Cameron Johnson, Brooke Annibale, Keith Sykes, The Baboons

Looking for some gristle and muscle? Try Rogers, Arkansas-based Cameron Johnson, whose Stack Your Stones EP lifts a few boulders. He's a man with a rich baritone voice, an acoustic guitar, and flair for telling tales about people who may or may not be making bad decisions. Give him a percussionist, a bass player with the chops of Brad Berge, soulful backup singers like Angel Snow and Marcia Ware, and crank up the down-and-dirty. Berge's bass is so heavy on "Til I Can't Anymore" that it's like a bump-and-grind at a biker bar. "Crooked Bangs," which generated some online buzz, features  Johnson's wry commentary and sense of country rock blues. It's about a man hell-bent for a woman from whom he knows he ought to walk away. How about this line: She drinks like Hemingway on a Tuesday night. It begins with some off-kilter beats akin to a Suitcase Junket setup, and then evolves into something reminiscent of a 40s-style string combo. I was amazed by the diversity of the EP's six tracks. "On My Own" is rootsy, but  has muscular kitchen-sink jumps with a bit of everything thrown in the mix: drums that thump and crash, pulsing strings, gritty vocal, meaty bass lines…. But then there's "In The Winter Time," a sensitive love song in which his voice is a cross between John Gorka and Ari Hest; and "Too Long," with a folk rock groove รก la Jackson Browne. And Johnson must  get "Mannequin with aMegaphone" out there. It's the perfect song for desultory Election 2016, with cynicism oozing from every pore. He's like a bluesy, latter-day Rudy Vallee as he croons lines about mannequin-like mass-produced candidates. I'm totally stealing his line: You're playing us like we're the media's fool/Go ahead and talk all you want, but you ain't getting through. Right on, bro—but your music got through loud and clear.

Some singers make you quake and some make you ache; Brooke Annibale is one of the latter. This Nashville-based Pittsburgh native has released 4 LPs and 2 EPs since 2005 and NoiseTrade is offering a collection called Retrospective for those unfamiliar with her. You may have heard her and not realized you have, as some of her songs have ended up on TV soundtracks, including "Silence WorthBreaking," which was used on ABC's "Pretty Little Liars." Annibale has a light, classically pretty voice, which is to say she's not a diva who is going to make you bolt upright. "Silence Worth Breaking" unfolds to bell-like tones. It, like all her songs, is polished, atmospheric, and well crafted. The only open question is whether or not you like this sort of treatment. My tastes run simpler, and I found some of her songs bathed in too much production. Retrospective contains two versions of "Remind Me," the first from her latest studio album The Simple Fear (2015) in which her voice mostly ornaments a thick mix. Pleasant enough, but I found the live acoustic version to be more honest and personal. A lot of her songs are about being in or out of love, so I need to hear the emotion in the voice if you want me to believe lyrics such as: just stop/connecting every dot/gave it everything I've got/we were nothing like I thought. But this is, as stated, my preference. Give a listen and see what you think.

Does the name Keith Sykes ring a bell? He's a singer/songwriter, though the emphasis is heavier on the second. More than a hundred of his offerings have been recorded, from artists ranging from Rosanne Cash and George Thorogood to Jimmy Buffett. Do you know Buffett's "Coast of Marseilles?" That's one of Sykes' tunes, an acoustic version of which you can hear on his EP Songs From a Little Beach Town (KSM Entertainment). It's six good time, easy-living songs in the country/folk/blues spirit of artists such as Buffett, of whose Coral Reefer Band Sykes was once a member. The EP opens with "Come as You Are Beach Bar," a tribute to a dive allegedly somewhere on the coast of Texas, and ends with the tongue-in-cheek "Drive Myself  to Drinking." The latter is a hilarious idea: a jilted man decides to indulge in self-destructive behavior without actually becoming self-destructive: Gonna build me a bar in the back of my car/And drive myself to drinkin' but he's not planning on putting the key into the ignition!

There are legions of Latin dance bands and it's a buyers' market as most of them are pretty much the same. I had high hopes for Spanglish (Syncopated Sounds) by The Baboons. As the title suggests, there are Spanish and English offerings, as befits a band based in Miami (and not to be confused with the Belgian rock band of that name, or Baboon, a Texas R & R outfit). Spanglish hits high notes when guitarist Isaac Rodriguez cuts loose and the brass gets funky behind him. Were there more of this I'd be happier. Lead vocalist Majica has a strong voice as well, but too much of this release falls into the same sold/same old dance groove. If you want to dance, by all means buy this. Beware, though: in the car it seems more of a pedestrian stroll than a sweaty samba.

Rob Weir

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