Isabelle Stillman, Manon Ward, Jason Hawk Harris, Olivia Francis, Aaron Jaxon Band, Daniel Johnston


Denver-based Isabelle Stillman has just released her debut LP Middle Sister. Her themes include love of family, growing pains, and being a woman in American society. I think you’re going to hear from this young high school teacher. “Take Care of You” doles out just enough darkness to add some husk to her voice and lend an air of mystery to the song. There’s an open feel to Stillman’s compositions. “That Salinger Novel” is mostly resonant woods with percussion that evokes a clip-clop slow ride across the plains, though the song has nothing to do with riding horses–or being in control for that matter. Though she’s a new artist in the indie folk tradition, Stillman is not starry-eyed. “Nashville” has a cheerful wrapper, but hers is more of a what if/I hope song than just a matter of time swagger. It’s also woke in recognizing the differences between externals and substance. In some ways it’s a bookend to “Driving Alone,” a museful on-the-road piece with memorable melodic hooks. She’s pushing this one as a single, but somehow, I think that honor might go to “Kid.” Like Joni Mitchell’s famed “Circle Game” it’s about the swift passage of time that goes from the “You’re fragile and unbreakable” days of toddlerdom to being to one who dispenses “grown-up words and tips.” If you’re still not impressed, check out her cover of “Beast of Burden.★★★★

Manon Ward is a Wyoming native who has also relocated to Nashville. That’s where dreams are crushed or come true these days, and Ward has a legitimate shot at falling into the second camp. Her self-titled debut EP is billed as country, but from where I sit the only country (ish) song on her EP is “Honey on Me,” a blues rock arrangement that has stylistic echoes of Dusty Springfield and Bobbi Jo Gentry. The rest is a mélange of rock and pop. Ward’s idols included Hank Williams and Shania Twain, but also AC/DC, Queen, and John Mayer, and her producer and lead guitarist is Johnny Garcia (Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood). This is to say that Ward might not be the typical Nashville product and that could stand her in good stead. If you listen to “I’ve Never Felt SoMe,” a song in which she celebrates herself, you can hear the pop influences in her voice, but her phrasing suggests that she has enormous potential. Also impressive is “Do Over,” which has a hint of funk. The lyrics come in the rapid-fire delivery of sung rap. “Unlike Love” is a clever and optimistic little number in which she catalogues the things she can take or leave and turn on or off–unlike love. The flip side to “I’ve Never Felt So Me” is “Don’t Need a Map,” and if it’s country, I’ll eat my cowboy hat. The cadences and rhymes are decidedly pop/rap/indie rock in nature. Ward drops the names of her sheroes, but it’ a personal declaration of strength: Everybody seems to be somebody’s something/I don’t want to be nobody’s nothing…At the end of the day I’ll find my way/And I don’t need a map. I think we may be hearing more from Manon Ward as well. ★★★★

If you want to sample someone who is country (plus rock, folk, and a touch of punk), try Jason Hawk Harris, a Houstonian transplanted to LA. You don’t get much more country than “Cussing At the Light,” which is country rock with a honkytonk feel. What’s more country than a song about a guy whose broken heart leads him to drink? How about a lyric like: I’ve been cussing at the light and waiting for the night/ To medicate this heart of mine? It’s one of several gems on Introducing Jason Hawk Harris. “I’m Afraid” comes across as a sort of redneck version of the trials of Job, and Harris does it with such tongue in cheek that it’s hard to tell if the song is kick-ass gospel or a parody. Hawks can also shift to wistful mode, as he does on “The Smoke and the Stars,” in which he expresses his desire to get lost in the “green eyes” of the woman waiting at the end of the road. The song’s format is quiet to loud to quiet to loud–and repeat. He goes mostly acoustic on “The Risk That You Take,” a supplication to be taken as he is: Honey let me be the risk that you take. ★★★★

Olivia Frances counts Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, and Fleetwood Mac among her inspirations. Call her album Orchid songs in the key of sunshine–even when the content isn’t upbeat. If that makes no sense to you, listen to “Porcelain,” which is about the lonely and forgotten. Frances gives the song a pop treatment that somehow makes us think that connections will be made and clouds will lift. If this is too ambiguous, try “Moon to My Sun,” which won an Indie Music Award for best love song. She’s also written another love song titled “Once in a Blue Moon” that should not be confused with the similarly named classic falling out of love song from Nanci Griffith, though this one has a little edge to it as well. This Worcester-based singer fronts a quintet and you can hear both youth and optimism in her voice. Her current repertoire could use more diversity, but she is a talent worth watching. ★★★ 

Texas native Aaron Jackson is now ensconced in Johnson City, Tennessee. He fronts a five-piece band called the Aaron Jaxon Band that throws a bit of everything at you on Light on the Inside. Jackson’s heroes include the Allman Brothers, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, so that ought to tell you something. His songs, as he puts it, seek to be deeper and darker than boy-meets-girl. Check out “Dreamers,” which is where quiet country morphs into rock n’ roll. He offers a bit of gospel-tinged Americana folk on “Grace AmongHoly Gifts,” and the title track of his new project opens with a splash of organ as prelude to a catchy melody with solid guitar riffs. Some have praised Jackson’s lyrics. You’re on your own with that one as his voice doesn’t mesh well with compressed MP3 files. He can fire it up on the guitar, though. ★★★

Let’s round this off with a dud. Daniel Johnston played a Paste Studio Session last summer. He’s a lo-fi cult figure and old-style rock n’ roller whose guitar has grit and grab. That’s what he has: good licks. But he’s no songwriter, as you can hear is offering such as “I Had Lost My Mind,” “Take the Records of Rock and Roll,” and “Speeding Motorcycle.” It’s this simple: He.Can’t.Sing! His voice is filled with breaks and he’s off-key more often than he’s on. This session feels like a basement band that should have stayed there.

Update: Johnston died at the age of 58 on September 11. I am sorry he has passed, but my critique stands as written.

Rob Weir

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