Friday, August 26, 2016

Lydia Loveless -- Real

Moving forward with my series, Your Twenties Are a Motherfucker But It Probably Gets Worse (NB: I don't personally think it does...at least not for a while...), there is no better conveyor of suck-titude than Lydia Loveless. I find Loveless' records difficult to listen to at times -- not because of the subject matter, necessarily, but because of the weight Loveless and her band (Ben Lamb on bass, Todd May on guitar, Nick German on drums) bring to her songs. In my mind, at least, they're not particularly hook-laden, making it difficult to drunkenly and/or forlornly sing along with Loveless. The end result is that these songs are purely Loveless': nobody else is able to replicate these songs in the way Loveless and her collaborators can, making her music truly unique.


Real feels more experimental than her previous work. For one thing, the mix rightly features Loveless' voice, making it much easier to hear the lyrics (and shyly attempt to sing along.) The first three songs on the album feel familiar -- Loveless' lonely vocals uncannily juxtaposed with a lush country sound, making her seem even more isolated. But "Heaven," with a drum loop-like beat and funky bassline, branches into what could be pop territory, if not for the band's insular performances. The rest of the album explores sonic territory from there. While Sturgill Simpson and Austin Lucas have been dabbling in "psychedelic country," Real feels...post-country. The elements are there, to be sure: songs in the key of G, pedal steel guitars, twang, critiques of countrylife. But you'd be hard-pressed to explain how the songs from "Heaven" onward can sit side by side with Cash and Waylon, other than the sense that they're best enjoyed at the bottom of the bottle.

Anyone who's been paying attention know that Lydia Loveless is one of the great songwriters and singers, respectively. Real cements her -- and the band, which I don't think I can stress enough -- as artists.



Lydia Loveless -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bloodshot Records

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Courtney Marie Andrews -- Honest Life

Courtney Marie Andrews has many accomplishments under her belt: playing with Damien Jurado, collaborating with Jimmy Eats World, touring internationally, producing the finest album of 2016 (this one.) She has one more important but dubious notch to add to her belt: making a grown woman cry on the Amtrak in the middle of the day.

27 was a hell of a year for me. In the space of 12 months I suffered from PTSD, switched from the only career I ever imagined myself doing, and, right before finally getting the offer for my new job/my birthday, breaking up with the person I'd been seeing who was a saint about all of it. But I'm fairly certain I'm in a better place and, since I won't be classroom teaching, I'm also fairly certain that I'll be able to get back to a regular update schedule. All of this is to say that Honest Life is going to be the first in a four-part installment called Your 20s Are a Motherfucker But It Probably Gets Worst.


Andrews is justly garnering comparisons to contemporaries like Margo Price and Nikki Lane. To me, though, I hear lots of Carol King's influence: Andrews' voice has a clear, vulnerable quality that in no way diminishes its strength. Like King, Andrews' songs are beautiful in their imagery, gentle in composition, and cutting in their raw emotion. The album seems to focus on Andrews' transition from the rock star life to taking a breather bartending in rural Washington. They express her desires, regrets, her dreams: a fully realized portrait of a moment that comes sooner or later in everyone's life -- that time to take stock, assess, and decide what to keep and what to toss.

Focusing on any one song would not do Honest Life justice -- each is a gem, and as far as I'm concerned the album must be listened to straight through. In almost five years of writing this blog, I'm sure I've listened to thousands of songs about heartbreak and growing pains. The people who get written about here are the ones who have matched the words and the music in such a way as to potentially reframe your life. Courtney Marie Andrews is absolutely that person. I'm gonna call it in August -- there's no getting around that Honest Life is the standout album of the year.



Courtney Marie Andrews -- Official, Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify

Monday, August 22, 2016

BJ Barham -- Rockingham

BJ Barham, American Aquarium frontman, recently released his first solo album. Not surprisingly, all of the important things about American Aquarium are here -- beautiful lyrics, hard-hitting songs. The main difference is that I don't think the songs on Rockingham could be played at an American Aquarium show; they lack the anthemic choruses that fuel the inexplicable number of frat boys who show up to their shows in New York. And that's fine -- Rockingham is BJ Barham in a very vulnerable state.


Rockingham is a conflicted love letter to his hometown, written in the aftermath of the Bataclan attacks while the band was touring in Belgium. The songs are mostly fictional, but the personal elements are obvious -- from "American Tobacco Company," about Barham's grandfather who returns from the war to work a dead-end job, to "Unfortunate Kind," which borrows heavily from his parents' marriage. Whether you're a city kid like me or not, these songs are moving and the characters are recognizable. What strikes me most about this album is Barham's genuine affection for the people he writes about -- a regard he hasn't shared for himself (yet) in his American Aquarium songs. It seems to me that when people write about small town life, they have a tendency to turn their subjects into objects of pity or romanticize them as the salt of the earth. Barham's too smart for that; his characters are complex enough to make us want to root for them, but we know that doing the best one can isn't always enough.


BJ Barham -- Official, Purchase from BJ Barham, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify

Friday, August 19, 2016

Kelsey Waldon -- I've Got a Way

Kelsey Waldon's sophomore release brings us back to the days when country music was plainspoken. Waldon, an East Nashville transplant from the tobacco town of Monkey's Eyebrow, KY (really), knows how to craft a tune that is honest and sincere. There's no ridiculous dramatics here. Listening to I've Got a Way can make you feel like the '80s and '90s never happened to country music.



Waldon's voice is pure country and tends to draw comparisons to Kacey Musgraves. Unlike Musgraves, though, Waldon isn't (as much as I love Musgraves for it) smug. Even her East Nashville scene diss track, "False King" gets straight to the point -- "You can't put a crown on the head of a clown/And I hope he turns out to be a king." Waldon's more poignant songs also deliver, of course, and illustrate her powerful self-reliance. And while I don't generally write about the technical stuff, her backing band is damn excellent, exuding an effortless cool that reminds us all why we were drawn to the genre in the first place.



Kelsey Waldon -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Kelsey Waldon

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tatters & Rags -- Salt

Though the hail from Brooklyn, there's nothing smarmy or ironic about Tatters & Rags' debut album. The band's traditional(-ish) take on country and irreverent personality is reminiscent of Girls on Grass, with whom they often share a stage. My first spin of the album was while coming down from a night out at about 1 AM on my janky record player. While the off-kilter sound fit Tatters & Rags' down-home sensibility, I'm grateful for my digital copy so I can fully appreciate Jim Altieri's soulful violin on the waltz "The Sad Surgeon."


The album starts off with party song "Hell" but dips quickly into the aforementioned "The Sad Surgeon." Salt ebbs and flows (see what I did there?) between ups and downs, displaying the band's lock-step rhythm in faster songs like "Two Separate Things" and showcasing their emotional depth with crooners like the album's closer "Ambrose." Tatters & Rags is country at its best: damn good songwriting combined with damn good playing. These songs will make you want to strap on your cowboy boots (or go out and buy some) and line dance (or try to learn how if you don't already.)


If at this point you're thinking, "damn! Wish I could see these guys live!" then, my NYC and Philly friends, you are in luck. Tatters & Rags will be playing my favorite venue, Union Hall, tomorrow, August 19, with Philly greats Northern Arms and Adobe & Teardrops girlcrush Girls on Grass! Find info here.

Upcoming shows:

8/19 - Brooklyn @ Union Hall - w/ Girls on Grass, Northern Arms
8/20 - Philadelphia @ Johnny Brenda's - w/ Northern Arms, My Son Bison
10/14 - Brooklyn @ Hometown BBQ
Tatters & Rags -- Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, August 15, 2016

Azores -- Copper Beach

Bishops frontman Tucker Riggleman is a busy guy. Having released his own album recently, he's loaned his talents to Azores' debut full-length album, Copper Beach. If Dream Easy was a tsunami of id, Copper Beach is a study in anxiety. Azores' muscular post-punk brings and lead singer Vince Paixaio's spirited vocals bring to mind Bob Mould in his less experimental days.


Paixaio's lyrics, with references to subjects as disparate as mystical allusions to third eyes, don't rhyme and feel crammed into the band's straightforward rock melodies, creating an impalpable tension in the music. This isn't a critique at all; it's critical to the band's overall ability to create a sense of kinetic energy -- while you're listening to this music, you might not want to dance but standing (or sitting) still is simply uncomfortable. This feeling contributes to the overall theme of this record: even if nothing feels quite right, you just have to do something.




Azores -- Facebook, Purchase from Funny/Not Funny Records

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Sara Rachele and the Skintights -- Motel Fire

Sara Rachele made jaws drop last year with her heartrending EP, Madison County. If you haven't had a chance to listen to "Rebecca," do that, and then when you're done, come back here.

Cool. So in the intervening year, Rachele picked up two bandmates and has lightened things up significantly for Motel Fire. The press release reports that the band was "[i]nspired by the lyricists of Atlanta, Ga.’s vegan and queer community," which is something I can always get behind. Rachele combines her otherworldly vocals and hard-learned lessons with wWaylon's Stooges-like drumming and Gyasi Heus' rockabilly licks. 


While songs like "Motel Fire," a literate stunner by Atlanta-area Will Dollinger, play to Rachele's established strengths as a torch singer. But rockabilly dance numbers like "Bingo Bango" showcase the band's expertise and obvious enchantment with each other. It's their party; we just get to attend the Skintights' twisted sock-hop. Overall, Motel Fire, is a far-ranging romp through the last fifty years of Southern American music, and it sounds amazing. I sincerely hope this isn't a one-off; this is an album for the highs and lows and is one of my favorites so far this year.




Sara Rachele -- Official, Facebook, iTunes, Bandcamp