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.

Corb Lund – Counterfeit Blues

Corb Lund built a time machine.  He took his long-time band, The Hurtin’ Albertans, down to Memphis and recorded a number of his live show staples and made them sound more original and rootsy than when they first laid down the tracks 8 – 10 years ago.  Retransmitting the ambience of the famed Sun Studios, Counterfeit Blues has all the lo-fi goodness and live energy that makes the best roots music so compelling.

The album starts with Counterfeiter’s Blues, alternating disgust at being fed fake goods at every turn and depressed acceptance that it’s the nature of the world we live in.  I think I can safely say Corb and his boys don’t use Auto-Tune.  Another set of wry observations on the world gone awry is Truth Comes Out, a lament on the damage of encroaching civilization that comes off like a good Fred Eaglesmith song.  Speaking of wry observations, (Gonna) Shine Up My Boots is the story of looking forward to girls and fun on a Saturday night, but realizing that maybe all you’re going to do is get drunk.  Any young man living on a farm or ranch in flyover country who can’t relate to this tune is kidding himself.

Some of Lund’s best material is full on, sing along, snap your fingers, rockabilly material.  Truck Got Stuck will stick in your brain, and this version takes a nice jab at Agriculture Canada.  Big Butch Bass Bull Fiddle is a tongue twister that’s as much jazz as it it country.  My favorite is the under-appreciated Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer that needs a Wood Brothers cover to prove me right.

CorbLund-CounterfeitBlues Finally, I have to mention Hurtin’ Albertan, a classic Lund number, and a heart-on-my-sleeve anthem to his home province.  In many ways this tune summarizes Corb Lund and his band.  It’s rock ‘n’ roll, it’s (North) Americana, it’s fun and upbeat and immediately likable.  There’s nothing counterfeit about it.

Missy Werner – Turn This Heart Around

You just can’t have a good summer mix tape without some bluegrass.  Whether you’re getting liquored up at a festival down at the fairgrounds or spending some quality time with the family at the annual church picnic, bluegrass just sounds like a carefree, sunny day.  Yes, there are plenty of songs about heartbreak and angst, and I’m not sure any genre has more classic murder ballads.  But you usually have to pay close attention to the lyrics to realize it.  Meanwhile, the sound of claw-hammer banjo or flat-picked guitar is almost guaranteed to get people up and dancing.

Lucky me that the latest release from Missy Werner, Turn This Heart Around, slid across my inbox last week.  It’s bluegrass in all its finest forms.  Missy takes the vocal lead on all the tracks, with occasional harmonies from the likes of Sierra Hull and Sarah Siskind, and plenty of harmony from the band itself.  Her voice has that clear-as-a-bell quality you get from an Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent.  So whether it’s the slow ballad of Dead Man Walking or the tumbling rapids of Rocks In the River, nearly every song is anchored with Werner’s voice.  There is a lone instrumental track on the disc, Snake In the Grass, where the band gets to stretch their solo chops.

While I really liked a couple of the uptempo tunes on the album, like Rough Edges and Cloudless Blue, everything came together best on Come Back To Me, with its soaring vocals and rock solid instrumentals.  Having said that, the most interesting song on the album is Travelin’ Light.  Its gospel harmonies and call-and-response chorus have a purity of style that suck you in to hitting repeat more than once.

Turn-This-Heart-Around Turn This Heart Around covers a lot of bluegrass territory, so there’s bound to be something that catches your fancy.  Perfect for a summer mix tape.

Madisons – You Can Take Your Sorry Ass Back To West Texas!

If there is such a musical genre as Americana Noir, the Austin-based Madisons may be one of the leading disciples.  Front man, and sole songwriter for the band, Dominic Solis has imbued their second album, You Can Take Your Sorry Ass Back To West Texas! with a darkness that is equal parts fear and curiosity.  Solis’ vocal gruffness reminds me a little of Ryan Bingham, but the other six members of the band pitch in to provide a musical richness that push the overall sound in an indie direction.

Much of the darkness on the album comes from the lyrics.  Solis spins tales of the seamier side of society where the people you run across are not folks you want on your friends list.  And yet they’re all people we’ve known, or known about, and you can’t help but wonder what happened.  In My Pocket Forever tells the story of a 14-year-old pregnant girl burned alive by the 28-year-old who got here that way.  A Long Slow Death In San Marcos Texas talks about a girl who was the reason a neighbor hanged himself.  Losing Pictures opens with, “Mary never knew she was a terrible person, but that’s what she came to learn.”

Fortunately, the sadness on the album is hidden from plain sight by the instrumental sounds, so you can listen on the surface if you aren’t in a mood to dig too deep.  Group co-founder Oscar Gomez adds some sweet horns to several tunes, including You’ll Never Know and The Fiscal Year.  Violinist Jocelyn White takes the vocal lead on Sucker Punch, and delivers something like what you’d hear if Carrie Rodriguez fronted a Portland indie band.  Carolina is an uptempo indie-grass number with everyone taking an instrumental solo and where Solis singing that, “my mental state is in a state of decline” seems light-hearted.

madisonscover Although several songs on this album come across a first listen as modern bluegrass happy tunes, there’s no way to sugar coat the underlying topics.  Similar to many people’s favorite album of last year, though (Jason Isbell’s Southeastern), You Can Take Your Sorry Ass Back To West Texas! rewards multiple listens.  Like good film noir,  you just have to keep going back to see more of the ne’er-do-wells.