Chances are you might already be aware of the story behind J.T., Steve Earle’s tribute to his late son Justin Townes Earle. The younger Earle tragically passed away from a drug overdose in August of 2020, leaving behind a wife and three-year-old daughter.
Steve Earle channeled some of his grief into an album of his son’s compositions, the proceeds of which will fund a trust for his young granddaughter. The album was released digitally on 4 January, Justin Townes Earle’s birthday.
The collection offers an exceptional showcase of the late songwriter’s talent, leaning a bit more towards Justin Towne’s early years. “I Don’t Care”, the album opener, dates back to J.T.’s 2007 Bloodshot Records debut. 2008’s The Good Life is particularly well represented with the elder Earle and his Dukes beautifully recreating the ambling country folk of “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” and bringing a similar vibe, albeit with an increased tempo, to the ballad “Turn Out My Lights”.
“Far Away in Another Town”, also from The Good Life, is particularly moving. One can hear the raw emotion not only in Earle’s voice, but pouring out of his mandolin.
Highlight’s from J.T.’s later output include the rollicking “Champagne Corolla” and a brooding take on “The Saint of Lost Causes”. “Harlem River Blues”, one of the songwriter’s most renowned songs, gets an injection of Mississippi mud courtesy of The Dukes.
“Last Words”, the Steve Earle-penned closing track, is a poignant and heartbreaking reflection on his son and their final conversation.
When You Found Me has an uncomfortably ominous beginning. A heavy, chugging electric guitar sets the tone on lead track “Have You Lost Your Way”, later off-set by spectral keyboards and another electric guitar that weaves and wanders in a foreboding way.
The tension continues into the following “Outrun the Moon”. “It was over before he fell down,” Ben Nichols vividly sings at the start of the song, “she heard them screaming run and don’t look back.” The song, like the opener, slowly crescendos in intensity but never quite reaches the moment of cathartic release.
In many ways, When You Found Me recalls the band’s early years. The overall tone is dark and brooding, a contrast to the glorious anthemic rock found on albums like 2006’s Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers or 2009’s 1372 Overton Park.
The one exception is the Springsteen-esque “Back in Ohio”. Guitarist Brian Venable’s brawny licks and keyboardist Rick Steff’s piano conjure up images of the E Street Band, all the more so when a wailing saxaphone joins in for a solo.
Nichols says that he drew some inspiration for When You Found Me from 1980’s rock radio. The influence is perhaps most notable in the synthesizers who make their appearance on several tracks. In particular, it creates a murky atmosphere to “Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go” and “Good as Gone”.
Matthew Sweet has worked with some celebrated guitarists over the course of his career, including Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. Catspaw, recorded entirely by Sweet (save for drums contributed by longtime collaborator Ric Menck) shows that he can play guitar with the same gritty edge that those renowned musicians who appeared on Sweet’s earlier releases.
The album, in fact, hearkens back to some of those early classics. The most notable connection is Altered Beast, with which it shares a brooding and anxious demeanor. Yet Sweet, as is his hallmark, anchors his music with savory pop melodies and harmonies.
Lyrically, there’s a heavy struggle to find happiness. “What if the best of me isn’t good enough,” he sings on “Best of Me”. Later, on “No Surprise”, he looks back on a disintegrated relationship with regret, “If I get another chance then I’ll be elated, ’cause we’ll be alive again.”
Sweet is in a fighting mood on the otherwise harmonious “Challenge the Gods”. A manifesto for charting one’s own course, he declares “rise above, take your place, punch the world in the face.”
That feistiness is also present on the rumbling “Give a Little”, as Sweet takes his antagonist to task. “Give a little bit of love and I’ll give a little bit of love back to you; have a little bit of hope and I’ll rub a little bit of hope back on you.” Not a bad sentiment for these times.
Texas-raised Mando Saenz has a well-established reputation as a Nashville songwriter. The quality of his compositions is evidenced by the fact that artists ranging from Miranda Lambert to Lee Ann Womack have recorded his songs. Yet, sometimes the songs are best performed by the writer.
All My Shame is filled with songs of emotional turmoil. “The Deep End” finds him confronting a lover’s commitment, singing “Come on in, I know you want to, don’t be scared to splash around… You’re swimming in the deep end now.” He later challenges his own fear of commitment on “The Leaving Side”, admitting “I can only stay so long as I can hide the leaving side.”
“Talk Is Cheap” and “Shadow Boxing” are a pair of wonderful pop confections. The former incorporates a touch of edginess into the verses before leading into a great sing-along chorus. The latter, a co-write with Kim Richey, marries an insistent rhythm with a melancholy air.
The sonic palette opens up with electric guitars scuffing up an otherwise pop melody on the title track while atmospheric soundscapes color the somber “As I Watch You Slowly Drift Away”.
Arguably the most moving instrument on the album is Saenz’s voice, infused with a fragile anguish that gives the songs an extra emotional punch. It is especially notable on the stark closing cover of Ronnie James Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark”. There’s an uneasiness in the singer’s voice that is made all the more striking by the quiet strings and acoustic guitar accompaniment.
Open Door Policy sounds, dare I say, subdued. Well, at least by The Hold Steady standards. While there are certainly some anthemic moments, much of the album features more restrained guitars from Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge accompanied by subtle keyboard flourishes from Franz Nicolay.
The album, of course, centers itself around Craig Finn’s storytelling. He waxes poetic, spinning out tales filled with stories as colorful as the characters that inhabit them. “Lanyards”, for example, starts with a tale about a music fan trying to get into the right shows but evolves into a tale of trying to find one’s self.
“Me and Magdalena” has a jazzy, almost Steely Dan vibe as Finn muses about a friend trying to transform a one night stand with a musician into a relationship. It ends as one might expect – with unhappiness. Apropos of nothing, the song features a new favorite from the catalog of Finn’s idiosyncratic and biting lyrics – “the grackles at the snack bar waging war for popcorn and potato chips.”
Those seeking a more classic The Hold Steady anthem will gravitate towards “Family Farm”. The song references both Van Halen and The Talking Heads before exploding into a chorus that is punctuated by piercing horns and Franz Nicolay’s soaring vocals.
Greenfields is a tremendous reminder of the vast glory to be found in Barry Gibb’s songwriting catalog. From the longing of “To Love Somebody” to the ache of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” to the defiance of “Jive Talkin’”, this new collection is as much a showcase of how Gibb’s writing transcends genre as it is a celebration of some of his greatest hits.
Gibb is joined by an astonishing array of guests for this musical journey. Previous musical collaborators Dolly Parton and Olivia Newton-John add their voices, as do a new generation of performers that includes Brandi Carlile, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Sheryl Crow, and Alision Krauss.
While most join Gibb for some of his best known songs, Americana stalwarts Jason Isbell and Gillian Welch & David Rawlings wonderfully dig a bit deeper into the songwriter’s catalog. Isbell unearths a gem from an unreleased Gibb solo project while Welch and Rawlings help Gibb revive a composition from his childhood whose opening lyric was adopted as the collection’s title.
Of course, the title also makes reference to this being just the first volume. Knowing the depth of the Gibbs catalog, we can eagerly await volumes 2, 3, and then some.
Aaron Lee Tasjan invites us along on the next phase of his musical journey. Tasjan Tasjan Tasjan takes on a more personal tone even as the songwriter’s commitment to pop music remains as strong as ever. There are numerous pop history touchstones to be found across the album, although as the album title suggests, it’s the Nashville artist’s charm and personality that shine the brightest.
He kicks things off with the Big Star-esque “Sunday Women”, followed two tracks later by the ELO-influenced “Up All Night”. “Another Lonely Day” and “Got What I Wanted” recall Harry Nilsson with a tone that is quirky, sharp and brooding.
“Feminine Walk” crackles with a Nilsson “Coconut” vibe as Tasjan recounts relocating from Brooklyn to Nashville. “I rolled out of New York City like metropolitan Conway Twitty,” he sings, “got my smoker’s cough and a Brooklyn loft.”
Things get a bit quieter and reflective as the album winds to a close. “Not That Bad” wouldn’t be out of place on the Beatles’ Revolver; “Got What I Wanted” on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The songs consider what happens as someone pursues and starts to realize his or her dreams. “It’s really not so sad pretending things are not that bad” he confides on the former before adding “when I got what I wanted, never knew it would feel a little too real” on the latter.
Strawberry Mansion is an album about healing, in the case reflecting on Langhorne Slim’s own journey to confront his demons. He emerged from the experience and a bout writer’s block with a slew of songs, nearly 20 of which make it onto this latest release (not to mention an additional 4 bonus tracks)
Strawberry Mansion is very much a folk album. It is rootsy in tone and reflective in spirit. “Morning Prayer” is an album centerpiece. Slim first chronicles his own spiritual path before looking outward to offer prayers to others. “For my friends who suffer/ For my mother, father and brother/ For a world down on its knees/ I pray for thee”.
That sentiment is equally present on ambling and piano-driven “Dreams”. Slim sings:
There’s infinite beauty, I let it pass through me
Now my eyes are open, I’m ready my Lord
I got so tired, I nearly expired
But I ain’t got time to be tired no more
A honky-tonk piano fuels “High Class” as Slim takes a swipe at aristocrats who live their lives oblivious to the world around them. “House On Fire” and “Red Bird” are wonderful acoustic guitar blues, the latter awash in harmonies that add a bluegrass touch.
“Panic Attack”, born from one of Slim’s own bouts with anxiety, introduces some electric guitar into the mix. The singer-songwriter shares a sentiment that is universal in meaning:
To my friends in the same position
I wish there was a cure
But I know that life’s worth living
It’s the only thing worth living for
I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that echoes of Tom Petty resound in the music of L.A. Edwards. Heartbreakers rhythm section Ron Blair and Steve Ferrone back Luke and his brothers Jay and Jerry on this first of two promised EPs.
The group blends airy Laurel Canyon country with a heartland rock urgency. The opening “Trouble” leans more towards the latter while the closing “Skin and Bone” plays into the former.
“My Heart Broke” bristles with a freewheeling vibe that recalls the Byrds. Don’t let the upbeat melody fool you, however – the title conveys the heartache to be found within. “Nothin’ Like You” is more insistent, both in rhythm and a lyrical quest for love.
Although I’m not done listening to Volume 1, I’m ready for Volume 2.
Norway’s Ole Kirkeng introduces himself with an EP that is regal and striking. More to the point, the release documents the range of his songwriting as he shifts effortlessly from country to folk to pop.
The opening “Alone With My Phone” magically captures the sense of sadness and longing that comes from being separated from a loved one. The phone in question is both his current companion and the sole connection to his distant lover. Soaring strings add to both the song’s grandeur and melancholy.
“Double Shift” is Americana that crackles with an insistent rhythm and a catchy chorus while “Phantom Tears” veers into country territory with a banjo and mournful harmonica accompanying Kirkeng’s acoustic guitar.
The closing – and title – track has wonderful shades of Guy Clark. “L.A. seems to give her what she needs, a diamond ring and legal weed,” he sings. Yet all is not as it seems. While he initially appears to be describing the monotony of someone else’s situation, it later becomes apparent that he is lamenting his own dread over a failed relationship. “Our life was more like a rocking chair, we tried back and forth but it went nowhere. When I’m dreaming, she’s still right there, my life’s more like a rocking chair.”
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.