First Listen Reviews: Wild Ponies, Jude Johnstone, New Country Rehab, and Bombadil
It’s been some time since I pulled from the rising stack of CDs that’s been teetering in the back of my office. So, in the interest of sharing some thoughts on new releases, here’s the first of what I’m guessing will be a few installments of summertime First Listen reviews:
WILD PONIES – Things That Used to Shine
Before I get to the music, I’ll note that the band playing on this disc consists of Doug & Telisha Williams, Ray Kennedy, Casey Driessen, Anne McCue, and a slew of other remarkable instrumentalists. It’s a formidable crew, in other words, and they don’t disappoint. The album gets started with a dark and twisted sort of stalker-ish love song that sounds like it could play in the background of an episode of True Blood. Once that track is out of the way, the rest of the album veers toward ’90s-style alt-rock. It’s a terrific, raw, robust, sound these guys have going on. Heavy on snare and cymbals, distorted electric guitars, and Telisha’s part-sweet-part-cranky vocals. It’s like what might happen if Lucinda Williams had sat in with Screaming Trees. It doesn’t sound a thing like a pack of wild ponies, in other words – there’s nothing darling about it. They cover everything from love to murder and the places where impulses intersect. Needless to say, the disc deserves far more than just one spin. Luckily it doesn’t actually drop until September 10, so I have time to absorb it appropriately before I deliver a complete review, and you have time to make sure you get it when it releases.
JUDE JOHNSTONE – Shatter
Sometimes sequencing makes all the difference in the world, especially when it comes to considering an opening track. The beginning of an album is just as important as the first page in a book, and should be just as teasing. You want to learn enough to know you can trust the artist to take you through the whole album, but you need to either ease into it or deliver a big punch and never stop swinging. Unfortunately, Johnstone didn’t take that tack with Shatter. This album opens with the title track, which is just too much, too soon. It’s heavy on piano and almost-choral backing vocals, and feels like something that needs to be worked up to. That feeling is only underscored by the incogruous strength of the second track (“What a Fool”). Nonetheless, that tune picks up the slack. Its trumpet solo alone might make the whole album worth it. On this first listen, I became impatient by the time the saxophone came in on “When Does Love Get Easier” and skipped to the sixth track for my typical mid-album test. Johnstone’s vocals remind me of what might happen with a mashup of Shawn Colvin and Rosanne Cash, but she’s not quite at the same level yet with her songwriting. I’m not sure I’ll return to this album. Not that it’s bad, it just makes me rather listen to Shawn Colvin or Rosanne Cash. There are some highlights, of course, but as an entire unit, it’s just not cohesive.
NEW COUNTRY REHAB – Ghost of Your Charms
There has been a long line of bands leaping left and right off Mumford & Sons’ coattails. Some of them seem to be doing so opportunistically, with few genuine chops to back it up. Others just happen to have come out of that same generation of influences and ideas, packed together into a sound which is full of angst and as reliant on traditions as it is simultaneously seeking to honor and build upon them. This latter crew absolutely includes Canada’s New Country Rehab. Clearly this is a crew of millennials who see no need to pledge allegiance to any singular style or genre. Either they grew up studying stringed instruments, or just gravitated to the raw physical nature of their utility and sound. Regardless, the songs drive themselves, over dusty, bumpy roads. This is an album of seriously rocking Americana music that sounds like some strange combination of Pink Floyd, the Band, the Stones, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s young and filthy and loud and Canadian. What’s not to love?
BOMBADIL – Metrics of Affection
A small handful of indie labels are so consistent with their taste, I’ve learned to trust pretty much anything they put out. Dead Oceans Records (Phosphorescent, Tallest Man on Earth, etc) is one such label. Red House Records is another, as is North Carolina’s own Ramseur Records. I’ve come to know the latter for their interest in unconventional Americana music. Their roster is peopled by bands who are not just playing three chords and the truth. Ramseur goes for artists who perhaps started there, but then took the foundation in imaginative, unexpected directions. From the Avett Brothers to Samantha Crain, Paleface, and Bombadil. Needless to say, this Bombadil record was something I was pretty sure I’d love before I even put it on. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a perfect summer album with lyrics like “Isn’t it funny to think about all the things that make us sad?” that go on to make a case for the absurdity of it all. Then there’s the unexpected rapping, hand claps, pianos, xylophones, call-and-response tunes, banjos and tambourines. It’s light and free and fun and easy. It makes me want to roll down the windows and just drive. Luckily, it’ll drop July 23, so there will be plenty of summer left to drink it all in. I intend to listen to it again and again.