Tyler Ramsey, Noah Gundersen, Pony Bradshaw, The Menzingers and More

We may be hunkered down for a while, folks, so why not check out some music to while away the time? This column features some short recommendations for music to sample. As always, I’ll tuck in a few live links and if you like what you hear, search for more.

 Let’s lead with something special. Tyler Ramsey is the former lead singer of the folk-rock Band of Horses. Take any track from his 2019 projects For the Morning and The Candler Sessions and you will instantly think “Neil Young.” Ramsey isn’t trying to channel Young, it’s just that their voices are eerily similar. Ramsey’s “A Dream of Home” would have fit like a glove on Young’s Harvest LP, including lyrics such as” Oh the year blew past/And there was nothing you could hold/Except for all the things I told you/Were worth holding onto. Ramsey is from Cincinnati and now lives in Asheville, but his songs have the feel of the open prairie. “The Nightbird” is a tender little song about love taken flight, “Your Whole Life” is a tad more country, and “Breaking a Heart” also sounds like early Neil Young. Listen to everything you can from Ramsey. Listen hard, as his voice has Young’s nasality, but it’s much more supple.

Here’s a hackneyed phrase for you: “He came out of nowhere.” Musicians generally haunt clubs for years before they register on our radar screens. Seattle’s Noah Gundersen is a name a lot of people know these days. He’s now 30, but at 18, he left the conservative Christian home that adopted and home schooled him and began moving in very different directions. He began playing at folk and folk-rock clubs, listened to a lot of Neil Young and Ryan Adams, did some TV scores, got inked all over, bulked up, shaved off his long hair, and became a gay icon (though he’s not gay). The constant is that he’s become known because he can really sing and play. Maybe you’ve heard his single, “Lover.” It’s one of many reasons to know his music. For something quite different listen to the tender acoustic version of “Wild Horses.” 

James “Pony” Bradshaw made his debut album at the age of 38, when he got kicked out of the Air Force after 21 years. Small wonder that he has an affinity for outlaw country, especially Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Sudden Opera is a good title for his new record as Bradshaw likes to use full throttle vocals backed by thunderous instrumentation. Try “Van Gogh,” which is an interesting lyrical mix of the poetic and the plebeian. In it, the narrator dreams he’s Van Gogh and his walk-on-the-wild-side girlfriend fancied herself a Rimbaud/Coming out that swamp slow/Her head up in the cosmos/She’s got them absinthe eyes…. “Bad Teeth” is another good one to sample.

Let’s stay theatrical for a moment. Two Door Cinema Club is an indie rock band from Northern Ireland that’s better known in Europe than in the U.S. They did a 3-song gig in New York’s Paste Studio in September of 2019, including “Once,” from their newest album False Alarm. Lead vocalist Alex Trimble can air it out. I usually prefer acoustic music, but their unplugged sound is a bit too indie generic, so you might want to listen to the amped version of “Next Year” and see which you like better. By the way, the band name was lifted from a movie theater.

If your politics list toward the conservative end of the spectrum, the Cerny Brothers are for you. This Nashville-based country/bluegrass/Americana duo claim they’re not selling any ideology, but one of their songs is called “Bullshit” and I’d have to call it on them. Their EP Common Sense is chockful of hyper-patriotism and put-downs of liberals, political correctness, and those who criticize anything about America. The other track names say it all: “America the Brave,” “America This America That,” “Grand Ole USA,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (Yes, it’s the national anthem.) An older song, “American Whore” is an apologetic for materialism. Although unreflective nationalism makes me nervous, the Cenrys have the right to hold any views they wish. Just own ‘em, boys. And maybe follow the lead of…

The Menzingers. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the Cernys and “America You’re Freaking Me Out” with lyrics such as: To these sing-alongs of siren songs/To ooh’s and ahh’s/To big applause/With all of my anger I scream and shout/America, I love you but you’re freaking me out. Yeah, I think it’s down-right patriotic to criticize the stuff mentioned in this song: homelessness amidst wealth, monstrous politicians, needless pomp, religious hypocrisy…. Now I’ve got that off my chest, The Menzingers are an excellent punk rock band from Scranton, PA. I like how they can keep their edge acoustically but also jump and sweat through a noisy “Strangers Forever." (The sound quality isn’t great on this clip, check out the energy.)

Chris Knight has 9 albums to his credit, but he’s perhaps better known as a songwriter. He visited Paste Studio in Atlanta to sing three songs off his newest release, Almost Daylight, plus the title track from 2012’s Little Victories. Knight grew up in Kentucky, worked as a mine inspector, and still lives in the Bluegrass State. By his own admission, Steve Earle and John Prine inspired him to write music. You’ll certainly hear Earle’s blue-collar cut-to-the-bone ethos in songs like the hard-driving “Crooked Mile,” an outlaw love song with backwoods survivalist coloring: I ain’t never had nothing/I ain’t never had nothing to hold on to/I ain’t even been living/Ain’t ever been living till I found you. “I’m William Callahan” explores some of the same themes through the eyes of a rambler and a former “Cajun queen” who hopped the rails and never looked back. Knight’s vocals are equally rough-hewn–and honest.

Rob Weir


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


Eileen Ivers: March 2020 Artist of the Month

Eileen Ivers
Scatter the Light

[NOTE: This album is new and there are not many video clips yet available.]

Talk about a timely album! This month’s artist of the month is Eileen Ivers, an artist whose praises I have sung for decades. If you start talking about the great Celtic American fiddlers, it’s Liz Carroll, Winnie Horan, and Eileen Ivers and there’s no sense in trying to rank them! Not that Ivers needs my praise. After all, she made a huge mark in Riverdance, has won numerous other awards, has performed for heads of state, and possesses a Grammy Award. Plus, she has a blue fiddle!

Think of Scatter the Light as a St. Patrick’s Day treat. More than that, though, think of it as the kind of message we need in our time of Covid-19. The music on Ivers’ new release is encapsulated in its title. It’s about connecting to family, faith, memory, living in the moment, and overcoming obstacles. Above all, it’s about gratitude. In her mind, Ivers’ previous projects–Beyond the Bog Road and Symphony–were “cerebral,” and she wanted Scatter the Light to resonate with our emotional side. She and her band–Buddy Connolly (accordion, whistles, keys), Matt Mancuso (guitar, trumpet, vocals), Lindsey Horner (bass, baritone sax) and David Barckow (percussion, guitar, vocals)–wend their way through material that is packed with surprises.

Ivers is a virtuoso fiddler, but she’s not afraid to mix things up. “Road Trip” might be the closest she gets to any sort of classic Celtic set on this record and even it is marked by jazzy bass and guitar cadences that segue into a hard-driving train-like tempos. By the time Ivers is done, it’s time to water down the engine coupling rods. The track after it, though, is called “Wah-Wah One Violin”* and is as promised–one electric fiddle and lots of loops, improvisations, and funk. “Zero G (and I feel fine)” is also space age–literally; it was inspired by the late John Glenn and his initial orbit of earth. It’s playful and airy.

But let’s go on to the tunes and songs with a message. Guest Michelle DeAngelis provides sensitive piano for “Shine” and Mancuso sings a song of hope–written by Ivers and her husband Brian Mulligan–whose chorus is both declarative and an implied exhortation: I won’t lose time/Gonna make it mine/As time flies it leaves my shadow behind/So I’m gonna shine…. It is a catchy song with big swelling instrumentation and vocals glued by small but amazing links from Ivers. “Chase the Blues Away” is a quirky little tune Ivers describes as “Soweto with an Irish groove” that captures a dreary day dissolved by sunshine. Ivers provides rapid-fire syncopated spoken word on “You Are Strong,” an ode to a friend’s survival from sexual assault. Louise Barry is the voice in the background. Appropriately, it is preceded by the anthemic “Hold My Hand,” with guest singer Caitlin Maloney providing sweet lead vocals.

Ivers has previously explored the connections between Appalachian and Irish music. She goes down this road again on two traditional songs: “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Children Go,” the latter of which is a zipper song that some ethnomusicologists think is the root of “Twelve Days of Christmas.” There’s nothing Yule recognize about this gritty, soulful version. (Sorry about the pun!) Although it’s actually Track 3, I wish Ivers had finished off the CD with “Gratitude,” a delicate little tune that evokes calm, and whose small behind-the-mix notes are unexpected blessings. I guess by now you’ve figured out that this isn’t your grandmother’s St. Patrick’s Day music. It’s better than that; it’s scattered light. In these times, we need to collect bright rays.

Rob Weir

*This is not the track on the album, but it is similar in style.]