Music: Brian Johannesen, Lone Bellow, Chris Mardini, and More



There always seem to be more in my in-box than can get reviewed promptly, so it’s clean out time once again.


An increasing number of country singers sit on the right side of history these days. Count Brian Johannesen among them. His newest record, Holster Your Silver, has the rasp, twang, and tempos associated with country music, but his is more the soul of a folksinger imploring listeners to pay attention to things that matter. This is most obvious in “Copper Queen,” which sets a serious mood from the start and invokes the 1917 Bisbee Deportation, one of the most egregious violations of civil liberty in labor history. Bisbee was a company town ruled as the personal fiefdom of the Phelps Dodge copper trust. When members of the Industrial Workers of the World struck for better conditions and pay, they were loaded into boxcars, shipped out of town, and dumped in the desert. If you know that, you will appreciate the line “I’ll never bend my knee to the Copper Queen.” Johannesen, who lives in Iowa, uses idioms and vernacular language, but they do little to disguise the literacy of his pen. “If I Thought I Could Win” is a heartbreak song, but it doesn’t wallow. Instead, it’s subtle advocacy of knowing when to fold your hand. That’s something that should have been done by the protagonist of “Fremont,” who dreams of being a country star. Many of your favorites get a nod in the lyrics–Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and others–but our antihero doesn’t have the sense to know the things Johannesen reveals in “Music Business Blues Breakdown.” It’s a great takedown of the music industry and the corpses it strews: I’ve been working on these songs/No, I ain’t going back to school/I’ve been working like a dog/Yes, Mama, this is a job/But this business is like the mob…. Listen also for the lines that skewer Donald Trump. You can catch Johannesen’s quieter side on “Damn These Saints,” with its cowpoke tempo and its rejection of faux optimism. Anxiety also comes into play in the title track, which might be subtitled “winter is coming.” This is Johannesen’s second release and if he ends up a music business victim, there ain’t no justice.

Lone Bellow
is from Brooklyn, but if you listen to “Good Times” and think Mississippi delta, you can be excused. Brian Elmquist and Kaene Donehey Pipkin wail like the Apocalypse is just around the corner. Zach Williams, the band’s founder, airs out his baritone on “August” while his bandmates slice into the seams. Check out Pipkin on “Just Enough to Get By.” She’s a mite, but a mighty one with a huge voice. She also has some righteous anger going on as the song is about her mother, who was impregnated by a rapist when she was 19, and was sent away to have the baby. Four albums in and 7 singles down, The Lone Bellow has won a devoted following–rightly so. They are generally viewed as an Americana band. Fine, but they are much more. And I love a band that pours energy onto the stage and doesn’t leave until it’s all gone.


The Springs
, the husband/wife duo of Stewart and Holly Halcomb, have made some ripples on the country Billboard chart. This well-scrubbed Nashville-by-way-of-Alabama act is in the acoustic country vein of The Civil Wars, except they are on the ins rather than the outs. Their songs are catchy and most of them are love letters to each other. “Old-Fashioned” is Holly’s declaration that she’s a traditional kind of gal or, as she puts it, “like an 8-track player in an old Chevy.” “Someone,” “Right Kind of Love,” and “Sweet Spot” are in the same ballpark. I like the last of these the best. It’s infectious and Stewart’s quick patter makes it distinctive. They feature tight harmonies. I prefer Stewart’s leads to Holly’s because his voice is clearer, a quality I always value over sweetness.


Chris Mardini
can bring the noise and he’s all of eighteen. His is a blend of hard rock, pop, and on “Retrospective Outlook,” some rap. His single “Sleepless” has gotten some airplay. It’s a softer song, but it has a New Yorker’s tough edges: So here I lie on my side/these sleepless nights/chaos in my head, doused in dye/won’t let you win. The vibe is similar on “Something’s Going On.” His tracks are loud but also dreamy. His is teenage angst, but with, I might, something going on that makes his music more than sturm und drang.


Leif Vollebekk
is a Canadian who has Juno nominations in the category of adult alternative music. He’s of Norwegian and French Canadian descent, who accompanies himself on guitar, piano, and fiddle. His “Blood Brother” is an electric delight in which he raises his voice into falsetto range. The small but poignant twist is that his blood “brother” is a she. Vollebekk has a way with words: You know your lips whenever they kiss me/It’s like a gun against my skin.  “Transatlantic Flight” is a soulful yearning for a lover separated by an ocean. “Apalachee Plain” (filmed in Iceland) also yearns, but this time for a love that has broken apart. It even has a touch of yodeling to add to the pathos. Vollebekk is an interesting talent whose “alternative” label wears well. Damned if I know what else to call him.


Emily King
is billed as an R & B/soul/post-disco singer, whatever the blazes the last term means. Her newest album is titled Sides, acoustic versions of songs that appeared on previous recordings. I’d call her new approach jazz-laced folk and soul. Ms. King has a very supple voice. I just wish the songs grabbed me more. “Look at Me Now” is typical, in that King’s vocals are impressive, but not much lingers when the song ends. In her recent Paste concert, “Teach You” was the song I liked best, as it has the most structure; it’s like a cross between the drama of a show tune blended with café-style moodiness.

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