May 2019 Music: Nels Andrews, April Verch, Taina Asili, Finnish Independents, Sass Jordan

Nels Andrews, Scrimshaw

You will notice several things about folksinger Nels Andrews from the start: he's a contemplative poet, a born storyteller, and reminds you of Richard Shindell in voice and temperament. In fact, he too has a song titled "Wisteria," though Andrews' song is a sweet love song and Shindell's is rumination on the past. Andrews has made his 2012 recording Scrimshaw widely available as a kickoff to a new project that releases in June. The songs on Scrimshaw aren't all maritime in theme, but do draw inspiration from songs and stories that sailors fashioned during long voyages. "Flotsam" is a wanderers' tale whose waltz melody will stick in your head, as will the imploring line leave the romantics alone. "Barroom Bards" is another take on travelers, this one with a cautionary line: Barroom bards and river stones done shine so bright/When you get them home. In a similar vein, "Starboard" draws you in deeper with each line, this one of dreams gone wrong: You come home ragged and you come home curt/We can smell the city on your shirt/By the length of your hem and your torn lapel/We see you've been sinking in the wishing well. It, like "Trident," is a sink-or-swim song and Andrews often doesn't resolve matters for us. In the latter he sings: Then you rise, you're back on the pavement/Your hands in your pocket digging for warmth. I adored this album. It even comes with eye-popping medieval manuscript artwork. One can only imagine what Andrews has up his sleeve in the future, but if you've not heard Scrimshaw you're missing a literate, finely polished gem. ★★★★★

April Verch, Once a Day

The Ottawa Valley has long been a hotbed for country music. April Verch has steadily been moving in that direction and gone full-bore cowgirl on Once a Day, her tribute to country music from the 1950s and 1960s. You will find songs penned by country giants such as Webb Pierce, Connie Smith, and Loretta Lynn. Speaking of Lynn, Verch covers her classic "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man." Yep, that one dates from before feminism took hold, though in its own corny way it's flippant and defiant. Another old chestnut is "A Fool Such asI," which Hank Snow recorded back in 1953. Songs such as these are fun, but it's hard not to contrast them with tunes such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8h281Cjszw" a rollicking fiddle reel drawn from the traditional well. I like Verch's voice, though it may not be for everyone–it's nasal, high, and quirky­–but she's nonpareil when she picks up the fiddle. I'm glad she's having some fun, but I hope future releases won't hide her best gift under a basket. ★★★

Taína Asili, Resiliencia

Taína Asili could be the poster child for strong women who forge their own path. She's a poet and a podcaster, a singer and a feminist, a storyteller and an activist. Resilient women inspired her new album, and she celebrates them on the title track. The instrumentation pays homage to Ms. Asili's Puerto Rican heritage as well as hard rock. Aisili is a veteran of New York State's punk rock scene, but her musical boundaries go way beyond. "Even If" takes on the sexual violation of women, transgressions of boundaries, and misogyny to a decided reggae beat. "Plant the Seed" sings the glories of farming and the land, "Gave It All My Love" has pop hooks, and "Beyond the Stars" spices with Southeast Asian rhythms, courtesy of collaborator Veena Chandra. Elsewhere there are plenty of Afro-Carib melodies inspired by salsa and guaracha. No matter the format, you'll be impressed by Asili's gale-force vocals. Once you hear her sing, it won't surprise you to learn she's also done opera as well as punk, and how many people can say that? Make no mistake, though, Aisili is on a mission of resistance against injustices of all sort. ★★★★  

Finnish Independents, Finnish Home Party

Don't expect kantele or keyed fiddles on Finnish Home Party. Don't expect any Finnish either; all of the songs are in English though all five acts are from the Land of a Thousand Lakes. This album is a spotlight for emerging talent. Anni's songs are moody and dramatic. Try "Lost Ones," in which her piano is drenched in drone guitar and electronic keys. GEA also features keys, though they are more lush and the vocals evoke Enya. "Snow" is intriguing with its rain-like piano notes and mix with strings and bass. Lone Deer Laredo might suggest Texas, but vocalist Paola Suhonen and guitarist Olli Happonen echo the ambient feel of GEA, but with arrangements that are simultaneously more jangly and harder. Sample "Golden Harvest." New Silver Girl opens "Phantom Ride" quietly, but soon amp up for a song that's a cross between punk and New Wave. Sort of what you'd expect from a band that counts among its influences both Dick Dale and Lou Reed. Finally there's Sam Shaky, whose "Too Proud" features cascades of notes and Bowie-like vocals. Shakey calls his music "bittersweet rock." He hails from Kouvala, which he claims is the "most hated city in the country." Will we be hearing more from any of these artists? It's hard to say, but each act is positioning itself for an international market that increasingly communicates in English. Is that a good thing? You be the judge. ★★★

Sass Jordan, #Make Big Noise

Sass Jordan lives up to her handle–Sarah is her given name–and to the title of her recent four-track EP. Jordan currently lives in Montreal, though she's done lots of acting on both sides of the border. How big is her voice? She played Janis Joplin in an off-Broadway play and did a duet with Joe Cocker for The Bodyguard soundtrack. You'll hear some pop-rock on Cinnamon" and "Small Thing."  She ratchets up to arena rock levels on "So Hard" with its power chords and swirling guitar flourishes, and there are echoes of New Wave on "Tell Somebody."  Yeah, Jordan can sing a bit! ★★★★

Rob Weir 

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