Tag Archives: Country Rock

Overman: The Future is Gonna Be Great

Chicago quartet mixes up rock, country and folk

This Chicago quartet stirred up some truly original publicity with their 2009 release The Evolution EP, and gained fans of all ages with the EP’s ode to Charles Darwin, “Evolution Rocks.” Two years later, they’re back with a full album that explores a variety of musical directions. Several of the songs combine ‘70s rock with modern touch points, such as the exuberant opener’s combination of Matthew Sweet’s post-Girlfriend guitar rock with Nirvana-like vocal quirks; you can also hear liquid 70s guitar threaded through the Oasis-styled psych of “So Many Stars.” At other turns the songs are lighter country- and folk-rock, suggesting ‘70s crossover acts like Brewer & Shipley, and deploying the emotional grip of Harry Chapin in the expectant “Come Home Soon.” There’s a Red Hot Chili Peppers’ influence in the vocal melody of the title track, but not the funk rhythms deployed last time out. Overman’s retained their sense of humor (as heard in the pop-punk “The Mother in Me”), but they’re writing more deeply emotional songs, either from personal experience or the experience of songwriting itself. The album’s a bit schizophrenic in its collection of styles, but after two releases, that seems to be a band hallmark. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Come Home Soon
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Emory Quinn: See You at the Next Light

Tuneful country-rock with influences of Dylan, Petty and Knight

If you charted the Texas trio Emory Quinn amid the circles of a Venn diagram, you’d find them at an intersection that neatly combines twang, beat and melody. For those who like their country to rock, and their rock to sparkle with catchy melodies, these ten original songs will have you humming along as you imagine yourself moving to the band’s guitar-bass-drums in a Texas dance hall. Clint (Quinn) Bracher sings with enough rootsy emotion to keep country radio at bay, but in a world where the Eagles and Wallflowers once had hit records (and numerous Nashville acts are only a pace or two away from rock), one can hope this sort of musical hybrid could again find a mainstream audience.

Bracher’s an ace wordsmith who employs a mix of detail and allusion, setting concrete moments amid more ephemeral thoughts. The group’s melodies are often misleadingly upbeat, hiding the dark murder and unhinged smile of “Holes Through the Windows” behind Byrds-like jangle and harmony. The banjo closer “Falling Down Again” is among the more chipper songs about detoxing you’re likely to hear, and though Dylan and Petty are obvious touchstones, there’s also the wariness and foreboding of Chris Knight in “Tear Down the Walls.” Bracher explores both sides of a vagabond’s life in a pair of songs; the rootless party times of “Moving On” offer contrast to the enduring loneliness of constant motion in “Finds Danger.”

Emory Quinn is a talented band with impressive original material and the musical chops to bring their vision to fruition. They create fuller arrangements in the studio than the basic sound of their stage performances (such as heard on Live at Gruene Hall), but they never overdo it. Nathan (Emory) Rigney adds finely played touches of guitar, violin, banjo and pedal steel, bassist Case Bell offers up a tasty keyboard solo on “When I Dream,” and touches of strings add atmosphere without overshadowing the group’s basic sound. Here’s hoping the band finds a way to break out of the Texas dance hall and college circuit!  [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Hand in Hand
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Brian McKenzie: Resolution

Country-rock singer-songwriter with a ‘70s vibe

One time metal guitarist (with the group Kilgore/Smudge) Brian McKenzie was drawn to singer/songwriter roots music as a mental escape from tours “packed like damned sardines in a cargo van.” He transitioned from electric guitar to acoustic relocated from Rhode Island to Nashville for a couple years, and honed his songwriting with the city’s pros. Now returned to the Ocean State, he’s cut this 7-song release. Judging by the retro country rock of the first two tracks McKenzie seems to have been listening to some classic B.J. Thomas sides, along with radio hits from one-time stars like Gallery, Lobo and the Stampeders. The productions are modern, but the melodies and harmonies sport a terrific ‘70s vibe. The remaining tracks are solid, hinting at Chris Isaak’s romantic croon and the thoughtful style of Gordon Lightfoot. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Stonehoney: The Cedar Creek Sessions

Vocal rich country-rock from Austin quartet

Group harmonies are returning to country music, and they’re just as pleasing today as they were in the 1970s. You can feel the joy they bring to Stonehoney as they vocalize the wordless “oh-ahhh” exclamations on the opening track. They revel in the way their voices blend with one another’s, and then collectively with the songs’ emotion. It suggests what CS&N must have felt the night they first harmonized. What really makes this Austin quartet’s debut special is that it was recorded live, with no sweetening and no overdubs. The synergy of voices, instruments and songs honed on stage followed the group into the studio, giving these fourteen songs (culled from forty cut in two days!) a wonderfully organic feel. As vocalist/guitarist Nick Randolph writes on their website, “The band grew out of us just hanging out, and it still has that same feeling.”

All four members credit their vocals first, their instruments second, and they reconfigure the lead/harmony assignments from song to song. All four contribute original songs, as well, and the results lean on a variety of country, country-rock and southern-rock influences. The opening line of “I Don’t Want to Go Home” might fool you into thinking it’s sung by John Fogerty, but by the time the song gets to its cleverly crafted lyric “now that you’re gone, the house is like a heartache with a view,” the vocal blend has the richness of Alabama. The lead vocal of the road-warrior themed “White Knuckle Wind” has the earthy edge of Levon Helm, with twangy guitars and Earle Pool Ball’s piano adding honky-tonk sparks.

The foursome find several ways to express longing for departed mates, writing alternately as the one leaving and the one being left. There’s understanding rather than angst in the remains of these relationships, with sadness filling up the spaces where bitterness might have grown. When the relationships succeed, such as in “Lucky One,” they’re proclaimed with open-throated joy, and in “There is Light” there’s optimism at the end of a dark emotional tunnel. The album’s one resolutely downbeat track is Shawn Davis’ letter from jail, “Good as Gone,” filled with somber reflections whose regret can’t turn back the clock on bad decisions. With four talented singer-songwriters, Stonehoney offers many different looks, but it’s their power as a group that’s truly arresting, and given the strength of these live-in-the-studio performances, they’re sure to be a killer stage act. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Cabinessence: Naked Friends

Bouncy combination of 70s Britpop, country-rock and sunshine psych

Named after one Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’ songs from the mystique-laden Smile project, this Oregon quintet’s harmonies certainly nod to the brothers Wilson. And despite the Pet Sounds-styled bridge “Instrumental No. 2.,” the group artfully melds too many flavors, including  pop, glam, psych, blue-eyed funk, West Coast country-rock, and even swingy jazz, to call out the Beach Boys as a singular influence. The mix is more upbeat and retro than 2005’s Comes Back to You, motoring along with the summery smile of “Thought/Start” and drifting into space with the South-of-the-Border horn instrumental “Ruby’s Moon Elevator.” The song list artfully mates the hooks of AM singles with the finely crafted segues of FM albums. The band’s mix of British pop (T Rex, Thunderclap Newman, Badfinger, post-Beatles Paul McCartney), country-rock (Byrds, Burrito Brothers, CS&N, Creedence Clearwater Revival) and sunshine psych (Beach Boys, Millennium, Sagittarius) is sure to perk up a cloudy day, whether or not you’re from Portland. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Poco: Live at Columbia Studios, Hollywood – 9/30/71

Vintage live document of West Coast country-rock pioneers

The West Coast country-rock band Poco was known early on for their live shows. Their third album, a live set titled Deliverin’, was recorded in late-1970 and cracked the Top 30 – something their two previous albums had failed to do. Epic set up a private showcase in Columbia’s Hollywood studio, having the band play in an intimate setting for an audience of label employees. With the group’s latest studio album, From the Inside, having just hit the streets, this set was a rally for the employees, a warm-up for supporting gigs, and an opportunity to lock down the set and solidify the latest band line-up. By this point, Jim Messina had been replaced by guitarist/singer Paul Cotton, joining another recent addition, Timothy B. Schmit, and founding members Richie Furay and Rusty Young.

Unlike the new material debuted on Deliverin’, this hour-long set cherry-picked material from all four of the band’s previous albums, with half drawn from their latest studio release. The medley of “Hard Luck,” “Child’s Claim to Fame,” and “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” had appeared on their previous live outing, and remains notable for the inclusion of Furray’s Buffalo Springfield-era “Child’s Claim to Fame.” The live arrangements were generally kept concise and tight, though they allowed themselves to jam a bit on “Hurry Up,” and the single “C’mon” is stretched to five minutes with a breakdown and guitar solo. They also slow down mid-set for a pair of acoustic tunes, “You Are the One” and “Bad Weather.”

Cotton’s role as lead guitarist and singer gave this line-up an edgier sound than the founding quintet. Young’s pedal steel is still prominently featured on songs like “Ol’ Forgiver” and “Bad Weather,” and the band sings fine country-rock harmonies, but the electric guitars cut a bit deeper, and there are some progressive elements in the melodies and vocal arrangements – particularly in the newer material. Furay would leave the band a couple of years later, making this the only officially released document of this line-up’s live prowess. Collectors’ Choice digipack includes a four-panel booklet with detailed (but unsigned) liner notes; this is one of four previously unreleased live albums the label is releasing concurrently. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

I See Hawks in L.A.: Shoulda Been Gold 2001-2009

Throwback California country-rock

This Los Angeles country-rock group’s anthology re-imagines Big Star’s hopeful album title #1 Record as a joshing (or perhaps wishful) look back through a catalog that wasn’t really likely to find broad commercial fortune. A decade in the making – the band formed in 2000 – the songs cherry-pick the group’s four previous releases, adding an early demo, two previously unreleased tracks, and three new recordings. The band’s combination of tight country harmonies, shuffling rhythms, road-inspired topics, and flights of fiction mark them as natural-born citizens of Gram Parson’s cosmic American music colony. Their music offers reverence for the twang upon which it’s built, but there’s also humor, tongue-in-cheek paranoia and a liberal hippie environmental ethos running through their songs.

Coming together at the tail end of the Clinton administration and flourishing artistically during eight years of Bush, the band’s songwriters found plenty of grist for the lyrical social mill. They sing the praises of “Byrd from West Virginia,”  note his past membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and highlight his anti-war stance with a guitar, bass and mandolin waltz the fiddle-playing senior senator [1 2] would surely appreciate. There are songs of flower-child philosophy being passed to a new generation, pot farmers living off the gifts of “Humboldt,” meditative appreciations of the America’s open road beauty, sun-burnt runs through the desert, tears cried for the planet’s desecration (or as they label it “one sad valentine to Earth”), and ire leveled at capitalistic icons such as salesmen and self-help charlatans.

The group seems to have picked from their catalog a group of tunes that are more about people than between them. They lean towards first person articulation, songs sung to an absent ‘you’ and songs sung at the listener. Even the separation of “Up the Grapevine” is more an interior monologue than a conversation. Their namesake tune calls to like thinkers, “if you see hawks / then maybe we should talk,” seeking to gather rather than having kindred souls on hand. The protagonists aren’t isolated, exactly, but neither do they seem as connected to others as the band is musically connected to one another. “Bossier City” provides a few minutes of explicit intercourse as Rob Waller trades verses and harmonizes with Carla Olson. Waller’s duet with Carla Olsen on the newly waxed “Bossier City” breaks through that wall. Fans of the Flying Burrito Brothers, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Crazy Horse, Dave Alvin and the Gosdin Brothers should check this out! [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Humboldt
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Mark Lennon: Down the Mountain

MarkLennon_DownTheMountainCarolinian country-rocker transplanted to California

Mark Lennon is a North Carolina native whose southern roots can be heard in the bluegrass-inflected harmonies of this third release. His adopted Los Angeles has also made an impact on Lennon’s music in the airiness of his melodies and the sunshine of the guitar strumming. His music brings to mind the folk- and country-rock sounds of early ‘70s Golden State transplants like Brewer & Shipley, but also acts like the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Grateful Dead. You can also hear the flowing road rhythms of the Allman Brothers in the piano and guitar jam of “What I Could Be With You.” Lennon’s voice bears a strong resemblance to Ryan Adams’; he conjures a modern balance of instruments on the superb “Wildside” by adding horns to piano and acoustic guitar for a duet with Simone Stevens. Lennon has been in California for seven years, but he still considers himself a Southerner, offering up the lovelorn letter of homesickness, “Tennessee.” At twenty-eight minutes this is halfway between EP and album, but all eight songs are solid, so really all you’re missing are the four album tracks that don’t always measure up. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Down the Mountain
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The Minus 5: Killingsworth

Minus5_KillingsworthScott McCaughey indulges his Ray Davies jones

After the Beatle-esque pop of 2007’s The Minus 5, this Scott McCaughey-led collective returns with a new lineup and a twangier country-rock sound. McCaughey and companion Peter Buck are back, alongside Colin Meloy, additional members of the Decemberists and other guests. As on all of the collective’s albums, McCaughey’s vocals and songs provide the binding component, the latter of which include a healthy dose of downbeat, troubled and troubling themes. Pedal steel, banjo and general melancholy make a straightforward match to the lyrical tenor, with McCaughey sounding remarkably like Ray Davies in his mid-period Kinks prime – in both nasal vocal tone and social content.

The album opens with the bitter remains of a failed courtship and closes with the despondent misery of a troubled and broke bar fly. In between McCaughey offers the sort of opaque lyrics he’s written regularly for both the Minus Five and the Young Fresh Fellows. His titles and lyrics intimate deeper personal meanings, but they’re not always easily revealed. He resurfaces for a portrait of the working musician’s nightmare, “The Lurking Barrister,” he eyes unsparing isolation and social decay in “Big Beat Up Moon” and excoriates fundamentalism with “I Would Rather Sacrifice You.” The Kinks vibe is strong on “Vintage Violet,” with the She Bee Gees singing along as a girl-group Greek chorus.

McCaughey’s used the ever-shifting membership of the Minus Five to give each of the “band’s” releases a distinct flavor. In contrast, the parallel release by the Young Fresh Fellows, I Think This Is, has to work to recapture the group’s vibe. McCaughey’s jokey, ironic and sometimes startlingly penetrating songs support both bands, but the free hand of perpetual reinvention gives an edge to the Minus Five. Without having to hit a specific musical or emotional tone, the Minus Five indulges whatever is currently running around McCaughey’s head. This year it seems to be (among other things) Muswell Hillbillies. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | The Long Hall
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Leslie and the Badgers: Roomful of Smoke

LeslieAndTheBadgers_RoomfulOfSmokeVersatile mix of folk, country, country-rock, soul and hot-jazz

It’s hard to pinpoint this Los Angeles quintet, as they range through acoustic folk, country, horn-tinged soul, and hot jazz. If you had to pick one to represent the bulk of the group’s second album, it’d be country (or country-rock or Americana), but there are whole tracks that take you somewhere else before returning you to two-steps, waltzes, twanging guitars, bass and drums. Leslie Stevens’ singing brings to mind the high voices of folksinger Joan Baez, Americana vocalist Julie Miller and country star Deana Carter. But Stevens sings with more of a lilt than Baez, less girlishness than Miller, and when the group ventures to country-rock, it’s without Carter’s southern ‘70s overtones.

The finger-picked guitar and songbird vocal that open “Los Angeles” spell stool-perched, singer-songwriter folk, but harmonium and choral harmonies thicken the song into a hymnal. Stevens’ high notes fit equally well into Lucinda Williams-styled Americana, cutting through the twangy low strings and baritone guitar, and pushed along by driving bass and drums. The Badgers’ range is impressive, tumbling along to a “Gentle on My Mind” shuffle, hotting things up with tight jazz licks, adding soul with Stax-styled horns, and laying down waltzing fiddle ballads, country-rock and the spooky “If I Was Linen.” The latter’s off-kilter piano and musical saw spookily echo the main theme of The Elephant Man.

Stevens’ sings country songs spanning the relationship lifecycle of blossom, maturity, lethargy and dissolution. The first is powerfully drawn by the budding relationship of “Old Timers,” rooted in tangible images of childhood’s emotional urgency. The latter provides a grey coat to the loneliness of Ben Reddell’s “Winter Fugue.” In between are irresistible romantic smoothies, longed-for and abandoned lovers, and finally realized kiss-offs. The full cycle comes together in the physical and mental escape of “Salvation,” with Stevens realizing “when I pull off the road / to get a better view / now I can see the start of us / and the end to me and you.”

The classically-tinged “What Fall Promised” sounds like a good outtake from Sam Phillip’s Martinis and Bikinis, and the closing “It’s Okay to Trip” provides sing-along old-timey country-blues. One might complain that the Badgers can’t quite decide what kind of music they want to play, as they’re capable of a range of sounds rooted in country, rock and folk without staying shackled to any one. The variety’s laudable, but it leaves it to Stevens’ conviction and vulnerable warble to provide an emotional through-line to the album. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Los Angeles
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