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There's a reason sophomore albums are considered a tough nut to crack. An artist has only a year or two to write a batch of tunes that stack up to the batch from their debut that they had their whole pre-debut life to write. Whether or not that debut was successful, the artist also has to decide to stay that artistic course or branch out in a different direction. Kacey Musgraves stayed firmly put on 'Pageant Material,' her follow-up to the wildly successful 'Same Trailer, Different Park.'
Taken on its own, without any knowledge of its sibling, 'Pageant Material' is a fun and lovely album. The songs are overflowing with memorable melodies, clever catchphrases, and pitch-perfect performances. And the first five cuts, from "High Time" through "This Town," are as thoroughly appealing as anything in her arsenal. At the heart of that mini-set is the sweet-but-not-saccharin "Late to the Party" which serves very nicely as the free-wheeling Millennial's version of a love song. It also provides a wonderful counterpoint to the snappy repartee of "Dimestore Cowgirl," "Pageant Material," and "This Town."
But, then, in the number six slot is "Biscuits." The album's first single can't help but be compared to the high watermark of Musgraves' career that is "Follow Your Arrow." In fact, a casual listener would be forgiven for confusing the two -- that's how similar they are in style and substance. Throughout the second half of the cycle, the comparisons could easily continue, but taking a step back allows "Somebody to Love," "Miserable," and "Good Ol' Boys Club" to shine on their own merits, in their own lights. Trouble is, albums in an artist's career don't exist in a vacuum, so a lot of these tunes make the whole feel like 'Same Trailer, Another Different Park.'
No question, Musgraves is a talented and spirited artist who is shaking things up in the best of ways. Here's hoping she applies some of that boundary pushing to album number three.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 3:15 PM
Album Review: Eilen Jewell, 'Sundown Over Ghost Town'
With a title like 'Sundown over Ghost Town' and cover art of a silhouetted figure with an acoustic guitar in front of a vast, star-filled horizon, Eilen Jewell's new album sends a signal that what lies therein could easily be simple and spacious country-folk songs. Uh, not quite. Yes, there are some simple and spacious country-folk songs here -- "Half-Broke Horse," "Green Hills," and "Songbird," at the very least. Otherwise, Jewell takes the theme of coming home and has fun with it. After all, you can come home again, but it may or may not be what you remember.
In Jewell's case, the story unfolds from the point of her return to Idaho after living in Boston. Oh, and having a baby, too. Most of the lyrical content draws from those endlessly deep wells. On the whole, the set is more refined and more restrained than Jewell records past, but no less creative, in its own way. From the gentle, mandolin-filled folk of "Worried Mind" to the delightful, Tex-Mex rockabilly of "Rio Grande" to the high lonesome torch balladry of "Here with Me," the album alternately lopes and lilts in all the right places.
For instance, Jewell isn't the first artist this year to set surf rock against a spaghetti western backdrop as she does on the spirited "Hallelujah Band" -- Lord Huron, too, makes that mix on 'Strange Trails' -- but it works well and shows just how many different colors Jewell has on her artist's palette.
'Sundown Over Ghost Town' is out now on Signature Sounds, and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:55 PM
Video Premiere: The Stray Birds, "Never For Nothing"
You might not make a lot of money. You might not win awards or accolades. You might not make new friends or establish important new connections. But sometimes, following your heart and doing what you KNOW is right, what you FEEL is right - well, that's reward enough.
Maya de Vitry of The Stray Birds says this song is "an homage to music as an offering--on a back porch, singing for nobody but the birds--on a subway platform, tossed as a rope for anyone to hold--around a campfire, shared between friends and the stars." In other words, music is enough of a reason to make music.
The Stray Birds - they're a band known for their tight harmonies, their impeccable instrumentation and their ability to make their audience feel completely involved in the music they make. With "Never for Nothing," the Birds also prove how capable they are of creating incredibly vivid stories and characters with their music.
Lyrics like "I'm dripping from the rivers I never meant to cross/But I like the things I'm learning more than anything I've lost/And, oh, I have lost...but not for nothing," let the band paint a very clear picture of complicated and oh-so-human emotions. The gorgeous music video that accompanies the song, featuring Fish & Bird's Taylor Ashton and filmed and edited by Jacob Blumberg, only helps us better understand those emotions - the contradictions of hope and heartbreak, longing and gratitude, that we are all capable of feeling at the same time.
The Stray Birds' 'Best Medicine' is available via YepRoc Records at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Country singer Kasey Chambers, who has been a prime representative for Southern Australia's rural music tradition, strikes a balance of exploration and maintaining her core sound on her latest release 'Bittersweet,' due out via Sugar Hill Records on July 24th. It is notable that Chambers' tenth studio album, which sees her writing about freedom, sweet releases and the bittersweet, is her first release since the separation from her husband, singer/songwriter, Shane Nicholson. Her last solo album of originals was 2010's 'Little Bird' followed by the 2012 'Wreck and Ruin' collaboration with Nicholson. On listening to this new record, it is clear that she has had some life altering experiences, which have left her with a lot to say. It is not an outright breakup album, but there are certainly songs that hint strongly towards starting anew and surviving. Take, for example, the closer "I'm Alive," where she boldly professes: "And through all the blood and the sweat and the tears/Things ain't always what they appear/I made it through the hardest f****** year." On the other side of that is the title track - a duet with fellow Australian, Bernard Fanning. "Bittersweet," the slow burning ballad about the pain of needing to end a relationship, but not knowing how, is poignant and heartbreaking. Chambers' songwriting impressively displays the many complicated dynamics that ending a relationship brings out, and she sounds so free while doing so.
'Bittersweet' also marks a change sonically for Chambers, who has exclusively worked with her brother/manager Nash Chambers. This album sees her looking to broaden her range and sound with the production skills of Nick DiDia. DiDia's credits include huge sounds like Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam and Train. His past work's influence is not very noticeable on many tracks that have that classic Chambers' folk/country tinged sound like "Oh Grace," "I Would Do" or "Heaven or Hell." Chambers also nails that familiar sound she's known for on "House On a Hill," which marks the first duet with her father and mentor, the musician Bill Chambers. It seems like DiDia's ability to bring out this intensity and drama from Chambers' songs is unprecedented. Chambers' shows massive growth in that department in the song "Wheelbarrow," which sounds like it could be on an Alan Lomax prisoner chain-gang field recording (aside from the super dirty electric guitar). A highlight on the record is the barnburner, "Too Late To Save Me." It is hard to understand why this stirring performance is all the way on track ten on the record.
While there are elements that will be familiar from the Kasey Chambers' albums of the past: sweet alt-country sounds and that beautiful clear voice of hers, this album truly marks a turning point for her. After 15 years recording, Chambers has won multiple ARIA and CMAA awards in Australian music, including the ARIA for Country Music Album of the year for 'Bittersweet' in 2014 (The record was released last year in her native country). It's inspiring to hear a musician and songwriter who is so celebrated, broaden her range so successfully in what has been a challenging time of change in her life.
Kasey Chambers releases 'Bittersweet' via Sugar Hill Records on July 24th, available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Seeing as Muscle Shoals is not more than a hop, skip, and a jump or two from their home base in Nashville -- and lead singer Gary Nichols grew up there -- the SteelDrivers headed down that way for their new set, unceremoniously titled as 'The Muscle Shoals Recordings.' But it sounds nothing like anything ever recorded in Muscle Shoals. There are no slinky bass runs, no funky horn parts, and no deep drum grooves anywhere to be found here.
That's not to say, though, that it's a bad record. It's not. It's just not what you might expect from the title. But it's exactly what you might expect from the SteelDrivers -- a head-on, taste-the-dirt blend of bluegrass, folk, and country that wraps itself around Nichols' soulful voice and the deft skills of fiddler Tammy Rogers, banjo player Richard Bailey, mandolin man Brent Truitt, and bassist Mike Fleming. For another dash of authenticity, Nichols' longtime friend and fellow Alabaman Jason Isbell even co-produced and added slide guitar to two tracks, "Brother John" and "Ashes of Yesterday."
It's a thoroughly supple, occasionally somber set, but even the darker hues have a fluidity that keep them from getting too bogged down in their own self-importance. Considering the rampant racial tensions that continue to wreak havoc on the U.S., the SteelDrivers' heartfelt ode to the Civil War in "River Runs Red" seems ever-timely as Nichols intimates that the harrowing legacy, indeed, lives on: "The winners are losers, when you count the dead. We watch it go by. We all bow our heads. The guns have gone silent, but the river runs red."
The SteelDrivers' 'The Muscle Shoals Recordings' (Rounder) is available now at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:51 PM
Hear It First - Old Man Luedecke, 'Domestic Eccentric'
July 17, 2015
*Old Man Luedecke releases his new album 'Domestic Eccentric' on July 24. You can listen to the album in its entirety before then in the player below!*
I had a friend in college who, when asked if she was homesick on the first day of our freshmen year by the well-meaning resident advisor, shrugged her shoulders and said, "Eh. Home, to me, is where your pillow is."
What was she talking about? Home is where your dog is. Where the neighbor's front door slams loud enough so that you can hear it in your bedroom, two stories up. Where the church bells seem to ring incessantly, no matter the time of day or night. And where everything you love and hate seems to exist in some sort of comfortable chaos.
That was the first time I learned that "home" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. To Chris "Old Man" Luedecke, for example, home is babies growing up too fast and a wife who only gets more wonderful as the years go on. Home is a rustic, quiet existence, filled with the sounds of coffee percolating, stories of true love being told around the dinner table, and, of course, the non-stop plucking and strumming of banjo strings.
For his new recording 'Domestic Eccentric,' Old Man Luedecke invited one of his musical heroes, Tim O'Brien, to his hand-crafted cabin in the woods of Nova Scotia. The two spent some time pondering the meanings of home and family and good music. Other friends gradually joined in - some in that cabin and some in other cities - and the end result is what Old Man Luedecke describes as "a rich portrait of personal friendships." From the listener's point of view, it's also a rich sonic portrait with each musician getting a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.
From the opening track "Yodelady" (which is really a love song that, yes, includes yodeling) through "The Briar and the Rose" and the oh-so-poignant "The Early Days," and winding up at the final track, "Happy Ever After," we get a very clear picture about the most important people and experiences in Old Man Luedecke's life.
If you think about it, it's really quite gracious of him to give us this personal glimpse of what makes his life tick - and it sure doesn't hurt that the musicianship surrounding these intensely individual revelations and observations is incredible. Banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass and drums - it all serves to underscore what's most important to this banjo savant from Nova Scotia. And that, of course, is his home.
'Domestic Eccentric' is due out on July 24 via True North Records, and is availabe now for pre-order at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Sometimes, no matter how much you love a place, no matter how deeply it seems to speak to you, no matter how much it seems like home, it's simply not the right place for you. And sometimes, the healthiest thing you can do is pack up, put your boots on and leave to make a new home somewhere else. That's the realization Eilen Jewell came to awhile back. And that's what inspired her to write "Rio Grande," which you'll find on her new album 'Sundown Over Ghost Town.'
Jewell describes the album as a whole as "very autobiographical." And it's true - there are lots of personal reflections and introspective musings throughout. The real beauty of this recording, however, lies in Jewell's ability to take what's relevant to her life and turn it into something that's relevant to the lives of anyone who chooses to listen.
"Rio Grande" is a perfect example of the personal becoming universal. After all, who among us has not had the experience of longing for and despising a place at the same time? You know: that push-pull-back-forth-I-want-it-no-I-don't kind of feeling - we've all experienced it. And through the spaghetti western-esque stylings of Eilen Jewell, guitar master Jerry Miller and trumpeter Jack Gardner, we get to experience it again, this time from the outside looking in.
The video perfectly highlights that feeling, too. Shots of Jewell and the band, nearly expressionless, interspersed with landscapes that look bright and dull at the same time, that seem beautiful and desolate all at once, only serve to emphasize the contradiction she feels - I love this place so much, I want so badly to be happy and healthy here...and, sadly, it just isn't right.
'Sundown Over Ghost Town' is out now on Signature Sounds Records, and is available here at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:58 PM
A Q & A and Video Premiere: The Earnest Lovers - 'San Andreas' Fault'
When Pete Krebs and Leslie Beia came together as Earnest Lovers, it was a meeting of both minds and hearts. Musically, they shared a passion for classic country. Romantically, they shared a passion for each other. You don't have to look very far back in the lineage to find myriad tellings of the very same tale in Johnny and June, Dolly and Porter, George and Tammy. Krebs and Beia, though, found each other and their sound in Portland, not Nashville. Still, their EP, 'Sing Sad Songs,' could have come just as easily from the rolling hills of Tennessee, as it did the urban environs of Oregon. It's a classic collection for the modern age.
Kelly McCartney: The Earnest Lovers had an auspicious start, right? Something about a ring of fire and a winning lottery ticket? Story please.
Pete Krebs: Our first night performing together ended at about 6 am, after a night of drinking whiskey and playing songs around the fire (built inside of an old washing machine liner) in Leslie's back yard. A few hours later, we woke to a rush of feet, cursing, and someone yelling, "Call the fire department!!!" Our fire, which we thought we had extinguished fully, had smoldered, heated back up again, and burned a perfect circle through her back deck and was working on the supports underneath. This is a very awkward way to meet someone's roommates, let me tell you.
Our first weekly gig together was at a place called the Gold Dust Meridian, which we still play every Wednesday (when we're in town). That first night, a guy came up and put three lottery tickets in the tip jar. We got home and tossed them on the kitchen ledge and forgot about them for a few weeks. We finally got around to looking at them more closely and, since they were scratch-offs, each took one. Neither were winners, but the third one, we shared. We won $100 and instantly had a band fund!
Tell me about some of your favorite classic country duets and what makes them so special.
Leslie Beia: There's something very special about husband/wife duos that I find fascinating. Although the best performers, like Dolly and Porter, sing magically together and play the part on stage, there's something else at work when the relationship is both personal and professional. It's like sister or brother harmony: You can come very, very close to approximating it, but there's just this other level that can only be reached through a certain depth of familiarity.
I sometimes watch old George and Tammy videos and try to imagine what they were really feeling for each other on stage, knowing there was so much chaos behind the scenes. Sometimes she looks like she's about ready to strap him to an anvil and send him over! Pete and I are enjoying this grand adventure together with all the layers. It's a lot of work, but there's a richness we get to experience that hopefully informs the music. And to date, no one has yet purchased an anvil... so far so good!
Obviously, three chords and the truth factor in, but how do you craft new songs that sound classic and timeless?
PK: The classic country music that we love is deceptively simple music. It often deals with very complicated subjects that are communicated or implied in such a way that the underlying, deeper story is made as human as possible, and is thus very inclusive. "She Thinks I Still Care," recorded by George Jones, is a great example of this. So much is left unsaid, but the deeper story is crystal clear.
When we write our original tunes, we try to write about things we know and care about, and pay a great deal of attention to nuance and language, framing them inside the familiar sounds of classic country music that we love. The result, hopefully, reflects that deceptive simplicity which holds a deep story.
Portland doesn't seem like a honky tonk town. What's that scene like there?
PK: Portland has a historically strong traditional country music heritage that might not seem apparent at first. Willie Nelson lived here, playing the local honky tonks and DJing at a radio station in neighboring Vancouver, Washington. During the '40s and '50s, we had some of the biggest country music dance halls on the West Coast. The scene was huge thanks to the Kaiser shipyards located here during the war, which attracted thousand and thousands of workers from Texas, Oklahoma, and the Southern states. After the war was over, a lot of them stayed and the music remained strong for decades.
We're lucky to have several venues that feature country music exclusively (or at least frequently), and a pool of world-class musicians to draw from. While there's certainly a lot of modern country fans around, we have a great scene which loves and embraces the older sounds of classic country music of the '40s, '50s, and '60s.
You and Pete -- and your players -- all dress the part for gigs. Does that help summon the proper spirit?
PK: We think it's nice to get decked out when we perform because it adds something special, visually, to the show and because, back in the day, the performers seemed to always make a point of looking sharp. It's debatable whether or not songs of heartbreak and loss translate better when you're looking fancy, but it can't hurt (no pun intended).
The Earnest Lovers new EP, 'Sing Sad Songs' is out now via Elko Records, and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 5:41 PM
Online Benefit for Emanuel AME Church via Concert Window
July 10, 2015
Peter Mulvey is organizing an online benefit concert via Concert Window for the Emanuel AME Church, featuring Mulvey, Pamela Means, Vance Gilbert, Peter Yarrow and more special guests to be announced.
Pay what you can and tune in Sunday, July 12 at 3pm EDT - HERE.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:19 AM
An Exclusive Interview with Peter Mulvey - 'Take Down Your Flag'
In response to the Charleston, SC shootings, Milwaukee singer-songwriter, Peter Mulvey, has found himself at the forefront of a folk musicians' movement with his protest song "Take Down Your Flag". The song began as a simple request for the South Carolina government to take the confederate flag down to half-staff in the wake of the massacre, in which 9 black Americans were gunned down in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mulvey wrote one verse of the song and then asked other folk musicians to write 8 more verses, one for each victim. Since the song's posting online, over 200 verses have been written by songwriters like Ani Difranco, Melissa Ferrick, Anais Mitchell, Vance Gilbert, Mark Erelli and many more.
On June 30th - two weeks after the shootings - Peter Mulvey took the time to talk to Folk Alley about "Take Down Your Flag".
Cindy Howes: You wrote the song "Take Down Your Flag" in response to the Charleston, SC shootings on June 17. When did you actually write the song?
Peter Mulvey: I wrote the song in the dressing room, next to Ani Difranco, underneath the Calvin Theater in Northampton, on Friday June 19. I wrote it about a half hour before I went on stage, it took ten minutes.
Can you explain the moment that you were moved to write it?
It was the two days of talking. The shootings, I found out about them Wednesday night, Thursday I spent the day alone and hanging out with Pamela Means. She and I are Milwaukee ex-patriots, although I have since moved back. We've been talking about race for 25 years, she's of mixed race and we have our own stories. Then I talked to Ani and her band members before our show. Then I wrote the song just before the show. What led up to it was 25 years, actually 40 years, of thinking about this and then two days of conversation and then it was all distilled in ten minutes.
How did you come up with the idea of using other songwriters to add their own verse? Why was it important for other songwriters to add their voice and verses?
There's only so much one song can do, and the only verse I wrote which mentioned any of the victims was a verse for Susie Jackson because I was appalled that an 87-year old person could be murdered. I wrote a verse only for her as sort of a window to get into this tragedy. A fan of mine wrote and asked if I was going to write 8 more verses (for each of the victims). At that moment, a friend called and ask to cover the song. I said "Fine, but write another verse." Then Pamela Means, Ani Difranco, Erin Mckeown, Melissa Ferrick, Birds of Chicago, Paula Cole and many others have all written a verse. Jeff Daniels, the actor, told me he wrote a verse, but hasn't recorded it yet. This has kind of gotten out from under me.
Whose verses have you been surprised the most by?
Vance Gilbert. I wrote to him at one o'clock in the morning on Saturday. He told me he would do it the next morning, but then he got out of bed and wrote a verse right that moment. He sent it to me by 3 in the morning. He chose Dylan Roof as his victim. He chose the shooter as his victim. That surprised me and then what startled me more is when I wrote to him "That's an Olympic level amount of forgiveness," he wrote back and said "No. It's a verse in a song. Forgiveness is a process and I'm going to be working on it". That was a really bracing clarification of what it must feel like to have the same color skin as the people who were killed for the color of their skin and nothing more. It's like messing with the Taliban, in that; you don't even have to mess with these people for them to kill you. You can just be alive and they'll kill you for it. We who are not marked as targets, we can't know what it's like until we talk to somebody who is. That's the thing I most hope: that people will talk to each other, so they can wake up to the realities of their fellow human beings.
You told me that you only wrote one verse for "Take Down Your Flag", but in actuality, you wrote two?
Yes. I wrote a verse for Bree Newsome the incredibly brave hero who climbed that flag pole and took that flag down. She did it respectfully, with love, she had a smile on her face, and she was quoting from the bible. She and her pal who helped her, James, they didn't even let the flag touch the ground, they didn't burn it and they didn't shout profanity. They just took it down. She's made an amazing statement and she is my hero. She is in real danger now. She has messed with people who will remember her name. I am awestruck by her courage. You know, I've written a song, politicians have talked and Walmart has weighed in, but every funeral that was happening, had to happen underneath that flag. She is the only human being who has managed to give even an hour or two of relief from that small measure that must add to the pain and sorrow of those people.
The classic way of presenting a "folk protest song" is in a live setting usually feeding off the energy of other protestors (Pete Seeger, Joan Baez), but can you talk about the experience you have felt writing a protest song in 2015 and using social media as your way of spreading the word?
Yeah, it's super weird! It's super beautiful and super weird. The whole world is like this giant amalgamated, atomized, on-going concert/high school reunion. Everyone can talk to everyone in real time. I remember seeing a documentary about "We Shall Overcome" and it took months for the version to solidify, and then it swept. Now we have this weird thing where it's only been ten days and it's been sweeping, obviously a shallower version of impact within the culture, but it happens more quickly and happens in a more surreal way. I know the internet is a weird place and Facebook is a weird place, but I'm glad to see this song get out there. The first inkling of how powerful this stuff was for me was The Arab Spring and The Black Lives Matter moment. Some of the central figures, Deray McKesson and Netta Elzie, their work is almost exclusively on Twitter. It's amazing what they are accomplishing. They are holding to the fire, the President of the United States of America and twitter is allowing them to do this. It's just head spinning how everything has changed. I think it's changing for the good.
What is the next step for "Take Down Your Flag"?
We're going to be doing a benefit concert via Concert Window on July 12th in the afternoon. It'll probably start with me and probably be a rolling tag-team thing where everyone will be streaming on their feeds. The idea is to raise money. I did an impromptu one with almost no promotion on a hotel room on Friday night and about 50 people watched and donated $700 to the Emanuel Hope Fund which was immensely soothing to all the heartache here. I'm hoping we can raise thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars. There are so many bereft children here who are going to need braces and tuition and probably therapy. The last funeral happens this Thursday when Rev. Simmons is laid to rest in Colombia. Then everyone's just gotta walk through the alien landscape of loss and we have to help them. It's just imperative that we help them.