Carmanah, Buffalo Tom, Polly Woods, Taylor Leonhrdt, and More

Carmanah, Speak in Rhythms

Ready for some rock and soul? Carmanah is another amazing Canadian band, a quintet hailing from Victoria, BC. The amazing Laura Mina Mitic, a mite with a mighty voice that she’s not afraid to air, fronts the band. As the album title suggests, this is a record that emphasizes rhythm. “Send It To Me” opens to claps and stomps, settles into a funky groove and fuzzy electric guitar behind the beats, and lets Mitic wail voodoo soul-style of letting the Devil bring on hellfire heat. Band members are also eco activists, sensibilities you’ll pick up in songs such as “Roots” and “Water Falling.” It’s testament to band’s versatility how different these two songs are. The first uses a finger-snapping opening for a piece that layers guitars, moves to a big swell, backs off, and repeats—a perfect mood setter for a song that celebrates being in wild spaces. The second unfolds to something akin to cool jazz, segues to more rock flavored cadences, and lets Mitic bring on the soul. Rather have it soft? Carmanaha can do that. Check out “Another Morning” with its melodic acoustic guitar, gentler vocals, and tight harmonies. This is definitely a band to put on your watch-for list. ★★★★

Buffalo Tom, Quiet and Peace

If you share my view that rock and roll is best when it’s plebeian and loud, you’ll probably also share my love of Boston’s Buffalo Tom. (The name is an amalgam of Buffalo Springfield, a band these old UMass friends liked back in the 1980s, and drummer Tom Maginnis’ first name.) There’s a groove, timing, and synchronicity that longtime bands possess that you can’t teach. Although Maginnis, guitarist/vocalist Bill Janovitz, and bass player Chris Colburn have done other things in their lives, they’ve been playing music since 1986—even when they were technically on hiatus. Quiet and Peace is their ninth album—a mature effort that, despite the fact its content has the usual rock n’ roll dilemmas—exudes contentment around the edges. “All Be Gone” is a passage of time song that burns high octane, but it’s also about Janovitz missing tranquil days floating in a boat with his daughter. Several songs lament time wasted on things that mattered more than they should have: “Overtime” and “Roman Cars,” the latter pulsing with hints of New Wave rock. I particularly liked the yearning and spotted attraction of “Freckles,” which reminded me of a rocked out Richard Shindell song. Solid stuff from a solid band—and that makes them solid with me. ★★★★

Polly Woods Ordinaire, Polly Woods Ordinaire

I wish I could tell you something about Polly Woods Ordinaire, but there's scarcely a scrap of info out there. The name is lifted from an 18th century Virginia log cabin that was an inn operated by a widow into the 1850s, the "ordinary" signaling that it was a no-frills concern. It's now a tourist attraction of sorts off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I suspect, however, that this is a project led by Michigander Lucas Taylor. Whoever it might be, this is a terrific EP with folk rock/progresive bluegrass/mountain/blues grooves. There's always something going on in the music—in a good way. Even though there are not many instruments playing at any one time, the music feels big, even epic—like a community harmony is about to break out. The male vocals are as clean and smooth as the opening track "Clear Blue Skies." The other three tracks, "Colorado Mountain Pines," Hands," and "Howling at the Moon" are equally delightful."  ★★★★  

Update: Members of Carmanah seem to be connected with this project somehow. Why the mystery? Damned if I know! 

Taylor Leonhardt, River House

This young singer/songwriter from Raleigh, North Carolina, has just released her first full-length album. Her songs are personal and sometimes spiritual, but not of the stick-faith-in-your-face variety—more like being humble in contemplation of things bigger than one's own ambitions. A good sample of this is "Lay My Head Down," a piano-based song that, in my opinion, ought to lose the percussion track. I really like Ms. Leonhardt's voice. She tempers her high timbres and whispery tones with a quality that reminded me—despite their very different repertoires—of young Nanci Griffith. There are tender songs such as "When You Open Your Mouth," whose melody is reminiscent of Cheryl Wheeler's "Arrow." "Surprising Me" has a simple but effective piano hook," and "Today If You Hear Him" is another contemplative, quiet song. Leonhardt tries on a lot of different hats; you will hear splashes of everything from banjo to brass. I liked this record, but it's also a blender mix of indie, folk, and pop that's missing an ingredient or two. When we get to the end we think, "Ah, what a pleasant recording." In a perfect world that would be enough; in this one, it lacks a signature identity. I kept wondering what all of this would sound like with a producer such as Daniel Lanois (or a less expensive one in the same creative vein). I suspect that Ms. Leonhardt will need to pick a direction in the near future and, in my view, a bit of backcountry would be a good way to go. ★★★½

Kate Tucker, Practical Sadness/Sampler

Remember how Los Angeles used to be the music production capital of the land? That role has been taken over by Nashville and I’m starting to think that maybe that American music needs to get out more. Akron-born Kate Tucker has been around since 2007, often with the Seattle-based quintet The Sons of Sweden. She long ago moved to Nashville and is the kind of singer the industry likes: female and small-voiced. The challenge for each of these women is to establish an identity independent from the studio. I enjoy Kate Tucker, but not when the music features Nashville session players that drown out her mellifluous tones. On Tucker’s single from her new album, “It’s True,” she displays superb timing that gives accented heft to her voice. I also like the cool guitar riff on “In Your Arms,” though it points to a problem: a tendency to lose the singer in overly processed arrangements. This happens a lot these days; studio musicians grab the glory and female performers are interchangeable snap-ins. Check out back catalog material like “Blue Hotel” and “Let Me Go” and you’ll hear what I mean. From a musical standpoint, I’m more impressed by simpler tracks such “Where You Are (I am Already Gone),“First toLeave,” and the bubbly early-60s pop evocations of “You Belong to Love.” I think Tucker would be best served by traveling with just a good lead guitarist who knows how to shape a song instead of playing to formula. ★★★ 1/2

Society of Broken Souls, Midnight and the Pale

This is a tough review to write. I admire everything about the values of Dennis James and Laura Shapter, who bill themselves Society of Broken Souls. As their handle suggests, the duo is steeped in a narrative tradition that looks at the downside of life in an enough-with-rainbows-and-unicorns kind of way. Theirs is an often-personal look at the scars one accumulates through life stripped of magical thinking. As Shapter puts it in "Witness:" I don't need a hero and I don't need a hand/I   don’t need someone to rescue me from the places that I land/And I don’t need your pity, sure as hell don’t need your scorn/I just need someone to walk by me when I walk through the storm. Their music is frequently dark in tone, a combination of Shapter's acoustic guitar and James' brighter, even crystalline amped down electric guitar. Don't expect a lot of upbeat material. "Sunflower Blues" is about a person who would put the rain back in the clouds if you could; and the slow waltz tempo "Pretty" is a litany of all the messages society sends to young girls that mess them up as adults. That one would be destined for wide circulation were it not for my misgiving that you'll have little idea what they're singing if you don't have a lyrics sheet in hand. Shapter and James are so intent upon being serious that their voices often tail off and neither articulates consistently. Of the two, James is by far the stronger singer, as you can hear on "April's Moon." They are good songwriters, I get what they're driving at, and admire it, but its impact is diminished if we literally can't hear it. ★★★ 

Short Takes:

Now that Ali Akbar Khan is gone, who is the master of the sarod, that multi-stringed lute that is a staple of Hindustani music? How about his son, Alam Khan? His new album, Immersion advances such a claim. It features classic meditative ragas and occasional flight into something more modern and adventurous. In case you’re wondering, the sarod is enough like a sitar that non-aficionados confuse them, but its sound has richer overtones, different string tensions, and fewer melody strings. Partake of this slowly to appreciate its hypnotic qualities. Sample here.

 I don’t know if Sammy Strittmater would be comfortable being grouped with Alam Khan, but Get Out of the City shares trance-like qualities with Khan’s music. The Texas-based Strittmayer plays everything except bass on this record and his songs mostly address coming, leaving, and leaping into the unknown, but it’s the gentle spirit of his voice and dreamy instrumentation that resonate most deeply. His music has been labeled soft rock and Zen-like; at the risk of evoking an unpopular term, it struck me as popped-up ambient and New Age—in a good way. It is the kind you can put on your phone, pop in the earbuds, and simply chill. Try “Indigo Bunting,” “We Are the Evening Tide,” and the title track. One small slip: 17 tracks are half again too many. We want to vegetate, but not take root. ★★★

I tried to pass on Catherine Bent, but her publicist insisted I'd love Ideal. The idea was for Bent to use her cello to play choro, an upbeat Brazilian instrumental style that emphasizes bright melodies, improv, syncopation, and percussiveness. Maybe fans of meandering jazz will appreciate this, but I found very little spark or innovation on this record. In the age of players such as Natalie Haas, Gideon Freudman, Tristan Clarridge, Ben Sollee, Rushad Eggleston, and the incomparable Yo-Yo Ma, you need to do more than a bit of backbeat polka to impress.Click here for a sample. Call this less than Ideal. ★  

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