One doesn’t need to tell Brent Cowles that life is a struggle. The Denver singer-songwriter isn’t afraid to bare his soul, a fact that is evident from the fervent opening moments of “The Fold” to the quiet closing moments of the title track. In between, Cowles and company take listeners on a wonderful journey filled with introspection and an outlook that floats between desperation and inspiration.
Songs really don’t come much better than opening track “The Fold.” Cowles juxtaposes strikingly honest lyrics against a jubilant anthemic chorus. “I am riddled with inspiration but my fear carries clout,” he sings with remarkable candor before brilliantly interjecting the stirring childhood classic “This Little of Mine” into the mix.
Self-reflection and the quest for motivation and happiness are the album’s major theme. As their titles suggest, songs like “Tequila Train” and “Keep on Moving” place their emphasis on the journey as Cowles faces down the doubts and fears that surround him.
Romantic relationships, both troubled and done, are also a recurring topic. In the former category is “Gina Joon”, which finds Cowles reflecting “our love is like friendly fire.” In the latter category is persistent ballad “Fly On,” where he sings “Well I know that I want you… know that I want you gone.”
Aside from the evocative songwriting, the album’s centerpiece is Cowles voice, an instrument in its own right. It conveys a range of emotion as he jumps into and out of falsetto, mostly with an appealing sweetness but occasionally with a husky growl.
Music is about emotion, both those captured in the songs and in the listeners response. It’s a point that Brent Cowles takes to heart on How To Be OK Alone.
Louisiana’s Brother Dege doesn’t lack for ambition. It oozes from every corner of Farmer’s Almanac, his newest release. He describes his music as “psyouthern”, an amalgam of folk, blues and hard rock, to name just a few of the styles that bubble in his musical stew. It’s a concoction that is well aged in the swampy backwoods of Louisiana.
Dege is a masterful guitarist whether he’s got a dobro or guitar (both electric and acoustic) in his hands. The instruments growl and groan, setting a base for cinematic arrangements.
The heaviness carries over to the characters that inhabit his songs. There’s often a bleakness to their situations which they cope with in a variety of ways, from a life on the run (“No Man a Slave”) to the extremes of suicide (“The Ballad of Ingo Swann”) and execution (“Bastard’s Blues”).
The stark language of Dege’s lyrics adds to the gravity. “The evil talks to bad men just like to saints,” he sings on “Laredo.” He later asks “How I’m going to keep the peace when the war is all I got?” in “No Man a Slave.”
Dege bookends the album with the instrumental “Partial to the Bitters,” an evocative elegy that demonstrates that, even without words, Dege can conjure up vivid imagery.
After their a series of thematic albums set in specific historical time periods, Goodnight Texas’ Avi Vinocur and Patrick Dyer Wolf let their proverbial hair down. While Conductor remains true to their tales of the Old West, the stories that it conveys tackle more diverse terrain.
The gold rush narrative “Barstow” marries a Grateful Dead vibe with a mid-song classic rock electric guitar break while “Taking Your Word For It” is a fine piece of acoustic funk that plays like a lost classic from The Band. It even references Anna Lee and Crazy Chester from “The Weight” for good measure.
The insistent brooding “Longshot” creatively describes a relationship in baseball terms, to wit:
It seems to me you got a little trouble with the play by play
You got the wrong idea about every other word I say
I want to call time out and fiddle with my bat and glove
It ain’t just good defense that everyone loves.
“Outrage for the Execution of Willie McGee” and “Tecumcari” hearken back to the historical storytelling of their earlier releases. The former is a saga of injustice that that builds from acoustic beginnings to an electric guitar exclamation of “do you have no heartbeat?” The latter is an ominous account of an outlaw on the run.
On Conductor, Vinocur and Dyer Wolf mine the rich depths of Americana with talent and flair.
Damn if Jon Fratelli doesn’t know how to write a hook. And a one hell of a catchy chorus, too. Even as the band has traded in a guitar-led indie rock sound for a more glossy sheen, they remain at the top of the rock ‘n’ pop game.
In Your Own Sweet Time oozes fun from start to finish. “I Guess I Suppose” is a post-modern blues, complete with fuzz pedals, slide guitar and glam bass. “Indestructible” grooves with a 1960’s vibe, complimented by electric piano and baritone sax. “Next Time We Wed” is tailor made for dance clubs everywhere – no special remix necessary.
Fratelli’s lyrics are sharp and often amusing, even as they chronicle love gone. He declares ““I don’t need your red wine covered sympathy, just another punchline in your stand up tragedy” on “Stand Up Tragedy” before reimagining the saga of Romeo and Juliet on the string-laced “Starcrossed Losers”
There is really a timeless quality to Fratelli’s writing. With different arrangements these songs would be prime fodder for Tony Bennett and other classic vocalists. For the Fratellis, however, it’s all about lustrous rock.
I suspect that Johnny Chops has an impressive record collection. How else to explain the musical diversity of his sophomore release? Sure, the consistent base is red dirt country. From there, however, it’s a musical journey that showcases the range of his songwriting, um, chops.
On the rocking end of the spectrum is the barrelhouse boogie of “Rock Bottom” and the swaggering blues of “Ten Cent Talkers” before he shifts to the sauntering gospel of “Taking a Chance on Me.” He even throws in a rumbling cover of Willie Dixon’s I Just Want to Make Love to You” that features guest vocalist Brandy Zdan.
I’ll admit that I’m not quite sure what to make of the retro-pop country of “Tombstone Flowers.” The song is written from the perspective of a dead man imploring a former lover to remember him. “The only thing that a dead man wants is some tombstone flowers in the place he haunts,” he sings before pleading ”don’t let this six feet of earth keep us apart.”
Songwriting is about creative storytelling, right? Johnny Chops certainly has a few stories to tell.
It is perhaps not surprising that Rod Picott’s latest album is accompanied by a collection of short stories. The Nashville by way of Maine singer-songwriter weaves a masterful tale, capturing colorful characters dealing with their day-to-day lives with attitudes that shift between coping and dreaming.
“Be My Bonnie” may reference the legendary gangsters Bonnie and Clyde but Picott’s is a love story more humble and genteel. The “us against the world” attitude persists but in this case the goal is the find happiness in a more mundane world:
Someday we’ll look down at the treasure we made
Run our hands through all we stole and we paved
I’ll be the place that you can hide
You be my Bonnie and I’ll be your Clyde
There’s an endearing honesty in Picott’s writing. His characters don’t lack for ambition. It’s just that their goals are modest reflections of their blue collar lives. “Take Home Pay” chronicles the paycheck to paycheck life-style that occasionally gets supplemented by a trip to the pawn shop or blood bank. “Schemers scheme around the edges, dreamers dream of better days,” he sings, “For everyone knows what the catch is, it’s all about the take home pay.”
“Store Bought” tells the tale of a hard-working laborer whose life is filled with hand-me-downs but who dreams of “having store bought when my ship comes in.” He’s realistic, however, about the chances. “There’s hope in the stars and the love I’ve known but it’s a white knuckle promise baby don’t let go,” he sings.
Out Past The Wires is blue-collar music at its best (and not in a Trump-ian sense…).
When you’re in the mood for loud guitars and hook-heavy rock and roll, you’ll be hard-pressed to find much better than Norway’s Death By Unga Bunga. The group adeptly takes influences from pop and metal to create their raucous sound.
Those influences take turns leading the charge across the eleven tracks on So Far So Good So Cool. In the pop camp are the rousing opener “Haunt Me” and “Cynical,” which sounds like a glossier The Scorpions tune. There’s also the furious pogo stick beat of “Turn My Brain Off.”
In the metal camp are “So Cool”, which starts with a Queen-esque keyboard before the electric guitars kick things into overdrive, and the heavy riff of “Boys.”
They slow things down a bit for the acoustic-oriented “I’m No Provider.” Sure a restrained electric takes the solo but the song offers a pleasant respite from the rock onslaught.
Death By Unga Bunga hits like a shot of Red Bull – the kind of music that will energize you while it puts you in a good mood.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.