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.

Dawes – All Your Favorite Bands

At the start of Dawes‘ fourth studio effort, 2015’s All Your Favorite Bands, lead singer Taylor Goldsmith kicks off the sanguine opener “Things Happen” by admitting “I could go on talking, or I could stop/Wring out each memory til I get every drop.” This sentiment, ripe with a post-breakup emotional stew of yearning, anger, and eventual acceptance, colors all the tracks on this tight, impeccably crafted album. Influenced by the passionate ’70s country-rock and singer/songwriter sound of artists like Jackson Browne and groups like the Band, Los Angeles’ Dawes have quietly built a loyal following with their own brand of memorable and often poignant folk-rock. Produced by journeyman composer and guitarist David Rawlings (Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, the Decemberists) at Nashville’s Woodland Studios, All Your Favorite Bands has a warm, organic texture that’s at once raw and immediate, sophisticated and polished. It’s perhaps the closest Dawes has come to capturing their live sound. Each song is performed with an intimate, personal intensity, making it feel like they’re playing it only for you. Cuts like the urgent, minor-key “I Can’t Think About It Now,” with its gospel-style female backing vocals, and the heartbreakingly honest “Waiting for Your Call” are rootsy anthems that combine Goldsmith‘s poetic, literate lyrics, crisp vocal harmonies, and evocative, Dire Straits-influenced guitars with the hushed ripple of a Hammond organ. These songs, while efficiently constructed, have plenty of breathing room — there are actual guitar solos here, and jazz-like drum accents. Of course, a big part of what makes Dawes‘ songs so palpable is Goldsmith‘s knack for highlighting those often mundane details in life that initially seem insignificant, but take on greater meaning in hindsight. On the title track he sings “When I think of you, you’ve still got on that hat that says ‘Let’s Party’/I hope that thing is never thrown away,” and later, “I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever.” Although most likely directed at a former flame, with the song’s insistent, piano-driven vibe it sometimes feels more like a message of goodwill toward the band’s own fans. Similarly, on the ruminative breakup number “Don’t Send Me Away,” Goldsmith transforms his car into a mausoleum of regret with the line “I’m getting on the freeway/Your jacket’s in my car/Your ashes in my ashtray/And I’m there with you, wherever you are.” It’s this gift for capturing intangible longing that drives much of All Your Favorite Bands. Goldsmith perhaps expresses this the best on the tragic ballad “To Be Completely Honest.” He sings “I think I know how it ends/The universe continues expanding while we discuss particulars of just being friends/And maybe that makes everything okay/Your memory the defect at the heart of every promise.” Ultimately, All Your Favorite Bands is a comforting album, leaving you with the notion that whatever happens in your life, good, bad, or indifferent, all things take on a beautiful if bittersweet meaning when viewed through the rear-view mirror.

Gregory Alan Isakov – The Weatherman

Warm, weary, wild, and wounded, The Weatherman, the third long-player from Johannesburg, South Africa-born, Philadelphia-raised, and Boulder, Colorado-based singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov, picks up where 2009’s well-received This Empty Northern Hemisphere left off, presenting another stylistically austere yet emotionally charged set of lyrical and melodious indie folk songs that invoke names like José González, Bon Iver, A.A. Bondy, and Josh Ritter. Released on Isakov’s own Suitcase Town Music imprint, highlights include the languid and lush opener “Amsterdam,” the wistful “She Always Takes It Back,” the dreamy “Saint Valentine,” and the impossibly lovely “Suitcase Full of Sparks.”

Sam Outlaw – Angelino

Sam may be an outlaw by name but by nature he comes across as more of a soul searching, sensitive guy on his debut album. It’s a country record complete with sparkling pedal steel and tales of love won and lost and while he can write a good song within those parameters it often sounds to sedate and clean. It lacks the grit and dust to really demand repeated listens yet when he finds a chorus with a hook, as he does on the opener ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, it really works. Think a bloodless Robert Ellis or Laurel Canyon’s sweet sensitivity transplanted to Nashville.

David Ramirez – Harder to Lie


Even taking all 260,000 of the miles tracked and traveled by David Ramirez‘s 2006 Kia Rio, there were still some journeys left unaccounted for — the inner explorations he undertook while driving all that way … alone. What he realized, at the end of the road, was that he needed to do some things differently.

Three years and one writer’s block later, Ramirez has emerged with Fables. Produced by Seattle singer/songwriter Noah Gundersen, it’s a tale of the reckoning Ramirez went through with himself and with his girlfriend. The open-aired and open-armed production gives Ramirez’s baritone voice room to roam through the songs.

The title of the set comes from “Harder to Lie.” While on vacation in Iceland, Ramirez and company were on the look out for the just-right visual setting to capture the song. They found it in Skaftafell, a preservation area in southeast Iceland.

“When my lady, our friend Clayton, and I began talking about a potential Iceland vacation, one of the first things we discussed was filming a song,” Ramirez says. “From the minute we left Reykjavik, our eyes were peeled for the perfect location. Funny thing about Iceland: Every location is perfect. One evening we crossed a long bridge that hung over a moon-like terrain. In the background were two giant, green mountains and sandwiched between them was a glacier. We pulled over at the next exit, set up camp for the night, and filmed ‘Harder to Lie’ the next morning. It’s a one-shot, one-take video, and it took us three takes to get it just right. Hats off to Clayton Stringer for filming barefoot on black stones in 10 degrees celsius to keep the sound pure. He’s a champ.”