THROUGH THE LENS: Lilly Hiatt, Will Sexton, and More Outstanding Upcoming Roots Music Releases
Will Sexton at The Basement, Nashville - Photo by Amos Perrine
These five upcoming releases have some things in common: They may have different beginnings, different sets of boundaries they are expanding, and different levels of notoriety among ND readers, but all of them are rich and vibrant examples of the independent state of roots music 2020. They also defy easy categorization and straightforward descriptions. In toto, it’s a good thing. That said, I’m jumping in the deep end.
Will Sexton – Don’t Walk the Darkness (March 6)
It’s always with some trepidation when you hear the news that a favorite musician who’s made his reputation by being an extraordinary accompanist puts himself out front, solo, the center of attention. However, if you have listened to and seen Texas-native Sexton as often as I have, you’ll also know that his musical immersions, as wide and deep as they already were, became even richer with his 2013 move to Memphis.
Instead of demurring with something laid-back (akin to his notable work with Amy LaVere and Charlie Faye), here Sexton relies more on his previous solo work, his history with Roky Erickson and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and most recently leading the house band at Memphis’ Delta-Sonic Sound studio. Working with longtime friends The Iguanas and others, such as underrated soul singer Susan Marshall, this is evident from the get-go with rollicking, horn-driven, dynamic “Temptation’s Calling” that’d make any Memphis native envious.
I know I mentioned Memphis several times; it’s because that city’s hold on music, and those who create it, cannot be underestimated. Sexton has quite successfully mixed his roots with those of his new hometown and concocted a brew that’s as intoxicating as it refreshing. This album is stellar in all respects, and it’s one that keeps getting richer upon repeated listenings.
Maya de Vitry – How To Break A Fall (March 13)
I found de Vitry’s first solo album somewhat unfocused, perhaps a bit rushed, as if she was attempting to get back on her feet too quickly after a knockdown. Perhaps that take was more prescient than I knew because, in the press release announcing this album, de Vitry said that it is “about losing your balance, and landing without breaking yourself or breaking your spirit … about how to get on your feet, how to move, and how to keep trusting yourself to take another step.”
Metaphors aside, and as much as I liked The Stray Birds, those previous efforts appear to be warmups for this intelligent, emotionally mature work that seems to glide, sure-footed, over slippery shores. Folk Alley previewed the album’s “Better and Better,” which pretty much defines the album. Highly recommended.
Lilly Hiatt – Walking Proof (March 27)
One of my favorite Phil Ochs songs has this refrain: “I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody / Outside of a small circle of friends.” Having seen Hiatt numerous times in a variety of settings with a wide selection of musical friends, she feels like a talent who’s grown more quickly than her circle of admirers. While her previous album, Trinity Lane, won over even the most reticent of critics, this one hits the sweet spot: She’s gained the strength (belief in herself?) to let her vulnerable country side emerge from what’s been her hallmark gangly, rough rock-driven exterior. I can’t wait to hear her perform these new songs live as Walking Proof is easily my fave Hiatt record.
Western Centuries – Call The Captain (April 3)
While the band initially met through bluegrass, old-time, and early country music, and their three songwriters (Jim Miller of Donna the Buffalo, Cahalen Morrison of Eli West, and Ethan Lawton with Zoe Muth) already had substantial careers, with each record the they have stretched their respective roots and developed a sound that you won’t mistake for anyone else’s. But with incessant pedal steel and fiddle mixed with a Hammond B3, there is a distinct country and western feel to it all.
I can only describe it as pulsating, tugging and swinging all at once. Billboard premiered the appealing “Heart Broke Syndrome” featuring Jim Lauderdale. However, I prefer the darker “Barcelona Lighthouse” with the denouement: “Here’s my love, now smash it on down / Give me yours and I’ll dig the deepest hole /Down in the deepest ground.” Mixing introspective songs with danceable, upbeat ones, Call the Captain will have you feeling that ebb and flow that’ll keep you up past your bedtime.
The Claudettes – High Times In The Dark (April 3)
This Chicago band’s most recent recording is both the most intriguing and the most difficult to describe of this bunch. Johnny Iguana’s incessant, hard-driving New Orleans-inspired piano anchors a wall-of-sound approach that one could call “garage cabaret.” Berit Ulseth’s vocals sometimes simmer, sometimes soar, marking this as an ambitious, elegant record, the likes of which are in short supply. With Iguana also serving as songwriter, like Thomas Lauderdale’s Pink Martini, it is also large in scale, but significantly smaller in size, merely a quartet. But what these four have done is no small feat.
American Songwriter premiered the album’s first track, “Bad Babe, Losin’ Touch” here. If that doesn’t grab you, then I don’t know what will. However, they also switch gears with ease. For example, my faves include the stop-go, slippery “Most Accidents Happen” and the sublime, Stephen Sondheim-like ballad “The Sun Will Fool You” that closes the record. These three songs typify an album that ranges from the likes of Allen Toussaint to Julie London backed by a 1960s hot-rod band.