Azalea, Cora, Tiny Ruins, Randolph,Appalchian Rising, and More

If the new album from Azalea has a house concert feel, that’s because it is. Live at Home is exactly as billed–an album recorded before a small gathering at the Hamilton, Ontario, home of Benjamin and Mia Hackett. This husband and wife duo draws comparisons to The Civil Wars, but from my perspective, the song “Falling Slowly” tells a different story. Some might recognize that song from the movie/play Once. The Hacketts do an absolutely gorgeous cover of it and it’s heartfelt; they too fell in love while on the music circuit. “Butterflies and Alchemists” is another defining song. It opens with ringing tones from Benjamin’s guitar and his high tenor vocals. Mia joins in and harmonizes with her angelic soprano. That’s what you get from Azalea–intimate songs, gorgeous harmonies, and soothing music. Small wonder that the album also contains a song titled “Your Lullaby.” There is slightly more grit on “Come with Me,” which is given some grit from Benjamin’s resonator guitar and Mia’s robust piano chording, but even it wends its way into something more lovely than aggressive. If there is a flaw in the album/concert, it is that all of the songs are beautiful. Some may yearn for more contrasts and colors, I suppose, but it’s hard to knock radiance. ★★★★  

Let’s stay in Ontario. Paige Cora is a dream-pop singer. That handle generally means that the vox are breathy and echoey, whilst the instrumentation is heavy on synthesizers and atmospherics. Actually, Cora is more substantive than is suggested by the term. Her debut album Instant in Time is polished, sincere, and varied in its approach. It all starts with the production. Cora lives in Fort Erie, Ontario, but she crossed the Niagara River to record in Buffalo, and sent the result to Abbey Road Studio to be mastered. There’s double irony in the project being finished in London; there are hints of an English accent in Cora’s voice. Cora backs most of her music with piano, though it’s not always the prime part of an arrangement. On “The Good Side of Desire,” Cora uses repeated piano notes to create space for Frank Grizanti’s guitar to make some serious noise. (Perhaps this is a holdover from the days in which Cora played in a Toronto grunge band.) Big production and meaningful lyrics are major components of Cora’s music. “Forest Pine” showcases robust piano, brass, cello, and some words that are miles beyond usual pop sentiments. She describes letting go of a lover thusly: Yes I will return you to the lost northern wind/Hang up your hat where the leaves roam/Stone to sand and to glass/Forces of light/Gave me a glance. And how many pop stars write tender songs for strangers? Her “Bicycle Bells” tells of a couple from France who moved to Toronto only to have the husband die when a tree branch fell on him in a city park. Cora spins a tale of remembrance from the widow’s point of view that finds grace amidst tragedy. Another great track is “Long Goodbye.” Like most of her music, it is dramatic and the band and lyrics dynamic: Funny, how we box ourselves in to be taken as fools/just to be handed the rules. This one shows Cora’s range, which goes beyond the breathy stuff. Cora is an artist to watch.  ★★★★

Auckland’s Tiny Ruins has appeared before on this blog. It’s actually the stage name for vocalist and guitarist Hollie Fullbrook. Her new album Olympic Girls comes from a much-needed break from grueling tours–a built-in obstacle for New Zealand musicians. Fullbrook began as a folk singer/songwriter, but has recently delved into dream-pop. (See Paige Cora above). The title song, which climbed to #19 on the New Zealand charts, isn’t what you think. It’s based on a long conversation with a man on a bus and contains this line: You only had your Olympic girls/The frosted sheen of leotard twins/Running revolt and winning gold/For the TV screen/Before being led back to the cells. Her seat partner had been in prison and spoke of the irony of being incarcerated while watching those with freedom soar. In “School of Design,” Fullbrook explores the urge to break through the ceiling in a different context. It has a Leonard Cohen feel in its oblique musings that are shaped more by atmosphere than melody. Fullbrook’s voice is lovely, but it’s certainly not Sandy Denny-like in clarity and you may find it necessary to Google her lyrics. Songs such as “One Million Flowers” work better because there is less going on and we can concentrate on the lyrics, and on melody lines that take us from contemplation to something more playful and back again. I confess to missing the energy of Fullbrook’s earlier work. Her dream-pop too often becomes languid. ★★ ½

Robert Randolph has become a blues/funk/soul legend. He usually tours with a full group called The Family Band, but it was just he and Steve Ray Ladson at Paste Studios. They delivered a blues clinic in four songs. Two of them, “Strange Train” and “Baptize Me” are from the Grammy-nominated Brighter Days album. Randolph’s music is informed by tons of past greats, as well as more recent heroes such as The Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page. Like many African American blues performers, he got his start in church, but one of the cool things about black Christianity is that it isn’t afraid of all things sensual. Randolph, who plays lap and pedal steel guitars, can wail out an electric gospel-influenced number one moment, but in the next breath cover Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan.” When he sings, Mmmm, black snake crawling in my room/Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon he isn’t singing about pest control. When this dude plays, the room begins to sweat. ★★★★

Short Cuts

Ben Lee recently showed up at Paste Studios and performed acoustic versions of three songs: “Divine Hammer,” “Web in Front,” and “Sugar Kane.” He has both verve and moxie as these are not his songs; the first comes from The Pixies, the second from Archers of Loaf, and the third from Sonic Youth. Lee does a credible job, but is there a point to doing other people’s stuff when you’re allegedly showcasing your own chops?

Tennessee’s Colony House has made some waves in the indie rock scene and if you don’t know the band already, another Paste Studio performance offers three good reasons why you should. “You KnowIt” is the single from the band’s 2017 album. It has a cool retro feel, especially Scott Mills’ surf guitar licks. You’ll also notice that lead vocalist Caleb Chapman has both powerful and smooth pipes. On “Original Material,” he slides into falsetto range, and his phrasing is catchy and tight. “Looking for Some Light” is an optimistic response to life’s kick-in-the-teeth moments.” Check out the lyric video on that one.

Rising Appalachia is often a six-member lineup, but the essential core is the Smith sisters, Leah and Chloe. As the name suggests, they are a bluegrass lineup, though they often incorporate world music into their repertoire. Recently they visited Paste Studios in Atlanta as (mostly) a duo. They dust off their a cappella chops on a gorgeous rendition of “Bright Morning Star.” Add some banjo and bodhran thumps to their amazing harmonies and you’ve got “Resilient” and its message I’m made of thunder, I’m made of lightning. Standing up to life’s slings and arrows is also the message of “Find Your Way.” Can’t wait to catch these ladies live.

Rob Weir

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