Musical Potpourri for Spring


Sometimes it just doesn't make sense to look for common ground in the midst of rich musical turf. Here's a grab bag for various tastes.

The Waifs make you grateful that these days genre lines blur. Ironbark (Compass) is a double CD of 25 delights. This Aussie quintet—anchored by vocals from Josh Cunningham and sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson—is often labeled folk rock, but that doesn't begin to get it.  What's your musical taste? Need a reminder that you shouldn't ignore the beauty all around you? Try "Take it In," in which the lead vocal and gorgeous harmonies bounce off Cunningham's robust acoustic scaffolding. How about something moody? "Higher Ground" would be at home on Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball. Get your honky-tonk fix from "Sugar Mama," and indulge in string/swing blues that sounds like they came from the 1940s in "Done and Busted." Want a country weepy? "Grand Plan" will bring you down. Curious about yodeling? "Goodnight Lil' Cowboy" is an outback lullaby that would be home on the American range. "Not the Lonely" updates the retro girl group vibe but keeps the kernel intact. Catchy little melodies get a workout in "Important Things," whose tune and upbeat message are the kind of earworms you want, and "Dirty Little Bird," has passages evocative of Japanese folk songs.  Then there's the dark and political, "Syria" that's as good a song I've heard about this tragedy. Simpson's voice positively oozes the pain. If you're itching for something just plain beautiful, man, do you have choices: the plea for enduring love in "Standing Strong," the close harmonies of "I Won't Go Down" and "The Coast," the praiseful "Amazing Everything," the Appalachian feel of "Something's Coming," and "The Lion and the Gazelle," in which Thorn sounds a bit like Emmylou. What a record! And I haven't even mentioned the poetic lyrics.  ★★★★★

K Phillips' Dirty Wonder (Rock Ridge Music) has everything you want in outlaw country: weeping pedal street, honky-tonk piano, slap-slap drums, twangy vocals, fuzzed out guitar, rolling organ, and grit. Here's a memorable line from the title track: I used to grow a beard to cover up the devil's face/But a wretch is still a wretch in satin or lace. Here's another one from "Coal Burner:" No one looks at the rust and sees the rain/No one blames the tracks, they blame the train. Maybe it's destiny. The K stands for Kris and his DJ mother named him for another West Texan: Kris Kristofferson. Like Kristofferson, Phillips writes about good times and bad, but mostly bad. In "Rom Com" a promising romance falls apart when "he caught the wrong ticket and she took the wrong flight." And there's the delicious line I know for a fact you didn't call to see how I was from "Don't Wish Me Well," the story of a dead relationship yearning to be laid to rest. There's also the humorous but palpably dangerous song about a man on the rebound with his mind on "18 Year Old Girls:" You should not be wearing my shirt/I should not have my mind in the dirt. Hey, did you expect outlaw country to be wholesome? ★★★★

Canadian pop/folk singer and Juno Award winner Ron Sexsmith admits he's a musical sponge. He counts among his inspirations the 1960s British Invasion (Ray Davies in particular) and the broad spectrum of Canadian folk music—from Leonard Cohen to Gordon Lightfoot. He's shared stages with everyone from Arie to R.E.M. and his admirers include Elvis Costello, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and k.d. lang. Dylan has performed a few of his songs. He's often compared to Martin Sexton for his penchant for writing introspective songs and for his ventures into falsetto territory (though Sexsmith's voice is more quavery). You'll hear slices of all this on The Last Rider (Compass). Selections such as "Worried Song" and "Upward Dog" would be at home on a Beatles album, and the latter lifts a snippet of the opening melody line of "Ticket to Ride." Yet "Radio," inspired by childhood remembrances, is more Billy Joel-like, "Only Trouble Is" has a killer hook and a memorable melody line, and "Shoreline" has Caribbean whiffs. "West Gwillimbury" was inspired by a town name in Ontario that Sexsmith saw many times on a tour without actually going through it. Sexsmith used that non-experience as a metaphor for heaven. For uplift, it's hard to be "Dreams are Bigger," with its instant classic line: If your dreams are bigger than your worries/You'll never have to worry about your dreams. Some listeners may find the songwriting stronger than the vocals. I  liked the stripped down offerings better than those layered with studio production, some of which drenched the vocals, and a lot of which seemed similar, but with 15 tracks, there's plenty for every taste.  ★★★ ½

Charlie and the Rays have a new EP Song of Love, which is also the name of the second track, an homage to a child. That's appropriate as the "Charlie" part of the band's name is a tribute to a seven-year-old who used to hang out with them. The Rays are sisters Jordan and Rebecca Stobbe, Gracia Bridges and sidemen Jack Brady and Sam Kastner. Like other Rays' projects, this one centers on lovely three-part harmonies that draw comparisons to a slicked-down version of the Dixie Chicks. Instrumentation is kept understated so it doesn't compete with those voices. Wise. We hear this decision in full glory on a cover of The Beatles' "Dig a Pony," which is paced slower and missing John Lennon's hard edges, but is bolstered by Bridges' prominent bass riff. I like everything about this group and it makes me jealous they used to busk at Seattle's Pike Place. My town has many talented people, but our buskers—not so much! The Rays' folk/R & B mix is easy on the ears and long on talent.
★★★ ½

Guthrie Brown is sometimes compared to Tom Petty, though I find his indie sound more geared toward the 21st century club scene. His EP, Natural, often evokes images of packed bodies waving their arms above the heads in time with the groove. This is especially the case with the title track, with its soulful R & B melody with hints of funk. In like fashion, his "Wild Child" isn't the amped uninhibited electric madness of Hendrix, rather a polished ditty aimed at getting the feet moving. In fact, if the Montana-raised Guthrie had twang in his voice, it's the sort of song that country musicians use as a bright change of pace. The indie part? Guthrie is hard to pigeonhole. "Day to Day" is decidedly folk in temperament, "Lightening" has Paul Simon-like vocal cadences, but "Stay Gold" has a central hook that flirts with discordance and a melody and lyrics suggestive of early rock and roll. Cool stuff.  ★★★ ½

Okay, this gets confusing. There are at least three performers with the name Jess Ray and two of them sing Christian music. The best of them is based in Raleigh, NC and has several albums on her résumé, including Pull the Stars from the Sky, 10 songs whose content is praiseful, not preachy. Ray recorded them in an old mill in a single day with just guitar, mic, and guitar. Ray's voice has sometimes been compared with that of Brandi Carlile, but on the new album it's more like Buffy Ste. Marie with controlled vibrato—not in tone, but in the way Ray uses the reverberant room and spare guitar to create drama with her big voice. Songs like "After," "Water/Wind/Fire," "Set Me Right," and "Come to My Senses" are as spare as can be, but they sound huge. Whatever your personal convictions, you can believe in Jess Ray's talent. ★★★ ½   

Rob Weir

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