Here's a potpourri of stuff that came through my physical and virtual mailboxes. I call them "Hits" and "Misses."
Boston-born Tracy Bonham has been around since the mid-90s–long enough to garner a few Grammy and MTV nominations and secure a middling hit with her 1996 single "Mother Mother." She's sometimes called a "post-grunge rocker," probably because she's wowed audiences with a stripped down cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire." I certainly would not apply that description for her new CD Wax & Gold. Most of its tunes fall into a cross-genre seam contains pop sensibilities, the vocal stylings of alt.country, and the melodic structure of folk. Speaking of the latter, listen to "Love, Love, Love," which has the feel of a mid-60s folk song. Then listen to Donovan's "Catch the Wind" and you'll find the melody of Bonham's verses echo it. I have no idea if that was intentional and the rest of the song is quite different, but my point is that there's decidedly a folk vibe at play were. And a country vibe as well. There's quite a bit of twang in her voice and when she climbs into the upper ranges—which she does to great effect on "Black Tears"–in which she warbles on the edge of a yodel. There's also plenty of country giddyup to the title track and Kevin Salem's jangly guitar. One of the more intriguing songs is "Luck," another one of those in-the-seam songs. It's a lullaby filtered through darkness courtesy of some grungy bass from Mike DuClos, some down-and-dirty swing from Salem's electric guitar, and Bonham's own hints-of-danger vocals. Those who've heard previous Bonham releases will find Wax & Gold stripped down by comparison. It suits.
Sam Gleaves is both talented and a man with courage of heart and convictions. America has changed a lot in the past few decades, but it's fair to say that there are still a lot of places where being gay is harder than others. Gleaves' Ain't We Brothers takes the LGBTQ agenda into the heart of the Southern Appalachians. His music is rooted in old-time and bluegrass music, so here's hoping that singing the region's language produces the tolerance for which he pleas. When he sings a song such as "My Dixie Darling," he's not singing about a calico-clad lass waiting on the front porch. I'll admit that it's jarring to hear him sing an unbridled love song to another man—not because I disapprove, but because I'm used to hearing country and bluegrass singers croon nostrums about "traditional values," whatever the hell they are. Gleaves also wears his blue-collar roots on his sleeve. "Working Shoes" is a backwoods paean to a poor miner, his grandfather, with all of life's hardships worn into the leathery cracks. And what if that miner is gay, a question he raises on the title track: First things first, I'm a blue collar man/Scrapes on my knuckles and dust on my hands/Probably wouldn't have known/ I've got a man waiting on me at home. Later on he sings, I was born here just the same as you/ Another time, another day/I'm sure the good Lord took his time/ Making each of us just this way/I walked beside you step by step/ And it never crossed my mind/That I would grow up one of the different kind. Then the plea: "But ain't we brothers?" Most of the songs on the album are, in some form or other, about different kinds of love: same-sex love, love of the South, love of humanity…. Can Sam Gleaves melt the hearts of self-styled good ole' boys? Why not? This dude has serious talent: a nice mountain voice and wizardry on banjo, flattop guitar, fiddle, autoharp, and dulcimer. Who cares if the calico lass is a jeans-clad working man?
The Texas-based country rock band Green River Ordinance has been kicking around long enough to have a few hit singles such as "Come On" (2009) and "On Your Own" (2010). Its most recent album, Chasing Down the Wind, is a good reason to check them out if you're not familiar. Josh Jenkins is a classic country rock vocalist–he has the chops of an arena rock singer, but leavened with Fort Worth twang and the ability to be smooth and gentle when needs arise. "She's In the Air" is simply a really great love song and finds the right seam between power, passion, and yearning. It's also different than the band's usual (and winning) formula of beginning songs quietly then using Geoff Ice's bass and Denton Hunter's drum to produce a thumping pulse to segue into more robust arrangements. You'll probably also appreciate how GRO eschew enigma. "It Ain't Love" is immediately decoded with the line "If it can't break your heart;" just as "Ain't Afraid of Dying" explains why: "Because I've truly lived." There's much to be said for hooks that work and theirs do.
I loved November, the 2013 release by Grace & Tony, but am not a fan of their latest, Phantasmagoric. Tony White is an admitted refugee of the punk rock scene, so I expect his projects to wander into some dark places. Phantasmagoric, however, is relentlessly macabre and lacks the sunny interludes of November. It is also odd–and not in a good way. Tony & Grace indulge their love of creepy masters such as H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, and Stephen King, but they do so on an album that's a Southern Gothic version of rock opera meets Sweeney Todd. In fact, "Sweeney Todd" directly inspired the song "Invitation to an Autopsy". While I'd much rather hear Grace sing than Helena Bonham Carter, the material echoes too closely the histrionic style of stage productions. Most of the rest of the album mines from spooky pits as well: "Lullaby of Red Death" parallels the Ebola crisis, "Adam of Labour" takes the point of view of Frankenstein's monster, and both "The Marsh Prologue" and "A Lot Dies Today" draw upon Stephen King. You know you're in for a bumpy ride when an instrumental titled "A Fever on the Cthula Queen" is among the more upbeat selections—its mix of genteel and macabre is as ambiguous as Lovecraft's imagined terrors. Monsters, murderers, plagues, and suicides don't make for fuzzy feelings. I've no problem with grim material, but the project feels like music written for a stage show for which actors, costumes, scenery, and script have yet to be chosen. One must also wonder about the choice of making what is, in essence, a concept album in the age of single-song downloads.
When I was a teen, I was involved with a Christian youth group. We sang religious songs, but we also had a songbook filled with current and recent pop, folk, and rock tunes deemed angelic enough for our ears. It may have been the last time in which I heard religious music that was remotely contemporary. I will give some credit to Strahan; his Feel the Night is only a few decades out of date. The New Zealand-based Strahan calls himself a "modern psalmist" and his songs "folk theology," but neither is entirely accurate. His music is heavy on Meatloaf/Michael Bolton-like power ballads. That would make them "pop/rock theology" in my book. And it's straight out of the 1980s.