The husband and wife team of Chris Masterson and Bonnie Whitmore continue to refine their sound on the glorious Transient Lullaby. The duo thoughtfully explore the foibles of contemporary relationships with a studied blend of thoughtfulness and realism. The arrangements make heavy use of Masterson’s guitar and Whitmore’s violin with the occasional broader string section for added depth. The duo’s shared vocals and harmonies, layered on top, provide a soothing tone even as the lyrics scrutinize love’s more contentious moments.
Several of the songs have both musical and lyrical references to motion and travel. It undoubtedly has a dual meaning, reflective of the duo’s perpetual touring as well as the desire to keep a relationship moving forward. It’s a thoughtful perspective and makes for a special collection of songs.
Oh Matthew Sweet, how I’ve missed you. It’s been six years since Sweet last released new music, a lifetime in the age of immediate gratification. To say that it was worth the wait would perhaps be an understatement. This ranks among Sweet’s finest works, his fierce pop craftsmanship as strong as ever. The hooks abound, sharp enough to forcibly command attention but not syrupy enough to get stale on repeated listens. Part of the charm is the bristling guitars and ragged arrangements, making the songs reverberate like either garage rock with a sheen or power pop with roughed up edges. Either way, it’s a welcome return for Sweet and a mighty fine listen for the rest of us.
Santo steps takes a break from the duo HoneyHoney to release a powerful solo album. Her voice commands attention but it’s the potent songwriting that is center stage. Ruby Red is a collection of intense songs, both ballads and rockers, that chronicle the oft darker side of relationships. Santo tips that hand with titles like “Love Fucked Up” and “Blood on Your Knees,” songs that are fueled by the ferociousness of both her vocals and a wash of electric guitars. Which doesn’t mean that she can’t take a subtler approach. Tracks like “Best Out of Me” and “Yours or Mine” seductively expose some vulnerability without softening the edge.
Flagship Romance are a gift that keeps on giving. I stumbled across them at the Folk Alliance Conference a few years back and was captivated by the immense musical charm of husband and wife Shawn Fisher and Jordyn Jackson. Their voices, individually and together, have a magical splendor.
Fisher’s guitar forms the musical centerpiece for the arrangements, supplemented by a restrained rhythm section and subtle keyboards and electric guitars. As the album title suggests, the lyrics tend towards the reflective. They can often be somber, as this song demonstrates, but occasionally veer into uplifting and even inspirational territory. In the end it’s the enthusiasm of their voice and commitment to song is captivating.
It’s sometimes hard to say what catches my eye (and ears) among the volumes of new music that is sent my way. I listen to a lot of it – more than makes its way to these pages – as I love discovering new music, often more than listening to established favorites.
In the case of Philadelphia’s Katie Ellen, however, it was pretty clear: an album titled Cowgirl Blues – that caught my attention.
The title is rather misleading as the band is decidedly more indie rock than Americana, but that doesn’t diminish the strength of the band’s debut. The best tracks roll to round about two minutes in length – grabbing your attention quick with a heavy dose of scraggly guitars but not sticking around long enough to but not enough to wear out their welcome. Songs like “Houses Into Homes” and “Lucy Stone” burst with an indie rock intensity but the group isn’t afraid to slow things down as they do on the acoustic gem “Proposal.” Sure, it ain’t Americana but it’s still darn good.
My introduction to San Francisco singer-songwriter Avi Vinocur was through his band Goodnight Texas. That band’s work scratches the heart of Americana with a collection of thematic pieces filled with restrained, rootsy arrangements that tell tales of moonshiners and coal mines.
Vinocur’s latest solo release looks at a different, more contemporary side of America. Song titles like “Bankrupt” and “Nothing Perfect Stays That Way” clearly indicate his mood and focus as he reflects on everything from the state of society to more personal topics like this absorbing reflection on a failed relationship. “Third time’s a charm they said, it was the fourth time that we broke up,” he sings, “no cause for alarm they said, there’s not enough liquor in this cup.”
The songs have a demo-like quality, mostly Vinocur’s voice accompanied by scruffy electric guitars, yet feel fully formed. More to the point, the simplicity amplifies the album’s intensity.
There’s something to be said for just saying “screw it” and finding your own path. LA by way NJ songwriter Gregg Stewart played the major label game before deciding to chart his own course. Since then he’s built quite a songwriting catalog, contributing his talents to other’s records.
Earlier this year he released a solo debut, a record chock full of 1970’s style rock goodness with a vintage Tom Petty vibe. The songs and melodies are impeccably crafted yet not without losing their authenticity and casual vibe.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.