Posts Tagged ‘Americana’

Scott Nolan: Silverhill

Monday, February 27th, 2017

A singer-songwriter balances hope against defeat

There are several shades of weariness in Scott Nolan’s latest album. He’s exhausted by a lifetime of emotional weight on his shoulders, both his own, and that which he’s assumed, and his soul seems worn by having to tell these stories. It’s a tone that effectively brings the listener into both the confidence of the story and of the singer. Nolan sings of emotional dead ends and the positive expectations that make them all the more depressing, drawing fragmented details that reveal a shared picture in the chorus. He opens the album with a canny observation of the dichotomy between temporality and immortality, surrendering to the inevitability of change while still seeking to guide its course. He may feint to fatalism, but there’s a current of hope animating his songs.

Recorded in Alabama with the band Willie Sugarcapps, the tempos are contemplative, almost tentative in spots, as the group discovered the songs live, without rehearsal. The result taps into the slower pace of the South, and turns the session into an intimate performance. Nolan draws on childhood nostalgia for “Fire Up,” but it’s tinted blue by innocence lost. Grayson Capps opens “Curl & Curves” inhaling and exhaling long notes on his harmonica, building up the nerve of Nolan’s quest for love – something that turns hoarse with sleepless expectation on “When Can I See You Again.” The album is beautifully crafted without being overworked, and closes with a pair of melancholy portraits that touch on the moods of John Prine and Neil Young. Nolan may be haggard, but he’s not defeated, and his music harbors a spark of hope. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Scott Nolan’s Home Page

Mark McKinney: World in Between

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

Texas troubadour’s fifth album

Austin-based Mark McKinney inhabits that special nation of singer-songwriter that is the Texas music circuit. Though he’s gained recognition outside the Lonestar State, notably through song placements with NASCAR and ESPN, it’s his home state that supports the bulk of his extensive annual touring. His fifth solo album (he’d previously led the roots-rock band Cosmic Cowboy) will remind you of circuit stalwarts like Jack Ingram, Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Charlie Robison and Kevin Fowler, the latter of whom McKinney’s written for. Produced with his brother Eric, the record is both rootsy – acoustic, electric and slide guitars, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica and drums – and modern at the same time. It’s a clever sound that could hook Nashville fans without alienating the Austin base.

McKinney opens with a bluesy version of the Cosmic Cowboys’ “90 Miles,” the lament of a lifer musician who’s always got another gig just down the road. It’s not a revelatory sentiment, but one that rings with an authentically weary smile, and he celebrates the road in “Stories,” highlighting its personal impact and lingering memories. The music slips into strutting modern country anthems in a few places, but establishes real intimacy through the emotional strength of “Sunshine.” There are love songs and broke-up songs, and the romantic models of “Bacon & Eggs” include the unlikely duo of Bonnie and Clyde (though, to be fair, they did stay together until the very end). No doubt these songs will play well as McKinney entertains 90 miles at a time. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Mark McKinney’s Home Page

Wayne Hancock: Slingin’ Rhythm

Friday, November 25th, 2016

waynehancock_slinginrhythmThe king of juke joint swing swings the juke joint

Twenty years into his recording career, the most surprising thing about Wayne Hancock is the lack of surprise in his unwavering pursuit of hillbilly boogie. What might have looked like a faddish nod at the start of his career has evolved into the heart and soul of his artistry, transcending the nostalgia that connects him to Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson and others. His first album since 2013’s Ride is stocked with swinging original material, sublimely selected covers of Merle Travis’ “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and Pee Wee King’s (by way of Hank Williams) “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine,” and steel player Rose Sinclair’s instrumental showcase “Over Easy.”

Hancock is front and center, but he gives his band (Sinclair, electric guitarists Bart Weinberg and Greg Harkins, bassist Samuel “Huck” Johnson and producer Lloyd Maines on dobro) room to stretch out and solo. You probably won’t even notice the lack of a drummer until someone points it out. Hancock writes of a working musician’s fortitude, the toll it takes on off-stage life, and the rewards it pays. Messy homes give way to mistreating and long-gone mates, with “Divorce Me C.O.D.” taunting a soon-to-be ex and the original “Wear Out Your Welcome” kicking the problem to the curb. The few moments of respite include the apologetic “Two String Boogie” and the sweet invitation “Love You Always.”

There’s a conversational looseness to the sessions, with longer songs, such as “Dog Day Blues,” designed to stoke improvisation that suggests the jazz side of Western Swing. The players are up to the task as the rhythm section vamps, the guitarists take their turns in the spotlight and Hancock picks his spot to return to the mic. “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine” closes the set, reframing the album’s travails with the sympathetic observation that someone, somewhere always has it worse. And in Hancock’s case, a lot worse, since he’s found the thing he loves the most – juke joint swing – and carries it with him everywhere. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Wayne Hancock’s Home Page

Various Artist: Highway Prayer – A Tribute to Adam Carroll

Friday, November 11th, 2016

various_highwayprayeratributetoadamcarrollSome of Americana’s finest songwriters salute a peer

It’s one thing for a songwriter to be fêted with a tribute album at the relatively young at of 42, but to be honored by a who’s who of one’s peers speaks louder than words. And with the likes of James McMurtry, Hayes Carll and Slaid Cleaves having satchels full of terrific original material, their willingness to saddle up a favorite from Adam Carroll’s catalog is both a tributary offering and an artistic opportunity. The largely acoustic productions of Jenni Finlay and Brian T. Atkinson rightly leave the limelight on lyrics whose emotional resonance is immediate, and whose meters are so natural that they barely sound composed.

Each performer finds a natural fit to their chosen song, with the Band of Heathens’ digging a gospel groove for “Oklahoma Gypsy Shuffler” and Matt the Electrician adding anxious fingerpicking to “Old Town Rock ‘n’ Roll.” There’s two-stepping mandolin and steel as Noel McKay and Brennen Leigh sing the story of Bob, the “Karaoke Cowboy,” and Walt Wilkins explores a showman’s life in “Highway Prayer.” Carroll’s lyrics derive from fleeting moments, snapshots whose studied details conjure life stories. His narratives drop their baggage on the platform to chase expectation down the tracks, one step ahead of consequence.

Carroll slips easily between observed detail and poetic flight, framing everyday images as literary moments. He’s particularly adept at portraiture, whether it’s a colorful hustler, a rural taxi driver or a karaoke singer, he sees what you might feel, but couldn’t verbalize, capturing a person’s essence in the details of their physical being and actions. The titles draw heavily from Carroll’s first two albums, South of Town and Lookin’ Out the Screen Door, as well as 2008’s Old Town Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Carroll himself appears at CD’s end to honor “My Only Good Shirt.” It’s a sweet way to close this tribute to a much loved songwriter. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Adam Carroll’s Home Page

Zach Schmidt: The Day We Lost the War

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

zachschmidt_thedaywelostthewarPittsburgh keeps its hold on an East Nashville singer-songwriter

Zach Schmidt’s a Pittsburgh native who relocated to East Nashville, closer to, but still a river crossing and an artistic universe away from the country music industry. His first full-length album is the product of five years of songwriting, an Indiegogo fundraising campaign and the musical contributions of friends who tracked, mixed and mastered the album in two days of live sessions. It’s a mark of the talent in Schmidt’s tight-knit musical community that two days was plenty of time to get ten solid masters on tape. It probably helps that the songwriter had been polishing his songs over the years in front of or with these very musicians, as their affection for the material is heard in the shuffling drums, bending steel and twanging guitars.

Schmidt’s mood echoes the weary side of Guitar Town-era Steve Earle, and while his protagonists are often tired and defeated, they still manage to muster a look forward. The nowhere town of the title track is a jail in which hope has faded, and from which escape seems unlikely. In Schmidt’s world, a lifetime of hard work may be redeemed in the hereafter or taken away in the blink of the eye, but either way, your burdens are what carry you forward. His songs are populated with orphans and widows, the departing, and on James Maple’s “Buried in Burgundy,” the departed. Schmidt sings with the twang of his adopted Nashville, but the rust of his native Pittsburgh has clearly left its mark. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Zach Schmidt’s Home Page

Michael Fracasso: Here Come the Savages

Friday, September 9th, 2016

MichaelFracasso_HereComeTheSavagesPowerful album of 60s-tinged singer-songwriter melancholy

Austin singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso has certainly earned his Americana stripes, but his latest release connects to a time when singer-songwriters were emerging from multiple musical vantage points. His albums have threaded together, folk, pop, rock, blues and country, and his songwriting craft has shown the years spent sharing New York City stages with Steve Forbert and others. His new album mixes original material with cover songs, and though the latter include interesting choices and performances (highlighted by a droning psychedelic ending to the Young Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure” and a crawling take of Willie Cobbs’ “You Don’t Love Me” that surely holds live audiences in thrall), it’s the original material that shines most brightly.

Fracasso conjures the sing-song melancholy of Harry Nilsson on “Say,” “Open” and “Daisy,” and transforms an unexpected reaction into the title track’s moody meditation. Wounds are pondered, forgiven, healed, and in the case of the “Boy in a Bubble,” broken hearts are glimpsed as an escape from emotional numbness. The latter’s orchestration evokes Curt Boettcher, Burt Bacharach and the Left Banke, and on “Little Scar,” you can hear the influence of Emitt Rhodes. Fracasso’s tenor is arresting, with slight hitches here and there, in case the purity of his tone doesn’t get you first. The album closes with the Kinks’ bittersweet “Better Things,” bookending Fracasso’s album-opening look forward at divorce, and edging the album painfully towards redemption. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Michael Fracasso’s Home Page

Various Artists: On Top of Old Smoky – New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Various_OnTopOfOldSmokyReviving the music of 1930s Appalachia

In the late 1930s, as those living on the land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were leaving (some voluntarily, some forcibly) their homesteads, farms, mines and logging camps, folklorist Joseph Hall collected field recordings of their dialectical speech and music. Selections from those aluminum platters and acetate discs were first released by the Great Smoky Mountains Association on 2010’s Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music [1 2]. Six years later, the GSMA has commissioned contemporary performances of twenty-three traditional Appalachian songs and popular material that had made its way into the mountains via commercial recordings.

The new recordings use of fiddle, guitar and banjo lends the performances the sort of informal backporch feel that Hall captured with his original field work. Ted Olson’s liner notes provide a brief history of the national park’s foundation, detail on Hall’s research, brief song notes and lyric transcriptions. The material includes fiddle tunes, ballads, blues, children’s songs, rags, harmony duets, yodels, westerns and sacred songs. The range of music that was created in the isolated hollars of the Smokies is truly impressive, and these new performances add links to the folk music chain. Dolly Parton and Norman Blake are the name artists, but the entire cast does this music proud. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Great Smoky Mountain Association’s Home Page

Matthew Szlachetka: Heart of My Hometown

Friday, August 5th, 2016

The first single from Matthew Szlachetka’s upcoming album adds a hint of John Mellancamp’s heartland sentiment to Szlachetka’s California canyon rock. Produced by David Bianco, who’s worked with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams, and featuring Doug Pettibone, Kevin Savigar, Shiben Bhattacharya, Derek Brown and Dave “Mustang” Lang. A nice taste of what’s coming early next year!

Mark Erelli: For a Song

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

MarkErelli_ForASongNortheast singer-songwriter returns with a strong set of originals

It’s been six years since Mark Erelli released a new set of original material. In that time he’s played with Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter and Paula Cole (the latter of whom appears on two tracks here), recorded two albums with Barnstar, and released Milltowns in tribute to Bill Morrissey. Rather than taking on a coat of solo songwriter rust, Erelli’s pen has been refilled by the hiatus. His singing voice is still reminiscent of Paul Simon, but these gentle electric productions show the time off was spent sharpening his already sharp songcraft.

The album opens solemnly with a northerner’s loneliness amid the midwest’s wide-open spaces, contemplates the day’s emotional harvest and the next day’s challenges, and mulls over the existential questions that lay in the twilight. He venerates the extraordinary of the everyday in the know-how of a fixit man (“Analog Hero”), a contemplative janitor (“Look Up”) and a Dutch busker (“Netherlands”). The details of his descriptions are extraordinary, and the galloping lyric of “Wayside” demonstrates his talent for shaping words into music.

His facility is equally well spent in poetic observations of a river’s destiny (“French King”) as it is in a meditation on aging (“Magic”) or love song (“Hourglass”). And his voice fits as easily into acoustic guitar laments as full-band arrangements. He’s accumulated numerous songwriting awards over the years, but as the title of his latest album attests, his greatest reward is in writing and performing songs. This collection he takes his already estimable talents to an extraordinary new level. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Mark Erelli’s Home Page

Tommy Womack: Namaste

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

TommyWomack_NamasteA songwriter finds his center

Brushing up against death will make you philosophical. Or at least that’s the impact it’s had on songwriter Tommy Womack, whose 2012 recovery from near-fatal addiction and 2015 recovery from a life-threatening car accident has deepened his introspection, magnified his gratitude and optimism, and sharpened his sense of humor. All are on full display in this new collection of songs, essaying everything from wry takes on aging to blunt confrontations of faith and death.

The album opens with hope and wit in “Angel” and “Comb-Over Blues,” before turning to a Lou Reed-styled monotone for “End of the Line.” The latter reflects on the heightened awareness of mortality brought by recovery’s second chance, and segues seamlessly into the Dylan-ish “It’s Been All Over Before.” That second chance is met head on in “I Almost Died,” a harrowing first-person account of a drug-fueled near-death in which Womack recreates an addict’s obstinate dependence on “almost.”

Now in his fifties, Womack’s more sanguine about bad times, drawing from them an ability to see his own beliefs in context. He stacks his religious views against Christian history in the twangy country shuffle “God III” and his beat poem “Nashville” is a love letter to a city of contrasts, one in which songs are written by appointment and swapped in informal songwriter nights. He closes with the optimism of “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” a sentiment that’s knowing rather than naive, and a fitting cap to stories of hard-earned lessons. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Tommy Womack’s Home Page