Mayer’s Playlist for August 2014, Part 1

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

Too Blessed to be Stressed, by Paul Thorn

Paul ThornIt has been a bit of a wait for some new music from Tupelo Mississippi’s second favorite musical son. Thorn bridged the gap between 2010’s Pimps and Preachers and now with What the Hell Is Goin On, a fun covers album. While I certainly enjoyed his re-working of lesser-known songs by Allen Toussaint and Lindsay Buckingham, it made me that much more eager for a collection of Thorn originals. Thankfully, the wait is over.

There has always been an endearing quality to Thorn’s songwriting and it is in fine form on Too Blessed to be Stressed. Mix one part optimism with one part humor, peppered with a dash of realism, and this is the sound that emerges.

“Mediocrity’s King” is a great example. The song finds Thorn lamenting the state of everything from culture to government. “They manufacture stars on a tv stage, Johnny Cash couldn’t get arrested today,” he declares before really letting loose:

When you don’t expect much then you’re never let down
You get the kind of government we’ve got now
Republicans and Democrats are breaking my heart
I can’t tell them sons of bitches apart

Thorn rachets up the humor on “Backslide on Friday.” An ambling beat shuffles him through the days of the week. I sin on Saturday, I repent on Sunday” he sings, “then I tell myself I won’t procrastinate on Monday, Tuesday I do like I should.” It leads to the inevitable conclusion captured in the song’s title.

The fun continues with the Mississippi boogie of “Real Goodbye,” a stout kiss-off to a new ex. “My future’s bright now that I’ve put you in the past,” he proclaims, “hasta la vista, syonara, kiss my ass.”

Thorn’s infectious optimism shines brightest on “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy.” The song slowly builds from a subdued opening to a soaring finale as Thorn shares “the words that my Grandpa always said.” Words to live by, indeed.

Audio Download: Paul Thorn, “Real Goodbye”

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THE PLAYLIST


Tears Don’t Matter Much, Lucero (from the INgrooves release Live in Atlanta)

I expect that I’m not alone when I saw that Lucero are one of those bands from whom I’ve long awaited a live release (I’m looking at you, too, Patrick Sweany). Well, the boys from Memphis have finally delivered. Recorded over three nights in Atlanta late last year, the band culled thirty-two tracks spanning the band’s nearly fifteen year career. Some fans may quibble a bit but it plays like a greatest hits album. From the horns on “That Much Further West” to the roar of the crowd on “Tears Don’t Matter Much,” Live in Atlanta finds the band is exceptional form.


Neon Hearts, Jim Lauderdale (from the release I’m a Song)

I suppose that we shouldn’t be surprised that Jim Lauderdale has amassed an impressive array of friends over his more than thirty year career in the music business. He has worked with artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Robert Hunter and Patty Loveless to, of course, frequent collaborator Buddy Miller. Many of these friends appear, both as co-songwriters and performers, on his tuneful new twenty-song collection.

With one foot firmly grounded in classic country era, Lauderdale still manages to have a satisfying freshness. Let’s call it vintage without feeling dated. We can also call it damn good.


Prettiest Girl, Ben Miller Band (from the New West Records release Any Way, Shape or Form)

This Missouri-based three-piece makes a mighty fine racket. Singer-songwriter Miller and his cronies — Scott Leeper on the washtub bass and Doug Dicharry on percussion, trombone and various other instruments — play country and bluegrass with a healthy dose of attitude. The group often infuses its songs with Miller’s slide guitar to give them extra edge. Here’s one of the more traditional numbers from their fine new record.


Cruel Alibis, Mustered Courage (from the release Powerlines)

This trio from Australia seem determined to crack the US bluegrass scene. If their US debut is any indication, they’ve clearly got the chops to do it. There’s both energy and buoyancy to their music, with songs chock full of catchy pop melodies.

Audio Download: Mustered Courage, “Cruel Alibis”

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Feet Back on the Ground, Dead Fingers (from the Pipe & Gun/Communicating Vessels release Big Black Dog)

Alabama husband and wife duo Kate and Taylor Hollingsworth have a great ramshackle sound. They start with enticing pop melodies and build raw yet immaculately crafted arrangements around them. From the haunting “Pomp & Circumstance” to the scampering “Feet Back on the Ground,” they deliver the goods.

Audio Stream: Dead Fingers, “Feet Back on the Ground”

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Messin’ Around, Quiet Life (from the Mama Bird Recording Co. release Housebroken Man)

Although the quartet call Portland, Oregon home, their more likely to be found somewhere on the road. Their forthcoming ep reflects their wanderlust ways with an eclectic sound that runs from the honky-tonk of “Messin’ Around” to their intensely dark rock and roll cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die.”

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.

Monday Morning Video: Johnny Winter (1944-2014)

We lost Johnny Winter last week.  Johnny, known for his blistering fast guitar playing, burst onto the national scene as a solo act in the late 1960s.  A guitar prodigy, Johnny and younger brother Edgar – both albino – had formed a band as they were growing up in Beaumont, Texas, and had a single released when Johnny was just 15 and Edgar 12 or 13.  Over the years, Johnny often shared the stage or studio with his brother, but their careers were distinct.  Johnny stayed faithful to blues throughout his career, with occasional forays into rock, while Edgar has been more of a rocker.  Johnny’s guitar playing ability was astounding, but he also built his legacy by producing several of Muddy Waters’ late-career masterpieces, including Hard Again and King Bee.

The years and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle took their toll on Johnny.  When I saw him three years ago, he needed to be helped onto the stage and performed his entire show seated, but the music was still there as he played effortlessly.  Below are some memories.

Johnny in his prime:

In 1987, starting to show the years, but still in great playing shape:

This past year on Letterman, very decrepit with apparent vision issues, but the music was still there: