February Music Cleanout: McKay, Steep Canyon, Motsenbocker, Covenhoven, Wainwright, Trojano


Three words to remember: John Griffin McKay. His American Fantasy (Noisetrade) is a small masterpiece that captured me with its opening lines: Don't want to read another novel/About the story of a man/How he loaded up his rifle/And brought peace throughout the land/Don't want a Holy Ghost revival/Made by the greediness of man/It's not about the soul's survival/But the money in your hand. McKay hails from Waco, Texas, but he's having nothing to do with country music clich├ęs, faux morality, or nostrums. His style is acoustic country with occasional rock interludes, but his lyrical sensibility put me in mind of artists such as Ari Hest and David Ramirez, who write songs for adults. McKay calls himself "a broken man writing songs for broken people" and we certainly hear that in quiet dark songs such as "Poison in Our Veins," or in the thick bass/crunchy power chord rock of "Lay Down Your Gun." Yet there's also a sweetness to much of McKay's music–the gentle acoustic backing to "The Pain's Right Here," the ringing harmonics of "More Than Living," and the memorable hooks of "Before I Sleep," the last with the poignant line: If hope is where the heart is/Then I'm a hopeless wanderer. You simply must check out the deliberately paced 6:32 title track, which is heavy on atmospherics and is deliciously enigmatic. I have a feeling we'll be hearing more from this artist.

Naming a favorite bluegrass band these days is about as easy as choosing a favorite flavor at a Ben & Jerry's scoop shop, but I'll take a big dish of Steep Canyon Rangers any day of the week. They've got a new CD, On the Radio (Rounder) that exudes why so many of us love this band. There is, first of all, the refreshing honesty of the title track, which admits they're revivalists, not hillbillies from the hollows: I was raised on the sound of the radio/When I need to go back, I turn it up loud/And I'm ready to go. Then there are the polished lead vocals of Woody Platt that are all about the melody, not putting on an affected twang. "Blue Velvet Rain" is simply a great tune and it's made all the more so by Mike Guggino's sizzling mando licks. If you'd prefer a foot-stomper, try "Nobody Knows You," with breakout banjo from Graham Sharp and Nicky Sanders adding fiery fiddle while Charles Humphrey (bass) and Mike Ashworth (box percussion) establish such solid foundations that neither Sharp nor Sanders can knock them down. Or maybe you want some gospel evocations ("Stand and Deliver"). This band is flat-out great.

Tyler Motsenbocker has a new CD about to release and if it's anything like his 2013 EP Rivers and Roads (Tooth & Nail) it will be a cause for celebration. In the interim, Rivers and Roads is yours to download for a tip, and you can sample it first just to make sure it's your cup of tea: http://www.tysonmotsenbocker.com/listen/ Motsenbacker hails from Washington State, but hit the road when his mother died and hiked the coast south to California, where he now resides. Along the way he used his pen to work out some grief, identity issues, and values. Motsenbacker generally works with a resonant acoustic guitar and had a voice that at times has smoothness evocative of a youthful Phil Ochs. This is especially true on "Path in the Weeds." It, like other introspective songs such as "I Still Have to Go," explores the tension between longings for home and the realization that the answers to vaguely defined questions lie elsewhere. There's an impressive amount of stylistic variety on this five-track collection–everything from the crestfallen vocal/sparse piano "Blink Behind the Leaves" to the thick arrangement of "Footfalls," the latter a real crowd pleaser that's the optimistic antidote to melancholy : Open your eyes you're alive/Another fine night near the ocean/Please don't cry, it's alright/You're always going to be my darling.    

It might sound pretentious for a solo artist to have his own band name, but Covenhoven makes a lot of sense when you learn that it's the name of a cabin built deep in the Wyoming woods by Joel Van Horne's grandfather. The Wild and Free pays homage to the big spaces that make us both wistful and humble. Van Horne calls his style "symphonic folk," by which he means the arrangements are lush and haunting. Although he's sometimes compared to Bon Iver, to me the album felt like a folked-down version of Snow Patrol, especially in the ways Van Horne's seamless waves of sound soothe and cleanse. Nothing is rushed, lest something important be lost. On the title track, we find Van Horne walking his inner child down the trails of time; in "Blind Spots" he sings:  With our pains replaced with scars/Like planes mistaken for the stars/We set out hungry like borrowed drifter's appetite–his prescription for seeking things not yet discovered. The Wild and Free put me in mind of an Epicurean perambulating through the woods in pursuit of the wisdom that comes from syncing nature and desire.      

Not My Cuppa Tea

Biology is destiny when it comes to the vocal abilities of anyone born into the extended McGarrigle/Wainwright clan. That said, the appeal of Rufus Wainwright eludes me and his Live at Coventry download didn't change my mind. He has written operas and theater pieces that are, in a nutshell, what I don't like about his music. Live at Coventry finds Wainwright behind the piano—especially the bright keys. There's no doubt he's a superb vocalist, but the current repertoire is cabaret-style garish and overwrought. Wainwright has adoring fans and has added new ones since he has come out as gay, but there's a sense of trying too hard to prove his gay cred—right down to affected feyness. Mostly, though, the songs I sampled–"Poses," "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," and "Foolish Love"–are all-atmosphere-no-substance forgettable, as background piano bar music tends to be. 

Sometimes a new CD arrives by an artist about whom there I some buzz. I listen, shrug, and move on. I've had people whose views I respect tell me about Zak Trojano and I can hear potential, but his CD, Yesterday's Sun (WhistlePig Records), sounded homespun and not in a good way. A few tracks caught my attention, like "Get Me Right," but I'm pretty sure I've heard its central lick in an old country song whose title I can't recall. Another one I liked was the folky "Long Black Vine." For me, though, Trojano's folk songs lack sweetness, his blues lack grit, the vocals are inconsistent, the guitar's bass notes need more contrasting treble, and the production is muddy. 

Rob Weir

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