I tend to judge the quality of a year in part based on the caliber of new music unleashed within them. In that light, any year that we get a new album from Matthew Ryan is well on its way to being a good one.
Ryan albums tend to be contemplative journeys, even when fueled by the growl of electric guitars. He has long excelled on creating rock-based soundscapes that provide exhilarating backdrops for lyrics that dig deep into the human condition.
It’s hard to say which are more gripping on Hustle Up Starling, the ballads or the rockers. An example of the former is “Maybe I’ll Disappear,” whose elegant piano accompaniment does little to mask the song’s ominous tension. At the other end of the spectrum is opener “(I Just Died) Like An Aviator” which bristles with insistent guitars and a pounding rhythm. Straddling the line in-between is “Run Rabbit Run,” which would qualify as a ballad save the palpitating intensity.
And then there is “Battle Born,” a song that is both a tribute to some of the artists that inspired the songwriter and a grizzled reflection on the struggles plying the songwriting trade.
On a dark lit night
In the throes of another fight
I heard a song made me feel alright
Made me wanna explode into light
I don’t know if there’s more than this
A loud guitar, some comfort or a kiss
All I know is that it’s the shape of a fist
And it’s pounding inside your ribs
Ah, the glories of rock and roll. It ain’t pretty but, in the hands of a talent like Ryan, can be a thought-provoking and cathartic experience.
Damn if Jason Isbell hasn’t done it again. “Hope the High Road” is the anthem that we need this year. Regardless of your ideology, there’s no escaping the political and social rage that surrounds us these days. Rather than get subsumed by it, Isbell encourages us to rise above it. Guitars ring out as he proclaims:
I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well,
uninspired and likely mad as hell,
but wherever you are i hope the high road leads you home again
to the world you wanna live in.
As if that weren’t enough, he reaches similar heights with the incredibly poignant “If We Were Vampires.” The ballad is a spine-tingling ode to love, cast in the light of knowing that lifetimes are finite.
The contrast between these two songs sets the tone for the entire album – veering between commentary social and political and music fragile and ferocious. The Nashville Sound further cements Isbell as one of the leading voices of his generation.
Music can be a tough business, just ask Maxim Ludwig. I first saw Ludwig at SXSW back in 2011, where he was one of my conference highlights. Managers, labels and a few bad contracts later, he wound up working a warehouse foreman in LA (that packaged deluxe edition CDs, no less).
Thankfully he wasn’t deterred, or at least with a little time and perspective behind him, he has returned to music. His long, long overdue debut may be more glossy and less rootsy than what I heard back in 2011, but the glory of his songs remain. They bristle with an anthemic energy, fueled by some damn catchy melodies. Good to have you back, Mr. Ludwig.
I first saw Melbourne’s The Mae Trio late night at the Folk Alliance and was immediately mesmerized. The juxtaposition of the trio’s magnificent voices with the generally somber tone of their songs was intoxicating. Their gorgeous harmonies are the focal point, gently ushered along most notably by cello and violin as well as acoustic guitars and the occasional banjo. Although their album may have been recorded in Nashville but the Melbourne-based group are further proof that Americana is a state of mind rather than a geographical classification.
It’s funny when themes unintentionally emerge within a playlist. UK by way of Australia singer-songwriter Emily Barker is another example of Americana’s global reach. Barker travelled to Memphis to record her latest album and the city’s soulfulness permeates it. It’s hard not to think of Dusty Springfield (hey, another non-US Americana artist) as Barker wraps her voice around lush ballads and fervent grooves.
He may hail from Saskatchewan Canada, but Wall might as well be from the backwoods of Tennessee. He recalls Johnny Cash in both voice and song, hearkening back to an era when country music spoke volumes through simplicity and restraint. It’s a welcome reminder, not to mention a wonderful introduction to a potent new artist.
Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Kayla Schureman. The Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter first caught our ear on the most recent album from Nashville’s Zack Schmidt. With a gentle nudge from our friends at Red Line Roots, we gave her recently released solo debut a listen. Color us suitably impressed. It’s more than her voice, which glistens with a silken charm, that captivates. Her songs are equally alluring, polished Americana that takes a wistful look at relationships lost.
This Nashville/SF quintet established their reputation as an up and coming bluegrass band. Calling them bluegrass, however, just doesn’t do them justice. They are an extraordinary pop band that uses the bluegrass vernacular. In much the same way that Lake Street Dive infuse their songs with jazz, Front Country does so with pop (and the occasional rock flourish), powered by their exceptional musicianship and stunning harmonies (not to mention lead singer Melody Walker’s powerful voice). .
(See Shawn’s take on Front Country’s latest here.)
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.