Showing posts with label Album Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Album Reviews. Show all posts

Nov 17, 2020

Teddy Thompson Got Screwed This Summer


By Robert Dean 

 A few months back, Teddy Thompson dropped his latest record, Heartbreaker Please, and damn, we all slept on it. Look, we don’t have to rehash all the COVID garbage. We’re living it. What sucks is that many fantastic records were tossed into the pile of “stuff” no one got to when they came out. And that’s a crime against all of this new music. Teddy Thompson should have had significant juice this summer because Heartbreaker Please is a well-grounded, groovy record that’s got its feet in doo-wop, rock and roll, and rockabilly. It’s got finger snaps, hand claps and is primed as a perfect summer record. I like to think about the records you can crank up after a few sodas, drunk in the kitchen, the ones you and your sweetheart can shuffle to barefoot, and Thompson has it.

   

 Thompson has a cadre of releases, all of which are rooted in Americana. But, there’s something about Heartbreaker Please that’s got mojo. It’s not filled with bummers, and the danceable stuff has a lot of feeling to the songs like he wasn’t trying to be different for the sake of doing so and nothing else. 

“Brand New” and the opener “Why Wait” are two standouts among a collection of songs that deliver time and time again. Give this record a shot. If you’re in a garbage mood and need a pick me up, this one is perfect for cooking dinner or just trying to feel anything. And right now, we could all use a little humanity added to our day. 

Oct 23, 2020

Album Review / Stephanie Lambring / Autonomy

By Megan Bledsoe


"Everything is a little less worse when someone sees you like a person.” This line from the eighth track of Stephanie Lambring’s debut album tells the record’s whole story. Appropriately titled Autonomy, the album is defined by a sense of independence, the right of Lambring and her characters to tell their own unique stories and the acceptance of responsibility for their own actions and opinions. Lambring gives a voice to the downtrodden and forgotten throughout this record, the least of these who rarely see their stories told, even in country and Americana music where heartache and loneliness can be eased by a mournful melody and the knowledge that someone else has endured the same pain. These are the tales of outcasts, of the misunderstood and ignored, of those who long to just be seen as people. Stephanie Lambring sees them, and she has arrived to empathize with them and show compassion, and through her words, to help us see them also.


Empathy is what sets this album apart and makes these songs resonate. Social commentary in music only works if the artist can not only look out at the world, but can also see within and be vulnerable. Lambring gets this exactly right by opening the album with her most personal songs, describing her shortcomings in detail on “Daddy’s Disappointment” and singing the painful story of her lifelong desire to be "pretty” on the track of the same name. “Pretty” reflects a struggle that so many women and girls go through and never completely get over, and this song does a great job of sending an encouraging message without resorting to empty platitudes and clich├ęs about how we are all perfect.


Even when she’s not telling her own story, Lambring’s relentless attention to detail brings these characters to life and provides vivid illustrations. In “Mr. Wonderful,” she expertly explains how a woman can get caught up in an abusive relationship, from the beginning where she’s swept off her feet to the times he makes her feel guilty for wanting a night out with friends to the troubling dream she’s been having in which she’s on the couch with his hand over her mouth. Everything is a gradual process, until the woman is trapped in a reality she can’t escape and left wondering whether she’s partly to blame. On “Birdsong Hollow,” Lambring documents the last moments of a man’s life before he commits suicide, even down to him taking out the recycling. There is neither judgment of his decision nor of the parents who lost him, just a quiet reflection to remind us of the internal struggles faced by those around us which we often overlook. “Old Folks Home” might be the most heartbreakingly beautiful song here, as we learn about three residents who came here for different reasons, all feeling lost and forgotten by the world. Now they are alone in “God’s waiting room,” as people all around them keep asking when they’ll get to go home and then eventually stop asking when they realize the awful truth. It is here where that defining lyric of the record is found, where Lambring expresses their common desire to just be treated like people once again.





For all the heartbreak, however, somehow there is hope in these stories. Albums like this one can sometimes be a depressing listen and beg for a moment of levity. And indeed, “Fine” does add a lighter touch to this project to counter this concern. But even aside from this, the album is far from depressing. It is less about the circumstances of these characters and more about the fact that Stephanie Lambring recognizes them as people and values their stories, and as she so eloquently puts it, this makes everything a little less worse.


It’s that intangible desire for autonomy which makes this record universal and compelling. Maybe we have never been sent to a camp to correct our behavior like the gay teenager in “Joy of Jesus.” Maybe we have never been left in a nursing home and stripped of our dignity. Maybe we have never known what it is to be  trapped in the bonds of an abusive relationship. But we all share the same need and desire to be seen as people, and too often we lose sight of this when it comes to others. Stephanie Lambring gives us a gentle reminder here through her songs and challenges us all to live with a little more love and understanding in our hearts.


Autonomy is available today everywhere, including Stephanie’s website.


Oct 9, 2020

Album Review / Great Peacock / Forever Worse Better


 By Matthew Martin


On Great Peacock's third outing, Forever Worse Better, they have finally created what they've been looking to create for the past few years. This is revitalized Heartland Rock. The band is tighter on this release. Everything seems to be in sync, making for a hell of an album.


The album is a much more personal effort for Andrew Nelson who has described some of the self-doubt and relationship failures that were the muses for some of the better songs on the album (and the best of GP's career). With songs like, "Heavy Load" and "All I Ever Do" there is a clear growth in songwriting both lyrically and musically. It takes a lot to be able to put to words the emotions that come with those feelings and relationships that just always seem to be pulling us down. 


But nowhere on the album is the clear growth of Great Peacock more evident as "High Wind." This is the standout song on the album for me, and quite frankly, I think this is the best song of their catalog (subject to change). From the opening kickstart of the drums to the chugging of the guitars, musically this song is a barnburner. I hear it and immediately feel like I'm hearing my favorite Petty song but not a cheap imitation. And the lyrics are a perfect encapsulation of the album. On this singular song, Andrew laments not only his aging but also his relationship problems. But, there's hope in the song. You know we all have these problems, but the most important part is doing the most while you can. Live it up. In these weird, covid fever dream times, it's a song that feels so pertinent.





The album is full of these songs- "Rock of Ages" and "Learning to Say Goodbye" are beautiful, meaningful, and triumphant. These songs are a testament to the band and their ability to have taken these songs out on the road and truly fine-tune their sound. The soft songs are sonically textured in a great way. The rockers are there. And, the intertwining of Andrew and Blount Floyd's guitars and voices is something to behold. Frank Keith's basslines are tight and keep everything together. This is a group hitting their stride, finding their voice as a band, and hopefully they have a lot more left in them.


Go buy the album and support Great Peacock any way you can.


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Forever Worse Better is available today on Bandcamp, Amazon Music, etc. 


Aug 28, 2020

Album Review / Zephaniah OHora / Listening to the Music

By Megan Bledsoe

Music Row is rife with country artists either obsessed with proving their Southern street cred or lamenting the restrictive boundaries of country music and forsaking their musical roots in the name of evolution. Across town in east Nashville, the Americana world has been flooded in recent years with musicians and songwriters who are more concerned with making records that sound old rather than records that sound timeless. And all across the country, more and more artists are taking political stances which are alienating their audiences rather than seeking to speak to us all and change hearts through artistic expression. Somehow, Zephaniah OHora manages to be the antithesis of all of this at once, the cure for every issue plaguing country music in 2020. This record comes out of New York City, and yet it’s more country and more authentic than the majority of the music coming from Nashville. And OHora is not looking to divide, but rather is proud of being "an all American singer,” as he announces on the track of the same name. For so many reasons, this is the album we desperately need in this moment.

It’s hard to believe this really came out in 2020. Whereas OHora’s first album felt like it came straight out of the 1960’s countrypolitan era, this one feels a bit more reminiscent of a few years later, mixing the best of both the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds. The writing and in some cases the vocal delivery recall vintage Merle Haggard, and a song like “Black & Blue” could have been a long-lost Merle album cut. Yet the production is clean and polished, and although the songs could have been written fifty years ago, the recordings are stellar, thoroughly denouncing the idea that purposely producing a record poorly somehow adds authenticity or quality to the project.



The obvious concern when writing and recording within these boundaries and when trying to perfect the classic country style is that the songs may feel more like an interpretation of the style rather than a true representation of the artist and revitalization of the sound within a modern context. But Zephaniah OHora does a nice job keeping these songs relevant to the modern ear. The best example of this and indeed the album’s greatest strength lies in a trio of tracks in the heart of the record. “All American Singer,” as mentioned above, takes the radical position of taking no political position, but rather seeking to unite all people through the music. Some may say this is OHora choosing to "shut up and sing,” as many people on social media have unfairly asked artists to do, and OHora himself says that he’ll get "back behind the guitar” rather than on a soapbox. But this song is more about Zephaniah OHora making the choice to reach out to all people and recognizing music’s power to do so. This is further evidenced in the next song, the albums title track, as he declares that in a time of "evil that plagues the earth, it’s hard to find anything of worth” and that music is his escape from all the pain of this world. We can all certainly relate to these sentiments, as well as those expressed in the next track, “Living Too Long,” wherein OHora reflects on the times changing and local bars shutting down. Regardless of our backgrounds or political stripes, we can all understand this uncertainty, particularly this year. Life is hard, and we all have days where we feel like we’ve been living too long. Music, and especially country music, is unique in its ability to speak to us and sustain us through these times of trouble, and as the album’s title suggests, this is what OHora is seeking to accomplish with this record, and in so doing, he makes these songs and these ideas as relevant and important in 2020 as they would have been in 1970.

The one thing missing from OHora’s excellent debut album was a bit more variety in tempo, and this record provides that. This album embraces a little more of the Bakersfield flavor, and that is certainly an asset. “Black & Blue” and “Living Too Long” are instantly replayable, lively numbers that add an intangible dose of color to the album, as well as another dimension for listeners who may prefer this style over the smoother countrypolitan sound. It will be interesting to see if Zephaniah explores this sound further in the future.

Listening to the Music is a refreshing record on several levels. For one, its incredible to hear something this country being released in 2020. This is not country rock or country pop or Americana or Red Dirt; it’s just stone cold traditional country—and credit to a guy from New York to be the one to show us all what it means to stay true to your roots and not abandon the traditional sound on subsequent projects. This album knows exactly what it is and pretends to be nothing else, and this is a beautiful thing. But beyond all that, it’s just simply a fine album. The production is flawless, and the songwriting is strong. In a world of turmoil, Zephaniah OHora quietly reminds us that we still have music, and though everything around us may seem uncertain, music remains unchanging in its ability to bring us escape, unity, and healing.
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Listening to the Music is available today on Bandcamp and everywhere else.

Aug 4, 2020

Welcome Back From the Netherworld, Joey Allcorn

By Robert Dean

Joey Allcorn is a walking ghost. Stuck between the ether of our compromised reality, and a netherworld surrounded by spirits, Allcorn is a mystic, soothsayer, and as he's always said, born a few decades too late. 

The music he writes isn't concerned with the current, what popular culture considers "country" whatever side of the traditionalist aisle you adhere to, instead, Allcorn, is a living relic. This man seeks out the forgotten players, who can tell you the names of the folks who etched their names in the walls of country music long ago. He's a historian and someone who keeps the keys to the past in his back pocket. 

On his new e.p, The State of Heartbreak, Allcorn doesn't disappoint, because he's incapable of doing that, but instead leads the listener toward the dark halls of what we're looking for, internally. That's why his music works. You can hear it with your grandparents, believe it in a room full of buddies, but it's also malleable. It has depth. It's not a sad rehash like so many country traditionalists. Allcorn will always get the Hank Williams comparisons, but where's the harm in that? If you can yodel and howl, then yodel and howl, this music is from the back hills and the hollers, don't let the repressions of radio fool you, this is music that's appeared within the bacteria of his gut lining, the DNA twisting through his genome.


On this release, Allcorn toys with some Kris Kristofferson, some Leadbelly, and with a little Faron Young. Allcorn has never been shy about who he looks to as an influence, and all of his selections work in the spirit of The State of Heartbreak. It's hard to even have a critical ear toward Allcorn, you know what you're getting, and it's always consistent. He's like the video of the guy throwing basketballs two-handed and never missing. The timbre, the attitude, and the intent are forever stitched into the music, Allcorn is a perfectionist in that he's incapable of putting out a dud. He'd rather hide in the shadows. 

For a while, Allcorn disappeared. He'd occasionally pop up on social media, reminding us through his various channels like "Honky Tonk Heroes" or his direct feed that he can rattle off more about country music that half the people whose names are hanging on the walls of the Opry. Having him back is fitting for the culture, he pays attention, he throws events, and his heart is always in the right place. Joey Allcorn is a hell of a singer and musician, but at the core of all things, he's a blue blood ambassador of country music who's done countless things to show old men they're not forgotten or to continually exercise the wrongs of the past.

We're lucky he's back in the saddle, the music needs more yodeling cowboys like him. 

Grab a download of The State of Heartbreak off his site: joeyallcorn.com 

Jul 10, 2020

Album Review / Ray Wylie Hubbard / Co-Starring

By Megan Bledsoe

It’s either a hilarious coincidence or an intentional and profound irony that the first line of this album is: “Don’t get any on you if you go to Nashville.” Certainly that is the concern when our favorite independent artists sign to a mainstream label; we’re all happy they got the recognition they deserved, but we’re hoping Nashville won’t change what made them cool artists in the first place. As bizarre as 2020 has been, it seems almost natural that this year brought about the wildly unusual development that Ray Wylie Hubbard would release an album on Big Machine. The seventy-three-year-old artist has long been deserving of more of an audience, but the alliance between Hubbard and the label that produced Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line was one none of us saw coming. It’s not the first time Scott Borchetta has signed an unexpected artist, but this is no doubt the farthest into left field he has yet ventured, and the coolest thing about this partnership is that it has culminated in Co-Starring, a Ray Wylie album that is better and more infused with life than his  recent records.

There’s an energy in these songs and in Hubbard himself that wasn’t as present on his last couple of albums. The hooks and melodies are more infectious, the material is generally more lighthearted, and the parade of cool artists who contributed to the album all did their part to enhance these tracks. Perhaps most importantly, Ray Wylie is clearly having a blast with every line and guitar lick, and that vibrancy shines through and brings the album the life so often lacking on Americana albums these days. All of these factors serve to give these songs lots of replay value, and ultimately, that mileage is what matters most; it matters little how deep and profound a song is on first listen if you’re not compelled to listen to that song months and years later.


There is no crown jewel of the album; rather, Co-Starring has three. “Rock Gods,” featuring Aaron Lee Tasjan, certainly hits the hardest of the three, as Hubbard sings with sorrow about Route 91, Tom Petty’s death, and the brokenness and sadness permeating every corner of our world today. The opener, “Bad Trick,” featuring Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh, and Chris Robinson, with its many great observations and little pieces of advice like the line about Nashville, remains the most infectious track on the album. “Drink Till I See Double,” featuring Paula Nelson and Elizabeth Cook, claims the honor of having the most brilliant hook, with “I’m gonna drink till I see double, and take one of you home.” This one is also easily the most stone cold country, for all you strict traditionalists out there.

It’s exciting to see Ray Wylie Hubbard getting his just due and to see such a rootsy album being released and promoted by a label like Big Machine. But the greatest aspect of it all is that Ray Wylie Hubbard didn’t get any on him when he went to Nashville, and hopefully, this record will see him enjoying even more of the recognition and success he has always deserved.

Co-Starring is available today everywhere.

Jul 9, 2020

Album Review / Joshua Ray Walker / Glad You Made It

By Matthew Martin

We all have those things that bring us comfort. When we are feeling a little out of sorts or we are at a crossroads of any kind, we know exactly what to reach for to bring us a little joy or a little comfort at our most insecure moments. For me, as is the case for many people, that comfort has always been music. The kind I tend to gravitate towards when I'm feeling unsure of my reality usually is played in a minor key. But, whether or not it's in a minor key, I want the lyrics to hit home for me. I want to feel like I've been in the songwriter's position before, or know someone who has, or might be on track to be there at some point. I want to feel it.

Joshua Ray Walker has a knack for this type of song. He has a way with words that I can't get enough of. There's humor, sadness, and a sense of joy in his music- sometimes in the same song. On his last album, Wish You Were Here, it felt like lightning in a bottle. Starting off an album with a song as good as "Canyon" seems criminal. To come out of seemingly nowhere and be that devastating in a song had me hooked and wanting more. I devoured that album and became a big, big fan of Joshua Ray Walker's. I did not want to have to wait the typical 2 or so years to have to hear new music from Walker. And thank god I didn't have to wait that long. 

Released a year and a half later, Joshua Ray Walker's Glad You Made It picks up right where his last album left off. These songs stand up right up there with the best of his debut. Those characters are still deeply flawed, deeply unapologetic, and deeply vibrant. They are covering up scars and bruises, They are wondering how the hell they got where they are. But, again, most of all, they are trying to stay alive, like REALLY ALIVE, for one more night.

One thing that stuck out to me about this album is that it is definitely a more rocking, honky-tonking affair, e.g. "User". This album feels like a twisted 70s Capricorn Records cousin (for those that don't know, Capricorn was home to The Dixie Dregs, Marshall Tucker Band, and The Allman Brothers). The cast of musicians playing on this album very clearly were having a fun time. It shows in every song. From the organ-laced rocker of "D.B. Cooper" to the nearly bluegrass "Play You A Song" every song is loose and perfect sounding. The notes intertwine with Walker's interesting, unique twang. Speaking of his twang, I'm not sure there's a voice as unique as Walker's, complete with his falsetto notes and yodeling. And, I absolutely love it.


Where Walker really shines is when he slows it down to explore some demons- whether or not they're his own is not all that explicit. On "Voices" Walker explores lost love, hurt, and deep depression, even pondering his own death. It's an affecting song. It's dark. But, it's incredible. It's required listening. Yeah, it's sad, but music is supposed to make you feel. It's supposed to make you confront some of those demons you've been neglecting so you can become a better person. At least, that's what I like about music. Then there's "Boat Show Girl" which has that humor that I mentioned earlier, with the imagery of a "redneck Statue of Liberty." This is a character study that Jonny Corndawg/Fritz would be proud of. 

I can't wait until we can see live music again, because I know these songs are going to be absolute killers live. This album is going to be in deep, deep rotation for me. It should be for you. Go buy this album and Walker's first album. You won't regret it.

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Glad You Made It is available Friday everywhere.

Jun 26, 2020

Album Review / Kyle Nix / Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories

By Megan Bledsoe

In these divisive and uncertain times, one thing we can all agree on is our collective longing for the triumphant return of the Turnpike Troubadours. In fact, the world has seemed to spin more and more out of control ever since that fateful day in May 2019 when the most beloved band in all of independent (country) music announced their indefinite hiatus. Their departure left a hole in the hearts of many and an even bigger chasm in the world of live music, where no band could quite capture their magic. And then, nearly a year later, Turnpike fiddle player Kyle Nix came barreling down the mountain to ease that ache in our hearts, with cases of bootlegged liquor and the promise of a debut record on the way. The backing band would be none other than the Troubadours themselves, and indeed, this album gives us our Turnpike fix in terms of sonic consideration, especially when it comes to the heavy doses of fiddle applied all over this project as one would expect. But more importantly, this is not a Turnpike album, and Kyle Nix makes a case for himself here as not just a fantastic fiddle player, but also a singer and songwriter in his own right, with plenty of stories to tell and a compelling voice to deliver them.

Inspired by his love for Ennio Morricone and spaghetti westerns, Nix set out to make a record with a front cover and back cover, played out in two instrumental numbers, with a collection of stories in between. It’s a concept record, yes, but instead of one overarching tale, this feels like a group of highly developed, sometimes loosely interwoven episodes, more like something musically equivalent to Pulp Fiction than to a spaghetti western. Sometimes these stories feel extremely personal to Nix, like the album’s second track, “Manifesto,” where he sings of occasionally feeling like his accomplishments are nothing compared with those of a grandfather who fought the Nazis and a father who served in Vietnam; ultimately, he comes to recognize their sacrifices as helping to allow him to choose his own path as a musician and songwriter. More often than not, however, these tales are of other characters and events, little snapshots into these people’s lives written down in order to tell us a story and to convey something to us about the human condition.

The commonality in all of these songs is how intricately crafted they are, how each story is brimming with little details that help us to relate to these characters. It’s a seventeen-track opus, and yet none of these selections are underdeveloped; nothing could be called filler. “Woman of Steel” is such a simple song on the surface, merely painting the picture of a man in a once happy marriage who has now found himself living with the "woman of steel.” But this song is so much more poignant as each detail is revealed, from the family coming into the house in fours and fives for Thanksgiving dinner to the way he tries to touch his wife’s waist in the hallway, only to have her pull away from him in indifference. It’s such an honest picture, drawing the listener in to sympathize with this poor man. Similarly, we are captured by the narrator of “Good Girl Down the Road,” who pines for his best friends wife and has been in love with her since 1991, as he lovingly tells us little things about her like her "dust bowl twang” and her capacity to drink whiskey even while swearing she disapproves of it. The title track elicits such a vivid image when the red-faced man lights everything with his cigar that we can certainly see why Billy wants to take his revenge, or as Billy himself so eloquently puts it, why "tonight that son of a bitch is gonna light his cigar with the help of hellfire.” The same vivid imagery can be attributed to all of these episodes; Kyle Nix certainly has a gift for storytelling, and not only that, for telling a story in three or four minutes and yet capturing a specificity and poetry rarely found among even veteran songwriters. Story songs have been so important to country music over the years, and it’s wonderful to see such a natural storyteller picking up the torch.

Sonically, as previously mentioned, this is very much like a Turnpike release. It’s brimming with fiddle, and not just melodic solos and licks, but also rhythmic fiddle helping to drive the beat, as is the case on any Troubadours project. There are plenty of upbeat songs like the title track and “Shelby ‘65” which draw sonic comparisons to Turnpike songs such as “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” or “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues,” along with steel-soaked ballads like “Lonesome For You” to appeal to the lovers of a more traditional country sound. A couple of bluegrass numbers find their way onto the record as well, serving to separate Kyle Nix’s solo sound a bit from that of the Troubadours.

Overall, this separation from Turnpike Troubadours is the most important takeaway from this excellent album. It’s great to hear these guys making music together again, but more than that, Kyle Nix has come racing down the mountain to make a name for himself independent of this band. This is not just some side project or lark while Turnpike remains on hiatus; rather, this is the debut record of a fine songwriter with an arsenal of stories to share with us all. And if there is one blessing that has come out of all this uncertainty, it’s that we had the opportunity to discover the tales and talent of Kyle Nix.

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Lightning on the Mountain is available everywhere you consume fine music.

Jun 25, 2020

Album Review / Will Hoge / Tiny Little Movies

Hoge’s Latest, Tiny Little Movies Offers a Few Plot Twists to Go Along with the Tried and True


By Travis Erwin

Will Hoge has long been the kind of songwriter that reveals big, bold, and immersive emotions, with lyrics that pour forth from out of way places, seemingly inconsequential lives, and a dialed in small story approach. Hoge’s new album, Tiny Little Movies is perhaps the perfect way to sum up his body of work, because few songwriters can render such powerful engagement from the microscope of everyday life.
Hoge has always managed to convey a truth and honesty which often manages to feel both bleak in its stark reality, and hopeful in the satisfaction of a hard day’s work kind of way. No matter how sore or tired you may be when the sun goes down, that satisfaction of knowing you have done something, and done it right is a kind of pride that is hard to match. That is the kind of pride Hoge instills with his songwriting even though he’s done the heavy lifting and all we’ve done is listen and go along for the ride.
All of that said, Tiny Little Movies left me feeling mostly different than my previous encounters with Hoge’s work. I say mostly different because a few of the tracks certainly delivered the expected emotional punch including the opening track, “Midway Motel.” The harmonica and Hoge’s trademark grit and gravel both in voice and songwriting tone get the album going. Knowing Hoge’s tendency to take a stand, I found myself wondering if the motel in question was a metaphor for those trying desperately to hold middle ground in these tumultuous times.
The second track on the album leaves no question to what Hoge is thinking. Though sonically it does hold some surprises. “The Overthrow” is pure rock and Hoge’s vocals came with hints of Ozzy and Black Sabbath. Lines like … slow dancing with a straw man, and Darth Vader with a spray tan draw a clear line in the sand.
“Maybe This Is Okay” comes with a slower, more soulful start before ramping up for the chorus. The track has a live music feel and is the kind of track you feel more than you hear. “Even The River Runs Out Of This Town” is the kind of down and dirty emotion that I have came to expect from Hoge and true to form, the simple yet poignant writing conjures forth complex thoughts and feelings, giving us yet another track bringing forth the beauty and power of Hoge’s songwriting and emotive vocal style.
At nearly six minutes, “My Worst” takes you for a long ride that includes a heavy heart full of regret, and a soaring, almost gospel like backing that lends the track a two-songs-in-one kind of vibe. There is a nice jam to the middle of the track and overall, this cathartic tone about letting go is a soul cleanser if you let it wash over you a few times.
“That’s How You Lose Her” feels a bit more commercial than most of the other tracks on the album. Lyrically it has a late 80’s early 90s country kind of feel about it, though Hoge’s gritty vocal delivery keeps it closer to Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” so in the end it doesn’t not feel like the biggest departure on the album. That honor goes to the next track.
Riding an almost punk sensibility, “Con Man Blues” is a hard-charged track that lets the music do the talking as much as the lyrics, and I honestly would never have guessed was Hoge was on the other side of the microphone had I heard this track out in the wild. That is not to say it is a bad track, only that it is almost unrecognizable as Will Hoge.
The eighth track on the album returns us to a more expected sound. “Is This All You Wanted Me For” is a punch in the gut track for those left in the wake of a user and a taker. An anthem for anyone who has been hurt by those who enter our lives take more than they ever give back. “The Likes Of You” is a melodic ballad that relies on a repetitious build to convey the progression of love and how it changes us in steps. Steps that we often don’t see or feel coming.
“The Curse" proved to be my least favorite track of the eleven making up the album. I struggled to stay with this rhythm and vocal cadence even though it all felt familiar, not in a nostalgic way, but in an … I’ve traveled down this road before manner that just did not keep me dialed in.
The album closed with easily my favorite track. “All The Pretty Horses” delivered that yearning emotion tinged with both hope and despair that is prevalent in so much of Hoge’s work. This tangible takeaway from much of his music is what I’ve always loved best about his songs, and here on the final track, you can feel it layered within the cleverly crafted lyrics.
Tiny Little Movies is another accolade for Hoge. The diversity in sound and subject matter makes it stand out and showcases the depth of his songwriting talent as well as versatility on stage or in the booth.
Like all great songwriters, this is not an album you can digest fully in a single sitting. The nuances and flavors are brought out with each listen, and that makes it certain this album will be added to my best of 2020 list because I know for certain I will be listening to it time and time again.
Tiny Little Movies is available tomorrow.
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The author of numerous works such as WAITING ON THE RIVER, TWISTED ROADS, and HEMINGWAY, Travis Erwin is best known for his comedic memoir THE FEEDSTORE CHRONICLES. Find links to all of his work, including other music reviews via his Twitter @traviserwin.

May 28, 2020

Album Review / Steve Earle & The Dukes / Ghosts of West Virginia

 
By Megan Bledsoe

There are few figures in country music as inherently cool as Steve Earle. An influence on many younger country and Americana artists both musically and politically, the alt country legend has made a career out of doing things his own way, everything else be damned. In that spirit, instead of making what he would call a "preaching to the choir album,” amid the extreme political tensions of 2020, he chose to release a record for people who likely didn’t vote the way he did, seeking to use his music to unite us and focus on our common ground. Earle made an album for the twenty-nine miners who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010 because of a coal company’s carelessness and disregard for their safety, and for the families who must wake up without their loved ones every day. Ghosts of West Virginia is a loving ode to that state and to its people, as well as a cry for justice from those forgotten miners and their families.

The album paints a somber picture of Appalachian life right from the opening song, “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” At once futile and hopeful, this song highlights the duality of feeling defeated and forgotten in this world while also looking forward to heaven with hope and joy. It’s a reminder that nothing in this life is certain and that we can’t take any of it with us when we die, either the happiness or the sorrow we found on earth.

The struggle between hope and hopelessness continues throughout the record. They exist side by side and simultaneously. “Time is Never on our Side” is similar to the opener, but this one focuses more on the riddle that is time; it can fly or crawl, and as every moment passes by, we have less of it. The grandfather in “Black Lung” reflects that he knew the day of his first shift in a coal mine that this would be his fate someday, yet in the next breath he declares that "half a life is better than nothing at all,” saying that he wouldn’t have been able to make it without becoming a miner all those years ago. Mining is presented as the only viable option, the lesser of the evils when the other choice is a lifetime of financial hardship and struggling to survive.


Nowhere is this more apparent than in the album closer, “The Mine,” where the narrator is trying to console his partner by saying that things will get better when his brother pulls some strings at the mine where he works and gets this man hired. Upon first listen, it may seem like the album climax comes in “It’s About Blood,” where Steve Earle’s anger is on display in full force as he rails against the coal companies that can so callously allow these things to happen and then call it an accident, and certainly his fury is infectious as the song culminates in the naming of all twenty-nine miners who gave their lives that fateful day. But it’s really here in the quiet end to the record where the most sobering reality lies, that despite lungs full of coal dust and the possibility of disaster, working in the mines is still the dream for this West Virginian, still the only form of hope in this life. This narrator says that if he were going to try and make a life outside the state, he probably would have by now, but he can’t leave the mountains he has loved since he was a child. So he will stay in West Virginia and hope for the day when things will get better, when he will go to work in the mine and be able to provide a better life for his family.

With Ghosts of West Virginia, Steve Earle has made an outstanding, timeless tribute to the people of Appalachia. This is not only a record for the miners who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine but also for the living miners who toil underground each day, for the men who gave their best years to a coal company in exchange for enough money to get by and permanent damage to their lungs, and for all of the forgotten people of West Virginia who find little joy in this world and seek their rest in the hereafter. The album captures all the beauty of this land right along with all of the harshness and hardship, and Steve Earle’s love for this place and these people shines brightly throughout. This will be one of the finest records of 2020 and one of the greatest albums in Steve Earle’s storied discography.


Apr 24, 2020

Jeff Crosby Points The Way With New Album, Northstar

By Travis Erwin
Jeff Crosby’s new album, Northstar, conveys a strong sense of self-affirmation that often feels like inner dialogue. But within the lyrics and melodies there is a broader relevance for us all as if Crosby has exposed his scars, fears, and dreams to the light of day so that in them we can find our own brand of self-reflection. Sure, Crosby is standing there front and center, but look a little closer and we are there in the background staring back at the same visions, emotions, and experiences. This is the gift well crafted music can deliver perhaps better than any other art form.
“If I’m Lucky” is an opener for those of us hanging on by a thread, but hanging on still. Be it a relationship, a dream or sanity we have all felt time, opportunity, and drive slipping away to the point that making it another day or week feels like a matter of luck. The song ushers in the we are in it together vibe that holds through many of these selections.
The title track is a lively track that puts me in mind musically of the band Reckless Kelly, to which Crosby once toured with as a guitar player. Lyrically there is a lonely desperation, that is palpable and makes me yearn for an impromptu road trip. Not because I have somewhere to go but because I simply need to be moving along.
Offering a big musical shift, “Hold This Town Together” also feels different vocally with a slow measured quality that works well to convey the ragged seams of a threadbare kind of town and its people desperately trying to make it feel like home. The fourth track “Laramie’ is arguably the best written of the bunch. A dark and brooding reflection of lost love you can feel the icy streets beneath your feet as you listen.
“Out Of My Hands” finishes the first half of the album with a dreamlike vocal style that conjures thoughts of Orbison, though lyrically it did not speak as loudly for me as the other songs comprising Northstar. The self-depreciating track “Liability” is a meandering song that feels exactly like a woeful stream of conscious that we have all let ourselves slip into, and here it feels like a classic drink-in-hand kind of number.
The sad refrains continue with “Born To Be Lonely” though the honky-tonk sound lends a different quality to this track, making it feel more upbeat than a closer listen at the lyrics would suggest. I like this slight conflict as it gives a nostalgic spin to the overall feeling of the song. “Heart On My Sleeve” is a duet and Lauren Farrah helps draw out a mournful side of love that pairs perfectly with the slow fiddle present in the track’s more powerful moments.
“My Mother’s God” ushers back in a more upbeat tempo, though there is still that longing spirit of regret tinged hope. The vocals at times reminded me of James McMurtry and given that you can feel every word here the comparison can be extended beyond vocal tone.
Closing out the album, “Red White Black and Blue” delivers a somber tone at a methodical pace. A songwriter’s track that might miss its mark upon the first listen this final number is a bit slow to reveal its emotions, but then again, aren’t we all. Lucky for us, we have music to help express the thoughts and feelings lurking inside us all.
Travis Erwin is a published author of numerous books, novels, and articles. Follow him on twitter @traviserwin to talk about this review, or music in general. Look for his body of work wherever you shop for books.

Apr 10, 2020

Album Review / Van Darien / Levee

By Megan Bledsoe

In the overcrowded marketplace of 2020, wading through all the new releases can be an especially daunting task. We have the whole musical landscape at our fingertips from our favorite streaming services, but all these choices can in turn be overwhelming. When it comes to finding cool new artists, it's theoretically easier than ever these days, but everyone has become so used to skipping through everything which doesn't grab them in the first 8.6 seconds that some of the magic of discovering something new and letting it grow on us over time has been lost. In these times, uniqueness and distinction are incredibly important; you will hear this from every judge/coach on every singing reality competition when they are especially taken with an artist: "There's no one quite like you." It's special and exciting when a new artist stands out and immediately captures my attention as both a music fan and reviewer, and such is the case with Van Darien and her full-length debut album, Levee.


For this listener, it was Van Darien’s voice which stood out from the very first line of the opening track, “Ponderosa.” She’s the vocal love child of Stevie Nicks and Tanya Tucker, with all the grit and soul of both of them and some Bonnie Raitt rasps in her higher register for added color. Vocal ability is not always prized in Americana, and it’s refreshing to hear a technically gifted singer who still sounds this raw and unpolished and just plain interesting.

Sonically, this album fits within Americana, but less because of a folk style and more because of the sheer variety of styles from which Van Darien draws here. The previously mentioned “Ponderosa” is rife with steel and acoustic guitar, with an atmospheric, western vibe that makes it seem like the album might be a thoughtful, quiet, mostly country affair. But then we have songs like “Twisted Metal,” one of the album’s most interesting tracks both lyrically and musically, a hard rock anthem about the chaos and danger of being in love with someone even though logic might say it’s not the greatest idea.

In fact, the way Van Darien depicts love as a whole on this album is nothing short of fascinating. “Twisted Metal” has a harsh beauty about it, perfectly describing the way these two feel drawn to each other despite circumstance. “Insanity” reflects a similar emotion, comparing true love to feeling insane and asserting that perhaps it’s better to be alone than in a relationship which feels lukewarm, mundane, or really anything less than completely, gloriously out of control. “The Sparrow & the Sea,” featuring Owen Beverly, might be the highlight of the whole record, as the story of two people who long for each other and yet cannot be together is revealed to us through the illustration of the sparrow who wishes she could swim in the depths an the sea who dreams of joining her in flight. Each can see the other, but neither can reach across the divide. These three selections show Van Darien at her best as a lyricist and always frame love in a bittersweet light, seeming to portray all the complexities and emotions of it all at once, joy and heartache sometimes existing side by side.


This is a strong, interesting debut from Van Darien. She’s a refreshingly unique artist and a special vocalist. A couple of the songs have not quite caught up to her vocal talent, but there are some truly remarkable examples of songwriting here, displaying enormous potential for her. It’s a promising introduction with some standout moments, and Van Darien’s next record could be an absolutely incredible album. For now, Levee is a good one, go enjoy listening to it and discovering a cool new artist along the way.
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Levee is available today on iTunesAmazon, and the other usual spots.

Mar 24, 2020

Album Review / Trigger Hippy / Full Circle & Then Some

By Travis Erwin
The title of Trigger Hippy’s latest album, Full Circle & Then Some is fitting in so many ways given the journey that the individual members have taken to find each other and form this collective. And, the title also is indicative of the band’s sound which often circles back to replicate sounds of other, memorable music which gives these tracks a jam band kind of vibe, that showcases the talent at hand without fully establishing a definitive essence for Trigger Hippy themselves. On this, the sophomore album for the band, it still feels at times as if the band is trying to establish precisely what they will become. That is not to say the insane amount of talent does not deliver a richness of sound and the strength of this collection is the obvious musicianship and the variation delivered both vocally and in the musical styles.
The album opens with Don’t Wanna Bring You Down, a track with a Southern Rock and Roll Funk vibe, complete with a lively groove and layered harmonies. A hard drum beat ushers in The Butcher’s Daughter which for me conjured thoughts of Dusty Springfield with its narrative soulful vocals.


Strung Out On The Pain is my favorite track among the dozen making up this album. Delivering the aura of old school country song from the late 80’s or early 90s this is a song that you can either two-step through the pain to, or kick back with whiskey in hand and reflect while your body goes numb.
The jam band spirit lands hard on Born To Be Blue. This eight plus minute track is long on ethereal intro mood setting, before the harmonies roll in like ocean waves some two minutes in. Overall, this one felt a bit like Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride and hit me as a song meant to fire one up and burn it down without ever having to change grooves. The end of the track settles into what I’d describe as a nice underwater conversation with a friendly whale.
The Door opened with a vocal style that brought to mind Harper Valley PTA before layering in a melody reminiscent at times of the recently departed, Kenny Roger’s Love Will Turn You Around and it was such blends of recognizable elements of music past, that kept me from ever completely settling into this album.
The title track, Full Circle and Then Some lands square in the middle of the cuts and as I stated in the opening paragraph is spot on in capturing the theme. The focus lyrically is on an old relationship and comes via a rocking soulful style that is as smooth and easy to listen to, and sing along with. A bluesy harmonica and low, lazy days of summer vocal style, clean and pure and direct delivers Dandelion.
Adding to the plethora of sounds, Goddamn Hurricane comes with a bluegrass vibe that feels a lot like a new track from the deeply missed band, The Gourds. That funky string arrangement vocal style made this my second favorite song among the twelve offerings. Long Lost Friend gives us tinkle keys and a honey sweet vocal groove. Fans of The Tractors and Confederate Railroad will enjoy One Of Them for its boogie beat and harmonious bounce.


Ironically, Low Down Country Song just might be the purest rock song on the album. That said it is still far more real, genuine, and thereby country, than damn near anything you will hear on Mainstream Country radio where everyone is hell-bent to be a Hip-Hop Pop star while dancing in bedazzled jeans on a jacked up truck’s tailgate as they sing about cliched dirt roads. Speaking of roads, Paving The Road closes out the album with an entirely different sound vocally.
Where exactly the road leads for Trigger Hippy remains to be seen, as the band has now given us two albums each with a slightly different lineup. There is promise of a bright future given the incredible talent present across this spectrum of styles and sounds. The harbingers of these talented musicians’ pasts lingers within these songs and while I appreciate the difficulty of launching new creative projects without bringing some elements of that with you, I found myself often comparing the tracks here to something that came before it. Talent and experience are great things to have, and as this band forms more of an identity tied solely to their existence, I expect Trigger Hippy to take aim with even more precision.  
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Travis Erwin is an author and freelance author. His work ranges from the comedic memoir, THE FEEDSTORE CHRONICLES to the emotional novel WAITING ON THE RIVER, and includes the Townes Van Zandt inspired TWISTED ROADS. You can contact Travis via Twitter @TravisErwin or find his music reviews across a number of outlets.

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