THROUGH THE LENS: An April Shower of Exciting New Roots Music Releases
Rhiannon Giddens - Photo by Carol Graham
While we await May flowers, there are quite a few outstanding roots music releases coming our way this month like those April showers. This week I offer my brief impressions on five: two that have been eagerly awaited, Rhiannon Giddens and The Brother Brothers; Amy Speace’s hauntingly beautiful mediation on love and loss; and two others that are just too intriguing to ignore, Irish chanteuse Imelda May and West Virginia troubadour Allan Dale Sizemore. Plus, there’s a bonus April shower of goodness: Lyle Lovett’s guest for the latest installment in his livestream series this Friday is Willis Alan Ramsey!
Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi – They’re Calling Me Home (April 9)
The first thing that strikes you about this album is the tone, the purity of Giddens’ voice. As invigorating as her other work has been, here she’s centered. Instead being in a hurry to get somewhere she’s more contemplative, as if by looking out on the ocean’s horizon she’s revealed a new peace and a quiet strength. Examples are “Black As Crow” and “I Shall Not Be Moved,” both done as lullabies.
One could also say the album is spiritual, especially given the mortality theme of some of its tunes. But I see it more like the black crow that she sings about, and features on the cover: a spirit free, gliding, with an exacting clarity. Giddens and Turrisi bring that quality to the unexpected “Si Dolce È’l Tormento,” a 1624 madrigal for solo voice by Monteverdi and Carlo Milanuzzi. Sung in Italian, you don’t need to read the liner notes’ translation; Giddens moves you to tears. They also do a lovely “Amazing Grace,” with Giddens humming the melody. Lots of folks, including many Christians, are unaware that the song was written by a former dealer in human flesh. Finally, guest artists Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu and Irish traditional musician Emer Mayock are sparingly employed to magnificent effect.
The Brother Brothers – Calla Lily (April 16)
This is the line from Paul Simon’s “America” when I knew Bookends was great: “‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping.” The same went for this album when I heard the line “Just a calla lily soaking up the morning and silly me I’m underneath the awning” in “The Calla Lily Song.” Different tones, simple lines, yet both so revealing of what lies beneath the surface, peeling away the layers.
Much has been made, and rightfully so, of these twin brothers’ harmonies, but it’s how they intertwine with the sparse instrumentation and are used like the wind beneath the wings of indelible lyrics. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Waiting for a Star to Fall,” which uses a forlorn violin to underscore their most Everly Brothers-like tune of longing. If these brothers aren’t among the Americana Music Association’s nominees for Emerging Artist or Duo-Group, I want a recount.
Allan Dale Sizemore & The Lost Souls – The Quiet Garden (April 9)
Sizemore may not be a household name, but you certainly are aware of some of his accomplishments: He was a founding member of the Americana Music Association, had a show on the DIY Network, and more recently was named the artistic director of West Virginia’s most prestigious music venue, Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg. But before that he was, and remains, a singer-songwriter of note, be it under his own name, his alter ego Black King Coal, or with one of his main bands, The Wild Rumpus.
His latest album looks at the year just passed, during which so much was lost: time, friends and legends, and close observations of our immediate worlds. The day after John Prine died, Sizemore wrote (and recorded) his ode, “Good Mornin,’” The Quiet Garden‘s centerpiece. It’s done in the style of Kris Kristofferson, attention paid to the tiniest of details, it’s his “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” We all came down that morning, and Sizemore captured that moment as if a treasured memory encased in amber. Another stunning track is The Byrds-like “The Quiet Garden,” where he turns his attention outward, a reminder that despite all our losses there remains an Eden to behold, to enjoy, to rejuvenate us. This is the album I needed to hear now.
Imelda May – 11 Past the Hour (April 16)
The title track begins this album with the lyrics “Dance with me darlin’, dance with me darlin’, forget the world … Hide your innocence in all your sins,” done in such a dreamy Jacques Brel manner that you float away on the strings that May employs to take you to new romantic heights. Then midway the song turns dark, the dissonant guitar riffs like a swirling whirlpool as the same lyrics are repeated, but you find yourself in a spider’s web instead.
Not that the entire album is that sinister; it is deeply romantic, and both soaring and danceable. “Diamonds” is a beautiful ballad asking the singer’s lover not to do too much, to look too far, sometimes the diamonds are right beneath your feet. This a diamond-studded album.
Amy Speace & The Orphan Brigade – There Used To Be Horses Here (April 30)
You might have read Chris Griffy’s take on this album when it was a KickStarter project in his Crowdfunding Radar column, but I to want to voice my own admiration of an artist I’ve seen many times, each being full of special moments. Like many projects coming out these days, this album’s 11 new songs reflect the inwardly focused year just past. Speace takes on childhood memories, her coming of age in New York City, and losing her father just after the birth of her son.
The album is so full of indelible images, but one that stands out is “Father’s Day,” about a photo her mother took of Speace and her father at their cabin in West Virginia, a long drive from home. It has a Sondheim-like preciseness; you know you’ve been there, too.
Lyle Lovett & Willis Alan Ramsey – Livestream (April 9 at 9 p.m. ET; tickets and info here)
Lovett’s guest on his pandemic-era series of “in conversation with” livestreams is the best thing to ever come out of Northeast Texas, Willis Alan Ramsey, whose appearances outside of the state are rare. His debut self-titled album of 1972 is a must-have — and it’s also his only album. When asked about a follow-up, he routinely says, “What’s wrong with the first one?” Nothing, absolutely nothing.
Now, the photos. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.