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TOP ROW: Stephen Malkmus, James McMurtry, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Richard Shindell.
SECOND ROW: Steve Earle, Elliott Smith, Ryan Adams, Ryan Bingham, Frank Black.
BOTTOM ROW: Sara K, Mark Mulcahy, the subdudes.
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Quick, to-the-point reviews of Artists/CDs you should hear. Most are not household names, but they should be.
CDs/Artists that have achieved something remarkable. These CDs are highly recommended - sample the tunes, buy the music.
Farewell Drifters - Yellow Tag Mondays (2010)
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If music is the universal language, then You Are Not Alone should speak to all. If you are inclined to think, “Gospel? Soul? Bluesy? Whatsy? – Eh, not my thing,” then think again and trust! The brilliant union of two distinct, but complementary, forces in 71-year old Chicago-native soul/gospel singer Mavis Staples and producer Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) creates pure magic. Song selection is eclectic: a mix of gospel, blues and soul tunes, a handful of covers (Randy Newman, Allen Toussaint & John Fogerty) and two songs Tweedy wrote for Staples, including the title track, “You Are Not Alone.” Tweedy’s contemporary arrangement (“Creek Along Moses” & “Last Train”) offers accessibility to a wide audience - the presentation incorporates occasional progressive, edgy elements, but is both respectful and true to the genres, embracing the common ground shared by gospel/blues and more modern rock music. Staples is blessed with a naturally rich, textured voice that soars on the soul/gospel/blues songs and adds refreshing character to the more mellow-rock oriented songs (“Wrote a Song For Everyone.”) This album is a fine achievement for Mavis Staples, and it seems clear both Tweedy and Staples shared a true sense of joy, inspiration, trust, celebration, hope and mutual respect during this journey. Not a gospel fan? Trust…the whole package - song and sound – will embrace you, welcome you with open arms if you give it a chance. GENRES: Gospel, blues, soul, mellow rock.
MUST HEAR TRACKS: Mellow Rock/Blues - “You Are Not Alone,” “In Christ There Is No East or West,” “Last Train,” “Wrote a Song For Everyone.”
Gospel/Soul – “Don’t Knock,” “Losing You,” “I Belong To the Band (Hallelujah).”
Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone (2010)
Justin Townes Earle’s latest release, Harlem River Blues, reaffirms his affinity for off-the-beaten-path genres. Start with rockabilly in the vein of Johnny Cash, and bounce randomly thereafter to and from Americana folk, cowboy/fireside tunes, bluesy country western and back to rockabilly. Part of the appeal here is the brazen simplicity of the songs and arrangements. Instead of pioneering new territory, Earle warmly embraces a more primitive sound/style that is uncomplicated, perhaps even nostalgic. I can’t speak for Mr. Earle, but Harlem River Blues could be seen as a songbook of influences - “I am all these things” - songs loosely related in tone, temperament and style, embracing the common threads, the most primary elements of American music. Main stream? Not so much, but thoroughly enjoyable.GENRES: Americana, Folk, Rockabilly.
BUY IF YOU LIKE: Ryan Adams, Robert Earl Keen, The Avett Brothers, Johnny Cash.
MUST HEAR TRACKS: “Harlem River Blues,” “One More night in Brooklyn,” “Christchurch Woman,” “Rogers Park.”
Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues (2010)
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This album is recommended not for its intricate songwriting or remarkable performance, but more for its earthy, rootsy, quirky delivery. With vocals reminiscent of The Gear Daddies/Martin Zellar, it’s not bluegrass, but acoustic guitars, slide dobro and banjo form the band’s core sound. “Van Gogh’s Ear” is a lively, acoustic/jam-band tune that must be great live. “Made For You” and “Make It Rain” are fine songs more in the contemporary folk / mellow rock genres. Recording and arrangement are stripped down and laid back, perhaps equally as comfortably performed on a rambling front porch as a larger music club. GENRES: Roots/Rock, Alt Country, Mellow Rock.
BUY IF YOU LIKE: Peter Case, Martin Zellar, The Gear Daddies, From Good Homes, Dave Rawlings Machine.
MUST HEAR TRACKS: “Van Gogh’s Ear,” “Broken Down,” “Make It Rain,” “Made For You,” “
Joe Cassady & The West End Sound - The Chymical Vegas Wedding (2010)
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Joe Cassady's website--->
GTH has recommended several artists who blend bluegrass and folk music (Old Man Luedecke, Marley’s Ghost, Sam Bush), and Yellow Tag Mondays from Farewell Drifters fits nicely into this category. There are a few traditional bluegrass tunes, but most songs occupy traditional folk territory generously flavored with bluegrass elements/instruments. Songs are well written, and the recording is excellent, enhanced by cool harmonies and good musicianship. The Beatles’ cover “For No One” is nicely done as well. If you enjoy bluegrass-flavored folk (or folk-flavored bluegrass?), this is another one to hear. GENRES: Folk/bluegrass.
BUY IF YOU LIKE: John Denver, Sam Bush, Garcia/Grisman.
MUST HEAR TRACKS: “Love We Left Behind,” “For No One,” “Wake Up.”
The Weepies certainly have a signature sound, and Be My Thrill sticks to the formula established with their earlier releases. The risk: a signature sound begins to repeat its own history, cover its own territory. While earlier releases blended warm voices/harmonies with songwriting that included structural and unexpected surprises, Be My Thrill has less twists and turns. Deb Talan and Steve Tannen’s lush harmonies remain intact here (still firmly amidst Contemporary Folk and Mellow Rock), while song structures are less intricate, perhaps more pop-oriented. Pleasing, soothing and relaxing, yes, and the album stands on its own. But slight hints of cute, bubblegum-pop melodies induce occasional levels of unease. GENRES: Contemporary Folk, Mellow Rock.
BUY IF YOU LIKE: Professor & Maryann, Dar Williams, Shawn Colvin.
MUST HEAR TRACKS: “Please Speak Well Of Me,” “I Was Made For Sunny Days,” “Hummingbird,” “Empty Your Hands.”
The Weepies - Be My Thrill (2010)
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O, the debut album by Irish troubadour Damien Rice, is tricky – with each listen my impression of it changes and I like the album a little bit more. His voice is incredibly nuanced - it's at once delicate and emotional, haunting and heartbreaking ("Cold Water"), dissolving into plaintive whispers ("Older Chests"), then soaring to operatic heights ("Eskimo"). There is marvelous use of strings here, from acoustic guitar and bass to the haunting cello by Vyvienne Long. Supporting vocals from Lisa Hannigan (who has since started her own career), is a huge factor in this album’s success, as she seems to rescue Rice from the emotional places his music takes him. Highlights are "The Blower's Daughter," "Volcano" (Long's cello here really working its wonder), "Cannonball" and the first track "Delicate." GENRES: Contemporary Folk, Mellow Rock.
BUY IF YOU LIKE: Jeff Buckley, Pete Yorn.
MUST HEAR TRACKS: Songs lists above.
Damien Rice's website---->
Damien Rice - O (2006)
Farewell Drifters' website---->
Justin Townes Earle's website---->
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On her 3rd album Blue Bones, Canadian singer songwriter Kim Beggs offers a cool, silky voice guiding trouble-free tunes with a folk/country/honky-tonk flair. Canada Shmanada – to my ears, there’s a whole lotta Nashville in this one – a few Grande Old Opry-ish tunes aside (whistling and yodeling are not my thing), these are appealing songs. Beggs’ singing voice is clearly her biggest asset – wispy touch of Juliana Hatfield over organic acoustic roots tunes. Four cover songs include Bob Dylan’s “I’ll be You Baby Tonight” and “Trapeze” by Patty Griffin.