Swimmin' Time, by Shovels and Rope
Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent -- aka Shovels and Rope -- just keep getting better and better. Swimmin' Time takes their customary percussive guitar and drums and expands their musical palette with piano, horns and a host of other instruments. The result is something special.
The duo push at genre classifications across this thirteen-song collection. “Bridge on Fire,” while still grounded in Americana, is a perfect pop confection. A prominent piano joins their brilliant harmonies to give the song an extra sugary crunch. That combination continues on “Coping Mechanism,” which has a fun 1950’s feel.
Surly guitars give “Evil” a dark edge while “Ohio” has a heavy New Orleans vibe, right down the mid-song Bourbon Street brass horn interlude.
"After the Storm" has an epic quality to it. The song opens gently but soon explodes with Hearst and Trent’s emotionally charged vocals. The lyrics describe a quest for redemption from past wrongs despite the recognition that these same failures still stand in the way.
Like the widest river // Like the brightest morn // There is hope where you can’t see it // There is a light after the storm
But won’t you help me to get through it // I’ve been flailing like a child // My mistakes they are so many // For my weary heart is wild
The duo round out the album with “Mary Ann and One-Eyed Dan” and “Save the World,” a pair of stripped-down songs that hearken back to the group’s rootsy early days. All the better to enjoy the charm of their singing and songwriting.
I’m In Love with Everything, The Fauntleroys (from the Plowboy Records release Below the Pink Pony) In this case, the album title is as real as it is descriptive. Four musicians – friends and admirers of one another’s work – gathered in a room below a former NYC restaurant called the Pink Pony to bash out their debut release. The results are at once cohesive yet reflective of each artist's individual personality. Alejandro Escovedo brings an appreciation for 1970’s British blues-based rock, Ivan Julian lends his punk pedigree, Nicholas Tremulis contributes his eccentric pop-rock feel (“Suck My Heart Out with a Straw” is one of his contributions) and Linda Pitmon adds her powerhouse drumming.
Audio Download: The Fauntleroys, "I’m In Love with Everything" [audio: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7770435/01%20I'm%20In%20Love%20With%20Everything.mp3]
All That We Have Is Now, Jesse Winchester (from the Appleseed Recordings release A Reasonable Amount of Trouble) Although we lost Jesse Winchester earlier this year, he left us with a new album that was completed just prior to his passing. Winchester possessed a genuine and gentle spirit as well as an insightful lyrical eye, both of which are sharply evident here. The twelve tracks on A Reasonable Amount of Trouble, nine originals and three covers, are a reminder of his musical allure.
The Archivist, American Gun (from the Jangly Records release Promised Youth) In the interest of full disclosure, American Gun’s Todd Mathis is a long-time contributor to Twangville. Don’t hold that against him, though. Mathis also happens to be a talented songwriter. After releasing the rootsy Please… Don’t Tread On Me (recorded with Whiskey Tango Revue) last year, Mathis rejoins his American Gun compatriots for the bruising Promised Youth. As is the group's style, they let their electric guitars lead the charge. This go-around, however, finds them adding some synthesizers and strings to give the music added density. The result is a rock record with a dark and brooding vibe. Here, for your listening enjoyment, is the tale of a woman who has given up on love.
Audio Stream: American Gun, "The Archivist" [audio: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7770435/04%20The%20Archivist.mp3]
Love Song #9, Scruffy the Cat (from the Omnivore Records release The Good Goodbye: Unreleased Recordings 1984-1990) I shared a vintage video of the late, great Scruffy the Cat a few weeks ago (here). It was either a great introduction or a welcome reminder of the band's infectious energy. This new collection of previously unreleased tracks offers a fun glimpse into the band's creative arc. Starting with their rough early recordings through to their late era sessions at legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, it showcases the charm in their songwriting and the unbridled enthusiasm in their performances. Give a listen to early tracks like the boisterous “Big Fat Monkey’s Hat” and the more slickly produced but no less spirited later output like "Love Song #9" and you'll hear what I mean.
Sure Thing, Sam Morrow (from the Forty Below Records release Ephemeral) My introduction to this LA by way of Texas singer was his somber cover of Bruce Springsteen’s "Dancing in the Dark" that was released earlier this year. His debut album proves that Morrow stands tall in his own rite, thank you. There is both warmth and world-weariness in his music, all the more impressive given that Morrow is still in his early 20s. Restrained arrangements, often infused with subtle strings, give the songs additional depth.
Got Caught Up, Pete Donnelly (from the self-released Face the Bird) I’m a sucker for a good pop song. Fortunately for me (and maybe you, too), Pete Donnelly’s got a catalog that is filled with ‘em. Donnelly has an impressive resume -- he is founding member of the Figgs and has also logged more than a few miles with the Candy Butchers and NRBQ. As if that weren’t enough, he has also released a couple of mighty fine solo albums. Check out this gem, co-written with Shelby Lynne, from his most recent release. Man, those horns!
You've Got the Wrong Man, by Joe Fletcher Singer-songwriter Joe Fletcher drew inspiration for You've Got the Wrong Man from the field recordings of the early 20th century. The process, most notably used by John Lomax during his musical exploration of the Southern US, places particular emphasis on the raw emotion and storytelling nature of folk and blues music of that period. The constantly-touring Fletcher dusted off his four-track recorder and, guitar in hand, began recording songs as he traveled. Now it’s one thing to replicate the recording technique, it's quite another to capture the essence of the approach. Fletcher hits the mark on both fronts. The album opens with the ambling “Florence, Alabama.” Fletcher picks at his acoustic guitar as he matter-of-factly describes the failed romance of a soldier and a bartender. “You’re the prettiest bartender in the last bar in the South and I thought you were an angel until you opened your mouth,” he wryly croons. The album continues with an imagined tale of spending time with Hank Williams, a song that was sparked by a trip that Fletcher made to the Hank Williams museum. “I ordered up two beers, said ‘Hank, what are you drinkin’?” sings Fletcher against the lonely backdrop of his electric guitar. Williams responds in kind, “Joe, I think I like the way you’re thinkin’, when I stand still sometimes I swear I’m sinking, I think tonight I’ll drink whatever it is you’re drinkin.” Fletcher turns to his acoustic guitar for the long-time live show staple “I Never.” It is a colorful sea-faring tale with a great sing-along chorus, “I’d a never gotten on this ship if I had known that it was gonna take me home, I was never meant for life on land and I can’t make it on my own.” The album concludes with a moving tribute to Dave Lamb of Brown Bird, who succumbed to leukemia earlier this. Fletcher invited a veritable who’s who of like-minded artists – from Deer Tick's John MacCauley to Patrick Sweany to JP Harris and others -- to perform Lamb's "Mabel Gray."
Audio Download: Joe Fletcher, "Florence, Alabama" [audio: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7770435/01%20Florence%2C%20Alabama.mp3]
Good and Ready, Anthony D’Amato (from the New West Records release The Shipwreck from the Shore) There’s long been something magical about Anthony D’Amato’s songwriting. He writes with a poetic style, choosing his words carefully to tell stories that are rich with imagery. Let’s call them sophisticated folk songs. For his New West Records debut, D'Amato headed to Maine farmhouse to record his work with producer Sam Kassirer, who has done wonderful work with other Twangville faves such as Josh Ritter and Lake Street Dive. Working with Kassirer, D’Amato conjured up a more majestic sound with lush arrangements. Depending on the song, you’ll hear varieties of strings and horns along with some wonderful choral harmonies. From the percussive glory of “Back Back Back” to the subtle beauty of “Ludlow,” the results are exquisite.
Downbound Train, Joe Pug (from the Lightning Rod Records release Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A.) Bruce Springsteen’s classic 1984 album gets the tribute treatment from some of Americana’s finest artists. Blitzen Trapper serve up a bluesy take on “Working on the Highway” while Trampled by Turtles shine on a bluegrass performance of “I’m Goin’ Down.” Leave it to Joe Pug and Jason Isbell to highlight the darker side of an album that is so often noted for its upbeat rock anthems. Isbell’s somber “Born in the U.S.A,” punctuated by Amanda Shire’s haunting fiddle, speaks to the pains of a soldier returning home from war. Pug’s stark and evocative “Downbound Train” vividly captures the anguish of a character who is brokenhearted and broken.
Burning Pictures, Justin Townes Earle (from the Vagrant Records release Single Mothers) Justin Townes Earle continues to evolve his sound. His songs are still rooted in, well, roots but they now have a mighty tasty injection of Southern soul. Lyrically, he still mines heartaches and break-ups with skillful precision. “I asked my baby if she loved me, she said, ‘Ask me later,’” he sings on “Wanna Be a Stranger.” He looks to his mother for comfort after a failed relationship on “Picture in a Drawer.” “Mama she’s gone, just a picture in a drawer,” he intones. Lest anyone think that this is a mellow affair, Earle and crew crank up the guitars and tempo on songs like “My Baby Drives” and “Burning Pictures.” The latter is a personal favorite with Earle cautioning a friend on his dating habits, “Summer comes you’ll have a new love, but mark my words come winter, you’ll be starting fires and burning pictures.”
Young Women and Old Guitars, J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices (from the Cow Island Records release Home Is Where the Hurt Is) One need look no further than Harris's web site to figure out what type of music he prefers – www.ilovehonkytonk.com. Whether he’s singing songs about drivin' trucks or drinking away a failed romance, his songs ring out with a whiskey-soaked authenticity. His voice recalls Merle Haggard with all the requisite grit and attitude. As if that weren't enough, Harris recorded this album in Ronnie Milsap’s old studio. Home Is Where the Hurt Is does the country legends proud.
Goshen ’97, Strand of Oaks (from the Dead Oceans Records release Heal) There are some albums that are rooted in personal discovery and dripping with emotion. Put this one on that list. Timothy Showalter – aka Strand of Oaks – started his career with a more rootsy tone. Over the past several years, however, he has reflected on his life and used it as inspiration for a new sound. Acoustic guitars were traded for electric guitars giving an extra edge to his songwriting. This song finds Showalter reflecting on his formative teenage years. “I was lonely but I was having fun," he sings before declaring, "I don't want to start all over again." Later on the album he pays tribute to the late musician Jason Molina. “I got your sweet tunes to play,” he sings against a wash of guitars.