaFarge delivers something old and new on Something in the Water, and no matter how much he reaches to the past for inspiration and influence, he’s able to make his music sound fresh and alive, and this is his strongest studio set to date.

 

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green

 
Guitarist Ryley Walker follows All Kinds of You, his 2014 debut full-length, by delving deeper into some of the abstract jazz and psych-inflected folk-rock that permeated several of its tracks. On Primrose Green — his debut for Dead Oceans — he doesn’t worry about putting his own signature on his tunes; this record is all about playing music he loves with people he respects. Though these are original songs, their inspirational roots lie in late-’60s and early-’70s sources. He’s found a host of willing Chicago collaborators from the worlds of jazz and improv to assist, including cellists Fred Lonberg-Holm and Whitney Johnson, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Frank Rosaly, keyboardist Ben Boye, upright and electric bassist Anton Hatwich, and electric guitarist Brian Sulpizio. Less than a minute into the opening title track, one can hear the very spirit of Tim Buckley — one of several Walker muses here — coming through the ether (or smoke, such as it were, since it is titled for a particular strain of pot). Eastern modes and droning psych are rung out on a 12-string, piano, electric guitars, vibes, and upright bass (the latter recalling Danny Thompson, who played with Buckley on the London concert issued as Dream Letter). Walker‘s voice swoops and sails, floats and hovers through his words about getting high. “Summer Dress” moves on (a bit) to widen the circle and embrace John Martyn‘s early-’70s sound inside Buckley‘s elastic chamber jazz approach. Sulpizio‘s guitar and Adasiewicz‘s vibes send this one into a darkly grooving stratosphere. “Same Minds” is so silvery and mercurial, one can feel Martyn‘s ghost in the mix. The instrumental “Love Can Be Cruel” evokes Brian Auger‘s sense of space and motion with wafting electronic noise grounding the tune in the 21st century. Speaking of Auger, the twilit psych-jazz of “Sweet Satisfaction” recalls the keyboardist’s Trinity band with singer Julie Driscoll (now Tippetts), though Buckley‘s sense of elongated glossolalia still holds sway over the singer’s vocal. Walker‘s killer fingerstyle guitar artistry isn’t left off this record; it’s present to stellar effect on “Griffiths Bucks Blues,” “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee,” “The High Road” (a duet with Lonberg-Holm), and the closing “Hide in the Roses.” The latter track is informed by Bert Jansch‘s and Davy Graham‘s readings of the British Isles folk tradition. It’s these rootsier tunes that add glue to the sensual, stoned, free-spirited cuts to make this a cohesive album. With its ready absorption of, homage to, and engagement with the past, Walker‘s skills as a guitarist and arranger make Primrose Green as musically compelling as it is willfully indulgent. 

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight

 

Houndmouth have embraced the concept of “loosely tight,” delivering a rollicking fusion of boogie-fied retro-rock and folk-flavored Americana that’s been carefully crafted to sound casual even though this band clearly worked out these songs with meticulous care. The “loosely tight” vibe served Houndmouth well on their first album, 2013’s From the Hills Below the City, and they’ve swum even farther into the deep end with their sophomore effort, 2015’s Little Neon Limelight. The performances on Little Neon Limelight sound and feel like they were captured live in the studio with a minimum of fuss, right down to the chatter that trails several tracks, and the group’s four-part harmonies are easygoing but impressive. In addition, guitarist Matt Myers‘ sharp, concise riffs recall any number of ’60s and ’70s boogie masters (most notably Sam Andrew of Big Brother & the Holding Company), and Katie Toupin‘s keyboards add tasty accents and her occasional lead vocals are suitably soulful and emotionally expansive while still sounding low-key. But as good as Houndmouth are at sounding like an enthusiastic country-rock band from a bygone age of patchouli and bongwater, something about Little Neon Limelight doesn’t quite ring true; the melodies are OK, but the lyrics seem clichéd and formulaic, and as much as Houndmouth have done their homework, they’re ultimately running on riffs and ideas that are the product of another age, and while they work these angles well, they’re incapable of making the music sound entirely their own. Houndmouth feel a bit like a jam band that never gets around to playing an extended improvisation, which might feel like an advantage in theory, but turns out to be less of a virtue in execution as these players can’t seem to get their boogie into fifth gear. Houndmouth have the right touch and impressive chops, but this album makes it clear they needs a songwriter who can make their music seem fresh even as it’s modeled on the past.