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

http://www.amazon.com/Hillbillies-Holy-Rollers-Jason-Williams/dp/B00IQFC0HW/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1401481051&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=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!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Album Review: Most Messed Up by Old 97's



Old 97s put the “Alt” in Alt-Country. Since 1993, Old 97’s have been defining the genre. With nine albums to their credit, they’ve influenced everyone who’s come out of the Austin music scene since. With their tenth album, “Most Messed Up,” they’re sure to recruit even more followers.

In case you didn’t know any of that, they remind you with their opening track, “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive.” While dozens of Nashville stars have come and gone over the past twenty years, Old 97’s brag, “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive” and even after all those years they add, “I’m only human, but I’m super sometimes”

This album is another one of those “sometimes.” Bringing their signature lo-fi, high energy, “Violent Femmes meets Waylon Jennings” sound, Old 97’s redefines Country the way a sledgehammer redefines drywall.

“Give It Time” cranks things up a gear or two with a scorching guitar intro. Singing, “When I saw you for the first time, I thought I might be sick. That combination of joy and compulsion, and you were the reason for it” you suspect that this might be an uplifting song about needing to give time for relationships to flourish. But in typical Old 97s fashion, it turns cynical as the chorus end with, “Give it time. It will break you.”

“Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On,” opens with some great crunchy guitar work. As you might imagine from the title, it’s their harder-edged take on Jimmy Buffet’s song of a similar name. “This Is The Ballad,” follows. And in case you thought this might be a love song, Old 97’s dispel that notion with the first line: “This is the ballad of drinking rye whiskey and sleeping til two on a warm afternoon.” “Wheels Off” shows off the early 80’s alt-rock guitar influence of bands like The Violent Femmes and Let’s Active (among others.)

The rest of the album showcases their unique musical alchemy. They take Rockabilly, Outlaw Country and Alt-Rock, then mix in a little Bakersfield sound, and top it all off with a healthy dose of punk attitude. (They even manage to throw in some surf rock on “Guadalahara.”) The resulting elixir is an irresistible cocktail (Molotov and otherwise) of classic Alt-Country. This album proves that Old 97s are still among the best at the genre they helped create. To miss this album would be “Most Messed Up!”

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Album Review: The Traveler by Old Death Whisper



Sometimes I like to listen to breezy, feel good, party songs, The Traveler by Old Death Whisper is the exact opposite of that. The band has a dark, gritty, yet modern sound like Ralph Stanley singing lead for Zac Brown Band performing at a funeral. The first song, "Storm Rider" hits you with a grim, grinning ghosts chorus of "woaahh, ooah, ooah" before the verses even start. Then the album's lyrics begin with "You got me cussin' like a sailor..." Surely, this is not your typical Country album.
The Taveler, is a smokin' barrel, Outlaw Country, shock to the senses. The lead song "Storm Rider" sets the tone with it's haunting intro and lyrics. Singing, "Well my sails are full of anger, I've got some (gun) powder in my shoe, the band lets you know they've faced their share of raging storms - both without and within.  If you had any question about their attitude after the first song, "Wasteland" removes any shade of doubt. Singing, "I'll take you to the wasteland baby, I'll build you up just to tear you down," Old Death Whisper slings defiance and bad attitude. You get the feeling it's them against the world, and they like their odds. Luckily, they sling their attitude with a side of great, rhythmic music. Filled with uptempo minor chords and songs about guns, jails, and ghosts, The Traveler plays like the theme to a haunted hayride.
When the band does venture (slightly) away from themes of wastelands and stacked bones, they create some nice bluegrass/rockabilly sounds, especially on "Loaded," "Always A Stranger," "South County Blues," and "Pissed." Combining elements of Robert Earl Keen, Shooter Jennings, and Fifth On The Floor, the band plays some serious, hardcore Outlaw Country. With a name like Old Death Whisper, you wouldn't expect anything less.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Album Review: Goin' In Hot by Moot Davis


Moot Davis' new album is Goin' In Hot - literally. His Nashville studio burned to the ground just days after the final mixing was done. Luckily, engineer Joe McMahan was able to salvage the music from his melted and water logged computer. Lucky for us he did because this album smokes - literally!

The leadoff title song grabs you by the ear from the first notes. With a little more rock and roll influence than his first three albums, this song sounds a lot more like The Waco Brothers than Buck Owens - complete with a smokin' guitar solo in the middle. Moot keeps up the pace on "Food Stamps," with some nice steel guitar work to punctuate this rollicking, poor man blues. Moot gets further in touch with his rockin' side on "Midnight Train," "Ragman's Roll," and the Little Feat inspired, "Made For Blood."

But this album isn't all rock riffs and guitar solos. Nearly half the songs are more traditional Country Blues. Which is only fitting, because Moot recorded this collection in the aftermath of a broken long term relationship. In "Used to Call it Love," he sings, "Said she wanted a semiprecious stone set in a band of pure gold... But I soon found out that all she desired I could never come to acquire." Moot grapples with his loss in "Hurtin For Real," and "Wanna Go Back." And surprisingly, he even manages to combine his heartache with his rock and roll energy in "Love Hangover."

They say whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. Moot Davis proves that by facing his two trials by fire and coming out stronger than ever. The result is an album that comes in hot and sizzles all the way through!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Album Review: Gone Places by Scott Hrabko



I hate to admit it but I'm a little late to the party with this album. Released in December of 2013, I'm just now catching up with it. But that's probably as it should be. In many ways Scott Hrabko is late for his own party as well. He's been making music and touring the great Midwest for over twenty years, but this is his first album. The time touring and honing his craft has paid off though, because Gone Places is a fantastic Americana "debut."

With a well seasoned baritone voice, these songs pour out of Scott like a vintage, robust, red wine. Starting with the laid back, barrel house sound of "Black Penny," Scott Hrabko tells stories of his travels across America and some of the "gone places" that have faded from the landscape but not from memory. Singing, "pursued by the blues and skeleton crews through the lowlands of my soul," Scott paints a lyrical picture of chasing dreams that never seem to come true.

On "Blue Period," Scott picks up the pace a bit with a Dwight Yokam inspired investigation into his wife's talking in her sleep. He sings, "When you talk in your sleep and keep me awake, the least you can do is enunciate. Your train of thought just passed my stop. Somewhere down the line, honey, you must get off."

"Baby You Know Me" is a straight Country Blues with the great lyric: "I used to be a king bee, a collector of nectar, everywhere I roamed... But somebody's wife is lonesome tonight. I'll make a beeline home." Blake Shelton needs to take notes from this guy.

The instrumental, "How's Your Toe," follows with great jazz inspired guitar work. Then Scott goes back to working his lyrical magic with another barrel house blues number, "Lost As  You." He sings, "I'm scrapping for a dollar and a quarter out on Dead Dog Boulevard. Two left shoes and eleven bar blues on that old gold tooth guitar. It's old man sweat and a cigarette in tears in Tennessee. Singing 'goddamn, I love women, especially when they don't love me."

Scott turns his wit on the naysayers around us in the chooglin' "The Ugly Ever After:" "They've been talkin' 'bout the end of the world since the beginning of time. But it's only real in the ugly ever after in you mind."

Scott's wit and insight shine through in every song on this collection. He brings a perspective that can only come from a lifetime of (sometimes painful) observation. His lyrical sketches are effortlessly 'matter-of-fact,' yet so poetic in their phrasing. Just to give one more example from "The Woman Upstairs:" "She was chaste as a racetrack rabbit. I was holy as a hobo's shoe. We were broke as the Ten Commandments. There was nothing much else to do." Can you imagine a more poetic way to say "we were poor?"

But luckily Scott's talent goes beyond his words. The music on the album is every bit as expressive as the lyrics. Ranging from Jazz to Blues to Rockabilly to Texas Swing, Gone Places virtually defines the subgenre of Americana that has come to be known as "Porch Music." You put this album on, grab a pitcher of your favorite beverage and sit back on you porch and let the world go by - and maybe even daydream about the gone places in your own memories.



 
 



 
 


 
 

 


 
 


 


Friday, March 7, 2014

Album Review: Remember This by Nudie


Remember This is the new album by Canada's Nudie. The name is an homage to Nashville's legendary outfitter Nudie Cohn (I will warn you in advance, any Google search for this album may result in embarrassment, consternation or titillation - depending on your world view. Please proceed with caution!) The music is also an homage to the Country musical greats who came before.

With a relaxed vocal style somewhere between Corb Lund and Marty Stuart, Nudie brings the twelve songs on this album to life with a "matter of fact" storytelling cadence. And his sharp wit shines fresh light on many familiar topics. In the lead track, "If a Heart Could Tell," for instance, Nudie ponders what relationships would be like if hearts could tell the truth from a lie and avert heartbreaks before they happened. But he realizes that "if we merely played it safe, we could tell it what to do. Then a heart would be a stone. There'd be no more me and you. Guess it's lucky for me that a heart can't tell." The sparse musical arrangement of this song rides on just an undulating guitar riff and a steady drum back beat. The song has a cool groove that plays like a syncopated heartbeat which permeates the rest of the album.

The next song, "Sex Kisses," opens up with some great jangling guitar work. (Once again I must caution you that talking about Nudie Sex Kisses could get you locked up in several states - but it might just be worth it!) Again, Nudie finds a creative way to say that his woman is upset that the relationship is more physical than emotional, but of course, sex kisses is a much cooler way to tell the story.

The title song, "Remember This," is a classic troubadour style ballad that really brings out his Marty Stuart influences. "My Sweet Ache" follows with a surprising "Gloria" (the Van Morrison/Them version) inspired riff that adds a nice musical texture, complete with some nice organ playing. On its heels, Nudie goes full Country roadhouse with "You Try To Be Right." Again, Nudie takes the common theme of cheating and turns it on its head, saying in essence, "You try to be right with your actions and I'll try to be wrong with my accusations."

Nudie's impeccable sense of rhythm and unique style of storytelling continue throughout the rest of the album. From the Bakersfield inspired "Walking the Streets" to the blistering "The Pain In You" and beyond, Nudie constantly delights and surprises the ear and the mind. "Remember This" is truly a memorable album.