Front Country – Sake Of the Sound

Six one, half dozen another.  That old saying is supposed to be all about things being the same, but I think there’s a perspective difference that gets lost.  As an example, many bands have a wide range of genres on an album in part because they’re still looking to find their sound.  A few, relatively few in my experience, do it because they’re so adept at such a wide range of styles they’re just looking to keep things fresh and open it up a bit.  Clearly the latter situation applies on the debut album from San Francisco Bay-area band Front Country,  Sake Of the Sound.

The band started as an impromptu gathering of acquaintances to play a few sets at a local club.  They didn’t officially form until last year, when they took the Colorado high country by storm, winning best band competitions at both Telluride and Rockygrass.  That high country sound really comes out on the aptly named Colorado, and Glacier Song, featuring banjoist Jordan Klein on vocals.  One Kind Word and Like A River, a Kate Wolf tune, also have a classic bluegrass sound.  There are a couple of really nice instrumental numbers, including Daysleeper, that starts out a bit like bluegrass chamber music.  And guitartist Jacob Groopman takes vocal lead on a speedgrass verison of an obscure Dylan song, Long Ago, Far Away.

When the album really kicks into high gear, though, is when you add lead vocalist Melody Walker’s voice to the pickin’ and shuckin’.   The title song just soars over the instruments and sets Front Country apart from mere mortal bluegrass bands.  Rock Salt & Nails lays out an emotional charge and a steely determination that original author Utah Phillips couldn’t possibly have imagined, as talented a songwriter as he was.

W169~PrntOption And then there’s the opening cut, Gospel Train.  My description is going to be mundane–it starts out with an a Capella gospel chorus, and then kicks into a traditional bluegrass arrangement.  But it is so well executed, when you listen to it again after hearing the full album, it’s like the band is just showing off.  Because they can.  You should go listen to Front Country.

Lost & Nameless and Other EP Gems

Several good EP’s have crossed my listening desk over the summer, and while individually there wasn’t quite enough material in each of them for a full review, they’re all worth a listen.

First up is the latest from Lost & Nameless, When You Walked Into the Room.  I first ran across this group early in the year when their Empty Spaces EP came out.  I noted at the time they had a fun and diverse sound, and their new release continues down that path.  The title cut opens the EP with an up-temp0 commentary on love-at-first-sight that will give you a chuckle, “you turned your head in my direction and my future was planned out.”  Say Goodbye features the youngster in the band, Kimberly Zielnicki, on vocals along with guest Todd Phillips.  Have We Lost has a definite new grass sound, while May I brings in a touch of gospel.  The EP ends with an acoustic, fiddle-drive piece, Matthew’s Reel/Reel a Levis Beaulieu.  I’d comment on who plays what, but with just about everyone in the group playing half a dozen instruments, you’d need a scorecard.  So instead just sit back and enjoy a really fine band with roots from Ireland to Austin.

Next, I’ll call  your attention to Strikes And Gutters, the latest release from Brian Pounds.  Pounds is perhaps best known as one of the contestants on last season’s The Voice.  A couple of tunes on this EP, Hold My Head High and Sunday Dress, certainly reinforce the idea of a pop country crooner.  Somewhere, Maybe Carolina is a little more old school country.  Keep My Hands To Myself, my favorite on the disc, has a clear soul sound to it.  The EP finishes with Jesus, Don’t Let Me Die (On My Feet) that’s part prayer and part assessment of a situation familiar to all too many folks.

The last EP is not exactly Twangville material.  The only twang you’re going to hear out of The Nightowls is if someone breaks a string in a live show.  An Austin band by way of 60’s Detroit, with some Bootsy Collins thrown in for good measure, The Nightowls have dropped an EP of “B-sides” from their album last year, Good As Gold.  If you’re old enough to know what a B-side is, you’ll remember that it was no reflection on the material, more just a commentary on what the label liked, and this set reflects that.  The Feel Good gives you a taste of Funkadelic-style soul.  Nobody Ever Wants To Leave was chosen as the official song of the Austin Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.  After All has some old school Stevie Wonder sounds to go with the Motown vibe.  Either Way finishes the EP on a high note with the horns asserting themselves in all the right places.

Phoebe Hunt & the Gatherers – Walk With Me

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like The Belleville Outfit is becoming sort of like Big Star or Nick Drake.  Which is to say that if everyone who currently claims to have been a huge fan from the beginning had actually bought records or gone to shows when the band existed, they’d have been a hugely successful phenomena.  Instead, the group recorded a couple of albums 5-6 years ago and then split up to pursue other things.  Fortunately, a couple of the band members continue to make music in a similar style.  Phoebe Hunt and Connor Forsyth are playing and recording the genre-bending mix of big band jazz and traditional country music that The Belleville Outfit was known for, and have just released a new album, Walk With Me.

Although she’s certainly an accomplished fiddle player, it’s Hunt’s voice that will stop you in your tracks.  Add to that Forsyth’s keyboards and you have the core sound that’s at home on a wide, wide range of musical styles. Warm Summer’s Evening sounds like an updated 40’s pop song with Hunt’s velvety vocals and some subtle muted trumpet from guest Kevin Flat.  Long Gone adds the horns again along with guitar from Willie Pipkin adding to Gatherer guitarist Marshall Hood to produce a spot-on Muscle Shoals sound.  Forsyth turns to a Stevie Wonder-like organ arrangement to give Darkness a 70’s radio-friendly feel.  You Know By Now also captures a little of that that 70’s deja vu feeling.

My favorite song on the disc is Walk Of Angeline.  It features more of Hunt’s fiddle and is more uptempo and country than anything else on the album.  Although Flee Fly Flow Flum also captures some of that spirit, I’m still left wanting a lot more of that particular sound.

phoebe hunt cover The musicians, both guests and Gatherer members, play a huge role in Phoebe Hunt’s latest release.  But what holds it all together and sets it apart is her voice.  The sum total of those parts is a rich texture of unique sound that, like the sirens of old, leaves you no desire to escape its warm embrace.

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen – Cold Spell

By the late 60’s and early 70’s bluegrass had evolved from Bill Monroe’s radical take on old-timey music to a relatively known and expected performance and sound.  The Stanley Brothers, the Foggy Mountain Boys, The Osborne Brothers, and many of their peers followed a set framework and style with matching dress and choreographed solos.  It’s hard to fault anyone for the conformance because it had actually become possible to make a living as a musician on the moonshine circuit and harbor dreams of national exposure on The Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw.  And as any student of innovation can tell you, that made it ripe for disruption.  Along came New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, and John Hartford, among others, bringing elements of jazz, blues, rock, and even classical music to vault bluegrass into a golden age of improvisation.  The newest album from Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Cold Spell, seems to be a paean to that era.

For those of you who’ve been spending time under a bluegrass rock lately, Solivan and his bandmates are one of the hottest acts around.  In a live performance, they tear it up, no other way to describe it.  Cold Spell manages to capture a lot of that intensity.  I think some of that is an all star cast of guests including John Cowan, Rob Ickes, Sam Bush, and Megan McCormick pushing an already incredibly accomplished set of musicians to new limits.  Ickes in particular, his dobro adding a tenor element that really rounds out of the sound of several tunes on the disc, leaves more space for Solivan and Dirty Kitchen to show off their chops.

Betrayal is a murder ballad of the finest heritage–upbeat music, but dark, dark lyrics.  No Life In This Town bemoans the leaving of a lover and the realization the town you used to know is gone.  Yeah Man is an instrumental number where everyone gets a chance to stretch out.  My favorite on the album is Country Song, a tune with a nice lyrical hook, but more importantly a 5 minute–or-so instrumental vamp in the middle that takes me to my happy place.

ColdSpell_6Panel_Final_SmallFileSize In this day and age a lot of bluegrass music is exploring the bookends of the genre.  It’s either a throwback to the early days or an exploration of the indie sound with Americana instrumentation.  Cold Spell crashes squarely through the middle of the style, with excellent instrumental skills and lyrical hooks that keep you swaying to the music when you aren’t dancing to the jams.

Haas Kowert Tice – You Got This

A few years ago I saw Casey Driessen at a music festival down in Austin.  Of the perhaps 100 people backstage at the moment, I’d guess half of them were fiddle players.  Every fiddle player who was performing that day was there.  It was impressive to see all that talent make their way to see someone who was an inspiration for them to improve their art and skill.  Bela Fleck has that effect on banjo players.  Chris Wood for bass players.  There are just a handful of musicians that have that unique combination of physical skill and creative ability that set the bar for the rest of the world.  Listening to the just-released first album from Haas Kowert Tice, You Got This, I wonder if I’m hearing the early career of someone else that will make that exclusive club.

The group is composed of Brittany Haas on fiddle (Darol Anger, Crooked Still), Paul Kowert on bass (Punch Brothers), and Jordon Tice on guitar and seemingly the chief songwriter of the group.  These three have been playing together since college, but careers took them to other groups, only to discover how much they enjoy making their own music.  The album is a completely instrumental work.  Haas and Kowert seem to shine a little more when it comes to specific licks and catchy phrases.  But it’s Tice’s work on the guitar that holds everything together and makes this a band, not a trio of individuals who happen to be playing on the same record.

Without a background in music theory, I’m somewhat challenged to even describe to you the music on this disc.  Grandpa’s Cheesebarn has a combination of staccato solos and flowing melodies in interesting keys that remind me of the first time I heard Igor Stravinsky.  Classical, bluegrass, I don’t know how they’re even remotely related, but it somehow seems that way.  Better Off is like chamber music for bluegrass instruments.  The Switchback Games have a dissonant sound in the intro and segues that really holds your attention.  El Camino has a walking bass and flowing fiddle that just says wanderlust to me.

haas_kowert_tice Although I’m hard pressed to explain exactly why I like You Got This, it’s something I threw in my CD player a couple of weeks ago and have found it really hard to not keep going back to it.  So if you’re interested in some Americana that’s off the beaten path, but still sucks you in, I recommend Haas Kowert Tice.