Chris Thile – Thanks for Listening

Released a little over a year after Chris Thile took over as host of the public radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, Thanks for Listening collects ten Song of the Week features from his inaugural season. Each song was an original written for that week and premiered live on the show. Finding a common theme among personal, societal, and political topics in some of the songs — namely, the art of listening — Thile headed to the studio with producer Thomas Bartlett to record selections for a cohesive album. On these versions, the mandolin virtuoso covers stringed instruments except bass and viola, and sings lead, though he’s joined on some songs by guest vocalists Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, and Gaby Moreno, all Prairie alumnae under Thile.

One of the album’s flashier mandolin performances can be found on the spare “Balboa,” whose multicultural wanderlust receives intricate and nuanced accompaniment. By and large, though, Thanks for Listening puts a premium on songs over chops, not that there’s any lack of instrumental proficiency here. An atmospheric track like “Feedback Loop,” for instance, uses a slow tempo, keyboards, and echo along with acoustic instruments. After setting an intentionally lethargic tone, lyrics get at our ability to filter unwelcome opinions on social media and elsewhere (“Feedback Loop, I play you to soothe my closed eyes/Closed mind/Open wounds/Open hate for anyone out of the Feedback Loop”). Later, the poppier “Falsetto” grapples with the constant derision, real and imagined, from a post-election Donald Trump, including what he might have to say about an activist musician. Other songs address fatherhood, family gatherings, and friendship in the context of the time’s technology and politics.

Despite its more collaborative origins, Thanks for Listening plays like a singer/songwriter album from Thile, one with moments of humor, poignancy, dread, and playfulness. Particularly “for anyone trying to hear through the din of a boorish year,” it captures the Zeitgeist of the first half of 2017 with a very human touch.

Travis Meadows – First Cigarette

If there is one overriding theme to the intense backstory of Travis Meadows’ life, it’s perseverance. Life has thrown a bag of lemons at Meadows and while the results haven’t necessarily been of the lemonade variety, he’s still here to tell the tale. He has endured an unsettling litany of circumstances including cancer (at 14), addictions, family deaths and more that would have hobbled others, to become one of the most respected songwriters, often for others, in Nashville, no small feat.
His own limited catalog of two previous albums and an EP has detailed many of his travails in hopes of personal closure, particularly 2010’s lauded yet dark Killin’ Uncle Buzzy. While this third release is somewhat less personal in its overall tone (see closing rocker “Long Live Cool”), no one…will mistake it for a party platter.

“Relock doors I wish I never opened/unlearn the things I wish I never knew,” Meadows sings in his weathered, torn but affecting voice on the opening “Sideways,” providing a concise summary of his life so far. There’s a substantial Springsteen influence, both in Meadows’ raw singing and lyrical approach. It’s something he celebrates in “Pray for Jungleland,” a “Night Moves”-styled coming of age tale that uses the Springsteen tune as its backdrop. Meadows’ incisive voice also mirrors the Boss on “Travelin’ Bone,” which, although the concept of having to keep moving in life and music isn’t exactly fresh, is presented with honesty and clarity.

Much of First Cigarette is introspective, but Meadows goes for the sing-along jugular on the anthemic “Underdogs,” a song suited to be chanted by crowds at arenas because of its “I Won’t Back Down” subject matter (“we may fall behind but we rise and shine like broken stars…lovers of what others hate..we bend, we bruise but we never break”), thumping “We Will Rock You” ready beat and a “na-na-na-nah” chorus just waiting for lighters to be raised in unison.

Generally though, Meadows ruminates on life by giving advice to youngsters in the insightful, slow rocking “Pontiac” (“Hold on to the innocence/through the almost and the could have beens”), the reflective take-challenges-as-they-come “Better Boat” (“I breath in, I breathe out”) and ultimately rejoicing in where he is now on the uplifting “Guy Like Me.”

The sonic landscape is appropriately stark; the songs are bolstered by generally skeletal backing including drums and electric guitars. Most interesting is how each track flows into the next, an idea from producer Jeremy Spillman, which encourages the album to be absorbed from top to bottom, in one setting. Meadows also played and sang simultaneously, instead of overdubbing. That enhances the raw emotion in his lyrics, making them connect with unusual potency through first and second takes on tunes that reverberate with emotion, positivity and, perhaps above all, perseverance.

Grant Maloy Smith – Dust Bowl; American Stories

Drought, poverty and dirt defined America’s southern plains in the 1930s. Folks who depended on the land for survival were devastated by monstrous clouds of dust that swept across the region between 1932 and 1940, killing crops and livestock. Already reeling from the worst economic disaster of the early 20th century, residents, primarily of Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, found themselves facing an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

Roots singer/songwriter Grant Maloy Smith reflects on their experiences with his new album “Dust Bowl – American Stories” (Suburban Cowboy Records). With 13 tracks, the album tells personal stories about enduring love, lost love, leaving home and, in some cases, staying home and fighting to survive. Some ballads are sadly beautiful, while others are as gritty as the Dust Bowl itself, and others uplifting.

“There were many factors that led to the Dust Bowl, but a seemingly-endless drought combined with over-farming and poor land management stressed the earth and contributed to one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century,” Smith said. “Those same topics resonate today. My album is a cautionary tale, but it’s also about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of great adversity.”

The signature song, “Old Black Roller,” derives its title from the nickname given to sky-high walls of choking dust. Like an approaching storm, the song begins slowly and builds to a crescendo. A more rocking version returns at the end of the album, as if to warn the listener that Mother Nature isn’t finished yet.

The first single from Smith’s album being released to radio, “I Come From America,” celebrates the diversity and strength of farm families forced to flee their homes, many of them relocating to California. (“We’re the desperate and unwanted, We’re the strangers from the shanty side of town, Do my eyes look proud but haunted? That’s the destiny in me, That’s the Texas that you see.”)

May Erlewine – Mother Lion

“Her songs show a very real connection and concern with everyday folk.” Lifted from the first paragraph of May Erlewine’s Facebook biography, this is the singular, wholesome truth that sits at the center of the Michigan artist’s entire portfolio. Her music has a heart that connects with others’ hearts. It’s one that has been continuously conscious of the human condition and how it reacts to the ebb and flow of our everchanging world. She’s given a voice to everyday folk in artistically recognizing her place on our planet Earth as one, and we are all elevated together for it.

Her name might be recognized internationally, but any Michigander will tell you that she’s at the top rung of artists that they pride themselves in calling one of their home-state girls. Her latest record, Mother Lion, is reflective in this in the staff she’s brought on to help bring it to life. Members of Ann Arbor outlet Vulfpeck comprise her band (drummer Theo Katzman, bassist Joe Dart, and pianist Woody Goss) while acclaimed producer Tyler Duncan (Michelle Chamuel, Ella Riot) helps bring it all together.

The ending, everlasting result is a refreshingly vibrant addition to Erlewine’s discography. She’s always had an innate knack for speaking to the masses in any way they see fit to process it. Yet, as her relatable voice melds with crisp, modern, and eclectic production, we’ve come to a place where we realize that the artist is still coming up with ways to surprise us while touching our hearts even 10 solo albums in. Utterly empathetic and chockful of heart-tugging imagery, Mother Lion is an empowering hand to guide you headfirst in a bold new direction as much as it is a warm embrace to cry into and be told everything is going to be okay whenever the world gets you down.

Chris Stapleton – From A Room Volume 2

Eight months after releasing the best-selling country album of the year, Chris Stapleton is back with a companion piece. From A Room: Volume 2 arrives December 1st, delivering another batch of songs culled from Stapleton’s Library of Congress-sized back catalog. It’s lean and live-sounding, with hands-off production by Dave Cobb – who captures each song with minimal knob-twiddling, shining some honest light on a working band that’s logged countless stage hours since Traveller‘s 2015 release – and plenty of guitar solos from the industry’s most unsung instrumentalist. Stapleton’s voice remains as titanic ever, but on these nine tracks, he packs an equally sized punch as both picker and bandleader. Volume 2 isn’t just about songs in RCA Studio A (the “room” in the title); it’s about the people occupying that studio too, and Stapleton keeps fine company throughout.

1. “Millionaire” (Kevin Welch)
Originally recorded by Kevin Welch, “Millionaire” gets a swinging, Heartbreakers-worthy update by Stapleton and company, who turn the tune into a soulful blast of heartland rock. The song’s secret weapon: Morgane Stapleton, whose harmonies trace her husband’s melodies at every twist and turn.

2. “Hard Livin'” (Chris Stapleton, Kendell Marvel)
Stapleton summons the ghost of Waylon Jennings with this song’s phase-shifted guitar riff, renewing his outlaw stripes along the way. Before the final solo, he lets a loud, lawless “Wooo!” escape from his throat, proof that recording “Hard Livin'” was easier than its title suggests. File this stomping Southern rocker alongside Traveller‘s “Nobody to Blame.”

With a Celtic-sounding verse and a haunting, minor-key chorus, “Scarecrow in the Garden” is the album’s first non-anthem, trading the bombast of the first two tracks for something more reminiscent of an old-school murder ballad. During the song’s final moments, Stapleton paints a gripping picture of a farmer at the end of his rope. “I was sitting here all night / With a Bible in my left hand and a pistol in my right,” he sings.

4. “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” (Stapleton, Mike Henderson)
Written with ex-SteelDriver Mike Henderson, this low-and-slow soul ballad borrows some of its movements from the Great American Songbook, sounding like something Cole Porter might’ve written after too many drunken nights in the Delta.

5. “Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind” (Stapleton, Jaren Boyer, Marvel)
“I’m lonesome and stoned, so far down the Devil’s looking high,” Stapleton sings, embodying one of his most familiar characters: the tortured, heartbroken protagonist who’s looking for relief in all the wrong places. Behind him, the band kicks up plenty of bluesy dust.

6. “A Simple Song” (Stapleton, Darrell Hayes)
The title says it all. Unhurried and unplugged, “A Simple Song” sketches its storyline in broad strokes. There’s a factory worker, a broken family and a romance that’s keeping the narrator afloat. Like “Drunkard’s Prayer,” it’s one of the most intimate songs on the album, reminiscent of older tunes like “Whiskey and You.”

7. “Midnight Train to Memphis” (Stapleton, Henderson)
A booming, burly rocker, “Midnight Train to Memphis” finds Stapleton in jail, serving a 40-day sentence while a distant train wails its horn outside the prison walls. The whole riff is built upon a monster guitar riff, injecting venom and vitriol into Volume 2‘s final stretch.

8. “Drunkard’s Prayer” (Stapleton, Jameson Clark)
“I hate the fact it takes a bottle to get me on my knees,” Stapleton bellows, playing the part of a broken, boozy man who hopes God will be more forgiving of his sins than the woman who recently left him. The guitar pattern echoes Willie Nelson’s reading of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and like that song, “Drunkard’s Prayer” is delivered entirely alone, a move that drives home the song’s lonely message.

9. “Friendship” (Homer Banks, Lester Snell)
Bookending the album with another cover tune, “Friendship” finds Stapleton singing a forgotten country-soul number from the Stax archives. The Staples Singers’ patriarch, Pops Staples, recorded the song shortly before his death, and Stapleton’s version updates the original with deeper groves and gorgeous guitar tremolo.

Busby Marou – Postcards From The Shell House

If Rockhampton duo Busby Marou hadn’t already found a nice little groove over their first two records, then Postcards From The Shell House ensures they have now.

Think melodic, acoustic tunes with heartfelt lyrics delivered by the John Mayer-esque Tom Busby. From the opening cut, Best Part Of Me, none of the 11 tracks particularly break the mould, nor do they need to. Busby and his partner in crime, Jeremy Marou, are at their best when they’re throwing down three-minute guitar-pop tunes, and their growing legion of fans are sure to lap up this latest collection.

Shell House picks up where the island sway of Farewell Fitzroy (2013) closer “Waterlogged” left off. At once a homecoming (“Living in a Town”) and a departure from the country leanings of preceding offerings, it’s an album steeped in the gentle rhythms of the coast. Opener “Best Part of Me” champions Busby’s breezy croon and Marou’s earthy guitar, recalling Josh Pyke and laidback moments from Bernard Fanning. Reconciliation anthem “Paint This Land” bears the sonic stamp of producer-collaborator Jon Hume, while folk-rock anthem “Getaway Car” is piloted by the pair’s sparkling harmony.

Joshua Radin – The Fall

 

Joshua Radin graced us with his musical presence almost 12 years ago, and has yet to disappoint. He first gained traction in 2004 when his song “Winter” premiered on the popular television show, “Scrubs.” We have his good friend, Zach Braff, who Radin credits as the one who discovered him to thank for this, well, him and Ellen DeGeneres. In 2008, Radin was asked by Ellen to play the song “Today” along with several more for her wedding. She praised him for his beautiful music and honest words; and although these popular endorsements helped put Radin on the map, they’re certainly not what has kept him around for now nearly 13 years without an end in site.

 

Joshua Radin has been the same person since he started playing guitar at the age of 30. That wasn’t a typo; he only began this venture at 30 years old. He picked up a guitar and began writing almost as therapy to help through a breakup. The rest is history. It’s almost as if it was meant to be; you can’t fight fate. From his first album We Were Here in 2006, to one of his most popular albums in 2008 Simple Times, to his live album Live from the Village in 2016 (that is as flawless as any of the six studio albums he’s recorded in his career), Joshua Radin’s soothing guitar melodies matched with the smooth rasp of his voice set him far apart from the rest.

Although some his songs hold sadness, they still always contain hope and positivity. With his positive arrangements and authentic words, a Joshua Radin song will leave you feeling happy, sad, peaceful, and hopeful all at the same time. That is a true gift. It’s this uniqueness that allows people to relate to Radin in a way they wouldn’t with other artists. He’s never tried to be anything but himself. Radin allows himself to feel to the fullest extent in order to create the best and most honest body of work. Every song he writes is a “journal entry,” that has never changed and holds true with his upcoming record as well.

Joshua Radin’s seventh studio album, The Fall (out January 27, 2017 via Glass Bead Music), stays true to his diary style of writing. However, The Fall has an even more honest aspect to it, because for the first time in his career, Radin produced the entire album on his own. This album holds so much truth. From start to finish, it takes listeners through a story of beautiful melodies and heartfelt lyrics that are passionate, tragic, uplifting, and everything else in-between. Make sure you check this album out, and read our exclusive interview below with the incredibly kind, thoughtful and down-to-earth Joshua Radin.

Matt Hannah – Dreamland

Matt Hannah’s sophomore album expands his “acoustic, melancholy-country spin on Americana folk music”

Matt Hannah’s second album Dreamland is a first rate follow up to his 2014 debut Let the Lonely Fade that signals clear development since that highly praised initial release. Dreamland is a ten song collection with the rare quality of thematic coherence – the central question Hannah is meditating about over these tracks is the nature of memory and consciousness. Perhaps this sounds like a heady theme for a collection of popular music, but Hannah proves himself adept to the task without ever sacrificing the musicality of his material or risking self-indulgent pretentiousness. He doesn’t settle for a strictly folk song approach on Dreamland. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar present in various molds, but Hannah’s unafraid to mix things up with rugged electric guitar and strong drumming. His top shelf collaborators help him realize his musical vision without ever overshadowing his songs and the virtuoso trips common on recordings like this, unfortunately, are mercifully missing from this album.

The title track begins the release with the sort of attentiveness and nuance that serves notice we are in good hands as listeners. Hannah coaxes the lyrics out in a near-whisper, underplaying his delivery, and it helps invoke a strong mood in conjunction with the accompanying instrumentation. He takes on a much harder-nosed musical stand with the second track “Broken Hearts & Broken Bones”, bringing in biting electric guitar, but the song’s core is still guided by his voice and acoustic guitar playing. The album’s third track “Dandelion” drops his audience back into familiar acoustic territory and it’s one of the album’s more delicately rendered tracks. Such adjectives shouldn’t confuse readers that these are willowy, crystalline outings – despite their obvious sensitivity, Hannah writes sturdy guitar driven songs that never come off as coy or too precious for their own good. Electric guitar returns on the song “Set Free” and it’s accompanied by some tasteful organ courtesy of Matt Patrick hovering just below the top line instruments and understated flourishes from Aaron Febbrini’s pedal steel guitar.

“The Night Is My Home” might have a slightly portentous title, but the song is far from that. It’s one of the album’s more sensitive cuts and doesn’t come by its emotions in a cheap, premeditated way. It also features one of Hannah’s best vocals on the album and he makes every word count. The atmospherics of “Something in the Air” aren’t quite dreamy; instead, the feeling is more haunted, barely coalescing, and the song retains just enough artful shape to make an impact on the audience. The sound, ultimately, is poetic and helps form a greater whole in tandem with Hannah’s words. “Gone” has a quasi-shuffle tempo that the band never over-emphasizes and the welcome influence of blues gives it an unexpectedly jagged edge that other songs lack on this release. Dreamland ends with a note perfect curtain entitled “Morning Song”. Taken as half of a pair with the album opener, “Morning Song” makes for a marvelously apt conclusion and the acoustic guitar strings together a delicate, highly melodic spell. Matt Hannah has followed up Let the Lonely Fade with a recording that both reaffirms the first album’s strengths and builds on them.

Read more at http://ventsmagazine.com/2017/02/20/cd-review-dreamland-matt-hannah/#mq31CTgwXugQg4K7.99

A.J. Croce – Just Like Medicine

Following a successful demo session with producer Dan Penn, A.J. Croce decided to make Just Like Medicine — the singer/songwriter’s ninth record — his first full-fledged soul album. Croce and Pennassembled a world-class crew of musicians — Steve Cropper and Vince Gill are the superstar cameos but the entire band comprises pros — and then settled into a well-worn groove that recalls the supple Memphis soul of the ’60s. Much of the pleasure of Just Like Medicine lies in its sheer sonics: it’s smooth and soulful, evoking the past but fleet enough to feel fresh. Listen long enough, though, and the variety within Croce‘s ten songs becomes apparent. He opens proceedings with the swampy R&B of “Gotta Get Outta My Head,” which gives way to the sprightly beat of “The Heart That Makes Me Whole,” and by the time the tight half-hour wraps up with the open-ended “The Roads,” he’s touched upon simmering ballads (“I Couldn’t Stop”) and nimble, rolling New Orleans-inspired pop (“Full Up”). Croce also unearths the fine “Name of the Game,” a previously unrecorded song by his father, Jim, but for as good as it is, it’s ultimately a grace note on an album that’s among his very finest.

Susan Cattaneo – The Hammer and The Heart

In an interesting move, Susan Cattaneo opens both discs on the double CD set ‘The Hammer & The Heart’ with the same song, the carpe diem Word Hard, Love Harder. On the first electric-led disc, The Hammer, she’s backed by The Bottle Rockets for an inevitable guitar ringing rocker. While, on the other, the acoustic-based The Heart, she’s accompanied by folk trio The Boxcar Lillies for a more bluegrassy string version with Jim Henry on dobro and mandolin.

Neither are fully representative of the remaining16 tracks, many of which lean to the bluesier side of the country fence. Back on disc 1, The River Always Wins has a tribal rhythm groove with Mark Erelli on lap steel on a song about the irresistible power of water in full flood as it “comes down from the mountain like judgement from on high.” Co-writer Bill Kirchen joins her on guitar on for a brace of contrasting numbers, the piano boogie In The Grooves with its nod to the rock n roll greats and dreamy piano ballad duet When Love Goes Right.

 

The Bottle Rockets return for the swaggering, amped up Lonely Be My Lover, a similar, but bluesier vibe informing the dobro rooted Does My Ring Burn Your Finger? While sandwiched in-between, she strips it right back for the slow burn southern blues of Dry, a duet with Dennis Brennan.

 

The first disc plays out in equally southern country blues mode with Ten Kinds of Trouble (another song with a lyrical nod to Elvis) and, Davy Knowles and Stu Kimball on guitars, Back Door Slam where, again with a  tribal stomp rhythm, she sounds remarkably like Cher circa Gypsy, Tramps & Thieves.

 

As the title of the second disc suggests, this is a quieter, more reflective side of things, deftly embodied in things like the dreamy Ordinary Magic, a smoky Carriedand the simple aching acoustic Bitter Moon.

 

Elsewhere, Jennifer Kimball provides backing vocals on Smoke’s song about a commitment shy lover (“loving you is like catching smoke”), Everybody Cryin’ Mercyhas a slinky, jazzier gospel groove and co-writer Nancy Beaudette shares vocal duties for the post break-up memories of Fade To Blue.

 

It ends with something of a misfire as, joined by Todd Thibaud, she offers a pointlessly faithful cover of Space Oddity, but any reservations are more than dismissed with the standout Field of Stone. A powerful song about the dangers of hardening your heart, it begins with an image of  small town communities being swept away by “eight rows of asphalt” before giving way to a tale of paternal abandonment and growing up with “my mother’s hands and heartache and my father’s need to run.” Double albums can often be an overindulgence with a surfeit of padding, but, a chance to show two sides to her musical sensibilities, this is well up there with the better ones.