Music can be a powerful thing. At its best, it not only meant to entertain, it strives to provoke an emotional reaction in the listener. Red Rescue, the debut album from Austin singer-songwriter Jaimee Harris, is a welcome reminder of music’s potency.
Harris writes with a very personal perspective, digging deep into a well of anxiety and emotion. Themes of perseverance and survival permeat Red Rescue. On the solo acoustic “Catch It Now,” Harris speaks about “saw who I was, where I’d been, who I am and who I want to be,” before concluding “I ain’t waiting for it, gonna go catch it now, been waiting for it for so long, for someone to show me how, I’m gonna go catch it now.
She portrays the sense of isolation and depression that can often follow a break-up on the insistent Depressive State (a song she describes as “a pop song about depression”). In just over four minutes she moves from a feelings of self-pity to anger and then to defiance.
The gripping “Snow White Knuckles” chronicles her own struggles with drugs and alcohol. A tense electric guitar ushers the song along as Harris sings:
But I gave up the cocaine, gave up the gin
freed myself from the hell I was in
and asked the Lord to keep me clean again.
And the Spirit came and picked me up,
kissed me on the cheek and wished me luck,
told me I could call him a good friend… my good friend.
Red Rescue hits like a splash of water to the face and a compelling introduction to an evocative new singer-songwriter.
Eric Bachmann continues what has become one of the more interesting creative journeys in music. Leaving behind the noisy rock of Archers of Loaf and the crafted pop of Crooked Fingers, Bachmann has more recently been releasing quiet, contemplative music under his own name.
His latest thrives on simplicity. There’s a sparseness to the lyrics and a tender restraint to the arrangements. The songs are built around his acoustic guitar but are tinged with touches of electronica that give the songs an atmospheric feel.
Bachmann ruminates on love lost and found and reflects on life from the perspective of middle age, recognizing that more life has passed than lies ahead. In doing so he walks a fine line between contentment and resignation, creating a stirring musical statement.
Culwell ratchets up the intensity from the restrained sobriety of 2016’s Flatlands . The recently released The Last American mostly reflects on the social decline that he perceives around him. His reaction veers from anger to resignation and the range of emotions in-between, sometimes in the course of a single song.
“Dig A Hole” is a prime example. Against a percussive backdrop Culwell lashes out at everything from politics to terrorism before declaring “well it ain’t the promise land but I guess it’ll do.”
Many of the songs are written from a blue collar perspective. The title track finds Culwell trying to reconcile the American dream with a typical American reality.
You can have anything you want, this is the land of the free,
I got everything I asked for on the day I turned sixteen,
I got my old man’s heart and a broke down Chevrolet
The tale continues on the ambling “Dog’s Ass.” Culwell colorfully describes being chased by bill collectors, “they say I owe a little money but they act like I owe my life.” He ultimately takes a somewhat humorous view, “honey the dog’s ass could use a little sun, if this old life don’t shine imma buy you a better one.”
There’s a stronger sense of commitment on the forceful acoustic ballad “Nobody Loves You.” Cullwell opens with a stark warning to a distant, both figuratively and literally, lover. “Look around but you won’t find them diamonds you been looking for,” he sings, “the world is just a coal mine.” He continues, “after all these years and the time you spent away, you know you can come back to me, I love you just the same.”
The Last American is not a cheerful album, but sometimes the best music isn’t.
Escondido, the duo of Jessica Maros and Tyler James, excel at painting musical landscapes that are both cinematic and melodic. On Warning Bells, their third album, they continue to conjure up the imagery of the Southwestern California area from which they take their name.
The songs, like their predecessors, have an intoxicating blend of tension and charm. They come heavily flavored by dusty guitars and vocal harmonies, not to mention the occasional mariachi trumpet.
Lyrically there is a split between songs of romantic hope and despair. Maros asks “still taste you on my lips but am I still on yours” in “Bullet” and sings” take me back, back to an age I didn’t know before I met you” in “Darkness”.
She admits defeat, albeit in stirring fashion, on album stand-out “Joke’s On Me.” “I’ll take the losses, give you everything,” she declares before a rousing electric guitar solo ushers the song into the ether.
On the more hopeful front are songs like “Never Would Have Thought”, “You Get Me High” and “Yes Your Love”. Even then, however, the duo are realistic about the sporadic bumps along the way. “I know I’m not a perfect lover,” Maros admits on “Yes Your Love” before declaring. “It’s hard enough to be a friend but you forgive as I forgave you time again.”
Brett Dennen celebrated 2018 with a 2-part collaboration with renowned songwriter Dan Wilson (Semisonic, Dixie Chicks, Adele). The duo produced a pair of feel-good EPs, filled with the kind of airy and sun-kissed pop that has been a hallmark of Dennen’s career.
The concluding EP injects a bit of wistfulness into the mix. “I wish that I could go back to the beginning,” Dennen sings on the charismatic opener “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.”
The best power pop, well certainly the type that I enjoy, balances melodic simplicity with a layer of musical and/or lyrical complexity. John Brodeur, aka Bird Streets, finds the right equilibrium with Bird Streets, his latest release.
The album is an enthralling collaboration between Brodeur and renowned pop-ster Jason Faulkner (Jellyfish, Beck). The duo unleash an album that crackles with electric guitar and infectious melodies, surrounded by harmonies and the occasional keyboard flourish.
As much as a catchy chorus is a power pop staple, it’s Brodeur’s verses that command attention. The storytelling is as sharp as it is entertaining.
Southern California punk rockers Face to Face strip away the bombastic guitars, pounding rhythms and snarling vocals to revisit selections from their nearly 25 year career. The resulting acoustic tracks shine the spotlight on the group’s irresistible – and often harmony-laced – melodies and the social commentary of their writing. There is still plenty of punk against to be found, for sure. It just comes with a more melancholy flavor.
So much great country music has been born from heartbreak. Just ask North Carolina singer-songwriter John Howie Jr, who describes his latest release as his “lil break-up album.” Song titles like “Back When I Cared”, “She’ll Lose My Heart (I’ll Lose My Mind)” and “I Don’t Feel Like Holdin’ You Tonight” give a clear indication of the subject matter as Howie cycles through a range of emotions from sadness to acceptance to defiance.
Not surprisingly, there is plenty of mournful steel guitar in the mix. It’s Howie’s rich baritone, however, that give the songs their true authenticity and depth. Break-ups are rarely easy but at least they can inspire music that is as universal as it is heartfelt.
What happens when three folks singers get together? They make a pop album with a rock edge. Seems logical, right? If not logical, it sure is good. The trio of Grace Pettis, Rebecca Loebe and BettySoo serve up a collection of four originals and a straight up rock take on Blondie’s “Call Me”, all mixing enticing melodies with alluring harmonies.
The magical closing reprise of album opener “What’ll I Do” is a live cut that returns them to their acoustic roots. As enjoyable as the rest of the EP is, it speaks to the group’s talent. It’s hard to hide when the arrangement is stripped down to just their voices and an acoustic guitar.
Portland quintet Fruition have sure been busy this year. They opened the year with the release of the outstanding Watching It All Fall Apart and spent the subsequent months tirelessly on the road. Now they’re closing out the year with a fine 4 song EP. Featuring songs mostly recorded in the sessions that produced Watching It All Fall Apart, it plays toward the band’s rock inclination. That said, there is still a soulful jam vibe infused within the tracks, making for one fun listen.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.