Mayer’s Playlist for July 2014, Part 1

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

Resolution Road, by Easton Stagger Phillips

Easton Stagger PhillipsI don’t like to draw direct comparisons between artists but it’s hard not to do so with the latest release from Tim Easton, Leeroy Stagger and Evan Phillips. This talented trio of singer-songwriters conjure up the finer moments of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Resolution Road flows with the laid-back feeling and gentile harmonies that were – and are – a CSN hallmark.

Phillips kicks off the album with “Always Came Back To You,” a graceful love song made all the richer by the trio’s warm harmonies on the chorus. His reflective “Lucillia” has similar qualities and a day-dreamy vibe.

Stagger brings a tempered rock attitude to his contributions. A persistent drum beat ushers along “Traveler” as vocal harmonies give way to a George Harrison-flavored slide guitar solo.

Easton’s closing “Baby Come Home” is simultaneously melancholy and sentimental. “Sitting here late at night wondering where you might be,” he laments before the others join him to declare “baby come home right now, I need you for the rest of my life.” Guest Derry deBorja adds some subtle yet expressive organ flourishes.

Each singer-songwriter bring their own personality and songs to the group. Yet they blend together beautifully, as if they were meant to perform together. Like CSN, Easton Stagger Phillips prove that sometimes 1+1+1 equals more than three.


Dereconstructed, by Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires

Lee Bains III and the Glory FiresThere’s an old adage — write what you know. Birmingham, Alabama native Lee Bains takes this to heart with a searing album about life in the modern South. His lyrics reflect on the weight of history, religion and everyday economic struggles of small town Southern life; his songs are fueled by incendiary guitars and furious rock beats.

Bains doesn’t shy away from social commentary on tracks like “The Kudzu and the Concrete”:

You can talk, talk, talk about it: Repentance, and forgiveness, and loving your neighbor as yourself.
But what the hell does that mean when all your neighbors look the same and think the same or else live a couple miles down the rural route?

He wrestles with the love-hate relationship of growing up in Birmingham in “The Weeds Downtown.” “I know that Birmingham gets you down, but look what it raised you up to be,” he sings.

“The Company Man” takes a stand against greed and blind obedience. “All it takes is one wicked heart, a pile of money and a chain of folks just doing their jobs,” he cautions.

Bains lets his guitar do plenty of talking, too. Dereconstructed is a no holds barred rock album. Bains and fellow guitarist Eric Wallace trade licks like Keith Richards and Mick Taylor back in the day. The entire band sounds ferocious, rough and ragged. Bains describes it best on “Dirt Track” when he says, “Squeezing glory out of three rusty chords.” The results are glorious, indeed.

Audio Download: Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, “The Weeds Downtown”

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THE PLAYLIST


Bernadine, Adam Carroll (from the self-released Let It Choose You)
I’d lost touch with the music of Austin folk-country singer Adam Carroll a few years back. I recall him tending towards humor in his songwriting yet always equally adept at finding the tenderness of a moment. His latest release shows that he hasn’t lost his touch.

While there are still occasional glimpses of humor, his latest batch of songs tend towards the sincere end of the spectrum. His voice and music have a gentle aura about them, his songs filled with thoughtful character-driven stories.

Audio Download: Adam Carroll, “Bernadine”

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Carry On, Denver (from the Mama Bird Recording Company release Rowdy Love)
Three singer-songwriters out of Portland serve up songs that are alternatively ramshackle and relaxed. The eleven tracks on Rowdy Love are rooted in country but sometimes veer towards mountain folk-rock territory that is reflective of the region from which they take their name. Then there is this track, a personal favorite, which has a decidedly Gordon Lightfoot feel.


Down, Kingsley Flood (from the self-released Live at the Armory)
I wouldn’t often call a live album one of an artist’s best releases but it’s appropriate in this instance. To tide us over until their next studio release, the Boston and Washington D.C-based six piece sextet took over an intimate venue to perform a career-spanning set. They impressively find a way to breathe fresh life into older songs and ratchet up the intensity of their already forceful more recent work. It also showcases the talents of songwriter Naseem Khuri, who crafts songs that are exceptionally intelligent and damn catchy, too.

You can download a free six-song sampler from this release here.


Monday, Caleb Caudle (from the This Is American Music release Paint Another Layer on My Heart)
New Orleans by way of Winston-Salem North Carolina singer-songwriter Caudle says that much of this album was inspired by a year of touring and the corresponding yearning for home. “I’m really leaving it’s really Monday, I don’t know how it got here so soon,” he laments on this stand-out, “lately I’m finding so little to trust in, that’s why it’s harder leaving you.”


Too Long I’ve Been Gone, Dom Flemons (from the Music Maker Relief Foundation release Prospect Hill)
The Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder continues his exploration of the early American music canon on his latest release. Flemons roots himself in folk but masterfully blends countless other genres into the mix. “Georgia Drumbeat” beautifully blends jazz, country and folk while “Have I Stayed Away Too Long?” has a touch of Dixieland and “I Can’t Do It Anymore” brings in some tasty blues playing. I’m partial to this song, a more traditional – and winsome – ballad.

Mayer’s Picks: The Best of 2014, So Far (the Songs)

Chris MillsRubicon, Chris Mills
(from the Loud Romantic Records release Alexandria)

Mills lulls you in with a lilting melody before unleashing the jaw-dropping emotion of lyrics and voice. The results are heartwrenching.


Lydia LovelessReally Wanna See You, Lydia Loveless
(from the Bloodshot Records release Somewhere Else)

This is the way rock and roll is supposed to sound: honest, boisterous and alive.


Drive-By TruckersShit Shots Count, Drive-By Truckers
(from the ATO Records release English Oceans)

The opening track from the Truckers was a lock for this list based on the title alone. The fact that it is rocks like only the Truckers can? Just icing on the cake.


The Hard Working AmericansWelfare Music, Hard Working Americans
(from the Melvin Records release Hard Working Americans)

This is the very definition of win-win – a group of phenomenally-talented musicians recording a raucous version of a song written by one of my favorite songwriters.


Jimbo MathusRock and Roll Trash, Jimbo Mathus
(from the Fat Possum Records release Jimbo Mathus)

This is swamp rock at its finest — unbridled and whiskey-infused.


Jonny Two BagsHope Dies Hard, Jonny Two Bags
(from the Isotone Records release Salvation Town)

While the lyrics reflect on a rough break-up, the music bristles with a raw and defiant energy.


Lake Street DiveBad Self Portraits, Lake Street Dive
(from the Signature Sounds Records release Bad Self Potraits)

Who knew a break-up song could sound so uplifting? Pure pop perfection.


Rod PicottWhere No One Knows Your Name, Rod Picott
(from the Welding Rod Records release Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail)

If there is such a thing as a perfectly-weathered song, this is it. Picott has a knack for songs that are well-worn in topic, tone and voice.


Photo credits: Todd Cooper (Lydia Loveless), David McClister (Drive-By Truckers), James Martin (The Hard Working Americans), Elizabeth DeCicco (Jimbo Mathus), Jarrod McCabe (Lake Street Dive), Stacie Huckeba (Rod Picott)

Mayer’s Playlist for June 2014, Part 2

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

Trouble, by The Howlin’ Brothers

The Howlin' BrothersThe Nashville-based Howlin’ Brothers expand their musical palette with their latest release. Sure, it has plenty of the traditional bluegrass upon which they’ve established their reputation. The unexpected treat, however, are the shades of reggae and pop that make an appearance.

They kick things off in classic form with the hootin’ and hollerin’ “Pour It Down.” The fun continues as the Brothers let their pickin’ fingers and rootsy harmonies lead the way on the rambling “Hard Times.”

“I Was Wrong” mixes up some old school pop with some Dixieland jazz while “Monroe” is steeped in bayou fiddle. It’s a good ol’ dance party, Howlin’ Brothers style.

“World Spinning Round” is firmly rooted in classic country, with a pedal steel guitar joining a fiddle to make a longing sound. “I gave you my heart and my love, you gave me a frown,” they sing on this tale of woe and loss.

The genre-blending appears most notably on “Love” and “Sing a Sad Song.” The former, with its heavy reggae beat, takes the trio on a journey to Jamaica. The latter has a gentle pop melody that is propelled by a graceful electric guitar.

The boys close the album with the foot-stompin’ gospel of “Yes I Am!” It makes for a triumphant finish to a great release.


Clover Lane, by Jonah Tolchin

Jonah TolchinClover Lane plays like an eclectic tour of Southern backroads circa the early 20th century. Not what one would expect from a 20-something New Jersey-born singer-songwriter. Of course that is what makes the album more special.

Tolchin has clearly studied the masters and it shows. “Midnight Rain,” with its fiddle and bluegrass feel, calls to mind Hank Williams while “Atlantic Winds” conjures up images of Woody Guthrie riding the rails.

The bluesy “Hey Baby” and “Hybrid Automobile” are steeped in Mississippi mud, the kind of songs that you’d hear in a rural juke joint.

“21st Century Girl,” while lyrically and musically the most contemporary song in this collection, still has a pleasant retro feel. The strings and harmonies give it a early 1950’s pop flavor.

Was Jonah Tolchin born in the wrong time and place? Perhaps, but I say all the better for today’s Americana fans.


THE PLAYLIST


Rabbit, Amy Lavere (from the Archer Records release Runaway’s Diary)
You don’t see many thematic albums these days, which makes Lavere’s Runaway’s Diary all the more impressive. Over the course of twelve tracks, mostly originals but with a few choice covers, Lavere chronicles the life of a young runaway. She explores it from all sides, from the sense of freedom (Lavere’s “Self Made Orphan” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Where I Lead Me”) and to the feel of isolation (Lavere’s “Rabbit” and John Lennon’s “How”). The combination of romanticism and realism makes for a potent song cycle.


Crash Test, The Mastersons (from the New West Records release Birds Fly South)
Damn if the Mastersons don’t get better and better with every new release. The now Austin-based husband and wife duo fill their songs with wonderful pop melodies and rich harmonies. Chris Masterson has a very lyrical guitar style while Eleanor Whitmore is equally expressive on fiddle. The sounds blend beautifully, as this song demonstrates.


When We’re Older, Mia Dyson (from the Backdoor Records release Idyllwild)
Australian singer-songwriter Dyson delivered one of my favorite albums from 2013, the fiery The Moment. She wastes no time following it up with another gem. Dyson settles things down a bit, but without losing any of her edge. Songs like this one ooze with a confidence and swagger that have become a Dyson trademark.


White Line, James Apollo (from the Marterry release Angelorum)
There are some artists that excel at capturing a mood, painting musical landscapes that transport the listener. Put Seattle-based singer-songwriter James Apollo in that category. His just-released album calls to mind Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” picture, conveying an undercurrent of activity on a seemingly dark and desolate city street.

Musically Apollo mixes up some soulful R&B with a heavy dose of grit. The result is something akin to Tom Waits at his most accessible moments. I love the evocative feel of Angelorum – grab a glass of whiskey and get lost in the sound.


Alberta Gold, Matt Andersen (from the True North Records release Weightless)
I can’t say that I knew much about Andersen before his latest release showed up in my inbox. Sometimes it’s better that way as I had no expectations when I gave it a listen. The results were a welcome surprise.

Andersen is billed as a blues artist and I can certainly hear some of that style in his music. The songs that caught my ear, however, leaned more towards the acoustic pop category. Whatever the genre, the one constant is Andersen’s rich and soulful voice.


Factory Line, Fire Mountain (from the This Is American Music release All Dies Down)
There must be something in the water down in Alabama ‘cause new artists are flowing freely from the state. The latest to arrive is this quintet from Troy, Alabama who serve up some tasty Southern rock with an evocative edge.


Sooner Than Now, Brett Newski (from the Good Land Records release American Folk Armageddon)
The title of the Milwaukee-based Newski’s latest release is perhaps a bit deceiving. Sure, there are some songs – We Are All Fucked” jumps to mind – that convey the bluster and perspective that it suggests. Songs like this one, however, have a soothing and uplifting outlook. Whichever tone you prefer, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

Audio Download: Brett Newski, “Sooner Than Now”

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The Best That I Can Give, Emerson Hart (from the BMG release Beauty in Disrepair)
I’m a sucker for a good pop song and Hart has consistently delivered the goods. He has a knack for writing soaring and infectious melodies, typically infused with a dose of melancholy. “I gave you sometimes, you needed always,” he sings on this wistful song of heartbreak that somehow has an uplifting air.

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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