THROUGH THE LENS: Four Outstanding August Roots Music Albums
Molly Tuttle - Photo by Amos Perrine
The first week of August usually finds us in the throes of those lethargic dog days, but up here in the mountains on West Virginia we are experiencing some unexpected sleeping-with-the-windows-open coolness more often associated with the falling of the leaves. So it is with this extra bit of added enthusiasm that I turn my attention to another spate of enticing new albums coming our way later this month. Here are glimpses into four I am excited about.
Kris Delmhorst – Long Day in the Milky Way (Aug. 14)
Have you ever been in a dream that you did not want to end? A cinematic dream, one fashioned like a Kelly Reichardt film? That’s my feeling about Delmhorst’s soft, billowy, enigmatically titled new album (her eighth), which I find best savored on a firefly-filled summer evening as darkness creeps in. Perhaps this sense of varied cohesiveness I feel results from most of the songs being written during a New England retreat in the midst of other surefooted songwriters as opposed to Delmhorst’s usual solitary writing setting.
While the song titles contain concrete images such as dogs, crows, flowers, horses, and skyscrapers, they become metaphors, sometimes ephemeral, of time slipping through our fingers. It’s hard to pick a favorite as the songs and images ebb and flow like a slow tide, but my centerpiece is in these lines, sung almost like a lullaby, from “You Know Nothing About Nothing”:
Insult to injury, missing the mystery, omnisciently without a clue
Guess you’re kicking infinity to the periphery too
Using up all nonrenewable mercies
Charging like Custer and cursing like Xerxes
You can beat up the seas but the truth always gets the last lash.
Just as life is what happens while we are busy making plans, the gods laugh, and sometimes weep, at our pathetic, tragic denials of the inevitable. Rather, let us behold the wonder that surrounds us no matter how brief the moment. I have long been moved by Delmhorst’s work, but never more so than on this album, which enables us to look outward with a grace that’s been woefully lacking these past four years.
Molly Tuttle – … but I’d rather be with you (Aug. 28)
Tuttle continues to defy everyone’s expectations, except perhaps her own. When I first saw her not long after her move to Nashville, I was blown away by her playing, but I also sensed a certain restlessness. Not content with being a two-time IBMA guitarist of the year, she further stretched herself on her first full-length album by demonstrating the songwriting skills of a seasoned pro, fronting a band that could keep up with her as she pushed her musical and intellectual limits.
On this new release, a collection of covers, she stretches those boundaries again, first in the song selection. For example, we find the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow,” from their only, and ill-fated, foray into psychedelia, where she transposes Nicky Hopkins’ keyboard work to guitar and then plays it like a harpsichord. She further bends boundaries in the recording process itself. Due to the double whammy of the Nashville tornado last March and the current pandemic, she recorded her emotive vocals and expressive guitar at home. She could have stopped there and we’d all have been happy, extremely so. But no, she sent the files to LA producer Tony Berg, who, after some back-and-forth to get it to her liking, has her cradled by walls of sound, some like whirlpools, others like waterfalls. A stunning work.
Twisted Pine – Right Now (Aug. 14)
I began listening to, and liking, this band several years ago without knowing much about them. They quickly became one of my favorite young-ish bluegrass bands. They play their instruments not just with intelligence but also with a wit that brings you inside their lively world of “neo-folk indie soul avant jazz jamgrass-icana,” as their bassist, Chris Sartori, put it to me in a note. But he left out how joyously danceable it all is, especially on this new record.
All this is combined in my fave on the album, “Dreamaway,” a waltz that opens with a half-minute mandolin solo then adds a soft plucking bass for another 30 seconds before the dreamy vocal, violin, and a Joe Farrell-inspired flute slide into place. The song, like the album, is a seductively multilayered tapestry that gets you up off the couch and on your toes.
Two members of the band talk about their experience as people of color in roots music in Rachel Baiman’s most recent The Long Haul column for No Depression.
Mandy Barnett – A Nashville Songbook (Aug. 21)
Barnett’s vocal skills are such that she could take an ordinary song and make it shine, but when she chooses ones that are as worthy of her talents as these are, we are talking about something of a completely different order. Barnett has, flat out, not only the finest voice in Nashville but the unteachable ability to look into a song. The way she caresses its lyrics and bring the subtext to the surface is worthy of the finest cabaret singers I have ever seen, Julie Wilson and Mary Cleere Haran.
Prime example is her reading of “Love Hurts,” where she replaces the usual histrionics with a wistfulness that fills her sails as she ventures out onto an uncaring sea, one that cuts even deeper. Lest I fail to mention the album’s two singles, “The End of the World” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” both are easily the best renditions of those classics you will ever hear. In short, Barnett is remaking the Great American Songbook in Nashville’s image, and hers.
Now, the photos.