Wednesday, October 24, 2012 1:29 PM
Available on Sugar Hill Records (Oct. 9, 2012)
At an age when most people have left business concerns behind, Wanda Jackson is still working harder than people just getting started. The Queen of Rockabilly has cranked out her second album in as many years, again produced by a musician who wasn’t even born when Wanda started rockin'.
Jackson’s Unfinished Business collects 10 tracks that touch on each of her strengths: rockabilly, heartache-y country, blues and gospel. Justin Townes Earle makes his production debut, giving the proceedings a lean, honky-tonk feel. Fresh off of 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over—produced by Jack White—Business once again gathers several standards, some in Jackson’s wheelhouse, others not quite a full realization of Jackson’s legendary, gravelly voice.
One of the first women to record a rock and roll song, Jackson has been singing blistering rockabilly tunes since the late ‘50s. Fortunately for listeners, her voice hasn’t left her and still has its bite as evidenced on “Tore Down,” the album’s opener. Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” gets the vengeful, not-sorry-for-myself blues treatment and the Etta James hit “Pushover” finds Jackson’s sultry croon scolding a would-be lothario.
For years, Jackson left rockabilly behind to focus on country and later gospel before coming back to her first love. She duets with Earle on “Am I Even a Memory,” as they trade verses of heartache and loss, a steel guitar wailing with nearly palpable regret all the while. She’s not lost the touch for Saturday night barroom ballads or those more appropriate for Sunday morning service, as evidenced on the joyous “Two Hands.”
Song selection aside, the centerpiece of Unfinished Business is Jackson’s voice. Even on the weakest track, the Woody Guthrie-penned and Jeff Tweedy-finished “California Stars,” a song that doesn’t play to her strengths, that voice still sounds magical. Earle’s inexperience behind the controls shows in spots, as the music sounds thin and the band as if they’re in another room. That’s not the point though, as Jackson proves she still has pipes many aspiring singers would kill for. While not as vital as her previous effort, it’s good to see Jackson still taking care of business.
Thursday, June 14, 2012 1:42 PM
Langhorne Slim & The Law
The Way We Move
Available now on Ramseur Records (June 5, 2012)
Langhorne Slim sings like he’s in trouble with the law; pleading, explaining, laying everything on the line to be sure his actions are
understood to be honest and intentions known to be noble.
On The Way We Move, Langhorne Slim & The Law weave
their way through folk, Americana and rock, with Slim singing his heart out the
entire way. His scratchy, honest, not-quite-falsetto voice may not be
classically trained, but more importantly it’s emotive.
The title track opens things up with David Moore plunking
out a joyous piano bounce between the chorus and verses while the Law chimes
in, vocally echoing Slim’s declarations.
“I was born with a thorn in my soul/guess it could be worse.
I might not’ve gotten much/but I know what it’s worth” Slim sings on “Bad Luck”
over the top of a snapping one-two snare beat and banjo. He’s had his share of
trouble and hard times, but even though bad luck’s rooted itself in him, Slim
knows he’ll survive.
Moore shines again on “Fire,” putting down a funky key part
to set the stage for a tale about childhood crushes and the inevitable crushing
of adult life. Hardly a pity party, The Law settles into its best groove of the
album on the track, as Moore jams away on his keys like a Stax session man in
A good half of the album finds the boys in balladeering
mode. Banjos and guitars gently pick their way along as Langhorne wrenches
every drop of feeling he can out of his vocal delivery. Nowhere is that more
apparent than “Song For Sid,” an ode to the writer’s beloved, late grandfather.
“Move” tends to lean either toward patient ballads or up
tempo foot tappers and rarely land anywhere in between. But whichever pole they
happen to be leaning on, Langhorne sings it just might be his last song.
Friday, May 04, 2012 4:21 PM
Available on Bloodshot Records (May 22, 2012)
In the sense that a mutt has several genetic influences and not necessarily one that’s dominant, that descriptor is a fitting title for Americana troubadour Cory Branan’s newest album, Mutt - his first for Bloodshot Records. Like the dog wandering the neighborhood, the record shows signs of coming from here or there, some influences clearly shining through without any completely staking claim to primacy.
Branan cites influences from John Mellencamp to Tom Waits to John Prine, to Bruce Springsteen and literary forebears like Raymond Carver, and they all are apparent in his balladeering. Branan leans toward Prine and Carver in the opening track “The Corner.” “Down on the corner of what I want/and what I tend to get,” Branan slowly drawls, as a narrator who knows well what he wants, and knows even better it’s his own fault he doesn’t have it.
Where “The Corner,” like most of the tracks, moves at an unhurried pace with Branan’s non flashy guitar work providing the accompaniment, “Survivor Blues” brings the band to the front. Singing with a bit more force, like a restrained Springsteen, he takes a look back and twists the old wisdom “They say it makes you stronger/first you gotta survive/what didn’t kill you/make you wish you died.”
On “The Snowman,” Branan unabashedly does his best Tom Waits. While not attempting the latter’s otherworldly, gravelly vocal delivery, the scene is set with melodicas, harps and all manner of Waits-esque instrumentation supporting his surreal lyrical story. No other track on the album gravitates anywhere near “Snowman,” the majority leaning more toward the guitar ballad end of the spectrum.
Like any self-respecting troubadour, Branan looks back longingly on the good and bittersweet times. “Yesterday (Circa Summer 80 Somethin’)” recounts a hot summer day spent acting cool and impressing that girl hanging out near the kiddie pool. While she’s gone now, he remembers every word she said and the band supports these claims in an anthemic style that would bring a smile to Mellencamp’s face. While Mellencamp shows up in the lyrics here, Branan makes sure his heroes are right there with him at all times, whether he speaks their names or not.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 9:13 AM
Cynic's New Year
Available now on Kill Rock Stars (April 17, 2012)
The dark-clouded, rainy temperament of the Pacific
Northwest seems an incubator of sorts for artists and musicians
inspired by its quiet and enchanting personality. Justin Ringle, originally
from Idaho, has called Portland home since 2004, where his subdued,
calm nature is reflected back by the natural surroundings. For the past six
years, Ringle has recorded his experiences and musings through the sonically
ornate and lyrically haunting project Horse Feathers.
In early 2011, Ringle recruited the talents of producer Skyler
Norwood (Blind Pilot, Talkdemonic) to record and help arrange a new batch
of songs that would eventually become Cynic’s New Year, out now on Kill Rock Stars. Nathan Crockett, longtime collaborator of Ringle, joins on
violin, with a host of other musicians playing everything from French horn and
bells to banjo and upright bass. On their latest effort, Horse Feathers
maintains the stark contrast between their uplifting arrangements and dark,
poetic lyrics that have become a trademark of their sound.
Ringle’s overarching sentiment, concerned with the changing of seasons and
hardships commonly bestowed upon young people, is neatly wrapped in the
single “Fit Against the Country.” Backed by pulsing strings and acoustic guitar
à la early Neil Young, Ringle pleasantly creaks, “Every night we all go
to a house we will never own/ Every night we are tired, we’ve been worked to
the bone...It’s a hard country we made.” A riffing banjo and a handful of
voices join the chorus for the working man’s plight by song’s end.
Where Horse Feathers falls short in originality (“Pacific Bray” sounds as if
Sam Beam from Iron & Wine lost the track when he turned in The Shepherd’s Dog for
production) they thrive in producing a space where uneasy, contemplative
lyrics exist among floral musical arrangements. Speaking of this element,
Ringle explains, “I think the contrast is really just about trying to express
some grey area emotionally...something real for me.” “Nearly Old Friends” is a
prime example of this recurring juxtaposition. Over a backing track built for
inspiring springtime drives along the coast, Ringle urgently warns, “Something
wicked is bound to this way come,” suggesting that no perfect moment comes without
impending doom. If the end really is nigh, as some believe, be sure to revel in
the tragic beauty of Cynic’s New Year before the winter solstice. Here's the video for the album's first single, "Where I'll Be:"
Ben Sauder is an Online Editorial Assistant at Ogden Publications, the parent company of Utne Reader. Find him on Google+.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 11:18 AM
Justin Townes Earle
Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Available now on Bloodshot Records (March 27, 2012)
Whether it’s fair or
not, Justin Townes Earle will likely always be compared to his dad. Such is the
price when following in the footsteps of a well-respected musician, in this
case troubadour Steve Earle.
“Hear my father on the
radio/singing take me home again” Earle intones with the first line of “Am I
that Lonely Tonight?” his new album’s first song. Not trying to ignore his
bloodline, Earle addresses it without leaning on genetics as a crutch on Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel
About Me Now.
Earle sings the lyrics
of a world-wise, yet still young man. Over mostly sparse accompaniment, namely
his acoustic guitar, an organ here and there and subdued drums, he delivers an
album that is straight to the point with no gimmickry or studio tricks.
Recorded completely live over four days with no overdubs in a converted
Asheville, NC church, the album lets Earle’s voice and writing be star of the
Co-produced with long
with longtime collaborator Skylar
Wilson, who puts subtle shades of organ on several numbers, “Change” moves at
an unhurried pace, telling tales of longing and heartbreak and the painful
realization that impressions made can’t be unmade. But where a song with
painful undertones such as the title track could turn into a pity party in the
hands of a lesser writer, Earle begins to tell his story, but realizes
decisions have been made final.
A piercing steel
guitar sets up “It Won’t Be the Last Time,” the disc’s most melancholy number,
in which Earle unflinchingly addresses shortcomings and mistakes made as a
young man under the influence. The album is not without joy, however. “Baby’s
Got a Bad Idea” and “Memphis
in the Rain” move right along, propelled by steady drum beats and palpably
jaunty vocal deliveries.
cousins, friends and jilted lovers all pass through Earle’s lyrics. He knows as
well as anybody it’s easy to disappoint those you love. His 30 years of
ramblin’ have “left him wonderin’ if he’s ever learned a thing at all.” But
there’s no time to worry he sings in the closer, he’s tryin’ to move on.
Thursday, February 21, 2008 9:41 AM
Order us a double whiskey and put a sad country song on the jukebox. We just learned that music magazine No Depression is about to stop publishing. Its May-June issue will be its last after a 13-year run.
Here at Utne Reader, we’ve long been fans of No Depression, nominating it five times for arts coverage in the Utne Independent Press Awards (including last year) and passing around each issue to browse its smart, clear-eyed coverage of American roots music. We admired No Depression’s trend-bucking moves, like putting 79-year-old Porter Wagoner on the cover, its general avoidance of music-mag clichés, and its ability to take us deep into the back corners of this country’s rich trove of homegrown music. In a world full of guys wearing Western-style shirts, they helped sort out the real deal from the posers.
No doubt, No Depression had a challenging mission in getting its hands around an amorphous category of music, most often called Americana, alt country, or No Depression, that at times encompasses folk, country, blues, soul, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass, and various subsets of rock. But it navigated this broad landscape with pluck and verve, attracting a loyal readership that according to its editors hasn’t dropped significantly. What did drop was the amount of record label advertising, a result of “the precipitous fall of the music industry,” they write in their farewell notice.
No Depression was an earthy antidote to the glossy, glib, trend-obsessed coverage we often saw in the mainstream music press, like drinking a quenching brew instead of a gimmicky stunt martini. Looks like we’re going to go thirsty more often.
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