Overlooked Gems: A Last Look at 2017 Roots Music Releases
While some of the bigger names in roots music have gotten their fair share of attention this year, this seems like an opportune time to highlight some excellent releases that should not get lost in the shuffle.
John Lilly – State Songs
Lilly told me that the idea for this album came from hearing another writer’s song about a state and thinking he could do better. Well, he has, in a big way. Lilly who has won a bunch of awards for his songs – 11 originals and one fresh arrangement that celebrates the nation’s diversity and captures the unique qualities, cultures, and sounds of a dozen states. There’s Cajun music from Louisiana, the cool pop sounds of Maine, and the triple fiddles of Texas swing. These songs take the listener on a cross-country journey and a tour of American roots musical styles. The songs aren’t really about those states; rather, Lilly uses them as backdrops to his unique songwriting talents. A good example is the urgency of “Gotta Go to North Dakota,” featuring slide master Sonny Landreth. Whew, at the song’s end you feel you’ve gone cross-country in a matter of minutes.
Lydia Loveless – Boy Crazy and Single(s)
This collection consists of the five-song EP Boy Crazy, which was Loveless’ rock-and-roll tribute to baseball pants and youth, plus six non-album singles and B-sides, including bare-bones covers of Prince, Elvis Costello, and Ke$ha. The recordings span 2012 to 2015 and feature sun-washed, rebel-powered pop songs presenting a conversation about judgment and loss of innocence as one transitions from good old American naiveté to you-should-know-better “wisdom.”
Aldous Harding – Party
Harding was featured without much fanfare at this year’s Nelsonville Music Fest, but those who caught her first set began spreading the word –her next two mini-sets were combined into one with a crowd that was as enthralled as it was overflowing. From New Zealand, Harding would have been a perfect fit in the downtown New York music scene in the experimental ’70s. She also had the lyric of the weekend: “Won’t stop turning until I become twisted.” The album was released earlier this year, but has been re-released in a special vinyl version with a bonus disc. It was also just named album of the year by Rough Trade.
JD Hutchinson – You and the World Outside
Hutchinson is a shapeshifter. Living in Southeastern Ohio, where he was bred to the bluegrass fold, he’s ventured far from those boundaries and takes on the persona of his songs so varied in style that you wonder how he’s able to do it, let alone do it so well. From “Another Fool’s Cafe” where he conjures up his own “Desolation Row” to one of the finest straight country songs I have heard in a long time, “Love at a Distance,” to a Geoff Muldaur-like “Don’t Talk About Love” (complete with The Meigs County Choir), about things going wrong “ever since they put a man on the moon,” to the closing track, “That Ain’t All of Me,” that’s a New Orleans riff on Randy Newman, the Tim O’Brien-produced album is a singular treat for the senses.
Megan Bee – Canyon
Also from Southeastern Ohio, although a generation or so on the younger side of Hutchinson, when I first encountered Bee (AKA Megan Wormz Bihn) I heard just enough of Martha Scanlan to be intrigued. But despite having a similar sense of place and incessant wanderings — her last album was comprised of songs she wrote while traveling cross-country — Bee’s latest album feels like a drive through the area’s modest hills, sipping well water from a tin dipper to take away the taste of those dusty roads. Recorded with the Mountain Stage band, Bee’s songs have a lighter, less strenuous tone than one might expect, but she can still conjure immediate, substantial images, such as on “We Are Rocks,” where she explores the plight of our modern times.
Emily Duff – Maybe in the Morning
Speaking of sense of place, you’d never expect Duff, who adoringly cut her new country soul album in Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios, to be from Manhattan. Growing up on Long Island, Duff moved to the city years ago and replaced Jeff Buckley in Gods & Monsters after he left to go solo. So Duff has been around, seen a lot of stuff and folks go many different ways, but her grounding in the Americana music of its day serves her well in this fascinating non-retro R&B record. But perhaps what describes her best is what she said in American Songwriter about the song “Walk of Shame” from 2015: “I’m a reliable observer.” And it’s my observation that this is most likely the best album you haven’t heard this year. It was mine.
Emily Pinkerton and Patrick Burke with NOW Ensemble – Rounder Songs
I first encountered Pinkerton as part of the marvelous trio The Early Mays and was struck by what she brought to that Appalachian string band, a kind of New England classicism that lent an incorporeal feel to the otherwise traditional sound. Beginning with well-known Appalachian songs such as “Red Rocking Chair” and “Darling Corey,” Pinkerton and co-writer (and husband) Burke gave them life in a new setting. Performed solo with her banjo, with an ensemble that includes a piano and flute, I hear a Copland-like yearning, and she describes it as being “21st century post-minimalist classical music and North American old-time.” Whatever you call it, it’s also timeless.
Re-Issues: Tim Buckley x 2 and Peter Case x 2
Peter Case’s self-titled solo debut from 1986 (produced by a relative unknown at the time, T Bone Burnett) is now available, but with seven bonus tracks, including two from a promo-only disc. Plus, we get even more Case as there’s also On the Way Downtown: Recorded Live on Folkscene, from 1998 and 2000 that contains 18 tracks. Case fans will be rejoicing, but anyone who listens to roots music will be quite pleased as well.
When Buckley’s Live at the Troubadour 1969 was released in 1994, it was thought to be all the recordings from his five-night stand there. But recently more tapes were located and are now two separate releases, Venice Mating Call and Greetings from West Hollywood. The year 1969 was a most creative time for Buckley, having released his most ambitious (and my fave) album, Happy Sad. He was taking those songs, and others, even further live. While there is some overlap in song titles in these two releases, the versions are substantially different. Buckley’s foray into folk-jazz and his improvisations are without compare.
If you think today’s music scene is adventuresome, you should also be checking out where a lot of younger artists get their inspiration. There’s no better place to start than these releases from Case and Buckley.
Now, let’s get lost in the slideshow of photos below, and begin dreaming of winter wonderlands.