With so many good new albums coming out from artists who are of interest to the ND-reading world, I thought I’d dedicate another column to new albums of note and the artists who make them. I’ll kick it off this week with one of my favorites.
My bubba – Big Bad Good
Produced with Shahzad Ismaily (Will Oldham, Jolie Holland) at his Brooklyn recording studio, the songs on My bubba’s new record, Big Bad Good, were not only recorded as they were originally written, but, like nearly all of Frank Sinatra’s recordings, most were recorded only once. It’s that first take that allows the songs to be fresh and intimate. These also happen to be words I have used to describe this Scandinavian folk duo, My Larsdotter and Bubba Tomasdottir. They have a quiet, captivating presence — just two lilting voices, beguilingly simple lyrics, and a guitar. They are avant-garde and folky, sparse and sometimes near primitive, but always emotionally full.
Last spring, when they opened for Damien Rice before an unsuspecting full house at the Ryman, they cast a spell on the audience, kept us on the edge of our seats to see if that spell could be broken, to see if what we were witnessing was real. It was.
The single from the album of the same name is out now and features their signature slap-singing. But perhaps as it was recorded in the US, the album’s remaining ten songs take on a bit more of an Americana feel, while retaining their European art-song origins. It’s as if this pair is dancing in their bare feet on 19th-century floorboards, in yellow summer dresses, with a soft breeze coming through open windows as they breathe life into these exquisite songs.
Town Mountain – Southern Crescent
Produced by the legendary Dirk Powell and recorded in Louisiana, Town Mountain’s fifth album, Southern Crescent, promises to be their breakout. The winners of the 2013 IBMA Momentum Award for Performance Band and Vocalist of the Year, Town Mountain has earned raves for their hard-driving sound, their in-house songwriting, and their honky-tonk edge, which permeates their exhilarating live performances, whether in a packed club or at a sold-out festival.
The hearty base for their music is the bluegrass triumvirate of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs, but this album stretches those boundaries without breaking them.
Southern Crescent is a raw, soulful album. I have seen this band many times, and while there are a couple of bigger names out there, this Asheville group is the most exciting bluegrass band to come along in a long time. Southern Crescent comes rolling over the mountains on April 1.
Chaise Lounge – Gin Fizz Fandango
I first saw Chaise Lounge by accident a couple years back, and what I thought might be a tragically hip retro band turned out to be completely the opposite. Much like Chris Siebert, who leads Lavay Smith’s band, and Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini, Charlie Barnett keeps the band’s eye firmly focused on the musical prize, but with a dry martini on the side.
Their latest, Gin Fizz Fandango, is at once playful and seductive jazz, sometimes with gorgeous vocals by Marilyn Older, and other times it’s Joe Jackson’s trombone that makes you feel you are in the middle of a Fellini movie, as he evokes ghosts of Nino Rota.
This, their seventh album since 1999, is full of wit, charm, and elegance that could only come from a jazz band harkening back to the golden age, but without a fatal sense of nostalgic irony. The disc is full of originals, save for one Cole Porter tune. Like a gin fizz, Chaise Lounge tickles not only your senses, but your fancy as well. The album is out now, so tango on over.
Keith Sykes – Little Beach Town
Most folks know Keith Sykes from his days with Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer band, but I knew him back when he was a folkie on Vanguard, for whom he recorded two albums. His friendship with Jerry Jeff Walker was his letter of introduction when he first visited the Keys and met Buffett on day one.
Sykes continued his songwriting and had songs recorded by Walker, Rodney Cowell, and Rosanne Cash, among others. But I lost track of him till he showed up on Mountain Stage in 1993, when he was promoting It’s About Time for John Prine’s label. Now Sykes has a new six-song EP, Little Beach Town, that prompted me to see where he’s been. Well, he has been around, releasing albums as ever, so it’s been me who’s been AWOL.
When I first listened to the EP, several of the songs sounded like they owed a lot to Crowell and Buffett. Understandable, but I revisited those early albums, and it seems Sykes influenced them. He does four songs with a band, with two about beach bars and towns that accurately depict the tourist town I knew well, even though I hung out more with conchs and Cubans. But the two songs Sykes performs solo are the highlights: the lost love of “Coast of Marseilles” and “Drive Myself to Drinkin’,” where he builds a bar in the back of his car so he can drive himself to drink, with swinging doors and tunes that roar. Witty lyrics with a weathered vocal that lets you feel the heartache that belies the witticism. In other words, it’s country music at its best. His “Come As You Are Beach Bar” single is out March 11, and Little Beach Town washes up like a bale of reefer on April 22.
Janiva Magness – Love Wins Again
Only the second woman (after KoKo Taylor) to win the prestigious B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award from the the Blues Foundations’s Blues Music Awards, Janiva Magness is about to release her 12th album, Love Wins Again. After years with Alligator Records, her new album is being released via Blue Élan Records, an artist-friendly label headed by Kirk Pasich, who shares Magness’ interest in working on behalf of at-risk youth. Magness is an alumnus of the foster care system and is a spokesperson for Casey Family Programs National Foster Care Month as well as an Ambassador for both the Foster Care Alumni of America and the Child Welfare League of America.
As with her last album, Original, Love Wins Again primarily consists of originals and is a testament to the fact that “love is a bigger power than hate and darkness,” Magness explains. “It’s easy to forget that when we’re struggling or when the world often seems frightening and out of control. But love can transcend barriers between people and cultures, and bring us closer in ways we might not have imagined. Love can also be frightening. It requires opening yourself up and taking risks, but in the end, love will always win.”
The album marks her fifth collaboration with four-time Grammy-nominated producer Dave Darling, whose instincts compel Magness to lead her songs to unpredictable places. He has become her key songwriting foil and is the primary architect of the album’s gorgeous textural sound, which blends acoustic and electric instruments, flourishes of Latin percussion, horns, and an enlightened approach to the studio to create perfect settings for her vocal prowess.
More than just expert range and craft, Magness’ voice rings with sincerity. With songs like “Love Wins Again,” “Doorway,” and “Say You Will,” Magness has proven that she is an accomplished storyteller. The title track begins the album with a zesty, groove-propelled message that’s part manifesto and part testimonial. Magness’ joyful melody soars above the song’s bed of percolating percussion and ringing R&B guitar. Love won again in multiple ways in Magness’ own life last year, through the completion of her memoir, launching a musical based on her life story, and again when she married English bluesman and singer-songwriter T.J. Norton. Love Wins Again begins its winning ways on April 8.
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Sturgill Simpson’s new album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, was just announced last week. The Earth shuddered, the tides rose, a not-so-sea-sick sailor set his course. If the track “Brace for Impact” is any indication, Simpson and his producer Dave Cobb — who is, according to Fader, “producing the hell out of country music” — build on the semi-psychedlia of Meta-Modern Sounds in Country Music to a harder, rockier edge. The albums sails on April 15.
Dave Cobb – Southern Family
And as if Dave Cobb is not busy enough, he is releasing a compilation titled Southern Family, bringing together Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark, Holly Williams, John Paul White, Jason Isbell, and others. Out March 18.
Larry Groce – Live Forever
When I first heard Larry Groce perform songs from his new album, Live Forever, with his unaffected, self-deprecating sense of humor, he called himself a submerging artist. Being his first in over 20 years makes that understandable, as his creative energies have been channeled into making the Mountain Stage live performance radio show an international household name and, in turn, making his adopted state of West Virginia the envy of the music world.
But this album demonstrates that he should not have stayed away so long. While the album consists of mostly covers of songs done by artists who appeared on the show — such as Townes Van Zandt, Jesse Winchester, and Billy Joe Shaver — the originals are the treasures. Most notably, “What Do We Think About (When You Think About Love),” which was inspired by the great American writer Raymond Carver. In it, Groce becomes the Robert Altman of song.
No less significant is the track that begins the record, “When the Mist Clears Away,” which captures West Virginia, in all its magnificence and obscurity, like few others. The album is also a family affair, recorded with members of the Mountain Stage band and wife Sandra, who plays viola in the West Virginia Symphony, so it has a homey feel to it.
Groce also brought in a couple of ringers — high school buddy Ray Wylie Hubbard and percussionist Jim Brock. But, the real treat is Don Dixon, who brings a focus and clarity to an album like no other — just ask REM, the Smithereens, James McMurtry, Hootie & the Blowfish, and many others. Live Forever is out now; don’t wait till forever to pick it up.
Todd Burge – Live on Mountain Stage
Speaking of Mountain Stage, Todd Burge, West Virginia’s premier singer-songwriter’s 15th(!) album is Live on Mountain Stage (2006-2015). Like a Randy Newman with a guitar, he’s also been described as a Warren Zevon who can evoke bizarre characters and situations, but in a less confrontational manner. He’s also the kind of guy who wanted to name the family dog after Roger Miller, so when he told that story, I knew I was onto something.
As with any gifted songwriter, hearing Burge live takes the cake. Hearing the stories behind the songs and the audience interaction/response gives you the full flavor of his talents. A prime example is after having seen a shark in a hotel aquarium, he wrote “The Shark” from the animal’s viewpoint.
The only other live Mountain Stage albums by a single artist are by Jesse Winchester and Laura Nyro, so Burge is in good company. Live on Mountain Stage roller-skates out of a buffalo herd on April 1.
Emmylou Harris – Hickory Wind
Emmylou Harris has in her near 50-year career released only three live albums: Spyboy, Live at the Ryman and Last Date. The earliest to date has been 1982, but that is about to change with Hickory Wind, featuring Ricky Skaggs, from 1978. It is the earliest we have gotten to see what a full concert of hers was like.
While it is a commercial release, I doubt Harris had anything to do with the release as it is on an off label, and was likley recorded on a 7 1/2 ips reel-to-reel without Dolby, so there is some noticable hiss.
The concert was thrown to promote solar energy. Yes, children, we have been clamoring for alternate sources of energy for a long time. We had a saying then: a society that runs on fossil fuel is a fossil society. Get up, John, and get this record on April 8.
Charlie Louvin – Live at Shake It Records
Another live album just out is by the great Charlie Louvin, recorded at Shake It Records — a record store in Cincinnati — in 2007 and now available for the first time on LP. I was fortunate to have seen Louvin several times before he passed, and have all his Capitol solo recordings as well as those with Ira. The last time I saw him was some ten years ago when the Handsome Family wandered in for a song. These songs are familiar and need no elaboration. Yes, the voice is cracked, but it takes me back to voices I heard in small country churches when I was a boy — unadorned and unafraid.
Various – Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music
There are also some fascinating compilation albums coming out. The most intriguing of which is Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music. It features 19 artists and was recorded from 1968 to 1980. The title comes, of course, from Gram Parsons, and while his influence is keenly felt, these forgotten and largely unknown recordings reflect a period when the barriers between genres were beginning to crack. The cross-fertilization was creating not only the groundwork we take for granted now, but was vibrant in its own rite.
There are many reasons why these artists did not break out at the time, most due to mismanagement or outright scams. A particularly nice track is Mistress Mary’s “And I Didn’t Want You,” which sounds a lot like the Cowboy Junkies — and predates them by some 15 years.
Another compelling tune comes from the Black Canyon Gang, who was mixing it up in Colorado in the ’70s with the Newgrass Revival and Tim O’Brien and played the first Telluride Bluegrass fest over 40 years ago. Those were heady times, and this album does it justice. Kudos to the folks at Numero Group. This is their fourth archival reissue. But it is more than a time capsule, more than mere nostalgia. They sound fresh and alive. The cosmos arrives on March 18.
Various – Hillbillies in Hell: Country Music’s Tormented Testament (1952-1974)
Largely unknown and unheralded, this collection of hell-bound hayseeds will come as a revelation. Mostly cut on microscopic or private-press labels and distributed in minuscule amounts, these tortured troubadours tell of torments, temptations and tumults: Satan, drugs, murder, suicide, demonic visions, infanticide and redemption. These are 28 timeless testaments of transgressions, tribulations, and moral turpitude.
Originally issued on forgotten 45s, some of these sides are indescribably rare and are reissued here for the first time. But some better-known names, such as Cowboy Copas and Bill Anderson, are also around. But no Tex Ritter, who must be rolling around somewhere in Heaven.
The limited edition LP (666 copies) with fewer songs sold out in no time, but the CD flies like a bat outta hell on March 18.