New and Upcoming Releases: McNary, Dillingham, Phillips, Bridges, Freakwater

Those looking for material for a tragic novel could do worse than borrow from the biography of Tim McNary: raised in a cheerless Chicago evangelical home, a bout of homelessness, two band breakups, depression, and the theft of his van and all of his equipment…. At the very least you could get some good country music out of that. And he has—his forthcoming EP Above the Trees resulted from a move to Nashville and catharsis with guitar and pen. His voice has been compared to that of Damien Rice and that's a pretty good analogy in that both are capable of high-level drama and low-level pain. The vocals also evoke Richard Shindell's mix of reedy and guttural tones. My favorite track is "The Other Man," a song about the proverbial third wheel in a doomed triad: You've got another man… and I don't give a damn/I'm the one loving you now. Now if that's not a country song, I don't know what is. In style, though, McNary is more on the acoustic end of things, with flights into theatrical and robust arrangements. The EP releases April 8, but you can sample tracks now at Noisetrade.

All I can tell you about Dillingham is that it's an acoustic rock band based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The lead singer, Tucker MacDonald, sounds as if he might be English. Apparently the entire for-sale output is three tracks available for download. I liked all three. "Chicago" has the sad feel of a man pouring out his sorrows at a 2 am cafĂ© as an accordion squeezes out the pain. "Night Run" is a different thing altogether—a metronome-like beat, some acoustic guitar playing over it, and vocals on, in-between, and behind the beat. The lyrics aren't really the point; it's more like being washed in sound. "Ships" features very strong vocals from a very fine singer, whoever he might be. Go to your favorite download site, sample these, and see if one makes you want to shell out a buck. It's worth it. Now enough with the mystery. Who are these folks?

I haven't heard the whole thing yet, but I'm hopeful that the new release from Grant-Lee Phillips titled The Narrows will return him to the promise of the early 1990s, when he toured with (and as) Grant Lee Buffalo and caught to praiseful notice of Michael Stipe (R.E.M.). His more recent solo work has been good, but lacks variety. At his best, his high tones are reminiscent of Neil Young with some of the rawness smoothed out, but an overabundance of slow-paced material borders on the laconic. But "Smoke and Sparks" from the new record lives up to its title. The circular strumming of the guitar is robust and his Young-like voice is dotted with colors and mannerisms that are like Springsteen in a country mode. I'm hopeful there will more of this.  

Speaking of Young, an outfit calling itself Bridges is actually Athens, Georgia-based Alex Young and some sidekicks. Their debut EP Bridges has a sort of Dave Matthews vibe to both Young's voice and the way in which songs begin one way and veer off in other directions. Bridges are a bit grittier, though. A favored technique, which we hear on the song "Young," is to open slow and mournful then segue to some crunchy power chords. This song has a bit of rock opera drama to it—as does "Stand Up, Fall Down"–but others spin differently. "No Ordinary Night" is a Van Morrison-like song with its jazzy horns and soulful grooves, yet the punfully named "Saxy" uses the same horns to deliver the power jazz/progressive rock of bands like Jon Hiseman's Colosseum. And then there's the heavy metal-meets-country "Departure (Yours)," whose very title lets us know a happy ending is unlikely. This one is another pay-what-you-wantdownload and its five tracks are well worth a few bucks.

The Louisville-based band Freakwater has been around since 1989 and I still can't figure out what I think about them. They have a nice recording titled Scheherazade (Bloodstone Records) that will either be your cup of tea or send you running for a beer. The first thing you need to know about this band is that they specialize in dissonance. The harmonies between Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin are, depending upon your point of view, raw, twangy mountain at their unfiltered and honest best; or Emmylou Harris on a dead drunk. I sampled "The Asp and theAlbatross," which has fine backing electric instrumentation, and the backwoodsy "Number One with a Bullet," a dark song done as if it were a two-step. Each has its appeal as alt.country living up to its label. There aren't many bands with such unusual vocals, so you can be excused if you think Freakwater is best imbibed in small sips, not big gulps. They're worth a taste test, though.

Rob Weir

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