Sounds for Late Summer 2018

St. Pete Holland, Seven Deadly Hymns

I love the title of the new release from Nashville-based St. Pete Holland. Normally I'd be dismissive of the alt-folk label that's been slapped onto his music, but it actually fits for a change. Holland's voice is reminiscent of the late Bill Morrissey in that it's a tuneful growl, but his repertoire certainly takes more chances, and his lyrics are more observational and less interior. "Lullaby" uses a lovely folk/bluegrass melded tune that counters his sharper vocal inflections, and the song is a new twist on the old tale of selling one's soul to the Devil for Dorian Gray youthfulness: My love won't grow old. He whistles the intro and bridge for "Capulets," which is retelling of Romeo and Juliet that's more sympathetic to he former and suggests Juliet might be a seductress. He takes down New York shallowness in "Small Talk" in a song that's simple yet has a collaborative effect with its backing harmonies and hand clap-like percussiveness. On "Yours and Mine," a post-breakup song, Holland blurs folk and rock boundaries. Some may find his voice an acquired taste, but Holland is a clever songwriter and intriguing arranger.   ★★★★   

Forrest Fire Gospel Choir, Forest Fire Gospel Choir

If you're yearning for some Southern rock by way of Tennessee, Texas, California, Colorado, and New York, check out the Nashville-based quintet Forest Fire Gospel Choir (FFGC). Imagine a blend of The Band and Leon Russell, with a dash of the two-guitar plus keyboards energy of The Allman Brothers. FFGC isn't quite in that august company, but their five-track NoiseTrade EP invites such comparisons. FFGC is anchored by bass player/lead vocalist Will McGee, who definitely has an arena-rock voice. Nick Fields and Sam Hunt bring the noise with their dueling guitars, Will Lynde tickles the piano and organ keys, and drummer Daniel Closser brings it home. McGee borrows Robby Robertson's vocal styling on "Strange Air," but mostly FFGC goes its own way. "Go Getter" is Southern rock with a skiffle-meets-gospel mash. My favorite track is "Daddio," with its start-stop cadences that dissolve into a straight-on wall of sound. This one feels fresh, despite the 50s-like lyrics. I mean, who actually says "daddio" anymore? ★★★

Jim Lauderdale, A History

Can we say that a guy who has won a Grammy, an Americana Music Association Award, and has recorded 27 albums is overlooked? Jim Lauderdale has long been a songwriter's songwriter, which is why you find his name on hits from everyone from the Dixie Chicks, Patti Loveless, and Blake Shelton to Rodney Crowell and Elvis Costello. He has also co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Lauderdale, now 61, was originally inspired by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a seminal group whose place in music history is similarly underappreciated—perhaps because they too collapsed labels at a time in which the music industry was overly focused on them. Lauderdale is about to release a new album, Time Flies, and has released the title track and several others as singles to build some buzz.  He's also released some back catalog material packaged as A History, which highlights a level of versatility that to this day invites a vague "Americana" label. On songs such as "Sweet Time," Lauderdale honks and tonks with the twangiest of country singers, but he's a wailing folk-meets-acoustic blues on "Way Out is Fine." But then, there's "When They Turn Around," which is filled with Dirt Band Appalachian bluegrass energy, "Forgive and Forget," which could have come from John Prine's repertoire, and the shimmery early 60s pop vibe of "Borrow Some Summertime." Jim Lauderdale offers something for everyone to like, which makes him fun for listeners and perplexing for the industry. Maybe Time Flies will help him do something he's only ever done four other times: make the Top 100 charts. Either way, he's an artist you should check out. ★★★ ½   

Ike Reilly, Crooked Love

Crooked Love is a good title for Ike Reilly's latest release; he has a bent way of looking at a lot of things. This gritty release matches Reilly's voice: edgy with a growl. It's indie rock from a guy who has seen things. "Livin' In the Wrong Time"is a great bit of combo work anchored by Peter Cimbalo's ominous bass; "To Die in Her Arms" is boogie-woogie with just the right touch of noir. Reilly gets us inside the heads of people who don't build dream lives: a husband seeking escape in his garage in "She Haunts My Hideouts," and that guy is tame compared to some of the drinking and hard living that appears elsewhere. "Missile Site" has a rockabilly opening, but evolves into something bluesier and retro. As for any rockets, this one is more about the sparks that go off during a tryst. "Clean Blood Blues" sounds like where rockabilly meets bump-and-grind. The album's sit-up-and-take-notice track is "Boltcutter Again," a timely and vigorous junkyard rock/punk that takes on the travel ban through the experience of a detained woman. This one has other surprises you can discover for yourselves. ★★★★

Tow'rs, Grey Fidelity

I listened to this a lot when I was down with back trouble; it was a balm for the ears and soul. This Flagstaff, Arizona band is generally a quartet fronted by the husband/wife team of Kyle and Gretta Miller, but it's also an expandable lineup that draws in friends. What to call the music is a harder task. The indie rock label often gets used, but one of the sites in which the band shows up is called SleepMusic. In this case, that's a good thing; Tow'rs features meditative melodies and ambient vibes. "Girl in Calico" is aurally what a warm bath is physically. The song establishes a hypnotic space and punches small holes in it via bright electric guitar notes. "Consolations" uses cello, keys, bass, and guitar to build a moody frame and gives the beat a gentle nudge. In fact, gentle is the word I'd use to most of the songs. If you, as did I, need to carve out a place to recoup, you will find this just the ticket. If you're looking for something loud and abrasive, turn elsewhere. Objectively speaking, the album could use more variety. It's so calm that the lyrics retreat into the mix. That's fine for much of the material, but material like "When I'm Silent" could use more oomph, given that it's about those who challenge silence in the face of injustice. For me, "Revelator Man" has the catchiest hooks, but even it is more rose than hammer. That's the sort of band Tow'rs is and sometimes, that's what I want and need. ★★★★ 

Short Takes:

Labels are useful, but not when they're outdated. repeat repeat has been called a "bicoastal beach pop band," but their Bloom and Doom is more like a cross between The Bangles and a tamed version of Bad Religion. Yes, there's some surf guitar, but the heavy bass, 140 bpm percussion, power chords, and soaked-in-a-loud-mix vocals evoke punk and metal.  If this intrigues, try "Mostly" and the aptly named "Speaker Destroyer."

Lined out a capella singing dates to the 17th century, making it older than America itself. 76-year-old Frank Newsome was born in rural Kentucky, one of 20 children. Like most folks in his neck of the backwoods, he headed for the coal pits at an early age and had black lung disease by the time he 20. These days he's an Old Regular Baptist minister and an NEA Heritage Fellow, the type folklorists call a "source singer," meaning they tap into traditions that predate the recording industry. Think Ralph Stanley, with whom Newsome was a close friend. Newsome's comes from the soul and the hills—deep, resonant, spare and powerful—even though he needs medication (and sometimes a ventilator) to breathe. Try the title track from Gone Away with a Friend and "Long Black Train."

Robbie Fulks is a musician of many moods, but he goes country/rockabilly retro on Wild! Wild! Wild!, his collaboration with Linda Gail Lewis, little sister of rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis. "I Just Lived a Country Song" is class honky-tonk in feel, though the lyrics reference more recent history. The title track with its thwacky bass, slap-slap percussion, and twangy vocals certainly turns back the clock. "Memphis Never Falls from Style" could have been plucked from an old John Hartford album. It's no exaggeration to say that not too many folks make albums like this any more.

Stephen Winston has his own retro thing going on Grayling. Bossa nova influences are all over "Falling Apart." The bright cascades of notes, controlled drumming, and sunny feel of "Roman Road" conjure the type of light pop associated with California "easy listening" music. I like Winston's smooth high tenor, but a song such as "Trains in Utah" feels like it could use more emotion. Winston invokes comparisons to 70s/80s' icons such as Harry Chapin, Phil Collins, and John Denver. Whether or not that's a good thing totally depends on your capacity for evocative nostalgia.

Mostly, older material gets updated these days, which is what Madrid-based flamenco artist Elena Andujar has done on Flamenco in Time, her collaboration with club producer Matt Warren. This is a mix and remix album that seeks to bring flamenco into the age of electronic with lots of reverb, echo, and looping. How do you feel about a house version of the 1960s' flamenco standard "El Despertador?" Or a song like "Es Asi" given a brassy, thumping funk workout? I admit that I'm torn but then again, my clubbing days are decades behind me. Check out these tracks and see what you think.

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