THROUGH THE LENS: Yola, Our Native Daughters, Motel Mirrors, and Other Upcoming Albums That Defy Expectations
Yola at AmericanaFest 2018. Photo by Amos Perrine
This week’s column highlights just some of spirited upcoming releases, notably on Feb. 22. I wonder what’s behind this confluence of riches? Whatever mystical forces that may be at work here, it’s going to be an exciting weekend of new listening, one full of albums that defy expectations.
Yola – Walk Through Fire (Feb. 22)
While the style merchants at NPR recently called her an artist to watch, those of us who first saw Yola Carter several years back (and since) at AmericanaFest knew that from the git-go. She possesses not only a golden voice, but also an inner flame and what seems to be a street-honed charisma. However, I think some of my contemporaries may be surprised by her debut album as it is not a belter; rather, it simmers, boiling over from time to time. It’s as if she’s paraphrasing Mae West: “When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better.”
Beginning with the swirling opening track, “Faraway Look” you are transported back to a Dusty Springfield-reflective rock sound of the British ’60s, but in a grainier manner. It’s not until the fourth song, “It Ain’t Easier” that we get a glimpse of that ’70s American soul she inhabits so thoroughly, so perceptively. Then comes the pedal steel and fiddle, turning it into an anthem. But all that seems like a setup to the striking title track that comes next, making “Ring of Fire” seem a bit like child’s play. Insightfully produced by Dan Auerbach, with notable support from Molly Tuttle, Vince Gill, and others, Yola’s a badass. (You can hear her album this week at NPR’s First Listen.)
Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell) – Songs of Our Native Daughters (Feb. 22)
Speaking of charisma, few possess it like Rhiannon Giddens. Before her new solo album that’s due later this year, Giddens is part of a collaborative outing with Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell (Birds of Chicago), and Leyla McCalla. They, like Hubby Jenkins, who has worked through music to enlighten many all-white audiences, tackle issues of race and misogyny head-on, in a manner that, to paraphrase sociologist Erik Wright, does not see it as a Black problem. Rather, it’s a problem of a ruling class so entranced with private gain that’s simultaneously capable of destroying the world.
“Barbados” is the track that should devastate you. It is easy to abhor the horrors of the past with self-righteous indignation, that air of moral superiority. Sitting in our easy chairs, warmed in the winter with forced air furnaces and cooled in air conditioned comfort in the summer, checking our texts and tweets on our phones, we are blind to the problems in our own time, both in the third world and at home. It was this conclusion that made Malcolm X, and later Dr. King, so dangerous. When they saw the struggles of Blacks in America being part of the struggles of all the word’s oppressed people, they became a significantly greater threat to the pre-established order of things.
The album, so lovely and yet horrific in its stories, some filled with rage, some with flourishes of “dancing when the day is done, when the moon meets the sun,” is one we so desperately need. These artists, too, know why the caged bird sings. (This album is also available for streaming this week at NPR’s First Listen.)
Motel Mirrors – Gotta Lotta Rhythm (Feb. 22)
I just learned about this EP a couple of days ago. Its six tracks — five covers and an acoustic, darker “Meet Me on the Corner” — are an unexpected treat. Recorded during the In the Meantime sessions (one of my top albums of last year), the band takes the opportunity to, as the title suggests, swing with a sense of spirited abandon. While songs made well-known by Gram Parsons, Jimmy Reed, and Patsy Cline are in the mix, the gem is “Funnel of Love” (Wanda Jackson). Bassist and vocalist Amy LaVere has been doing this song in her live sets for years, and it’s killer as she knows all its ins and outs. It should come naturally, as she played Jackson in Walk the Line. This track alone is worth the cost of the $4 digital album. Available from all the usual suspects.
If you are a vinyl junkie (like me), it will also be available in very limited supply on 12” vinyl, music on one side and screen-printed artwork by Wisconsin artist Chopper Chioda on the other. While there is no American distributor, it can be had from Striped Music in Italy and Goner Records in Memphis, the band’s hometown.
Johnny Dowd – Family Picnic (March 1)
Dowd has made a career of making music full of piercingly bleak, hard fought, gnarled dreamscapes that make David Lynch’s tales seem like those of a choir boy. But just when I thought I had him figured out, Dowd delivers a blues record so beautiful that I cannot stop playing it. It is also full of demons that live on a merry-go-round with feedback and distortion taking the places of the painted ponies going up and down. Paradoxically, its’s his most accessible music in quite a while, maybe ever.
“I am guilty as sin, of what I do not know” are about the first words out of Dowd’s mouth on the album, but it’s not so much about some spurious redemption as is it an observation about the quandary we currently find ourselves in. Then, digging even deeper, he pretty well sums up the Civil War in the next track, “Vicksburg.” Lyrically, Dowd seems to have inherited Leonard Cohen’s mantle, with Kim Sherwood-Caso acting as his Julie Christensen. Nowhere is more evident than on “Dream On,” where her counterpoint is so evocative. Sit back, relax, enjoy the ride.
Vandoliers – Forever (Feb. 22)
This was my band discovery during last year’s AmericanaFest. As if they were children of Jon Langford, this six-piece Dallas-Fort Worth group is the new face of insurgent country. You can taste the Texas dust in their mix of defiant cowpunk, rugged Red Dirt country, resilient Tejano, twang, and groove taken to the next level. When was the last time you heard a trumpet-fiddle breakdown in an otherwise white-line fever fueled journey through East Dallas dive bars, Pantego pool halls, small towns, and the rolling backroads of Texas? This is a very short take, I know, but the album takes you on some long journeys. Just think of yourself driving a rust red ’52 Chevy pickup on those roads, your lover’s feet propped on the dash, sharing the last cigarette in the world.
Way Down Wanderers – Illusions (Feb. 22)
From Illinois, this bluegrass quintet caught my eye at last year’s MerleFest. Initially it was the dread-locked mandolinist, but it was their vitality that made me stick around. Reminding me of the first time I saw The Dillards, the Way Down Wanderers offer up multi-part harmonies, but with unexpected elements of reggae and pop, sometimes a bit overabundance of the latter.
The opening track, “The Principles of Salt,” suckers you in with familiar foundations but takes you into a different direction. I kept wondering whether it was inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, as you think its’s one thing, only to find it’s something else. Like the novel. Overall, it’s the heartland that speaks to them, as they observe the cycle of life through love, loss, and growth as only young-ish folks can do. It has that high, yet not all that lonesome, penetrating sound toward which the new era of bluegrass seems to be headed.
Colin Linden & Luther Dickinson – Amour (Feb. 8)
I know ND has done a full review of this album, but as I am so freaking taken with it I want to give it a plug. This album of country covers are done in a near guttural way I have often heard in my mind. From the opening track, an instrumental version of “Careless Love” that seems inspired by David Murray’s wrenching version of “Amazing Grace,” you are put though the grinder and spat out on the other side. Aided by Rachael Davis and Ruby Amanfu as the Tennessee Valentines, as well as Billy Sawn(!) and Fats Kaplin, among others, you’re in for an emotional experience like few others.