Josh Ritter is one of the most literate songwriters of these times, waxing poetic as easily as unleashing fiery commentary. He sets the tone early on the newly released Fever Breaks with “Ground Don’t Want Me”, a somewhat jubilant melody and Ritter’s matter-of-fact vocals doing little to hide the dark tale of a killer reflecting on his deeds:
Sometimes I think ’bout all those lucky men I sent to rest
And how it’s them who are a-sleepin’
And it’s me who is the ghost
Now the ground don’t want me, mama
The ground don’t want me, no no no
The demons persist on the sinister “Old Black Magic”, producer Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit ratcheting up the intensity with bruising guitars and a pounding rhythm. “I tried to be a good man, something changes in the wind,” he says before admitting to his wicked ways, “I got that old black magic rolling in.”
Ritter changes the subject to sing of love, or rather the hope of it, with “On the Water.” Speaking to a friend and asking for something more than friendship, he sings, “The choice is for you, I can’t make it for you though I wanna.”
He perhaps provides the next chapter on the subsequent “I Still Love You (Now and Then)” and the outcome isn’t positive. Things didn’t work out and he looks back with both wistfulness and fondness. “A broken heart don’t leave a scar,” he confesses before continuing:
I wish for you the very best
You always were the best of us
There was you and then the rest
And that’s the girl I’m thinking of
Ritter isn’t afraid to get political, and he does so here with the lyrical intelligence that has become his hallmark. The folksy “All Some Kind of Dream” paints vivid pictures of civility and compassion before sadly considering the troubling state of the world, concluding:
For it seems that these are darker days
Than any others that we’ve seen
Oh, how we wished that we weren’t wide awake
And this was all some kind of dream
Fever Breaks is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Ritter – an album of immense character and intellect.
It can’t be said that Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst – Shovels and Rope – lack emotion. By Blood oozes with it, in both the songs and performances.
The group lead off with the soaring pop glory of opening track “I’m Coming Out”. Pounding drums tease the intro to “Mississippi Nuthin’” before the song softens with an acoustic guitar. The drums return as the song crescendos into a Southern version of Springsteen’s “Born To Run”. “You’re on a winning streak but I got laid off last week,” they sing, “But I got a plan that’s gonna turn it all around, I got ideas.”
“Carry Me Home” is a fervent ballad that contemplates a life on the road and the accompanying thoughts of home. Trent and Hearst pour themselves into the song vocally, wailing “Oh, carry me home, I’m no good when I’m alone.”
By Blood is a wonderful sonic experience. It is, at times, a beautiful cacophony but it overflows with the ramshackle earnestness that has become Shovels and Rope’s calling card.
As the album title suggests, Will Kimbrough is proud of his Southern heritage. Yet he is also mindful of the troubling aspects of Southern life, both historical and contemporary.
“Alabama”, the somber opening track, tells the tale of Michael McDonald, a man lynched by the KKK back in 1981. Character-driven tales continue on the ominous slide-guitar fueled “Buddha Blues” (about a prison inmate) and the ambling acoustic “Anything Helps” (about a homeless person). These songs, like many on the album, are written in the first person perspective, adding to their Southern literary flair.
The mood begins to lighten up as the album progresses. The title track professes an appreciation for the Gulf Coast lifestyle, albeit with a sometimes seedy blue collar viewpoint. The more genteel “Salt Water and Sand” speaks to the healing nature of the coast and water. “Salt water and sand, good for your soul,” he sings.
The freelwheeling “I’m Not Running Away” is a touring musician’s credo, as Kimbrough telling a loved one “I never meant for you to think that I was trying to get away from you” as he explains:
I’m not running away, I’m just running
It’s not the highway calling me or the wild blue yonder
It’s just a chance to pick awhile and sing a song
Kimbrough gets soulful on “When I Get to Memphis”, waxing romantic about leaving New Orleans to reunite with a loved one in, you guessed it, Memphis. “Down in Louisiana, it’s such a charming life down there,” he reflects before adding, “but it ain’t Louisiana’s fault that I miss you so bad.”
I Like it Down Here is a charmer from start to finish.
Toronto singer-songwriter Ariana Gillis has just joined an extraordinary list of artists that includes Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Richard Thompson and Patty Griffin. All have worked with producer Buddy Miller, who assisted Gillis on the newly released The Maze.
Gillis has an evocative voice, figuratively and literally. Her voice balances fragility with confidence. It is both soothing and ethereal, at times recalling a more subdued Ani DiFranco. She wraps it around lyrics that are full of imagery yet have a layer of abstraction so as to encourage focused listening.
“Rock It Like Fantastic” is a stirring ode to her mother, reflecting on the experience that comes with age while also revealing the singer’s fears and insecurities. “Jeremy Woodstock” is a poignant fairytale conversation between a man dealing with indescribable tragedy and his own heart’s attempt to restore his spirit.
Said the heart to the man,
“I am not your enemy,
Let me fill you up, let me help you breathe.
Let me make your veins pulse, let me make your lungs rise,
Let me make your mind burst, put me back inside,
I will be your best friend; I won’t let bad happen, Please!”
Miller’s production is immaculate. A bit of pedal steel here, some banjo there and even his own gentle harmony on “Dream Street”. All are subtly layered around Gillis’ voice, acoustic guitar and songs. The results are eloquent and magical.
It’s been quite some time between albums for GA-based Drivin’ N Cryin’. Ten years to be exact. Yet they pick up right where they left off with Live the Life Beautiful.
Opener “Free Ain’t Free” starts out with a subtle – at least by Drivin N Cryin standards – groove before it breaks down into an electric guitar fury fueled by relatively new guitarist Laur Joamets. The group keeps their feet on the gas for the following “I Used to Live Around Here,” a song punctuated by a twin guitar attack.
Kevn Kinney’s story-telling, steeped in his own life experience, finds him frequently looking back at moments from the past. On “Over and Over” he revisits one of his earliest records and the memories associated it. “I must have been in love,” he sings, “I really like the melody, I really like the memory.”
“Ian McLagan” is a loving tribute to the late rock and roll piano legend, even sharing some McLagan wisdom:
He said some people, they do one thing,
talk about it all of their lives
But some people, they keep doin’,
It’s what keeps you alive
Elsewhere, Kinney focuses on the quest for happiness and contentment, most notably on “What’s Wrong With Being Happy”. “What’s wrong with being happy, it’s easier to do,” he sings, “what’s wrong with being happy, it’s really up to you.” It’s a welcome sentiment from a satisfying album. Hopefully it won’t be another decade until the next one.
Ben Cooper reminds me of Jason Molina. Not in the way that Molina lived his life but rather in his commitment to musical exploration, often to some dark places. Cooper’s career has been an extended journey, delving into a pool of emotions that stretch from the personal to the universal.
A prolific artist, Cooper has released two, in essence, companion EPs this spring. They contain the same six songs, the difference being the level of production. One (Therapy) has lush production, with shimmering synthesizers adding depth to the standard guitar, bass and drums. The second (Therapy Alternate Reality Versions) strips back some of the opulence, intended to be more reflective of how they are performed live.
The songs themselves are thoughtful ruminations, the artist in search of emotional grounding and, as he remarks in a few of the songs, “hope”. Some are self-reflective, others consider his interactions with others. “Hard of Hearing” is in the former category, Cooper contemplating:
Another evening spent in the corners of my brain
where I wander off into the dark
And I close my eyes and hope the wolves won’t follow me
but hope’s hard of hearing, so I’m waiting for the teeth
On “Dead Ends” he attempts to make peace with the past, remarking “The past is buried in time and the future’s an anxious invention” before concluding “you will never arrive unless you make peace with your dead ends.”
He offers a glimmer of hope on “Doubt” and Better Days”. “I have learned that nothing lasts, not even problems” he sings on “Doubt”. He inches even closer to the light on “Better Days”, “Just remind yourself that it’s probably gonna take some time but there are better days to find.”
Matt Andersen travelled from his native Canada to Nashville to record his latest album. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Halfway Home By Morning flavors his hearty blues fare with touches of country and Southern soul.
He gets things started with the spirited “The Bed I Made”, complete with a tasty acoustic guitar solo. The song finds him owning up to being the cause of a relationship’s demise. “We both knew one day you would be left lying in the bed that I made,” he admits.
He shifts to the other end of the relationship spectrum with the love song “Been My Last”, a pedal steel guitar giving it a subtle country flair. “Now I’ve been in love a time or two, but it all fades to grey when compared to you,” he sings.
Horns and hearty background singers move “Better Than” and “Ease My Pain” more into soul territory while “Gasoline” cruises with funky groove.
He closes the album with the poignant “Quarter on the Ground (A Song for Uncle Joe)”. Andersen, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and the soulful McCrary Sisters, pays tribute to his late uncle. “Things will never be the way they used to be,” he ruminates, “it’s just so hard to let it go.”
A dissonant chord opens Human Question, as if to remind that the Yawpers are a punk band at heart. Yet singer-songwriter Nate Cook’s ambitions reach far beyond simple punk.
Lyrically, the band’s latest album flows like a therapy session, Cook struggling to ground himself in a turbulent time. “Please, give me something that I can believe in” he asks in the opening “Child of Mercy” as pounding drums give way to slashing guitars. Later, in “Man As Ghost”, Cook questions himself as much as the world around him, ultimately taking ownership of his actions and the outcome. “I’m finally taking ownership, I’m a better lover as a ghost.”
The sentiment, if not a definitive outcome, continue on “Reason to Believe” as Cook declares “been an imposter but I’m trying real hard, asking for forgiveness but I’m doing it wrong.”
The band firmly establish their punk credential with the fiery “Earn Your Heaven” and “Forgiveness Through Pain.” Both songs would fit well in the MC5 catalog, right down to the caustic guitars.
Cook and company close the album by stretching beyond their punk tendencies. Jangly guitars propel the tasty pop of “Can’t Wait”, which is followed by the subtle splendor of the closing “Where the Winters End”. It brings the tumultuous Human Question to a satisfying close.
It’s clear from the start that Philadelphia’s Michael Braunfeld takes pride in the craft of songwriting. Driver contains 13 stories, most rooted in the trials and tribulations of life in the working class. He infuses them all with a point-of-view that is wistful and wisened.
Opening track “The Driver” is his personal reflection on returning to music after an extended hiatus. “Take this shroud off of me, I ain’t done yet,” he sings, even as he questions the musical life. “I don’t know if I’m cursed or blessed,” he confesses at the close of the song.
He further contemplates his journey and following one’s dreams on “Maline”, a song written for his daughter. “There’s something you should know,” he counsels, “it’s good to win but it’s the heart that matters most.”
“This Town” chronicles the stifling feeling of staying in one’s hometown a bit too long. “The good old days are good and gone.” he sings before declaring, “this town will still be here tomorrow but I’m packing up my things and moving on.”
The “us against the world” attitude continues on “Blues Ain’t Nothin’”. “The blues ain’t nothin’ but some color,” he declares before later offering up a more spirited, “you put your fists up when your back’s against the wall.”
Musically, Braunfeld shifts from heartland rock to folk and back with ease, always maintaining focus on the tales that he’s telling – and the messages they convey.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.