THROUGH THE LENS: Four Exciting New Roots Music Releases to Savor
Nellie McKay - Kirkland Performance Center, Kirkland, WA 2012 - Photo by Kirk Stauffer
It’s mini-review time again. This week the column looks at four new roots music releases, three that arrive in August (Beth Bombara, Maia Sharp, and Nellie McKay) and one that has been criminally overlooked: Abe Partridge. As always, these are not designed as in-depth reviews, but rather glimpses, impressions if you will, into some albums that have gotten under my skin these past few months.
Maia Sharp – Reckless Thoughts (Aug. 18)
Even before I read Sharp’s remarks in press materials that read, “I want to write in a way where people will plug their own lives into the song,” I found myself identifying with the songs on this superb new album. Similar to when I saw her in a live performance last year, I thought to myself, “How can she know me that well?” As I later learned, I was not the only member of the audience who felt like that. Mission accomplished.
Alternating between writing in the first- and third-person, Sharp hones her confessional chops, infusing the songs with a great sense of empathy that deepens their quiet vitality. While my favorites keep changing each time I listen to the album, perhaps the one that encapsulates its mood most completely is “Old Dreams.” Serving as a metaphor for the recent move from her native California to Nashville, the song finds Sharp opening herself to the many new emotional and intellectual possibilities that coincide with a change in geography: “It’s time to say goodbye to something I ain’t missing.” It’s an especially moving album.
Nellie McKay – Hey Guys, Watch This (Aug. 25)
I became an unabashed McKay fan from the first moment I saw her some 20 years ago, when she burst upon the scene as a wunderkind talent that could not be pigeonholed. So what does such a misconstrued artist do after all these years? Putting aside (mostly) her patented frantic, free association pace that so many fans, including me, find so endearing, here she pays attention to the task at hand, the songs themselves. It seems to be a liberating force that has resulted in her strongest album since 2007’s Obligatory Villagers. If that album is her masterpiece, she’s putting everything she knows about about music into this one, her masterwork.
With song titles such as “Driftin’,” “Did I Catch You Dreaming,” and “Dreamliner,” McKay takes us a on a boat ride down a lazy river shaded by overhanging trees, letting the current glide us home. While she’s not Holly Golightly, it’s as though the album is her own personal “Moon River”: “Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker / Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way / Two drifters, off to see the world / There’s such a lot of world to see.” There’s a lot to see, and feel, on this remarkable album, courtesy of your huckleberry friend, Nellie McKay.
Abe Partridge – Love in the Dark (out now)
Who would you get if you cross-pollinated John Prine with Todd Snider? Alabama-native, Iraq-vet Abe Partridge, that’s who. With Prine’s observatory powers and Snider’s incendiary wit, this album disrupts complacency like a pentecostal revival. Partridge took inspiration from the Salvation Army acid rock music he heard at a snake-handling church, and, among other things, turned it into an album of redemption and other love songs.
In “Young Love,” he tells the story of teenagers in love “running from the knowledge” that one was soon to leave for college and the other was destined to stay behind. In “403d Freakout,” he dives headfirst into an existential Mariana Trench, wondering, for example, if Albert Einstein had met Paul McCartney, if perhaps a “little boy from Nagasaki could have married a pretty girl from Hiroshima and they could have sung ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ together.” These two songs are just the beginning of a trip you do not want to end.
Beth Bombara – It All Goes Up (Aug. 4)
While the pandemic disrupted the follow-through for Bombara’s previous album, Evergreen, there’s no excuse to miss this one, a clear-eyed look at love, life, and the whole damn thing. Perhaps the lockdown, when we all became more inwardly focused, resulted in a conciseness to her lyrics that also digs deeper thematically.
The album has a 1970s feel to it, without being retro or nostalgic. Specifically, “Curious and Free” could easily have been on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, but with a fiddle: “Don’t have to know where we’re going / As long as the tide keeps pulling in / Highway through the hills to the horizon / I want to feel that free again.” There’s also a welcome freshness to the album.
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.