Familiar Ground, like John Calvin Abney’s previous albums, possesses a beautiful spirituality that is comforting and uplifting. Case in point – he opens this latest release with the heartening “When This Blows Over”, a song that serves as a quiet anthem for the Covid era. “I’ve been making lists of the missing and the missed,” he sings. An aching pedal steel joins in as he declares, “when this blows over, I’m coming over to see you my friend.”
Weather and the elements are a recurring theme on Familiar Ground, figuratively and literally. It sets a mood and conjures up scenic images on “Signs of Weather”, “Tokyo City Rain”, and the aforementioned “When This Blows Over”.
Abney takes a more somber tone on songs like “I Don’t Get Excited Much Anymore” and “The Contractor”. The former flows with a profound air of resignation even as he proclaims “down here every night is a weekend”. The latter finds him taking the guise of someone reflecting on life decisions, dissecting them and wondering how they’ll be remembered by others. “One day my breath will join the wind, I’ll cease to have been ’cept in what I build and bury,” he considers.
The title track is arresting in its sober beauty. Abney weaves together both hope and hopelessness, ultimately suggesting “it’s best to leave it prodigal and find your familiar ground.” The song, like the entire album, wraps itself around you like a cozy blanket and infuses its warmth into your spirit.
Norway’s Malin Pettersen takes us on a wonderful Americana journey with Wildhorse. She kicks things off with the aptly titled “California”, which flows with a 1970’s Southern California folk rock vibe that recalls Joni Mitchell.
Save for the wail of a steel guitar, “Particles” and “Holding Lonely” are the kind of throw-back pop standard that one would expect to hear from Judy Garland back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Pettersen veers into classic country territory with “Let’s Go Out” and “Mr. Memory”, calling to mind Dolly and Loretta. “Queen of the Meadow”, punctuated by fiddle and strings, ambles with a 1970’s Glen Campbell feel.
The threads that pulls it all together are Pettersen’s voice, both as a singer and a songwriter. Her voice is both silken and self-assured; her songs catchy and enthralling.
Matthew Ryan has always been restless as an artist, constantly pushing himself creatively. His latest EP was born from this pursuit of craft and a desire to explore the piano. That process resulted in the three songs that make up Life Is Beautiful.
Although the title stands somewhat in contrast to the feel of the music, it helps to shape the perspective nonetheless. The songs are brooding and reflective even as the EP title suggests a glimmer of contentment.
Ryan describes the songs as tone poems but they can also be considered musical portraits. They are centered around the gruff whisper of Ryan’s voice and the haunting beautiful of his piano, with just the slightest ambient embellishment from strings both and synthesized.
Matthew Ryan is on a profound artistic journey and it is inspiring to hear – and enjoy – the fruits of his labor.
Few artists do pop music like Mike Viola. Those familiar with his early years will recall captivating simplicity of his work with the Candy Butchers, the kind of pop goodness that encapsulate sunshine, smiles, and sing-alongs. As the years have progressed, however, his music has become more sophisticated while maintaining its underlying charm.
Godmuffin, his latest album, continues this musical journey. The songs are personal and melancholy, capturing the artist in a contemplative mood. Its more powerful moments find Viola confronting mortality, most notably on “Creeper”, his moving tribute to his friend the late Adam Schlesinger. “Don’t be afraid, we still have time”, he implores before adding, “there’s so much I want to do”. On “Drug Rug” he declares, “only the dead get to heaven, here on earth we just get lost.”
“Superkid 2, Trying to Do The Thing I was Born To Do” is a moving piano ballad, the sequel to 2004’s “Superkid”. Both songs reflect on life decisions, failures, and successes, as well as the expectations that accompany them – albeit with an additional 16 years of perspective embodied in the sequel.
The theme of self-reflection continues on the 1950’s doo-wop laced of “We May Never Be This Young Again” while the melancholy pop of “All You Can Eat” turns the lens outward, the artist talking to someone about escaping debilitating hardship and misery en route to finding happiness.
While Viola’s melodies are splendid slices of power pop, he scuffs up the edges on Godmuffin with satisfying results. The aforementioned “Creeper” starts with restraint before building to an extended guitar solo that owes as much to the Grateful Dead as it does to Big Star. “Drug Rug” stays more in the Big Star arena with an electric guitar weaving around Viola’s vocals throughout the song.
Godmuffin is immensely rewarding – immediately accessible yet with a complexity that unfolds with each subsequent listen.
Harvey McLaughlin sure knows how to throw one heck of a music party. Rascality, the piano man’s second album, is as fanciful as it is eclectic. McLaughlin writes about a chinese restaurant, a yeti, Coney Island and a character dubbed “Ghastly Graham Ingels”, to name just a few of his lyrical topics.
While McLaughlin is based in San Antonio, Texas, his musical stylings stretch from New Orleans to Memphis to LA. “Miss It When I’m Gone” has shades of Dr. John while “Ghosts On Mars” conjures up images of Leon Russell (circa “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”). McLaughlin even time warps to the Lower East Side of NYC in the early 1900’s with the Yiddish dance vibe of “Low and Slow”.
Rascality is a much-need dose of musical escapism for all to enjoy in the midst of these crazy times.
Folk music – true folk music – is alive and well in the guise of William Elliott Whitmore. His new album captures it in a variety of musical arrangements, from old-time country (“My Mind Can Be Cruel to Me”) to his signature solo banjo rave-ups (“Everything We Need”) to traditional acoustic guitar ballads (“History”).
“MK Ultra Blues”, an album stand-out, is Woody Guthrie with a banjo, a narrative on the mid-1900’s CIA mind control experiments contrasted with the 1960’s acid trips of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
It’s always refreshing to come across a new artist with something to say. Apalachicola, Florida-based Clayton Mathis serves up a gem that tackles two familiar music topics – politics and relationships.
Part of what makes Welcome to the In Between so gratifying is the amount of life advice that Mathis drops into his songs. Most notable is “Learned”, a compilation of wisdom from his mother and father. “Don’t drown in the bottle, stay away from the cops, these are the things that I learned from my Pops,” he shares before adding some motherly wisdom – “the love you take in, be sure to give out.”
While “Hammer on the Toe” laments life’s hardships, Mathis still manages to keep a sense of humor and optimism. “Life can be pretty mean,” he considers, “but it’s fucking awesome sometimes it seems.”
He casts his musical gaze towards social and political strife on “Jesus In the Passenger Side” and “Watch the World Burn”. As the song titles suggest, he view is not positive. Yet, he still manages to find some hope. “Darkness will come, it will seep into your skin, but only if you allow it,” he sings on “Darkness”.
He puts it all into glorious perspective on the pop goodness of “Kerosene”. “It’s the way life treats me, the way I treat life back, it’s hard to find your way back home when you don’t know where you’re at.”
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.