ALBUMS OF THE MONTH
Grant-Lee Phillips is, quite simply, one of the most distinctive voices in American music. His songs conjure up vivid portraits of the American experience, from the fault lines of California to the rural lands of Tennessee.
The imagery in his songs, both lyrical and musical, is enthralling. “Just Another River Town” deftly portrays the ebb and flow of small-town life (“If these tavern wall could sing they’d tell us all so many things”) while “No Mercy in July” uses brushed drums and a subtle dobro to create a tense and arid soundscape for his tale of summer drought. The heavy guitar strum of “Loaded Gun,” not to mention the story of an unruly young man who is “lucky to be alive,” calls to mind Johnny Cash in more ways than one.
“Cry Cry” tackles the Native American Trail of Tears diaspora. The steady forced march of a beat tells the tale as much as Phillips’ unvarnished lyrics. “Kept a’ walkin’ ‘till my feet were bloody, left everything we knew,” he sings, “When they took us ‘cross the Mississippi, nothin’ that I could do but… Cry, Cry, Cry.”
“Rolling Pin” and “Find My Way” get more personal, rendering two sides of love. The former depicts young and enthusiastic passion while the latter conveys an older and scarred perspective on the search for love.
It’s “Tennessee Rain,” however, that rings out the strongest and perhaps the truest. Phillips sings of dreams that are unfulfilled yet still seemingly on the horizon. “Like the cool winds a’ blowin’ I’ll get to where I’m goin’,” he sings before declaring “Long as I got as your hand I’m stronger than a mule, I’ll take whatever’s bound to come my way.” In this case the rain, which so often has dreary connotations, reflects a sense of optimism for what can be.
Eric Bachmann is a case study on how to mature gracefully as an artist. Bachmann has left the raucous Archers of Loaf sound behind to embrace the elegant pop sound embodied by the legendary Brill Building writers of the 1960’s.
To that end, pop songs don’t get much finer than “Mercy,” the album’s centerpiece. With a touch of Phil Spector production and doo-wop vocals, Bachmann sings about rising above pain and suffering that is both personal and universal.
Kill your idols and your fables
Take your weapons off the table
It’s only mercy now that you need in your world
Lay your burdens on my shoulders
For a while until it’s over
I’m gonna love you like we’re all each other have
He continues on with a point as smile-inducing as it is arguably accurate: “Yes, I’ve got family, I’ve got friends and I will love them ’till the end despite the batshit crazy things they often say.”
Bachmann’s piano, along with his rich voice, lay the musical foundation for the nine tracks presented here. It sets a wistful tone, even as he offers of heavy social commentary on songs like “Masters of the Deal” and “Modern Drugs.” “We’re taking modern drugs,” he sings on the latter track, “we’re hanging out and they’re kicking in to burn the edges off the day.”
Yet his perspectives can also be intensely personal as they do on the delicate and emotional “Dreaming.” The song flows as a gentle elegy, ushered along by Bachmann’s steady piano and a chorus of graceful harmonies. It magically captures that moment when one realizes that a love is lost, that last flicker before the candle goes dark.
Eric Bachmann ultimately plays out as a world-weary take of the modern world set to deceptively soothing classic pop soundtrack. It has a majestic beauty that is mesmerizing.
Everyone should see the Greyhounds live. There’s nothing glitzy about it – it won’t be like a multimedia U2 show and there certainly aren’t any pyrotechnics, for sure. What it will be is a captivating night of genuine R&B performed by musicians who excel at their craft. The grooves are deep, the vocals soulful.
The performances are often gritty yet guitarist Andrew Trube and keyboardist Anthony Farrell also know how to get quiet and delicate. Seek out “Late Night Slice,” their uber-funky ode to, um, early morning pizza as an example of the former; “Cuz I’m Here,” the stirring ballad shared here, as a wonderful example of the latter.
Be sure to keep an eye out for when they pass through your town. Until that time, put on their latest long-player, shut your eyes and get lost in the music.
Six on the Out picks up the story that the husband and wife duo of Michael McDermott and Heather Horton began with 2014’s remarkable West Side Stories. The tale was inspired by a real life street gang – from which the band takes its name – that thrived in NYC back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This latest installment finds our protagonist released from prison and struggling to re-establish his life. Whether they are addressing the temptation of return to his old ways or the strain of rekindling old love, the duo fill their songs with vivid detail and emotion.
What makes McDermott’s writing so special is that his themes stretch far beyond the story. They have a universal quality that touches on the struggle to discover one’s identity and to find happiness, often in the midst of adversity. “It’s not the trouble, it’s surviving the struggle that gives our life meaning and worth,” he sings on this lilting Irish barroom sing-along.
There ain’t no sophomore slump here. The Oklahoma singer-songwriter may toughen up his sound on his latest release but it still crackles with the energy that made his debut so enjoyable. If anything, the increased presence of electric guitar and drums make it more edgy and restless.
Millsap’s Pentecostal background remains a presence in his lyrics as there is plenty of religious imagery sprinkled across his songs. This track is just one example, as Millsap contemplates the apocalypse, set to a 1950’s rockabilly-tinged beat.
There are certain bands whose sound is almost instantly recognizable. The Jayhawks sit high on that list with a sound that is filled with jangly guitars, airy harmonies and soaring melodies. Paging Mr. Proust builds on their legacy, filled with songs that are instilled with a sense of longing that veers between optimism and resignation. “Hey now catch me quick before I walk away,” they harmonize on this gem, “tell me if there’s something I should say, I’ll find the quiet corners and the empty spaces.”
I didn’t really think that Boston was a bluegrass kind of town but damn if Town Mountain didn’t just prove me wrong. They passed through town a few weeks ago and filled the room with a joyful noise, not to mention a jubilant crowd.
The boys in the band are mighty fine pickers; their songs melodic and carefree. While there’s plenty of tradition bluegrass to be found on their latest release, I’m drawn to this rousing romp that incorporates some Jerry Lee Lewis-flavored honky-tonk piano.
Joey Kneiser makes it look easy. For nearly 20 years he has released a stream of consistently impressive rock and roll records, both as a solo artist and with his long-time band Glossary. The Wildness is another addition to the list.
His music isn’t flashy; it simply flows with an unavoidable authenticity. What makes his latest release all the more impressive is the fact that, save for some harmony vocals from Glossary bandmate Kelly Smith, Kneiser created the album entirely on his own.
As this song illustrates, Kneiser has a knack for thoughtful – and often thought-provoking — lyrics. “Go find what you love let it heal you boy,” he sings on this stand-out, “and don’t be someone you can’t believe in.” All the better if, like Kneiser, you can share what you love with countless others.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.