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.

Anna Lynch – Anna Lynch

In the last couple of weeks I’ve written about North Of Nashville and True North.  Unwittingly, I was leading up to this week’s review–Anna Lynch.  As residents of Anchorage, Alaska, Anna and her bandmates are waaaay north of Nashville.  You’d never know that by listening to Anna’s self-titled release, though.  It has love songs and break-up songs, lots of tasty fiddle and mandolin parts, and a je ne sais quoi that seems born of a youthful fascination with honky-tonks.  It could just as easily have come from the mountains of east Tennessee.

Lyrically, Anna does show some Alaskan form with stories than have a pretty independent streak to their perspective.  Gone And Back is in some ways a female viewpoint on the male attitude  that dominates classics like Ramblin’ Man and Free Bird.  Railroad Man likewise covers that rambling spirit.  Baby Don’t Go To Work is a bluesy song about convincing someone to shirk their responsibility for the sake of love.  Not A Love Song is, of course, exactly that, but Anna confesses at the end that “I’ll never admit I’m wrong.”

Lynch cover Bandmates Peter Hamre on guitar, Garren Volper on bass, and Amanda Kerr on fiddle provide a solid background for Lynch’s lyrics.  You don’t really notice the instruments the first couple of listens, but gradually you realize how much subtle texture they’re contributing.  They play so well together, transitioning from solos to harmonies to just a presence, you picture long, sunless, winter weekends cooped up indoors with nothing to do but hone their craft.  I suspect that’s hardly the case, but it’s a musically romantic notion nonetheless.

I’ll wrap this up with my favorite verse from the disc, “boys in bars and Beer In Jars keep the blues away”.  True that, no matter how far north you are.

Nickel Creek – New Day in Boston

Although my recent interest in bluegrass has certainly been controlling lots of airtime on my  stereo, Nickel Creek bridge the gap of old and new. Somehow, they managed to sneak into the Americana/Indie Rock section of the record store in my college days and I’ve been a fan for the near decade of their existence. When I heard about their most recent record, I was weary of a “reunion” record. But this is one example of an album where a hiatus actually did the band a boatload of good.

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I’ve seen shows at the House of Blues in Boston and it’s large open size makes it far less intimate than my preferred venues. But somehow, Chris Thile, Sarah and Sean Watkins managed to make the crowd feel like they were at a small bluegrass venue. Thile regaled the crowd with storytelling and Sarah Watkins’ angelic voice filled the cavernous arena.

But the highlight of the night was the truly varied set of songs. The fourth album has given the band a catalog that can easily fill a long setlist (20 songs) with both consistent songcraft and musicianship. From the recent “A Dotted Line,” Sean Watkins’ “21st of May” was an immediate standout. His tale of the billboards announcing the impending rapture on that fateful date inspired the song kept the crowd engaged between songs. The performance was tight and the beautiful performances by Thile and Sarah Watkins to accentuate the dynamics of the song.

Old favorites “This Side,” “Somebody More Like You” and “The Lighthouse’s Tale” highlighted the emotional songwriting of the band. The songs were both engaging, tightly arranged, and showed varied songwriting growth. The instrumentals serve as the musical foil to these tunes. In fact, Thile talked about all the the different instrumental tracks and gave them thumbs up, okay, or thumbs down based on the titles that the band wrote (amusing the crowd with ease). He mentioned these as an intro to “Elephant in the Corn” (which is definitely a thumbs up for me). The tune, along with “Scotch & Chocolate” and “Smoothie Song” established that the band is not afraid to push their shows more to the technical bluegrass side.

Old favorites like “The Fox,” “When in Rome,” and “Doubting Thomas” take on new life next to new compositions like “Destination” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” In fact, the former set were not my favorites, but I certainly appreciated them more as I heard them performed by the newly mature Nickel Creek.

The band has managed to bring itself back to life. They can play with the best bluegrassers, write indie rock tunes, and rock the house of blues. As disappointed as I was when they went on hiatus, I am equally excited to see how they’ve grown and rekindled an even more magical synergy. Don’t miss them.