Sjostrum, Dunne, Kilgore, Strong Water and Others: New Music

Tyler Sjöström is a Chicago-based singer with umlauts in his name and desperation in his soul. He has a new album, Bones, Hold Me Up, plus a Noisetrade project called Saucy Sampler and here's your takeaway point: he really knows how to frame a song. His songs tend to deal with themes such recovery, survival, and trying to be strong—which would be standard folk fare, except that his takes are smart, honest, and robust. "Holding On" is a catchy tune ditty of the hand-clapping variety, but his strong guitar, open voice, and offbeat cadences make it more than that. "Red River" is another one that catches you slightly off guard. Sjöström doesn't have a naturally big voice, but he makes it sound that way and tosses in some whistling for something that's like Appalachia meets the Great Plains. "Straight Bourbon Whiskey" is about a sad man who I merely "half way gone," knocking himself out with things that "won't kill my body/It will kill soul." I also really liked "Ghostly," which comes off as electrified mountain music with resonant low notes and a definitive bom-bom-BOM pattern that makes for a really great arrangement. If my review doesn't entice, you gotta love a guy whose take on his own art is "music wrought by the love of the wild and the pursuit of truth, spun as cognitive word vomit with the frills of folk." Stick this guy on your one-to-watch-for list. ★★★★

Brian Dunne is a Brooklyn-based singer songwriter with a voice that's what a folkier version of Ryan Adams might sound like. Dunne's Bug Fixes and Performance Improvements is a confessional album and the sins for which he wishes forgiveness is that he has a tendency to screw up a lot. His single "Don't Give Up On Me" is typical. It's a gorgeous little song—made all the more so with Liz Longley singing backup—rendered in high sweet voice. In it he admits he's not perfect and that he's looking for perseverance more than redemption. Another really great song is "Taxi," which about the search for something unknown and unnamed.: He said kid are you going?/I said that's a good question/He laughed and said you'll figure it out/But I'm riding in the backseat?in this old taxi/Heading through a tunnel downtown. Many of Dunne's songs are stripped down, which gives the LP the feel of a live performance. I really liked his honest emotions and the way in which he tosses off lines that capture them. "We Don't Talk About It" is about a relationship in which the lights have gone out: We don't talk about it anymore/Your silence is your way of war. There's just enough electric guitar in this one to add to the desperation. "Here I Go Again" has a nice riff, the first part of which is evocative of Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightning." The scattered and quick notes mirror lyrics that express the fear that another screw-up looms. "Chelsea Hotel" is also terrific. It's famed for the fact quite a few angst-ridden people have dwelt there and Dunne uses it as a metaphor for ghosts and psychological crutches. Yet it, like most of the material, is so musically pleasing that it takes a moment to get that. Terrific album from still another talented alum of the Berklee School of Music. ★★★★

Little Reader is a Nashville-based pop duo consisting of Kate Tucker and Russ Flournoy. Their debut release, The Big Score, draws inspiration from bands such as Depeche Mode by way of The Bangles. Featured track "Speed of Light" is typical of Little Reader's approach. It's filled with oscillating electronic pulses and guitar that's made fresh through hints of musical retrofitting. It's danceable and catchy. The downside is that this is also the formula for other songs I sampled: "Running Toward the Sun," "Burn Eternal," and "Best Regret." Overall the instrumentation dazzles more than the vocals. Flournoy has the power to punch through the thick mix, but Tucker's is better suited for quieter material. More variety would guard against becoming a now-but-not-tomorrow phenomenon. ★★ ½

You never know what will happen when you leave a town like Bellingham, Washington and land in Austin. It worked well for Shawnee Kilgore, who you might know for doing some music for director Joss Whedon. Now the two of them have an EP, Back to Eden, a six-song project for which Whedon wrote most of the lyrics and Kilgore the music. Kilgore has the kind of voice you'll either love or think odd; it's small and a bit nasal, but I like the fact that like all good singers, she knows how to bend, inflect, and color it. My favorite track is "Unforgiven," with its wonderful line, I was told I came out crooked/So I walked a crooked line. The fiddle and backing vocals come from Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. The title track is also superb. It has a lonesome feel that's enhanced by Janeen Rae Heller's musical saw and deepened by Vanessa Freebairn's cello. I also liked how Kilgore's voice contrasted to Eric Holden's bass on "Three Legged Dog," and slid between Peter Adams' quiet piano in "Love Song." ★★★★

Strong Water is a Harrisonburg, Virginia-centered trio plus friends whose take on Americana is influenced by Noah Gunderson and Mumford and Sons. I'd call it muscular bluegrass sifted through rock and folk rock. Their debut LP, titled Strong Water, makes them a band to watch. Lead vocalist Greg Brennan, also the band's guitarist, has a whiskey-soaked voice that is so powerful that he over-sings on occasion—more like he's playing arena rock than bluegrass—but he performs with such earnestness that it's easy to forgive him. But you will certainly not find flaws with the amazing fiddling of J.J. Hosteller, or the fine harmonies she lays down behind Brennan. Check out the cool slow-run-run-run-slow patterning of "Tippie Canoe," the lead/echo vocal formula of "Remember July," the desperation of "Derailed," and the atmospheric moodiness of "Evergreen." These are all fine songs but what will linger in the end are the superb arrangements. There's the breakdown fiddle of "Streets of Gold," the back-beat of "Dinobones," the fiddle/cello opening of "Golden Days," and the as-advertised "Jam in G." If these don't spin your head, "Whiskey Sour" will. Its electric power is shot through with rock and R& B, but it's the strings that sound more dangerous still. Here's a young band that knows how to build drama. ★★★★

If you like big music, as in B-I-G, try The Weeks and their ironically named Easy Does It. This is bop and hop dance music—not always profound, but good loud rock n' roll. "Bobby" feels like a souped-up 50s throwback and even has a switchblade reference to give a whiff of dangerous nostalgia. Check out the structure of "Wishin' My Week Away," but put away all the technical analysis—it's basically noise, a few guitar runs, noise, more runs, and lots of noise. And that's kind of their point. There are occasional lead guitar breakouts, but these Jackson, Mississippi lads are more into rock as attitude and amplitude. "Lawman's Daughter," for instance, is a classic bad boy/good girl song and the fact that he's a wanted man complicates things, to say the least. A personal favorite was "Talk Like That." Not much poetry in this one either—it's just robust and loud for those times when that's all I want from a song. ★★★

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