Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Best of 2014
2014 was another great year for indie and alt-Country music! Here are our picks for best of the year:

1. Any Day Now by The Far West:   Pure Americana: straight, no chaser
2. Remember This by Nudie:    Talented Canadian troubadour

3. Gone Places by Scott Hrabko: Brilliant lyrics with a bluesy backbeat
4. Most Messed Up by Old 97s:  Puts the “Alt” in Alt-Country
5. Single Mothers by  Justin Townes Earle:  Heartfelt Country Blues
6. Built to Break by Ronnie Fauss:  Fine Alt-Rock/Country blend
7. One For The Pain In My Heart by Pirates Canoe: Eclectic Japanicana
8. Let It Ride by The Nickel Slots:  Crunchy, guitar laden rockabilly
9. OH/KY by  Jeremy Pinnell:  A true Merle Haggard disciple

10. Hillbillies & Holy Rollers by  Jason D Williams:  Jerry Lee Lewis’ son carries on the torch
Worthy of Note EPs
You Used To Live Here by Kelley Mickwee:  A modern “Dusty in Memphis”
Justine by Liz Frame & The Kickers:  A Sultry, velvet-voiced siren
Well, that's it for 2014. And sadly, that's it for us on this here blog. But don't panic, our very own Cousin JD (aka Brian Rock) will still be discovering and sharing the best in new Country and Americana over at our good friends Turnstyled Junkpiled starting in 2015. Hope to see y'all there! Merry Christmas and Happy New Music to everyone!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Album Review: Built To Break by Ronnie Fauss

Built To Break” by Ronnie Fauss blurs the lines between alt-country and alt-rock. Moving from the pounding drums and electric guitars of “Another Town” and “A Natural End” to the pedal steel and fiddle on “The Big Catch” and “Never Gonna Last;” Ronnie Fauss delivers a sonically textured Americana experience. Like Ryan Adams and fellow Texans Old 97s, Ronnie is more concerned with the music than the label attached to it.

“Another Town” leads off the album with big bass drum beats and power guitar chords as it tells the story of a broken relationship where the man says, “Don’t ask me when I’ll be coming back through that door,” only to find that in the end, he’s the one who’s been left behind. “A Natural End” follows with a jangly, Athens, GA sound. Less of a story, and more of an observation, Ronnie wonders about “all the ones we’ve forsaken” as we muddle through our current relationships. He pleads, “Let’s have a natural end before we begin. And maybe then we’ll have a chance to win.”

In many ways this song summarizes Ronnie’s lyrical style. He doesn’t tell stories so much as he paints portraits of their aftermath. He doesn’t tell war stories, he shows you the homeless war veteran. He doesn’t tell why the husband and wife fight, he shows you the effect on the children. Like a painting with a large part of the center blacked out, you can tell something happened but you’re not sure what. As you work to reconstruct the picture from the clues around the edges, the whole scene suddenly becomes more compelling as you’re forced to add your own personal experiences to make sense of what’s available.

“The Big Catch” is a perfect example of his style. Singing, “The lightning, it woke you at midnight. You went running to your mom and daddy’s bed. But they sent you away…” Then he reveals another clue with, “the place in between where they slept was filled up with lies and resentment.” And in the end, you never know the cause, you just learn that, “The lightning still wakes you at midnight. And your little one runs to your room. But you send her away when she begs you to stay ‘cause nobody did that for you.”

Again, in “A Place In The Country,” Ronnie sings “I’ve got a place out in the country,” which sounds like a perfectly normal way to begin singing about the joys of rural living. But Ronnie ends each stanza singing, “I got sins that you would not believe… I got sins that’ll make the devil blush.” And you realize this is not about singing the praises of the country, this is about hiding far away from personal demons – whatever they may be.

In the Dylanesque “I’m Sorry Baby (That’s Just The Way It Goes”) we discover a lonely woman whose beauty has faded and whose children have grown. Ronnie describes the cruel irony in poetic fashion: “You’re aching for your children, for the time when they were young. Back when all you wanted was some time to yourself.” In telling her story, Ronnie concludes, “the moral of this story is there ain’t no moral at all.”

So there is no judgment in these stories. No heroes and villains. There’s just what’s left of our humanity after all we’ve been through. As Ronnie concludes in “Come on Down,” we are all built to break. But with just a hint of optimism, he ends by noting, “this work will break our bodies, but it only builds our souls.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Album Review: One For The Pain In My Heart by Pirates Canoe

Pirates Canoe and their debut album, “One For The Pain In MyHeart,” defy easy classification. The lead song, “On Being Unknown,” begins with beautiful, Norah Jones style vocals layered over soothing, Manhattan, cocktail-jazz rhythms. “Guitar Blue” follows with a straight-from-Appalachia feel; complete with fiddle and mandolin. The third song, “Matty Malloy” begins as an acoustic, singer-songwriter ballad and ends with a full tilt Irish reel.

Even the band name is hard to fathom. Did they leave out a possessive apostrophe? Is it a canoe that belongs to pirates? Or is it a simple statement, as in: “On their day off from plundering, pirates canoe”?

But as confounding as all these contradictions are, the biggest one by far is that Pirates Canoe are from Kyoto, Japan. Yes, that Japan. The home of sushi, sumo, and samurai is now the home of some sweet Americana (Japanicana?) music!

Apparently distance is no barrier to discovering one’s own inner rhythms. This sextet clearly grew up with an ear toward the West. Their musical influences tap into all four of America’s great music streams: Jazz, Country, Blues, and Rock. And without the assistance of a big time LA producer telling them what genre they are; they are able to combine all of these styles into a sumptuous musical smorgasbord that’s part Norah Jones, part Carper Family, part Squirrel Nut Zippers and just a touch of Fleetwood Mac. But at the same time, Pirates Canoe is totally original.

Lead singer, Elizabeth Etta’s ethereal voice floats dreamily over the earthy rhythms of her accomplished bandmates. In addition to the aforementioned trio of songs, other standouts include the pub-ballad, “Gull Flying North,” the jazzy, “Blind Is Love” and the unbelievably cool, countrified version of the B52’s “Love Shack.” From start to finish, “One For The Pain In My Heart” is filled with delicious and often unexpected syncopations. So to Pirates Canoe I bid a hearty “Thank ye mateys!” and a “Domo arigato!” for adding a little soy and ginger spice to the Americana scene.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Album Review: Let It Ride by The Nickel Slots


The Nickel Slots bring their DIY attitude and work ethic to their third full length release. “Let It Ride” is a perfect blend of Alt Country and Alt Rock. Part Old 97s, part Warren Zevon, the Nickel Slots champion the independent spirit of many of the best musical mavericks from both Country and Rock.

The self-titled lead track begins with a great, crunchy guitar riff and pounding drums. Singing, “Five o’clock shadow in a smoky room, I’ve got a cocktail on the way so let it ride,” the band begins this musical ride with punch and power. And once they start, they never let off the gas.

“One Foot in the Gutter” keeps the uptempo pace rolling, but this time with a more Country feel – like Dwight Yokam on speed. “On the Wall” is another great, rockin’ song with a fun sing along (drink along) chorus. They add a touch of Irish folk-punk on “Dry Town.” Then they finish up with the blistering Outlaw Country number “Club Rendezvous.”

In between there are irresistible grooves and melodies at every turn. It’s one of those albums that’s impossible to listen to without moving your feet and tapping your toes. And even when they downshift on songs like, “Hush,” they still bring a sense of power through the strong vocals and lyrics. They sing, “Hold on to the sounds, hold on to the noise, ‘cause bones turn to dust and doubt it destroys. And landfills are chock full of old memories. Everybody must live through the silence. Everybody must cope with the hush.” There’s no sentimentality. There’s no regret or longing for the past. Through the characters that populate their songs, there’s just the sense that sometimes life brings rainbows, sometimes it just brings rain. Either way, life goes on and the best you can do is make the most of the hand your dealt and just Let It Ride.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Album Review: Dirty Little Secrets by Breelan Angel

Nashville has a new rising star in Breelan Angel. Her debut CD, “Dirty Little Secrets,” will undoubtedly be a welcome addition to the Modern Country charts. Part Tanya Tucker and part Kacey Musgraves (another new artist to keep an eye on!) Breelan sings with sass and swagger.

From the first words of the rousing, “Walk of Shame” to the last notes of the tender “One More Song,” Breelan sings with confidence and passion. Her music is filled with lots of radio friendly chords and choruses, with some nice texture added by the occasional banjo and fiddle accompaniment.

But the star of the show is always Breelan’s voice and lyrics. She shows of her Texas sized temper in “Walk of Shame” singing, “Your ruby red lips and that cheap tan are about to meet the back side of my right hand.” Then she turns introspective in the drinking to forget song, “Halfway to Wasted.” Singing “Every shot is like a bullet to a memory,” she takes aim to shoot down the memories of an ex flame. And in “One More Song,” Breelan plays fly-on-the-wall to observe with honesty and sympathy a woman who wants, “one more song ‘cause when that music stops, she’ll be going home alone”

Throughout the CD, Breelan explores the ins and outs of love, and in the end she reveals that love’s “dirty little secret,” is that it doesn’t play fair and it doesn’t play by any rules. And after listening to her first album, I predict that Breelan Angel’s talent won’t be a secret much longer.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

EP Review: You Used To Live Here by Kelley Mickwee

Kelley Michwee is stepping out from her band, The Trishas, with her first solo EP release, “You Used To Live Here.” And that’s a bold move, because the Trishas first album, “High, Wide and Handsome,” was a masterpiece of Americana rhythms and gorgeous vocal harmonies. But when the band decided to take an “open ended” break, she had little choice.

From the first chords of “River Girl” it’s apparent that Kelley isn’t trying to create a carbon copy of her former band. Sounding like a Country version of Aretha Franklin, she dives deeper into a style I can only call “Country Soul.” Blues guitar and Hammond organ punctuate her vocal phrasing to create a beautiful Nashville/Memphis synergy that’s reminiscent of Dusty Springfield’s seminal, “Dusty In Memphis” album.

In “River Girl,” Kelley sings, “I just want to sleep all day - rain on my roof. The river keeps rising, ain’t that the truth. It can wash me away, down to the sea - rolling and tumbling. So honey won’t you play a song for me.” Seeking comfort from circumstances beyond her control, the song and the EP are the perfect metaphor for her new found musical independence.

“Take Me Home,” again shows a woman longing to belong as Kelley sings, “Sing for me, quietly. Walk with me, slowly. Dance with me. Smile for me. Comfort me. Hold me. Somehow I ended up tattered and torn. Take me home.” Taken by itself, this song might be mistaken for a desperate pick up line. But in context, you can hear Kelley yearning for the comfort of her old bandmates and struggling with how to find a new “home” on her own.

In “Beautiful Accidents,” Kelley adds another layer of double meaning. Behind the story of accidental encounters that lead to happily ever afters, Kelley reveals her ability to make peace with her new found solo status as she sings, “Left turns and right turns get us here. All these beautiful accidents over the years, they look good on you.” (and on Kelley too!)

“You Used To Live Here” and “Blameless” continue the musical healing process for Kelley. And as a listener, you can’t help but marvel at the strength and courage of an artist to so openly face such a major life and career transition – and make such beautiful art from it all.

“Hotel Jackson” and “Dark Side Of Town,” reveal a new and transformed Kelly Mickwee - stronger and more confident. Putting the past behind her, she steps out (both musically and literally) unafraid to go after what she wants. And with this EP she succeeds.


EP Review: Justine by Liz Frame & The Kickers

I love Liz Frame’s voice. It’s the perfect combination of the velvet-wrapped sultriness of Margo Timmins (of Cowboy Junkies) and the earnest, yet vulnerable directness of Emmylou Harris. She showcases that wonderful voice, with the help of her band – The Kickers, on their new EP, Justine.

The four songs on this EP play like a musical confession. In “A Good Day To Say Goodbye,” Liz sings, “Look at that pretty tear running down your cheek. It don’t make you weak, it just makes you sad. ‘Cause loving me’s gotta feel like a losing streak. I’m just a freak who don’t know what she had.” Unlike the singers of most break up songs, Liz places the blame squarely on herself.

 In the title song, “Justine,” Liz reveals a possible backstory for the first song. Singing, “My name is Justine. This old life has been mean. Well it’s poisoned my momma and it’s scared off my dad. It’s made me feel guilty for not feeling bad.” Whether justifying her heartbreaking actions or just explaining them, she at least offers a reason.

But of course, those who play with others’ hearts soon lose their own. In “I Don’t Wanna Let You Go,” Liz (or her alter ego, Justine) faces that moment of truth. With a beautiful, breathy chorus, Liz pleads for love to stay.

Finally in the bluesy, “The Secrets I’ve Been Keeping,” Liz completes her musical confession. Singing, “I’m going to lay my burdens down,” she comes to realize that the truth will indeed make you free. By facing her past, she if free to overcome it.

Justine is a great, if short, musical drama. The kickers lend the perfect musical background for the story to unfold. The band is able to capture the full emotional range of Liz’s voice and lyrics. Moving from sultry to defiant to contrite, the band keeps perfect rhythm with the ebb and flow of Liz’s lyrical landscape.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Album Review: Blood Like A River by Nathan Bell

Nathan Bell’s voice stands out like a man among boys in today’s Country music scene. From the first verse of “Names,” his voice resonates like a cross between Merle Haggard and Ralph Stanley (and more recently, Steve Parry). It is a voice that commands attention. And listening to the lyrics of his new album, “Blood Like A River,” it is attention well deserved. Venturing far from the well-worn topics of cheating hearts and bar room upstarts, Nathan dives deeper into the human condition.

On the lead song, “Names,” Nathan introduces himself as Private John David McCutcheon. Exploring a soldier’s point of view, he sings, “I played safety on my high school football team. We even won a couple of games. But they stand silent at halftime now, for I am just a name.” It is a simple, yet powerful acknowledgement of the lives behind the statistics when adding up the cost of freedom.

On “Really Truly,” Nathan explores an even more controversial topic. Dealing with the subject of gay marriage, he sings, “Jenny said I love you and Jill gave her a ring. They got married in their mama’s wedding gowns and really truly it didn’t change much of anything. The sun kept coming up and going down.” Taking a stand on either side of this issue is not for the timid. But by zooming past the big picture and focusing on individuals, Nathan is able to peel back the slogans and rhetoric and offer a glimpse of the actual hearts and souls of those most affected by the debate.

Nathan reaches deep within to grapple with the tangled tapestries of love, family, and even our own mortality throughout the album. With a sparse, acoustic guitar or two as the only accompaniment, Nathan’s voice and lyrics demand that you hear what he has to say. And if you pay attention, you’ll realize that as he sings in the title track, “Blood like a river brings us together. Blood like a river ties us together.” And in the end it is the same blood that flows through all of our veins, and we are all in this together.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Album Review: OH/KY by Jeremy Pinnell

From the first steel guitar strands of OH/KY by JeremyPinnell, you know you’re in for a little slice of classic Country heaven. On the opening track, “The Way Country Sounds”, Jeremy sings, “It sounds like this, it sounds like that, it sounds like heaven when you feel low down. You live the life I live, you would know the way Country sounds.” Or you could just listen to his album.

With a yearning baritone voice with just a hint of rasp, Jeremy pays tribute to classic Country themes like rodeos, loose women and the outlaw life, as evidenced by his songs, “Rodeo,” “Loose Women,” and “Outlaw Life.” His emotionally compelling voice really shines on his lost love ballads, “Sleep Song”, “Them Days and Nights”, “Cold, Cold Wind”, and “Angel of Mine.”

Keeping his songs in the mid to ballad tempo, Jeremy’s vocals and lyrics take center stage. Backed by the moaning, steel guitar driven rhythms of his band, The 55s, Jeremy Pinnell takes you back to a place and time where the bars had wood paneling and sawdust covered floors and your choices were beer or whiskey - only. Yes, it was a simpler time. But there is clarity and power in simplicity, and both are evident here. Hank Williams would be proud.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Album Review: Hillbillies And Holy Rollers by Rockin' Jason D. Williams


Rockabilly is the illegitimate child of Country and Rock and Roll. So it’s only fitting that Rockin’ Jason D. Williams (the illegitimate child of Rockabilly legend Jerry Lee Lewis) should be the one to carry the Rockabilly banner into the 21st century. Covering Million Dollar Quartet members Elvis and Johnny Cash as well as Johnny Horton and Hank Williams, (among others) “Hillbillies And Holy Rollers" is Williams’ tribute to his musical (and biological) influences. But rather than give a documentary-like faithfulness to the originals, Williams reworks and reinvents the songs to make them uniquely his own.

Opening the album and title track with, “Well, the sun rises early in Memphis…” Williams acknowledges both the city and the studio where it all began. Fittingly, he records this album in the fabled Sun Studios as well. Inheriting his father’s manic piano style, Williams opens the album with some killer piano licks of his own. Singing, “The more things change the more they feel the same. The way we did it in ’55 is how it’s done today,” he proves that when something works, there’s no need to fix it.

The second song, “This Is Rock and Roll,” is even more indebted to his dad, opening with the piano intro from “Whole Lotta’ Shakin’.” With a great driving piano and base line, punctuated by some Chuck Berry style licks on guitar, the chorus shouts, “What is rock and roll?” to which Williams responds, “This is rock and roll.” Although the question was already answered by the driving rhythm.

Williams continues his assault on the ol’ 88s through the rest of the album (the remainder of which are covers.) He breathes new life into Johnny Cash’s “Folsum Prison” (Blues) by changing the syncopation, speeding up the tempo and adding some boogie woogie piano riffs. If you just heard the music without the lyrics, you’d never even know it was the same song.

After slowing down a bit for his heartfelt duet with Sarah Gayle Meech on Hank William’s “You Win Again,” Williams kicks up his heels again on Joe Ely’s “Fingernails;” even outpacing Ely’s frenetic original.

Williams lights up some lesser known nuggets on Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor” and the Elvis soundtrack song, “Mean Woman Blues.”  If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were listening to a younger Jerry Lee Lewis blistering through these two rockers.

Williams also dabbles in some jazz themes with “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “House Of Blue Lights.” But since the album is called Hillbillies And Holy Rollers, Williams ends with two old time gospel numbers, “Old Time Religion” and “I’ll Fly Away,” But someone forgot to tell his piano, because it still rocks out even as he sings of “God’s celestial shore.”

If you’re going to cover the best, you’d better bring your “A” game. And that’s what Rockin’ Jason D. Williams brings to this collection. He captures the true spirit of rockabilly’s early days: fast, loose and teetering on the edge of control. Like I said before, when something works, there’s no need to fix it!