Hard Work, Christopher Paul Stelling (from the Anti Records release Labor Against Waste)
Count Labor Against Waste among the most powerful albums that you’ll hear this year. Wandering troubadour Stelling uses his songs to offer taut social commentary, peering into human intentions and sharing pointed perspectives on life’s opportunities and challenges.
The mesmerizing ballad “Scarecrow” uses the motionless creature to warn against getting paralyzed by life’s trials and hardships. “Breath it out, lay your burdens down to rest,” he sings, “Breath, through the doubts, never let them get the best, the best of you.”
Stelling picks up the pace on “Horse,” a hoedown of epic proportions. The song is a cautionary tale about making rash decisions, although the singer admits that doing so is a task easier said than done. Stelling’s guitar is accompanied by furious fiddle and percussion as he wails “take your time and try not to get caught up in all that haste.”
“Hard Work” is an impassioned call to arms. Accompanying himself with some impressive high-speed finger-picking, he counsels the listener of the effort – and the need – to find happiness. The secret, he declares, is finding the good in everyone. A good life lesson for all.
Hold On, David Ramirez (from the Thirty Tigers release Fables)
My introduction to Ramirez came at SXSW a few years back. I liked the sample mp3 that I heard during my preparation so figured that I would check out his live set. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with that objective as a massive crowd filled the hotel lobby in which he was playing. The room went silent as he serenaded the crowd with just his voice and guitar. The only disappointment that day was the lack of encore despite the fervent audience demand.
It’s hard not to get engrossed in Ramirez’s highly personal style of songwriting and his latest release only proves the point. He chronicles the search to find one’s way in a very thoughtful and often introspective manner. Ramirez grapples with getting older (“Rock and a Hard Place”), saving a relationship (“I Am On Your Side”) and dealing with heartbreak (“How Do You Get ‘Em Back”), to highlight just a few of the magical moments to be found on Fables.
Although the album is mostly quiet and acoustic, I’m strangely drawn to the one song where Ramirez brings out the electric guitars and lets loose. “I’m tired of leaving the things I believe in to chance, I want some proof, give me something to hold on to,” he proclaims as a vicious rhythm propels him forward in his search. It’s a journey well worth taking.
View Chip’s take here.
Australia’s Kasey Chambers, like her American counterpart Allison Moorer, is coming through the darkness of a divorce. Also like Moorer, she’s channeled some of the feelings into song, cycling through a range of emotions on her latest release.
“I Would Do” finds her seemingly asking how she can salvage the relationship while reluctantly admitting that nothing can be done. Everybody plays the fool,” she concedes, “And I am no exception to the rule.”
She pleads for heavenly guidance on “Is God Real.” “So please Lord I promise I’m not asking for the whole world,” she implores as an insistent beat ushers the song along, “Just a little favour for a lost girl who wants to believe in something, something, anything at all.”
The album’s centerpiece is the brutally beautiful “Bittersweet.” It is the type of song that can make one uncomfortable with the rawness and depth of its emotion. A fire still smolders even though Chambers, alongside duet partner Bernard Fanning, recognizes that there is little to salvage. “And I am a big girl now, and I don’t want you hanging around,” she sings, “You probably would have let me down again anyhow.”
Chambers closes the album on an uplifting note with “I’m Alive.” Against a carefree bluegrass accompaniment she confesses “I made it through the hardest fucking year” before declaring:
I’m alive and I am well
And I got me another chance
And I got more stories to tell
It’s been great to see the renewed focus on authentic country music. Sure, it’s been there all along, but it’s about damn time that it started to get some broad recognition. Put Stapleton on the list of shining stars here – the songs and performances on Traveller certainly attest to that. Yet he also has a connection to some of the artists that country purists love to hate. In the years since he arrived in Nashville from Kentucky, he has written #1 songs for the likes of Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker.
One can imagine that there is something different about writing songs for yourself rather than others, a point that Stapleton drives home with his debut release. There’s an authenticity here that one doesn’t hear elsewhere. Some of it in Stapleton’s voice, for sure. It has the classic twang that is too infrequently heard these days.
Yet it also comes from the songs themselves. One can hear the personal connection that Stapleton has with songs like “Traveller”, “Fire Away” and “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”. He mines the familiar ground of break-up and heartache on the mournful “Whiskey and You” and the more spirited “Nobody to Blame.” He even gives the topic a true outlaw country spin on the insistent “Might As Well Get Stoned.”
While I hope that Stapleton’s songs continue to be recorded by others, there’s good money there, for sure; here’s hoping that he continues to perform his own songs. Nobody does them better.
Rock and roll can take a toll. Just ask Ike Reilly. After a major label stint and a handful of indie albums in the subsequent years, Reilly decided to step away from the musical merry-go-round. Luckily for us he’s back with as much piss and attitude as ever.
Reilly is a master of the sing-along, whether it’s ripe for an arena (“Job Like That”, “Hangin’ Around”) or dive bar (“Paradise Lane”, “Am I Still the One For You”). Lyrically, he continues his focus on the tribulations of the working class, mixing up social and political commentary with a good-time vibe.
The title track encapsulates this best, a rousing rocker that finds Reilly proclaiming, “but I can leave you this truth, hold on to hope and desire, take your flames to the street, ‘cause you were born on fire.” Sound advice for all, indeed.
Once You’ve Done Me Wrong, Ocean Carolina (from the Old Hand Record Company release Maudlin Days)
Sometimes it’s hard to describe music any better than the artist does him or herself. Such is the case with Ocean Carolina, whose latest release is the perfectly titled Maudlin Days. Across twelve magical tracks, singer-songwriter Michael Simone sings about falling in love, falling out of love and the lustful moments before one starts the cycle again. Simone’s soothing voice, accompanied by guitars that strike the balance between scruffy and sweet, create an airy and wistful sound that is ripe for day-dreaming. Press play and get lost in the, um, maudlin feel. You won’t be disappointed.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.