Remember when rock was rock, country was country, and pop was a separate genre? Then things got complicated. One of the things Nashville got right was deciding that hat acts needed great bands behind them. There were always a few around–like the Charlie Daniels Band—but the rise of Garth Brooks in the 1980s spawned the "New Country" phenomenon that obliterated the line between rock and country. Then along came "indie" and "alternative," which mean–well, who the hell knows what they mean? Here are several new releases. Click on the links and let's start the discussion.
If "New Country" was intended to mean going back and forth between acoustic ballads and hard-driving electric, Nate Currin is it poster boy. He hails from Georgia, but spends a lot of time on the road. Literally–he lives in an RV and admits he's a wandering spirit. The Madman and the Poet is his latest (3rd) album and it's true to its title in that it's–to borrow from Alice Hoffman–a marriage of opposites, a yin and yang. When I first heard "Another Love Song," I thought I was listening to Jim Morrison resurrected as Southern fried rocker. Take a listen–the dark themes and the vocal mannerisms are highly suggestive of Morrison. But Currin delights in moving between tortured and sweet and plugged in and acoustic. Other high-energy rockers include "City of Angels" and "Midnight Train," the latter with crunchy guitar and a swamp blues licks. On "Sinner or Saint"–those opposites again–he opens slow and pensive, contrasts to his ringing slightly buzzed out guitar. The instrumentation gets harder as the song builds, percussion and organ emerge, and Currin's voice goes from gritty to guttural. Think you've got him pegged? Nope. The rest of the album is much softer—even cherry at times. "Ballad of a Horse Thief" is a countrified acoustic that you think will be a classic revenge song—What is a man, if not his word and his regret?—but cross punches at the end. The title track is filled with allusions to its contradictory themes, but Currin's more troubadour than pain dispenser. "Let Grace Fall Down on Me" is nearly a supplication, and he rounds off with "We All Need to Love Sometimes," a musing on what he's done and hasn't done and who he'd like to do and not do those things with: I want to see the world/one place at a time/With an old-fashioned girl/bring her home and make her mine. Light and dark–can we understand one without the other?
The D.C.-based ensemble Wylder calls itself an "indie" band, though some reviewers have stuck a "chamber folk" label on them. Whatever you call this young quintet, they are dynamic and intriguing. Rain and Laura is like being drenched in sound. "Sunstroke" has an updated but retro jangly feel that's like Del Shannon meets The Hollies on the way to a pop concert. "Living Room" opens with a neat mandolin run from Sam Rodgers, but its bluegrass vibe shifts to a pop/folk groove reminiscent of England's Jez Lowe. It's a neat contrast to the bass-defined "Strange Weather," which is deftly textured by the fiddle of Lavar Edmonds (who wields a cello on other tracks). Lead vocalist Will McCarry is outstanding; his voice is smooth, expressive, and attention grabbing. I guess indie and chamber folk will suffice, as the closest alternative analogy I can come up with is Death Cab for Cutie.
Rebecca Loebe also wears the indie label, though she's also carried the "Americana" handle that one generally associates with music in the country/folk/pop vein. That works for the Virginia-born/Texas-based Loebe. Hers is a husky voice with whispery undertones. Ms. Loebe does a few unusual things on her latest recording, Vittles and Valentines, some of it evocations of pop-rock's back catalog. She does a very cool slowed-down cover of "Southern Man," a bass and voice rendition that gives the old Neil Young chestnut a new kind of poignancy. There's also one called "Forever Young Forever" that pays sly homage to Dylan without ever mentioning his name or referencing his tune. That's not my imagination—she covers Bob's song later on the record. How does it stack up vis-à-vis the original? Well…. she has more range, that's for sure, though Dylan devotees might find Loebe's version too refined. My take is that I like Loebe's voice better in the lower tones than her girly higher ones. I especially liked "Meridian" because of its control and irony—it's a song about having a lover she doesn't love and a lover who doesn't love her! Lots of things to like on this one, but is it rock, which is what the indie label usually conjures? Does it matter?
Where has heavy metal gone? It lives on in the Oklahoma-based trio The Bourgeois, though they label themselves "alternative," as ambiguous a label as ever devised. Designer Genes reminded me of early Black Sabbath. The titletrack is typical of the overall content: loud power chords, staccato like bass, and indistinct screaming vocals. It's okay you can't make out many of the lyrics because The Bourgeois is about the energy and drive, not the poetry. They seldom get much more melodic than "We Are What We Pretend to Be," and even then it's just a short guitar riff and back to the cacophony. This is a good-of-kind album—a comment not intended as damning with faint praise so much as a signal that the aforementioned song is truth in advertising. It's your call whether that's a good thing or an unintended affirmation of another track: "Be Careful with That Sound, It's an Antique."
Montreal's Elephant Stone is fronted by Rishi Dhir and calls itself an "indie" band. Ship of Fools shows it's an eclectic outfit that tosses in elements of hard rock, echoes of 1960s psychedelia, and passages from Indian classical music (Dhir's sitar departures and percussionist Miles Dupire-Gagnon's tabla beats). Mostly, though, it struck me as a smoother version of The Bourgeois' thick mixes with decidedly hard edges. Dhir is a much better vocalist, though, and Elephant Stone appreciate that a song like "Manipulator" has more impact with memorable hooks and brighter riffs. A few of guitarist Jean-Gabriel Lambert's lines bordered surf guitar. Likewise, the bass foundation of "Where I'm Going" is heavy, but has a more danceable groove evocative of 1980s New Wave. "Andromeda" has the feel of The Beatles travel to outer space and the melody of "The Devil's Shelter" is fashioned from short electronic pulses. In other words, the repertoire is more diverse and, to my ears, more successful.
I'm always impressed by strong melodies and fine writing. What label do we want to slap on Jameson Elder? Listen to his Prodigals and Thieves and get back to me. He might be a rocker who detours into introspective folk, or a country guy who mixes electric and acoustic depending upon which boots he pulls on in a given day. Or–my vote–he's what he claims: a musician incredibly influenced by Tom Petty. Here's a handle that definitely fits—fine songwriter. "NotReady" rocks out in ways that good songs do–it builds until you can't get it out of your head through tempo changes, sharp hooks, and energy to burn. Want a nice turn of phrase for a song about a guy who has been kicked down: I get so lost in conversation/Without speaking any words at all. Yeah—been there. As good as it is, it's rivaled by "Your Time is Coming," which opens with crashing chords tamed when his voice comes punching through the noise. The song has the anthem feel of something Springsteen would write. Then he slows the pace with "Any Other Way" about another guy down on his luck, but living without regret. Another great line: The devil on my left he always listens/The angel on my right can't find the words. Elder likes to switch moods and modes. There's a brief evocation of "Imagine" in the opening piano riff of "If I Die Tonight" and the song is deeply personal; "Fine Wine" is full of yearning for the song's namesake–a love that's the "kind you taste just once in your life." But in keeping with the album's themes of getting lost and finding your way back, "Sinking Like a Stone" takes us to depths: Could have done better/Could have done worse/Should have done nothing at all. The last third of this eleven-track release is much quieter and more acoustic than the rest, though his "Leave the Light On" is the sort of soft rock composition that James Taylor favors. This is easily my top release of this bunch and one of my favorites on 2016.