Sleeping at Last, Molly Thomas. Rachael Sage, SUSTO and More

Sleeping at Last, The Spring

New Age music–now generally called ambient music–has taken hits from critics who dismiss it as elevator or fern bar music. Often that's warranted, but when done right there's something about it that reaches deep into one's emotional core. Seeping at Last, the handle of Chicago composer/producer/musician Ryan O'Neal, decidedly does it right. His original composition The Spring evokes adjectives such as contemplative and pretty in some very good ways. This project began as the score for a 2016 film fin support of Charitywater.org. I gave a plug for it when just a few tracks were released, but now that I have all 13 tracks in hand, I want to give it a rave. It is, save one selection, an instrumental album but one that will make you revel in the spring, appreciate the very life force of water, and astonish with its crystalline beauty. Rain-like piano and museful strings (Anya and Sharon Gerber) frame "Atlantic" and then send us metaphorically coursing downstream and into mysterious depths. The cello in "Transformations" is so gorgeous it aches; it's simply a work of rare beauty. If you need to get out of your own head, try "Insteadof Myself" and disappear down a swirling, magical hole. The keys and jumping string bounce with what is at once joyous, yet urgent.  And, yes, the title track captures spring's essence, even though it means water's source, not the season. But you can be forgiven for conflating the two given the composition's opening fragility and the radiant burst into which it evolves. Objectively, the plinky piano keys are overused on the album, but I was so nonetheless deeply moved by it. ★★★★ 

Molly Thomas and the Rare Birds, Honey's Fury

 If you've ever seen Todd Snider's band and were dazzled by his fiddler and backup singer, chances are good it was Molly Thomas. Thomas is also a crackerjack songwriter, acoustic guitarist, and lead vocalist. Her latest project, Honey's Fury, finds her fronting a dynamic quartet that includes one-time Wet Willie lead guitarist Rick Hirsch. Think a country-flavored rock vibe and a voice that's somewhere between Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris and you're in Molly's wheelhouse. As you will hear on "The Boatman," she can sing it soft or bold. On "Calling My Name, " she soars through a big arrangement like a fearless bird, and the surf isn't the only thing thundering on "The Ocean." On the latter she sings, I was born in a little town east of the Biloxi wind and all one can say is that though it may be the case that the ocean is in my veins, the currents have carried her far. There aren't many videos yet available from the new album, but check around and you'll find samples from the rest of the album. I particularly admire Thomas' ability to shift moods, as she does on "Tumbleweed," which truly could be one of Emmylou's songs with its folky ambience that gives Thomas quiet spaces to air her voice. And, man, does she ever air it! She also gets swampy and bluesy on a cover "I Wanna Live," a piece that flashes "Danger!" at every turn. The album title comes from the enigmatic trippiness of "Calling My Name," which would have been at home at the Fillmore West circa 1968. From where I sit, Molly Thomas left it all on the studio floor when she made Honey's Fury.  ★★★★

Rachael Sage, PseudoMyopia

Some singers possess an innate sense of how to construct grab-you-by-the-earbuds songs. Rachel Sage is one of them. She doesn’t have a big voice, but she more than compensates through her command of how to work her way through intriguing mixes. On “Alive,” she lulls us into a middle groove and then punches out the It’s good to be alive refrain with such panache that it snaps us to attention. Some have compared her to Carole King, but I thought of Sarah McClachlan when I heard “Spark.” Listen to how Sage uses the piano cadences to build to the repeating lines that begin Hold me like a candle/Shine me like a knife. The EP’s theme is vision, as in both perspectives and in sight; Sage is legally blind without lenses. Sage is nothing if not adventuresome and quirky. “Olivia” is a strong woman inspired by a Law & Order character. The arrangement of this one is ever-so-slightly off-kilter and is a sound envelop that features everything from bouncing cello to piano cascades and sprays of strings. For my taste, Sage swallows a bit too much air on “Myopia,” but she redeems herself with a redux of her 1998 “Sistersong.” True to form, it’s a wee bit offbeat, opening like the prelude to a jingle and venturing off into accented vocals and dramatic instrumentation that evokes a scene from a musical. ★★★★

SUSTO, Ever Since I Lost My Mind

SUSTO [sic] is a five-piece Charleston, SC-based indie rock band captained by Justin Osborne. It has been around since 2013, but almost broke up when Osborne considered becoming an anthropologist. A study tour to Cuba changed his mind; Osborne hung out with musicians and began to explore new ways of making connections. Susto is, by the way, a Spanish word that's a bit hard to translate exactly. It's a scare or something that appears suddenly and unexpectedly, or–as the band's Website puts it–a kind of "spiritual panic attack." This makes the title of SUSTO's new recording a bit of double wordplay. The band's material is equally elusive to pin down. "Esta Bien" finds them in full Caribbean mode, with Osborne toggling between Spanish and English like a folk crooner, "Homeboy" sports a galloping acoustic intro that delivers us unto a mix of crashing power chords, electric surf guitar, and a splash of psychedelic lead. But what do we do with "If I Was," a bit folk ornamented with crystalline electric lead and bass? Or "Last Century," with its buzzy mix that feels like The Police on 'roids? If you're not perplexed and intrigued yet, try "Weather Balloons," a hopeful little love song that gathers force and repeats its reminder: I'm not dead yet. ★★★★
In Brief:

Whenever I get free EPs of back pages material, it generally means performers are about to drop a new release. Yet insofar as I can tell, this isn't the case of Toad the Wet Sprocket. No matter, their 5-track Something Old Something New is a reminder that they are one of the better jam bands. Check out a few tracks from Constellation (2013), their most recent release. You can hear the title track and "California Wasted." For my money, though, their 1991 song "All I Want" makes me hope the band will indeed release a new record soon. For those that don't know, the unusual band name was lifted from a Monty Python sketch.

I also got a Wilco concert sampler titled 12-12-11 that is four songs from its album The Whole Love (2011): "Born Alone," "I Might," "One Sunday Morning," and "Rising Red Lung." I offer this Noise Trade release for the many of you who are fans. My confession is that Wilco has always underwhelmed me.

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