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Saturday, February 28, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
February 28, 2015
Scott Foley


I debuted the first single from James McMurtry's Complicated Game way back in November, pondering whether the cut's processed beatz and newfound slickness might mark a new and refreshing chapter for a writer who might be due for a bit of an overhaul.  Alas, in meeting the new McMurtry we realize that he's somewhat like the old McMurtry.  Still, I appreciate the writer's decision to take a holiday from political rants in order to refocus on the everyday (fun fact: I'm not especially fond of politically oriented songs).  McMurtry is an almost peerless lyricist, though he's a limited vocalist, and his arrangements lack diversity.  Nevertheless, my jury is still open regarding Complicated Game.  "Copper Canteen",  "Ain't Got No Place" and "These Things I've Come To Know" are classic McMurtry, in all the best ways.

While we've only been treated to one track from Charlie Parr's Red House debut, "Over the Red Cedar" is a promising glimpse of the April release.  And who's in the mood for an extended acoustic instrumental indulgence?!!  On Seasonal Hire, the eclectic Steve Gunn capably pairs with the Black Twig Pickers for an entrancing dip into Appalachian folk sounds, as paired with exotic modalities and drones.  Who says americana has to always sound like Steve Earle?  I'll be spinning the second cut from Dwight Yoakam's Second Hand Heart this week, and I'm eager to access the complete second LP from Spirit Family Reunion, too.  Incidentally, this Saturday we'll also try to shoehorn in debuts from Tallest Man On Earth, William Elliott Whitmore, Hip Hatchet and more and more and more.

February brought us something new and different from Nashville artist Natalie Prass.  The past week or so saw Ryan Adams endorsing Prass by covering her music and inviting her onstage in England.  Prass and producer Matthew E. White inject such heartbreak in songs like "My Baby Don't Understand Me" and "Your Fool", a pitch perfect return to the country-soul of Dusty Springfield or Shelby Lynne (channeling Dusty).  While it's evident that Natalie Prass certainly bears the stamp of White's Spacebomb production, the lush strings aren't enough to hide her songwriterly skills.

Like McMurtry, Raul Malo and the Mavericks certainly know their pocket, and they stick to it like glue on their first album in a couple years, Mono.  But let's face it, there are few more engaging vocalists than Malo, and there's hardly a more consistently fun band on record.  Absolutely nothing new to see here, but that works just fine on tunes like the automatic classic "All Night Long" or "What Am I Supposed To Do".

Cosmetics, Diamond Rugs' second record, comes across as tighter and more complete than their 2012 debut.  Problem is, I loved that album's loose chaos.  Fortunately, resulting songs like "Couldn't Help It" and "Killin' Time" retain much of the supergroup's original charm.  Boasting members from Deer Tick, Los Lobos, Black Lips and more, the sum here is just about what you'd hope for. 

Wrinkle Neck Mules have made 7 albums in their 15 years, culminating in the appropriately titled I Never Thought It Would Go This Far.  Recorded live to tape, the quintet's songs are reckless but smart.  The 'Mules make the sort of lyrically driven that's rare these days, when most artists err either on the side of folkin' it up or dumbing it down with gratuitous references to weed, women and whiskey.

February also brought Kill County's Broken Glass In the Sun in all its full splendor.  The Nebraska band has taken risks on their new material, cleaning up the production for a fuller, more calculated impression.  A glance at the lyrics will reveal that Kill County have spent some extra time on that side of the equation as well.  The results are no less melancholy, no less genuine than their earlier efforts, a gritty document of working class life that never takes the easy way out.  

February's Reasons to Live

Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass
Mavericks, Mono
Wrinkle Neck Mules, I Never Thought It Would Go This Far
Diamond Rugs, Cosmetics
Kill County, Broken Glass In the Sun

As far as Square State material, there was nothing better this month than John Statz's eloquent Tulsa.  A big step forward from his worthy 2012 release, Old Old Fashioned, Statz's new material brings to mind a singer-songwriter like Jeffrey Foucault, which is more than a coincidence in light of the fact that Foucault himself produced the sessions.  With its perfectly positioned pedal steel and backing vocals from Caitlin Canty, "Home At Last" is a certain candidate for my end of year favorite songs list. 

If weather cooperates, we should have an instudio visit from Pieta Brown on the next Episode of Routes & Branches (2/28).  If nothing else, your week will be made much richer with two hours of good music.  Onward towards March!

Monday, February 23, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
February 21, 2015
Scott Foley

Four (4) full hours of R&B  this week, covering for the Spot Formerly Known As Tarnation!.  Allows me the room to stretch out a bit, to pepper the mix with some elderly cuts.  I believe this is how R&B is meant to be heard (actually, it's my experience that, to paraphrase Goldilocks, two hours = too few and four hours = too many; three hours = just right).  

It was way back in September when I received three cuts from the pride of Nebraska, Kill County.  At the time, the band was uncertain as to the strategy for unleashing these new tunes, which were recorded in Detroit.  Welp, apparently they've untangled those knots and made the entirety of Broken Glass In the Sun available on Bandcamp and other digital delivery sources.  I began waving the Kill County flag following their Dust In Wire collection, which haunted my early 2013.  I've since added the earlier Year of Getting By to my life, and I'm a far better man for it.  Like its predecessors, Broken Glass is a dark record, a fitting soundtrack to the short and claustrophobic days of winter.  The dual vocals of Ringo and Josh James establish a high/low, dark/light, heaven/hell juxtaposition, never perfect or polished - they even alternate lines within songs.  Kill County is an acoustic band with no patience for overdubs.  Their music has typically come across as recorded live, perhaps in a small room echoing with ambient creaks and snaps and shuffles.  There is banjo, fiddle and guitar, but this is hardly bluegrass.  There's a strong strain of melancholy, though the songs are smart and poetic with no false sentiment or filler ("7 Billion Broken Hearts" will, in fact, break hearts).  Despite the fact that Broken Glass was recorded in Detroit, I would argue that much of Kill County's music makes little sense in an urban setting.  Songs like "Bad Gasoline" or "Beat Up Iron" are caked in backroads dirt, and the title cut kicks up gravel and rattles over deep ruts. "And it's a long road back to no man's land / and I can't stand these shaking hands. / I am nothing but dirt beneath my heels  /  Only dust behind my wheels."  Granted, the recordings on this new batch of songs are sonically cleaner than early classics like "Straight Six Ford", but it's still stuff best understood in a "Shitty Truck" (see Dust In Wire).  "I've been feeling like beat up iron  /  Just slipping through my gears  /  And I suppose we all must pay  /  For those good old days.

Also in this generous batch, we enjoy a live dose of Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent.  Houck's voice is one of my favorite things ever these days, especially when it breaks just right.  This is why shows like American Idol or The Voice don't quite work.  Houck would probably scare your kids singing "Happy Birthday" - his voice isn't one that would turn coaches' chairs.  Nevertheless, when he applies that flawed and fractured instrument to "Joe Tex, These Taming Blues" or "Song For Zula", it can be transcendent.  

*  Diamond Rugs, "I Can't Help It"  Cosmetics  (Sycamore, 15)
*  Blitzen Trapper, "American Goldwing (live)"  Live in Portland  (LidKerCow Ltd, 14)
*  Delines, "82nd Street"  Colfax  (El Cortez, 14)
*  Leon Bridges, "Coming Home"  single  (Columbia, 15)
*  Hacienda Brothers, "Ordinary Fool"  Arizona Motel  (Proper, 08)
*  Old Crow Medicine Show, "Mother Church"  Brushy Mt Conjugal Trailer EP  (ATO, 15)
*  Jack White, "Did You Hear John Hurt (live)"  Another Day Another Time  (Nonesuch, 15)
^  Kill County, "Bad Gasoline"  Broken Glass In the Sun  (Kill County, 15)
*  John Calvin Abney, "Cut the Rope"  Better Luck  (Bullets In the Chamber, 15)
*  Cory Branan, "Skateland South"  The Hell You Say  (Chin Up, 02)
*  Samantha Crain, "Traipsing Through the Aisles"  the Confiscation  (Ramseur, 08)
*  Spirit Family Reunion, "It Does Not Bother Me"  Hands Together  (SFR, 15)
*  Andrew Bird w/Nora O'Connor, "I'll Trade You Money For Wine"  While No One Was Looking  (Bloodshot, 14)
*  Steve Earle, "Usual Time"  Terraplane  (New West, 15)
*  John Statz, "Queen Of the Plains"  Tulsa  (John Statz, 15)  C
*  James McMurtry, "These Things I've Come To Know"  Complicated Game  (Complicated Game, 15)
*  Left Arm Tan, "69 Reasons"  Alticana  (Left Arm Tan, 13)
*  Jim White vs Packway Handle  Band, "Breathing Room"  Take It Like a Man  (Yep Roc, 15)
*  Gram Parsons, "Love Hurts"  Grievous Angel  (Reprise, 74)
*  Lilly Hiatt, "Royal Blue"  Royal Blue  (Normaltown, 15)  D
*  Pops Staples, "Love On My Side"  Don't Lose This  (Anti, 15)
*  JD McPherson, "Mother Of Lies"  Let the Good  Times Roll  (Rounder, 15)
*  Shakey Graves, "Pay the Road"  Nobody's Fool  (Shakey Graves, 15)
*  Joe Ely, "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night"  Joe Ely  (MCA, 77)
*  Ryan Culwell, "Think I'll Be Their God"  Flatlands  (Lightning Rod, 15)
*  Shelby Lynne, "I Can't Imagine"  I Can't Imagine  (Rounder, 15)  D
*  Dwight Yoakam, "Second Hand Heart"  Second Hand Heart  (Reprise, 15)
*  6 String Drag, "Kingdom of Gettin' It Wrong"  Roots Rock 'n' Roll  (Royal Potato, 15)
*  Lindi Ortega, "Dying Of Another Broken Heart"  Little Red Boots  (Last Gang, 11)
*  Chris Stapleton, "Traveller"  Traveller  (Mercury, 15)  D
*  Blackberry Smoke, "Holding All the Roses"  Holding All the Roses  (Rounder, 15)  D
*  Reckless Kelly, "Wicked Twisted Road"  Wicked Twisted Road  (Sugar Hill, 05)
*  Fifth On the Floor, "Angels In the Snow (Shangri-La Version)"  & After  (FotF, 15)
*  Deslondes, "I Fought the Blues and Won"  the Deslondes  (New West, 15)  D
*  Julie Miller, "Devil Is An Angel"  Blue Pony  (Hightone, 97)
*  American Aquarium, "Ramblin' Ways"  Wolves  (American Aquarium, 15)
*  Water Liars, "Swannanoa (live)"  OurVinyl Sessions  (OurVinyl, 15)
*  Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires, "Mutineer"  Sea Songs  (Southeastern, 15)
*  Houndmouth, "Otis"  Little Neon Limelight  (Rough Trade, 15)
*  Phosphorescent, "Down To Go (live)"  Live At the Music Hall  (Dead Oceans, 15)
*  Handsome Family, "Giant of Illinois"  Through the Trees  (Carrot Top, 98)
*  Andrew Combs, "Pearl"  All These Dreams  (Thirty Tigers, 15)
*  Ryan Bingham, "Hands of Time"  Fear and Saturday Night  (Axster Bingham, 15)
*  Steve Gunn & Black Twig Pickers, "Trailways Ramble"  Seasonal Hire  (Thrill Jockey, 15)
*  John Doe & the Sadies, "Detroit City (I Want To Go Home)"  Country Club  (Yep  Roc, 09)
*  Rev Peyton's Big Damn Band, "Hell Naw"  So Delicious  (Shanachie, 15)
*  Alabama Shakes, "Don't Wanna Fight"  Sound & Color  (ATO, 15)
*  Benjamin Booker, "Chippewa (live)"  Live At Third Man Records  (Third Man, 15)
*  Two Cow Garage, "Let the Boys Be Girls"  single  (Last Chance, 15)
*  Dolorean, "We Winter Wrens"  You Can't Win  (Yep Roc, 07)
*  Eels, "Can't Help Falling In Love (live)"  Royal Albert Hall  (Eworks, 15)  D
*  Caitlin Rose, "Sinful Wishing Well"  Own Side Now  (Theory 8, 11)
*  Longest Day of the Year, "Let What's In Out"  Carapace  (Mulewax, 15)  C
*  Joe Pug, "Burn and Shine"  Windfall  (Lightning Rod, 15)
*  Butch Walker, "I Love You"  Afraid of Ghosts  (Dangerbird, 15)
*  Alejandro Escovedo, "Always a Friend"  Real Animal  (Back Porch, 08)
*  Gill Landry, "Just Like You"  Gill Landry  (ATO, 15)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
February 14, 2015
Scott Foley

I remember the revelation that was my first glimpse of Brittany Howard fronting Alabama Shakes on a live video of "You Ain't Alone" 2011 in Chattanooga.  A lot can happen in four years, and Howard's band has since been discovered by millions more.  They've been signed to ATO Records, toured hard, been nominated for a couple Grammys and even played SNL.  There's nothing harder than a sophomore record, but our first glimpse of April's Sound & Color is reassuring. 

I have been diagnosed as especially susceptible to supergroups.  I fall hard when somebody from this band joins somebody from that band to form a third band.  Problem is that with a handful of exceptions (think Delines here), supergroups can prove pretty tepid.  Diamond Rugs' 2012 debut fed my monster, offering up a sloppy batch of profane garage rock (plus, one of my favorite new holiday tunes in recent years, "Christmas In a Chinese Restaurant").  Fronted by the restless John McCauley of Deer Tick, Diamond Rugs also houses current or former members of Los Lobos, Dead Confederates, Black Lips and Six Finger Satellite.  Called Cosmetics, the ensemble's second album continues to please, though it seems the sleaze factor has been dialed down a notch or two.  There was a time a couple years back when on a whim the Pogues' Shane MacGowan had his teeth fixed.  He looked curiously broken afterward, and it's my understanding that MacGowan soon abandoned his new choppers.  Point is, sometimes you want your Shane MacGowan in shambles.  Diamond Rugs is best when at least a couple of the wheels are dangerously close to leaving the tracks.  The record's first single, "Voodoo Doll", is driven by Steve Berlin's skronky sax, featured throughout the collection.  With its quirky pogo rhythms, I can imagine Danny Elfman and Oingo Boingo playing "Voodoo Doll".  Not the early, punk Oingo Boingo, but the later family friendly edition.  Tunes like "So What" or "Live and Shout It" keep it rough, tracing that magical trail between roots and punk that bands like X or the Replacements originally blazed.  "You're a train I thought that sounded like heartache ..."  The swagger which largely defined Diamond Rugs' debut shows up as well on "So What", wielding the classic refrain, "I love you / So what".  Relative sanity creeps in on some of the pieces, and there's a real sense that the disparate parts of the ensemble have coalesced to produced more complete, more fleshed out songs this time through.  "Couldn't Help It", for instance, comes across like classic Buddy Holly or the Everlys.  Behind a loping beat and a blast of organ, "Killin' Time" is Cosmetics' most unhinged cut, unleashing a litany of ways to spend our days:  "Killin' time / Pickin' a religion  / Killin' time  /  But it don't work  /  Killin' time  /  Watchin' some paint dry  /  Killin' time  /  Having revelations  /  Killin' time  /  Walkin' to the mailbox ..."  The track trips along just perfectly, like the songs Paul Westerberg and co. forgot to record. 

*  Rosanne Cash, "Your Southern Heart"  River & the Thread  (Blue Note, 14)
*  Brandy Clarke, "Pray To Jesus"  12 Stories  (Slate Creek, 13)
*  Dwight Yoakam, "Second Hand Heart"  Second Hand Heart  (Reprise, 15)  D
*  John Statz, "One Way Opens"  Tulsa  (John Statz, 15)  C
*  James McMurtry, "Copper Canteen"  Complicated Game  (Complicated Game, 15)
*  Wrinkle Neck Mules, "Token"  Nobody Told Me It Would Go This Far  (Lower 40, 15)
*  Whitehorse, "Oh Dolores"  Leave No Bridge Unburned  (Six Shooter, 15)
*  Gasoline Lollipops, "Homesick Remedy"  Spokesbuzz Vol 5  (Spokesbuzz, 15)  C
*  Murder By Death, "Last Thing"  Big Dark Love  (Bloodshot, 15)
*  Houndmouth, "Sedona"  Little Neon Limelight  (Rough Trade, 15)
*  Joe Pug, "Bright Beginnings"  Windfall  (Lightning Rod, 15)
*  Natalie Prass, "My Baby Don't Understand Me"  Natalie Prass  (Spacebomb, 15)
*  JJ Grey & Mofro, "Ol' Glory"  Ol' Glory  (Provogue, 15)
*  Son Little, "The River"  Things I Forgot  (Anti, 14)
*  Shakey Graves, "If Not For You (demo)"  Nobody's Fool  (Shakey Graves, 15)  D
*  Andrew Combs, "Foolin'"  All These Dreams  (30 Tigers, 15)
*  Charlie Parr, "Over the Red Cedar"  Stumpjumper  (Red House, 15)
*  Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires, "I Follow Rivers"  Sea Songs  (Southeastern, 15)  D
^  Diamond Rugs, "Killin' Time"  Cosmetics  (Sycamore, 15)
*  Alabama Shakes, "Don't Wanna Fight"  Sound & Color  (ATO, 15)  D
*  Butch Walker, "Bed On Fire"  Afraid Of Ghosts  (Dangerbird, 15)  D
*  Cody Canada & the Departed, "Stay"  HippieLovePunk  (Underground Sound, 15)
*  Calexico, "Falling From the Sky"  Edge of the Sun  (Anti, 15)
*  Steve Gunn & Black Twig Pickers, "Cardinal 51"  Seasonal Hire  (Thrill Jockey, 15)
*  Robert Earl Keen, "99 Years For One Dark Day"  Happiest Prisoner: Bluegrass Sessions  (Dualtone, 15)

Sunday, February 08, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
February 7, 2015
Scott Foley

Another week, another Episode crowded with debuts (conveniently marked below with a "D").  Sure, I could do another broadcast visiting ol' favorites, but as long as I have just 2 air hours, I'm going to weigh things heavily in the direction of Things You've Never Heard Before.  Plus, no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to shake the Ryan Culwell record.  A couple other blogs have featured Flatlands, but it still seems largely under the radar - showing up neither on the Americana Music Association nor the Roots Music Report charts.  Am I early (possibly)?  Am I wrong (no)? 

Usually, by the time an artist is picked up by a Big Label they just about fall off my own radar.  When Charlie Parr announced this week that his next record would be issued by Red House, I knew he'd stay true to his tradition.  Sure, he's playing with a full band on the first song, but it's Charlie Parr.  Besides, my favorite Parr record is Glory in the Meeting House, the 2010 collection he recorded with Black Twig Pickers.  I'm also looking forward to the 2nd record by Spirit Family Reunion, whose debut spent some quality time bobbing in the Routes & Branches rotation. 

So, what makes the R&B brand different?  Why do I say it's "like nothing on your radio dial (or streaming online, as the case may be)"?  It's the range.  And part of that reach encompasses artists like Natalie Prass.  A former backing singer for Jenny Lewis, Prass' voice is a dead ringer for her former employer's.  Her singing draws a line between the sweetness of 50's girl group innocence and contemporary indie edge.  What lands Prass on Routes & Branches, however, is her connection to country-soul songbirds like Dusty Springfield or Shelby Lynne.  Produced by Matthew E White (another soul-filled fringe dweller, possibly an alien), Prass' debut features Memphis horns, Nashville keys and the romantic despair essential to make the melancholy more than just an indulgent gimmick.  A couple of the record's tunes recall the folk-waif leanings of early Laura Marling or Joanna Newsom (also an alien), especially on cuts like the harp driven "Christy".  The more engaging numbers present Prass as a more organic, less drippy Lana Del Rey.  There is genuine songwriting talent in cuts like "My Baby Don't Understand Me":  "Oh no, my baby don't understand me anymore / What do you do when that happens / Where do you go, when the only home that you know / Is with a stranger"   How about the somewhat unhinged sentiment behind "Violently":  And I'll break my legs / Cause they want to walk to you ...  And I'll break my arms / Cause they want to hold you ..."  Reportedly, White's label (Spacebomb) has held these tunes back for a couple years in hopes of having the time and budget space necessary to take the album places.  It's a rare moment when R&B crosses tracks with the anti-anti-hipsters who pen the Pitchfork reviews (they try so very, very hard), but this is one of those blue moon occurrences.  Time will tell if Natalie Prass catches on with other more adventurous americana radio.  Listening to the sweet retro horns and perfect pop arrangements of "Your Fool", the oversight would be americana's loss. 

*  Benjamin Booker, "Falling Down Blues"  Live At Third Man Records  (Third Man, 15)  D
*  Neko Case, "High On Cruel"  The Virginian  (Bloodshot, 97)
*  Lone Bellow, "Heaven Don't Call Me Home"  Then Came the Morning  (Descendant, 15)
*  Great Lake Swimmers, "Zero In the City"  A Forest of Arms  (Nettwerk, 15)  D
*  American Aquarium, "Southern Sadness"  Wolves  (American Aquarium, 15)
*  Matthew Ryan, "An Anthem For the Broken"  Boxers  (Blue Rose, 14)
*  Johnny Cash, "Southern Accents"  Unearthed  (American, 03)
*  James McMurtry, "Ain't Got a Place"  Complicated Game  (Complicated Game, 15)
*  Ryan Culwell, "Amarillo"  Flatlands  (Lightning Rod, 15)
*  Lowest Pair, "In the During of the Moment"  Sacred Heart Sessions  (Team Love, 15)
*  John Statz, "Tulsa"  Tulsa  (John Statz, 15)  C
*  Steve Gunn & Black Twig Pickers, "Trailways Ramble"  Seasonal Hire  (Thrill Jockey, 15)  D
*  Wrinkle Neck Mules, "Beehive"  I Never Thought It Would Go This Far  (Lower 40, 15)
*  Spirit Family Reunion, "It Does Not Bother Me"  Hands Together  (SFR, 15)  D
*  Ryan Bingham, "Snow Falls In June"  Fear and Saturday Night  (Axster Bingham, 15)
*  Andrew Combs, "Nothing to Lose"  All These Dreams  (Thirty Tigers, 15)
*  Heartless Bastards, "Searching For the Ghost"  All This Time  (Fat Possum, 06)
*  Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Chick Singer Badass Rocker"  Ruffian's Misfortune  (RWH, 15)  D
*  Steve Earle, "Acquainted With the Wind"  Terraplane  (New West, 15)
*  JD McPherson, "Head Over Heels"  Let the Good Times Roll  (Rounder, 15) 
^  Natalie Prass, "Your Fool"  Natalie Prass  (Spacebomb, 15)  D
*  Rev Peyton's Big Damn Band, "We Live Dangerous"  So Delicious  (Shanachie, 15)
*  Dead Volts, "California"  We Are Already Dead  (Twang N Bang, 14)
*  Gretchen Peters, "When All You Got Is a Hammer"  Blackbirds  (Scarlet Letter, 15)
*  Possessed By Paul James, "Older In My Body"  Feed the Family  (Hillgrass Bluebilly, 10)
*  Charlie Parr, "Over the Red Cedar"  Stumpjumper  (Red House, 15)  D
*  Mavericks, "What Am I Supposed To Do"  Mono  (Valory, 15) 

Thursday, February 05, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
January 31, 2015
Scott Foley

I don't think I've praised Matthew Ryan's Boxers enough (feels odd to type that sentence).  This is a man who has been sweating over a songwriter's desk since 1997's May Day.  Ryan's music rocks too hard for the much of the americana crowd, but he's also too much of a singer-songwriter to commune with the rockers.  Boxers is heavy with guitar fuzz 'n buzz, striking a punk pose for "Heaven's Hill" or "God's Not Here Tonight" before quieting down for a "A Song To Learn & Sing (Until Kingdom Come)".  There's no reason why "Anthem For the Broken" couldn't have been set to tape by Frank Turner, except that Matthew Ryan got to it first.  Matter of fact, if you need a quick and slightly inaccurate RIYL for Ryan's stuff, you can do worse than a hybrid of Turner and The Other Ryan (Adams - the former Mr Mandy Moore).  I've been spinning the record since before its October release, but it's taken this long for me to realize what a gem we have in Boxers (plus, there are some really neat promotional opportunities Ryan could've taken advantage of based on that title). 

 Another longtime act, Wrinkle Neck Mules are celebrating 15 years of with their 6th album appropriately called I Never Thought It Would Go This Far.  I recall stumbling across the North Carolina quintet's '06 Pull the Brake LP and rooting for them simply because a band with such an awesome name simply had no choice but to rise to stardom. There are bands that come immediately to mind when I think of Southern music:  Drive-by Truckers, the Gourds, Bottle Rockets to name a couple.  Fact is, I've almost never set foot in the South, with the exception of a week I spent in Nashville several years ago (I recall touching the Ryman, which was closed, and visiting the Bluebird Cafe where they were featuring an evening with a trio of Oregon singer-songwriters ...).  Anyhow, Virginia's Wrinkle Neck Mules trade in the mythology of the South.  "All of the shine is gone / We drank it all between Barnesville and Gulf Shores / The sutures have all dried / The wind's at our back and the tangles are untied."  Lead 'Mules Andy Stepanian and Chase Heard boast such distinct writing and vocal styles that it almost makes for two bands.  Stepanian comes across like a more sober, literary Kev Russell, while Heard might recall a looser Mike Cooley.  "Beehive" launches with, "Domestic abuse in a bottle, chemicals staining my brain ..."  The lyrical turns are everywhere on I Never Thought, ranging from clever to literary to downright moving.  "Whistlers & Sparklers" offers up the image of a car packed with a litany of fireworks, a fuse running "to my bent and defeated heart".  Like the Gourds, there's plenty of wry humor here, too:  "We were smoking like John Cougar ..."  Instrumental strains of 'grass and abound, but the prevailing sentiment is one of Southern roots rock.  Wrinkle Neck Mules have indeed gone this far, and it's a good thing they've picked up more than a couple cool tricks along the way. 

*  Matthew Ryan, "Heaven's Hill"  Boxers  (Blue Rose, 14)
*  Joe Purdy, "Can't Get It Right Today"  You Can Tell Georgia  (Joe Purdy, 07)
*  Murder By Death, "Natural Pearl"  Big Dark Love  (Bloodshot, 15)
*  American Aquarium, "Old North State"  Wolves  (American Aquarium, 15)
*  Cody Canada & the Departed, "Inbetweener"  HippieLovePunk  (Underground Sound, 15)
*  Shonna Tucker, "Lonely Women Make Good Lovers"  single  (Scott Ward, 14)
*  Rocky Votolato, "The Hereafter"  Hospital Handshakes  (No Sleep, 15)  D
*  Sons of Bill, "Lost In the Cosmos (Song for Chris Bell)"  Love & Logic  (Thirty Tigers, 14)
*  M Lockwood Porter, "Chris Bell"  27  (M Lockwood Porter, 14)
*  Chris Bell, "You and Your Sister"  I Am the Cosmos  (Ryko, 92)
*  Water Liars, "Let It Breathe (live)"  OurVinyl Sessions  (OurVinyl, 15)  D
*  Austin Lucas, "Nevada County Line"  New Home In the Old World  (Last Chance, 11)
*  Ryan Culwell, "Flatlands"  Flatlands  (Lightning Rod, 15)
^  Wrinkle Neck Mules, "Whistlers & Sparklers"  I Never Thought It Would Go This Far  (Lower 40, 15)
*  Sarah Borges, "False Eyelashes"  Diamonds In the Dark  (Sugar Hill, 07)
*  JD McPherson, "Bossy"  Let the Good Times Roll  (Rounder, 15)
*  Mavericks, "All Night Long"  Mono  (Valory, 15)  D
*  Calexico, "Cumbia de Donde"  Edge of the Sun  (Anti, 15)  D
*  Steve Earle, "Baby Baby Baby (Baby)"  Terraplane  (New West, 15)
*  Fifth On the Floor, "Movin' On"  & After  (Fifth On the Floor, 15)
*  Whiskeytown, "Faithless Street"  Faithless Street  (Outpost, 96)
*  Todd Adelman, "Cold Mississippi Blues"  Highways & Lowways  (Porch Lantern, 15)  C
*  Jim White vs Packway Handle Band, "Jim 3:16"  Take It Like a Man  (Yep Roc, 15)
*  John Calvin Abney, "Dallas City Lights"  Better Luck  (Foolish Philosophy, 15)
*  Two Cow Garage, "Let the Boys Be Girls"  single  (Last Chance, 15)  D
*  J Roddy Walston & the Business, "Caroline"  J Roddy Walston & the Business  (Vagrant, 10)
*  Pokey LaFarge, "Something In the Water"  Something In the Water  (Rounder, 15)  D

Friday, January 30, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
Scott Foley


I think I've attempted this before, in the pages and pages which make up the R&B blog.  It's my sense that providing a month-end wrap-up will accomplish a couple things:  1) It will allow me to add another list to my repertoire, and 2) It may make it easier to pull together my year-end favorites list eleven months from now.  The idea is simply to select the five albums that landed on my radio radar over the past couple weeks that made the best impression on me.  As I'm able, I'll also tag a Colorado release for the month.

As always, January started with a bit of a whimper, as labels and artists and promoters shuttered their respective operations for the holidays, releasing only dust and tumbleweeds.  I tend to spend that time either catching up on stuff that fell by the wayside or perusing favorites lists from other bloggers and programmers.  Fortunately, the musical floodgates tend to open the second or third week of the new year, allowing us a glimpse into the months to come.

The first Big One to drop was Ryan Bingham's Fear and Saturday Night, marking a return to form for one of the stronger writers on the americana stage.  While I prefer tender Bingham over angry Bingham, both are present in fair measure on his new work.  There are few more worthwhile singers in the genre, and even fewer at his level who are still reaching. 

Gretchen Peters' "Independence Day" is arguably one of the best and most misunderstood contemporary country songs of the past 25 years.  She gave that one to Martina McBride, and has also provided tunes for similar mainstream country mainstays of the time like Patty Loveless and Trisha Yearwood.  Blackbirds proves that she doesn't always throw her best ones to the sharks.  Most notably, Peters' vocals are frequently revelatory, "like a Kate Bush for the roots crowd" (quoting Scott Foley here, from his stellar Routes & Branches blog).

There is a strain of heavily bearded, hard country to which I'm increasingly drawn.  Kentucky's Fifth On the Floor epitomizes the sound in their dark but thoughtful, gritty but tuneful work, culminating in their swan song EP, & After.  True, there are just four songs, at least one of which was previously recorded (plus, it's sorta a holiday jam), but when the songs are so good perhaps you only need four of them ... Looks like frontguy Justin Wells will continue on his own, though the band is presently touring with Matt Woods into February. 

I'm still the wake of my initial trips through American Aquarium's Wolves record.  I admit that I'm late to the table here, having discovered BJ Barham's music backwards from 2010's Small Town Hymns.  '12's Burn Flicker Die caught me completely, prompting me to dig back through the band's earlier work.  Wolves brings the entire procession into focus, a body of work that shows such a steady procession towards the new album's confessional masterpieces.  While the band has been more consistent of late than during any other iteration, Barham has never released a more personal statement.

I tripped across January's revelation on some music blog or other.  Sent the files by a promoter, I instantly fell for Ryan Culwell's Flatlands.  Many smart songwriters claim literary influences, but few follow through so faithfully.  Culwell's songs are so rooted in the ghosts of the Texas panhandle area that they come across like the flatlands equivalent of the voices of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.  I haven't gone back to catch up on Culwell's debut of nearly a decade ago, though my sense is that Flatlands might not have been possible without what's transpired since that early effort.  Throw out the comparisons, the Isbells, the Cleaves, the LaFaves or what have you.  Culwell is a rare original.

For my January Colorado choice, I might highlight one single song released via Bandcamp by 4H Royalty, "She Only Karaokes to the Dan".  Such a clever track by Zach Boddicker, I'd say it sounds like nothing else except that's not the case.  Matter of fact, it sounds like the great lost Steely Dan cut.  Album-wise, I'd have to give my January nod to Todd Adelman's long-in-the-works Highways & Lowways.  There are few square state americana artists with such a clear and complete musical vision. 

January's Shining Beacons:

Ryan Bingham, Fear and Saturday Night  
Gretchen Peters, Blackbirds  
Fifth On the Floor, & After  
American Aquarium, Wolves
Ryan Culwell, Flatlands

Todd Adelman, Highways & Lowways
4H Royalty, "She Only Karaokes To the Dan"

Tune into Routes & Branches tomorrow (88.9fm if yer a neighbor, or streaming sheepishly online at for new stuff to begin February's quest for quality.  I'll be debuting pieces by Two Cow Garage, Mavericks, Pokey LaFarge, Calexico y mucho mas.  Like nothin' else on your radio dial.

Monday, January 26, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
January 24, 2015
Scott Foley

To quote Neil Young (which I do quite often):  "Live music is better.  Bumper stickers should be issued."  I spent several hours of my valuable youth poring over Mr Young's Live Rust, a classic live record, and its live/studio companion Rust Never Sleeps.  We launched into this Episode with several concert takes from recent releases, including the rare Neil Young R&B sighting.  While I'm not automatically a fan of live records, I can't deny that a couple of them played a big part in my musical childhood (thinking Thin Lizzy's Live and Dangerous, the Kinks' One For the Road, to cite just two ... oh, and Neil Diamond's Hot August Night, which proved that indeed there was a time when the man was cool incarnate).  It's hard to argue that Blitzen Trapper's Live In Portland will change a child's life, but at least it makes for an interesting radio bit.

In other news, it happens way too often now.  A really good band reaches the precipice of public awareness, then decides the music world would be better off without them.  Add to this heap o' sadness Lexington's Fifth On the Floor, who have released an EP, & After, calling it their "latest and last".  I'm especially fond of the duet with americana up-and-comer Lucette on the painfully sweet "Whiskey and Wine".  Here's hoping Justin Wells is only pulling a Sturgill Simpson here ...

Fortunately, BJ Barham and American Aquarium have managed to weather the road long enough to land an album that could boost them onto a more prominent national stage.  From the sounds of it, Barham's not exactly enchanted with the touring life - nearly every song on Wolves addresses being away from home, watching friends raise families, weary traveling and seeing life thru the bottom of a beer bottle.  Still, if we've learned anything over the years on R&B, it's that sometimes the hardest times generate the strongest music.  Produced by Megafaun's Brad Cook, Wolves is a great sounding record, just perfectly arranged and on that dangerous edge between professional and polished.  Despite the generous pedal steel and Memphis style keys, American Aquarium has never made a more rock sounding collection.  As a writer, Barham has never bared so raw a personal nerve than on tunes like "Southern Sadness":  "There's a certain kind of despair / It hangs heavy in the air / And everywhere I go I'll always smell the Piedmont pines / There's a Southern sadness that won't let go / Of this heart of mine".  The song even quotes Gram Parsons.  That Southern sadness permeates Wolves, from the self deprecation of "Man I'm Supposed To Be" ("Nobody's ever called me a good man / And that's all right by me")  to the sad sack "Losing Side of Twenty-Five"  ("My parents ask me how I'm doing / I hang my head and close my eyes / They say don't throw your life away / Go and get a job that pays / We love you and we know that you tried."  This isn't to say that Wolves doesn't kick it at times  -  check out the chunky style Southern rock of "Wichita Falls" or the driving ode to the band's Carolina home, "Old North State".  At the heart of the album, however, is the kind of soul searching honesty that is too often passed over for the easy "last call" cliches.  "They say home is where the heart is / It's a place I get my mail sent / A two bit room museum for the things I never get to use". 

*  Waco Brothers, "Death of Country Music (live)"  Waco Express: Live and Kickin'  (Bloodshot, 08)
*  Blitzen Trapper, "God and Suicide (live)"  Live In Portland  (LidKerCow, 14)
*  Phosphorescent, "Nothing Was Stolen (live)"  Live At the Music Hall  (Dead Oceans, 15)
*  Dr. Dog, "County Line (live)"  Live At a Flamingo Hotel  (Anti, 15)
*  Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Welfare Mothers (live)"  Rust Never Sleeps  (Reprise, 79)
*  Eilen Jewell, "Rio Grande (live)"  Live At the Narrows  (Eilen Jewell, 14)
^  American Aquarium, "Southern Sadness"  Wolves  (American Aquarium, 15)
*  Ryan Culwell, "Piss Down In My Bones"  Flatlands  (Lightning Rod, 14)
*  Rev Peyton's Big Damn Band, "Let's Jump a Train"  So Delicious  (Yazoo, 15)
*  Diamond Rugs, "Voodoo  Doll"  Cosmetics  (Sycamore, 15)  D
*  Ryan Bingham, "Broken Heart Tattoos"  Fear and Saturday Night  (Axster Bingham, 15)
*  Lydia Loveless, "Let Me Leave"  The Only Man  (Lydia Loveless, 09)
*  Wrinkle Neck Mules, "Whistlers & Sparklers"  I Never Thought It Would Go This Far  (Lower 40, 15)  D
*  Steve Earle, "Go Go Boots Are Back"  Terraplane Blues  (New West, 15)
*  Robert Earl Keen, "Footprints In the Snow"  Happiest Prisoner: Bluegrass Session  (Dualtone, 15)
*  Vetiver, "Current Carry"  Complete Strangers  (Andrew Cambric, 15)  D
*  Gretchen Peters, "Nashville"  Blackbirds  (Scarlet Letter, 15)
*  Ben Weaver, "Littleman"  I'd Rather Be a Buffalo  (Hymie's Record Label, 14)
*  Maggie Bjorklund, "Name In the Sand"  Shaken  (Bloodshot, 14)
*  Fifth On the Floor, "Whiskey and Wine (w/Lucette)"  & After  (Fifth On the Floor, 15)  D
*  Kill County, "Broken Glass In the Sun"  Broken Glass In the Sun  (Kill County, 14)
*  John Calvin Abney, "Dark Horse Army"  Better Luck  (Foolish Philosophy, 15)  D
*  Cary Hudson, "Vinyl and Wine"  Town and Country  (Cary Hudson, 14)  D
*  Alabama Shakes, "I Found You"  Boys & Girls  (ATO, 12)
*  Pops Staples, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"  Don't Lose This  (Anti, 15)
*  Sixteen Horsepower, "Bad Moon Risin' (live)"  Hoarse  (Alt.Tentacles, 01)  C
*  Jason Isbell, "Tour of Duty (live)"  Live From Alabama  (Lightning Rod, 12)
*  Wanda Jackson, "Rip It Up"  Party Ain't Over  (Nonesuch, 03)