The Freelance Mentalists.
Thursday, January 28, 2016

just in the order they come to mind (if this were Pazz & Jop, I'd give all Top 10 albums 10 points each)

Best Country Albums of 2015:

  1. Cam: Untamed
  2. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell: The Travelling Kind
  3. Alan Jackson: Angels and Alcohol
  4. Ashley Monroe: The Blade
  5. Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard: Django and Jimmie
  6. Ryan Culwell: Flatlands
  7. Lindi Ortega: Faded Gloryville
  8. Gretchen Peters: Blackbirds
  9. Shelby Lynn: I Can't Imagine

 10. Thomas Rhett: Tangled Up

Hon. Mentions:
Dwight Yoakam: Second Hand Heart, Chris Stapleton: Traveller, Don Henley: Cass County Deluxe Edition,  Donnie Fritts, Oh My Goodness, Allison Moorer: Down To Believing

About Half Good (40-60%, incl x % of this song, y % of that):
 Tim McGraw: Damn Country Music, Eric Church: Mr. Misunderstood, Toby Keith:  35 MPH Town, Jason Boland and the Stragglers: Squelch, Striking Matches: Nothing But The Silence

Less Than Half Good (in effect if not percentages)(ditto About Half Good, in some cases):
Old Dominion: Meat and Candy, Kinky Friedman: The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,
Kacey Musgraves: Pageant Material, Dave Rawlings Machine: Nashville Obsolete, Ryan Bingham, Fear and Saturday Night

1. Patty Griffin: Servant of Love
2. Zane Campbell: s/t
3.  Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow Is My Turn
4. Whitney Rose: Heartbreaker of the Year
5. Bob Dylan: Shadows In The Night
6. Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free
7. Iris DeMent: The Trackless Woods
8. Brandi Carlile: The Firewatcher's Daughter
9. Mavericks: Mono
10. Elana James: Black Beauty
Hon. Mention:
  Tami Neilson: Don't Be Afraid, Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin: Lost Time

  1. Roscoe Holcomb: San Diego State Folk Festival 1972
  2. Legends of Old-Time Music: 50 Years of County Records
  3. Buck 'Em! Vol. 2---The Music of Buck Owens (1967-1975)
Hon. Mentions: Joe Bussard Presents The Year of Jublio---78 RPM Recordings of Songs From The Civil War, The Winding Stream: The Carters. The Cashes and the Course of Country Music, Vince Matthews and Jim Casey: Kingston Springs Suite
Jimmy Rabbit and Renegade: The Texas Album
Related: Kentucky Headhunters with Johnnie Johnson: Meet Me In Bluesland,
Rough Guide To Country Blues, Rough Guide To Blues Songsters

Best New Artists:
  1. Cam
  2. Chris Stapleton

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Django and Jimmie: opening title song's no big deal, except for the way it turns out to be an example of the variety of the influences and results, rounded up from here and there, in Willie and Merle's own histories, still in the making, or at least here again for the taking. Here, ladies and gents,  we are afforded a range and perspective, with the necessary degree of distance, for (for instance), a moonlight cruise by "Where Dreams Come To Die," and calmly outrageous tour bus tales of "Missing Ol' Johnny Cash," with deadpan contributions by guest minimalist Bobby Bare. There's also the covert regret and overt brush-off (urge behind both still felt) in "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)." Philosophical sharing for sure, but not too long-winded or sweet: "The Only Man Wilder Than Me" is saluted for having "a mind indifferent and free,"  among other blunt & blunted, no-bogart attributes suitable for pictures of dawgs playin' poker.

When I first heard Chris Stapleton with the SteelDrivers, I immediately thought of Bob Seger: both have the seemingly tight, raspy mid-range that can wail or nearly scream out for a second, then drop back right back into the continuity, which incl. "I drink because I'm lonely, and I'm lonely 'cause I drink," not as a breast-beating confession, but a given, along the way to breaking down the dry difference between "Whiskey and You." So he's got a way with words, but---despite having ditched the bluegrass SteelDrivers, a rock band and a Rick Rubin-produced solo debut, reportedly in a quest for more truthful self-expression---the expression really comes more through in the force and disciplined shape of his distinctive vocal sound. Close to Seger's, yeah, but Traveller is all country (with some suggestion of Outlaw, maybe Southern Rock, even proto-metal, ominous musty 70 atmospherics, not so rare on the country axis these days), all country in its way, Ah say, unlike any Seger album so far. Crisp drums and bass *sometimes* meet up with steel guitar, banjo, acoustic or (usually) electric rhythm guitar, but they all know to stand back and let the man do his thang.  "Tennessee Whiskey" maybe raises a glass to Van Morrison, with sparky little waves gliding by in some of his notes. There's also a subset of *relatively* subdued, candid reflections, culminating in the dry-eyed elegy "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore." Then he shifts to the uphill build of "Might As Well Get Stoned" (wishes various friends and relations were still here to do it with him, but since they ain't---) In a strong, arena-ready finale, he lets his musos have enough retractable leash for a prowling country metal groove on "Outlaw State of Mind" (written cliche as you think, but perfectly performed), and "Sometimes I Cry," which also has a touch of cosmic blues, and blue yodel, even.
(Also rec. to  jonesing Jamey J. fans, though he has none of the latter's occasional humor.)

Shelby Lynne, I Can't Imagine: cosmic country soul in the pocket, sometimes with rock and/or folk, from Palm Springs to the Deep South and back, constantly intersecting in light and dark, heat and cold---but never loitering in extremes. "Paper Van Gogh" celebrates "my fake masterpiece on the wall," sounds like; she knows she's a non-genius on the trail, but faithfully, and art "soothes (suits?) my origami heart." "Front Porch Back Porch" soon finds a pod of voices opening amidst memories she knows she shouldn't poke into any more, not today, and as she keeps going around the parts of her house, another voice helpfully names it "Window, door"), and will be there when she comes around again, readying for take-off. Before doing so, she's "a son of a son of a gun" in the sun for a while, knowing reviewers will insert obligatory mention of her and Alison Moorer's daddy shooting mama when they were kids, even if that isn't what she's kind of alluding to---later there's a mention of "my dark Dixie closet," but that's more about "three dollar bills" among the hills, I think---in some other songs, other words still swimming just as confidently haven't reached me yet, but the music took hold right away, and she knows when to shut up, unlike so many.

Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow Is My Turn: Conservatory vocal training and electric instruments are well-conserved fuel; thoughts of applying grateful labels like "high class first class folk album" are subsumed into the listening experience, as these searching, strong songs evoke other experiences, of going much further than this listener ever wiil beyond headphones, hopefully.

Allison Moorer's Down To Believing is seeming  not so much a Goodbye Earle "breakup album" in the usual sense---no time for brooding and pacing: right away, she's running the potholes with pressing uncertainties all around; the rear view mirror is to used only when necessary (got that, Self?). First three tracks go like that, and more about overall effect, but it's her voice that pulls me in closer, when she slows down a little on the title track. That's the one that grabbed me on the radio, before I knew who was singing---she's not a distinctive stylist, but sometimes the moment in the ongoing situation takes a turn---other standouts so far incl. "Wish I" and "Mama Let The Wolf In," speaking of taking a turn: rec to fans of The Band Perry's hillbilly gothic pop, although it goes from atypical raunch to something more contextually consistent, as the tough adult lets a little of the dread out: "I shot him with a silver bullet, now I pray, pray, pray..."
Continues kicking it through the tumultuous phone message of "I'm Doin' Fine," and a strong version of "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?"

Kentucky Headhunters with Johnnie Johnson, Meet Me In Bluesland: The flow to and around the beat and the point of the song (appeal of Willie and Merle's album also), the way Chuck Berry and pianist Johnnie Johnson did it, also brings flex and focus to the big-foot boogie of the Headhunters. This second KH x JJ set is the result of a long-ago all-nighter, def. on the fly ("we were writing verses during the solos"), that sounds like a liquid lunch at a place in the country, if not entirely of it, genre-wise. Still, if country is white people's blues, as was long ago posited, then white people's blues can be country--whoops, Johnson's not white, nevermind. But this sure sounds like a jukebox of mostly new, vintage-customized sides at places in my neck of the highway-side woods (helps that the The KH lead singer has an unabashed Kentucky accent, though not nasal; his delivery is clear and full, sometimes like Arkansas' Levon Helm).
True, the sort of place I'm thinking about is mostly (though not entirely) for fortysomethings-and ups, couples who look like Roseanne and Dan, proud to "Go stumblin', 'cause we can't dance/You can tell 'em I'm blind, they'll think you're bein' kind/We ain't lost on the floor, we're just kinda hard to find." Embarrassing their kids, in the universal family tradition.

Vince Matthews and Jim Casey's Kingston Springs Suite is songs about life in a small town, mostly gently fading away---'til "500 Hundred Homes" pop up in a bubble or something (spoiler, but that doesn't change the arc much, coming near the end) Other friction: "Mr. Soul" is an old African-American disturbed by racial conflicts rising again, outside of town (so far, this time) Self-awareness, re isolation and fading away, are pretty common here. The fade is not so gently for the "Franklin Lady, " whose husband, Col. Franklin, is drinking and losing brain cells all the while. Look awaay," indeed.
Interesting mix of signals in "Bessie That's A Lie". a Tom T. Hall-type reminder that big city attitude and opinionating--all 2 cents worth---can be found in small towns too.
Chills from the build and background voices of "Melva's Wine" (the voices show up later during a fishing trip, pre-figuring the sirens of O Brother Where Art Thou?, but they're also "church camp chicks," one fisherman advises the other).

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free: doesn't travel with the more sustained undertone of excitement found in Southeastern---which was recorded sober, apparently!*---but "Are you takin' the grown-up dose?" is still the question, or one of 'em, and it's often remarkable what can sprout from dry, quiet starting over, especially when the past gets out of bed and comes cruising through one's present-day/night of carefully worked out details, brushing them just a hair or three from conventional alignment. Or not, in which case it's conspicuous by etc., but always the singer's cue.
"Children of Children" and "24 Frames" will be the relatively big (npr) radio cuts, if any are, but most tunes as well as words tend to take fetching turns.
*Not to say this 'un doesn't *also* sound like it was written and recorded sober---it does, and it also sounds like that's what it's about: dealing with the unfiltered, or differently filtered---but Southeastern seemed like more of an adventure.

Alan Jackson, Angels and Alcohol: Starts with less than half-hearted best wishes/empathy for one leaving the nest---"verybody's gotta live a little, before they die," and he can barely get the words out---then wheels around into a hearty chorus of reassurance, 'bout how you can always come home to big ol' generic slabs of bacon and gravy or whutever.
However, the overall theme of this set, convincingly expressed (tastefully, incl. with tasty details) is a healthy hats-off-and-on to the Uncertainty Principle and our need for same. Incl. in the title track, when it comes to "sooner or later you got to face what's hidin' in your mind", and the randy honky tonk encounters of "You Never Know," fender bender cum two daiquiri hookups and all. He and hitchhiking Jack Kerouac salute each other (along the alternative-lifestyles interstate of dreams, but still). They aren't too far apart in some ways: stay-at-home AJ finally gets a bellyful of his wife with the flattening iron and the curlers and that little dog and "that damn perfume"--she's sick of his shit too, so good riddance, he'll just keep partying with "Jim and Jack and Hank"--which rhymes with "So take your black Mercedes, full of stuff for ladies, to me you're just a total blank"---damn, that's pretty hardcore, especially for Mr. Mellow Melancholy Blond Mustache. Spoiler: he doesn't cave! Thought surely he would, what with the cartoon-country-Stones tone of the thing, and he does eventually have misgivings, by the end is invoking more and more of his male musical inspirations, "cleanin' out my closet."
And this right after a pensive sensitive cocktail reverie, but he's not just flipping scripts, because he's still competing with, while trying to imagine, "The One You're Waiting On": must be an awesome guy, considering this awesome woman, who keeps drinking and waving guys away, checking her, darlin...(quietly, intensely focused, so considerate a bit creepy)
He also celebrates "Flaws": "Everybody's got 'em/The ones you came with and you caused/Scars and tattoos gone rotten...all the little things that make her unique...the pieces of the puzzle that is me."
I'm hardly an Alan Jackson expert, but, while this set doesn't have any tracks with the downer power of "Monday Morning Church" or "The Little Man," it sort of doesn't need them: they've been done, and this hasn't, not by him, not this consistently (as far as I know).

Zane Campbell, s/t: Bereft vitality (barebones bellow), to dour elegance, to new VDay classic"Bringing The Boys Home" ("NobodywantedtoDOit")
First four tracks are maybe too bare, but once he gets with a group, oh my. "BTBH" kinda Sturgill sings Cash and/or Isbell, an ever-cogent body bag/funeral train/post-"Dress Blues" style classick (and then some).

Lindi Ortega, Faded Gloryville:
cute voice knows when to go against type, for desolation angel/veteran perspectives like the title song but naming the album for it turns out to be something of a bait-and-switch, as the bluesy, moody, sometimes lilting beat ( thus sometimes reminding me of Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On") gets mischievous behind the sad 'n' sexy vocal on "When You Ain't Home," faster for "Rough Neighborhood," where she offers weed for cigs, faster still in "Run Amuck," knowing when to relent a little, as another means of increasing the momentum in "Tell It Like It Is" (one of several new originals with titles of classics she might be expected to cover, considering her style--again, going against type just that much). Even there, she's effectively back and forth between confidence and vulnerability---like the love pilgrim's almost losing her nerve at times; the suspense! (Also almost making me forget she darn well should be confident in the studio, considering that this is her sixth album.) And does sound sincerely sorry for having to tell the boy "You're too clean-cut."
Rec to fans of Nikki Lane, Amy Farris, Bonnie Raitt (70s and recently), also Brenda Lee, when she's comin' on strong.

The Winding Stream: The Carters, Cashes and the Course of Country Music
I'd say John Prine phones it in, but that would imply more energy than is evident. Most of the rest of this is pretty darn good (even Kristofferson, although he hands off lines to others). These Original Carter Family selections don't reach me like other configurations of Carters, but then again there are lots more of the latter (apparently the doc, which I haven't seen, is *mainly* about the OCF's music as Legacy-catalyst, and how it moves on through more toe-tapping eras). Fave so far is the title song, "Do not disturb this daydream," in which "the sparkling trout" is eyed by the kingfisher, and "Someone with golden hair/Looks a lot like you."

Don Henley's guest-star-laden Cass County (Deluxe Edition) turned out to be surprisingly painless, enjoyable, even. Starts with one of four well-chosen covers (all present on this deluxe edition, that is): Tift Merritt's "Bramble Rose," which he starts in surprisingly good voice---not just lack of the strain I remember; he actually seems to have a feel for the phrasing and pace---then hands it off to Miranda Lambert, who passes a verse to Mick Jagger---also good, even though he plays it straight. "Cost of Living" meets Merle Haggard, Martina McBride's good on "Old Flame," although the story gets cut short, probably because it's based on a real-life episode, according to him. Dolly Parton is excellent, duh, on the Louvin Brothers' "When I Stop Dreaming," but she doesn't obliterate Henley's vocal, so give points to both vox.
Some other voices are more in the background, like "two out of three Dixie Chicks," Vince Gill, Lucinda---caveat: my headphones are certainly not for audiophiles----but I like the way he melds near-subliminal yet unmistakable Lee Ann Womack to a chorus that would otherwise probably get monotonous.
Even at least one cratedigger's catnip find, at least for me: "She Sang Hymns Out of Tune," with a low-key, sneaky surrealism that surely suggested some Gram Parsons originals, and had me thinking that this presentation surely is the mature, generous Henley, since Parsons reportedly loathed the Eagles--but apparently it was written by one Jesse Lee Kincaid, and recorded by Nilsson, on his Pandemonium Shadow Show (also by the Dillards on Wheatstraw Suite).
Speaking of the Eagles, I never was a big fan, but the overall sense of radio-ready structures here even extends to up- and downtempo tracks that would improve several of their albums.
Catchiness etc. also gets past most editorial moments, so more points for not playing the old man card too much (trepidation of atmospheric "Train In The Distance" could be felt by anyone, most likely).

Buck Em! Vol. 1---The Music of Buck Owens was purty cool, with that Buck stuff that the Beatles were evidently listening to (and covering "Act Naturally"). Also we wouldn't have Dwight Yoakam as we know him on albums like Second Hand Heart, 3 Pears, and everything else,  if not for Buck x Beatles. This one takes him into the mostly post-Beatles 70s:
Buck 'Em! Vol. 2 turns out to be a suitably moody, dependable companion to a long-ass gray day, mostly spent waiting for an appointment that will not have been so exciting (probably, hopefully).
Like most boxes these days, it starts with 4-5 duds, incl. oh-so-serious ones that make me think he's only good at the drollery, often wry, which I mostly know him for---wrong. There are good rueful ballads later on, with bracing music vs. depression, rather than overselling the tearjerking (more like "well, hell") lyrics. And even those can take some apt gray day turns, into a door between us without a key, or waitin' for a train you know has gone, and there are the classics like "Streets of Bakersfield, "I didn't want to be Some-body, I just wanted to be me....You don't know me, but you don't like me." Can see how he was a favorite of Gram Parsons. Some of the lesser, later tracks (after he became a fixture on Hee Haw) rely too much on the classic Bakersfield Sound, the template of it, that is, and can't really conceal mediocre material, though seems like he's not really trying to con us, just honestly, "That's all I got."
Some of the funny stuff is like that too, but plenty of it isn't----like the City Girl---"I like to watch Johnny Carson"---meets the Country Boy---"Let's go see the Martian." Just my taste, but also dig the country-psych pop of "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass?", with fuzz guitar, harpsichord, shifty Southern suburban rhythms and scrambling drums. "Tiger By The Tail", several songs with cities in the names, mostly celebratory, maybe all, if you include the deadpan-ish, yet irritated put-down of New York which cites some stuff/describes it in terms that are not nec. off-putting; he lets listeners decide how to take them, but is certainly assertive enough: "I wouldn't live in New York City, if they gave me the whole dang town."

Mavericks' Mono is very catchy (get it?), for the most part, with some equally distinctive ballads, though a couple of mid-to-slower tempo tracks could use lyrical turns. Lyrics are no prob on, for inst, the Latin ska numbers, and the closer, "Nitty Gritty," turns out to be, just like I hoped, an excellent cover of the bouncy Sir Doug song, with Augie Meyers guesting, I think.

Dwight Yoakam's Second Hand Heart didn't immediately flip me into the back of a pickup truck, not like 3 Pears, but it sure does build. First three tracks seem a tad studious, which shouldn't be necessary after 14 previous albums drawing on mid-60s Buck Owens/Beatles crosstalk, and what the latter, at least, drew on from the Everlys x various Southwestern crossover artists. But then he starts stretching and flexing the Sunbelt accents, adding Alabama-style syllables to a droll drawl over a "She's About A Mover"-type riff, dropping in some Jordanaires-type vocal encouragement, just for a second ( like some other fleet touches, on this and other tracks: acoustic guitar back here, steel over thar), and the arc of the set really takes off, doesn't let go. For instance, "Man of Constant Sorrow," with a vocal not that far from old timey versions, maybe a little faster---or that's just an illusion created by the slamming electric rhythm tracks, which fit perfectly, without jiving up the high lonesome vibe---they just respond, in a plugged-in, open-flap tent revival way: "Tell us how lost we all are, Brother, that's the first step to bein' found!" (Or maybe just, "Rave on, let it bleed, I'm with ya.")
Yoakam continues to crank up his rock and country connections while passing through, getting cooler and hotter at the same time, eventually ending with a ballad, but one with a beat; sounds like he's been listening to New Morning, the way Dylan was maybe listening to Van Morrison around the time of NM (long enough to concur with an overall sense of the bucolic/boondocks consolations,  and the short sharp outbursts of  "If Not For You," at least).

Jason Boland & the Stragglers, Squelch: social commentary, which can seem self-righteous and lazy in its way, especially since he's always reliant on basic Waylon-to-Sturgill templates, but sometimes it really works, the more personal-is-political he gets (and not nec. "political" in the usual sense; like there's one about finally making it out of a small-minded smalltown, to New Orleans, which is "buzzin' like a sign," and it doesn't go at all like I thought it would).
So it's uneven, but def worth checking out:

Patty Griffin, Servant of Love: Despite the title, nothing submissive about this 'un. Sometimes a dry martini prowl, sometimes more of a search party vibe, or burnished thickets of guitar, over the waves---then again, she's come to think of love, not as something heroic, but as "waves chipping at the rocks, 'til they turn to sand/I would have told you, but you never asked me." Umm, okay, maybe just as well...she started the album in a very present-tense, you-are-there sustained wish and waiting for a house on the coast… it Americana (nocturnal psychedelic treatments of tradition-associated frameworks, somewhat like Robert Plant's Band of Joy, which she sang in), though country enough at times for songs that would be great for Dixie Chicks (or Courtyard Hounds, Natalie Maines). (Griffin wrote some of the most adventurous, poignant, and plain best Chicks tracks ever:relatively left-field appeal fit perfectly with the universal, to put it bizologically). Also some of this seems pretty well suited for the latter-day voice of Plant, her ex. Maybe more than her own voice, actually; lots to take in here, anyway.
Later: she sounds weary sometimes, strong and resourceful always, calling in old and new configurations, always in progress, def. incl. descending melodies.
So it all works out, and may be a kind of break-up album: talking andd working around it, w/o falling in.

Spent most of my most recent lunch breaks w Oh My Goodness, by Donnie Fritts, mostly known as a songwriter and Kristofferson's long-time keyboard player (saw him with KK in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, so yeah goes back pretty far). Not a good place to soak up the good vocal influences, so maybe that's why it took me a few tracks to get into this. Not that he sounds like his boss, but at times just a bit like a sub-Levon, sub-Bobby Charles, even---he knows how to phrase, but thin pipes can make him a little bit too Mr. Pitiful. Still, musical smarts win out, and he gets aboard the studio bus, which never seems crowded, despite having members of the Swampers, Alabama Shakes, St. Paul And The Broken Bones, John Paul White, even John Prine at one point. It's actually an intimate, mostly late night, sometimes slightly surreal setting, with Spooner Oldham's (and maybe Fritts', and even Will Oldham's) elegant keys, especially, suggesting early Randy Newman (or, you know, vice versa; Spooner's been around a long time too). "Lay It Down" is even a Sir Doug-worthy, anguished call (to self and other) for no-bullshit face-to-face. "Choo Choo Train" could even be a Newman---or Loaded-era VU---track. I think. It is a down home geezer album, but rec to those who like any of the musical associations mentioned, without being dependent on them.

Whitney Rose, Heartbreaker of the Year: along with Lindi Ortega's, it's rec to those pining for the late great Amy Farris, also for Roy Orbison and the better David Lynch movies. Cool intensity, no spookier than true romance, and not too reliant on atmosphere (ghosts of Senior Prom, as anyone might have): some architecture in there (love the mini-bridge of "Only Just A Dream," also the guitars there and elsewhere, reg'lar and steel, hovering, prowling, serenading, warning, also various uses of drums and, occasionally, keys, organ and piano (the latter somewhut Floyd Crameresque on the rocks in "The Last Party, " but it's not a lift of his "Last Date"). "Be My Baby" is an on-the-nose choice in this context, but it works, esp. with producer Raul Malo's non-showboat, non-wallflower vocal turn.
Still, despite the breathing room, 10 tracks and 37 minutes seem a little too much of a good thing, like a bottle of wine at one sitting, 'til the finale, a metamorphic reworking of "A Tear In My Beer" adds just enough variety.

Thomas Rhett, Tangled Up: Really like the horns x beats behind his swaggering presentation of "South Side," the suggestions of Van Morrison (maybe "Crazy Love" in particular, but not too close) in the guitar etc. of "Die A Happy Man," the Pink ("Get This Party Started") in "Vacation," the cold bones country in "The Day You Stop Lookin' Back," also there in (but getting warmed up by)"Playing With Fire," the duet with Jordan Sparks, the modern sounds all around but never oversold, although lyrics of "I Listen To The Radio," have the r. telling him things he never ever thought of before, like he should go and kiss that girl.
if Rhett is bro, he's pitching and setting a very appealing example/standard: frisky, but not boorish (or bland). Also, he's good for a whole album, unlike most designated bros. I try to keep an open ear and mind; only Florida-Georgia seem hopeless, but maybe only because I can't stand to listen long enough to get to the good stuff.

Tim McGraw, Damn Country Music: Still young enough to be restless and hopeful, even when lyrics sugest this might also be his version of midlife crisis (or even on the more excitingly uneven x plentiful Deluxe Edition of Sundown Heaven Town's title track, middle-aged crazy). Always smart enough to be grateful for whatever he can get---and lose, but hey it's another experience. Life, incl. music, keeps him on his toes, though sometimes promising starts nudge me toward alleged hooks via too-slick surfaces, too quickly and repetitively, always on the verge of getting it on. Well, that's life too, especially for us longterm fans. Still, the best tracks combine a supple way with close studies, though not discernibly direct lifts from 80s poptronic radio hits----maybe the Police, Billy Ocean, Springsteen---also r&b, early-Tim Hat Country widescreen contemplation--- and especially all of the above on "Want You Back," which is also, what? Chromatic? Caribbean? With steel guitars and something chipping away at the edge of my headphones too---Oh yeah, he's even implicitly if grudgingly grateful to "damn country music," judging by the degree to which he withholds vociferation, while acknowledging, candidly but not tearfully, that he pulled up "roots," broke his mama's and "an angel's heart, on the way outta town"---all in a day's work when you're ready for the Big Time, "bleedin' Yes and hearin' no," finding that your best just seems "so-so." Yet he doesn't deny that he's made it, and keeps on earning his keep. Good enough.
So I shouldn't have been surprised that even "Humble and Kind," which starts with atypically up-front ick, soon goes for the gusto, with no undue jolts, just the dues.

Old Dominion's Meat and Candy is okay as office/traffic music, mainly because it's not very distracting. The drunk dialing one did grab my attention though, because that's an extreme example of their consideration of women (previous track gently submits for approval the idea of rollin' with you like a beercan in the back of a truck). Drunk Dialer says you should go with him, thus breaking up with the other guy implicitly, instantly, just "rip the Band-Aid off---you know I'm right, or you woulda hung up by now." He still sounds more hopeful than bold, as ever. Also: "Said Nobody," with Weekend Update punchline chorus.

Gretchen Peters, Blackbirds:
Maybe especially this time of year, some days are just naturally darker than others, and this album can help them slide in there a little darker still, without overdoing it. Although the title track comes a little close, with violence getting more physical "I stink of kerosene" etc---in a way the other songs don't seem to bother with (although it's more about the immediate overall effect, so who knows yet), as they usually track bad (self- and other) love through the woods, and "that green suburban plain" at least one citizen is zoning on. Not country- or folk-rock, although there's usually an electric guitar and/or drums among the otherwise acoustic combo, usually with medium-to-brisk tempos, not much decoration, and steady rhythms building nicely, like on "Black Ribbons," co-written and background sung by Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, her fellow members of Wine Women & Song.
Ballad-wise, sounds like she's been listening to Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson, but not too much; for instance, I've never heard anything quite like the beautiful death spiral skywriting of "Pretty Things"---heard the musical pattern before, maybe, occasionally, but not with this kind of storyline.
Good duet with Jimmy LaFave, too, and the only cover, "Nashville"--as written and performed, a cogent swirl of memory, anticipation and apprehension---makes me want to check out the writer, David Mead, and has me thinking even more that several of these would fit Nashville, as did Season 2's "How You Learn To Live Alone," the one she wrote with Mary Gauthier.

Jimmy Rabbitt & Renegade, The Texas Album:
Pace the press sheet,  this isn't "wild-eyed" etc like the live set Jerry Wexler happened upon, but he's got an amiable delivery---crisp, little rough, confident, never overselling--and the band's tight, even got some gouging guitar at times (and note James Booker on keys!) Not a terribly distinctive approach, even in the early 70s (they def like Waylon, also Willie, Hank, etc), but some good, maybe original lines), and Outlaw was still fresh.

Another one for us diehards: Toby Keith's 35 MPH Town, predictable as you might suspect at this point, incl. the novelty reviewer-bait lead-off, "Drunk Americans," which sways in a semi-Irish manner, "We all sing it wrong, but we all sing along," "we" incl. "mudflaps and bourbons, ballcaps and turbans....CEOs, GEDs...FBI....we don't give a rat's ass, if you are a/Democrat or a/Republican, we're just all Drunk Americans." The title track immediately does an about-face---of sorts though for once his diction seems odd on some of it: ever'body's "peeing?" and "suing," pretty sure that's right, when they should be getting the Bible out, because it says Christians don't sue, or so some Christians have told me (can't find that bit in it, but okay). Like the music alright, especially something like a slow virtual windmill, so guess he's okay with alternative resources.
"Good Gets Here" yodels some lyrics like Yoakam, but the music is faster, leaner (than Hagar, anyway, who made at least one solo album with horns that this somehow brings to mind). The other rockin' one, with more of a Hagaresque attitude, is "10 Foot Pole," and it's not that he wouldn't touch his ex-fiancee with one, but he "couldn't," because her momma and daddy would never let him get that close, not no more. "You shoulda seen us all at the mall!"
His power-crooner voice is still splendid on three ballads, at least one of which would be prom-bait 20-odd years ago.
Couple Buffett songs or clones thereof, because such a shortage.
He also delivers good vox on "Drunk Americans" and all the others I can stand to listen to, which is 7 out of 10, but some of the good 'uns are half-good/-assed in terms of keeping me interested, even for 33 minutes (and remember I'm a diehard). Brevity is the soul of wit, but he's more of a wag, and so very very very proud of it. Oh well, I'm used to it. Uncle Tobe, home for the holidays. Doesn't really drink, but it's a good subject, he finds.
Of course it (Buffet table too) is really all about having it both or more ways, paying the cover charge to be the boss and/or ass. Celebrating life. Still can't drive 55, not really really, which is why the title track sounds a little off.

One much fresher, only in part because she's much younger: Brandi Carlile, The Firewatcher's Daughter. Nominated for an Americana Grammy; keep thinking she did a CMT Crossroads session with Elton John, but (she and EJ did something else, right?) but no, CMT was Eltie and Ryan Adams. Same idea, though: catchy drama in denim--this is maybe mostly acoustic, but pushy and electric where it counte, especially on "Mainstream Kid" which burns its way through to the floating, observant, recuperative "Beginning To Feel The Years," and "Blood Muscle Skin and Bone," which somehow natcherly follows the pioneer workbreak of "Wilder (We're Chained"---"and when everything else is gone, our love will still remain"--with something like The Band Perry mixing their glam handclaps, and maybe some cowbell, with post-punk rhythm guitar durr-durr-durr, little train chugging by (not too far from the "Petticoat Junction" theme, come to think of it)
It's all hard-won wisdom, philosophical, sometimes rationalizing, sometimes declaiming, clawed back from the brink, while chasing love, and still capable of extravagant (brandy-rich, costly) moves. Rueful and even twangy enough, occasionally, to qualify as young Americana, if not quite young country, as much (but if CMT ever does another Crossroads, I wouldn't be surprised to see her on there---with---?)

Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material: presents herself here as so down-to-earn and wholesome and normal and been-around-just-enough-to-have-uncommon-common-sense, that she only has two problems: one is that her previously noticeable unreliable ear for classic country-worthy cliches now leads her very far into friendly righteous triteness most suitable for bumper stickers, home schooling, 69 cent greeting cards, and Fecebook; the other problem is that she "can't smile when I don't feel it inside," or words to that effect.
The first prob is chronic in the bad sense, even though she may still be okay with reefer, judging by one of the few tracks I like, "Die Fun" (also reasonably okay with most of the opener, "High Time," and certainly the penultimate "Fine"---ones where she trusts the melodies, more than Deep Thoughts, to look around and guide the listener, also her). It's so chronic that it creates a distracting context for the unlisted closer, "Are You Sure," a Willie Nelson rarity, rescued for this sufficiently poignant duet with the man himself.  The context  underlines the degree of righteousness in the lyrics, distracts from the definitive sound, the true voice of experience. Fortunately there's a video going around, rescuing the track from this album.
Oh, yeah, and not smiling when she don't feel it could is at least potentially a major problem, very promising re song material, but unrealized here.
I know, I hope, that musical magicians such as Womack and Rimes may glimpse other potential here, presently unavailable to mere me, but meanwhile, much of it is almost unbearably painful to listen to---in this case, because of triteness, but that does make it country, in its own peculiar way.

Eric Church, Mr. Misunderstood: I do like about 5/12 tracks so far (somewhere in the middle, "Mistress Called Music" goes from prematurely celebratory to reflective, which seems more convincing). But jeez, there's only 10 total, so not that much more potential. However, I'll keep listening. No problem to do that, although the intermittent country Mellensteen moves are annoying; his voice isn't (even) good enough to pull 'em off, nor are the words. His band can do anything, but are kept on a short leash here; if you're gonna be that kind of corny, go all the way and then some, like on The Outsiders.
Still, "Chattanooga Lucy" is my fave so far, because it builds musically, as the reach-out lyrics call for. And all the best songs here draw on personal-cultural history for reaffirmation, refueling for the present and future, hopefully, in different situations.
(re the 'steen, if you want bemused ol' twangboys prowlin' the mean streets with time, blood and/or grease etc. on hands, try the aforementioned Deluxe Edition of Tim McGraw's Sundown Heaven Town---it's uneven too, but lots more good songs, in part because lots more songs).
Uh-oh, good thing I was gonna listen some more. He does sound more at home here, for better and worse, than on some of The Outsiders. No surprise to see him quoted as wondering if producer didn't push him too far, "Oh Nashville, you great Babylonian bitch" or whutever, and his reservations/resistance made his voice/vocal approach seem even more limited that it does otherwise.
Not that he can't be effective with more intimate material.
Or maybe less intimate/more tasteful but also less-BS away (hard to balance those last two at once)

Striking Matches, Nothing But The Silence: songwriting duo, contributors to ABC's Nashville, and even though they're sonically easier to take for a whole album than Gunnar/Sam and Scarlett/Claire probably would be, still a bit too thin and earnest for my taste, especially when the words are too, and need stronger/less ingenue vox to put 'em over the top---and that's despite the bass and drums, always stepping up, never showboating (ditto electric rhythm guitar, given the chance). Still, it all works out sometimes---the in-too-deep, wanna go deeper "Make A Liar Out of Me" is my fave, and def. hoping for several cogent covers.

Bob Dylan's Shadows In The Night tracks a worn but sometimes surprisingly poised, limber, white-bluesy growl---in effect like the later Sinatra's shrewd conservation and investment of remaining resources (look for the 1980s cable concert from Wolf Trap, for inst) through the moonlight, with acoustic bass and steel guitar navigating, Cap'n D always at the wheel. The romantic ritualism could just seem like the "elaborate sentimentality" tag which young Nik Cohn applied in passing (to country music as a whole: see his excellent 60s collection Rock From The Beginning), but this is the sound of conviction, beyond excuses for getting wasted: the opener, "I'm a Fool To Want You" is spooked realization--this time is like the first time, and now he can't shake the chil. Ditto matter how many times those "Autumn Leaves" have drifted by, and how mellow the sadness they can bring, he dreads the the sign of their coming once more(oops, spoiler, but I never noticed the dramatic climax written in before, maybe because I never listened to the end before, so give the grizzled tones more points for that).
And love songs can be like work songs here---another old-school country association---nevertheless, somehow he gets into a drift that gradually spins him around, in his spacey, autumn leafy way---"I go away for the weekend, and leave my keys in the door"---which leads to a happier realization, "I've always been your clown"---happier because, hey "Why try to change me now." He enjoys the quest, the cruise, the growlin' prowl in the blue moonlight (and shadows, yes)! So the second half reflects this, at least 'til "That Lucky Ol' Sun" flips the light on: more work ahead, but he sounds ready for it, even if complaining and jealous of the Sun (can't get too happy, or it wouldn't be country).

Cam, Untamed: Thoughtful, sometimes wry or rueful turns and shading in with the high spirits and sheer vitality; production supports and mirrors her balancing act as young voice of experience, coming out of at least one bad relationship, as she's acknowledged. Could be risky, starting off with a post-breakup album, but no enigmatic personal references etc (although that can work too, with the right production---really like the way Torres' undertow is countered and polished by the Portishead dude etc., though wouldn't work without just the right songs, ditto Cam).
Struck by "Runaway Train"'s bit about after after she's transformed herself into an effective instrument of revenge, "maybe I'll feel human again" (and the way she sings that---never over-the top bravura on top of flamboyant lyrics, like somebody else might do it).

Iris DeMent, The Trackless Woods: Good name for it, because, though quickly engaged, I did have to learn to follow the way she (and alert friends) follow Anna Akhmatova's bitter, insatiable quests, all around and right through the messy zero (kind of like Elena Ferrante's charismatic outlier in the heart of the old neighborhood, Lina/Lila Cerullo). But dang if DeMent,  as much a child of urban sprawl Southern-times-Southern California's indelibly migrant community as her old boss Merle Haggard, doesn't find and release the rolling countryoid confidence of these uncompromised lines---who knew? Of course the lines also find a release for the increasingly subtle vocal and piano melodies of an artist who became seldom seen, at least in part because she's become seldom satisfied with her own lyrics. Release and def points of departure, somewhere under the forest canopy, but with sufficient glints, and sometimes right in the heart. Wherever she is, she always sounds at home with the words.
Speaking of which, the CD's worth getting for the printed lyrics (also if you're getting tired of backing up back-ups of your back-ups of your back-ups). Not all of 'em come through the singing, not initially, although the way those bits gradually emerge can be quite an experience. The combination of sensibilities isn't just like Lina/Lila times her great friend and rival for life, Elena/Lenu Greco, because DeMent's persona is something else (but come to think of it, Anna A. can seem like both the Ferrante frenemies at once, scornful and dismissive and anxious and masterful and romantic, arguing, fighting with herself to toughen up for the next fool to come passing along, someday, beyond mere possibility)
Not to say that there might not  be even (and a lot) more to Akhmatova than the way she (so far) comes across to me, based on this selection of translated poems, and the way they sound here.
Meanwhile, often enough, this trek turns up an illuminating emergence of new convergence--or at least traces---and always, we fans get that rousing sound, a bracing, measured dose of old patent medicine DeMentia. Her warble always seems like it might want to run wild, and could, but she keeps it on a fairly long leash, wherever she goes. Someday...

Ashley Monroe, The Blade: "Bombshell" is where she shifts from an initial impression of a tendency to stasis---where you get it all, and maybe get hooked, in the first verse and chorus, then stick around, to increasingly, if vaguely, diminishing returns, as the mind starts to wander---shifts to a more dynamic, moody yet sufficiently gravitational speculation: drop it on him now? How, "It's never a good time for a bombshell," but she's still checking her options...haven't heard a song about this situation, so in that respect, as well as the actual sound, I make a mental note for my future mix, The Great Lost Pistol Annies Album.
"From Time To Time" (like several on here)might be another one for the same destination, although in this case, the multiple Monroes have more of a post-Beatles/Fleetwood Mac/Dixie Chicks/Courtyard Hounds/multiple solo Maines/Mona Lisa: real friendly and slightly exotic (which is a friendly warning not to take friendliness for granted).
Despite her turning the pages in the stylebook--without trying to hide it---this set is more emotionally and/or sensually involving than Like A Rose.
And again, with the Pistol Annies-associated knack for fresh topics: considering that your love was (def past tense) "heaven," then, if the devil don't want her, where can she go? Purgatory? Celibacy? Just everyday numbnuts office bus station cafeteria reality? It's a good question, long as she can keep asking it, and putting off the answers.

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind: More originals than Old Yellow Moon, and while I wouldn't mind an underexposed honky tonk chestnut or two--early tracks seem a bit mild---it does get more intense as it goes along. They were among the first to demonstrate how to fold rock & folk elements into country, also how to bring those out, and keep 'em there, in a Nashville-based sound that didn't get bogged down in trends, incl. nostalgia. They still do that, for inst. in the paranoid social commentary of the somewhut Doorsy boogie of "The Weight of the World," and the cosmic lover's speculation of "Higher Mountains, " delving way into a family photo, maybe, in "Her Hair Was Red,"and getting stardusted in "Le Danse De La Joie" ("Ooo-wee, nothin' in life so sweet/As you 'n' me 'n' four left feet"): where memory's rituals somehow find new creative expression.
Life's plainer, ruder side's here too, with oldsters trying not to hang on just because they're scared, in "We Sure Gave It A Try," which is even harder when one of you is basically gone baby gone already, in "If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now." Ah, those helpful reminders, solutions, scrolling all along the sunny side of particle board apartments, since E and R. and I were young: just let us live on the fly and/or by the freeway, and be a friend to Man. Yep, several along those lines.

As expected, Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin's Lost Time sports Phil's soulful, stylish vocals---with a wail, even a subliminal yodel at times, like he's a descendent of Jimmie Rodgers, ready for the boxcar, vaudeville stage, live radio, and roadhouse---also his  poppin' blues harp and crisp rhythm guitar for punctuation---for Dave's dynamic leads, of course. But seems like some of the songs,  at least their lyrics, are not so typically engaging. Do like the bit where Rosa Parks tells the Montgomery authorities to have a seat on the back of the bus: "Sit down baby," and take a load off; gonna be ridin' a while. This goes well with Dave's own currently sly, warm, suave but still slightly rough baritone, like he's finally found the right cough syrup at the medicine show. However, as on Eleven Eleven, the Dave album where (I think) he first extensively employed this approach, I get a bit tired of it ( maybe the minority report, at least where EE is concerned; xgau and some others think that's his best solo album).
I'm especially frustrated by the way an intriguing, uptempo ( with what I think of as a bluesy bluegrass cadence) variant of "House of the Rising Sun" gradually loses impact via Dave's lead vocal. Still, the track is certainly worth checking out (hope somebody else, like solo or Blasters-mode Phil, takes another shot at this approach).
Phil does sing lead on most tracks, and the brothers-never-bros sing well together here.  But Common Ground was a more consistently involving listening experience, because they sounded so excited finally to be getting through another album without killing each other.

Elana James, Black Beauty:  Hot Club of Cowtown's fiddling chanteuse brings the back-and-forth of both principal instruments to this second solo set's selection, sequence and sound of songs that sometimes veer from Hot Club-ready, steamy and starlit vintage visions, into contemporary covers and originals, often powered by serious playfulness (careful if ye be wishing for truly elfin charms). She wraps "The One Who Loves You More" and the bone(s?) of contention in her own dream, which is just passing through, floating into place, like a cape and/or a sheet. Who else could or would glide and ricochet directly from a cover of barely-double entendre chestnut "Telephone Man" to the musical setting for "Hey Beautiful: Last Letter From Iraq (US Army Staff Sgt. Juan Campos)," in which the soldier deftly spices understatement into intimate reserve, where lines and spaces can be lit just so. There's also a seamless, detailed version of Hunter-Garcia's oops-way-of-nature "Ripple," for instance, along with an occasional reminder of Hot Club's tendency to random selection, though pretty sure they wouldn't majority-vote for  "Hobo's Lullaby." Her self-titled debut might be the solo EJ to start with; it's concisely covered here:

Roscoe Holcomb, San Diego State Folk Festival 1972:
He's like, "Oh I gotta cold" and "Haven't played in 2-3 year"---but sounds hale & hearty right off, high lonesome yet increasingly joyous, with no contradiction (it can work: also check that live in Australia Sinatra w Red Norvo Trio album, found and legit issued a while back). Voice & 5-string banjo maybe a bit more than guitar, I think (32' 58" zips by in such good company), A few instrumentals or coda work-outs too. My fave so far is the cosmic journey "Across The Rocky Mountains," which sounds like two (good) guitarists at times, under his guiding, winding vocal notes. This song could be ancient, but it's especially appropriate: herrrre he is in Cali, in Cali, in Cali---leaving Daisy, Kentucky, was a huge effort, sponsor John Cohen's notes affirm, but he quickly connected with all these young audiences. This is the last date of the tour, and he's ready to knock 'em dead.
Grand finale is the maybe even more cosmic one-off of "Wandering Boy," where he's "lining out" quickly speak-singing lines to (impromptu, possibly conscripted, and initially apprehensive-sounding) guest Jean Ritchie, almost under his breath, but she catches 'em all, and modals with him, wherever he will go, for nine minutes. Yo, San Diego of '72 and '16, California dreamin' is still becomin' a reality.
Sound quality is ace too.
(PS: Right after he started singing the first song, I was thinking, "Blue skies---but what are those grey things in there? Oh yeah, mountains.")

Although several of the promo files won't play, I'm getting some pretty strong early impressions of  (most of) Joe Bussard Presents: The Year of Jublio---78 RPM Recordings of Songs From The Civil War. "Joe's got shit that God don't have," begins one blurb, and while that's always been true, his evident desire to depict via a range of material, starts with historically significant in-your-face sickly sentimentality x formalism, as written and performed (rich liner notes incl. discussion of attempts to redeem image of Confederacy via music, also redeeming image of fiddlers, but this is more like icky parlor music). It may be more about the renditions, like what are described as "maidenly" vocals; I do love the version of "Lorena" sung by Del McCoury on the mostly good-to-excellent collection Divided and United (which topped my 2013 Scene ballot's Top 10). And here we do get a rendition of "The Poor Old Slave, " in which straight-forward, non-tremulous sincerity finds its way unerringly among faded emblems, truth-based imagery (sung by ladies who may be maidens, for all I know, but don't make a big deal of it). Ditto the crisp, brisk "In The Cruel Days of Slavery." "Dixie" is all-instrumental, except for the occasional, too-cued-sounding cheers, and one brief, urgently spoken mention of those magnificent men massing outside----more old Rebs, mebbe, but this "Dixie" is all sinewy lide guitars and/or dobros, not the sound I usually associate with misty visions of the Confederate Lost Cause.
Bussard and friends play *Rebels Hornpipe" (recorded on 78, like he's been doing since the 60s, the 1960s, that is, so it's only a ringer chronologically).Starts strong, proceeds in a merry-to-dizzy, compulsive circle, in a way I def do associate with Confeds. "Pass The Bottle Round" starts as Rebel (maybe sometimes Union too) parody of the line, "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground, but his truth is marching on." "Johnson Boy" is a fiddle-stomper about a local rake ("Jump girls, don't be afraid," girls unexcitedly join in on chorus), who gets drafted even though he can't see good, and keeps romping 'round the hotly contested countryside, though maybe fog of war will slow him down, as myopia alone didn't do, back under the presumably clearer skies of home---so,"Jump up girls, don't be afraid." "Sweet Bunch of Violets" starts as a tearjerker, but that's a set-up for revenge beyond the grave, hurrah boys!

Legends of Old-Time Music: Fifty Years of County Records:  I'm especially digging several versions of the hearty "Fortune"-- like, "good or bad, hit me with it"---the strutting change of pace "Peacock Rag," and "Dan Carter's Waltz," which suggests courtship, pretty refined yet moonshined, so don't push your luck there, son.

Tami Neilson's Don't Be Afraid seems somewhat Ronstadtian, with (somewhat) mixed results: blues-gospeloid belting I find distractingly generic, but when she eases back just a hair, we get some fine ballads (and occasional upper tempos): country-bluesy-soulful, sometimes w jazz potential and Latin turns (could imagine Freddy Fender doing a couple of these). Some DBA streams are a little balky tonight on the old Bandcamp ground, but well-worth the effort.

Ryan Culwell's Flatlands immediately takes the rein with nervous energy willed into focus (minus strain or excess melodrama)on tensile Texastential tunes. He's young, he's spooked, but he's determined to "find my mountains in the flatlands, hallelujah!"--followed immediately by "I Think I'll Be Their God." Where he sounds like he's acquainted with the megaphone tape legacy of the Rev. Jim Jones. Yes, he's wary of hope, even self-mocking at times---"Ah am just a young man, with piss down in mah bones"---but he's tasted more than the grape Koolaid, tracks different flavors of hope and hopelessness. I'm also influenced by first hearing this while first reading Winesburg, Ohio: both consider the flavors of twisted roots, with spare but never bare presentation (12 songs, 40 minutes here, and, as in the book, weaker or slighter tracks are carried by the overall momentum). Especially like when sustain and a little bit of distortion appear on the horizon behind battered acoustic rhythm, and there's the occasional desert siren (of the female persuasion).
Flatlands can be recommended to selective fans of Townes Van Zandt, esp. "Red River" ("She's cleaning the red dirt off the life he give her...he ain't my uncle no more") and "Horses" ("Sometimes tough ain't enough/Bow down the head that Jesus raised"---addressed to a woman, not a horse, I think).
                                                           ----Don Allred


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