ALBUM OF THE MONTHS
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?
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”
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”
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”
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.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.