A sense of restlessness permeates Kirby Brown’s Uncommon Prayer. The album documents a quest to find happiness and one’s place in this world, a topic that brown tackles with music that is intoxicating and lyrics that are both creative and intelligent.
The search begins with the infectious “Gimme a Week”, an ode to being enamored and then disappointed by life in a new city. “I went up to the city to find myself but didn’t find a thing at all,” he declares, “except for a couple new ways to forget what I was looking for.”
From there Brown turns his attention to romantic contentment, or the lack thereof. The slide guitar-laced “Little Red Hen (with Apologies to Chicken Little)” showcases his clever wordplay in approaching the subject. “She covers her body in braided fig leaves, says ‘nothing’s worth finding if it’s easy to find’”, he sings. Later he humorously declares “She loves Picasso but don’t like Dali; she bet on Joe Frazier ‘cause she don’t like Ali.”
In the driving “Living to Fly” both the singer and his companion are restless in their pursuit of happiness. “I ain’t asking for much, just give me enough so I can get by,” he proclaims yet one wonders if the sentiment is true. (The song also features one of the more entertaining opening lines that I’ve heard in quite some time – “Well you only buy soft pack cigarettes and red underwear.”)
“Joni” and “Mystery” present opposing views on finding romantic companionship. In the former he laments not being able to fully understand the situation. “She tells me she’s an open book, but that’s such a joke to me,” he complains, “It’s impossible to get her, the pages stick together so nobody can read.” Yet later, in the more somber “Mystery”, he counsels a lover to maintain an air of mystery lest the relationship become too comfortable. “Don’t lay your cards down and you’ll keep me around,” he sings.
Uncommon Prayer is a special type of album, combining a folk singer’s approach to storytelling with subdued rock arrangements. The results play up Brown’s pop sensibilities, not to mention his intelligence and wit.
True artists find ways to continually challenge themselves. In that realm, Paul Kelly stands in a league of his own. More than 20 albums into his career he continues to impress with an unparalleled creative curiosity. Nature, his latest album, finds him both exploring the relationship that we have with time and the environment while he celebrates poetry and several revered poets.
Sets the tone with “God’s Grandeur” when he sings “And for all this, nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” On “The Trees” he considers how trees regenerate themselves every year. He describes the return of leaves each spring, concluding “Last year is dead, they seem to say, begin afresh, afresh, afresh”
“With Animals” is a fairly potent commentary on contemporary society, the singer blasting?? Fanaticism and materialism that he sees around him while finding animals to be more, well, humane. “Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth,” he declares.
“Morning Storm” describes the power and beauty of nature in the context of a storm. Yet it also speaks to the warmth and solitude one can find, especially with a loved one, as the fury rages outside.
Part of what makes Nature especially unique is that the songs are all based on poems. In some cases, Kelly has set music to works by Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Phillip Larkin. All the better, his own lyrics stand strong in their midst.
I first stumbled across Erik Oftendahl at the Oklahoma Room during the annual Folk Alliance conference. Not only is it always a good time, it’s always introduces me to some incredible new artists. Among this year’s discoveries was Erik Oftedahl.
Oftedahl’s voice is warm and soothing, but not so much that he doesn’t convey the heaviness in his often confessional songs. On Places, he thoughtfully considers the travails of the world around him, from the societal to the personal. He approaches it all with a distinct point-of-view, sharing his own fears and doubts alongside his shortcomings and aspirations.
The gentle ambling of opener “Prayer for the Damned” stands in contrast to lyrics that decry our treatment of the environment and one another. As the song progresses, Oftedahl moves from a sense of helplessness to one of restrained hope.
Some of the album’s finer moments focus on the artist mission of self-discovery. “Trying To Live” finds him trying to attain grounding and meaning. The song begins “I’ve been the best man I can with what I have” before Oftedahl confesses, “I feel like I have something more to give.”
“Self Medication” rambles with plenty of fiddle and mandolin as Oftedahl sings:
All this self-medication is starting to take its course,
I can’t tell if I’m getting better or I’m getting worse
Try to be a bigger man but sometimes growing pains they hurt
Sometimes nothing’s gonna work
He begins to find a sense of contentment on the melancholy “Nebraska”. It comes through the solitude of the road, Oftedahl reflecting “You learn a lot about yourself when you drive that much alone.” Words of wisdom from the touring life… and for all life.
Longtime readers will recognize the name Bob Walkenhorst. He’s long been one of my favorite songwriters, marrying a perceptive eye (for detail), tremendous emotional intelligence and expressive melodies. For Tomorrow, a collaboration with his daughter Una, demonstrates that the talent runs in the family.
The duo keep the arrangements simple, the album’s finer moments are just guitar or piano. In doing so, they keep the focus on their wistful melodies and incisive lyrics. They open with the optimistic “For Tomorrow,” a song primed for the folk activist canon. The song speaks to social and political decline yet offers up an optimistic outlook and a call to action.
Everybody’s talking about the way
It used to be yesterday
But I’m hoping for tomorrow
Everybody’s talking about the times
Feel the dream is in decline
But I’m living for tomorrow
A cello adds a haunting aura to the heartbreak of “Heat of the Summer.” Una sings of love fading away, ultimately declaring:
And much as I’d like
To bring you with me, dear
If I’m being honest
There’s no room for you here
The gentle sway of “On The Outside” reminds:
And on the outside
No one can see what you’re fighting for
On the inside
Maybe we’re all just left wanting more
For Tomorrow is a wonderful album that is both evocative and poignant. Here’s hoping that the Walkenhorsts continue this impressive collaboration.
7 Horse make one mighty fine racket. The guitar-drum duo broaden the sound of their earlier releases by adding bass and keyboards on Superfecta but the primal core of their rock remains. The band take their cues from 1960’s pop which they then transform into songs that are dark and brooding.
“All My Friends (Hate Me in the End)” is a prime example. An intense guitar and drum intro builds to a roar before a 1960’s go-go melody kicks in. It calls to mind the beach party movies of that era, except with a mosh pit crowd instead of go-go dancers.
The group continue their social and political commentary (a la 2016’s “Livin’ in a Bitch of a World”) with the fervent “What Is America.” The song describes a friend’s increasingly extreme views, a narrative that sadly depicts the current vitriol in America.
Maybe, I never really knew you
You seem like a stranger
And it really doesn’t suit you
What do you believe
Only what’s in your feed
They wind up the album with the cinematic rock of “Burn”. Spoken vocals are set against restrained and brooding musical backdrop before exploding into a heavy guitar-fueled fury. It’s a fitting close to an album that smolders with intensity.
Muscle Shoals’ The Pollies stretch out on their latest release. The group contrast taut pop melodies with an expansive sound that recalls the legendary Big Star in all the right ways.
Transmissions is anchored by soaring melodies that often come with a pinch of melancholy. Singer Jay Burgess’s vocals surrounded by dense, swirling arrangements. A closer listen reveals an intricacy embedded within the songs, such as the jangly guitar that gives “Hold On My Heart” it’s Byrds-like charm or the insistent piano that subtly propels “Summertime Suicide”.
While the album opens with some glorious pop songs – “Hold On To My Heart” and “Summertime Suicide”, in particular – the band gets more adventurous as the album progresses. “Postcard Symphony” is a fine example. Somewhat reserved verses grow into decisive choruses before breaking down into a wash of noisy splendor. The song then returns to where it began with a restrained closing verse. It’s a six minute microcosm of an album that overflows with intelligent pop glory.
Back in 2002, a young Eli Reed travelled to Mississippi and Chicago to experience rhythm and blues in its natural habitat. Upon his return to Boston, he set about bringing the sound to life via his own music. The results, in the form of his 2008 release Roll With You, was a breath of fresh air that burst with a youthful energy while it remained authentic to the musical tradition of the R&B elders.
In celebration of the album’s 10th anniversary, it is getting a joyful re-mastering and re-release. Reed and company shimmy, swagger and sway through 11 tracks that truly sound like lost R&B classics. The songs run the gamut from the fiesty horn-fueled “I’m Gonna Get You Back” and the to the smile-inducing charm of “Am I Wasting My Time” to the funky groove of “The Satisfier”, all driven by Reed’s powerful voice and personality.
Whether you’ve known Reed since those early days or are new to the Paperboy party, it’ll be hard not to get caught up in the joyful music found on Roll With You.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.