Mayer’s Playlist for June 2014, Part 1

ALBUM OF THE MONTHS

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, by Sturgill SimpsonSturgill Simpson

It’s easy to take pot-shots at what passes for country these days. You know what I’m talking about: the feel-good, truck-drivin’, beer-drinking music makes for great stadium concert sing-alongs. If that’s your scene, then more power to you.

Some of you, like me, want something different. We want music that is more firmly rooted in the country tradition, songs of heartache and life’s tribulations that are performed with grit and authenticity.

Fortunately for us, there is a renaissance afoot. A new breed of artists has emerged who are revitalizing country, reviving the spirit and song craft of the country pioneers. Score one for us that Sturgill Simpson, one of the neo-traditionalist movement’s leading lights, is back with his second album in as many years. Damn if it ain’t a beaut.

Lead track “Turtles All the Way Down” has a warm and rambling melancholy that gives way to the chugging honky-tonk “Life of Sin.” “Long White Line” keeps things moving with a groove that hearkens back to the truck-drivin’ classics of the 1970’s.

A real surprise is Simpson’s magical cover of the late 1980′s new wave hit “The Promise.” Simpson transforms the song by giving it a dramatic George Jones feel. “I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say,” he croons, “I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.” It is a performance that is plaintive and powerful.

Lyrically, Simpson preserves the custom of writing about troubled times without being spurious or sensationalistic. His characters take a matter-of-fact approach as they consider their oft-troubled situations. “But it ain’t all flowers, sometimes you gotta feel the thorns,” Simpson declares on “It Ain’t All Flowers.”

With Sturgill helping to lead the charge, country music is beginning to sound as fresh today as it did back in the day. Can I get an amen?


THE PLAYLIST


When You’re Here, John Fullbright (from the Blue Dirt Records release Songs)
After the tremendous (and justifiable) success of 2012’s From the Ground Up, Fullbright strips things down with his latest release. Following in the footsteps of writers like Randy Newman, he understands that subtlety can be incredibly compelling.

The arrangements, mostly centered around Fullbright’s piano and acoustic guitar, are particularly stunning here. Alternately lush and sparse, they convey the drama in Fullbright’s songs.

His lyrics are simple and direct, while conveying tremendous power and emotion. This magical ode to companionship is a great example. “As for lonely I can show you how to live a life alone,” he counsels, “all it takes is getting used to getting lost.”


Frankie Please, Rodney Crowell (from the New West Records release Tarpaper Sky)
There’s a lot to be said for consistency. Rodney Crowell is a fine example, a 40+-year songwriting veteran with a tremendous catalog that grows stronger with every new release. His latest is a roots-rockin’ hootenanny, filled with gentle ballads and crackling rave-ups. From the ambling Cajun feel of “Fever on the Bayou” to the emotional tug of “God I’m Missing You,” Crowell’s songs are filled with vivid language and vibrant storytelling.

Here’s one of my favorites from Tarpaper Sky. How can one note love a song that begins with a line like, “You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park.”


Intervention, Old 97’s (from the ATO Records release Most Messed Up)
The quartet from Dallas are back with a collection of no bull-shit, let’s have a good time kind of rock and roll. Pick your favorite topic – such as boozin’ or hanging with friends, lovers or wanna-be-lovers – and there’s undoubtedly a song about it here. Musically the band is in rip-roaring form, guitars blazing and beats pumping.

If there was ever any doubt that the Old 97’s are the life of the party, Most Messed Upshould put it to rest.


We Both Lose, Tommy Malone (from the MC Reocrds release Poor Boy)
Whether performing solo or as a founding member of the subdudes, New Orleans singer-songwriter Tommy Malone knows how to serve up a potent stew of R&B, rock and soul. His latest solo release drives the point home.

Malone brought together a crack group of like-minded musicians, the kind who know how to play and sound damn good doing it. They play with precision and grace, all the while finding some spirited grooves.

Of course it helps that they start with a damn fine batch of songs. Here’s one of my favorites from the release, a happy-go-lucky break-up song.


Audio Stream: Tommy Malone, “We Both Lose”

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First Cold Day of Fall, Ian McFeron (from the self-released Acoustic)
Seattle-based McFeron revisits songs from his catalog on this special acoustic release. His songs have always been enchanting, possessing a soothing warmth even when he is singing about heartache and tragedy. The sparse acoustic arrangements presented here make them even them even more so. Multi-instrumentalist Alisa Milner adds her own special musical touch, not to mention some wonderful harmonies.

Audio Download: Ian McFeron, “First Cold Day of Fall”

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Sing Together, Jeff Black (from the Lotos Nile Music release Folklore)
Black writes in the liner notes that the compositions on Folklore are inspired by photographs. Close your eyes and you will undoubtedly begin to visualize these photos as you listen to this collection of songs.

Black is a storyteller of the finest kind. Armed with just his guitar (and the occasional banjo and harmonica), he paints vivid musical portraits. He has a wonderful way of bringing characters to life in his songs, burrowing into their innermost thoughts and deliberations. The results are sublime.


On a Wire, Waylon Speed (from the Crow on Ten Records release Kin)
Who says that you have to be from below the Mason-Dixon line to play some fine Southern rock? No one told these four guys from Vermont, as they serve it up in spades. Their songwriting is top notch, catchy yet with plenty of whiskey-infused edge in the mix. At times they channel the rambling feel of the Allman Brothers, at other times they evoke the electricity of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Audio Download: Waylon Speed, “On a Wire”

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Age of Miracles, The Trews (from the Nettwerk Records release The Trews)
For over ten years, Nova Scotia’s the Trews have served up brilliant stadium-ready rock. Their latest shows that the group has no intention of slowing down or changing. The songs on this self-titled release overflow with bombastic electric guitar riffs, softened only by the quartet’s pop hooks and polished harmonies. It is a perfect summer soundtrack. Best played loud.

Mayer’s Playlist for May 2014

ALBUM OF THE MONTHS

All Or Nothin’, by Nikki LaneNikki Lane

Nikki Lane’s sophomore effort caught me by surprise. I’d be lying if I said that I had more than a cursory exposure to her 2011 debut, but the just released All Or Nothin’ has grabbed my attention.

Lane’s songs are rooted in country, albeit with a healthy nod towards the pop end of the spectrum. “You Can’t Talk to Me Like That” is a soothing retro ballad with a chorus of harmonies setting the stage for Lane’s entrancing vocals. “Seeing Double” moves along with a rumbling rockabilly beat while a lap steel guitar propels the gentle “Good Man.”

Lane doesn’t pull any punches lyrically. All the better I say. She takes a defiant tone on “Man Up,” demanding “you better get off your ass, you better man up or I’m gonna have to be the one who gets tough.” She steps out on the brash and boozy “Sleep with a Stranger,” proclaiming “I ain’t looking for love, just a little danger.”

As if to drive the point home, the title track finds her declaring “It’s always the right time to do the wrong thing.” Words to live by, right?


THE PLAYLIST


Beauty of All Things, Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck (from the self-released Eden – Live at the Chandler)

Thayer’s 2013 release Eden was a real gem, an organic slice of Americana with a slightly jam band feel. Well, Thayer and the boys are back with a complete live performance of said album, recorded live at the Eden cd release show in Thayer’s native Vermont. The talented group of musicians prove that they are the real deal, a band that can beautifully and consistently capture their studio magic on a live stage.


Hold On to Rockets, Gina Villalobos (from the self-released Sola)

Few artists capture melancholy as skillfully as Villalobos. Her music walks the subtle line between tranquility and yearning, a sound made all the richer by the mix of angst and charm in her voice. It is a potent combination that makes Sola, her first release in five years, such as treat.

Audio Download: Gina Villalobos, “Hold On to Rockets”

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You Don’t Know, Glen David Andrews (from the Louisiana Red Hot Records release Redemption)

Combine two parts New Orleans rhythm & blues with one part rock & roll and you’ll end up with a sound like Glen David Andrews. Like many an artist, he has faced down some personal demons and emerged with a powerful and personal musical statement.

Redemption is filled with plenty of guitars and horns but it is Andrews’ booming voice that stands front and center. It has a sinister quality that is intoxicating, coming across like a potent mix of a preacher and an old bluesman.

As an added bonus, Andrews invited some friends to sit in on various tracks. Ivan Neville, Galactic’s Ben Ellman and guitarist Anders Osborne all join in the redemption.

Audio Download: Glen David Andrews, “You Don’t Know”

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Man in Question, Cheap Girls (from the Xtra Miles Recording release Famous Graves)

When you just need some good ol’ rock and roll, look no further than Cheap Girls. The Lansing, Michigan-based trio take great pop hooks and serve ‘em up with burnished flair. Bassist Ian Graham sings with a bit of a drawl that makes for a nice contrast with the raucous noise that he and his bandmates make.

Lots of bands like to say that their music is best played loud. With Cheap Girls it is true.


The High Road, Archie Powell and the Exports (from the self-released Back in Black)

Did someone piss off Archie Powell? His latest release has an angry edge (and lots of shouted vocals), much more so than 2012’s impressive Great Ideas in Action. Don’t get me wrong, Powell still knows his way around a pop hook and there are plenty to be found here. Even when he slows things down, albeit to a tempo just a notch below “furious”, the songs still have some venom and punch. The Exports are in fine form as well, making quite a racket of their own.


Gimme Truth, High on Stress (from the self-released Leaving MPLS)
This is one of those unfortunate posthumous reviews as the Minneapolis-based quartet recently called it quits and played their farewell show. ‘tis a shame, as the band really know their way around a rock song. Leaving MPLS is chock full of hearty guitar-driven rock and roll, the kind of fist-pumping songs that beg to be heard live. Pardon the pun but they are leaving on a high note.

Audio Download: High on Stress, “Gimme Truth”

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You Are Gold, The Soft White Sixties (from the self-released Get Right)

This San Francisco-based quartet walk the line between the 1960’s R&B-influenced pop that their name suggests and contemporary indie rock. If you like this shimmering track, you’ll find plenty more like it on their latest release.

Audio Download: The Soft White Sixties, “You Are Gold”

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Katie Deter – The Brooklyn Sessions

katie deterIt isn’t every day that a sixteen year old singer songwriter can captivate a producer through a social media post. In fact, the same would go for a 26 year old songwriter. However, that is exactly what happened in this case. When Brooklyn based producer/musician Brian Murphy saw a video of Katie performing posted on a mutual friend’s Facebook page, he reached out to her. Next thing you know, Katie and her father are on their way to Brooklyn for a recording. For the project, Murphy assembled a team of musicians that are essentially the backing band for much hyped group, The Lone Bellow. The result is a five song EP entitled “The Brooklyn Sessions”.

One word comes to mind when describing these songs. That word is “refreshing”, and the accompanying music captures the feeling perfectly. The perspective in these songs is what is so refreshing. Katie may have a sixteen year old’s view of the world, but it is her own view and accompanied by a healthy dose of humor. Take the opener ”The DMV Song”. It is all about how a drivers license to most people marks the first step to being “independent and free”. Katie rejects this conventional view and says, “I’ve got this spirit in me, and I will do with it what I please. I don’t need that piece of paper to prove I’m independent and free”. Kudos to her for realizing this now, because it seems that in each stage of life there is a piece of paper that tries to define us. All of the songs in this project deal with identity in one way or another. Katie deals with the subject of identity often with humor. On “I Wish I Was Irish”, you can’t help but laugh as she describes an idyllic vision of the future in a fun way. The song “Black Coffee” has the same feel when describing an aspect of love.

It is so enjoyable to listen to a collection of songs that can make keen observations without being too heavy. On “The Brooklyn Sessions” Katie’s comforting voice and perspective is accompanied by a well produced indie-folk framework. On the song “Gotta Grow Up” Katie sings about trying to “make my mom and dad proud”. I think she already has.

More Than a Feeling: A Special Boston Playlist*

FEATURED ALBUMS

Smith & Weeden, by Smith & WeedenSmith & Weeden

It’s always a treat to stumble across a band that, quite simply, sounds like they are having fun. Such is the case with the Providence-based quartet* Smith and Weeden, whose songs run the gamut from harmony-laced country to guitar-fueled rock.

In the country category are ambling tunes like “Drinking” and “Wondering.” Singer Jesse Emmanuel Smith has a voice perfectly suited for these songs, ably buoyed by the band’s tasteful harmonies.

“Drinking” is a ready-made country classic, bringing together a honky-tonk melody, a woeful tale of heartbreak and, well, alcohol. “Well you don’t get answers fast from a bottle or a flask,“ sings Smith, “I’ve got some time to kill so I’ll have another glass.”

How many songs of heartache do you know that include a snippet of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic?” Well, “Grace and Glory” does, along with some acoustic guitar traces of “Amazing Grace.” It makes for an interesting combination and a mighty fine song.

In the rock category are “Aim to Please,” “Boys in Bands” and “Playing a Part.” Guitarist Seamus Weeden shines on these songs, shifting from bruising power chords to nuanced solos with ease. His playing is full of character yet never loud and gratuitous.

They are a regional band for now, but hopefully they’ll hit the road and bring some of their rock and roll fun to a town near you.


THE PLAYLIST


Love Me Tender, Jess Tardy (from the forthcoming Sky City Lullaby)

Ten years! That’s how long it has been since Tardy’s last release. We could blame the delay on a lot of things, including a failed record deal, but let’s not fixate on the negative. Rather, let’s celebrate a sublime collection of (mostly) classics from the American songbook.

Tardy, with help from her friend (and talented mandolin player) Sean Staples, kept the arrangements simple. The restrained accompaniment puts the emphasis where it should be: on the songs and Tardy’s captivating voice.

Her take on “Love Me Tender” is a great example. Where others would be tempted to tackle it as an overwrought ballad, Tardy takes a different path. A mid-tempo swing and some exquisite harmonies give the song a fun 1940’s Andrews Sisters feel.

Other gems to be found on Sky City Lullaby include Tardy’s take on Ernest Tubbs’ “Waltz Across Texas,” Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and her own “City of Gold.”

Audio Stream: Jess Tardy, “Love Me Tender”

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Easy to Love, Old Jack (from the forthcoming What Is Home to You)

One might be tempted to label Old Jack as happy-go-lucky. Their sound would certainly support that description. The have a big band rock feel that is steeped in soul, overflowing with an assertive pop attitude and plenty of wonderful harmonies.

Listen closely to their forthcoming release, however, and the lyrics reveal a darker side. These are songs of considered reflection, expressing doubts and questioning life decisions. The result is something special, a collection that is lyrically dense and musically satisfying.

Audio Download: Old Jack, “Easy to Love”

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A Little Bit Low, Aloud (from the Mother West Records It’s Got to Be Now)

I love my twang but sometimes, especially on those first warm days of spring, I want to crank up the guitars and some full-on power pop. Lucky for me, the latest release from Boston quartet Aloud arrived at just the right time to satisfy my craving.

The group gets right to the point with their music, with nary a track over 3 minutes in length. Even better, the songs on It’s Got to Be Now are high energy blasts filled with tight guitar hooks and vocal harmonies. Most of the songs, including this one, recall classic late 1960′s pop yet with brim with a crisp 2014 freshness that is perfect for sunny afternoon listening.


Johnny St. John and the Doom Band, John Powhida International Airport (from the forthcoming release Airport Life)

Former Rudds singer-songwriter Powhida makes his return with John Powhida International Airport. The group took top honors at the 2011 Boston Rock and Roll Rumble and has spent the last few years meticulously crafting their debut release.

The resulting 15-song opus is a pop record of sophistication and eccentricity. It comes across as a smooth and sinewy mix of Prince and Hall & Oates with some jazz flourishes thrown in for good measure. Heck, even the song titles — “John Mayer Dines with Taylor Swift” and “Cover Me I’m Going for Milk” for example — give an indication of the humor and creativity in Powhida’s songwriting.

Audio Download: John Powhida International Airport, “Johnny St. John and the Doom Band”

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Woman of Mine, Russell Kaback (from the self-released Message of Love)

The Greenfield, MA-based Kaback has clearly studied at the Al Green school of music. His songs are sweet and soulful in just the right way. Message of Love saunters along with plenty of tasty horns, graceful guitars and luscious keyboards. Front and center, though, are Kaback’s soothingly smooth vocals.

Consider this track just a taste of what you’ll find across the full release.

Audio Download: Russell Kaback, “Woman of Mine”

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Let Me In, Brian Carroll (from the self-released Miscellaneous)

Carroll has quickly established himself as a presence on the Boston roots scene. Calling him a dabbler isn’t quite right, although he has spread his tentacles far and wide. Carroll hosts regular gigs that range from singer-songwriter showcases to picker’s extravaganzas and even found time to spearhead a forthcoming compilation of area songwriters covering one-another’s songs. If that weren’t enough, he just released a satisfying 7-song EP of his own mandolin-driven compositions.

Audio Download: Brian Carroll, “Let Me In”

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*Yes, I know several of these artists aren’t quite from Boston proper, but since when has Twangville been proper?

Mayer’s Playlist for April 2014, Part 2

ALBUMS OF THE MONTHS

Parker Millsap, by Parker MillsapParker Millsap

What is it about Oklahoma? As if the state’s musical credibility weren’t long ago established, there’s been a surge of great young artists emerging from the state. Count Parker Millsap among ‘em.

Millsap blends gospel, bluegrass and folk to perfection all the while filling his songs with colorful characters. “Quite Contrary,” for example, reimagines the lives of nursery rhyme characters as if they lived on the other side of the tracks. These include the fabled Mary, Mary, who is transformed into a street walker. This may not be kid-friendly Mother Goose, but it is darn good fun.

“Truck Stop Gospel” tells the story of an evangelist who preaches the gospel from the back of a flat-bed truck. “Just want to modify your behavior, I just want you to love my savior,” Millsap sings with such zeal that you’re not sure if he is being cynical or reverential.

Millsap gets personal on a few songs, portraying the foibles of love. “The Villian” is a somber break-up song that finds the singer reflecting on a poisoned relationship and taking the steps to end it. “I don’t want to be the villain in your dreams anymore,” Millsap intimates in a voice heavy with resignation. Although the song is primarily centered around Millsap’s acoustic guitar, occasional string and horn flourishes give the song a dramatic effect.

“Disappear” is a happier tale. The ambling fiddle-laden country song finds Millsap trying to convince a lover to leave town to find a new life together. “I’ll hold the map honey if you’ll steer, make like we were never here,” he implores, “you and me mama gonna disappear.”

The instrumentation is sparse, generally a single guitar with bass and fiddle accompaniment. All the better to focus attention on the charm and appeal of Millsap’s songwriting.

Audio Stream: Parker Millsap, “Truck Stop Gospel”

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THE PLAYLIST


You Ain’t Worth the Fight, Hannah Aldridge (from the Trodden Black Entertainment release Razor Wire)

I’ll admit that it was Aldridge’s cover of Jason Isbell’s “Try” that first caught my attention. She recorded it with no less that Isbell’s own 400 Unit and it rivals the original in raw intensity. Dig into Aldridge’s own songs, however, and you’ll find a talent to watch. Her country-based songwriting has a rough edge to it, feisty and filled with attitude.

Audio Download: Hannah Aldridge, “You Ain’t Worth the Fight”

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How Can You Turn Around, Northcote (from the Black Numbers release Northcote)

Canadian singer-songwriter Matt Goud (aka Northcote) spent his early years in a hardcore punk band. When he embarked on a solo career a few years ago, however, he veered into pop territory. All the better, I say. He maintains some of the intensity from the hardcore days – a good thing to these ears – while letting his polished pop melodies shine. He writes and sings with an earnestness that is infectious, his weathered voice giving his songs warmth and texture.


The Bad Days, David Ramirez (from the Sweetworld release The Rooster – EP)

One of my SXSW discoveries this year was Austin singer-songwriter Ramirez. Armed with just his guitar he captivated a late afternoon crowd with his poignant songwriting and impassioned performance. Here is a sample to get you started. If you like what you hear, Ramirez is offering free sampler and live show recording via his web site.


No One Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore, John Moreland (from the Last Chance Records release In the Throes)

I’m a bit late to the John Moreland party. But at least I got here right?

I sought Moreland out on the recommendation of several singer-songwriters that I admire. Damn if they weren’t right. The Oklahoma acoustic troubadour sings with a raspy voice that gives his songs, already strong in their own right, even more potency. His songs are wonderfully world-weary and conjure up images of traveling down dusty roads. “I heard truth is what songs are for,” he sings on this stand-out from his 2013 release, “Nobody gives a damn about songs anymore…”


I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You, The Hold Steady (from the Positive Jams/Washington Square release Teeth Dreams)

It’s been a long four years since the last release from the Hold Steady. A really long four years. Thankfully the wait is over. Teeth Dreams finds the boys ready to rock, with new guitarist Steve Selvidge joining co-founder Tad Kubler for some glorious rock fury. Singer-songwriter Craig Finn is in fine form as well, spitting out tales of wayward characters trying to find their way.


Light of Day, Nick Dittmeier (from the self-released Light of Day)

With so much mediocre country rock to be found on the radio and elsewhere these days, it’s refreshing to hear something that rings of authenticity. Meet southern Indiana singer-songwriter Nick Dittmeier. His songs have an honest and hearfelt feel to them, not to mention a nice heartland rock sensibility.

Audio Download: Nick Dittmeier, “Light of Day”

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