Lee's Listening Stack -- Fab Picks for February, Part Two

Matt Costa
(Brushfire Records)

Matt Costa’s been kicking around for a few years now and he keeps getting better and better. It’s almost ironic that his new album is self-titled, because it will hopefully mark a new beginning in terms of awareness and acceptance. Costa has one of those burnished vocals that makes him sound like he’s singing for the ages -- a hint of Nick Drake on songs like “Eyes For You” and “Golden Cathedrals,” some Lennon-like ferocity on the “Instant Karma”- soundalike “Good Times,” the effervescence that would ordinarily accompany a Fleetwood Mac anthem of old elsewhere. The melodies are mostly the kind that creep under the skin from the get-go, all fresh, vivacious and with exuberance to spare. Likewise, Costa finds it easy to go from the insistent percolating pulse of “Shotgun” to the frenetic folk of “Silver Sea” and the lowered gaze of “Clipped Gaze” without sacrificing the accessibility factor -- utilising horns and strings when need be to bolster his effusive arrangements. Consequently, Costa’s a true craftsman and a topnotch singer/songwriter to boot. It’s only a matter of time before he gets his due recognition, and this is the album that ought to fuel his fame that much further. (www.mattcosta.com)

Drunken Prayer
Into the Missionfield
(Fluff & Gravy)

Why Morgan Geer opted to use the moniker Drunken Prayer as his operating MO isn’t exactly clear, although his rambling, off-kilter exposition gives the impression he may be a bit tipsy at times. Into the Missionfield, Geer’s second album using the Drunken Prayer guise, sometimes sounds a bit schizophrenic, suddenly switching as it does from the awkward ramble that opens the album, “Brazil,” to the straight-on rocker that follows it, “Ain’t No Grave.”  Regardless, he holds the proceedings together well, maintaining a modest discipline even when he seems at loose ends. Indeed, this is no one man show; Geer employs a formidable back-up crew, with an instrumental arsenal consisting of fiddle, Flugelhorn, sax, melodica and pedal steel, in addition to the standard rock regalia. So even as he proffers his loping, down-home, good-natured homilies -- as typified by such songs as “Always Sad,” “Maryjane” and “I Saw It With My Own Two Eyes”-- the set-up is always solid and sufficient. Every artist should sound so coherent when in the midst of such intoxicating revelry. (www.drunkenprayer.com)

Cuff the Duke
(Paperbag Records)

Beloved in their native Canada but largely anonymous on this side of the north/south divide, Cuff the Duke are one of those bands that we Statesiders ought not to ignore. Like their fellow citizenry -- specifically, those that play as part of Blue Rodeo and the Skydiggers -- they’re adept at creating anthemic overtures that rouse the senses and dazzle with amplitude. It’s hard to describe just how good these guys are, but from the initial revelry of “Live My Life” and “Side By Side” to the final triumphant rally of “Rise Above” and “Night After Night,” the effect is nothing less than spectacular. Union, the follow-up to 2011’s equally intoxicating Morning Comes, provides the perfect bookend of a one-two punch, neatly encapsulating the melodic craft that fans of their first five albums have become accustomed to. The accessibility factor is in evidence throughout, enough so to make it clear that anyone not enthralled either needs to retune their ears or simply junk their CD player, I-Pod or whatever other listening devices they might have at their disposal. It doesn’t get any better than this. (www.paperbagrecords.com)

Red Jacket Mine
Someone Else’s Cake
(Fin Records)

Red Jacket Mine -- Lincoln Barr, Matthew Cunningham and Andrew Salzman -- know how to stir the perfect formula when it comes to affirming their pop pedigree. Barr possesses one of those elastic, honey-soaked vocals that brings to mind the Rascals or the Guess Who, one more than capable of asserting the exuberance obvious in Red Jacket Mine’s delivery. Cunningham and Salzman give the music an edgy and exhilarating undertow (especially evident on the trudging, steamroller blast of “Engineer”), but they generally keep the music as giddy as it ought to be. “Nickel & Dime” suggests Steve Forbert’s breezy, aw-shucks folkiness, “Have You Got a Permit to Preach on the Corner” finds them in country corn realms (with honky-tonk piano no less) and “Better To Be Broken Than Blind” offers a bit of sweet soul that the Temptations would once have been proud to claim as their own. On the other hand. “Skint City” brings to mind the striking affability of Steely Dan, a band that Red Jacket Mine effectively emulate throughout. (No surprise really, considering the fact that they covered The Dan’s “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” as the B side of one of their singles). But where Fagan, Becker and company drifted into jazzier terrain and jettisoned the accessibility factor, Red Jacket Mine stick to the template established on; that is, to produce a joyful sound that makes for any number of welcome returns. And ultimately, that’s what finds this Cake so damn tasty. (www.redjacketmine.net)

The Ghost of Escondido
(Kill Canyon)

Surely one of the most striking albums of the year, the Ghost of Escondido represents the namesake duo’s first foray, even as they set a bar that may prove hard to best. Jessica Marcos’ soaring, seductive vocals, ideally complemented by Tyler James’ sumptuous and sweeping arrangements. enforce the couple’s darker designs -- as evidenced by such songs as “Rodeo Queen,” Bad Without You” and “Special Enough” in particular. Yet, this particular Ghost isn’t of the menacing variety, but rather one that pleads, whispers, cajoles and tugs at the heartstrings. The music gets under the skin instantly on impact -- no wimpy folkies this pair -- and on a song such as “Don’t Love Me Too Much” they set up a scenario full of obvious longing, while also managing to keep all entreaties at arm’s length. Imagine X, Heart and Nick Cave sitting around a campfire and exchanging tales of desire and despair. It’s obvious more will be heard from Escondido in the months and years to come, and one can only hope that each new outing manages the same verve and nerve they demonstrate here. (www.thebandescondido.com)

The Soft Hills

Casting a slo-gaze perspective isn’t enough for the Seattle outfit that refer to themselves to as The Soft Hills. While they initially seem to emulate other natives of those Northwest environs -- The Red House Painters and the Green Pajamas being two of the more obvious points of reference -- their basis for comparison reaches much further back in time, to the early halycon days of Pink Floyd as they were touting their saucer full of secrets. Syd Barrett would likely be pleased with entries like “Un,” “Payroll” and the like, what with the hushed harmonies and the overall subdued aura that permeates those songs. As expected, The Soft Hills oftentime tend to shun the light -- the darker designs of “The Gifts You Hide” being one of the more apt examples -- but for the most part, the band maintain a wide-eyed sense of wonder that elevates the proceedings more that what might ordinarily be expected. Ideal for a lazy Sunday afternoon, unfettered by obligations or concerns, Chromatisms is the perfect accompaniment when your sole desire is to gently drift away. (www.tapeterecords.com)


Operating under the aegis of the Villagers, one-man wunderkind Conor J. O’Brien makes records that are a toss-back to those halycon days of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when every album seemed to be an epoch and far more than a mere collection of songs. On his sophomore set, following his immensely and internationally acclaimed debut Becoming a Jackal, O’Brien demonstrates why he may in fact be the future of Rock, a musician capable of creating lush and oftentimes bewildering arrangements while using them to fashion spectacular soundscapes. Songs like “Judgement Call” bring to mind the imaginative radio-ready designs of Tears for Fears -- to pick but one obvious example -- but it’s tracks like the insistent “Nothing Arrived,” the lovely guitar instrumental that makes for the title track, and the hushed introspection of “My Lighthouse” that affirm he’s worthy of all the attention he’s received. Accessible without sounding cloying, prog without reaching over anyone’s head, O’Brien has made an album that’s bound to be a milestone, not only in his forward trajectory, but likely for all of 2013 as well. Few could write a line as exacting as “Naked on the toilet/With a toothbrush in his hand/He suddenly acquired an overwhelming sense of doubt” (from “Earthly Pleasure”) and make it sound anything less than intriguing. Simply said, {Awayland} is a destination that ought to be a part of everyone’s musical travel plans. (www,wearevillagers.com)

John Amadon
The Bursting Sheaf
(Hirngesprinst Records)

Coming on the heels of his well-received debut, Seven Stars, John Amadon’s beginning to amass a nice track record in terms of creating a career even though it’s still in its infancy. The opening instrumental assault of “Saltwater Crocodile” notwithstanding, Amadon proves himself an amiable songsmith, a musician capable of creating easily appealing melodies and overtly accessible interludes. One need look no further than those qualities that grace “Walking the Shoulder” and “Set Stone,” two of several exceptional tracks that grace this highly tuneful effort. Utilising a talented studio crew of supporting musicians, veteran singer.drummer Mike Coykendall included, Amadon creates lithe settings to support these sumptuous songs, and then mines the mix to the fullest. There’s not a false note played anywhere, and the results add up to a sterling, pop-perfect album that sounds modest in its intents, while reverberating with the sound of pure professionalism and heartfelt appeal. One would do well to give it the listen it deserves. (johnamadon.bandcamp.com)

The Howlin’ Brothers
(Readymade Records)

Don't be misled by the fact that the Howlin’ Brothers opted to make their bow on Brendan Benson's Readymade Records label. Howl has nothing to do with the modern pop motif that Benson is known for, both on his own and as a collaborator with Jack White in the Raconteurs. In fact, this is a traditional album in every sense, a combination of unabashed Bluegrass and stomping, swampy Blues that offers its allegiance to authentic Americana origins. Opening track "Big Time" shows their intent, a rousing combination of banjos, fiddles, mandolin and ragtime revelry. As such, it’s a spirited display, one that quickly morphs into other arenas beyond their basic string band template. The decided Band-like designs implied by "Delta Queen," the boogie and bluster of "Tennessee Blues" and the jaunty, devil-may-care, happy-go-lucky strut of "Just Like You" all affirm their multi--hued sensibilities. In a day and age where pretence is everywhere, and ostentatious attitudes are abundant, the Howlin’ Brothers provide a remarkably fresh and unassuming change of pace. Beards, straw hats and overalls are the identifying factor here, all perfectly in tune with the band's southern sensibilities. Its fun stuff indeed, affirming the fact that Howl is quite a hoot. (www.thehowlinbrothers.com)

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Tags: Amadon, Brothers, Costa, Cuff, Drunken, Duke, Escondido, Hills, Howlin', Jacket, More…John, Matt, Mine, Prayer, Red, Soft, The, Villagers, the

Comment by Lincoln Barr on February 26, 2013 at 10:04am

Thanks so much, Lee! Glad you enjoyed the album!

Lincoln / Red Jacket Mine



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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.