Big Little Lions, Erin Costello, Surrnder Hill, The Contenders and More

Big Little Lions, Alive and Well

Okay, I pretty much love these guys. Sometimes you hear music that's just what you need when you wonder if anything has a point anymore. Helen Austin—a former standup comic in London now in British Columbia—and Paul Otten, a Midwesterner, producer, and two-time winner of the John Lennon Songwriting contest bill themselves as indie artists and, for once, it's a good handle. Their music has the sparkle of pop, an edge of call-bullshit politics, the verve of danceable soft rock, and a whole lot going on in each track. Alive and Well is their third full LP and the title is meant as an ironic metaphor, almost as if to announce their astonishment at being able to hold out hope when the world is falling apart at the seams. "Big Mistake" infuses a tumbling little melody with handclaps and building noise that suggests maybe we can move beyond weariness. Austin drew comparisons to Dolores O'Riordan even before the latter died and a song such as "Unicorn" shows why. If you think you're in for magical thinking, the opening line disabuses you: Everybody wants a unicorn/To be unique and still belong. It's not that easy; instead we're looking for humanity/while wading through the vanity. "Kind" is equally double-edged—both a path forward and the gnawing possibility everything is going to hell in a handbag. Yet through all of this the music is airy, even sunny. In the end, the song that might sum what is to be done is to "Find Your Tribe." Like the group name, this one starts small and goes bigger to a repetitive acoustic groove that's both sweet but nervous. Find your people, find your tribe/Those you want to be beside/Then you are home. If that sounds trite, tell me something that makes more sense. ★★★★★

Erin Costello, Down Below, The Status Quo

If you laugh when I tell you that one of the best R & B singers around is from Nova Scotia, my response is that you've not heard Erin Costello. She has just released her fifth studio album and you need hear only a few bars to know that she has a serious set of pipes—the kind that are sultry, powerful, and tinted with small colorings that shade an otherwise simple song such as "Worry Don't Weigh Me Down" and make it seem like a masterpiece. Costello also beguiles with arrangements that blend jazz, R & B, and pop in ways that are simultaneously retro and new. Check out "Low," which unfolds atop Glenn Milchen's cross-rhythmic percussion and evolves into something you'd get if you crossed Mavis Staples with a whiff of danger from Eartha Kitt.  Then try the blue note grooves of "Fighter," a song that signals why the album bears its name. ★★★★

Surrender Hill, Tore Down Fences

Country music and time on the road seem to go together like a saddle and a horse. Tore Down Fences is the second album from married couple Robin Dean Salmon and Afton Seekins, but it's Salmon's twelfth. He was born in South Africa, raised on a San Antonio cattle ranch, had a New York band that played at CBGB, moved to Atlanta, then went on the road with everyone from Rodney Crowell to Cyndi Lauper. Seekins was born to self-sufficient folks from Alaska, moved to Arizona, and lived in New York. The two are now based in Sedona, Arizona, a place where rolling stones often settle. Surrender Hill is mostly a duo, but the two also work well inside a band. Salmon's voice has just the right amount of spit for country/folk music and Seekins adorns hers with small touches of nasal twang. Their new album departs from script with songs that generally exude more contentment than most country albums. The title track, for instance, is about picking up from being dumped and opening a new chapter of the Book of Love. A title like "I RideAlone" suggests a lonesome cowboy, but this one is content under the big Montana sky. I really liked "If I Can't Have You," a catchy song that rocks ever so slightly. If you like a bit of cheekiness, there's a video of the two singing "Misbehave" at their wedding—a bold choice for beginnings as it imagines being old and looking from the POV of endings. ★★★ ½

The Contenders, Laughing with the Reckless

Not too many duos consist of acoustic guitar and drums, but that's precisely the format for The Contenders and they do a few more unexpected things. Guitarist, lead vocalist, and songwriter Jay Nash, for instance, lives in Vermont but his percussion buddy, Josh Day, resides in Nashville. They bill themselves an Americana band—from the acoustic country end of the spectrum. Nash has a decided country scratch to his voice, but every now and then he drops a small riff (in unexpected places) that you'd swear he lifted from Elton John; listen carefully to select lines in "Call Me the Lucky One" and you'll know what I mean. I also really like Nash's percussive cadences in that one. Nash also has a knack for keeping us off balance in his writing. "Finer Weather" seems like it's going to be about New York City, but it's really an I-will-follow-you song. We get more misdirection in "The Night Jackson Fell," which might come off as a Lost Cause post-bellum anthem until you pay attention and realize it's really about the crumbling foundation of a doomed relationship. Another good one is "The Flood," an unvarnished song about hard lives, hard times, and hard choices. This rhythm and harmony first LP portends promise. ★★★½

Sarah Aroeste, Together/Endjuntos

Here's something you don't hear everyday: a singer billed as feminist Ladino rock. I'll take the feminist part of this on faith as I know just a few words in Spanish (and none of know of in this variant), but Together is not a rock album. "8Days" is theatrical to the point of having a show tune feel, and "Thank You Trees" is a bluegrass/pop/holiday song mashup. It is, however, a nice exposure to Sephardic song. One of my favorite tracks is "Buena Semana," a piano-based tune that has incantatory qualities. The American-born, New York-based Aroeste is of Greek Sephardic ancestry and there are songs that honor Jewish traditions such as Shabbat, Sukkot, and "El Dia de Purim," a spring holiday nearly upon us. I enjoyed this recording, though I wish Aroeste would rein in the vibrato more tightly. ★★★

Katie Herzig, Moment of Bliss and Walk Through Walls

Katie Bliss is releasing her sixth album, Moment of Bliss, this month. She's billed as a folk rock performer, but that's a misnomer: she's a pop artist who favors music slathered in electronica and production. "Feel Alive," from the new album evokes the disco dance grooves of Robyn and the video is worth a watch because the lyrics are featured. Much of Herzig's repertoire is drenched in sounds and loops that subsume vocals in a thick aural mix without many spaces. "Strangers" has the same feel, but with a catchier tune. If you want to check out voice with less going so, try her pop torch "Me Without You," in which she stretches her voice into the falsetto range. I'm not a big fan of pop but if you are, you should sample Herzig. ★★

No comments: