ALBUMS OF THE MONTH:
Eleven Eleven, by Dave Alvin
It’s hard to believe that this Alvin’s first full album of new songs since 2004’s Ashgrove. Not that he hasn’t been active; Alvin has put out a series of live albums that showcase gems from his songbook with a variety of musicians and arrangements. I, however, have been eagerly awaiting a new batch of tunes. Well, the wait is over and Alvin has delivered a gem.
What I most appreciate about Alvin is that he is a consummate storyteller. His songs – and the characters who inhabit them – are unquestionably authentic. From the steel worker in “Gary Indiana, 1959” to the boxer in “Run Conejo Run,” Alvin’s spins tales of people jagged and jaded. He has a remarkable eye for detail and a deft skill for bringing his characters to life.
Of course Alvin’s guitar is an equal part of his mystique. For many artists it is an instrument, for Alvin it is a voice. The alternating rumble and howl of the guitars on “Harlan County Line” give the song its nervous tension. The aching guitar on “Black Rose of Texas,” Alvin’s tribute to former bandmate Amy Farris, says as much if not more than Alvin’s lyrical reflection.
In the end, Eleven Eleven demonstrates yet again why Alvin is a true American original, a musical encyclopedia of folk, blues and rock. He says on his web site, “There are two types of folk music: quiet folk music and loud folk music. I play both.” While that may be true, Alvin is one of the few who has mastered them both.
Audio Stream: Dave Alvin, “Run Conejo Run”
Heavy Years (2000-2010), by Chris Mills
It used to be that greatest hits albums were limited to major labels artists fulfilling contractual obligations or major labels looking to make a buck. This isn’t one of those releases. Rather, this is a welcome collection from an unheralded, but immensely talented, artist.
Culled from four albums released over the 2000’s, the collection showcases the impressive range of his talents. Mill’s songs generally fit into three categories: barroom sing-alongs, pulsing rockers and poignant ballads. “You Are My Favorite Song” is a great example of a Mills sing-along. A rinky-tink piano and tuba give it the beer hall feel while the infectious chorus invites group participation.
His rock songs pulse with an electric energy. While usually built around acoustic guitar, they are propelled by a high-powered rhythm section. “All You Ever Do” is a fine example, racing along with a force that a head-banging rocker would appreciate. “Sleeptalking” has a more measured and playful tempo that finds Mills singing, “I’ve been stumbling around, I’ve been every Cathy’s clown.”
Mill’s ballads have a raw emotion that is particularly powerful. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” ostensibly about a plane crash, could equally pass for any kind of catastrophic loss. The cracking of Mill’s voice only adds to the song’s intensity.
“Watch Chain” is a personal favorite that showcases the depth of his songwriting:
’cause I have changed the locks on my heart since you were here, now that key you’ve got will only unlock a box of tears, well I wish, I wish I’d saved a copy for myself, because there are places in my heart I’ll never go again.
In addition to the previously released selections, the album features two new tracks – “All Our Days and Nights” and “Heavy Years” – that show an artist continuing to evolve. Here’s to another decade of brilliant music.
Audio Download: Chris Mills, “Watch Chain”
Full Moon Song, Peter Bradley Adams (from the Mishara Music release Between Us)
It’s a good thing that Adams didn’t get disillusioned by his major label experience with Eastmountainsouth. Since that band broke up in 2004, he has released an impressive collection of solo albums. This track, from his latest, is true to form. It is an affecting acoustic ballad made all the better by Adams’ delicate vocals.
Audio Download: Peter Bradley Adams, “Full Moon Song”
Mesabi, Tom Russell (from the forthcoming Shout Factory release Mesabi)
Periodic Dave Alvin co-conspirator also has a new release on the horizon. The title track pays tribute to Bob Dylan and a broad musical heritage of the 1950s and 1960s. The acoustic intro, not surprisingly, hearkens back to 1960’s folk before the band kicks the song into gear. Mariachi horns give it the true Russell feel.
Audio Download: Tom Russell, “Mesabi”
Everyone’s On Drugs, Leeroy Stagger (from the Rebeltone Records/00:02:59 Records release Little Victories)
British Columbia singer-songwriter Stagger should be a giant of Americana. His lyrics range from thoughtful to thought-provoking, sometimes in the course of a single song. His music shifts effortlessly from acoustic folk to raucous rocker with a style similar to Steve Earle. This song is a stand-out on his most recent release. It features a haunting melody that is made all the more meaningful by Stagger’s matter-of-fact vocals. The combined effect is a song that breathes a heavy air of resignation. (See Eli’s take on Little Victories here.)
Audio Download: Leeroy Stagger, “Everyone’s On Drugs”
Still I Want You Bad, Rod Picott (from the Welding Rod Records release Welding Burns)
“Think I’d have enough of this, but I only want you more,” sings Picott at the mid-point of this song. His self-restrained vocals only heighten the tension of a man trapped in a treacherous relationship. It is a moment that proves Picott to be a masterful folk performer, perfectly blending melody, lyrics and vocals to set an ominous musical tone.
Audio Download: Rod Picott, “Still I Want You Bad”
There Goes Sara, Chris Velan (from the NewSong Recordings/Fontana North release Fables for Fighters)
Ah, the sounds of summer. Velan’s spacious and airy voice and exuberant songs are fit for the season. All the better, his songs have a healthy acoustic groove that begs frequent listens.
Audio Download: Chris Velan, “There Goes Sara”
Time Spent in Los Angeles, Dawes (from the ATO Records release Nothing Is Wrong)
One often thinks of Los Angeles as being full of beauty and sunshine. Dawes find the rare winsome moment of melancholy that must undoubtedly exist. “You’ve got that special kind of sadness, you got that tragic set of charms that only comes from time spent in Los Angeles, makes me wanna wrap you in my arms.”
Waste of a Wedding, Leeroy Stagger (from the Rebeltone Records/00:02:59 Records release Little Victories)
I always thought that I could be cynical, but I’m fairly certain that I’ve met my match. Stagger documents the rise and fall of a relationship, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that makes up the song’s title. Bonus points for making the song rock with a freewheeling abandon. (See Eli’s take on Little Victories here.)
Then it all went south, fire straight from the devil’s mouth and our hearts filled with lead, shards of broken dreams. It’s deep water we’re treading, I’m drowning, I’m betting, just a broken heart and a waste of a wedding.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.