It is only May and it has already been an amazing year for Boston music. Below are some of the highlights from some of the impressive releases making for a mighty fine musical spring in Beantown.
Waterfall, by Todd Thibaud
Thibaud’s latest album is a bit of a paradox. For all it’s upbeat melodies and potent rock energy, the lyrics are stark and introspective. The songs mostly capture characters reflecting on past mistakes with an air of resignation and anxiety about the future. Despite their unease, however, there is a maturity in their attitudes as they take responsibility for their actions even as they ruminate on the results.
Album opener “What May Come” is a great example. The song begins with a gloriously buoyant guitar riff before Thibaud declares “there’s a bitter taste to the air I breathe.” Yet the song has such an infectious quality that makes you want to play it loud and sing along at the top of your lungs.
“Not For Me” picks up the story, with Thibaud offering this life perspective:
Downtown Sadie is a prophet and a friend of mine
She says that life ain’t no secret, it’s as simple as a ball of twine
Every day’s another layer, every piece another lesson learned
She says the bigger that you make it, the longer you can watch it burn.
Brawny guitars convey the song’s pent-up energy with a touch of electric piano to soften the edges.
“Hollow” is propelled by an irresistible guitar hook, even as Thibaud sings “when the thing you lose is the thing you love and I know without a doubt there’s nothing that I can do.” Horns join in towards the end of the song to give this tale of love gone wrong a jubilant feel.
The frustration reaches a peak on “Wears Me Down.” Bristling guitars and an angry rock beat drive the song as Thibaud declares,
Inside my mother’s eyes, I find no surprise at all just her love unbound
She sees the best in me, I wish that I could agree but I feel like a man going down
And the hounds of failure howl outside my walls
The tempo, if not the sense of regret, slows down on the hauntingly beautiful “Change a Thing.” The song finds Thibaud asking the question that we’ve all undoubtedly asked ourselves as a relationship fell apart: “What if you could, I wonder if you would change a thing.”
Lest anyone think otherwise, there are some moments of joy and contentment in the mix. The title track is a song of love and redemption. “Dark was the cloud over me, warm is the hand that pulled me free,” sings Thibaud against a backdrop of shimmering guitars and an insistent rock beat.
For those in Boston, Thibaud is celebrating the release with a special show at Atwoods Tavern on May 23rd. See you there?
Audio Download: Todd Thibaud, “Not For Me”
Walt Whitman Mall, by Bill Janovitz
While Bill Janovitz wrote many of the songs on Walt Whitman Mall about his experience growing up on Long Island (home of said mall), the stories will undoubtedly ring true to many listeners, regardless of where they were raised. From summer loves and summer jobs to the adolescent desire to escape a “bedroom town that has no heart” – Janovitz captures it all with a perceptive eye. With the passage of time we can all look back on these formative years with both a healthy nostalgia and a bit of wisened perspective.
Album opener “Long Island,” a re-worked version of a song originally recorded for Janovitz’s 2001 album Up Here, starts as an upbeat indictment of suburban life and youthful rebellion. “The town ain’t got the heart you wear on your sleeve,” he proclaims.
The tempo changes mid-song, however, as does the desire to escape.
the Buick’s out in the drive-way now
you want to leave but you don’t know how
It’s summer time and the sun beats down
Your favorite time in your hometown
After a soulful interlude that reinforces the vacillation, the song returns to its original tempo and sentiment. It is a potent contrast that serves to reflect the vagaries of youth.
Fans of Buffalo Tom – the band that Janovitz co-founded and has performed with for over 25 years – will undoubtedly enjoy “Diamonds Down.” The brooding rocker features the intense guitar work that has become a Buffalo Tom hallmark.
At the other end of the spectrum is the elegant ballad “I Know It’s True.” The song finds a man returning home many years after his departure, confronting the loss of childhood friends and innocence. Janovitz’s impassioned vocals and acoustic guitar give the song a powerful sense of melancholy.
The album takes a nostalgic turn with “Heckscher Park.” A cheerful melody propels the song as Janovitz reflects on the big dreams for the future that we all undoubtedly had in our youth. “Feeding the ducks at Heckscher Pond, catching the snow with white coats on,” he reflects, “we could be anyone we want to be today.”
He then imagines a girl from his childhood returning to the pond years later, her young son in tow. The big dreams are no longer her own, they are now projected on her child. It is a fitting portrait of the transition from innocence to experience, and how the cycle renews itself generation after generation.
Audio Download: Bill Janovitz, “Long Island”
There is an ominous beauty to Tallahassee’s latest release, a collection of songs whose sense of longing and uneasiness are captured in its expressive musical soundscape. The two songs that bookend this release are prime examples.
Album opener “Old Brown Shoes” finds singer Brian Barthelmes attempting to convince a reluctant companion to leave a small town in search of big city opportunities. “This town is a faded memory, I pray the Lord our souls to keep,” he sings, “I’d rather drown in the deep blue ocean, than drag water in this muddy creek.” Persistent harmonies and a soaring chorus the song do little to mask the song’s pensive feel.
“Where Oh Where,” the gentle closing track, finds the singer re-considering the decision. Having experienced the perceived coldness and contraints of city life, he yearns to return to the simplicity of a small town. A smoldering organ, accompanied by an acoustic and occasional electric guitar, paints a somber musical landscape as Barthelmes pleads, “Please take me back to the country, to the place where I belong.”
Audio Download: Tallahassee, “Old Brown Shoes”
Mr. Starlight, Michael Tarbox (from the self-released Works and Days)
Listening to his music, you’d never know that Michael Tarbox lives in Boston. Since his debut with the Tarbox Ramblers back in 2000, he has demonstrated a mastery of the country blues.
At the heart of Tarbox’s music is his guitar, as raw as it is charismatic. It creates an electricity that courses through every song. Just listen to this smoldering blues-based rocker.
Shake, Lori McKenna (from the Hoodie Songs release Massachusetts)
There are some songwriters who chornicle their own life experiences, exploring the nooks and crannies of their lives. There are other songwriters who create characters and situations which they can explore with detached honesty. Over the course of her career McKenna has proven herself capable with both styles.
“Salt” and “Shake,” two songs from her latest release, fall in the latter category. The songs offer opposing views on a failed relationship. In “Salt”, the protagonist simply walks away; in “Shake” the character is paralyzed and unable to walk away. McKenna inhabits both songs beautifully, singing with an emotion that is as powerful as it is restrained.
Time does not waste itself,
A dream cannot wake itself,
The truth cannot disgrace itself,
An unwritten prayer cannot save the lost soul.
Arms cannot embrace themselves
A heart cannot break itself
And I cannot shake myself from you.
Audio Download: Lori McKenna, “Shake”
Gone Yer Gone, Jimmy Ryan (from the Ruido Grande Records release Readville)
Ryan has a well-earned reputation as one of the premiere mandolin players in New England, well heck, make that everywhere. Alas, he spends so much time recording or touring with other artists that we all too infrequently get to hear new songs from him.
Well, Ryan’s got a wonderful new release that showcases the strength of his songwriting and, of course, his prowess with a mandolin. It’s a mighty fine pickin’ party.
Boston folk: Ryan will be celebrating the release with a special show at Johnny D’s on May 17th.
Audio Download: Jimmy Ryan, “Gone Yer Gone”
Never, Jenny Dee & Several Men of Mystery (from the ep release Jenny Dee & Several Men of Mystery)
For the past several years Jenny Dee has mined the glories of 1960’s girl group pop with her band the Delinquents. While prepping for that band’s new release, however, she followed the muse in a different direction.
Enter Several Men of Mystery, a collection of talented Boston musicians who accompany her on the three tracks with an Americana flavor. Fans of Paul Westerberg should seek out “Looking For Clues,” while those who favor old school country should check out her duet with Roy Sludge on “You Had It All.” As for me, I’m sticking with the twangy pop of “Never.”
Audio Download: Jenny Dee & Several Men of Mystery, “Never”
One never knows what to expect with each Cortese release. She follows up 2011’s wonderful symphonic pop release Pine (recorded with The Posion Oaks) with an even more orchestral sound – a collection of songs performed mostly by a string ensemble that is anchored by Cortese’s violin. The genre-jumping just proves that Cortese has a magical touch that can cross musical styles.
Here’s a particular favorite from the latest release. It is a bit of an outlier from the rest of the collection with its fun hoedown vibe, but listen as the other instruments fade to let the strings bring the song to a beautiful conclusion.
Audio Download: Laura Cortese, “Heel to Toe”
The Boston rockers hit the mark with an anthem about former football player Orlando “Zeus” Brown, known to many for the injury he suffered when he was hit in the eye with a referee’s flag. They sing of him as a folk hero, a football player respected for his play and who persevered to return to the football field after his injury.
Horns and a children’s chorus join in to give the song a regal quality as the band sings, “Keep playing, keep fighting, do it for us, yeah they do it for us.”
You’ll find plenty more with the band’s blend of Americana, pop and rock on the band’s latest release, produced by fellow Boston rock musician Will Dailey.
Audio Download: Autumn Hollow, “Orlando Brown”
To celebrate one of those milestone birthdays, musician and unabashed pop music fan Ashley fulfilled a life-long ambition: to record his music at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. And Ashley didn’t record at just any room within the facility, he booked time in Studio Two — where the Beatles recorded most of their extraordinary work.
Not that Ashley needed the inspiration of the storied studio, his catalogue is filled with wonderful classic pop songs. Well, add another batch to the collection. New Lion Terraces is bursting with the kind of magical pop songs that would undoubtedly bring a smile to Paul McCartney’s face.
Read more about Ashley’s Abbey Road experience in his recording diary here.
Audio Download: Corin Ashley, “Second Hand Halo”
My World, Dave Alpert (from the self-released ep My World)
Although his latest ep takes a more twangy path than his previous acoustic pop and rock releases, Alpert’s core approach to songwriting remains intact: irresistible hooks with lyrics that don’t pull any punches. The title track from his forthcoming ep captures it perfectly as Alpert offers up a sharp social commentary on the materialism and pretentiousness in the world.
You’re a city guy
Spend every weekend high
Out on a limb
Go to the gym right after work
You think your boss is such a jerk
Drink cappuccinos all alone
But way out there you’re on your own
Audio Download: Dave Alpert, “My World”
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.