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A man visits his father at a VA Hospital in East Orange, N.J. A Hollywood director revives the career of a washed-up country singer by putting the performer’s one song in his newest picture. A woman dances a waltz while smoking a cigar.
Scott Dennis builds songs the right way. With the chorus as the cornerstone, the story sucks you in. The beat drives you forward. Details pop the characters and locales—Baja Mexico, Coney Island, the mysterious Bello—into three dimensions.
Long a mainstay of the Brooklyn Country scene—first as the drummer for seminal Brooklyn outfit Gowanus Corral and currently as frontman for The Dirt Floor Revue—Dennis’ latest release, Rearranging Furniture, showcases his formidable song-writing chops as well as his gritty guitar playing and technical prowess.
(He recorded, mixed and mastered the recordings at his Cambridge Place Studios. And he played nearly all the instruments, though current and former bandmates Christian Smythe—Gowanus Corral, currently of the Haggard Kinds—and Glenn Spivack—Dirt Floor Revue, Haggard Kings—lend hands on electric guitar and slide guitar, respectively. Robert Burman plays piano on two tracks as well.)
Dennis wears his influences proudly. And you can’t help but hear liberal doses of John Prine, Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Dylan and Doc Watson in his lyrics, tunes and guitar playing. But judging from Dennis’ head-on style, honest musicianship, that’s the way he’d want it.
I have something I need to confess…I was never quite sure what the label, “Americana”, meant. Naturally I have my own interpretations of what it means to me; Folk, country, rock n roll influenced music, with an emphasis on songwriting….or wait…was that the definition of Alt Country? It doesn’t matter. My point is, I’m getting bored with the banjo/ washboard toting , farm hand/suspender wearing masses that have taken claim to all things, “Americana”. Where’s the adventure? Where is it going to go? I think it is crucial for all genres of music to move forward, absorb and incorporate other styles into the “blueprint” or expectations of their respective endeavors. Lest it becomes predicable schtick, pleasing, but stagnant and sterile. With that in mind, I have been tasked to review the new EP, “Wash Away The Countryside”, by the New York band King Stork.
When listening to new music I like to take a “void” approach. Meaning, I like to let the sounds just come into my head and not think too much about what inspired them or where they came from until its time to write. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. With the case of King Stork’s new EP, I found myself completely mesmerized by their very refreshing combination of the old and new and in many instances, had to listen several times to find the reference points. They are familiar to my ears, and yet, in each song there is something beautifully executed that took me by surprise.
The albums starts off with, “Tie Back Your Hair Like A Weaver”, in a mournful groundswell of accordion. Guitars and pedal steel flourishes ride along a see-saw rhythm. Beautifully sung in a voice that echoes that of Rick Danko. It is place of dreams and lament. I have been here before. Languishing in melancholy, until the lead guitar shakes me from remembrances, and into a skewed and uncomfortable place. The respite is brief, and I am brought back into my memory by a harmony of voices and, “A few quiet hours in your room.”
“Bad Disguise”, follows and a fresh, but more modern take on mid-tempo jangle ensues. The song has shades of Beachwood Sparks, and possibly Pavement. The breakdown section preceding the violin solo is particularly interesting. Bass and drums, very brave and effective. The guitar playing is sharp and catchy as can be, erupting into a solo Nels Cline would be proud of. A personal favorite.
“Galeveston” is a terrific upbeat, Band/ Bob Dylan/CC Rider-esque, galloping ride. It could be a lost gem of Michael Nesmith’s First National Band. Laura Smith provides beautiful counterpoint fiddle that solidifies the proceedings. And then, at about the 3 minute mark , the most stinging guitar solo I have heard in a long time bites you in the ass. Clarence White and Scotty Moore are surely smiling.
“Montebello Lake”, is a Tex-Mex-like solid piece of arrangement and song craft. Sung in that same plaintive, wailing Danko-esque vocal and building into a heavy rocker, again with same “damn fine” guitar playing. It nearly becomes shattered and broken at the close, but is put back together just in time by the shuffle of an acoustic guitar. The more I listen to this song the more I like it. Its a bit like stumbling into a cantina on the border and realizing its 1973. Cigarettes are cheap and so is the canned beer, and the band that’s playing is breaking your heart.
“New York Central Line” is another stylistic period piece about, you guessed it…The New York Central Line. Almost like the Byrds meet the Gatlin Brothers; nice harmony vocals, fiddle and smart arrangements make the song seem like its been a standard for 40 years. Perhaps the most traditional on the album.
The album closes with my favorite song, “Smoke Rises.” Acoustic sorrow, fantastic vocal. From a similar place of regret and longing as , “Tie Your Hair Back”, but perhaps more desperate more passionate. Starting minimal and building through each section into a swell of fiddle and electric guitar. This song more than any other is how I would best summarize King Stork and why this album is so good. It touches back upon the generations of countrified landmarks we all know and love, but there is that promise of new destinations yet to be found.
I know very little of where King Stork has been or what their intentions are, therefore, I am reacting to my own sensory world. But, having said that, it really doesn’t matter. The new 6 song EP carries more musicality and diversity than many double albums I have heard. They are expert musicians and have a true gift for solid, catchy songwriting. Upon repeated listenings there are touchstones: The Band, traces of the Pernice Brothers, Beachwood Sparks, and 1969/70′s Byrds. But, there is also a modernity the permeates through the EP, and this makes them a band of unlimited potential. I hope they continue to push themselves further and don’t give into typical and safe expectations. It may be the relief the genre needs.
Catch King Stork’s official EP release April 12th at The Bell House as part of their Brooklyn Country Jubilee
Bluegrass meets Hip-Hop? Getouttahere! But if you happened to catch Gangstagrass at the recent Brooklyn County Fair at The Bell House, or if you’ve heard the theme song from the TV show Justified, you know they are definitely the real deal and bluegrass/hip-hop is its own “ear-bending” genre.
Gangstagrass is the brainchild of Brooklyn-based recording artist Rench. That’s recording artist as in producer as well as performer and it was at Rench Studios that this music was born. Originally from Santa Barbara, California young Rench was imbued with the sound of country music while growing up. His father hailed from the town of Beaver in the desolate Oklahoma Panhandle; like many an Okie before him, he made his way west to the Promised Land and brought his music with him. And his records too, which he liked to play at home for his son. Exposure at a tender age to Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Hank Williams will do things to a boy.
In 2006, Rench started off doing his own thing in his studio by laying bluegrass tracks onto hip-hop, or maybe it was the other way around, and melding the result with a hypnotic electronic beat. It doesn’t matter in which order it was done because the result was a unique country-urban blend that Rench called his “rap n’ grass project.” It became a web-based, internet phenomenon in 2008 with an album titled Rench Presents: Gangstagrass being available by download. The FX network used a song from the album on a commercial for their new show Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a character created by the crime and caper novelist Elmore Leonard.
FX subsequently commissioned Rench to write another song for the program. For that he collaborated with rapper T.O.N.E-z and a group of bluegrass musicians and produced “Long Hard Times to Come” which opens every show and was nominated for an Emmy for “Outstanding Main Title Theme Music.” The song is included on the group’s second album Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic which appeared in 2010 as a CD. It’s also the first cut on the just released album Justified (Music from the Television Series.) with music by various artists. Gangstagrass’s own most recent album, Rappalachia, was released in 2012. Rench calls it “a shout out to Appalachia, the cradle of bluegrass culture…. rooted in the sounds of traditional mountain music and presents Gangstagrass as a band with [an] independent existence, not just one sound tied to a TV show.”
And Rench has moved Gangstagrass beyond the studio and put together a live act that blows the doors off any venue where they appear. That was certainly the case at Brooklyn Country Fair. The audience was immediately blown away by their opening number “Gunslinging Rambler” which even featured Rench yodeling! It was like experiencing Gene Autry riding his horse through the streets of Compton. The crowd loved it and the band kept things at a high level throughout their set with songs from their repertoire, most notably “Down By the River, Down By the Sea” and “Bound to Ride.”
Check out the gangstagrass.com for more info and some cool videos and an assortment of merchandise. Also available are other Rench-produced albums available for download and on CD.
City and Country indeed!
Ahh! The sweet smell of whisky and weed permeates the latest long player from Uncle Leon and the Alibis. Give it a spin and drift off into the acrid hereafter, that is, if the hereafter is a roadhouse in the middle of the woods. A sawdust joint whose flickering neon sign reads roughly half of the establishments name. Where draft beer is served in, semi clean, frosted mugs by ladies in cutoff jean shorts, possibly named “Kitty” or “Irene”. The stage sits behind the pool table and is about 5 inches off the floor. Indoor smoking is still legal and the bags of white powder pass, somewhat, inconspicuously from hand to hand. The PA is old and awful, but no one gives a damn. The clientele has come for the full release and not the posturing of well meaning interlopers leaning on the latest dance steps, buffed and shined to perfection. More booze, more volume. There’s a good chance you’re pretty pissed off at your lady. Or maybe you just lost your job. Hell, you might just be reflecting on years of decay and an overall dissatisfaction with yourself and those around you. It doesn’t matter. You’re here and slowly succumbing to the benevolent hum of your surroundings.
Taking their cues from Lucero, Slobberbone, and Merle Haggard, the songs of Uncle Leon are plainspoken reflections of life’s simple , but damning problems. They are at times poetic, in a Paul Westerberg vein. (“Hold On”) and at times just plain adolescent punk ramblings.(“Fuck the World”) There is both a Stonesy revelry (“Wild Ways”) and a Sadies-esque ennui. (Dark Night).
Overall, there an album full of songs to enjoy on that road to nowhere or once you’ve arrived. Songs to take your mind off the load and songs to hum to, while you’re pounding that load with a sledgehammer.
There is a tenderness to the delivery of singer Leon Chase that adds an extra layer of truth to the narrative in the songs. There are times that he reminded me of a cross between Elvis and Brett from the Handsome Family. You believe that he has experienced the songs themselves, whether true or not.
Musically, the band support Mr. Chase in the best way possible, with simple and solid playing. Lead guitar, by Charlie Aceto, drenched in tremolo and reverb and spot on rhythm from Neil Magnuson on bass and Dave Varriale on drums. There are no “pretty” adornments or studio trickery. I would imagine that this album presents Uncle Leon and the Alibis exactly as they are live. Meat and potatoes. Songs and performance.
The word dirty comes to mind. No. Not Prince or any type of sexual innuendo. Dirty. As in dirt. Tarnished. As if it grew out of the ground and was brought inside as is. Readymade. Now go out and give it a listen.
January 3 at the Jalopy Theater marked the occasion of the release of Up Like The Clouds by Dubl Handi.
Dubl Handi reveals yet another facet of the talents of Hilary Hawke who has established herself as Brooklyn’s own mountain gal extraordinaire on the local country/Americana music scene. In this instance she was joined on the album by percussionist Brian Geltner among others, and by guitarist Ernie Vega for the live performance on the Jalopy stage. Up Like the Clouds features Hilary’s interpretations of a number of traditional string-band tunes, along with a few original songs of her own. The music has an old-timey feel without being the least bit dated as her banjo styling and “full-on” singing manages to look to the past and “make it new”. Geltner consistently sets a brisk rhythmic groove with his drumming and washboard playing and Vega is a welcome addition to Dubl Handi.
While Hilary’s voice predominates throughout, the blend with the guys is also very nice. By turns bright and sassy on songs like Shortnin’ Bread and her own composition “Lonely Ghost”, she does it high and lonesome, especially on the murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” and her version of Ola Belle Reed’s “Undone in Sorrow”.
Dubl Handi (double handy) refers to a two-sided washboard with galvanized metal rubbing surfaces formerly manufactured by the Columbus Washboard Company. 1.3 million of them were sold in 1941 and recent types of it were shipped to American service personnel in Iraq. Maybe the troops would like the music too.
Up Like the Clouds was recorded and mixed by Gary Levitt at Young Love Studios in Bushwick. Check it out and read more at http://dublhandi.bandcamp.com/ where the songs can be sampled and the entire album downloaded.
On 11/30/2012 at the Jalopy Theater The Flanks celebrated the release of their new CD—Pair of Rosemaries—the group’s third album and second with the current personnel. Copies of the CD were included in the price of admission and acceptance was compulsory. Members of the audience were not allowed off the property without it. With 13 songs in all—it’s a terrific collection of original material written by band members Danny Mulligan and Tom Bouman, plus covers of Warren Zevon’s “Hula Hula Boys”; Jimmy Newman and Floyd T. Chance’s “Alligator Man”; and Washboard Sam’s “Walking in my Sleep.” The title track is a re-arranged version of a song from their first CD penned by Mulligan with Bouman’s dusky baritone now taking the lead.
Although each of the current members hails from parts elsewhere—Oklahoma, New Hampshire, California, Illinois, New Jersey—it’s all come together for them in the Borough of Brooklyn where The Flanks are an integral part of the local country music scene. Three founding members of the original band which began in 2002 still remain: the aforementioned Mulligan and Bouman, along with lead singer and mouth harp player Nick Capodice. Danny Mulligan recalls the evolution of The Flanks this way:
“In those early days we played a lot of bluegrass standards—we loved singing harmonies and had a three-finger-style banjoist in the band…. After a year or two the banjoist left and Margaret Mitchell joined on fiddle (viola, actually), and that’s when we really started forging the sound we have today. Our first gig with that lineup was at Doc Oscar Stern’s Kings County Opry in 2004, at the old Freddy’s in Brooklyn. A few months later we played at the 1st Annual Brooklyn Country Music Festival. By then we were playing mostly original material and sounding more like a band. Bassist Tom Mayer and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Babi Pal joined in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and that added a much welcomed rhythmic backbone to the sound we already had, in addition to letting us play in entirely new grooves that as a string band we hadn’t ever taken advantage of.”
New grooves indeed! These days The Flanks flat out kick ass at their live shows. Called Brooklyn’s “dirty country band” the Jalopy gig featured their usual raucous and rowdy performance that invariably inspires an enthusiastic troop of followers to gather near the front of stage where they dance and sing along. These folks know the words to all the songs and are definitely part of the act. And suffice to say, when The Flanks cover a song they make it theirs. The show at Jalopy included not only “Alligator Man” and “Walking in My Sleep” but two new additions to their repertoire—Flanks-style, foot-stomping versions of the traditional country reel “Soldier’s Joy” and Rory Gallagher’s “Going to My Hometown,” both of which will certainly be on their next album.
While no studio album can quite equal their live concerts, Pair of Rosemaries, as well as its predecessor, Field Days, are well worth checking out. The humor and the high spirits of tunes such as “Glass Bottom Boat”; “Shot of Windex”; “Snub-Nosed Grindstone Cowboy”—to name just a few—shine right through the packaging.
The Flanks newly revised and re-launched website has now gone live and the two most recent CD’s can be ordered there. Songs from all three of their albums are also available for sampling and for downloading at: http://theflanks.com/albums.html. Sign up for the mailing list to be sure of being notified of their next live performance.
As a musician, I listen to music specifically for inspiration. In the past 7 years, no one single writer has continued to inspire me as much as Kamara Thomas. Her songwriting is impeccable, her style and delivery is steady and smooth, and her voice can easily transport me from a listening room to the landscape she has painted vocally.
I will admit I was excited, yet apprehensive, to discover Kamara and her backing band The Ghost Gamblers were releasing an album entitled Earth Hero. Excited to finally be able to hear these songs at any desired time. Apprehensive because after hearing these songs live for so many years, having the opportunity to see them shape and grow, I was curious how their live show would translate into a recording. It’s overwhelming how well Earth Hero has honored and supported the live element of what Kamara Thomas and Ghost Gamblers have created while pushing many aspects of songs into new dimensions because of the studio, not in spite of it.
Earth Hero begins with “My Kentucky”, an acoustic build that has seen many a room singing along at Ms. Thomas’ shows. True to the live feel, the song is a visual and emotional journey sure to capture and introduce the listener to just what Kamara’s songwriting can do. Joined by drums, harmonies, and a soft pedal steel somewhere just past the midpoint, the listener is sure to find a tapping toe tapping at the end of his or her leg.
The second track “You Call Everybody Baby” takes advantage of studio technology for tone and modification. This recorded version is quite ethereal, much different from any live version I’d ever heard. With stellar engineering and production from Jeff Malinowski (who also sings and plays guitars, bass, harmonica, tambourine, and piano), the recordings just open up and fill the space.
In a conversation with Ms. Thomas at a listening party she had high praise for mixer Dave Schiffman stating that she heard a significant difference in the songs at his fingertips. You can definitely hear the respect given to atmosphere in “Slow Sally” and “Lily Gloriosa” while they maintain their own distinct sound. All the while, the tone of the entire album is consistent and carries the listener from song to song.
One of the strongest moments on Earth Hero is “Red Wing” which showcases the type of musical journey Kamara Thomas and Ghost Gamblers offer in a live performance. The song builds throughout until the listener can feel the room being lifted and carried along with the band.
One distinctive aspect of KT&GG is their harmonies. “That’s No Way To Treat Your Sweet Guitar” showcases this amazing musical relationship exquisitely on Earth Hero.
This release closes with “You Wreck Me” (see the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRgYHKW9eeU), a wonderful choice to wrap up all of the elements of what make Earth Hero strong, catchy, and unforgettable.
M Shanghai, formerly known as the M Shanghai String Band, has gifted their fans and followers with a new CD album (their 4th) titled Two Thousand Pennies. A two night release party with performances was held on October 5 and 6 at the Jalopy Theater to celebrate the occasion. It was standing room only for both shows and the atmosphere inside Jalopy was akin to that of a “church social” (a church with its own bar!) with friends, family, congregants, and a few wayward souls gathered; and stacks of freshly pressed CD’s on sale.
Hearing it performed straight through—as the band did on Friday night—or unshuffled on the CD, is the best way to appreciate Two Thousand Pennies. There is an overall form and flow to the album that carries an audience or a listener along from the beginning to the end. From the bright but ominous opening notes of “Sea Monster” to the final choiring refrain of “O Lucy Don’t You Weep”, the sequence of the individual songs feels exactly right.
Two Thousand Pennies is something like a narrative with numerous twists and turns along the way. There are passages through darkness and light, moments of despair and redemption, episodes of love gone wrong or about to go wrong. There are the haunted memories of a sailor who is “drowning in dreams” of being adrift at sea; and the premonitions of he who confesses to his Lucy “the river’s mighty arm pulls me where the light no longer shines upon the branches of the willow trees.”
One moment you are in the company of someone living free while “riding on boxcars, sleeping in rail yards”; which is a better fate than what awaits those passengers trapped “in the belly of a speeding train… to nowhere” because the “sleeping engineer” has long since disembarked. You’ll be “Leaving Oklahoma” with a woman and the man she barely knows, seeking a piece of heaven rumored to be in California; then thrashing “through the whispering pines…in the dead of night” with John Dillinger after a shootout with the Feds at his Little Bohemia, Wisconsin hideout. You’ve got zombies and vampires coming at you from every direction on the streets of Chicago. There’s even a science lesson on “Entropy”and the second law of thermodynamics which explains why “everything falls apart.” And for the price of “Two Thousand Pennies” you can take your girl to town.
Two Thousand Pennies marks a change in direction for M Shanghai. Unlike the previous three albums which were recorded in a day or over a weekend or two, the band spent a lengthy amount of time in the studio—nearly two years—and were able to try out different approaches, including the use for the first time of multitracking, to get the sound they wanted. And they have evolved stylistically as well. As band member Austin Hughes puts it: “After a decade, we’ve realized that we don’t really fit with the purists and preservationists that play in string bands—we are eclectic and skew contemporary”
Even so, on Saturday night, with several special friends and guests joining them on the crowded stage, M Shanghai closed the show with a spirited, old timey encore of “I’ll Fly Away” for the benefit of anyone who might have needed a dose of “that old time religion.” This seemed to include the entire audience—there was not one person in the theater who did not know the words. It was pure church. And then the band members left the stage, one by one, and proceeded to the back of the theater still singing and playing their instruments. The exhilaration of the past two evenings was palpable as things ended and people congregated in the foyer of Jalopy and others spilled out onto the sidewalk. Church was out.
One of the biggest challenges facing a songwriter is how to get songs across in an orchestrated context. If what you are going for is more than just you and a guitar, then you need to find the right elements vocally and instrumentally to help you realize what you’re hearing in your head. Some decide to do all of it on their own through modern computer convenience, but most turn to others to help them out. Once that decision is made, the next task is to find the right people. If you are lucky enough to find them, it’s then usually a fair amount of effort to keep that collective going and growing along with your writing. The band known as Bobtown is a group of songwriters who have fortunately found each other, and fortunately have kept their collaboration going. What makes them special is that they not only write good songs individually, but also know how to make each other’s songs sound good. Couple that with some great arranging and wise production and you have a successful combination that results in CD like their latest: “Trouble I Wrought”.
Before I mention any particulars, I think it’s important to get an overall ideal of what the Bobtown sound is. Any music that draws on many styles like they do I always call “American Roots Music”. Though they have an obvious country bent, if you listen to this collection, you’ll hear all different kinds of American genres interwoven into a rich musical quilt. I use the quilt metaphor because it reflects what they are and what they do. They are a combination of many things that as a whole becomes timeless and temporal, historical and current. They are from the past but very much here and now, and they will wrap you up in their crafted tales of old and new and keep you warm while the world’s storms rage around you. There is darkness and light, temptation and salvation, the complexity of life, past, present and future… and beneath and all around that, a presence of redemption. A feeling that music and people sharing music can, does, and always will make a difference. Bobtown makes a big difference, and this is why you need this record.
Led by Katherine Etzel (vocals, percussion, accordion, organ, and who wrote 6 of the 12 tracks), Bobtown is nonetheless a legitimate and equitable band, with stellar contributions from Karen Dahlstrom (vocals, acoustic guitar, mandolin), Jen McDearman (vocals, percussion) and Fred Stesney (vocals, bass) and multi-string specialist Alan Lee Backer. Alan doesn’t contribute any songs (even though he’s a fine writer in is own right), but that doesn’t matter. His role is to provide the right instrumental parts and tones, and he does this in fine fashion, utilizing banjo, baritone guitar, slide guitar, dobro and mandolin.
One of the main strengths of this band is their ability to harmonize. Good vocal harmony in and of itself is strong – it becomes more formidable when given the right instrumental support. Producer Joe Ongie helped make sure this occurred, and that the wonderful harmonies are front and center in the mix. This record is very “live” sounding – you can tell that Bobtown sounds like this whenever they play, and there are no unnecessary studio enhancements. Just great vocals, with great instrumentation and great groove.
I think you’ll be convinced of that from the first track. Etzel’s “Mama’s Got the Backbeat” plays a pivotal role in establishing the tone. Starting the record with just vocals is the way it should be with a band like Bobtown, and Dahlstrom’s powerful intro, supported by Etzel and McDearman harmony, is spot on. When the groove kicks in, you are in Bobtown. The fact that it’s followed by McDearman’s “One Public Enemy” confirms that they are a legitimate band. Different song, different writer, different subject matter – but still you are in Bobtown. The shift in instrumentation and tempo early on in the record is a gamble, but moving from a slinky bluesy groove to a much more traditional uptempo banjo-driven country tune works. Sometimes an album can screech to a halt, its momentum stalled by the wrong track at the wrong time. In this case, it’s the opposite – by the time the third track “Skipping Stone” starts, the listener has been captured and sweet anticipation established.
Other highlights are Dahlstrom’s “Battle Creek” (featuring arguably the best vocal performance on the record, and a killer dobro solo) and Stesney’s “Live Old, Die Slow”, with its cool altered lead vocal sound juxtaposed with pure angel harmonies. The ethereal mood of this tune, along with its shift from minor to major, creates a pessimistic optimism, if that makes sense. This tune is also a perfect companion piece for…
A cover of “Don’t Fear the Reaper”?! Really? Yes folks, really. This is an excellent version of Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘70s classic, and you should note that it’s the 4th track (versus something just tacked on to the end of the record). A bold move which says Bobtown is not afraid of interpretation, no matter what it might be. They embrace it and they do what all great interpreters do – make the song their own.
Lastly, I love that the title track is smack in the middle of the mix (track 6 of 12). One thing that’s often overlooked these days is song order. I think it’s key to place the songs in some kind of cohesive progression (as indicated earlier re: tracks 1 to 3). Putting “The Trouble I Wrought” where it is not only builds the record up to mid-point, but also sets the stage for the back half of it. It is both a climax and a new beginning, which is ideally what all “in the middle” tracks should be.
I hope this short review is enough to convince you to take a musical journey to and with Bobtown. It occurred to me that there were other great tracks I didn’t mention, but I’d rather leave you hanging and curious to discover on your own. Take the ride – you’ll be glad you did!
I am partial to day-drinking. It is probably something from my youth that has carried over to adulthood. Going to your local bar about 1 or 2 drinks before Happy Hour ends and feeling the subtle rush of alcohol take its medicinal effect. A small gathering of friends, the sun begins to set, and music playing.
To me music is crucial to drinking, setting the mood just right, and getting to tell said friends of some amazing intimate musical nuance that they need to hear.
With that said, Brooklyn’s own, The Newton Gang, have just released the excellent album, Another Night. To me, the album encapsulates the perfect day-drinking ethos. It starts off at 5:00-5:30pm with the mid tempo table setter, “Calm Place” delivered in the smooth baritone of JD Duarte. And wraps up, late in the evening, with the rousing Brooklyn travelogue rocker, “Always Fucked Up”.
This is country music in the vein of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, perfect with that shot of bourbon and ice cold can of beer, expertly delivered by superb musicians who understand playing for the sake of the song.
As all evenings of drinking go, there is always a crescendo of euphoria, when the company is perfect and you’re straddling your drunk just right and BAM!! That one song comes on the jukebox and sits perfectly in your brain, and the whole bar seems in tune with the same electricity. Just past the midway point on, Another Night, the song “Far Behind” creeps in. Sinister, soulful, unraveling in staccato layers of razor backed guitar and pedal steel. Man! What a great song. What a perfect crescendo.
Having had the pleasure of seeing The Newton Gang live it was extremely rewarding that the entire album is a strong and representative statement of the band.
Solid rhythm section, strong guitar leads, and the magnificent pedal steel playing of Gordon Hartin, all make Another Night gallop along the well worn trail of heartache and wanderlust.
Carin Gorrell’s sweet vocals add a beautiful wistfulness too “Here We Go Again” and one of the stand out ballads “Why Do You Love Me?”.
Mr. Duarte has crafted memorable and succinct songs with an air of classic western flair. There isn’t a hint of “neo-hipster irony”, these guys are the real deal: dedicated, and tuneful musicians who made a great record. Go buy it.
“Lost Gun,” a new single from Thee Shambels, makes a good paean to those fuck-ups who realize they are lucky to be loved. It breathes wonderfully, building on Melissa Elledge’s (here) gently insistent accordion, which otherwise heaves and hos on the bawdy rocking waltzes and dark ballads of the band’s earlier catalogue. (See the excellent 2011 Shambels ep, “Jenny’s Waltz.”)
Beginning with the nice combination of that squeezebox and an acoustic guitar, this one builds patiently, introducing the rhythm section in fits and starts that match the playfulness of songwriter Neville Elder’s vocal. All the instruments sound great, and the mix is warm and alive. Elder sings with charming off-handedness, “I spend more money at the locksmith / than i do at the grocery store / i’m always losing something / i’m a disaster for sure,” and even if you feel tempted to pity the poor guy, that all melts away during the solo section. At the appropriate time, Sarah Mischner’s angelic vocals take the lead instrument position, her voice used to great effect as the call of the protagonist’s lover, his saving grace. Yes, we should all be so lucky.
The official digital release comes this Friday, June 15. Get it through www.nosietrade.com/lostgun for free.
More information at http://www.shambels.com
‘I don’t mean to doubt
I’m so sure about it
I feel the pressure everyday
Seems we stopped a caring and spent our days comparing
Our lovesick hearts have gone away’
I was a little hesitant when I saw everyone seated on stage at the
high-energy venue that was Southpaw. My worries were put to rest by
the end of the first chorus. By the end of the set, I was buying a CD
and a t-shirt. “This band is from Brooklyn?”, asked my brother John,
after I recommended that he check out The High Irons on Spotify.
‘Suddenly I’m in between
The fog lights and a lack of sleep
Carolina take me home
Whether I’m lost and found
the beauty of another town
Carolina take me home’
Sounding a bit like the twangy version of Dawes or The Replacements,
Unusual Opportunities For Young Men does not disappoint. From the
pounding ‘Lovesick Hearts’ to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
sounding ‘Please Love Me’, we get hear The High Irons at all speeds.
Any Brooklynite who has been stuck in Manhattan after 1am can
completely relate to ‘Stranded On The Subway’.
‘Suddenly I’m sleeping all alone now
Better than I’ve felt in 15 years
Thinking about the wreckage in the fallout
It cuts deep but the memory disappears’
This album has been my #1 recommendation to friends this year and is
staple on my iPhone. Solid hooks, catchy lyrics, and an amazingly
While on a road trip from their current New York home to the family’s birthplace in Mississippi, Faser Hardin and his wife Annie Chadwick, along with their daughter Abi heard the sounds of the old traditional bluegrass playing on the radio. They were so inspired by this authentic American roots music that upon returning to NYC they decided to explore this style and formed a bluegrass band.
NYCity Slickers are an eight-piece band currently making waves in the New York country scene. While their style is rooted in traditional bluegrass, the brand this “family” band presents on their first album Layin’ It Down shows off the unique background reflecting the range of its individual members. Having incorporated blues, rock, and various generations of country & western into their bluegrass-based songwriting, The Slickers offer a unique perspective and much-appreciated update on what is often labeled “traditional”.
With a background in theatre, the Hardin/Chadwick clan did not approach this only from the musicianship side of performance. In addition to a five-piece string band serving as the backbone, The Slickers put on one hell of a live show lead by three distinct female voices. The ladies draw the audience in through a fresh and inviting, down home welcoming presentation. Rarely do audiences stay in their seats. You’ll often find folks making way to the dance floor (even moving tables at Rodeo Bar to do so).
Layin’ It Down features thirteen songs, eight of which were written by the band and their extended family. Lead vocalists Annie Chadwick and Abi Hardin each contributed two songs to album. Chadwick’s “Gin & Blues” (inspired by Willie King’s “I Am The Blues”) reflects that traditionalism while the album’s finale, “Meltdown” highlight the sultry three-part female harmonies. Abi Hardin’s “It’s All About Me” brings the frenetic nature of young country and attributes this high-energy, progressive bluegrass band.
Contributions from Varner Stomps and Barney Chadwick on foot-stomping “Locked Out” as well as “Mississippi Home” and “Weather Girl” (with Billy Chadwick) and the Reeves Jones penned “Texas Two Step” only widen the net and display the many facets of the Slicker’s talent.
In addition to their bevy of original material, The NYCity Slickers offer up killer renditions of “Rocky Top,” a reinvention of the blues epic “Marie Laveau,” and the Billy Joel classic “Travelin’ Man” (yea, that Billy Joel).
With so much diversity at their fingertips as songwriters, instrumentalists, and performers, Layin’ It Down still has a consistency from beginning to end. And no wonder, the band recorded the album in the same way they perform- the eight members recorded live together in the studio.
With so much talent packed into one group, The NYCity Slickers show no signs of letting up. In addition to their many local appearances, they are also set to begin touring this summer.
To purchase Layin’ It Down visit www.NYCitySlickers.com
Let me start by saying that this is an excellent album. It recalls the dark, somber tonality of The National. Each song is an expressive entity unto itself—a sonically deep, but simplistic, ride into a thicket of fog and sepia-soaked plains. Last Good Tooth is obviously a band with a great awareness of ensemble playing, in which they are able to create detailed mood-scapes throughout each song. There’s no showboating, just playing parts for the common good of the song.
Penn Sultan picks his guitar with a richness that reminded me of Paul Simon (listen to Simon And Garfunkel Live). It’s not there to show off his ability, but rather to set the tone, and the picking gallops along in perfect sync with the band. The real revelation is the rhythm section. Arthur Kapp’s drumming is some of the most expressive and creative I have heard in some time, akin to the sound of Centro-Matic’s Matt Pence. The way Kapp works with bass player Kevin Sullivan is the secret ingredient that separates this band from other Americana contemporaries. They display a range of modernity that distinguishes them from more traditional players who just sit on the root or play a standard beat. The icing on the cardboard cake is Last Good Tooth’s fiddler, Alex Spoto, who adds just the right amount of spice to an already fantastic sound.
Broken glass, rotted wood, clapboard houses…Last Good Tooth plays this new iteration of Americana music the way it should be played—that is, not replicating, but rather setting the style within the frame work of the present.
After hearing the Hollows perform live at the Brooklyn Country Fair, it was a delight to take home their CD, Belong to the Land. They are an engaging band to see live with great stage presence, and this album is a great summer weekend soundtrack.
The album’s first track, “Basilica,” has beautifully haunting string play between the guitars, banjo, and mandolins; it’s brilliantly executed and feels reminiscent of the Garcia/Grisman recordings. It’s a great hook to the album, and sets you up to want more.
“Josephine” is light-hearted and catchy, with sweet harmonies, while “Pour Eyes” is the perfect anthem for a reflective mood. The delivery is chillingly heartrending, with the vocals recounting how “[I] took the ghost train to the other side of town; think I need a pick me up, because I am falling down.” “Sticks and stones” is a rousing song, with lyrics featuring the phrase from which the CD takes its name. There is an outstanding moment in the song where the vocalists sing in a round with only light accompaniment—“Sticks and stones, broken bones, an old tree groans and an old man moans…It’s a long line to toe, but the moon and sun around the run, it’s a smoking gun it’s so much fun, it’s a never ending show.”
The lyrics overall are evocative, and were redolent of something familiar that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. That, coupled with beautiful harmonies and amazing instrumentals, adds up to an album that is a joy to listen to.
Upon hearing Leland Sundries, I was immediately transported to the first time I heard Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits for the first time. Leland Sundries vocalist Loss-Eaton sings in a low, relaxed tune. The band consisting of the aforementioned Loss-Eaton and his cohorts Shane Kerwin, Sam Jackson, and Jon Hildenstein, present their second release The Foundry.
Following the 2010 release The Apothecary, Leland Sundries continues to build on their strength- solid songwriting. What carries The Foundry to the next level is the delivery of these well-structured songs. The guys are coming into their own and the result is quite impressive.
Hitting multiple styles including ragtime, country, blues, folk, and string band while at the same time varying themes from the road weary tale “Airstream Transmission” to the no-holds-barred “Giving Up Redheads,” The Foundry covers the human condition with pathos and poetry unlike anything else.
It’s difficult to summarize. With so many styles in their repertoire, Leland Sundries still manage to weave their own defining presentation. There is a consistency in delivery of performance that would entice the pickiest listener to attend their concert.
Yonkers native Chip Taylor has been an active songwriting presence for 40 years, though many music fans know Taylor’s songs better than his voice. Huge hits like “Wild Thing” (The Troggs version is listed in Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of All Time) made Taylor a name in the industry. With over a dozen albums to his name, Chip Taylor has shown influence and longevity in a relatively fickle trade.
His latest release, F**k All The Perfect People, with back-up band The New Ukrainians, is a wonderful representation of not only of Chip Taylor’s songwriting, but the kind of performance that keeps Taylor and company interested in the craft of songwriting.
The album has a casual, unrehearsed feel, as if it was recorded with the entire band sitting together in a living room, as opposed to a studio. The opening track “Be Kind” has the feel of a live cut, with Taylor calling the changes to the band, referring to them by name and calling them out as they take their respective solos. The title track plays on Hamlet’s existential pondering of whether “to be or not to be.” The verses focuses on reflection, and a call to independent thinking; Taylor’s “Jesus died for something or nothing at all” may just say it all.
The entire album is wrought with beautiful harmonies and a mellow vibe. During “Phoned in Dead,” a countrified blues tune with a down-home feel, Taylor continues to call out the chord changes, lead instruments, and band member’s names. “Outside the Human Condition,” a gospel-infused hymn, is one of the most endearing songs on the album. It begins with spoken words, and the music slowly fades in.
The latter quarter of the album shows a much more mellow side. “I Know the Dark,” “Thoughts of a Child,” and “This Darkest Day” reveal a greater intensity of story-telling, like one generation passing on history to the next.
Considering Taylor’s extensive repertoire, a killer group of musicians, a light-hearted approach to recording, and the eloquence embedded in Taylor’s lyric style F**k All The Perfect People is bound to a hit among fans of roots music and acolytes of the great American folk songwriting tradition.
Right from the get-go of Sexarkana, Travis Whitelaw makes his “good ol’ boy” love of the female form very clear and continues down this bootylicious journey to conclude the opening track, “Assman,” with an international male chorus of like-minded devotees.
Travis’ Sexarkana lyrics might make a Southern Belle blush but each tune stays true to his brash, bold, uncompromising, “rockin’ redneck,” country raunch. Upon first listen what could be thought of as a slightly tamer, sex-driven Hank III, it becomes very clear that Travis’ politically incorrect, outspoken humor comes from true devotional love of the opposite sex, encompassing every macho male fantasy. His songs are comic anthems to every part of the female anatomy spun from an authentic American cowboy, country, and male testosterone driven psyche. Travis isn’t afraid to give voice to these macho male desires that most 21st century guys only privately think but never would confess out loud.
All of Sexarkana’s 10 original songs were penned by Whitelaw and bass guitarist, Kyle Luggit except “Assman” which includes the collaboration of acoustic guitarist, Donnie Butts. It’s obvious from the beginning that Whitelaw and Luggit are talented songwriters and their group of bad boy musicians can hold their own with anyone on the country scene today. All of the music on the album is straight up, unabashed country with a no frills sound. From the driving bass lines to the wailing guitar riffs, you know that this group of guys is the real “raw” deal.
“Reel Cowboys” is probably the most controversial track with its theme of gay cowboys. “T*tty F*ck” – well, what can you say – the title says it all. You can’t help but like this tune with some great country piano licks from Jimbo Starks. A favorite track is “My Bozap,” an a capella tune that really flies. The harmonies (gospel style) are tight and show that these guys are comfortable just standing there and singing. “Touched By a Stranger,” a true country ballad, has lyrics that are a bit more mainstream. After a one-night stand, Travis decides that his real true love is waiting at home for him – which is a nice diversion.
Hailing from Texarkana, Travis Whitelaw and his rockabilly boys have barreled into the Big Apple with their original honky tonk country raunch and they are sure to “tit”-ilate a brand new crowd of Yankee gals and guys.
Like many bands on the Brooklyn Country scene, Maynard and the Musties have grown from a solo singer-songwriter into a well-developed network of friends playing live in the local bars. That network has been named the Musties; a conglomeration of the New York music scene that has joined forced to present Cheap Cigar. With Joe Maynard at the helm, the songs have been scripted with a swagger that he has continued to design. With the Musties honing that style and sound from a small loft deep in Brooklyn and the addition of producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel shaping the music conversation between playing and recording, Cheap Cigar proves once again that Maynard and the Musties have the staying power of the underground country-folk musicians who have come before.
A collection of twelve original tunes all penned by Maynard (with lyric contributions by Jepson on “Paranoid”), Cheap Cigar feels relaxed and conversational. The title track kicks off with a conversation that takes place on a road trip. Uncertainty of the future and the choices we make shape our being. And the sharing of these with a friend may be all we have when the discussion is complete. “Rock This Little Boat” blends the style of a Louisiana jazz funeral dirge with a funk tempo that would get a party dancing. Many of the tracks begin with a simple sparse guitar that has been given a lot of room to breathe during the recording process. That tone is consistent no matter what tempo, instrumentation, or vibe any specific song offers. “Miles of Broadway,” the shortest song on the album, maintains the same easygoing flavour as “Marfa,” which offers a feeling of standing on a barren street of the West Texas namesake. Throughout the album, there is a common tread, and yet something for everyone. A very strong feat for a band still in its genesis in the larger landscape of Americana sounds currently making waves in the stratosphere.
Meet The Musties!
While Joe Maynard is the only member guaranteed to be at every live show, he has been joined consistently by Mo Jepson on lead guitar, Dikko Faust on trombone (yes, trombone!), Naa Koshie Mills on electric fiddle, and Pierre Scoffoni or John McQueeny on drums. In the past few months, appearances by Chet Hartin on bass, Marc Orleans and Gordon Hartin on pedal steel, and Michael Randall on lead guitar have added to the live accompaniment that has continued to define and refine the Musties sound. The recordings were enhanced by bassist’s Kelly Looney (Steve Earl and The Dukes) and Keith Christopher (Georgia Satellites) as well as vocalist Mary Lee Kortes (Mary Lee’s Corvette) and Eric Ambel on vocals and guitar.
Enjoy Cheap Cigar, and pass it on to a friend. Do yourself a solid and catch these guys locally. While their live shows differ from night to night in personnel and
Instrumentation, the essence of great songwriting and performance permeate and will engross you.
Reviewed by Travis Whitelaw
These guys come stormin’ out of the box with a great tune, “Diana” —a re-tooled Pat Benatar hook with some cool n’ gritty lyrics: “She smells like a cigarette…but she tastes like Georgia to me.” Alright these boys got my attention. Not zackly country but it rocks and mentions Georgia so that’s good enough for me.
“Need You Around” bounces along on a great snare-driven country groove, sweet harmonies and some real purty guitars.
“Pop Song” lives up to its title layering great harmonies and a lovelorn tale over a “London Calling” beat.
“Change in the Air” is a koostic number that you shouldn’t listen to if you’re feelin’ heartbroke or sad cuz you’ll just stick your head straight in the oven—it’s a serious tearjerker with a seductive melody.
“Genevieve” is killer—it’s got a bright sunshiny-day kinda hook over a tambourine-driven mid-tempo country beat. This number is a real standout, and it’s prolly the most country number on the album so far. Love it.
“East of Ohio” has a dirgy feel to go with its downbeat lyrics: your face is unshaven and I hardly believe a thing that you said. It’s a road song with a touch of “Cortez the Killer” about it (and that’s a good thing). There’s light at the end of this bleak road though as he sings, We’ll be home tonight.
Yeah, I hit the skip button a couple of times but these Prophets have brought some great tunes back from the future and it theirs looks bright indeed.
Reviewed by Chester Hartin
“Snow will fall on the mountain side
and I become a Miner’s Bride”
The cold weather is kicking in. I don’t feel it in my bones, but I’m
haunted by the sunless days and dark-at-four nights. As track one
begins, a cold one sets in, and I’m frozen in my tracks.
It’s a wonder that I hadn’t crossed paths with Karen Dahlstrom. “Go
see Bobtown,” “You’ve got to see the Evangelenes”. In the scene of
Brooklyn Country, you meet and play with a lot of people. I finally
got a chance to see Bobtown at the Frankenpine hallows-eve show. If
there’s an Andrews sisters of country music, they’re it. Though a bit
of Bobtown appears on this album, Ms. Dahlstrom picks up where they
left off and runs with it.
“We broke our backs to charm her
Gave her our blood and bones”
The Gem State, Karen’s new EP, tells beautiful and captivating
stories, though not always the happiest ones. Karen’s voice and
writing style reminds me a lot of Caitlin Cary’s post-Whiskeytown’s
work. I wonder if Idaho knows what it has lost by letting Ms.
Dahlstrom and fellow Idahoan Josh Ritter move to Brooklyn.
“One more time
Call me your sweet summer darlin’ ”
Unless I’m learning a new song for a gig or writing something new,
it’s rare that I grab my old Martin and play along. “One More Time”‘s
infectious chorus had me running home off the train to play along.
I woke up on Sunday morning after a satisfying yet busy weekend of family, feasting, and merriment. I poured myself some tea and sat on the couch enjoying a quiet morning with my iTunes shuffling until it landed on Holler. I was instantly captivated by their beautiful harmonies and acoustic arrangements. I put the album in from the beginning and took it in from start to finish- twice.
The duo of Beth Price (upright bass and vocals) and Rachael Benjamin (guitar, auto harp, and vocals) have been building the name Holler in the Brooklyn music scene for the last two years. I’ve seen them a number of times live, but it’s great to hear this, their first recording. Fifteen original tunes (the album’s opener “Take me Back” was written by Benjamin and pays tribute in part to Stephen Fosters’ “My Old Kentucky Home” for a chorus) have been delicately arranged by these extremely talented ladies. Layers of acoustic instrumentation derivative of traditional Appalachian songwriting blends seamlessly with well-crafted harmony vocalizations.
No two songs resemble each other, yet there is a consistency to the overall delivery and production of the album. With a variety of special guests from the local scene including Melissa Wrolstad-fiddle, Caitlin Cannon-vocals, Jason Benjamin (of the Red Hook Ramblers)- slide guitar, lead guitar, vocals, hand claps, and harmonica, Dan Costello- piano, Andrew Hoepfner- piano, and Jessica Winderweedle- drums, hand claps, and tamborine; Holler has truly encompassed the communal aspect of creating and sharing their gift of music.
Don’t miss their CD release party at Pete’s Candy Store this Friday, December 2 at 9pm.
Tune In- Turn On- Time for Trailer Radio
Moonshine Martini country cabaret singing superstar Shannon Brown fronts an all-star band of great New York county players. This band of bad-asses is called Trailer Radio, and the concocted musical cocktail tastes great, packs a punch, and will kick you off your barstool and onto the dance floor.
Brown has one of the strongest country voices on the scene. Whether she is hitting the wailing high tones of “Boll Weevil” (a fabulous rendition of The Chalks tune), gritting her teeth through her signature growl in “11:59” (a killer blues-style romp written by local crooner and guitar shredder David Weiss), or bringing a tear to your eye during “Streets of Savannah” (written by bassist Joe Ongie) or the Tom Petty classic “Southern Accents”, Brown’s Trailer Radio would be as comfortable in a run down honky-tonk at 2 in the morning as they would be sharing a stage at the Grand Ole Opry. With Miss Brown’s classic showmanship and Trailer Radio’s musicality, they can elevate any audience to their energy level.
One of the many strengths of this debut is Brown’s and the band’s ability to marry a wide variety of original and cover tunes into one cohesive album. The song choices (6 of the 10 songs were written by folks directly involved with the project) are varied in style, showing the depth of Trailer Radio’s musicianship and ability. Whether riding a fine line between classic country, doo-wop, blues, rock, or even traces of Brown’s cabaret style, this album is all country. Killer harmonies adorn classics “Jack Daniels” (Ray Stevens) and “He’s a Six” (written by Risa Mickenberg and album producer Joel Shelton). Crisp guitar and steel by Weiss and Mike Dvorkin define these unique tunes. And with Kenny Soule pulling double-duty as drummer and sound engineer, the entire project was truly a team effort.
Give Trailer Radio one listen and you’ll find the songs making their way into your head for days to come.
There is a pride that goes into being a Texan. It’s the same strand most feel for their roots, but as the saying goes “everything’s bigger in Texas”. Listening to Sons of Fathers debut album, I was instantly transported to the roads I traveled in my youth. In an attempt to escape adolescence and the metropolitan jungle, I would often shoot down I-10 on a Saturday afternoon and get lost in the Texas hill country, roll the window down, and crank up local indie radio stations that were void of mainstream pop and Top 40. This was where I discovered Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Billy Joe Shaver.
Sons of Fathers is rooted in that same style and tradition of songwriting. The harmonies support and shape the lyrics of the songs, emphasizing the importance of the craft. The duo of Beck and Cauthen complement one another. Like Seals and Croft, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Everly Brothers, David Beck (upright bass) and Paul Cauthen (acoustic guitar) have found their vocal counterpart. Their songwriting supports the ideal of playing music for the love of music.
In a time when the music industry has seemed to abandon artist development and look for a quick fix to suffering sales and failing concert tours, audiences look endlessly for great music with which to connect. Sons of Fathers would be just as comfortable and impressive playing Carnegie Hall as they would be sitting around the campfire in Luckenbach.
With the addition of drummer Dees Stribling, lap steel/electric guitarist Regan Schmidt, and Corby Schaub on mandolin and electric guitar, Sons of Fathers has expanded and taken shape. At the hands of legendary producer Lloyd Maines, that shape has now been given a focus. Great songwriting, great musicianship, and great collaboration have yielded a great album. It tells the story of where they come from (“Sons of Fathers” and “The Country”), where they are (“Flatlands” and “Wind Turbines”), and where they want to go (“Weather Balloons”). Throughout their journey, that common thread of a sense of home keeps them grounded, which is one of Sons of Fathers most endearing qualities. No song speaks to the heart of Sons more than “Mother Dear”.
Their debut CD will be release in a matter of days and the Sons of Fathers are venturing to our neck of the woods to perform at this months Brooklyn County Fair on October 15 at Southpaw with Emmy-nominated Gangstagrass, bluegrass sweethearts The Dixie Bee-Liners, and Brooklyn Country outlaws The Newton Gang. Come see what the next buzz is all about. Get a taste of Sons of Fathers signature sound here.
September 1, 2011
Review by Neville Elder of Thee Shambels
Snow Shadows: Songs of Vince Martin by Alana Amram and the Rough Gems.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘underappreciated’ and ‘overlooked’ used to preface a description of Vince Martin’s songs writing. And it’s ironic that will change because of a young woman nearly half his age and the daughter of one of Martin’s contemporaries. The Vince Martin and Fred Neil album ‘Tear Down The Walls’ (1964) – recorded with musicians including John Sebastian and Felix Pappalardi – was a key moment for the burgeoning Greenwich Village ‘60s folk scene. It’s testament to Vince’s role back then that Mark Sebastian stepped in as producer and his brother John and Van Dyke Parks reunited to make this record.
Alana Amram and the Rough Gems is a folk rock band with a bite. An aggressive live act, Alana’s rich voice soars over Phil Sterk’s muscular pedal steel. Here on ‘Snow Shadows’ it’s no different. Alana is all over these tunes and her band provides drive in the way Crazy Horse added a punch Neil Young’s music. From the unabashed snarl of ‘If the Bay Breeze Don’t Get You The Jasmine Will.’ To the mournful report of ‘Seabird’ she’s taken Vince Martin’s songs and made them her own. Vince’s songwriting is sharp and clean. It’s understated and vivid. Alana represents the sadness and melancholia of lost love perfectly in ‘Leaving Song’ and ‘Summer Wind’ – one of three tracks with Van Dyke Parks’ spectacular string arrangements:
‘I can taste your lips sweet and warm from the sea/ and the darkness would disappear when you touch me /your love was the wind/ soft and warm like the summer wind and I don’t know when it will blow again.’ – Summer Wind
Vince is connected to Alana through her reaction to his work. Alana delivers all the songs on the album with weight appropriate to each one. Without drama and with a soul that is distinctly her own, she sings his music confidently as if it were her own.
These are Vince Martin songs but it’s an Alana Amram and the Rough Gems record.
Neville Elder is a writer a photographer and leader of the folk rock band Thee Shambels.
A self-described “nomad” and “modern day gypsy”, Michaela Anne creates a fitting musical representation of this vagabond lifestyle on her album To Know Where. Drifting through styles ranging from jangly Birds influenced folk-country (“Baby We’re Through”) to Swing (“Carry On”), Gospel-tinged Southern Rock (“To Know Where”) and sultry Blues (“When We’re Alone”), Michaela escorts the listener through the diverse landscape of American music.
Within this expanse, the album finds footing in the neo-folk ballads sprinkled throughout the release. These songs best highlight Michaela’s vocal strength and demonstrate her ability to create interesting tonal pictures. A prime example is “Willow Tree”, a meandering mandolin infused track underpinned by a subtle yet textured accompaniment. This musical structure creates a pleasant backdrop for its catchy melody as it winds its way through the song like leaves moving in the wind. Additionally “Pardon” – the best track on the album – wonderfully wraps a delicate verse reminiscent of a Leonard Cohen ballad around a gritty, swelling lap steel solo. The result is a stirring example of emotional tension and resolve.
Lyrically speaking the album is grounded in personal relationships. Michaela covers a variety of subjects in this vein such as an arsonous “break-up” in “Carry On”, self-aware unsuccessful attempts to sever romantic ties in “Baby We’re Through” and the effect of being haunted by the memories of lost love in the almost too precious “That Winter”. Equally important, however, is the desire for the artist to assert and explore the relationship with herself. As the title track states, “…To know where I’m going I got know where I’m from”.
Michaela Anne explores a range of musical styles on To Know Where creating an environment that at times challenges her limits. However, the product of this crucible is a record that manages to distinguish itself from its Brooklyn Country peers. Next time you are thinking about throwing on that Norah Jones or Alison Krauss album, reach for Michaela Anne’s To Know Where instead – you will not be disappointed.
Reviewed by Ramblin’ Andy Miller of Ramblin’ Andy and the See Ya Laters
Brooklyn Country big dogs, The Newton Gang, have finally released their self-titled debut album. Luckily for all of us, it is a doozey of a record that was well worth the wait. In a scene that is full of street-corner Americana and back porch bluegrass, The Newton Gang have delivered a genuine country record that is sure to knock you off your feet.
The first thing the listener will notice is that this is a group of outstanding musicians. Hearing JD Duarte and Carin Gorrell harmonize and playfully bounce lines off each other, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another powerhouse vocal duo – Emmylou Harris and Graham Parsons. In fact, the music itself is often reminiscent of Graham Parson’s and it falls somewhere between his cosmic country rock with The Flying Burrito Brothers and his later, more traditional work in the Grievous Angels.
There’s also a healthy dose of outlaw country. I especially hear Merle Haggard and there’s a bit of Waylon for good measure. The songs are all rooted around the acoustic guitar and then skillfully layered up – like a million dollar wedding cake (that would be insane), or better yet, a world championship Jenga match between two masters. The pedal steel glides gently above everything, creating a fresh sound that sings out, “This is truly real deal country music.” The guitar licks are lightning fast and a joy. In fact, it reminds me of James Burton’s groundbreaking work with Haggard’s the Strangers. The bass and drums are perfectly locked in step so that the album keeps rolling along and each of the songs have a strong and solid backbone. The Newton Gang are like the Power Rangers – each member is great on their own, but they really kick a whole lot more ass when they join forces.
Duarte’s lyrics are extremely compelling. More so than in any other genre, a country song’s greatness hinges on its content. The Newton Gang’s album is compiled of an exceptionally enticing menagerie of subjects that alternate between extremes. There are numbers like “Daddy Loves You” and “Dance With Me” that are full of heart. But those are met with dark numbers like “West Bound,” a song about runaway love, the bleak murder ballad “Right or Wrong,” and “Find My Baby,” which tells the story of a woman killing her significant other. I considered saying ‘better half,’ but Duarte manages to make the scorned and blood hungry wife sympathetic – a feat in and of itself.
Also of note are several interesting allusions to fathers in these songs, sometimes positive like in “Daddy Loves You” and “My Father’s Song,” and sometimes just plain funny like in the delightful raunchy “Mistreat Me.” As a result of all these contrasting narratives, the album comes across like a collection of short stories – this is Raymond Carver singing songs with the same quirkiness, economy, and emotional wallop of his short stories. Instead of coming across like another drunk with a pen lamenting an old flame, Duarte sounds like a poet of the people. He understands the complexity of the human experience and he has created dynamic characters with full lives, problems, and experiences that are so relatable you can almost touch them. And did I mention that “Redneck Roots” is the funniest song I’ve heard this year?
To sum it all up, this is honest to God, twenty-four carat, true blue country music. With its abundance of twang, heartache and humor, it deftly deals with issues and emotions we’ve all known. The Newton Gang is a singular and important voice in country music. Heed my advice and grab onto their coattails – you will definitely enjoy the ride.
You can find out more about the Newton Gang at: www.thenewtongangmusic.com.
There is a new trend amongst old-time musicians, or it’s at least coming back into vogue, of writing original material and interspersing it amongst reinterpretations of traditional songs. Sure, this has been going on for years, all the way back to the Carter Family and then Woody Guthrie and, of course, Bob Dylan, but for much of the new millennium it had gone out of vogue. In its place was a militant adherence to traditional tunes–usually the more obscure the better. At long last, this trend is going out of favor and being replaced by a re-imagining of traditional sounds and instrumentation but with original lyrics. The result is a fresh outlook on our world that feels both timeless and current. Although there are plenty of promising new artists in this vein, chief amongst them is Frank Fairfield.
I first heard about Frank Fairfield when I was living out in Oregon. Fairfield had played the annual Pickathon Festival and some friends of mine were trumpeting his brilliance. I gave his first album a listen, and was impressed by his deliveries and multi-instrumental skills, but it was all covers and I already owned many versions of the songs. I put his name in my keep-an-eye-on file and promptly forgot all about him.
Well, a lot has gone right for Fairfield since then, and as a fellow street musician his story sure appeals to me. It goes a bit like this: while busking outside a flea market in Los Angeles, Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes heard Fairfield and recruited him to open up their tour. With this mass worldwide exposure, Fairfield’s fan base grew and so did his ambitions. He has now played in more countries than I can name and he has just released his second album upon the world. It is full of original compositions, beautiful playing, and an otherworldly grace, with a few traditional pieces for good measure. Frank Fairfield’s “Out On The Open West” is the real deal and a must have for anyone interested in the new, original old-time scene.
“Out On The Open West” opens up with the remarkable “Frazier’s Blues”. Fairfield plays the guitar in such a unique way that it is hard to pinpoint exactly why it sounds so good. Slides and hammer-ons dance about behind his voice while he gently picks the high strings. His voice is more of a croak than a croon, giving the album an air of gravity and importance. Fairfield sounds like he’s been drinking whiskey since birth, and gargles with staples. It cracks and creaks, blending perfectly with his rusty instrumentation. Fairfield may still be a young man, but he sounds like the ghost of Dock Boggs reaching through the ether to tell you these hard-earned truths of the afterlife. The album’s atmosphere continues throughout in this same vein. It has a somber, well-worn sound. The fiddle tunes are amazing, especially the beautiful “Hast To The Wedding/The Darling True Love”. It is truly remarkable the ease that Fairfield handles all of these instruments. His guitar work is phenomenal and graceful and perfectly captures the somber and haunted mood of his songs. He’s a fantastic banjo player (just check out “Ruthie”, my favorite track on the album), and one of the most talented solo fiddlers I’ve heard from the past 60 years. Fairfield is our generation’s Mike Seeger, and often times the similarities between the two musicians is staggering.
Fairfield’s lyrics are just downright sad. There’s no other way to put it. These are broken and wounded characters and his voice only accents the raw emotion behind them. Again, of particular note is the heartbreaking “Ruthie”, a song about preparing a dead loved one. The long instrumental interludes serve as a break and feel necessary for the narrator to pull himself together and control his tears. “Ruthie” is a beautiful synthesis of voice and instrumentation and is all the more wretched and sad for it, and the perfect barometer for all of Fairfield’s work.
To top it all off, the recording perfectly suits the sounds of this album. It is sparse as sparse can be and sounds like Fairfield and a handful of friends, including local bluesman Jerron Blind Boy Paxton, set up a DAT recorder and just laid out these tracks. The result is a lived in sound, full of natural warmth and a very traditional atmosphere. I can’t help but respect him for so clearly foregoing today’s modern recording conveniences for what has worked so well for his forbearers. It’s a brilliant move that aligns his own music with those that he so clearly respects. “Out On The Open West” is raw and primitive and perfect.
I really can’t say enough good things about Frank Fairfield’s “Out On The Open West”. It is a breathtaking album and anyone interested in hearing the new old-time should best go out and purchase it immediately. There’s a lot of hype surrounding this man (you gotta sit up and take notice when Grail Marcus is heralding anyone), and Fairfield deserves it all and more. You can find out more about Frank Fairfield at: www.myspace.com/frankfairfield.
Hilary Hawke is a well-known figure on the Brooklyn Old-Time & Country music scene, whose quirky persona and spot-on banjo playing have, for years now, enriched the music and live performances of the M. Shanghai String Band, Jan Bell & Alex Battles (to name just a few). Recently she has begun releasing albums under her own name and touring with her own group with success. She has just released a new album, Crow’s Heart, with her latest group, the Flipsides, and it is an excellently written, performed & recorded statement from an artist who has found her voice.
First of all, the album is not easily classifiable. It has strains of Bluegrass, Old-Time, Nashville-Country, Western and even Pop Singer-Songwriter, yet it sounds consistent from song to song; never sounding like a forced grouping. She manages to bring all these elements together to make every song sound like it belongs to the same genre, and the musicians sounds like the same band when handling all these diverse elements; not an easy task.
Hilary’s last release, Goodwill, was a collection of songs written over some time and recorded with a varied group of musicians with whom she’d worked over the last few years. As a result, the album, although it had some real gems like “Candle Dark” & “Heaven”, lacked a cohesive sound and approach to the songs.
This album is the antithesis of her previous one.
The same five musicians play on every track and each song sounds like it was made for this album only, even the traditional numbers. Hilary’s songwriting is focused here and her songs on this album are uniformly strong. She has a way of penning a song that sounds familiar but still has some sort of lyrical, melodic or instrumental twist that will stick with you long after you’ve heard it. The band, too, has found its sound and groove and is very comfortable with it.
Crow’s Heart features six original songs by Hawke, one by mandolin player Jacob Tilove and two traditional numbers. Hilary handles lead vocals on all tracks but two (on which Tilove takes the lead) and her vocals sound relaxed and confident on every song, never like she’s out of her element. Throughout the course of half an hour the musicians play great and truly support the songs while adding their individual touches to the mix. Tilove’s mandolin and Rick Snell’s guitar provide the memorable melodic lines on each track, while Hilary’s guitar or banjo, Ian Riggs’ upright bass and Brian Geltner’s drums provide flawless backing. All of the band members provide background vocals as well. The album was recorded by Don Fierro at the Jalopy Theatre so the sound is not at all slick or over-produced; always a good thing for a roots-music album. It also sounds like it was done with little to no overdubbing, which creates a very live feel with truly great interplay from the musicians.
The biggest surprise on the album is that Hilary’s trademark banjo is almost entirely absent. Only the last three songs feature her 5-string. The rest of the tunes feature her solid acoustic guitar playing and the songs do not suffer in the least from this change. Also immediately noticeable is a darker, minor-keyed feel running through the tunes. A much more meditative tone has crept into her songs here, although she can still convey the light, care-free moods we’ve come to know from her writing. High points include the eerie, Lee Hazelwood-esque “Tennessee”, “Crow’s Heart” with it’s wonderfully crooked mandolin line, the romantic “Glow a Little Dream” and “Whiskey” a wistful ballad in waltz time.
Crow’s Heart is an album that is at times fun, somber, carefree and reflective, and that was written with heart and wit, and performed with taste and spirit. It is a work that will mark the beginning of a period when the artist began to truly conceive and realize her own music.
Have you ever gone bar hoppin in the Lou-siana bayous? I haven’t (in fact, I’m not 100% sure you can even really do that), but that’s what you’ll feel like you’re doing when you listen to Dina Rudeen’s “The Common Splendor.” Equal parts blues, country, soul and R&B, Ms. Rudeen takes you on a musical journey that most people’s iPods couldn’t cover.
Firstly, the production is impeccable. The instrumentation and aural effect are so ear pleasing that you’ll have your finger already on the play button as the last song is coming to an end. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was listening to one of T-Bone Burnett’s jems, so, my hat off to the producers (Dina Rudeen, Tim Bright, Gary Langol and Don Piper). Also, beautifully mixed by Mr. Jonathan Benedict. Cheers good sir. Well done.
Then there are the players and additional vocalists. If I could have a group of folks playing a soundtrack to my day-to-day life, it would be the folks playing on this here record. The feeling and soul in the playing will grab your heart and squeeze the hell out of it, each note carefully chosen, each line crafted like a fine timepiece. And rightfully so, as the sounds on this record take you back to a time when soul was spiritual, and not just a “sound.”
And last, but CERTAINLY not least, Dina Rudeen. The word “songbird” comes to mind. The songwriting is exceptional, and the way Dina can go from sexy growl to a soft, sweet whisper is unmatched in the Brooklyn Country scene. I would dare to say that she channels both Billie Holiday and Etta James, as well as a little bit of Erykah Badu, while injecting her own moving, expressive and eloquent vocal stylings on each and every track, singing each song like she is truly telling a story, which is kind of the point of this whole music thing, ain’t it?
For the first time in my life I wish I was all thumbs, so I could give “The Common Slendor” more than two thumbs up. Don’t be surprised if you hear Dina Rudeen on Sirius Satellite Radio one of these days, and I STRONGLY urge all of you to go see her live at the Brooklyn County Fair on Saturday, May 21st at The Jalopy Theatre (315 Columbia St. in Brooklyn). You can bet your ass I’ll be there. And to you Ms. Rudeen –next time you’re “Hittin’ The Road” in your “Cadillac Of Love,” give me a heads up. I’ll be the guy by the side of the road with his thumb in the air. Or ten thumbs, if I get my wish.
Well, I first came across Wailin’ Storms after his name kept popping up around the various NYC music websites that I frequent. A busy Brooklyn country musician is always sure to pique my interest, so I did a quick Google search, listened to his self-titled EP, and decided we needed to work together. Naturally, I fired off an email asking for a bit more info and what I got in return is just about the best introduction to his unique brand of country music I can imagine. Here is what Storms sent:
“Wailin’ Storms is a Texan who looks to raw and primal blues of the 50′s. To the time when country music started to swagger and become rock-and-roll. There he sees the urgency in Howlin’ Wolf, the conscious oddity in Screaming Jay Hawkins. He learned the teachings of Charlie Feathers and listened to Johnny Paycheck’s meditations on murder.
Despite being born the son of a preacher–a Southern Baptist with a no drinking, dancing, gambling, all fun=sin dogma–Wailin’ Storms can’t help that impulse to do what he wants to do. Maybe it is the older blood in him that makes him this way, the cowboys and wandering backwoodsmen of his descendants that never quite learned to settle down.”
He sounds a bit like a comic book character, doesn’t he? Like he’s from some desolate Dimension-X that’s full of corrupt officials and even more corrupt religious leaders and it’s Storms’ job to wander this lonely world and spread the truth with just his voice and guitar. And guess what? That’s exactly what his music sounds like. This is not your granddaddy’s country music.
What I really want to drive home is the unique atmosphere of Storms’ EP. As his bio might make you expect, there is a great deal of old-testament imagery within his music. There’s a snake in a tree. There are also a lot of “nevers” and “should haves.” It almost has a sinister/menacing mood, but within the murk there are glimpses of hurt and heartache, as well as disgust and anger. Now, folks like Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings often create dark pieces, but they do so through their lyrics. Storms, on the other hand, relies on recording techniques. He builds tension by drowning his songs in reverb. Guitars clink and clank and bleed into one another. Words are stretched into and onto each other and at times become nearly indiscernible. Images and single phrases rise to the top but are just as quickly swept away. It’s almost as if all of the sounds are fighting their way into the listeners ears—each syllable punching and biting and scratching to be heard. As a result, Storms is creating tension in a completely new way.
The EP’s atmosphere is further enhanced by the excellent tracklist. The roaring opener “Asleep in the Belly of a Tree” grabs the listener’s attention. The menacing sound is built up further with the crunchy and distorted “I Sold My Soul.” Then the songs spread out a bit more, the vocals become more present while the guitar steps back further and further. Chords are replaced with dipping strings and runs. The dread is gone and is replaced with vulnerability. It’s as though Storms has emerged from the chaos and is finally seeing that there is no choice but to move forward. After laying it bare for two songs, the EP ends with phenomenal surrender of “No Woman Blues.” The tracklisting and ever-evolving recording techniques, which reflect the emotions of the songs just as much as (if not more than) the lyrics, give the entire EP the satisfying feeling that comes from reading a great novel. Which is pretty amazing in just 5 short songs.
Usually when I hear a song with a lot of reverb, I assume the artist is trying to cover something up or to hide vocal flaws. Storms is the first musician since Jim James of My Morning Jacket that has bucked this assumption. Like James, he treats the effect like it’s part of his voice. He sings specifically for the reverb and as a result, he is able to bend and warble his voice in completely new and unique ways. The closest analogy I can think of is a beginner acoustic guitaritst plugging in for the first time compared to Jimi Hendrix freaking out on his electric guitar at Woodstock. Storms is using his voice in the same way as Hendrix – he clearly always intended to treat his voice with effects and he uses it differently as a result. It also doesn’t hurt that Storms can wail. In the early tracks, his howls lead into savage tremolo breaks. The more tender songs are full of coos and “No Woman Blues” has some of the greatest yelling I’ve heard in years. It’s like Danzig had a hangover and stubbed his toe so hard that it broke. Check it out. It rocks.
Here’s the bottom line: no matter how foreign this sounds, it is still country music. It’s full the same heartache and loneliness of all the greats. No matter how unique it feels, it is grounded in the same themes that we all know and love. So it might not all be discernible, and some of it might be a bit frightening, but it will also be familiar.
Wailin’ Storms has done a wonderful thing. He has created the complete package. His bio fits the music. The production fits the mood. The songs are stellar and he has loads of talent. Storms has managed to create a singular vision that has universal appeal. Sure, there are some similar artists and touchstones. I hear elements of 16 Horsepower, a bit of Nick Cave, there’s a dash of Danzig and a dose of Howlin’ Wolf. I can even hear a bit of early Black Keys. But those are just similarities. I’ve put a lot of time into coming up with a singular description for this unique music, and I think I’ve finally nailed it. Wailin’ Storms is playing Dystopian Country Music. It belongs in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but luckily we can hear it here in Kings County, USA.
Do yourself a favor and get your hands on this EP. You can find it and more at: http://wailinstorms.bandcamp.com, or check him out at: www.facebook.com/wailinstorms.
A lot of great albums have been making their way to the Brooklyn Country Bureau of Review, but I want to take a second right now to draw special attention to Sam Otis Hill and Company’s new LP “Sand and Gravel”
Sam is a Boston-based musician who is, according to his bio, influenced equally by 60’s soul, Texas outlaw country, and folk. I can’t say that I agree with that order, but I will tell you that he has a big, classic country sound. I definitely hear a whole lot of Texas in these songs, and not just because the Lone Star State is mentioned by name on two of the tracks!
“Sand and Gravel” kicks off with a real rabble-rouser. Lyrically, “Take Me Now” is the closest relative to soul music that I hear on this album. The song focuses on a man crying out to his god, reflecting on his hardships. Ultimately, he realizes he has lived a full life and that he is ready to move on…but that’s not what you’re going to be telling all your buddies about. You’ll be busy talking about the amazing musicianship – this fiddle player rocks! “Take Me Now” kicks and bucks in all the right places and it definitely reminds me of some of Billy Joe Shaver’s more rollicking tunes. To top it off, Sam’s voice is singular and unique and I don’t mean that in a “this would be so great if he could only sing” way. Sam’s voice melds perfectly with the music, while also managing to sound fresh and not indebted to anyone. This smoking song has got to be a dynamo when it’s played live.
“Roadhouse Kind Of Guy” is another great song. The energy on these early tracks is palpable and the listener can tell that this is a fine-tuned band. The lyrics to “Roadhouse Kind Of Guy” are the first indication that Sam has a gift for blending the morose with the humorous. If this song was an item at a Chinese Restaurant it would be sweet and sour chicken. Sam masterfully tells the story of a singer who has big old dreams of Nashville superstardom, but has settled into his more realistic life of playing honky-tonks and dive bars…and there’s no shame in that.
“My Texan Friend” is a real standout. Lyrically it reminds me of Lyle Lovett–funny and poignant. It’s a hilarious song that explores the uniting power of music. Coming from a community that’s as diverse as Brooklyn, filled with both hipsters and hippies, young and old, and everything in-between, this is a message that we can all relate to. “My Texan Friend” deals with two guys that have practically nothing in common. It’s a real hoot listening to Sam list off their differences. It’s also touching that their few commonalities are able to keep them together. Country music and whiskey have led to some beautiful partnerships.
Sam Otis Hill and Company have put together a fantastically fun album full of great songs and intelligent lyrics. I might not even being doing his lyrics justice in this short forum. They are amazing and run the emotional gamut without ever being trite or stale. If you’re looking for some twangy country-soul, give “Sand and Gravel” a long listen. Sam Otis Hill and Company will be playing the Brooklyn County Fair on March 26th. C’mon out and give them some Brooklyn love! You can learn more about Sam at: www.samotishill.com.
Eden and John’s East River String Band has just released their new album, “Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down” and they are back in a big way. From the terrific work of Eden and John themselves, to the amazing artwork once that is again provided by R. Crumb, to big name guest stars Pat Conte on fiddle and banjo, R. Crumb on mandolin, and guitarist Dom Flemons from the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, there is truly something here for everyone. This is album has the sound and feel of a great band stepping it up a notch.
Eden and John’s East River String band are an old-time band that specializes in increasingly obscure covers, so when looking at their latest work the first thing I considered was the song selection. When one sets out to make an album of this nature, the added bonus is one has the opportunity to educate the listeners. Eden and John have done a magnificent job of mixing nearly lost songs with some more well-known ones. They are bridging the gap between medicine show artists like Pinkey Anderson, who only has a handful of recorded songs that are incredibly tough to come by, with standard Stephen Foster tunes (Oh Suzanna) and well known Woody Guthrie numbers (There Are More Pretty Girls Than One). Eden and John are keeping the works and legacies of these artists alive, while also encouraging discussion and further research. We should all be thankful for their wonderfully entertaining, intellectually stimulating production.
I’ve never thought of Eden and John’s East River String band as a string band in the traditional sense, but have instead associated them more with the like-minded duo Gillain Welch and David Rawlings. Both groups explore the string band catalog, but neither is limited to it and in most cases not even indebted to it. “Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down” is the first time that Eden and John’s arrangements have been this intricate. Every part plays off and interacts with each other. The ukulele dips when the mandolin goes up, the guitar dances around in the back while masterfully laying down the bass and keeping everything grounded. The two vocals weave in and out, carefully accentuating each other. As a result, these compositions have a richness and depth that was at times less prounounced in their previous work. They no longer sound like a duo but are operating like a string band.
The perfect example is the lead track, “Gonna Tip Out Tonight.” The interaction between the ukulele, kazoo and mandolin is captivating. John is a strong guitarist who knows it’s better to play tasteful bass runs that weave and carry the song than it is to play too much. His style reminds me of how when Doc Watson would back up Bill Monroe over the years, he always toned down his own playing for the benefit of the song (see: Bill Monroe and Doc Watson’s Live Recordings 1963 – 1980: Off the Record Volume 2). The number and identities of people playing in the East River String Band might vary from song to song, but these arrangements are fantastic and have clearly been fawned over and reworked time and again. The hard work is evident and pays off in spades.
As a bonus on this album, the instruments that are used are not the standard fare. Whereas most string bands are based around a fiddle or two, Eden and John’s East River String Band use more unique instruments – a resophonic ukulele being the rarest, they also utilize kazoos, mandolin, and second guitars. As a result, these songs naturally sound different than the source material, and they warrant repeat listens instead of trips back to the originals.
Even good cover bands often just remind their listeners of how much they liked the original artist, instead of bringing something equally compelling to the table with their own versions. Eden and John bring fresh energy and pull out new feeling with these songs. A great example is the rendition of “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” on this album. In the original (or at least oldest version that I know), Woody Guthrie sings the song in a comforting way. I always imagine that on his wanderings, Guthrie encountered a young man whose heart had just been broken. In my fantasy, Woody took him aside and then tried his darndest to let him know it wasn’t the end of the world and everything was going to be just fine. Grandfatherly and sweet as that might seem, John’s interpretation manages to have a completely different feel. Instead of comforting the broken-hearted, it sounds like he’s trying to be convincing about what he actually knows is a lie. The deadpan delivery over the livelier arrangement reinforces this contrast and, as a result, John’s version reveals a new, burdened depth of the lyrics.
As Eden and John’s East River String Band has wandered from classic country-blues toward more unusual string band arrangements, jug band music and traditional folk tunes, their albums have grown yet more interesting. The great songs on “Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down” are played with love and practiced restraint, but not given a treatment so reverent that it feels timid or overly analytical. This is by far their most gripping album and I can’t recommend it enough. Go out and get yourself a copy, you will be so glad you did! Find out more about the band at: www.eastriverstringband.com
Kerri Lowe is a big-voiced newcomer in the Brooklyn Country community. Originally hailing from North Carolina, she is now a regular staple about town. Notably, she also works as Jalopy’s resident blogger. On January 20th, she released her debut EP Move Free.
Lowe’s rich and powerful voice is the most striking element on her album; it resonates in a low range that is both unique and a refreshing contrast to oft-heard squeaky songstresses. Rarely does she whisper, instead opting to belt out her tunes with the utmost confidence. Vocally, Neko Case makes a fair comparison in terms of intensity and volume – although there is a significant difference. Case tends to clip her phrasing, whereas Lowe has a beautiful, natural tremolo that brings to mind both Iris Dement and Dolly Parton. This quality can sound forced in some of Dement and Parton’s work, but Lowe’s feels completely organic, as though she can’t help it. Thom Yorke is one of the only other singers who spring to mind as having such a natural tremolo.
The underlying theme of Move Free is traveling from place to place. Instead of writing hackneyed tales about running away from personal problems or troubled relationships, Lowe spins more positive yarns about idealistically chasing after her dreams. Many of the songs play out as a one-sided dialogue with a lover, sometimes hoping he will come along and other times treating him as a needless weight. One of the driving forces of the album is that as it progresses, the role of this lover changes from confidante and co-traveler to something much more negative.
In contrast, the motive behind her traveling evolves from the vagueness of following a dream to the much more specific goal of being a road warrior musician–exquisitely detailing life on the road. This works well in and of itself, but what is truly a brilliant move is Lowe’s track ordering. She ends the EP with the self-loathing song “Good Luck and Goodbye,” which is about drinking alone at a bar, presumably after a terrible show, lamenting the life of the musician. By ending the EP with a lonely, thought-provoking song instead of the happy, Cinderella track that one might expect, Move Free plays out as an interesting character arc that warrants repeat listens. Are Lowe’s songs written to document memories or to convince herself of her decisions?
“Please Don’t Take Me To Kentucky” is my favorite song on the album. A departure from the tracks about romantic love, “Please Don’t Take Me To Kentucky” tells of a young girl who learns her father is in jail, and as a result she decides never to return to Kentucky as an adult. It was fun trying to figure out whom she was addressing in this song, which she thankfully answers in the end, creating another level within the song. Lowe does a great job fostering some mythology around herself, which is extremely compelling for a musician’s audience. Listeners love to be intrigued about whom we’re listening to, and the better the story the more likely we’ll attend to an artist’s future work.
One improvement to Move Free could be made by adding some more instrumentation to her lone voice and guitar. There is something intimate about these recordings, but it’s impossible not to imagine how her big voice might sound doing some real barn-burners. Lowe has the potential to get the dust flying and folks rocking out. Luckily, her bio has informed me that she’s working on a new EP with a larger band and some more rocking and upbeat songs. I can’t wait!
Move Free is a great introduction to an exciting new voice on the Brooklyn scene; it’s definitely an album worth getting your hands on. Be sure to check out Kerri Lowe live and find more information here.
Like the cellular tower protruding through the woods making folks driving through take a second glance, the band Frankenpine is bound to turn some heads. What is a Frankenpine? Simply put, it six amazing musicians -Kim Chase, Matthew Chase, Liz Bisbee, Ned P. Rauch, Colin DeHond, and Andy Mullen- playing wonderful tunes. More a family than a band, their all-for-one attitude shows in the sharing of songwriting, the support of multiple vocalists, and the trading of solos. The result is this months full CD release The Crooked Mountain, a celebration of “the song” -that eternal process of putting words and music together through the careful phrasing and placing of notes to support and expand poetry shared through our most essential form of communication.
The songs found on The Crooked Mountain vary both in style and delivery. An uncanny ability to offer familiar feeling music with new flair and presentation fills each track. The style best described by Lucid Culture as “the future of bluegrass”. This artistic collection covers a variety of periods of the human condition and finds a unique vessel for each tale. From the amazing harmonies of “Texas Outlaw,” “Faceless Weaver,” “Baltimore,” and their take on “John the Revelator” to the chilling lone voice carrying us through “Cold Water;” Frankenpine have relentlessly sought the perfect mix of space and sound for each hand-crafted tune.
“La Fee Verte,” sure to end up on this summer’s “This Is Brooklyn Country, Vol. 1″ is about an offbeat Williamsburg eatery Moto, known as well for it’s fare as for its nightly entertainment. The style of the song reflects well the demeanor of the staff and clientele as well as the decorum of the location itself.
The only song carried over from a previously released EP, “Faceless Weaver” exemplifies the spirit of Frankenpine’s live show, building a song (and with it the audience’s anticipation) only to strip it all away leaving a driving banjo that has been there all along. The song fills in instrument by instrument until each carefully placed element has gone a full 360 degrees back to Kim’s pleading cry before again crashing to a halt.
Ned P. Rauch, who plays a multitude of instruments (and is adept at all of them), takes lead vocals on “Never Lie,” an outlaw song of the truest form. The medicine show solo-trading showcases that band interaction that developed from the commitment to their live performances.
With a voice as pure and clear as a mountain top morning, Kim Chase could silence a room with a whisper, and “Over Your Bones” allows her to pierce deeper than most might feel comfortable. Chase’s resolve comes from a place such that you’ll find yourself venturing willingly with no hesitation.
The Crooked Mountain closes with “Into My Own,” a sparse arpeggiated song featuring both female vocalists, once again underlying Frankenpine’s interest in the most inspired presentation and best use of the enormous pool of talent with no preoccupation to ego.
I hope you’ll take a moment to listen to Frankenpine’s The Crooked Mountain. I guarantee there is something in there for everyone. And once you have, stop by and see them live. They’ll make you feel like you are in the right place. Because you are.
Alana Amram & the Rough Gems debut full-length record Painted Lady exceeded expectations. For a band that always delivers a powerful live show, the energy translated effortlessly to the record. The Rough Gems sound like they could have hung with the best of the best among our favorite country rock bands of the 1970s. Lucky for us, Alana and her band are all young and alive and well in this decade, making incredible music.
In the Brooklyn Country scene Alana is a bright talent respected and admired by her peers. This debut record only reconfirms her talent as a songwriter, band-leader and musician. Her music is classic yet original and fresh. It is above all, honest and real, which means it has a something for everyone. This album alone has everything from the anthem-like tune “Take a Drink” that brings you to your feet to dance, the sexy and fun “Sugar Factory”, the thought-provoking “Painted Lady”, and the timelessly beautiful cover of Vince Martin’s “Snow Shadows.” Though varied, each song connects to the next by all being uniquely written stories told within a 3-4 minute time span. Alana delivers vivid pictures with her creatively woven tales, never laying it out too plain or straight but leaving room for our own imagination and interpretation.
To back up these tremendously powerful songs are tremendously powerful musicians. Led by producer-boy-wonder Jesse Lauter, the sounds and instrumentation solidly represent the essentials of a country rock band with fiery electric guitars, rockin’ bass and drums and the brilliantly performed pedal steel. But the album continues to feel adventurous on top of the wildly adventurous guitar and pedal steel solos with the sprinkling of a banjo, dobro, fiddle, piano, organ or even kazoo where appropriate. One of the highlights is a featured penny-whistle performance by Alana’s father David Amram on “Umbrella”.
“Painted Lady” is more than just a great record to put on for a listen. It takes you on a journey through cross-country travels, whiskey saloons, Mexican motels, broken hearts and wandering souls. It is exciting to know that this is only the beginning for the Rough Gems and many more great albums are sure to follow.
Fire up Big Slyde’s album Slythia and there are a few things you know right away: 1) That guitar picker has some kind of Latin in him (He’s Portuguese to the hilt, in fact). 2) That’s a cello, not a bass, you hear way down there. 3) The banjo player and dobro player are really, really good. Wait, they’re the same guy? Oh. Well, now you know that too. 4) In a world of whiners and wailers, the lead vocalist sings with strength, honesty and just a glimpse of vulnerability. While her bandmates groove, pluck and slide and around her, Hannah Doan is as sure-footed and responsive as a wrangler’s horse.
This is a band full of virtuosic playing. Guitarist Mikey Portal is lightning quick and a stranger to no part of the guitar neck. Lucinda Williams has a song in which she sings about a guitar player and “the worn down places in the wood, the ones that made you feel so good.” Portal plays as if every fret on that board makes him feel good. If there’s a happier player out there, I haven’t heard him.
John Doan plays banjo and dobro with casual precision. There’s whimsy and curiosity in his fingers and ears, but he never ventures so far afield as to confuse the listener. You’ll spot shades of everyone’s favorite far-out banjo and dobro players, Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas, respectively, in his playing, but Doan’s not standing in his their long shadows. He’s his own man. Listen to his restraint on “’Do Tell’ Bagatelle.” With the whole band churning and surging, his banjo is calm and balanced, like the coolest log-roller you ever saw. And when he sings, which he does on occasion on this album, it’s with a refreshing twang that seems to say, “Despite all the grooves, this band knows country, too.”
Slythia has a healthy dose of unbridled, all-out playing. It’s lousy with riffs (in a good way) and rank with funk (also in a good way). At times it feels it could all spin out of control. That it doesn’t is, I reckon, largely thanks to Hannah Doan’s rhythm guitar and bouzouki playing—which is assertive and robust—and Chris Grant and her cello. Grant doesn’t play with a lot of flash; she plays with presence. One of my favorite tracks is the album’s last: “The Old Forest.” It’s Grant’s part I find myself humming. And in the title track, which brings to mind a recent visit to the squirrel monkey pen at the Bronx Zoo—everything jumping and flipping and flying in all directions—it’s the cello and rhythm guitar that provide the bounce.
With this album (and their live shows) Big Slyde has sprung free from standard notions of what mountain string band can be. They are a mountain string band to be sure—New York’s Adirondack Mountains are their base—but if they’re bound to anything, it isn’t to the way things have always been done.
This is Brooklyn Country!
The Dirt Floor Revue has done it. Their debut release is packed with the kind of toe-tapping country bound to get people up and dancing. This CD reflects where our scene has landed and how we’ve come to be. Great originals, multiple songwriters and singers, a few choice covers, independent recording and releasing, fresh, catchy hooks, and respect to the musical influences.
Bandleader Scott Dennis fashioned a studio in the basement of his home and spent the greater part of a year collaborating and recording with a talented cast of local musicians. His songs “Highway Run,” “I Love Her So,” Frying Pan,” “Bergen County Baby,” and “600 Miles” (co-written by his wife on a road trip) reflect the everlasting cowboy ramblin’ theme, the tranquility in the love of a good woman, and the contrasting topic of being cast aside (set to the tempo of a train blasting through a prairie with no brakes left). Pedal steel ace Glenn Spivack penned “Gambler’s Lament,” “27 West,” and “Wisdom From a Fool”. Spivack’s ruminations strike a different chord and songwriting style giving DFR a depth and direction of variety lacking in many modern country bands. But the song-sharing tradition does not stop there. “Leper’s Rodeo,” by guitarist/vocalist Matthew Samuel Phillips has the classic design of cowboy tune common with George Jones and Ray Price while bassist/vocalist Chris Adams “80 on 80” takes us on a ride on the nations’ second largest interstate highway reminiscent of Dave Dudley and Jerry Reed.
Rounded out with an artistic version of a Mel Tillis hit from a 1978 Clint Eastwood comedy (hint: it’s one of the two featuring an orangutan), an inspired version of a Beatles tune, and a 1965 Bob Dylan tune that begged to be countrified, Dirt Floor Revue has proven they have the talent, vision, and musicality associated with and representative of Brooklyn Country. Dirt Floor Revue- an inspiration to a fledgling country music scene.