You’d never know from their music that The Northern Belle hails from Norway. Their brand of Americana is bathed in Southern California sunshine in more ways than one. This is music warm and lavish, not to mention tremendously warm and inviting. Singer Stine Andreassen’s voice is intoxicating, often accompanied by enthralling harmonies that recall the Mamas and Papas.
But don’t let the sweetness of Andreassen’s voice fool you, she’s got a lot on her mind. She looks back at a failed relationship on “Remember It” with, um, some animosity. “I don’t want to forgive and forget,” she declares, “I want to hurt you and remember it.” “Late Bloomer” considers life as a musical artist. “They say that girls can’t play guitar,” she sings, “I don’t give a fuck.”
She later takes a friend to task on “No Clue”, arguably with a softer touch:
I only want what’s best for you, I’m sad you can’t see that
Sometimes you don’t have a clue, let’s just leave it at that.
Mixed in among lyrics of frustration and exasperation, are a few joyous moments like Andreassen’s tender reflection on motherhood (“Born to Be a Mother”) and a glorious tribute to classic Nashville nudie suits. “For GP it was poppies and cannabis; the Rocket man was all covered in roses,” Andreassen sings on the latter.
Musically, the album opens with a healthy dose of jangly guitars that further the California connection. As the album progresses, pedal steel and fiddle join the mix to shift the musical anchor more towards Nashville. Throw in a string section and the result is a retro orchestral sound coated with a silken contemporary sheen.
Add it all together and We Wither, We Bloom is an enticing combination of musical radiance and lyrical bite.
If Grant-Lee Phillips’ last album was a response to the social and political turbulence that followed the 2016 election, his latest finds him in a more contemplative, albeit still unsettled mood.
He opens with a reminder that, even after a more than 30 year career, there is plenty left to say. “Well I ain’t done yet, more dreaming left to do,” he sings on “Ain’t Done Yet”. “Leave a Light On” is both apology and explanation for life as a touring musician, expressing his joy at performing even as he misses the family he’s left back at home.
Things get darker as the album progresses. “Gather Up” ruminates on the state of the world – “skies are weeping and the dogs run wild” – as he implores all to gather up their children in search of a more peaceful existence. He takes a very different stance on “Straight to the Ground”, exasperated with and weary of the living life in a small town. “Swear I’d like to burn this place straight to the ground,” he declares, “everything, it just reminds me that I’m missing out.”
He closes out the album on an encouraging, if not overly optimistic, note. “Coming To” and “Walking in My Sleep” both suggest that there is some contentment to be found. “Now the fog has finally lifted and the daylight’s breaking through, it’s been a longtime drifting but I’m coming to,” he sings on the former; adding on the latter:
The way that I’m feeling now
It’s only a fever dream
I know it’ll break
But I can’t say just when
How long it’ll be
Some songwriters just have the magic touch. For more than 50 years Jerry Williams – aka Swamp Dogg – has been crafting R&B gems. While some of his most successful hits have been courtesy of those who have recorded his songs, it’s all the better to hear the songs in the writer’s own voice. Whether he is reflecting on love desired (“Sleeping Without You Is a Dragg”) or lost (“I’d Rather be Your Used To Be”) or just describing the qualities of a good song (“A Good Song”), he captures the emotion and sentiment with a focused simplicity. The sincerity of his vocals, combined with the musical allure of the melodies and arrangements, make them all the more enticing.
This track, featuring the late John Prine, is particularly poignant. Hearing the duo’s studio banter mid-song is pure joy.
There’s nothing like some good ol’ rock and roll. You know the kind – scruffy in all the right ways, dripping with greasy guitars and rooted in rhythm & blues. Nocona’s 3rd album delivers all of that and more. The music veers from garage rock (“Too Much to Lose”) to the freewheeling highway (“Too Much to Lose”) to Southern California country (“Post Apocalyptic Blues”). It’s a little bit Flying Burrito Brothers, a little bit Stones, and a little bit Buck Owens. Nocona mix it all up into one sweltering – and swaggering – dose of rock and roll.
See Shawn’s take on Nocona’s latest album here.
Cockrell may have gotten his start with a more roots-oriented Americana sound but that ain’t where he is now. While his sweet and soulful voice remains a musical centerpiece, he now wraps it around more polished rock that recalls My Morning Jacket. The songs on If In Case You Feel The Same have an anthemic vibe, heavy on melody with some glorious bombastic moments that feature Cockrell periodically soaring into falsetto.
Of particular note is this ode to recovering from a shattered relationship. Cockrell pours himself into the song, the occasional break of his voice adding to its emotion and intensity.
I don’t think that there is a musical genre that Paul Kelly can’t – and hasn’t – mastered. His latest release – a collaboration with pianist Paul Grabowsky — recasts many of his songs as pop standards in the style of Tony Bennett. The format, of course, showcases the beauty and timeless quality of Kelly’s writing. Grabowsky’s melodic and restrained accompaniment only adds to the allure.
Daniel Romano is nothing if not prolific. For every “proper” release, he’s good for several “surprise” albums, EPs, and songs. How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is in the former category and furthers his reputation as a pop wunderkind. Romano builds his songs around 1960’s pop melodies that are drenched in horns and harmonies and feature infectious choruses. He mixes in a healthy dose of 1970’s rock swagger fueled by resolute rhythms and an assertive attitude. It adds up to a fun – and energetic – listen.
“This is not my first rodeo”, San Francisco-based artist and producer Mickelson sings on “No Translation for No”. It’s a sentiment that permeates Drowning in an Inflatable Pool, an album with a weathered – arguably battered – world view. The songs portray characters who have seemingly persevered through more lows than highs and emerged with a sense of resigned acceptance. “If I make your team, stick me in left field,” he sings on “Odd Man Out”, continuing, “I’ll be right there at home, out there on my own.”
The producer in Mickelson juices up the songs with some tremendously textured production. Make no mistake that it is an insistent rock album, but one that incorporates everything from trombone to banjo. Of particular note is “The Lockdown”, whose rootsy opening gives way to an unrelenting rhythm and clamorous guitars.
Drowning in an Inflatable Pool combines an anxious energy with alluring melodies to create a remarkable musical experience.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.