October Music Roundup

Here's a potpourri of stuff that came through my physical and virtual mailboxes. I call them "Hits" and "Misses."


Boston-born Tracy Bonham has been around since the mid-90s–long enough to garner a few Grammy and MTV nominations and secure a middling hit with her 1996 single "Mother Mother." She's sometimes called a "post-grunge rocker," probably because she's wowed audiences with a stripped down cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire." I certainly would not apply that description for her new CD Wax & Gold. Most of its tunes fall into a cross-genre seam contains pop sensibilities, the vocal stylings of alt.country, and the melodic structure of folk. Speaking of the latter, listen to "Love, Love, Love," which has the feel of a mid-60s folk song. Then listen to Donovan's "Catch the Wind" and you'll find the melody of Bonham's verses echo it. I have no idea if that was intentional and the rest of the song is quite different, but my point is that there's decidedly a folk vibe at play were. And a country vibe as well. There's quite a bit of twang in her voice and when she climbs into the upper ranges—which she does to great effect on "Black Tears"–in which she warbles on the edge of a yodel. There's also plenty of country giddyup to the title track and Kevin Salem's jangly guitar. One of the more intriguing songs is "Luck," another one of those in-the-seam songs. It's a lullaby filtered through darkness courtesy of some grungy bass from Mike DuClos, some down-and-dirty swing from Salem's electric guitar, and Bonham's own hints-of-danger vocals. Those who've heard previous Bonham releases will find Wax & Gold stripped down by comparison. It suits.

Sam Gleaves is both talented and a man with courage of heart and convictions. America has changed a lot in the past few decades, but it's fair to say that there are still a lot of places where being gay is harder than others. Gleaves' Ain't We Brothers takes the LGBTQ agenda into the heart of the Southern Appalachians. His music is rooted in old-time and bluegrass music, so here's hoping that singing the region's language produces the tolerance for which he pleas. When he sings a song such as "My Dixie Darling," he's not singing about a calico-clad lass waiting on the front porch. I'll admit that it's jarring to hear him sing an unbridled love song to another man—not because I disapprove, but because I'm used to hearing country and bluegrass singers croon nostrums about "traditional values," whatever the hell they are. Gleaves also wears his blue-collar roots on his sleeve. "Working Shoes" is a backwoods paean to a poor miner, his grandfather, with all of life's hardships worn into the leathery cracks.  And what if that miner is gay, a question he raises on the title track: First things first, I'm a blue collar man/Scrapes on my knuckles and dust on my hands/Probably wouldn't have known/ I've got a man waiting on me at home. Later on he sings, I was born here just the same as you/ Another time, another day/I'm sure the good Lord took his time/ Making each of us just this way/I walked beside you step by step/ And it never crossed my mind/That I would grow up one of the different kind. Then the plea: "But ain't we brothers?"  Most of the songs on the album are, in some form or other, about different kinds of love: same-sex love, love of the South, love of humanity…. Can Sam Gleaves melt the hearts of self-styled good ole' boys? Why not? This dude has serious talent: a nice mountain voice and wizardry on banjo, flattop guitar, fiddle, autoharp, and dulcimer. Who cares if the calico lass is a jeans-clad working man?

The Texas-based country rock band Green River Ordinance has been kicking around long enough to have a few hit singles such as "Come On" (2009) and "On Your Own" (2010). Its most recent album, Chasing Down the Wind, is a good reason to check them out if you're not familiar. Josh Jenkins is a classic country rock vocalist–he has the chops of an arena rock singer, but leavened with Fort Worth twang and the ability to be smooth and gentle when needs arise. "She's In the Air" is simply a really great love song and finds the right seam between power, passion, and yearning. It's also different than the band's usual (and winning) formula of beginning songs quietly then using Geoff Ice's bass and Denton Hunter's drum to produce a thumping pulse to segue into more robust arrangements. You'll probably also appreciate how GRO eschew enigma. "It Ain't Love" is immediately decoded with the line "If it can't break your heart;" just as "Ain't Afraid of Dying" explains why: "Because I've truly lived." There's much to be said for hooks that work and theirs do.


I loved November, the 2013 release by Grace & Tony, but am not a fan of their latest, Phantasmagoric. Tony White is an admitted refugee of the punk rock scene, so I expect his projects to wander into some dark places. Phantasmagoric, however, is relentlessly macabre and lacks the sunny interludes of November. It is also odd–and not in a good way. Tony & Grace indulge their love of creepy masters such as H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, and Stephen King, but they do so on an album that's a Southern Gothic version of rock opera meets Sweeney Todd. In fact, "Sweeney Todd" directly inspired the song "Invitation to an Autopsy". While I'd much rather hear Grace sing than Helena Bonham Carter, the material echoes too closely the histrionic style of stage productions. Most of the rest of the album mines from spooky pits as well: "Lullaby of Red Death" parallels the Ebola crisis, "Adam of Labour" takes the point of view of Frankenstein's monster, and both "The Marsh Prologue" and "A Lot Dies Today" draw upon Stephen King. You know you're in for a bumpy ride when an instrumental titled "A Fever on the Cthula Queen" is among the more upbeat selections—its mix of genteel and macabre is as ambiguous as Lovecraft's imagined terrors. Monsters, murderers, plagues, and suicides don't make for fuzzy feelings. I've no problem with grim material, but the project feels like music written for a stage show for which actors, costumes, scenery, and script have yet to be chosen. One must also wonder about the choice of making what is, in essence, a concept album in the age of single-song downloads.

When I was a teen, I was involved with a Christian youth group. We sang religious songs, but we also had a songbook filled with current and recent pop, folk, and rock tunes deemed angelic enough for our ears. It may have been the last time in which I heard religious music that was remotely contemporary. I will give some credit to Strahan; his Feel the Night is only a few decades out of date. The New Zealand-based Strahan calls himself a "modern psalmist" and his songs "folk theology," but neither is entirely accurate. His music is heavy on Meatloaf/Michael Bolton-like power ballads. That would make them "pop/rock theology" in my book. And it's straight out of the 1980s.

Rob Weir


Jenna Moynihan's Woven a Subtle Piece of Fine Cloth


I once asked Kevin Burke what kind of fiddlers impressed him. He replied that just about anyone with a moderate amount of talent can play fast; he pays attention when they can play slowly. Burke would probably love Jenna Moynihan's aptly named debut solo album Woven. Think the warp and weft threads of emerging patterns, not the clackety-clack of a loom. Moynihan is the latest Celtic music-inspired wunderkind from Boston's Berklee College of Music and like other recent grads, she's a treasure. She is capable of blistering the paint from the walls, as she demonstrates on breakneck pieces such as "Dolina MacKay," but for the most part she plays with a lighter touch and unhurried pace. On the impressive opening track "Haven," she uses one- and two-note repeats on her fiddle (and Della Mae's Courtney Hartman's guitar) to echo like a penny whistle whilst spinning finer threads around them. Like many of the Scottish fiddlers who inspire her, Moynihan likes to transpose pipe tunes for strings, but again she emphasizes subtle and introspective aspects. Among the artists she admires is Scotland's Blazin' Fiddles, a lineup known for its high-octane playing. Leave it to Moynihan to find something from its softer side, a lovely tune titled "The Eagle's Whistle." Lovelier still are pieces that also feature her sometime touring partner, Skye clarsach player Mairi Chaimbeul. Of particular note is Chaimbeul's own "Kendall Tavern," which invokes Catriona MacKay in the way it manages to be simultaneously edgy and frangible. It opens with Chaimbeul's harp taking center stage while Moynihan's fiddle adds resonant bottom, then midway through the roles reverse. The tune gathers speed, but it's more the pace of a spirited trot than a sweaty gallop, and then it decelerates to a slow fade.

Throughout this tight ten-track release Ms. Moynihan impresses with her flexibility and deep understanding of what each tune commands. There is, for instance, a superb collaboration with Darol Anger: "The Chill on the Montebello."  It is exactly the sort of freeform jam you'd expect from Anger–explorative and improvisational, yet controlled. "O'Sullivan's March" is an equally thoughtful arrangement. Moynihan's dreamy touch on this one feels more like a brook side pause for reflection than a measured slog down the road. She does take us out on a double-time note with the ironically named "Rise Ye Lazy Fellow" set. Call it the flash of eye-catching red that brings everything together on a muted musical tapestry.

Rob Weir


Charlie Parr: Badass Blues for Honest People

Red House Records RHR-282
* * * *

Is there such a thing as composite reincarnation? Charlie Parr is what you get if Dave Van Ronk, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Rev. Gary Davis came back as one person. Parr's latest, Stumpjumpin' is timeless, badass, and hot. You know you're in for a trip down the bumpy alleys of life on a song like "Evil Companion" and lyrics such as: "You don't love me/It's nobody's fault but mine/You want me to go 100 mph/But my car only goes 99." And if you think that's love without a future, check out "On Marrying a Woman with an Uncontrollable Temper" with its backwoodsy feel leavened with attitude and lyrics worthy of John Prine at his puckish best.

Parr's blues are protean in the way that blue-collar life has to be adaptable. And, make no mistake–his take on life is fashioned by the school of hard knocks as experienced by rural free spirits and workaday stiffs. Check out the title track, a dynamo of energy, bad times, attitude, blistering resonator slides, and lyrics like these:  "We are stumpjumpers/We are cross-tie walkers/We are grown up kids of the working class/And I work when I can/And I ain't got no money/And I may look rough/But I'm an honest man." It's a song filled with such authenticity that you almost feel uplifted by its end. Or, at least, your heart's racing a few beats faster. Parr can really trump his resonator in the service of Delta blues. One hears Mississippi John Hurt influences all over "Falcon," which is filled with nibble acoustic runs, cool filling electric tones from Phil Cook, and lyrics that equate its antihero with his namesake sharp-clawed raptor. Parr also plays a wicked fretless banjo that brings his blues to the place where the Delta meets Appalachia. And what better way to end such an album than with a take on the classic murder ballad "Delia." (Parr's version is informed more by Bob Dylan's take than by Johnny Cash's more famous rendition.) This is, simply, a wonderful record, though it needs a slight name change; call it Stumpjumpin' and Footstompin.'

Rob Weir 

Charley Parr will appear at the Parlor Room in Northampton, MA on November 6. Check his Website f or other shows. You can also sample his music on that site or on the Red HouseRecords site, where you can also order his music.