Don Gallardo, Lighthouse Keepers, Loebe and Napier, Merritt Gibson, Whiskey Wolves

Don Gallardo, Still Here

Loved, loved, loved the latest from Don Gallardo. It's a delightful folk/country/bluegrass mix evocative of the kind of projects the late Steve Goodman used to do with such great aplomb. Like Goodman, Gallardo tempers even his hard times songs with sunny-days-are-around-the-next-bend optimism. Gallardo also has a warm, inviting voice that’s its own balm. In some ways, the opening track, “Something I Gotta Learn,” sums Gallardo’s outlook. He takes kicks in the teeth with, “I don’t want to get over this/Let it hurt” determination and declares, “It could have been worse/Which is something I gotta learn.” That’s wisdom he tries to pass on; “The Golden Rule,” its message enhanced with emotive electric guitar, is a confessional of a man trying to protect his son from repeating his mistakes: “Kept him clean of the bad things I’ve seen/Ain’t that the Golden Rule?” These two, like each of the twelve tracks, grabs us with strong melodies, zinger lines, and memorable hooks.  And what a fine crop he cultivates: a country two-step (“Oh Jane”), a Texas-style weepy (“The Loving Kind”), some clarinet-led Dixieland swing (“Stay Awhile”), classic tonk (“The Bitter End”), several Appalachia-influenced pieces, occasional Dylanesque cadences (“Ballad of a Stranger’s Heart”), and crisp wordplay throughout. A small personal treat is “Alley Talkin’ Blues # 12,” which would be a great song just for the line “On the way to being lost/I got lost along the way.” It’s filled with wry humor in an amusing morality tale gone wrong, the kind Steve Goodman surely would have written had he not died so young. Still Here is a fantastic album; don’t miss it. ★★★★★

Lighthouse Keepers, Lighthouse Keepers

First things first, this six-piece outfit is a group of Harvard friends, not the Australian band of the same name. Second, this Lighthouse Keepers lineup spins musical magic—some of it sprinkled with fairy dust. They peg themselves an “indie” band, but I found them more in the ork-pop vein. (The “ork” here is a play on orchestral, not Tolkien baddies.) If you imagine the chamber rock band Renaissance as jazzier and infused with more bluegrass influences, you’d be on the same shoals as Lighthouse Keepers. They are powered b the vocals of Abby Westover who, if not quite Renaissance’s Annie Haslam, is a dynamic presence in her own right. Her strong, clear voice has the emotive impact of pop jazz and she is especially adroit at letting her tones swirl with the instrumentation: ukuleles, fiddle, bass, and guitar. “Liar’s Dice” is upbeat and poppy and the lovely “Edinburgh” harkens back to great folk balladry, but Lighthouse Keepers grab us with music that swirls in trance-like ways. “Worryblur” is a fine example of this; it’s jazzy, but also and trippy enough to evoke 60s psychedelia. That same feel comes through in the experimental “Oblivion.” Although Ms Westover has a great voice, Lighthouse Keepers won’t have you hanging onto each word; their goal is to let listeners drift with notes that bend and blend—floaty music in the very best sense. I’m impressed by how they manage to create this effect with acoustic instruments. Lighthouse Keepers are a young band, and I’m already to take a ride on whatever magic carpet ride they have up their sleeves. ★★★★

Rebecca Loebe and Findlay Napier, Filthy Jokes

Sure wish this one had landed in my inbox earlier than it did because "Joy to World" is one of the best new holiday songs I've heard in ages—a New Year's ditty with honest advice and salutations such as "Laugh more, fight less/Joy to the world I guess." It's a great song, even if it is a few months late. Lucky for us there are a few other songs on this EP that grew out of a songwriting retreat between the Austin-based Rebecca Loebe and Scotland's Findlay Napier. Let me just say that if either of these names is unfamiliar to you, it's time to get up to speed. Napier is not just a great songwriter, he has a terrific and powerful voice, as you will hear on "BadMedicine," a folk song with polished studio production. (The link is live.) Celtic fans might know his work with the band Back of the Moon. Loebe is no slouch either; her voice is soft and pretty, but it's adorned with a splash of husk at the edges. Both have great senses of humor as well. We hear Napier's wry commentary on making relationships work in "Option to Buy," and Loebe in the lead on the title track, a honky tonk explanation to a marriage made somewhere other than heaven: "Finally you've found someone/To laugh at all your filthy jokes." The stunner is "Kilimanjaro," a passage through life song in 4:21 with a poignant ending. ★★★★

Merritt Gibson, Eyes on Us

Merritt Gibson, a 19-year-old singer/songwriter who grew up in Boston, pens songs about love, breakups, loyalty, and how hard it is to let go. Her debut record is an impressive effort that shows influences from indie rock and new wave power pop, though it's often strongest when she tamps down the noise. You'll hear definite new wave touches on the heavy bass and edgy instrumentation of the title track. "Burning Hot" features clipped, quick machine gun runs reminiscent of The Cars, and the eerie keyboards and melody of "I Heard" is strongly suggestive of the Eurythmics. We'll get back to that. "When You Were Mine" has an intriguing point of view: that of a past relationship that seems sweeter in retrospect than it was at the time. It's also hard to resist "My Best Friends," in which Gibson lays down the law: "I don't intend/To choose a boy over my best friends." These pop songs have appeal, but also betray Gibson's youth. When songs invite comparisons it's easy to say she's no Annie Lenox. Few are. It also reveals that Gibson's voice is pretty and powerful, but it's not yet clear. Many of the songs are within the same range, which is why my favorite tracks by far are the quieter ones in which she competes with fewer things. "Area Code" is a nice song— one of desperate yearning built around unanswered phone calls. In "Truth and Myth," Gibson is tender and vulnerable; in "Cold War II" she's dark and pessimistic (even if the metaphors are forced). I was glad she finished with "Faraway," a love song of wishing to freeze time. Since she claims her work is autobiographical, I was worried she's been really unlucky for one so young. Let's call Merritt Gibson a gem in need of more polish, but definitely a rising talent. ★★★½

Whiskey Wolves of the West, Country Roots

Can you make a country record that’s so retro modern audiences will find it new? The Whiskey Wolves of the West are hoping so. The lineup is really the songwriting duo of Tim Jones (vocals and guitar) and Leroy Powell (vocals, guitar, and everything else from pedal steel to clarinet). Their approach is to unveil original material that sounds faintly like dusted-off outlaw country from the 60s and 70s as power vocalists such as Levon Helm and Waylon Jennings might have sung it. “Sound of the South” has everything from rolling organ, references to Elvis, and soulful Muscle Shoals evocations in a track that good ‘ole Southern music cures what ails you. “Lay That Needle Down” also takes up back to the age of vinyl in an “… all I need right now/Is the comfort of your company” song; and “Song Ain’t Gonna Write Itself” is the ultimate retro potpourri: a two-step rockabilly number with some surf guitar, some pedal steel, and big vocals. “Rainy Day Lovers” is also filled with old country tropes; it unfolds in a “honky tonk haze” and is about a hard luck man looking for a woman who, “Knows how to treat a man… [a] crazy kind of company to put me back where I belong.” Does this work? Yes and no. There are lots of borrowed riffs and vibes and its seven tracks feel about the right number for us to recall some of good-time feel of old-style white Southern country without getting into its problematic politics. ★★★

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