The musical ground in Boston and New England has been especially fertile this year. We’ve already seen some outstanding releases by artists that run the gamut from long-time favorites to incrediblely talented newcomers, with plenty more undoubtedly to come. To that end, here is the latest installment in our periodic series highlighting Boston and New England artists. (View the complete series here.)
By the way, does anyone know the song referenced in the title?
There’s something special about seeing a young performer arrive with the presence of an established veteran. Such is the case with Boston’s Julie Rhodes. Her back story is incredible. She was attending a house concert when the performers, Jonah Tolchin and Dan Blakeslee, heard her singing along. With their encouragement she began to write some songs. Within the year she and Tolchin were sitting in Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s legendary FAME Studios recording what would become her debut album.
And what an album it is! Let’s dispense with the special guests up-front. Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham. Guitarist extraordinaire Greg Liesz. Fiddler Sara Watkins. It is an impressive crew to say the least, but really just the icing on the cake, so to speak.
One listen to “In Your Garden,” the opening track, and I suspect you’ll agree. Close your eyes and you’re magically transported to the Filmore in 1970’s San Francisco watching a young Janis Joplin. Against a blues-heavy guitar riff, Rhodes walks the fine line between soulful and gritty.
From there Rhodes takes the listener on a rewarding musical journey. She shifts effortlessly from the harmonica laced blues of “Holes” to the reggae-tinged ”Hey Stranger” to the simmering soul of “Faith.” From start to finish it’s an album — and artist — that commands attention.
Imagine if you took some pristine pop songs and then tossed them in a musical blender with everything from a theremin to electric bagpipes. You’d probably end up with something like You Won’t. The result is a sophomore album that picks up right where the Cambridge, MA duo’s impressive debut left off, a seemingly eccentric album that is nonetheless tremendously enticing.
Their lyrics walk the line between stream of conscious and creative storytelling, typically with some distinct social commentary. The title track, for example, portrays a young activist coping with a softening world view as she gets older. “The more that I keep breathing without looking for a reason,” she reflects through singer Josh Arnoudse, “the more that I am glad to be alive, and I don’t know why.”
Arnoudse has a unique voice that adds extra character to the duo’s songs. Heck, he even yodels on the jolly “Ya Ya Ya.” Bandmate Raky Sastri lends his own idiosyncratic tone with heavy percussion and the aforementioned instrumental array. Together they make one heck of a racket and reward listeners with a rollicking fun record.
With one whispered harmony, new Boston-based trio Lula Wiles can stop you in your tracks. Their debut release has a mesmerizing charm, filled with songs that hearken back to the classic era of folk and country. Depending on the song you’ll hear echoes of Joan Baez and Hank Williams. Not a shabby pair of musical touchstones to have, for sure.
Lula Wiles will lull you in with breathtaking musical arrangements yet there are grey clouds overhanging their songs. Love fading and lost are recurring themes that the group tackles with candor and grace. Their use of simple language makes the lyrics immediately accessible yet it belies the sophistication that they convey.
Their songs are mostly of the genteel acoustic variety, all the better to showcase the beauty in their songwriting. Add in their exquisite harmonies and you’ve got a debut that makes quite a statement. Here’s to more great music to come from this talented trio.
I’d call Erelli a journeyman musician but that doesn’t quite fit the bill. Sure, he has logged many a mile with Grammy-award winning songwriters Lori McKenna and Paula Cole. He’s also well known among the Twangville posse for his work with bad-ass bluegrass band Barnstar!
Every few years, however, he gets personal with an album of his own. Last time around he paid tribute to his hero Bill Morrissey so this is, in fact, his first album of originals since 2010’s Little Vigils.
For a Song demonstrates that, his work with other artists and genres aside, Erelli is a folk singer at heart. While some of the songs offered up here have a pleasant pop sheen, it’s hard to escape the plaintive melodies and the personal and introspective nature of Erelli’s lyrics.
The title track is a great example. A cello and acoustic guitar accompany Erelli at the opening before the song opens up into an ambling reflection on life as a family man making a living as a touring musician. “The road is not your friend, it’s just a means to an end, how I wish I could take you along” he sings before concluding with a glimmer of hope, “But I’ll take it all on faith you’ll understand someday why I did all I did while I was gone… for a song.”
Like Mark Erelli, Nate Leavitt has increasingly become known for his work with other artists. In Leavitt’s case he has graced studios and stages with Boston bands like Parlour Bells and Twanagville faves Old Jack. He’s recently been stepping out on his own and, with his latest ep, proving that his talents stretch far beyond the sideman role.
Someone Send a Signal is not a light-hearted affair. The songs certainly have a pop sheen and occasionally an upbeat rock tempo. These are songs of heartache and loss, however, wistful reflections of fonder times. Leavitt sings them in a voice that straddles the line between talking and singing, not to mention the line between rugged and vulnerable. It all comes together with a sincerity and earnestness that gives these performances an unexpected warmth.
For the past several years our friends at Red Line Roots have been putting out some wonderful compilation albums. Their concept is a simple one – invite local artists into the studio to cover a song by another member of the New England musical community. It is very much a labor of love for all involved, a fact that is immediately apparent from the first listen. The musicians – and performances – tend towards the acoustic folk end of the spectrum. The arrangements are simple and arguably place the emphasis where it should be: on the songwriting itself. This track is a personal favorite: Dietrich Strause’s solo take on this moving ballad written by Boston musician stalwart David Champagne.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.