Roddie Romero, Charlie & the Rays, Stewart Eastham, Jon Reynolds

Want some Cajun and zydeco filtered through blue-eyed soul? Check out Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars. The "Hub City" is Lafayette, Louisiana, a place where the climate, the food, and the music are hot. Gulfstream (Octavia Records) features fifteen sizzling tracks. Titles like "My Baby is the Real Thing," "Ma Jolie," and "Rock 'n' Roll & Soul Radio" suggest it's time to party, and Romero obliges. The first is catchy pop-infused soul evocative of a Muscle Shoals/Motown mash; "Ma Jolie" has a swampier feel and some cool slide guitar; and the last song spotlights Erick Adcock pounding the piano keys with Jerry Lee Lewis energy. Romero fronts the band with robust vocals, guitar, and high-impact accordion, with Chad Viator manning most of the guitar duties. Toss in the drumming of Gary Usie and the bass (and occasional tuba!) of Chris French, and you've got a lineup that can make some serious noise in a variety of styles. "Donne-Moi Donc" is a jazzy boogie-woogie dance piece in which they keys are tickled and keep on tinkling; "Windmill in a Hurricane" is grits with grit; and "Po'Boy Walk" spotlights a hooky bass line on an instrumental bump-and-grind. And these guys know that when they wind us up, they have to let us down easy. The album's final two tracks soften the mood. The title track is acoustic and borders on tender; "I Must Be a in a Good Place Now" is quiet piano and vocals with hints of gospel influence. Call this one rhythm and roots music.

Keep the good-times vibes flowing by checking out a young Seattle ensemble calling itself Charlie and the Rays. Not sure why they're called that as they are the brainchild of two sisters, Jordan and Rebecca Stobbe, and longtime friend Gracia Bridges. They list The Beatles, The Band, and The Dixie Chicks among their influences, though only the last of these is evident on their debut EP Black Licorice. Like the Dixie Chicks, the young women build songs around call-and-response harmonies, with a strong lead voice providing the bridge to three-part singing. To my ear, though, this is rhythm and blues music with an updated early 1960's "girl group" vibe. Songs such as "Just Say that You Love Me" and "Can't get You Off" evoke the party pop of the early '60s and some of the harmonies remind me of early records by The Nields.  "Oh My My" is an especially fun offering in which the horns and mouth harp jump, and so do the vocals. The only misfire is "Girl," which would probably work well on stage. It's the moodiest piece that subsumes the vocals within the aural mix that doesn't translate well within the restricted sound band of MP3. I'll keep an ear out for these folks, though, as there's promise a-plenty.

If you're a fan of that combination of Nashville and rock 'n' roll labeled "New Country," Stewart Eastham is the guy for you. His Dancers in the Mansion is where electric guitar meets pedal steel. This is Eastham's third full-length album—he also has an EP–and though it surveys country's three H's–heartbreak, hard times, and hope–it's heavier on the last of these than past efforts. Dancers is also a sampler of four distinct styles. On songs such as "Sometimes, the Road," "Pretty Little Songbird," and "The Barroom," Eastham fronts big production numbers in which everything from keyboard to horns and stringed instruments punch through the mix. "Barroom" features power chord choruses so pronounced that you could mentally conjure stage light colors changing on each down beat. Then there's the guy with a Hank Williams-like collection of honky-tonk material such as "She's My Gal" and "Leavin' By Sundown," the latter with the suggestive line "I know I wasn't the first one/And I surely won't be the last."  Then he goes Texas two-step style on "Lonesome Melody" and the wonderfully titled "Old Lovers in a Cheap Motel." Finally there's the sensitive Eastham that emerges on quieter material such as "Carry On" and "2023Miles," songs I found more impressive, if less fun. But Eastham keeps things on the lighter side. There's not much message music here beyond the downscaled dreams of the working stiff in "Fruit Cannery Blues." For those who don't know Eastham, his vocals are reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam, though his twang is mostly affected–he hails from California, not Texas.

When confronted with pervasive discrimination, Jon Reynolds chose the high road. His EP Generation Love is a response to having moved from Oklahoma to Tennessee, where his wife encountered sexism and the couple confronted racism because they have black in-laws and friends. It doesn't speak well for the Volunteer State, but Reynolds acquits himself well. In a quiet way, Reynolds uses retro moods to suggest how both music and social values can join the 21st century. Musically, his EP is–excuse the seeming oxymoron–an updated throwback. In mood it invokes 1950s pop music, but with dashes of other influences: The Four Seasons, The Zombies, Iron and Wine, and Ray Charles. The 50's part comes in catchy pop melodies and the stripped down instrumentation, the latter often just down strums on an electrified hollow-bodied Ibanez. The Ray Charles part comes in the form of Reynolds' emotive, soulful vocals that sometimes rise to falsetto heights. The update comes when you listen to the pleas for social justice embedded in the title track, or "'63," in which Reynolds sings: "I believe you're living in '63." It's a clever double entendre—the style harkens back to 1963 and, apparently, so too do some attitudes.
★★★ ½

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