Ruston Kelly, Emerson Hart, Common Jack, Drivin' and Cryin', Taylor Scott, Samantha Fish, Chelsea Williams and More

Rounder Records artist Ruston Kelly made a mess of his life before rehabbing in 2015. We can be glad he did. He stopped by Paste Studios for a few songs recently, including a powerful cover of Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” that’s better than the original, and that’s no dig at Swift. His voice gives the song more grit and urgency and he’s certainly a better guitarist. Kelly is often listed as a country artist­—perhaps because he’s married to Kacey Musgraves—but if you listen to “Dammit,” the song and vocal inflections evoke the introspective folk of Richard Shindell. It’s a breakup song: It’s alright to tell me what you think about me/I know you’re leaving, you must have your reason/The season is calling, your pictures are falling down… . If that’s not bitter enough for you, try the blues harp-laced “At Your Funeral.” Kelly makes pain sound so good.

Emerson Hart has a sweet tenor voice, but it’s also a powerful one. His “Island” is a lifeline, not a stranding place: I was wrecked and I was shattered/When I washed up on your shore. “32 Thousand Days” is more up-tempo and asks us, When I move from here to ghost/What’s gonna matter most? Need a dose of nostalgia? “Kids” recalls his youthful antics, back when, Nirvana was our Bible/When we needed to be saved. That one’s also about those got stuck in place. And don’t we all know people like that?

If you like more gravel and spit, check out Common Jack. “Skin and Bone” is a love song, but of the rocky variety in which what’s left unsung is tangled in the sheets. There’s a shuffle feel to “I Don’tMind,” your stoic’s guide to taking what comes along in good cheer. Common Jack likes to call things as they are. If you’re sick of the toothless excuses you hear every time another testosterone-poisoned  idiot pulls a trigger, check out his “One TooMany Days,” a song worth hearing if only for the line little boys can’t recognize that they’re a dying breed.

If you’re in the mood for some hard-driving Southern fried rock with a boot in the butt after-kick of country, try Georgia’s Drivin’ and Cryin’. They’ve been around since 1985 and draw inevitable comparisons to the Allman Brothers. However, when I listen to “Live the Love Beautiful,” the title track of their latest recording, Kevin Kinney’s voice reminds me of Neil Young and the arrangement of what Young did in his grunge phase. Perhaps the Allman Brothers comparison comes from jam band material such as “Step By Step,” or the fact that Kinney has played with Warren Haynes. Kinney isn’t a great singer, but he’s a serious rocker, even though he once (1990) made a folk-rock album with a few members of REM. Don’t expect anything like that on Live the Love Beautiful. It is rock n’ roll played loud and hard. Take a listen to their cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” It won’t make you forget the Stones, but it’s louder, slower, and has elements of lo-fi.

Here's another Warren Haynes connection, Denver-based Taylor Scott, who has played with Haynes. By his own admission, though, the Otis Taylor Band has been a bigger influence. Scott sports long hair that he twists into a Willie Nelson braid when it’s not in a man bun, but he’s more kick ass than honkytonk. Bust out your best cheeky dance moves for “Somebody Told Me,” which is a blend of blues and funk, with interludes of electric guitar that has bite and buzz. “Salted Watermelon” has more of an electric country blues feel. It’s muscular, though pulls its punches. It also has an excellent line: made my castles out of mud. Then try “Curiosity,” which is packed with verve and drive that builds like a traveling song.

By the way, if you don’t know the Otis Taylor Band, you should. Taylor is such a blues legend that he now often showcases the band rather than himself. Watch their 16-minute jam band tour de force of “Hey Joe.” It’s different from Jimi Hendrix’s famed version and Taylor doesn’t quite have Jimi’s pipes, but my goodness what he and his bandmates do with that song!

Let’s stay bluesy. Samantha Fish came out of Kansas City, inspired by folks like Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, and the immortal Stevie Ray Vaughan. If you watch the official video of “Dream Girl,” your first thought is that she’s playing for the country ballad/sweet lil’ thang crowd. Okay, but why is she dressed like Joan of Arc, carrying a sword, and singing as if maybe she’s just trying on a role that probably won’t fit? That’s Fish in a nutshell. Check her out on “Kill or Be Kind/Watch it Die.” There she is, with peroxide hair, fake lashes, and troweled on makeup, airing out her voice atop bass, horns, drums, and keyboards and letting loose on some wicked licks. Wicked lyrics too: Make up your mind, I can kill or be kind. If there’ any doubt you should dress in asbestos around her, watch her burn down the house by shredding an electrified cigar box guitar on “Bulletproof.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZFxAQz_x6g You can’t make out the vocals on this clip, but do you need them?

Chelsea Williams has a new album that came out this month, so she has made tracks from 2017’s Boomerang available for pay-what-you-like download. If Williams had only been heard singing at the Brown Derby instead of the streets and beach at Santa Monica, she’s be a classic LA discovery story. Her music caught the attention of Sheryl Crow, Lee Ann Rimes, and others before she became an LA staple. Hers is a blend of pop, rock, country, and jazz that evokes Kat Edmonson. “Boomerang” is a piano-based song that’s pretty, heartfelt, and strong in one fell swoop. “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” is darker and moodier, a song for low lights and late nights, and “Fool’s Gold” has elements of layered production often associated with LA music. “Six Bottles of Wine,” though is a Williams pastiche–a bit of torch music, an acoustic blues vibe, and traces of skiffle.

Future Thieves is a great band name and I like front man Elliot Collett’s voice, but I was underwhelmed by this Nashville indie band. “Get Up” is monochromatic and it sounds an awful lot like “Out the Other Side.” They pick it up a bit with jazzy electric notes in “My Body,” but drop again into a generic mode on “Nightmare.” There is talent here, but Future Thieves need to steal some compositional and production tips from bands with more colors on their palettes. 

No comments: