A few weeks ago I had my annual you-should-have-never-let-down-your-guard colds I often get after filing my final grades with the registrar. With stuffed head and medicated body, I took a brisk walk to try to clear the cobwebs. (Full disclosure: Okay, it was actually a languorous wobble.) On my MP3 player was a download of a new singer/songwriter, Ralston Hartness, and his debut EP, Atlas (Underground Records). It made me feel better than any meds sold at my local CVS. Hartness—still a student at Washington & Lee University in Virginia–has made the perfect debut–one where you go with what you know, are true to yourself, and lay your soul bare. The result is six gorgeous tracks about yearning, searching to belong, thinking about home, and feeling a bit lost. (By God, if a college student isn't allowed to feel these things, who can?) Hartness has a fine, clear, and emotive tenor, one that reminded me a lot of Greg Greenway when he was young, or Noah Gunderson in his more tender moments. My favorite track was "81-S," and not just because that's the road I take from New England to my own Pennsylvania hometown. I admired both the beautiful simplicity of the melody and Hartness' confessional: 81 South's a long straight shot/So think about the man that I know I'm not/Trying to see through the lies I know have names/Now I wrestle with my soul just to stay awake. I remember those days, Ralston, so thanks for that. And thanks also for five other outstanding tracks and for bringing balm to a befuddled brain. Now, dear readers, log on to Noisetrade and throw some bread this young man's way.
Empire (Cornelius Chapel records) is a damn fine solo debut from rock veteran Brad Armstrong. It's gritty and pulls no punches, but it's honest. Some of it is rated R. Like "School Bus" and its line "Every morning was like a wet dream." Okay, so you won't be hearing Brad Armstrong on a radio station near you, but that's no reason not to go online and take a hard listen. Besides, this dude can be smooth when he wants to be. "Them Old Crows" is a nice acoustic country song rendered in mostly sweet tones, though that hint of a spit alerts you he can get down in the gravel whenever the mood strikes. That's rather often, as it turns out. On "No Vain Apology" he practically spews lyrics like "I don't care about my wife/She left me here in Babylon/I watched her walk out the door/With a rifle in her hand." Or the sex and violence allusions in "Cherokee Nose Job." That one is dark and dirty and explodes into heavy rock that skirts the edge of cacophony before pulling back. Its feel, though not the tune, reminded me The Doors' "The End." Yep—we're talking that level of danger. Again, though, there's a lot of diversity on the album. There are nice ringing harmonies on "Brothers," and some sonic resonance in the background of a robust sound wall. Armstrong goes futuristic on "2045" with atmospheric electric guitar, reverberant vocals, and a trippy sci-fi/acid folk-rock groove. Cool stuff.
I mentioned Brandi Carlile in a recent column. If you really want to hear Carlile in all her glory, check out a sampler from a 2016 tour she's doing with Old Crow Medicine Show Okay, so maybe both performers are a bit Nashville slick, but if they ever decide they want to go the Natalie Merchant route and just make music they want, they'll find legions who will stay loyal. Carlile takes the lead on two tracks, and the shouter/kick-butt "Mainstream Kid" proves she can front any band, while the vulnerable, sweet "The Eye" demonstrates her ability to blend in. She can also step away from the spotlight, as shown in two Old Crow songs where she simply adds her voice to the spirited chorus: "O Cumberland River" and "Bootlegger's Boy." If you've yet to discover Old Crow Medicine Show, you're in for a treat. Fiddler/lead vocalist Keith Secor sizzles with a heat even Old Nick can't touch without sustaining burns. These guys do breakdown bluegrass at speeds that coast faster than an Indy driver.