M. Lockwood Porter is on a quest, longing to step beyond the anguish and misery he sees around him in hopes of finding a better place, personally and for everyone.
The opening – and title – track freely acknowledges the depths to which we’ve sunk. “There used to be a blueprint for dignity and hope,” he sings, “but the threads have all unraveled at the end of this old rope.” Yet, rather than wallow in misery he implores, “I hope that you won’t drop out, give up or get numb. Just find a drum to beat on. Pick up a guitar and strum.”
“Waiting for a Sign” turns the focus inward, lamenting his personal state. Again, however, he offers a glimmer of hope, “we’re tough enough to take it but this ain’t no way to live, some shit has gotta change, something’s gotta give.”
The mix of optimism and defiance grows as the album progresses. Porter spits out a litany of societal grievances in the percussive “Get Back to the Wild” but declares, “where the market and the state conspire to grind you in the gears, but now the freedom’s buzzing ‘round me like the wisdom of a child.”
Later, “The Dream Is Dead” offers an obituary for the past alongside a rallying cry for the future. “Our redemption song can topple walls,” he proclaims, “but first we must compose it.”
Musically, Communion in the Ashes bristles with a loose but anthemic heartland rock spirit that recalls Deer Tick’s finer moments. Porter’s insistent vocals add their own sense of concern – and urgency – to his message. It’s a message and album that deserves to be heard.
Cheers is an ironic title for an album that oozes despair. Yet it somehow works when applied to the latest from L.A.’s The Wild Reeds. Songs about pain and struggles are packaged with great pop melodies and hooks, made all the richer by the band’s lush harmonies. More often than not, the songs crescendo to soaring choruses and conclusions.
Yet the lyrical darkness is hard to miss. “All the lights burned out and I’m reaching in the dark” they sing on “Moving Target”, the album opening tale of a broken relationship. The topic rears its head several more times as the album progresses. “Giving Up On You” and “Run and Hide” chronicle relationships that, while not over, are clearly in disarray.
“My Name”, although musically quiet and restrained, is an emotional gut punch that takes a lover to task for emotional abuse. “It hurts babe, when you smear my name to tap a source of power.”
The group also explores insecurity, both in themselves and others. “Don’t you dare play the victim when you have the power to choose,” they sing on “Don’t Pretend”. The infectious “P.S. Nevermind” warns, “If all you have is all you’re told, then how will you survive?”
The album ends on an optimistic note, or at least optimistic relative to the rest of the collection. The closing title track is a plea for support and encouragement even as the singer acknowledges her shortcomings.
It’s not like Eli Paperboy Reed needs any assistance injecting his music with any more soul. Since his early days he channeled the essence of classic 1960’s and 1970’s blues and soul with an unrivalled mastery.
Nonetheless, he traveled to Memphis to record at legendary Sam Phillips Studio. Adding to the mix, he recruited famed Memphis vocal group the Masqueraders to join him. Throw in a powerhouse horn section and the results are one hell of an R&B party.
Reed kicks things off with the infectious bliss of “News You Can Use”, a song that conjures up memories of many a classic Jackie Wilson gem. He looks back on a broken love affair – and the woman who wants him back – on the gospel-flavored “Coulda Had This” before getting funky on the feisty “Trying”. “I might not be the best, I just gotta beat the rest and I’m trying,” he sings, energized by horns and insistent organ.
The penultimate track “A New Song” sums up 99 Cent Dreams beautifully:
We can all use a little jubilation in our lives these days, right? Eli Paperboy Reed has got us covered.
Songwriters really don’t come much better than Adam Carroll. The gentle pick and strum of his guitar (and occasional harmonica) puts his remarkable storytelling front and center. And, oh, the stories that he tells.
Carroll is an astute observer with wonderfully nuanced eye for detail, equally adept at sly humor as he is at heartfelt sincerity. He shifts effortlessly from a colorful character study like “Iris and the Lonesome Stranger” (“she used to be somebody, man, if he only cared to know “) to songs more personal like “The Last Word” (“an ashtray in an old motel, I filled up with my regrets”).
He can even make an ode to a well-travelled shirt into something special and, in some respects, a metaphor for his career as a troubadour. “I’m not Viva Las Vegas, but I’m Motel 6 famous and they’ll always know me by name.”
Lissie’s latest album has been 10 years in the making. When I’m Alone revisits songs from her previous albums, stripping them down to just voice and piano. The arrangements expose the longing and loneliness in her writing, not to mention the heightening the allure of her voice.
Songs of despair like the title track and the appropriately titled “Love Blows” are haunting while the uplifting “Best Days” shimmers with an enticing charm. She unleashes a powerful vocal performance and a cry for empathy on “Everywhere I Go”.
As if her own songs weren’t powerful enough, she includes a stunning take on the Stevie Nicks-penned Fleetwood Mac classic “Dreams” – the icing on an exquisite cake.
Jimbo Mathus is on a creative roll. He has released a steady stream of albums over the past few years and shows no signs of slowing down.
Whereas his last few releases have been more rocking and bluesy, Incinerator marks a return to roots, so to speak. True to Mathus form, though, it’s still an eclectic collection.
Album opener “You Are Like a Song” is a classic barroom sing-along, right down to the plinky piano and sing-along gang vocals. It’s followed by the dark and gloomy title track, brooding with menacing electric guitars and the singer’s ominous vocals.
The ruminating continues on “Really Hurt Someone”, which veers into retro standard territory with piano and strings providing the primary musical accompaniment. “Been Unraveling” sways with a late 1960’s/early 1970’s classic rock ballad vibe, somewhat reminiscent of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”.
Anyone looking for some Mississippi swamp madness will gravitate towards the raunchy blues of “Alligator Fish” or the country folk storytelling of “Jack and the Devil”.
Incinerator is another strong outing. Whatcha got next Jimbo?
The studio chatter that peppers Ridin’ High .. Again makes it apparent that Jack Ingram set out to have fun with his latest release. And why not have a good time when you’re paying tribute to your heroes and inspirations, captured in both covers and original songs.
The covers are choice, ranging from Willie Nelson’s “Gotta Get Drunk” to Rusty Weir’s “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance” to Hayes Carll’s “Down the Road Tonight”. Honky-tonk goodness, anyone? A jarring snippet of the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” gives way to a rambling take on Delaney Bramlett’s “Never Ending Song of Love”.
Which isn’t to say that Ridin’ High .. Again doesn’t have some serious moments. Ingram offers his take on the stunning “Tin Man”, a song originally released by Miranda Lambert, with whom he co-wrote the song (along with John Randall).
“Sailor and the Sea” draws inspiration from a story Ingram heard from Guy Clark and stands as a loving tribute to both Clark and Ingram’s grandfather. It’s the type of ballad that Jimmy Buffett wishes he wrote.
The band name gives away the story behind their early days – a group of Austin musicians taking a respite from their other musical commitments to enjoy one another’s musical company. As has been known to happen, the casual affair evolved into an on-going outfit.
Travel Light is rich in Texas story-telling tradition, filled with tales of small town life, or at least the type of experiences that one would expect in a small town. Dark clouds occasionally appear, as in “Nowhere Left to Run”, which finds a man contempating suicide as he laments the loss of a loved one, or “Cartersville Rain”, the tale of a man who passes away just prior to his retirement.
There are, however, songs with a more positive tone, or at least the possibility of happiness and contentment. Guitarist Phil Hurley celebrates a break in the clouds that have darkened the past on album opener, “Feels Like Home”. “And it seems the road is rising to meet me half the way,” he sings, “I’m starting out on a brand new day.” Fellow guitarist Chris Beall picks up on the theme in the subsequent “Travel Light”, counseling “put down your worries and travel light”
The group throws in a pair of fine covers for good measure: The Danny Kortchmar-penned, James Taylor recorded “Machine Gun Kelly” and a mash-up of Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom” and “Daylight Again”. It’s the group’s originals, however, that shine the brightest on Travel Light.
Singer-songwriter Nate Currin knows about the troubadour life. He’s travelled more than 650,000 miles so far in his career, with many more on the horizon. It’s an experience that permeates the songs on Ashes and Earth, his latest release.
The theme is apparent right from the start – “I’m just a rambling man, old guitar in hand,” he sings in the opening “Rambling Man”. Yet Currin makes it clear that there is more than restlessness behind his wanderlust. It’s a quest to find happiness and contentment, both with his music and his personal life.
“Heart on the Run” and “Wander Til I Die” both further explore the quest for romantic happiness amidst a wandering lifestyle. The former speaks to the regret that his nomadic lifestyle had on a failed relationship while the latter is a realization that his life experience hasn’t prepared him for love. “Every place I’ve run, every seed I sow,” he sings, “proves that I know nothing about love.”
He lightens things up on “Oklahoma”, the tale of passing through the state repeatedly while touring. “I’ve got to get out of this tornado weather,” he bemoans.
Despite the moment of slight levity, Ashes and Earth is a somber meditation. Currin digs deep to consider the life choices that he’s made, looking back with a certain degree of resignation, but also with self-realization.
It’s a sentiment that goes both ways. Artists who approach their craft with honesty and fearlessness can spark inspiration, curiosity and meaning to those that experience it.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.