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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.

Band of Ruhks – Band of Ruhks

 

Band of Ruhks
Who cares that geezer rocker Steven Tyler is making a country record? We’ve got real reason to celebrate: Ronnie Bowman made a new bluegrass record!
Bowman, who has spent most of his time in country music since leaving the Lonesome River Band in 2001, has teamed up with two other LRB alums, Kenny Smith and Don Rigsby, to record and perform as the Band of Ruhks. Their self-titled 13-song CD on the 101 Ranch Label, officially released today, is a stunner.
Make no mistake, this is not a Lonesome River Band reunion with someone else filling Sammy Shelor’s banjo role. For one thing, that band – and Sammy – are still going strong. This is a fresh, new approach that will have people talking all summer long, perhaps right up until the IBMA awards show this fall.
Bowman has writing credits on six of the 13 songs here, and his voice is as strong as ever. But this isn’t merely Ronnie Bowman and friends. Smith and Rigsby aren’t just along for the ride. They’ll full partners, adding sublime vocals and instrumental punch – Kenny on guitar and Don on mandolin, mandola, octave mandolin and viola. A number of all-star pickers join in, including Chris Brown on drums and percussion on 10 of the tracks.
Don’t let the drums scare you. This is Exhibit A in how to use percussion in a bluegrass setting. Brown is expressive and tasteful and doesn’t get in the way of the amazing interplay between Smith’s guitar, Rigsby’s mandolin and guests on fiddle and banjo.
Brown’s subtle rhythm is evident from the starting notes of the album’s opener, All the Way, a straightforward tale of surprise romance. It’s vintage Bowman, an uncomplicated story compellingly told.
Also in that mold is All We Need, a simple love song beefed up with some sweet orchestral string work.
Much of the project’s pre-release attention came from Coal Minin’ Man, with Ralph Stanley’s a cappella introduction. It’s a fine song, and it’s always fun to hear Dr. Ralph. But there are other songs here that deserve attention.
One of them is Here Comes Your Broken Heart Again, written by Barry Bales and Shawn Lane. This is one of those quintessential bluegrass songs in which the fast-paced picking belies the broken-hearted blues of the lyrics. Expressive banjo picking from Scott Vestal adds some tension. This one is bound to be a radio favorite.
Another gem is Can’t Get Over You. This song is decidedly country, and it might be a moneymaker for local police departments. The combination of hard-driving melody, fueled by Stuart Duncan’s fiddling and Jimmy Stewart’s resonator guitar work makes it easy to lose track of the speed limit, especially with the windows down and the volume cranked up. (I didn’t get caught!)
But the real emotional powerhouse in this collection is a Harley Allen gem, Rendezvous With Danger. It tells the tale of hard-drinking Bobby and hard-working Tommy driving down the road toward each other one night. With Tommy just three miles from home, the listener knows with gut-clenching certainty how this story will end. Except there’s a twist. The song ends before the story does!

Sometimes angels step aside
And if we live or if we die
Is up to me and you
How this song ends
Is up to us my friends.

If you like the record, you’ll be pleased to know that the Band of Ruhks is lining up tour dates and getting ready to take the show on the road.
If you don’t like this record, I guess there’s always Steven Tyler.

Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors – Medicine

The fifth long player from the Nashville-based singer/songwriter and his talented neighbors, Medicine picks right up where 2013’s excellent Good Light left off, offering up warm and inviting twelve track set that skillfully blurs the lines between rock, country, folk, and pop. An introspective, romantic, and occasionally raucous collection that feels tailor made for long drives, early mornings and late nights, the aptly-titled Medicine aims to cure what ails you, or at the very least, dull the pain.
 
 
 

Chadwick Stokes – The Horse Comanche

Chadwick Stokes’ second album, The Horse Comanche, sounds like Paul Simon for the SnapChat generation.
On “Pine Needle Tea,” Stokes takes a foundation of woodsy marimba, lightweight guitars and galloping percussion and sprinkles it with the luminous harmonies of Simon and his one-time foil, Art Garfunkel, arming the whole affair with shimmering electric guitars a la Richard Thompson.  “Prison Blue Eyes” sounds like a Simon cut gone modernist, a reggae-styled pop song that bears all the harmonic and melodic trademarks of the latter’s “Mother And Child Reunion” period, infused with banging rivets of snare drum.
“I Want You Like A Seatbelt,” wherein Stokes says he “wants you across his lap,” is a hand-clapping two-step that owes it’s essence to the bedroom fantasy of “Cecilia.” There’s more Simon & Garfunkel harmonies on the title cut and, once it gets rolling, “Our Lives, Our Time” has the rapping lyrical patois of  “Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard” (with a hint of late-era Dion DiMucci).
This is not to say Stokes’ is a Simon mockingbird. The buzzy guitars of “New Haven” are decidedly post-modern, “Dead Badger” owes more to Ben Harper than “Feelin’ Groovy” and the echoey metallic sheen of the album’s production (courtesy of Noah Georgeson, Brian Deck and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam) is certainly more modern than “Mrs. Robinson.” But this is still Paul Simon for the modern ear, which is not a bad feather for Stokes to stick in his cap.

Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley – Before the Sun Goes Down

This is a damn good record, one that’ll bring happiness to Americana music lovers of all stripes.
Folks who like old time country will dig tunes like “Before The Sun Goes Down,” an easy-going fiddle and dobro number that would sound as comfortable on the radio of a ‘49 Chevy pickup as it does on a Spotify playlist. “I’d Rather be Gone,” with it’s lonesome pedal steel guitar, comes straight from the roadhouse jukebox songbook of Hank Williams while the beautiful ballad “More Than Roses” speaks to a later era of country music, when the likes of Marty Robbins ruled the radio airwaves.
On the bluegrass tip, there’s the ramblin’ “Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” a enthusiastic piece that highlights Hensley’s fine guitar playing. “Some folks called him ‘Lightnin’, but I just called him ‘Dad’,” they sing on their ode to “runnin’ shine” called “Lightnin'” but no words are necessary to get the jist of “Raisin’ The Dickens,” a rambunctious instrumental piece that gives everyone in the band a taste of the action.
Fans of contemporary country will probably like this album, too. Though the record harkens back to a sound of 50 years yore, the songs still sound fresh and new (and will probably be covered by the likes of Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan in just a moment’s time). Everybody knows Ickes is a dobro genius — still! — and everyone should know young Hensley (just 24 years old) is gifted with a voice that easily earns its comparisons to George Jones and Merle Haggard.
Yeah, this is just a damn good record of fine country music.

Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers

It turns out Justin Townes Earle‘s 2014 album Single Mothers was literally only half the story; Earle completed 20 songs during the Single Mothers sessions, and eventually he opted to release the material on two separate albums, so four months after the release of Single Mothers, Absent Fathers brings us the remainder of this song cycle. The titles would suggest these albums are two sides of the same story, and Absent Fathers certainly is of a piece stylistically with the earlier album, full of songs about busted families, relationships run adrift, and lives stuck in neutral, with Earle‘s mournful, soul-inflected vocals supported by a purposefully spare rhythm section and occasionally the lonesome cry of a pedal steel guitar. While these songs are not without their moments of wit and bursts of rock & roll energy, Absent Fathers is, like Single Mothers, a downbeat set for the most part, with Earle obsessed with where his characters have gone wrong as both parents and partners, and while there’s a good-natured, easygoing drift to “Slow Monday” and some tough R&B strutting in “Call Ya Momma,” even these songs have a moody undertow that reinforces the gravity of Earle‘s themes. Like Single Mothers, Absent Fathers is subtle in its attack but deep in its emotional force, and if it’s often blunt in terms of the emotional pain that befalls the people he writes about, he’s invariably compassionate as he struggles to find comfort in a place where no one will come out unscathed. Like Earle‘s best work, Absent Fathers is low on flash and high on emotional honesty and perceptive songwriting, and paired with Single Mothers this is some of his most intelligent and moving music to date.

 

The New Basement Tapes – Lost On The River

When a clutch of unfinished lyrics written during Bob Dylan‘s 1967 sojourn at Big Pink in Woodstock, New York was discovered in 2013, there were really only two choices left for his publisher: either they could be collected as text or set to music. Once the decision to turn these words into songs was made, there was really only one logical choice to direct the project: T-Bone Burnett, the master of impressionistic Americana. He had played with Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 and 1976 — a tour that happened to occur in the wake of the first official release of The Basement Tapes — but more importantly, his 2002 work on the Grammy-winning O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack established him as deft modernizer of classic American folk and country, skills that were needed for an album that wound up called Lost on the River. Burnett decided to assemble a loose-knit band of Americana superstars to write the music and play as a band. That’s how Burnett‘s old pal Elvis Costello, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops became a band called the New Basement Tapes (the name seems more of a formality than an actual moniker), and if Burnett‘s intent was to approximate the communal spirit Dylan had with the Band at Big Pink, the execution was much different. The New Basement Tapes recorded Lost on the River in a real studio fully aware there was an audience awaiting their output, an attitude that’s the polar opposite of the ramshackle joshing around of the original Basement Tapes. Thankfully, nobody involved with Lost on the River contrives to replicate either the sound or feel of the 1967 sessions, even if the artists consciously pick up the strands of country, folk, and soul dangling on the originals. Wisely, the songwriters steer their given lyrics toward their own wheelhouses, which means this contains a little of the woolliness of a collective but Burnett sands off the rough edges, tying this all together. Certainly, some musicians make their presence known more than others — there’s a slow, soulful ease to James‘ four contributions that stand in nice contrast to Costello‘s canny bluster (“Married to My Hack” would’ve fit onto any EC album featuring Marc Ribot) — but the best work might come from Goldsmith, who strikes a delicate, beguiling balance between his own idiosyncrasies and the Americana currents that flow out of The Basement Tapes. Then again, the whole project is rather impressive: Burnett and the New Basement Tapes remain faithful to the spirit of The Basement Tapes yet take enough liberties to achieve their own identity, which is a difficult trick to achieve.

Gareth Dickson – Invisible String: Live in Caen, Reims and Istanbul, MMXII

Gareth Dickson is best known for his live accompaniment of English singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan — but that shouldn’t be all the guitarist is known for. Dickson’s latest collection of songs, Invisible String, solidifies his position as a highly skilled singer in his own right. The album is an assortment of live tracks Dickson recorded on his travels through Europe, a journey that took him from Istanbul to Paris and everywhere in between.
Our Song of the Week “Like a Clock” is a haunting meditation on spirituality, a delicate combination of fingerpicked guitar and vocals that echo one of Dickson’s musical inspirations, Nick Drake.
“I initially recorded this track a good few years ago and released it on my Collected Recordings album, but the original version is a good deal more lo-fi than this one believe it or not,” he tells The Bluegrass Situation.
“It’s about finding yourself turning to a god of some kind, despite having reservations about doing so due to the suffering in the world, after exhausting the first searches for meaning that many people go through — namely science, art and love. In that order, in my case. At the same time, however, I never felt the need to go back to any of the established religions.”

David Bromberg – Archives, Volume 1

“Big Boy Crudup recorded a song with this title,” says Dave Bromberg of the tune “If I Get Lucky,” one of a dozen gems that make up this debut archive recording. “Elvis did his version on one of his first records,” he continues. “I thought at one time I was doing Big Boy Crudup’s song. This song has nothing to do with that one beyond the first line. I think I wrote it.” So goes the brand of self-effacing sincerity that informs this collection of train songs, love songs, train songs about love and love songs about trains. Drawing primarily from live recordings and radio programs he did in the early ’70s, Bromberg offers an intimate version of The Carter Family’s “Cannonball,” taken from Howard and Roz Lamer’s Folkscene program along with the aforementioned “If I Get Lucky,” which was harvested from his 1970 appearance at the Philly Folk Fest.
From an early ’70s coffee house performance, Bromberg offers a stunning version of “Salt Creek.” “I was playing it in the Jabberwocky Coffee House in Syracuse,” he recalls in his liner notes. “(I) decided on the spur of the moment to see if I could play the harmony and the melody part at the same time. I didn’t think it worked, so I doubt that I ever did it again. It actually did work, but I never heard the tape until 2014.”
“James Brown, eat your heart out,” he announces over the intro of “Danger Man,” which features an early version of his band that included bassist Steve Burgh, saxophonist Andy Statman, mandolinist Will Scarlett and guitarist Peter Ecklund (who grabs a trumpet and does his best Beiderbecke imitation for this one). Bromberg recommends checking out the YouTube video for this version of “Jelly Jaw Joe,” wherein drummer Steve Mosley plays a solo on his cheeks (among other wacked-out band antics) and notes that “Send Me To The Electric Chair” is one of his most very favorite Bessie Smith tunes.
When all is said and done, Bromberg’s earnest liner notes combined with his always stellar playing — and the program’s nice range of covers and originals, all nicely remastered — paint a joyous picture of a guy who has always been a serious player but has never taken himself too seriously.