Wood Brothers, Portnoy, Trevor Krehel, Walk Off the Earth, Cameron Johnson, Wyatt Edmonson

The Wood Brothers (TWB) released their 6th album, One Drop of Truth, in 2018 and have been busy promoting it. One way has been to make three tracks from their 5th LP, Kingdom in My Mind, available via a live Paste Studios session. Some may recall that Chris Wood was once a member of the jazz funk ensemble Medeski, Martin and Wood. The Wood Brothers–Chris on bass, brother Oliver on guitars, and Jano Rix on drums– reside more in the soulful folk side of the musical spectrum, a groove augmented by tight harmonies, husky leads, chunky bass, and flowing guitar that snaps to the melody lines. “Little Bit Sweet” is indicative of how the trio build songs; the bass comes in big around 1:30 and takes things to a higher level. TWB also like to venture in retro land on occasion, as in “Cry Over Nothing,” a kicked-in-the-teeth country song like few write anymore. Snatches of bluesy jaw harp add texture that evoke a toned-down Allmann Brothers offering. They get grittier on “Don’t Think About My Death” in which the intro spray of acoustic notes sets the stage for some electric noise and lines such as, While I’m loving you, I won’t think about my death. This session is a good way to hear TWB, as they are a great live band. That’s why they have three live albums in addition to their six studio recordings.   

Portnoy used to be called The Portnoy Brothers and were a semi-bluegrass duo. Now this Israel/Manchester, England-based lineup is a six-piece band that slides a bit more towards a folk-rock sound. Their latest CD, No Complaints is richer in sound, though it’s still anchored by Mendy and Israel Portnoy. If you’re looking something upbeat, this release might do the trick. “Celebrate” has tight harmonies and is a smooth and polished love song. Gentle is Portnoy’s stock-in-trade. “Tick of Time” is piano-driven and feels like a power ballad that dispenses with histrionics and showcases the song. “Seeing is Believing” is also amped down and is song about the moment in a relationship when things could go either way: Well I don’t believe/Seeing is believing/Maybe baby it’s just cos’ I haven’t seen you yet. There’s also a cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” but the most winning track is “Spotified,” a take down of its demerits done in non-rant fashion. With tongue in cheek (but not really!) they sing: We’ve both had a stupid long hard day/We both have so many many bills to pay/And how do we get radio airplay/As if we haven’t been spotified anyway. And this, my friends, is why I urge you to buy music directly from the artists.

Trevor Krehel is an object lesson in what happens if you don’t move on. It took him six years to ready his debut release, which is appropriately named Let Go. Krehel sings with pleasing velutinous tones, though his songs are often about walking through new doors things are about to fly out of control. The title track, for instance, is about wanting to get back to where he once was in a relationship, but its imploring why do we let go? query suggests it won’t happen. And you know that any song titled “Bonnie and Clyde” will be problematic at best. Ditto one named “Break Free,” which is in keeping with an overall theme of escape. It, and “Run Like the Wind,” are feather and hammer songs in which acoustic passages give way to the bold and loud, then thread their way back to a softer place. There is some nice picking in the latter. His is folk music John Mayer style.

Walk Off the Earth are from Canada. Although the band does some folk, rock, ska, and reggae originals, it has followed in the footsteps of The Cowboy Junkies in the sense that it is also a cover band. The band has recently released a new album titled Here We Go, and performed “Home Alone” from it when they visited Paste Studios. That one is a joyous love song with a pop feel. Gianni Nicassio and Sarah Blackwood share vocal duties and Blackwood alone is worth checking out the band. She sometimes goes by the handle of Sarah Sin, and she has feistiness to burn. The other three songs from the Paste session are covers; Ed Sheeran’s “I Don’t Care” (in four-part harmony); “I’ll Be There,” which Mariah Carey once recorded, and which Walk Off the Earth give a slight ska nod; and “Teenage Dirtbag,” which in my opinion surpasses the Wheatus original. Were I in a band doing a four-song showcase, I wouldn’t do three covers, but Walk Off the Earth does them well.

Cameron Johnson has made two previous appearances in this column. The Bentonville, Arkansas has a new release that he modesty titled EP2. It’s another acoustic offering that falls somewhere in the Venn overlap between blues, folk, and soul. The theme of his latest five-song offering could well be one of his titles, “If I Survive.” He’s not being fatalistic, just responding to how tough it is to make it through. Though it was written before the coronavirus shutdown, “What a Shame” feels timely, especially his lamentation of how too much is “the same damn thing.” It’s a smoky, dark, husky-voiced piece that swells and takes full advantage of moods enhanced by cello and keys. There are less somber offerings as well. “In the Winter Time” is an invitation to come into the fold, as it were, and features sprays of bright notes to offset wistful edges. Despite its title. “Just Like All the Rest” has a sunny feel.

Staying south of the Mason Dixon, Alabama-born Wyatt Edmonson grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, and Dave Matthews. He claims he hung up his electric guitar after hearing the latter. His EP If I Don’t Try is firmly in the folk singer-songwriter camp. It could be seen as something of a love ventured, gained, and lost album. The title track is about amorous approach and deciding to go for it. “You Said It, I Meant It” is his take on the moment when everything comes apart; his plea that he meant every tender word he spoke is offset by her leaving. A splash of torchy sax on the outre adds to the hurt. My favorite song was “Lovers Lake,” a watery analog to the lane. It’s a love song about Wild Jack, the son of millworkers, and “sweet” Mary Leigh, who comes from the ritzier side of the proverbial tracks. In essence, it’s Edmondson’s spin on Romeo and Juliet. We don’t know how it ends, but we infer that Mary Leigh won’t be a virgin when, one day her daddy’ll wed her away.  

Rob Weir

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