Musical Short Takes: Dan Bern, Eilen Jewell, Justin Earle, The Pollies

Put Dan Bern in the category of singer songwriters for whom maturity has done a world of good. Bern's music falls into a seam that's somewhere between Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen by way of Billy Bragg. In the past, his love of irony has crossed the line that separates humor and egoism, but lately his voice, instrumentation, and lyrics have dialed back the snark. This has made him more accessible and his wry commentary more incisive. He is now on tour with a recent album, Hoody (www.danbern.comwww.danbern.com) that also features his recent drift toward a more country rock feel. Check out "Lifeline," a classic piece of honky tonk: "They say I've been carousing too much/Drinking like a sailor and smoking like a Dutch…."
            Bern's current tour only has a few Northeast stops: Northampton's Parlor Room on October 11, The Winery in New York City on October 14, and Club Passim in Cambridge, MA on October18. 

Eilen Jewell is also on the road with a recent record, Sundown Over Ghost Town (Signature Sounds). Jewell hails from Idaho, but she couldn't escape comparisons to Kentuckian Loretta Lynn even if she didn't do a lot of Lynn covers. You get that same mix of honky tonk, Western swing, and controlled twang. With Jewell, even her sweet songs are tinged with a little melancholy. Sundown Over Ghost Town is classic Jewell with a few small detours like "Rio Grande," whose Mexicana flair evokes a splash of Linda Ronstadt. One of the great joys of listening to Jewell is checking out of well she works with her band. The Lynn comparisons not withstanding, the guitar arrangements make you wonder if you're listening to country folk or surf music. But, heck, I'd love this new album even if it were only for a line in "Needle in Thread" where she describes her Idaho hometown as "one horse shy of a one-horse town."  I grew 2,300 miles east of her, but I know exactly what she means.
            You can sample Eilen Jewell here

Justin Townes Earle has a recent record titled Absent Fathers (Vagrant Records), which is intended as the companion piece to his 2014 Single Mothers and is available as double album in some formats (including LP). Earle knows whereof he speaks on both issues. He is the son of country music bad boy Steve Earle and his third (of seven!) wives, who raised Justin. Justin has had his own battles with drug addiction but seems to have gotten his life back on track. For those who don't know his music, his voice is a smoother counterpart to his old man's girt and gravel and, these days at least, he's more of an acoustic blues singer than country folk. In fact, "Farther From Me" is reminiscent of Van Morrison unplugged.
           Click here for some Justin Townes Earle track. s

Is there such a category as hard soft rock? If so, let me nominate The Pollies as an exemplar of it. They've just (as in days ago) released their second record, Not Here (Single Lock Records). They hail from Alabama and I've no idea where the band name comes from, so excuse me if I make an inappropriate Hollies remark because they do indeed sport some Hollies-like harmonies, though the band with which they most compare is My Morning Jacket. The album's theme is loss—usually lost love, though it opens with "Jackson," a paean to Jimmie Lee Jackson who, in 1965 was the Michael Brown of his day: an unarmed black man murdered by an Alabama state trooper. (His death sparked the famed Selma to Montgomery march.) Most of the rest of the CD is softer in content and, occasionally, in tone and mood. The Pollies are the kind of ensemble that prefers to knock you off your pins with a soft feather—as they do on quiet songs such as "Threw It Away" or "My Darling"–but can also amp up the pace when necessary. Check out "Lost," which simultaneously swells and rocks but with controlled aggression. Like I said, hard soft rock. 
            PS: On some websites the CD name is listed as Lost, but methinks that's wrong!

Rob Weir

No comments: