Sunday, November 17, 2019

Record Roundup: American Harvest

It’s at this time of the year, when the dark falls early and the sweet aroma of dead leaves is joined by the smoky hint of fireplaces being put to first use, that you may seek the sounds of that elusive genre known as Americana and other folk and country infused music. As I did in last year’s Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana, here’s a quick roundup of albums and EP’s that fit the bill - all of them, except for one spectacular reissue, recent releases. Like the earlier post, a playlist is included for your listening pleasure. This time I’ve put it at the top so you can press “play” and then read along.

Hiss Golden Messenger - Terms Of Surrender For someone who crafts emotionally resonant lyrics sometimes informed by great literature, it should never be forgotten that M.C. Taylor’s best work is often accompanied by a wicked backbeat. It’s that groove that drew me into Lateness Of Dancers, the masterpiece that was my gateway drug into his wonderful oeuvre - it was also my number one album of 2014. Drummer Matt McCaughan is an essential part of that hypnotic rhythm and he is in such fantastic form on Terms Of Surrender that it might have been my favorite Hiss album since Lateness even if the songs weren’t so terrific. But they are: richly melodic ruminations on family, work, and the endless conflicting demands between the two. Granted, these are the rows Taylor has been hoeing for some time, but the heat has brought that familiar pot to a rolling boil. Even if you didn’t know Taylor was writing himself out of a dark year, you would feel his burning need to get to the light. The production overall is also fantastic, burnished to a 70’s FM radio sheen yet not sanding down some of those eccentricities that made the early Hiss albums so striking, mixing dub and Appalachian folk into a distinctive blend on tracks like Cat’s Eye Blue and Whip. Guitar/keys/harmonica polymath Phil Cook and his brother, bassist Brad Cook, are no doubt worthy of our gratitude for much of what sounds so wonderful. Finally, it must be said that Taylor’s voice has never sounded better, one benefit of all those nights on the road, singing for his family and wishing he were with them. Concert dates are here.

Tyler Ramsey - For The Morning It’s been eight years since the last album by this fine singer-songwriter so if his name is familiar it’s likely you noticed it in the credits on an album by Band Of Horses, with whom he was active until 2017. Those years were probably good for his craft, not only to hone it but to focus him on what was important just to him, rather than the compromises of being in a band. The sound he has settled on is rich with layered guitars and loaded with atmosphere, surrounding his high, clear tenor and supporting songs that take hard-won personal truths and transmute them into the universal. For The Morning is an involving listen and a great return to solo work for this indie stalwart.

Elana Low - Loam These three haunting songs are a wonderful calling card for Low’s monolithic brand of dark folk, which finds her honeyed contralto accompanied by the mesmerizing drone of her harmonium. The self-penned tunes seem to come from the earth itself, with melodies the ancients would recognize and claw back as their own. Low is channeling something very special, creating a mood which is nicely reflected in the handmade packaging for the CD. So order one up and see if you don’t put it on repeat while idly checking her website and counting the days until you can see her in concert and take a deeper drink from her river of song.

Andy Jenkins - The Garden Opens A great song tells a story through its melody and chord changes as much as its lyrics. On these four sweet numbers, from the finger-picked wonders of Starfish Fever to the wry self-deprecation of Don’t Dance, Jenkins once again proves his mastery of the form. After having his debut album, Sweet Bunch, on repeat for much of 2018, what a delight it is to have more from Jenkins!

Ryley Walker and Charles Rumback - Little Common Twist Walker is a supremely talented acoustic guitarist, one of the best around, and a reliably witty Twitter presence. However, our interests have diverged, especially on the lyrical front, since the gloriously sun-dappled jazz-folk of Primrose Green in 2015. But I’ve always kept a close eye, seeking that album’s warmth and depth. Somehow I missed Walker’s first collaboration with avant-jazz drummer Rumback (Cannots from 2016) but I am fully on board for this one. Little Common Twist finds the duo in symbiotic pursuit of texture, melody, and emotion, each making ideal use of their instruments. But there is no sense of display, just the creation of an immersive little universe in sound, and one to which I look forward to returning often.

John Calvin Abney - Safe Passage It may seem a damning with faint praise to focus first on the frame rather than the picture, but Abney devises such perfect settings for each of his songs that I am compelled to mention the production on this album right up front. The first song, I Just Want To Feel Good, has the sense of an overture, just two finger-picked guitars and the chorus plainly stated like a mantra. Kind Days follows and the details keep adding to the atmosphere, whether the yearning pedal steel or the shimmering vibraphone. Both of those are played by Abney as well, proving he can take care of himself when it comes to executing his ideas. He does get help from others, however, including Shonna Tucker on bass, Will Johnson on drums, Megan Palmer on violin and organ, and John Moreland on guitars. Abney has always been a good singer but here he seems even more comfortable with his warm burr, using it to transit a wide array of emotions, including the sly digs of Honest Liar, just one standout track. Words like “reliable” and “craftsmanship” come to mind when I think of Abney - but don’t take them the wrong way. It just means that he puts in the work so you can have something to depend on in this wayward world - and that’s not something I take for granted.

Courtney Hartman - Ready Reckoner Between you, me, and the lamppost, one reason I like being friends with musicians is because they often clue me into great sounds. That’s how I found Hartman - I was instantly sold when Richard Aufrichtig shared a snippet in an Instagram story. While this is her debut solo album, it comes after wending her way through the both the world of modern bluegrass with the band Della Mae and the back roads of Spain. In fact she wrote some of these songs while hiking the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, the “road of Saint James” that has taken pilgrims to Santiago de Campostela in Galicia for centuries. But the sound she lays down here, much of it driven by her adventurous acoustic guitar, full of woodsy and percussive sounds, feels purely American. It’s only natural that one of her collaborators is Bill Laswell, that master of shimmer and smoke in jazz-infused guitar tones. Their duet on Neglect is deeply moving - and it’s an instrumental. Co-producer Shahzad Ismaily also serves Hartman well, conjuring a warm and spacious surrounding that allows her music to breathe. Her versatile voice ranges from a flighty head sound to a rich mezzo, employed especially effectively on Koyaanisqatsi - bet you weren’t expecting that song title! Just another surprise on this exquisitely crafted and deeply personal album.

Jonathan Wilson - ‘69 Corvette Speaking of “personal,” the title track of Wilson’s new EP takes us on a journey back to where he came from - North Carolina - in a tapestry of music that seems to coalesce under a porch light with a foggy forest as a backdrop. Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian fiddle speaks as profoundly as the lyrics. Whether this is a dalliance away from Wilson’s typically more progressive work, the EP’s two other countrified tracks, make the idea of more of this quite appealing indeed.

Molly Sarlé - Karaoke Angel Sarlé is one third of Mountain Man, the Appalachian-influenced vocal group that also includes Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Meath. While still full of folky chord changes and turnarounds, Sarlé’s own songs mine more of a 70’s pop-rock ethos, aided by a highly detailed production by Sam Evian. But the songs, which convey the thrills and pitfalls of freedom and self-discovery with poetic universality, could stand on their own easily. I’ve always found Mountain Man, though technically impressive, somewhat impenetrable and cloying but Sarlé on her own is a treasure. If you find your way to this album, you will likely hold it close.

Daughter Of Swords - Dawnbreaker This is the name Alexandra Sauser-Monnig chose to symbolize newfound freedom as a songwriter and solo performer away from Mountain Man. Maybe there's a deep message that both she and Sarlé have songs called Human on their debut albums, but I'd prefer to let each occupy its own little plot of land. Dawnbreaker, in any case, is far more of a mood piece than Karaoke Angel, with its ten tracks blending almost seamlessly into a single statement. There's nothing monotonous about it, however, as strong melodies and varied textures abound and each song is a tidy shadowbox of memory and hope.

Tate McLane - Jackpine Savage I found this album when I was looking for something entirely different but I was tempted to give it a try and found myself listening to the whole thing. McLane powers his raspy voice over chugging-train guitars or sweet picking with the gusto of a busker still trying to raise enough to get a cup of coffee and get out of the cold. Personality and passion combine to put over these tunes, which might sound overly familiar in other hands.

Rebecca Turner - The New Wrong Way Full disclosure: I know Turner and my saying nice things about her new album is in no way related to any kind of guilt over my topping her in Words With Friends at a rate of two games to one. It is what it is. But while I can hit a 100-pointer on the triple word score, I certainly can't write a song like Turner - not many can. She manages to find deeply personal little details and turn them into songs so relatable you'll think these things happened to you, like this from Water Shoes: "I borrowed your shoes, and my happiness hovered on the surface of the water." While her voice has its quirks, listening to her delicately swinging take on the old standard, Tenderly, clues you into her solid craft as a singer. Produced by Turner with Scott Anthony, with some of the recording taking place at Memphis's legendary Ardent studios, the sound is warm and inviting, like a house concert to which you'd feel lucky get invited. Give this a listen - you might just feel like you've found a new friend.

Wilco - Ode To Joy There are parts of this album that seem enervated, sere, and barely able to get out of bed, with Jeff Tweedy's voice barely above a whisper and all the instruments taking a back seat to Glenn Kotche's trudging, implacable drums. Depending on my mood, those moments either have me thinking, "C'mon, dudes, get moving! We have things to do! What's wrong with you?" or "Seriously, guys, I get you. And you get me. Thank you for understanding!" We are living in an era of high anxiety and Tweedy is nothing if not a divining rod of the cultural moment. So, sure, this may not be the Wilco album you wanted (which could have been a punchy kick in the pants like Star Wars or an album full of Mondays), but it just might be the Wilco album you need. Either way, listen carefully and you will hear all kinds of comforting Wilco-isms, from the melodies of Everybody Hides and Love Is Everywhere (Beware) to the angular freakout at the end of We Were Lucky or Hold Me Anyway's triple guitars. And if you remain disappointed in Ode To Joy, it's likely the next album will be completely different and hit you where you live the way this one does for me.

Gene Clark - No Other (Deluxe Edition) Gram Parsons was famous for calling his signature blend of country, folk, and soul "cosmic American music." On No Other, Clark, a founding member of The Byrds, almost went Parsons one better by adding funk into the mix. I say "almost" because the funkiest takes of the album's eight songs, cooked up with collaborator Thomas Jefferson Kaye (himself worthy of further investigation), were never released - until now. Disc two of this deluxe reissue comprises a fully alternate version of the album that is arguably superior to what originally came out in 1974 - and if you know how good THAT album is, you will be running to your computer or local record store to get your hands on this. Granted, the clavinet and conga jams Kaye and Clark consigned to the vault were probably too ahead of their time and outside of what people expected to have had any success back then. Then again, considering the fact that Asylum records buried the album because label head David Geffen was pissed that his $100K budget yielded so few songs, part of me thinks, "What if they had gone for broke?" In any case, now we have this embarrassment of riches, which fits in with the other artists on this list with astonishing ease. If No Other hasn't already been in your rotation as a classic album of the 70's, get to it now - it may just help define your current decade in music.

You may also enjoy:
Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana
Autumn Albums, Part 1
Autumn Albums, Part 2
Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood
New Americana, Part 1: Phil Cook
New Americana, Part 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon

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