Bonnie Whitmore lulls you in with a chorus of harmonies on the opening track to her latest album. But before one can settle into the lushness, a fuzzy bass, quickly joined by ominous strings and a resonating electric guitar, interrupts to create a blend of tension and brooding that comes across like a long lost James Bond movie theme song. Talk about a opening statement – of course, that’s just the beginning.
That retro 1960’s pop sound is a touchstone that carries through the album with glorious results. The classicism of Whitmore’s songwriting is matched by the splendor of her voice, an instrument that is anchored in warmth yet with an exacting intensity. “Time to Shoot” is a great example, her voice leading the song from a gentle beginning to a string-drenched and soaring chorus.
Whitmore doesn’t shy from tough subject matter, whether addressing rape (“Asked For It”) or social or political unrest (“None of My Business”, “Right/Wrong”). She also acknowledges Texas music history with a splendid cover of Centro-matic’s “Flashes and Cables” (the features songwriter Will Johnson on vocals) and a moving tribute to the late George Reiff, a cornerstone of the Austin music scene, on “George’s Lullaby”.
Last Will & Testament is a glorious listen, immaculately crafted and packed with emotion.
Welcome back, Kathleen, we’ve really missed you. After an eight year hiatus (her last album was 2012’s Voyageur), Edwards picks up where she left off with Total Freedom – a new album exquisitely steeped in emotion and authenticity.
The album opens with an appreciative tone, looking back on happy moments and lessons learned from a failed relationship. After reflecting on a touring musician’s romance (“We bought a rock and roll dream, it was total crap”) and time shared (“I was so lucky to be under your wing, but I think I went and outgrew ’em”), she acknowledges “I will always be thankful for it”.
From there she sharpens her lyrical bite. “Hard On Everyone” takes a lover to task, with Edwards asking “you’re so hard on me, why would you want to be?” continuing on with “why would I let you be?” Later, on “Feelings Fade”, a heartbreak cuts deep. “I could teach you five words to close a door, I don’t love you anymore.”
“Fools Ride” is a gentle kiss-off song, if there is such a thing. “Love is blind, whoever bought that line must be a real sucker,” she sings against a relaxed musical accompaniment.
Album closer “Take It With You When You Go” is a heartbreaking ballad. “I don’t want it anymore, the hurt that lives under the bed in the smell of your shirt,” she sings. It is a line both vivid and poignant. It also brings just the slightest smile to my face, not for the song’s subject matter but for the reminder that Edwards provides about how moving music can be. And, of course, how wonderful it is to have her back.
The Band of Heathens lean further into their rock persona on Stranger. “Vietnorm”, the opening track, kicks things off with a touch of Little Feat rock flair before giving way to the scruffy pop goodness and wondrous harmonies of “Dare”.
“How Do You Sleep” is a bit of a paradox. It pulls you into the song with a gentle symphonic opening before laying bare the burn of betrayal and a shattered relationship.
You look so peaceful lost in your sleep
No need for your pills or your counting sheep
Lying so pretty in your cotton and your lace
It’s a real thing of beauty when you’re lying to my face
Ouch. The group lightens the mood, at least a bit, on songs like “Asheville Nashville Austin”. The song reflects on the songwriter’s experience of chasing songs across those three storied musical cities. “Truth Left” follows with a comforting 1970’s country rock feel, that somewhat contrasts with lyrics that reflect on reaching a breaking point in a time of social and political turbulence. “Tell me what’s all this shouting for?,” they ask, “what happened to forgiveness?”
The group takes that juxtaposition of upbeat melody and troubling lyrics a step further on “Today Is Our Last Tomorrow”. Your foot will be tapping as you find yourself joyously singing along with the chorus that repeatedly states the fatalistic song title. I guess if we’re gonna lament the state of the world, we might as well do it in rousing fashion.
Sure, much of Jackson Emmer’s brilliant new album is on the serious end of the spectrum. Then there’s this gem, which is arguably the sequel to Todd Snider’s “Looking For a Job”. The song never fails to bring a smile to my face… and we could all use some smiles these days.
‘Where do you see yourself five years from now’
I’ll be a power ball millionaire
My future avocation is a lack of occupation
I’ll be floating down the river somewhere
See Twangville’s premiere of “When the Lawn Gets Dark” here.
Lemons into lemonade. That’s one way to describe the Alone Together Sessions from Hayes Carll. Kept from the road, Carll hunkered down in his home studio to prepare what amounts to an acoustic greatest hits release. With help from multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott and guest vocalists Ray Wylie Hubbard and Allison Moorer, Carll pulls songs both cynical and sincere from his tremendous catalog and offers a welcome moment of musical comfort in these troubling times.
Of particular note is Carll’s duet with Hubbard on “Drunken Poets Dream”, a song they co-wrote several moons ago. Their song-ending banter, well really barbs, make the performance even more entertaining.
This is the rock album that I’ve been craving this year. Drag the River co-founder Jon Snodgrass is unleashing a sonic blast of blaring guitars and pounding rhythms. The songs are as tight as they are boisterous, with most clocking in at three minutes or less. The stories vary widely, from chastising a bothersome interloper backstage at a show (“Backstage“) to regretting a hangover (“Footage”) to taking someone to task for mistreating a friend (“Don’t Break Her Heart”). Most are rock of the fist-pumping variety, which Snodgrass seemingly encourages on “The Sequal” as he bellows “Sing along, it’s not a long song.”
If one thinks that Kathleen Edwards took a lengthy hiatus, Semisonic arrives to say “hold my beer”. Reuniting in the studio for the first time in nearly 20 years, they have just released a glorious five song EP. And, like Edwards, they pick up right where they left us. You’re Not Alone crackles with infectious pop delivered with the musical crispness that has always anchored the trio’s music.
While I’m partial the “Basement Tapes”, their ode to the band’s early days, singer-songwriter Dan Wilson sums things up quiet nicely with the EP’s opening line (from “You’re Not Alone”):
Everybody knows that the world is wrong
Only thing to do is write a song
That’s one way to take a wrong and make it alright
There’s so much to enjoy on this tribute to the songs of tried and true New Yorker Willie Nile. Nile has always infused his songs with unbridled enthusiasm, a quality that has earned him the respect of both artists and fans alike.
In that vein, it’s fun to hear more than 25 artists interpret Nile’s songs. Yet the real magnificence here is how it showcases the depth of Nile’s songwriting. Whether the songs are reimagined as rockabilly (“Gene Casey’s “American Ride”), garage rock (XL Kings’ “That’s the Reason”), pub rock (Graham Parker’s “One Guitar”), folk (Slaid Cleaves’ “Sideways Beautiful”), or even reggae (Henry Vassell’s “When One Stands”), Nile’s sense of melody and lyrical perception shines across every performance.
John Gorka’s “I Can’t Do Crazy Anymore” is a particular stand-out, the perfect combination of singer and song.
Watch out for the side man stepping out. After a decade touring with several notable Nashville country artists, Liam Thomas Bailey has channeled his energy into a project called Two Bird Stone, a group that serves up rootsy folk that reaches from Appalachia to Ireland.
One thing is for sure: Bailey sure knows how to craft a pop melody. From the candied love song “Shoebox Money” to the wholesome longing of “When Somebody Can See Your Soul” to the Irish shanty “If You Wanna Come Back”, Bailey fills his music with an irresistible charm.
Further, the songs have an uplifting air. The earnest tale of finding a personal connection described in “When Somebody Can See Your Soul” and the ode to life-long friendships described in “Me and My Friends” are a welcome musical escape.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.