Hope Dunbar, Neil Nathan, Molly Madigan , Kris Guren and More

Hope Dunbar is lives in a small town, holds part-time jobs, composes folk/country acoustic music, and can only write when her kids are in school. Sound familiar? You'd be right several times over if Lori McKenna analogies popped into your head. Okay, so McKenna dwells in Massachusetts and her husband is a plumber, whereas Dunbar resides in Nebraska and her spouse is the local minister, but listen to the voice and you'll really get the picture. Dunbar's Three Black Crows is one of my favorite records of the year. If ever the phrase "singing your heart out" applies, it's here. "She Keeps Going" might just rip yours in half: She keeps going/Because she has to/There's no one to take her place…. If there's any justice in this world, Dunbar's "I Write" will be become an anthem for for unsigned artists everywhere: And I write in the morning at the breakfast table in my bathrobe and slippers in the margins of the junkmail/I write in the morning then I sing 'em at the bars where they pay me in beer and put dollars in my tip jar…. And what would you do if you were me/You'd pick up your pen and write your story. Even if you're not a fan of acoustic music, you can't help but admire the unvarnished honesty of this album. The title track has evocations of Appalachian old-time music. Listen for the metaphor—another splash of cold reality. The songs on this record dance on the razor's edge between contentment and chomping at the bit. Dunbar also thinks a lot of the world beyond her town. She wrote "The Shooter" before the mass murder in Texas moments, but it's hard not to shudder when you think of her small town and church involvement. "Revolver," a tale of domestic violence, might be even more chilling. Dunbar has a very pretty voice, but don't be fooled by it—most of the material on Three Black Crows is of the same inky noir as the birds. Call it an album of routines and shattered dreams. Call it a small masterpiece. ★★★★★

Neil Nathan has been around since 2007 and critics have compared him to everyone from Cat Stevens and Jeff Tweedy to Elton John and Josh Ritter. Huh? Yes, he's that kind of versatile. He's also a fan of power pop, gritty Detroit rock, and has performed in an Off-Broadway rock opera. So why not add some new head scratching analogies? Flowers on the Moon is like Graham Nash filtered through the flower child psychedelics of Donovan and a Neil Young quaver. At present, not many videos are available, but you can check out the title track and you'll be excused if it makes you dust off your black light and drop some food coloring onto a glass plate of floating oil. "Gone and Back Again" is also trippy, but in more of a gentle way, while "It Goes On" is somewhere between acid folk and a carnival. "Sugar Man" is another ethereal song, one loaded with befitting dangerous undertones. I also really liked "Me and Jim," a multi-tracked folk in an echo chamber song. I had no liner notes, but I wondered if the character Jim is Morrison given the repeating "No one here gets out alive" lyric. Another available on video is "Don't Forget Me," and if the tune sounds awfully familiar, it's because you've got the oldie "Rhythm of the Falling Rain" residing somewhere in your brain. Nathan really evokes Neil Young on "Burning a Horse," right down to the strained   vocals bordering on falsetto and atmospherics that sound simple but are more layered than you at first imagine. ★★★★

Molly Pinto Madigan is a Cambridge-based singer songwriter with the heart of a poet and a taste for ancient ballads. You know you're in the presence of a wordsmith when words like fain, rockweed, wolfsbane, cockleshells, and redolent appear in the lyrics and make sense. When I listened to Madigan's latest, The Cup Overflows, the descriptor 'courtly love nouveau' popped into my head. It's mostly a record about yearning and longing for lovers present and past. Had I been she, I think I would have made "Wormwood" the title track. It's the plant from which absinthe is distilled and is both intoxicating and (literally) toxic. Madigan sings: O, it's bitter grows the wormwood, gay/And cheerless is the springing thyme/For my own true love came home today/Home to a bed that isn't mine. Don't wait for any fa-la-la chorus to ensue; the song is reeved with pathos. "Here Comes the Night"—not the Van Morrison song—is dark as well: Oh, lover, this longing/It's got me broken, through and through/Streetlamps sighing with moth wings/And I'm here sighing without you. Yep—these are folk songs in the grand tradition of pain and but only occasional gain. In "Seven Tears" hope comes in the pleas of a new suitor offering to take away the hurt left by a false love. On the title track, she lies awake in a moonlight-splashed bed in which she's just made love hoping that her yearning shows. Madigan's voice is sweet and ethereal, though still a tad on the young side, but her pen is mature and her desire palpable.★★★★

Kris Gruen is from New York and his father, Bob, is a photographer famed for his shots of John Lennon. Kris, however, now makes his home in Montpelier, Vermont. All of this makes him an intriguing mix of the urbanity of Paul Simon, the mystic vibe of Nick Drake, and the whiskey growl of the late Bill Morrissey—yet he's not like any of them. His newest CD is titled To Swoon and Beguile, which is his opinion of what music should do. His songs explore wonder, healing, connections, and disconnections. The title "Further Down," for example, sounds like we might be in for a look at bad times, but it's actually about moving forward: It takes no time to begin again/Just stay away from where you've been… "Part of It All" is one of those songs that makes you feel significant and inconsequential at the same time. "Dunroven's Farm" is backcountry sweet, but its inspiration—an old mill in Calais, Vermont—also evokes timelessness. Its musical opposite is the moody "How Long Will I Wait," with its indie pop/rock sheen. Gruen has an intriguing voice that's at turns, smooth, gravely, and near falsetto—the sort that makes you feel and drift rather than hang on to each note. Swoon and beguile indeed.★★★    

This one's tough. The bluegrass quintet Mile Twelve brings together folks who (mostly) met at the Berklee School of Music and they've just released their debut CD Onwards. It is a solid piece of piece of work featuring ten originals and two covers: Geoff Bartley's "Sunny Side of Town" and "Ace of Hearts," popularized by Alan Jackson. The musicianship is solid, the performances tight, the production first-rate and yet, how you will feel about this record depends entirely on whether you are a fan of classic bluegrass or if you prefer the more innovative approach that's en vogue at present. On one hand, I like traditional music but on the other, there are scads of new bluegrass bands and I can't help but wonder if Onwards is strong enough to help Mile Twelve break out of the pack. Frankly, it feels a bit too "safe" to me. It's odd, though, to be critical of something well done, so take a listen and see what you think. Try these: "The Margaret Keene," "Call My Soul," and the breakdown cover of "Ace of Hearts." ★★½ 

Joel Madison Blount has hitherto been playing a lot of rock n' roll, but on Our New Moon he ventures onto Americana/folk turf. The results, alas, are mixed. Blount certainly knows that in folk, the message is central and that you need to wear your thoughts on your sleeve. Aside from "Arms Wide Open," an impending fatherhood song, most of his tales walk a middle path between hope and reality. My favorite track is "Beauty That Remains," which challenges us to take life as it comes and find the glory amidst the disappointments.  The problem is, however, that too much of this album is painted beige. Blount has a fine, powerful voice but he has not mastered the folk idiom. Most of the songs open with sensitive, quiet, clear tones, but slide up to scales and volumes that mesh with more lush instrumentation. There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it tends to happen the same place in the same way so often that redundancy sets in. I really liked his voice, but Blount needs more inventive arrangements and evolve more ways to showcase his pipes. ★★


Hope said...

Thank you guys for listening to my record and for shining a light on the work by featuring it on your site. I am so thankful and most of all, so glad you connected with it. Take care and keep up the good work.

-Hope Dunbar

Anonymous said...

Our pleasure Hope. It's always a joy to hear work such as yours--songs about real stuff, real struggles, and deep thoughts. Plus, ya' sing real well too!