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.

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.