Lee’s Listening Stack – The Best of the Rest, Part One
Prior to assuming his role as the Byrds’ wingman, Roger (then Jim) McGuinn had firmly established his folk footing. Honing his 12-string skills as a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio, he brought a rootsy sensibility to the band and has continued to nurture that stance in his recent solo career. Taking a cue from his Folk Den series, which found him revisiting the traditional trappings of his forebears, McGuinn navigates an offshoot of that tack with the cozily titled CCD. Here he explores a series of sea chanteys of historical significance, offering both faithful readings as well as song by song notations that reference their origins. Those familiar with “Heave Away” on his excellent solo debut will get ample hint of what to expect from these nearly two dozen songs, each ingrained with McGuinn’s distinctive vocals, harmonies, ringing 12 string strum and banjo picking, and devoid of outside accompaniment. Purists will be pleased, but Byrd watchers may have to put expectations on hold.
Stretch Limousine on Fire
At this stage of her career Catie Curtis ought to be able to rest on her laurels. A seasoned singer and songwriter, she’s chalked up a steady string of outstanding offerings, earning an enviable reputation in the process. Even so, she’s yet to earn the accolades accorded her peers, and while Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams may be bankable stars, Curtis is left to prove her mettle with each new effort. If that’s discouraged her or put a damper on her ambitions, it’s not at all evident, especially when it comes to Stretch Limousine on Fire, another example of her impressive abilities. As always, Curtis’ low-cast vocals are front and center, lithe and etched with a winsome appeal. “Let It Last,” “I Do” and “Wedding Band” offer odes to commitment, a refreshing focus in this day and age, and one that speaks to domesticity and devotion. The title track is delivered like a metaphor, transposing the trappings of showbiz success with the realities of adapting to its demands. The thing is, if she keeps making albums as awesome as this, those observations may become considerably less incongruent.
Anti Gravity marks another major milestone in Jon Pousette-Dart’s remarkable career, one that began some 40 years ago at the helm of his namesake combo. Each of its eight songs are graced by instantly engaging melodies, providing a vibrant encounter that aptly defines the many facets of his expressive outreach. The title track, with its catchy hooks and reliable refrains, provides an immediate and agreeable first impression, while aching, heartfelt ballads like “Me and the Rain” and “Who Am I” probe an emotional core. The wide-eyed optimism of the stirring “Great Wide Open” and the pure devotion of “How Can I Walk Away” sustain the set with a clarity that resonates long after the final notes fade away. Likewise, when it comes to agile, accessible melodies, the jaunty “Words” ranks among the most appealing songs he’s ever offered. And when he sings “Jesus, Buddha, hallelujah/Sweet Gospel music/Heaven’s not waiting, Heaven’s not taken/Heaven’s right here in your heart” on the song “Heaven Is Here,” even skeptics will have reason to take him at his word.
Richie Owens and the Farm Bureau
In Farm We Trust
After serving as part of the backbone of his cousin Dolly Parton’s backing band, Richie Owens launches a long overdue solo career with his impressive new album. Boasting a broad array of musical references, it runs a wide gamut—from rock to country and from blues to bluegrass – yet still manages to flow together seamlessly. “My music combines a variety of traditional and contemporary elements, whether it’s folk or roots or rock ‘n’ roll,” he notes in his bio. “It can encompass a pretty broad spectrum. Some may see it as falling under the umbrella of Americana, but in fact, its minded from a very specific Southern sensibility.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. In fact, In Farm We Trust shows his ability to effectively integrate these influences, whether its his revved take on the traditional tune “Rye Whiskey,” the emphatic stomp of “Indian Blues” or the reverberating rocker “Mountain Girl,” a song which sounds remarkably similar to a Tom Petty outtake. Other tracks prove equally infections, from the dark sinewy groove of “Why Can’t I Leave” to the reverberating refrain of “Life on the Farm” and on to the assured embrace of “Give Me Strength.” To take a hint from the title, In Owens we can trust as well.
Forty years on — and in the midst of countless changes across the pop spectrum — America continues to do what they’ve always done best — that is, to make irresistibly caressing soft rock that sashays through smooth harmonies and engaging melodies. With Back Pages, the band applies their signature sound to a series of well-known standards by the likes of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield and the Zombies, as well as a token contemporary tune from Fountains of Wayne. All find common ground with their cooing caress. Naturally then, the choice of songs is what one might expect – “Something in the Way She Moves,” “My Back Pages,” “Woodstock” – but given America’s lofty sensibilities, the meld is ideal and America’s sympathetic treatments make each of these tracks their own. It’s actually a no-brainer.
Likewise, Unfortunate Casino, Beckley’s second solo effort, offers little differentiation between an individual outing and what he might procure with partner Dewey Bunnell. Once again, it’s those hushed vocals that come to the fore, and despite the absence of any of his America band mates, these songs would certainly fit comfortably with the band’s catalogue. The fact is, it’s easily among the best efforts any member of the band’s made either individually or collectively and selections such as “Always,” “Feelings Flow” and “Cup of Rain” rank with the best material in their venerable catalog. Beach Boys influences pervade “Feel” and “Simpson Sky” (no surprise since he frequently recorded with Carl Wilson in the past) and the skittish “Remembering” and the ELO-like “Hello” add the slightest hint of variation. The word “superb” may sound like an overly effusive description, but as a representation of Beckley’s best, the accolade seems appropriate.
Singer/songwriter Paul Marsteller, vocalist Simone Stevens and multi-instrumentalist Gabe Rhodes make up Fiery Blue, an impressive alt-country trio that takes its handle from one of Marsteller’s early songs that was inspired, not surprisingly, by a meteor shower. With Our Secret, the band’s exceptional sophomore set, Fiery Blue has clearly taken a significant step forward from an already notable debut. With the exception of a sultry cover of the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (featuring vocals from Gabes’ mom, Kimmie Rhodes), all the songs are originals, each imbued with a sound that provides an instant embrace. Take, for example, the album’s first single, “Wheels Up,” with its eager and infectious refrain. Or the soulful singing Stevens plies on “Crystal Ball,” “Red Shoes,” “Slow Down” and the title track, where she brings to mind a meld of Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams. Likewise, Rhodes’ shimmering production makes songs such as “Tears Are Blue” and “Eventide” seem both atmospheric and engaging all at the same time. Even on first hearing, Our Secret offers all the makings of a classic, one deserving of discovery.