Sarah Shook & The Disarmers Years Bloodshot
The second album from this tight and tenacious combo follows time spent touring and playing in front of audiences across the US. There is some real meat here with all parts of the equation adding up to something that counts. The band serve the songs and it all feels right. The guitar and steel give that roots edge but the overall sound is capable of a number of twists and turns that fail to pigeon-hole them into a single category. However, there is no doubting that this fits the overall loose Americana tag.
Shook is the author of the 10 songs and she has a voice that is central to their truth. Songs that deal with a variety of emotions and moods that are signalled, to a degree, by their titles. New Ways To Fail, The Bottle Never Lets Me Down, Damned If I Do, Dammed If I Don’t and Heartaches In Hell are all songs that have at their heart an emotional and intentional reaction to situations that feel like her take on the reality of living and coping in these straightened times. Hard times, heart breaks and hard drinking are all explored with a mix of toughness and vulnerability. She can also take and understand an opposite viewpoint, like in The Bottle Never Lets Me Down where she sings the song from the male perspective.
With some of her more high profile major label contemporaries, like Kacey Musgraves for instance, making moves to a broader pop platform it is refreshing to hear Shook and her band explore the possibilities of their music without abandoning the underlying sense of country, alternative or otherwise, that is the bedrock of her two albums to date. Whether she expands on that in any way is up to Shook but for now she and her core band which features exhilarating exchanges between guitarist Eric Peterson and steel guitarist Phil Sullivan and bassist Aaron Oliva make music that is for these times.
Karen Jonas Butter Self Release
There is a sense of maturity about this new album from Karen Jonas. She is a mother as well as a working musician and so that has to mean that she doesn’t have a great deal of time to mess around and on her latest album she looks at her life and delivers a set of songs that reflect her life and loves. This means a smooth mix of twang and torch. A subtle blend of country, folk as well as a touch of soul and jazz tinged moments.
The title song relates to a love of baking in her kitchen and the associations that butter has with her family, her upbringing and also the family she is raising currently.It’s about being at home with family as much as being at home with her music. There are also references to the circus of life in songs like the directly titled as well as in Mr Wonka. Elsewhere she walks, reluctantly, down Yellow Brick Road (“paved with fool’s gold”), Butter is an allegory for the good things and Jonas alludes to that with the track’s big band feel. Then thereare the tales of heartbreak and woe that often are the subject of country aligned albums.
The album was co-produced by long term associates who worked on the last two albums, guitarists Tim Bray and Jeff Covert, in a studio in hometown Fredericksburg in Virginia. It features a full, warm sound that includes pedal steel, fiddle, keyboards and brass, alongside a strong rhythm section and some versatile guitar contributions. Often, they recorded in late night sessions after the kids were tucked up which gives the album a sense of comfort and ease with unforced late night attributions. There is a timeless feel throughout that has both class and sass. All three of Jonas’ albums are worthy of attention and the combined talents of all those involved have produced a set of recordings that are as real and tasty as butter on a good bread.
Sean Burns and Lost Country Music For Taverns, Bars and Honky Tonks Self Release
This Winnipeg artist has released a number of albums under his own name alone. This one has the appendage of Lost Country - a set of musicians who have joined in the recording to deliver a set of songs that live up to the album title. Music that indeed would fit any of the venues mentioned. Small, intimate, loud and looking to be entertained. And entertain they do from the train whistle sound of the cut-a-rug opener, Have You seen That Train. The band - Joanna Miller on drums, bassist Bernie Thiessen and guitarist Grant Siemens - are joined by a couple of superlative players in the fabulous Chris Scruggs on steel guitar and Harry Stinson on harmony vocals as well as (for one track) harmonica player Big Dave McLean.
What makes the album work especially well is the diverse nature of the songs. The second track Farewell Parties (which might be located more in atavern than arowdy bar) is a sad, slow tale of a break-up when his woman is setting up the event before he has actually gone. Then there’s the mid-tempo My Old Self, a quavering vocal that tells of a man who doesn’t really want to get back to his bar-fly self anymore. Throughout, Burns vocal delivery is spot on and able to take the rough with the smooth, the lost with the found. Burns penned a half dozen of the songs but choose some good songs that fit the bill from other writers such as Wade Mosher’s Don’t Let The Highway Get You Lost, a song about keeping focus and avoiding distractions. Big Freightliner is a song written by fellow honky-tonker Andrew Neville. Dan Russell’s Sturdy Woman should also please Band fans too. Another stand out is Don’t Play With Fire a cautionary tale co-written by Burns and Sara Bleackley with some great Harry Stinson harmonies. The final song here, I Wish Things Were Different, is another ballad that is full of regret and remorse.
As with all the songs, the band and guests have a ball and the playing is perfect for the music with Scruggs steel adding a welcome diversity that takes the music upwards and onwards. Though the core band are well capable of delivering in a live setting I would imagine (and with the YouTube live clips to back it up). Sean Burns joins the growing number of under the radar independent artists who clearly love to listen to and play classic country; albeit from their own point of view with original songs and well chosen covers. Top notch music for all occasions - if those occasions demand a cool band building a head of steam on some hot songs.
Ashley McBryde Girl Going Nowhere Atlantic
This girl from Arkansas plays guitar and writes songs. Ashley McBryde rhastwo previous self released albums and won the Country Showdown talent show before signing with Atlantic records and releasing her major label debut album Girl Going Nowhere. That this album was produced by Jay Joyce made me fear for something more bombastic with strong crossover leanings so it’s good to report that this is a more subtle and restrained production and very much in sync with the songs. McBryde is a part of the trend towards female songwriters who write for their times and contemporaries. The end results though are good storytelling songs that should always be at the heart of what is labelled country music.
A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega, the first single from the album is an example of her craft and was named one of the best songs of 2017. There are many other here that show her skill at taking the elements of her upbringing, as well as observations of those she sees around her, as the focus and subjects of her writing. The title track and opening song is a realisation that while a person can be dubbed going nowhere, this can in fact be doing pretty good. Radioland tells of the influence that that medium had on her and her family. American Scandal is a passionate declaration of the need for love. As is often the case these days McBryde has co-written these songs for the most part with a selection of different co-writersbut whatever the source, they are well written and engaging. The one solo write is a straight and honest consideration of the things that are good and bad about a close relationship. That song, Andy (I Can’t Live Without You), will resonate with many as being based in a no-bullshit reality (as is much of the material here). Material that is memorable and full of a definite female power.
The lyrics are all worth listening to and it’s a shame that the label didn’t see fit to include them in the package to make that easier. Another factor in the success of the album is McBryde using her band on the album; a group of players who have lived with these songs and understand them. Joyce’s production, as mentioned, helps to achieve a balanced and dynamic sound that moves from slower ballads to out and out rockers like El Dorado. Out in front of all this is McBryde’s striking vocal delivery that is full of heart and soul. Ashley McBryde’s major label debut is one of an artist who is going places and one well worth joining her on
Ashley Monroe Sparrow Warner Brothers
For this new album Monroe has taken a step in a different direction than I had expected. Her performance at Dublin C2C in 2016was a stand-out of more traditionally minded country music (closer to the real thing than much of what has performed under that banner). For this album Monroe has worked with the very much in demand Dave Cobb. They recorded the album in the Historic Studio A in Nashville and have used the environment to create what they may have considered to be a contemporary take on the string-laden countrypolitan made famous by Chet Atkins (often in that very studio). It is an interesting if not quite fulfilling venture. One that artist and producer are no doubt happy with but one that somehow fails to ignite despite some quality song writing.
Monroe is still a distinctive and twang-inflected singer who is commanding on these co-written songs. It has highlights like She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me) and the opening Orphan, the heartbreak of Paying Attention or the affection of Daddy Told You. But the overall sound seems to fall between different stools; neither pop nor traditional country, without really firmly establishing itself in its own right. There is no steel guitar for instance which might’ve helped to somehow make a link to her previous work. Rather, it is strings with an accompanying rhythm section, keyboards and Cobb’s own guitar contributions.Individually the songs are good enough but overall the similar mood and arrangements tends to negate the strength of the intention.
As part of the Pistol Annie’s Monroe achieved some recognition but her solo career seems not to have taken off as expected and for a writer and singer of her undoubted talent that is a shame. There are circumstances for that to a degree, especially in the way country radio underplays the role of female artists. So, in the end, Sparrow tries hard but doesn’t quite succeed on its own terms but that doesn’t mean writing off Ashely Monroe. What will be interesting, outside of this release, will be how she performs these songs in a live setting alongside the music of the previous albums. For now, it is worth listening to Sparrow yourselves and making your own minds up as to how it flies.
Ross Cooper I Rode The Wild Horses Self Release
Perhaps the best known of the real cowboy singer/songwriters is Chris Ledoux. Others include Ian Tyson and Wylie Gustafson and you can add to that list, Ross Cooper, a former professional bareback rider who had to quit the rodeo circuit when he sustained a knee injury. Now he concentrates on music and has just released this brand new album. The title track makes reference to that career though many of the other songs are more about the trialsand tribulations of everyday life. Me Only, Damn Love, Living’s Hard, Loving’s Easy and Heart Attacks are all explorations of day to day existence. Equally the album has a hard-edge sound that is hardly traditional honky-tonk. Often it hits the edge of hard riff-laden rock. But then some of Ledoux’s music did as well.
The album was produced and mixed by Eric Masse in Nashville. He and Copper assembled a sturdy set of players including Steelism’s Jeremy Fetzer and Eddy Dunlap on pedal steel. Another name that may be familiar to many is Erin Rae on backing vocals. These join the 11 named musicians who contribute their talents to the recordings on what is an enjoyable album that has enough roots Americana to make it of interest to all those who enjoy the more adventurous side of things.
Fellow artist Paul Cauthen co-wrote Old Crow Whiskey & A Cornbread Moon with Cooper and it is one of the more traditionally orientated songs here. Andrew Combs, another artist who may be known to our readers, is a co-writer of Lady Of The Highway along with Jordan Leaning. It celebrates those ladies who add some comfort for those travelling the well worn highways. Cooper has a versatile voice that can handle the slower material along with the up-tempo rockers. It is the kind of album that may well appeal to Ryan Bingham fans and those who like their roots music to have a less traditional bias.
Cooper had a hand in writing all the 12 tracks here and he is following his muse in music and looking for the same thrill that bareback horse riding undoubtably gave him. I imagine that in a live setting with a receptive audience that he might get close. On record he has made an album that grows with listening and signals a singer/songwriter who has the experience of a lifestyle first hand that others only imagine (his song Cowboys & Indians touches on that very subject). An experience that should translate into a portfolio of believable songs as he gets further into his music career. As his song says he is Another Mile on that path.
Romantica Outlaws Self Release
A couple of years agoBen Kyle released a self-titled album that was one of my albums of the year. He also released a fine duets album with Carrie Rodriquez. Since then he has been putting out albums under his previous band name, Romantica. This new album is a mixture of all these elements. The opening track features Rodriquez on backing vocals and the final track is a version of one of the standout tracks from his solo album. This live rendition of The Dark features Ryan Adams.
Key to Romantica’s gentle, reflective sound is pedal steel guitar. On one of the tracks he features two different steel players. The songs are originals with the exception of two covers - Something from George Harrison and the other is his take on Hallelujah. Now I have to admit, though I love the song, I’m a bit hallelujahed out at this stage having heard so many versions - some good, some bad - this one however has meaning for Kyle and fits the mood of the album fine. But given the standard of his songs like Do Go Gently, Love In Winter or Listen To Your Soul he may not need to add outside material other than that the songs has a special meaning for him in context of the overall album.
Kyle has recently been through a serious and debilitating illness (Lyme Disease) and couldn’t function in the way he wanted and was unable to communicate or make music. A distressing situation for anyone to face and doubly so for someone who often communicated through words and music. This release then is very welcome. Kyle is still dealing with the illness and its ramifications but has found a way and the words to deal with that.
Without knowing this, these tracks still offer and deliver much. They are called forgotten songs. Songs from an earlier time that have been outsiders, outlaws. Now they may offer some insight. I haven’t heard all the previous Romantica albums but would recommend them (as would my colleague Paul who reviewed the last album). The band name may be slightly incongruous given what he has been going through but is perfectly suited to this music. Wishing you well Ben.
Lloyd Green & Jee Dee Maness Journey To The Beginning Coastal Bend
This album is a (largely) instrumental revisit to the Byrds seminal Sweethearts Of The Rodeo album by the two steel guitarists who played on different parts of the album; Green in Nashville and Maness in LA. Anyone who loves the sound of steel guitar will enjoy the joint playing of these two masters of the instrument. There is a rhythm section of Dennis Crouch and John Gardner and they are joined by Russ Pahl (guitars), Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle) and others including Al Perkins, Sally Van Meter, Earl Poole Ball and Skip Edwards. An array of talent in other words. John Macy was in the producer’s chair.
The songs will be well known to anyone who knows the original album and include I Am A Pilgrim, Hickory Wind, The Christian Life as well as a song that was recorded at the time but not included. One Hundred Years From Now gets an outing here. It is a niche album perhaps but also a tribute to an instrument that was once fundamental to country music and to an album that many regard as one of the foundation stones of country-rock.
The final track is a reprise of You Ain’t Going Nowhere which features the vocals of Jim Lauderdale, Herb Peterson, Richie Furay and Jeff Hanna all trading verses. it makes a fitting end to the otherwise vocal-less album. Steel guitar lovers worldwide should take notice as well as those who appreciate the many talents involved in putting this tribute together.