ALBUMS OF THE MONTH
Love and Dirt, by Session Americana
A cocktail table provides the key to understanding Session Americana. It is so much a part of the band’s experience that they typically travel with it when they tour. The table is a centerpiece, of sorts, around which the musicians gather. Sitting there, they often swap as many jokes as they do instruments and songs. And that is the magic of Session Americana.
With multiple singer-songwriters in the band one would expect a diverse array of songs on their latest release. They don’t disappoint from that perspective, all the while maintaining a cohesive feel across the song collection. No doubt, this consistency is the direct result of the time spent sitting around that table and singing.
Harmonica player extraordinaire Jim Fitting shines with his Dr. John style vocals. “Beauty’s in the Eye” has an uplifting quality to it, building musically as Fitting half speaks and half sings with a jovial rasp. “I was blind and I couldn’t find all the beauty that was before me,” his confides before pronouncing, “love shook me, knocked me to my knees, called me a fool and made me see that she was fine.”
Fitting’s “So Far From Your Door” has a comfortable feel that matches the tenderness of its subject matter. The band croons along with Fitting as he sings, “When the years go tumbling ‘cross the floor, off her shelf where they slept in a jar, when you hear a voice from long ago asking ‘why do you have to go so far from my door.’” “And you wonder how did I get so far from her door.”
Ry Cavanaugh spins a tale of love and political extremism set in Ireland on “Barbed Wire.” “This love is not a white rose, this love is not a pink heart, this love is a barbed wire,” he declares against an acoustic pop melody with Irish and Americana overtones.
Cavanaugh’s gentle “Raking Through The Ashes” has a brilliant musical conceit, describing the quest to rekindle a failed love with the ashes left in an extinguished fire.
If all we have are embers, surely that’s enough, but if all we have are memories, that’s the end of our love. Raking through the ashes from the night before, raking through the ashes trying to light a fire once more.
Dinty Child’s “Gold Mine” is a dark acoustic blues song punctuated by Fitting’s harmonica. “I was looking for diamonds in a coal mine,” sings Child, reflecting on a life of fruitless searching.
In addition to their own songs, the group continues their tradition of championing New England songwriters. Love and Dirt opens with an inspired performance of Amy Correia’s radiant “Love Changes Everything.” Each of the group’s primary singers take a verse as the song builds, ultimately joining their voices together in beautiful harmony.
Audio Download: Session Americana, “Love Changes Everything”
Buddy and Jim, by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale
It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that Miller and Lauderdale recorded this album in three days. The duo has encyclopedic knowledge of country music, that they’ve brought to bear for artists ranging from Robert Plant and Patty Griffin to Elvis Costello and Ralph Stanley. Once has to imagine that, left to their own devices, the music just flowed. And the result? A gem of a release that mixes a handful of originals with some timeless songs from the country music canon.
“I Lost My Job of Loving You,” a Miller and Lauderdale original, is an instant classic. As Buddy’s guitar wails, the two join voices to sing, “A man will live and make mistakes, I’ll have to live with what I made, it kills it me that I’m such as fool, I lost the job of loving you.”
Buddy’s wife Julie, herself an impressive songwriter, makes her presence known on several tracks. Her ballad “It Hurts Me” is a true country tale of heartbreak. Buddy and Jim infuse the song with despair as they sing, “all the sweet and eternal promises that we made, like the old summer roses do they whither and fade.” Her co-write, with Buddy and Jim, on “That’s Not Even Why I Love You” is equally compelling.
The album’s cover songs showcase Miller’s and Lauderdale’s impressive knowledge, appreciation and acknowledgement of the country music tradition. “Down South In New Orleans” matches Miller’s distinctive guitar against a lively fiddle, both prodded along by a percussive rumba beat.
Miller and Lauderdale go old-school with their cover of the 1930’s Mississippi Sheiks song “Lonely One in This Town.” A relaxed hoedown ensues with fiddle and acoustic guitar leading the way. “The Train That Carried My Gal From Town,” dating back to the 1920’s, picks up the pace and features some glorious fiddle-playing.
The duo’s harmonies really shine across this release. Both have weathered voices well suited to country crooning. There’s an engaging authenticity as their voices blend together on tracks like “That’s Not Even Why I Love You” and “Forever and a Day” and, well, every track.
One can only imagine how much fun it was for Buddy and Jim to record this album, ’cause it sure is fun to listen.
Audio Stream: Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, “I Lost My Job of Loving You”
Ostensibly a musical collective, The Bean Picker’s Union is the vehicle for Boston singer-songwriter Chuck Melchin. There’s a gentleness to Melchin’s songwriting, a forlorn feel that makes you want to close your eyes and get lost in the songs.
The character in “Down” speaks of driving home, yet the road on which he is traveling is really a journey to return his life to normalcy. There’s a sense of longing as Melchin sings, “cause I’ve been down and I’ve been crawling my way back as if I’m worthy of redemption.” It’s as if he is trying to convince himself as much as he is the listener.
Cars and driving as a metaphor for life’s search for validation and meaning is a recurring theme. “Jolene” describes a man coping with the loss of a friend as he drives to the mountains to scatter the lost friend’s ashes. An aching slide guitar set against mandolin and acoustic guitar creates a mournful soundscape as Melchin reflects:
he never learned the chords to wichita lineman
but he didn’t care, he just loved to play
the fog lights can’t cut through this nasty weather
and i can’t come up with anything to say
“Sometimes I Just Sits” has a soothing melody as Melchin reflects on the gradual decline of a small farming town. “it didn’t happen overnight, i didn’t feel the change a bit,” he sings, “sometimes i sits and remembers, but sometimes i just sits.”
It seems only fitting that one of the more upbeat tracks would be called “Tranquility.” Against the backdrop of a back porch pick-a-thon, Melchin perfectly captures the sentiment of returning home to find that things aren’t as he remembered them.
i went back home yesterday
and all the houses were so small
and that hill it wasn’t quite so high
and the woods weren’t there at all
Melchin’s resolution? “I’m just sitting here and thinking, working on tranquility, I’m just sitting here and drinking.”
“Numb” has a dark and sinister feel to it, all the more so from a haunting keyboard that recalls Garth Hudson and the Band. Melchin shared this explanation on how the sound was achieved in co-producer Bow Thayer’s Vermont studio:
At one point at Bow’s, maybe about 2AM, we decided it would be a good idea to play an organ through my little Fender Vibrochamp amp, with the vibrato cranked up, and place the amp inside Bow’s grand piano with the damper pedal held down with a brick, and mics placed inside the piano. We probably could have just used some plug in, but the sound we got is the otherworldly keyboard sound on Numb.
It is a telling tale, reflective of the musical authenticity that permeates Better The Devil. This is an album that is evocative and beautiful.
Audio Download: The Bean Pickers Union, “Down”
There are certain albums that just feel good. The latest from Alex McMurray has that quality, a collection of songs that are warm and inviting. The New Orleans native does it while fusing musical styles ranging from folk to jazz, all infused with a spicy kick.
The title track would fit well in the Woody Guthrie canon. It has simple repeated verses that give it a sing-along folk anthem quality. Of course it also has a bit of New Orleans vibe courtesy of a slide guitar.
“Me and My Bad Luck” finds McMurray’s wryly lamenting the bad luck that follows him. With tuba booming and trumpets blaring, the song is furious fun.
McMurray channels Tom Waits on the ballad “Diamonds In Your Hand” and “Otis at the Wheel.” The former is a gentle acoustic ballad reminiscent of Waits early years while the latter has the percussive bite of Waits later years with McMurray mirroring Waits vocal growl.
The tuba returns on “All My Rivers,” ably joined by a banjo and barroom piano. “Fill your bucket up with dreams, till it’s bursting at the seams,” sings McMurray in a song that is as high-spirited as it is relaxed.
This is good time music for good times, bad times and all times in-between.
Audio Download: Alex McMurray, “Me and My Bad Luck”
Freight Train Hearts, Browan Lollar (from the This Is American Music release For the Givers and the Takers)
Ok, this is starting to get ridiculous. Former Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit guitarist Browan Lollar continues the trend of great new music emerging from Alabama. Not surprisingly, the guitars come out swinging but it’s the sing-along chorus that packs the punch. For best effect, play this song loud.
Audio Download: Browan Lollar, “Freight Train Hearts”
People Come Here For Gold, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks (from the Signature Sounds Recordings release Sweet Talk)
Although she now resides in Brooklyn, Miss Tess spent many a year honing her craft around Boston. Her style falls somewhere between old school country and jazz, which she and the band perform with a deft hand. Miss Tess sings with a wryness that is infectious and an authenticity that is enthralling.
Audio Download: Miss Tess and the Talkbacks, “People Come Here For Gold”
Carl Perkin’s Cadillac, Mike Cooley (from the Cooley Records release Fool on Every Corner)
A Drive-By Truckers show is known for loud guitars and high octane rock and roll. I’m all in for that, but there’s something special about hearing some of those same songs played on just an acoustic guitar. Drive-By Trucker Cooley serves up a collection of DBT gems, plus a new song and a cover, on this solo release that was recorded live in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. Cooley unleashes the melancholy of this particular track, showcasing the inherent beauty of the song.
Audio Download: Mike Cooley, “Carl Perkin’s Cadillac”
Little Aches and Pains, Paul Kelly (from the Gawd Aggie Recordings release Spring and Fall)
I think that every songwriter should have to listen to the Kelly catalog before writing a single song. His ability to capture a moment or a feeling is without compare. Here he grapples with getting older, tackling the topic with a bit of melancholy, a bit of optimism and a dose of resignation at its inevitability.
Gives you little aches and pains
I got ’em always now, sunshine or rain
These little aches and pains
I don’t count my losses now,
Just my gains
Audio Stream: Paul Kelly, “Little Aches and Pains”
The Power of Positive Drinking, The Trews (from the Bumstead Records release ….thank you and I’m sorry
Canadian quartet the Trews have created an impressive catalog of guitar-driven rock anthems. Their latest ep adds several more to the collection. Vocalist Colin MacDonald has one of those voices that was made for rock and roll, with growl and edge that bristles against his brother John-Angus MacDonald’s thundering guitar. Bonus points to the boys for serving up a high energy version of Paul Kelly’s “Leaps and Bounds.”
Audio Download: The Trews, “The Power of Positive Drinking”
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.