Joe Ely is a one of the great American musical storytellers. His latest album finds him in a rather reflective mood, casting a thoughtful eye on the characters and landscape of his beloved Texas. Whether he is painting a picture of the lonesome radio towers on the Texas plains (“Wonderin’ Where”) and the music that they broadcast (“Here’s the the Weary”) or spinning a yarn about a group of gamblers (“Four Ol’ Brokes”), The stories are vivid and inviting.
As an added bonus, Ely also throws in two choice covers – one from Guy Clark and one from his Flatlanders compadre Butch Hancock. Both are outstanding songwriters in their own right and Ely brings their songs with his distinctive flair.
There’s a lot to be said for aging gracefully. In the fifth decade of his career, Ely continues to conduct a master class.
Water From a Stone, Peter Case (from the Omnivore Records release HWY 62)
On his first album in five years, Case takes us on a musical road trip. Not in the genre-hopping sense but rather through a collection of songs that chronicle the people and encounters that one might find traveling a rural roadway.
From the discontented vagabond in “Long Time Gone” to the road-weary musician in “New Mexico”, Case renders vivid character studies that, while generally more descriptive than preachy, certainly make a point. Sparse but powerful arrangements, mostly centered around an acoustic guitar, add additional grit and depth to his tales.
This doesn’t mean that Case isn’t afraid to let loose with some pointed social and political commentary, as he does on this charged track from the latest release. “On the streets paved with diamonds and gold, your head is held high but the future’s been sold,” he sings, “The temperature is rising way up in the sky, this is Indian land only yours by a lie.”
Heart Don’t Want, Lewis & Leigh (from the ALM Records ep release Hidden Truths)
UK-based Duo Lewis and Leigh are tough to categorize in more ways that one. It starts with their pedigrees – Al Lewis is from Wales and Alva Leigh is from Mississippi – and stretches to their music, which is a tasty stew of country, soul and pop. There’s a brilliant sultriness to this track, even before the horns join in with their added swagger.
Faith and Good Judgement, The Yawpers (from the Bloodshot Records release American Man)
The Denver-based trio pack a wallop on their second album and their first with Bloodshot Records. The characters in their songs possess a dreamer’s desire, often unrealized, that at times recalls Springsteen and Lucero’s Ben Nichols. Or as singer Nate Cook describes them, “walking the line between faith and good judgement.” All the better, the songs bristle with an intoxicating fervor, often propelled by ferocious drums and a bluesy slide guitar.
The Sinking Ship, Causes (from the Sony Music ep release To the River)
I’m a sucker for a good pop song, regardless of genre. Damn if Amsterdamn-based Causes don’t hit the mark with this track from the band’s debut ep. The song has a glossy sheen, punctuated by singer-songwriter Rupert Blackman’s enthralling voice.
Slow, The Fratellis (from the Cooking Vinyl release Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied)
If you like hooks, Glasgow’s The Fratellis have got ’em by the bushel. On their latest release, they occasionally veer from their typical electric guitar-driven rock in, dare I say, a rootsy direction on a few tracks. And damn if they don’t make it sound good.
“Imposters (Little By Little)” is propelled by a train-like chugging beat accompanied by some nice guitar pickin’. It’s an electric guitar, but still. Replace the synthesizer on “Desperate Guy” with a mandolin and you’d get a fine piece of Americana.
Lest anyone think otherwise, however, their power pop credentials are still firmly intact. Guitars and harmonies crash through songs like “Baby Don’t You Lie to Me!” and “Too Much Wine” while jangly guitars and a longing melody drive the aforementioned “Desperate Guy”.
The band hits stride on the stirring synth-laden ballad “Slow.” “I lost my heart when my back was turned, if you see it could you let me know,” confesses singer Jon Fratelli, “if you’ve got to leave me baby, won’t you do it slow.”
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.