Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
Howdy Skies Records
Reviewed by Donald Teplyske
It is difficult to tally exactly how many albums of new material Tim O'Brien has released since first appearing as part of Hot Rize, the venerable bluegrass band experiencing a well-received resurgence. More than 20 by any count, 30-plus when one considers solo, duet and group offerings, including his most recent success as part of the Earls of Leicester.
Aside from a brief flirtation with the mainstream country music industry in the form of a Top 10 song with Kathy Mattea 25 years ago ("Battle Hymn of Love"), O'Brien has carved for himself a significant and independent niche within the Americana field, recording and performing music with few regards to genre: bluegrass, Celtic, folk, troubadour, old-time...when attending an O'Brien concert, one is never sure what type of music will be featured.
With "Pompadour" O'Brien continues his wide-ranging Americana journey. The majority of songs examine relationships - healthy, failing and indifferent - recorded in intimate circumstance with an expansive list of collaborators.
Originals of note include the soul-searching "Whatever Happened to Me" and the lyrically dynamic "I'm A Mess for You," a song that evokes both "Mr. Bojangles" and Joni Mitchell. A sense of transition is apparent, from the straightforwardness of "I Gotta Move" to the natural elegance of "The Water is Wise," a co-write with Sarah Jarosz.
Several of the tracks (all covers) have appeared as part of O'Brien's ongoing digital campaign, The Short Order Sessions. Of these, the Woody Guthrie via Billy Bragg track "Go Down to the River" and Dan Reeder's "Tulips on the Table" are strongest, although there is something to be said for "Ditty Boy Twang," an energetic, effusive jam.
While many O'Brien albums are more homogeneous than "Pompadour," the diversity of this latest release will appeal to those with broad palates: capturing the energy of spontaneous recording sessions with friends, "Pompadour's" 11 tracks offer insight into the increasingly elaborate spectrum of O'Brien's interests. Appalachian traditions abut playful, jazz-tinged ruminations ("Pompadour"), Indian sounds ("Snake Basket") and energetic slices of R&B-infused, British traditional folk stylings (James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing" is given a bit of Fairport Convention flavoring along with no shortage of British imagery).
Some will consider, perhaps justifiably, "Pompadour" too eclectic. Each track has that distinctive O'Brien approach, one tied to the traditions of folk music; this time out, he is casting a bit further afield, exploring unexpected elements, rather successfully.
Legendary Friends and Country Duets
Reviewed by Robert Loy
Dear Recording Artists of the World;
Please think twice before recording an album of duets. Sure, it sounds like fun, making music together with other artists, almost like friends around a campfire. But in actuality it's always more like a competition than a collaboration. Oh, it's great in those the rare instances where two equal matched singers can harmonize or find a mutual groove - think Conway and Loretta, or Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga - or even Moe and Joe. But usually we just can't help but judge which one sang it better. So unless you're Frank Sinatra or Reba McEntire or someone else sure not to be overshadowed, it's probably not a good idea.
Take T.G. Sheppard's latest. This guy had a bunch of truly great songs in the '70s and '80s, including 15 number 1 hits, before his countrypolitan sound went out of favor. What he never had was a distinctive voice. His baritone was pleasant enough, but there wasn't much to distinguish it from contemporaries like Ronnie McDowell or Eddie Rabbitt. And on an album of duets with people like Crystal Gayle, Merle Haggard and Delbert McClinton, he unfortunately comes across as an overzealous backup singer. Not his fault really, there aren't many vocalists who could hold their own against these all-time greats. It is his fault that though that he didn't realize this was bound to happen. But really all you got to is listen to a song like "Why Me Lord." When the late Conway Twitty sings his part you almost forget how corny this Kris Kristofferson chestnut is, and then T.G. comes in and reminds you. This happens all too often on this album.
And on the songs that should work, where Sheppard sings with someone whose vocal abilities are on a similar echelon - Engelbert Humperdinck or Mickey Gilley - those songs are brought down by pedestrian production.
We hope you understand, we're just trying to save you embarrassment.
"The People Need Light"
By Fred Smith
To say that Mr. Sun is a four-piece string band is both praise and diminishment. The band owes as much to David Grisman and Stephane Grappelli as it does to Bill Monroe. Mr. Sun could sit in with each and tear up the room.
In fact, most of Mr. Sun has sat in with Grisman at one time or another. Grant Gordy, Jr., Mr. Sun's guitar player played in Grisman's Quintet/Sextet for six years or so, through 2014. Darol Anger, Mr. Sun's animated fiddle player (or is it violin when it's jazz?) started in 1975 with Grisman when the Quintet featured guitarist Tony Rice. That should provide enough music cred for any band, but Mr. Sun's mandolin player Joe Walsh played for years with The Gibson Brothers, and, like Anger, has teaching duties at Boston's Berklee School of Music. Mr. Sun is anchored by bassist Ethan Jodziewicz, a relative youngster who has studied with Edgar Meyer. He's that good.
So, what does Mr. Sun do with all this talent? For one thing, they put together a bright, clever record that starts with a swinging country tune ("The Likes of You'), rides into a bluegrass idyll ("The Fiddler's Boot") before peeling away layers of the musical onion with ever more free-form, but tightly-wound tunes. One need go no further than the title cut, which careers with frenetic synchronicity. Anger reprises one of his old, much revered tunes, "Key Signator", which he played in the Grisman days with Tony Rice; Mr. Sun brings it brightly into the 21st Century, with Gordy imprinting the song with his easy, but complex playing.
Mr. Sun's genre-bending turn offers up a variation on "If I Were A Bell", a Frank Loesser tune from Broadway's "Guys and Dolls". Mr. Sun bravely and admirably provide a stirring string bookend to Miles Davis' legendary 1956 recording of the song.
Mr. Sun features virtuoso players tightly weaving their sonic texture in "The People Need Light". The breadth of music is remarkable; it's a real statement that string music needn't have barriers and that the time-worn argument over "what is bluegrass?" is largely irrelevant. The CD exudes stout, but clever playing, without regard to traditional labels. It's just good music.
Josh Abbott Band
Front Row Seat
Pretty Damn Tough Records
Customarily Texas and Red Dirt artists have proudly existed outside of the mainstream, relying more on quality song writing and a defiantly traditional edge to their music, with fiddles and steel guitar prominent. Josh Abbott Band came from this scene and built a faithful fan base.
Abbott boldly decided to create a concept album this time around. The disc is divided into five acts, which represent the stages of a relationship from courtship to the aftermath of a breakup, an idea very similar to Willie Nelson's "Phases & Stages." The forced track listing results in an uneven album, with the bulk of the strongest songs falling in the last third. For the most part, this is straightforward country with a strong nod to the '90s, but there is a noticeable pop sheen that often overpowers the music. Abbott's sweet vocals make him stand out among his Texas country peers, who often have more twang and grit in their voice. Josh Abbott Band are reminiscent of Mark Wills or Mark McGuinn, much smoother and radio friendly than groups like Turnpike Troubadours. That doesn't mean that they don't make good music, rather they exist in a place where they sound as influenced by Nashville as Austin.
The album was conceived after Abbott's much publicized divorce, which may explain why the melancholy second half is so much stronger. On "Born to Break Your Heart," Abbott acknowledges his faults, which led to the breakup with pretty harmonies backing him and simple musical accompaniment. It's a gentle introduction to the shift between the two main parts of the relationship. These songs are generally restrained, with the notable exception of "Amnesia," where Abbott's emotions drive the song to a deeper place as he sounds on the verge of breaking down as the music builds to a loud climax. With "Ghosts," the band takes the sombre tone to the next level, which is carried through to the quiet closer, "Anonymity."
Concept albums rarely work well, but Josh Abbott Band have managed to create a decent effort. While the early songs are occasionally a little heavy handed in their optimism, the final acts successfully capture the emotions that come with the dissolution of a relationship.
Reviewed by Dustin Blumhagen
Last Gang Records
Lindi Ortega surprised everyone with a sonic change of direction on her 2011 album, "Little Red Boots," the introduction to a wonderful trilogy of loss and love told through her haunting voice and throwback country music. After culminating the unofficial trilogy in 2013, she took a little time to refocus before releasing her latest.
Despite releasing three extremely strong offerings in a short period, Ortega has remained a relatively underground artist. While Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe garner critical acclaim, she has never quite managed to break through to their level. The sting of this is palpable on the title track, which is a plodding melancholy track that could have easily been recorded by former tour mate, Brandon Flowers. The music here is less rooted in country tradition than her past Last Gang releases, as Ortega shows why she shouldn't be ignored.
Her recognizable voice is a delight, and she harnesses it for full effect whether it is the sweet retro wisp of "Tell it Like it Is" or full on garage Americana, a la Cary Ann Hearst on "Run-Down Neighborhood."
While Ortega has shown interest in experimentation in the past, never has she so successfully done it as on "Faded Gloryville." Her cover of "To Love Somebody" pays appropriate tribute to the soul music that formed its inspiration, arguably more than the Bee Gees original. With "I Ain't the Girl," Ortega adds a folk pop melody to her repertoire, while "When You Ain't Home" has a bluesy stomp with some wonderful additions from a horn section.
Ortega has crafted another wonderful album that features interesting music, which elevates her entrancing voice. Her rebellious attitude still permeates through the lyrics, but her ability to intertwine moments of vulnerability help to make the experience relatable for listeners. Ortega improves with each release, continually releasing high quality music that both touches on American music tradition and boldly pushes forward.
Reviewed by Dustin Blumhagen
Live at Massey Hall
Warner Music Canada
Live albums are always a contentious offering, too often merely serving as filler between legitimate releases. Sometimes they provide a glimpse into a band's back catalogue and serve as an introduction for new listeners. Both Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison and Nirvana's Unplugged in New York have become among the most celebrated of the artists releases. Many other artists have failed to match their quality however.
While pop culture has sadly elevated Nickelback and Justin Bieber to the forefront of Canadian musical exports, Blue Rodeo have long been one of the most celebrated groups despite their lack of exposure outside of the country's borders. This live collection provides a decent introduction for newcomers to the group's Canadiana sound. It culls 14 tracks from a three hour concert held back in 2014. Six of those tracks come from their latest offering, which they were touring to support at the time, while the rest span their discography. The songs are played well and show why the band has remained relevant for so many years. Both Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor sound as vibrant on vocals as in their early days, while the musicianship has improved over the decades.
It is important to note that this is Blue Rodeo's third live release. Newcomers would be best served picking up their first live release, "Just like a Vacation" which contains 22 of their best songs from their first decades together and then venturing forward from there. This is an interesting souvenir for those who attended the Massey Hall shows, but unless you are a collector, this falls into the between album filler release category. There is little doubt that this hard touring band excels in the live environment, but it is best witnessed in person.
Cold Beer Conversation
George Strait may have abandoned the touring trail, but he thankfully did not call it a day on the recording front. This surprise release shows an artist now in his early 60s completely capable of being the leading voice for his brand of country music, which is increasingly rare these days.
Strait always has enjoyed a voice that resonates and is dexterous depending on the style. And the Texan sticks with the types of styles that brought him to the top - traditional country ("Let It Go," "Goin' Goin' Gone"), Texas swing ("It Takes All Kinds") and Zydeco ("Stop and Drink"). Ballads or uptempo, Strait can do it all.
Strait certainly benefits from having a slew of top-notch material with a lot of songs about loss (the harder punching "Rock Paper Scissors," ""Wish You Well"). He scores as well on the playful "Cheaper Than a Shrink," a Bill Anderson composition about a recurring theme here - drinking. Hit makers Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally contributed "Take Me To Texas," while some other Strait staples like Keith Gattis and Dean Dillon penned songs.
Strait may have come very late to the table in putting his own songs on his album, but he's back with three more he wrote with son Bubba and others. One wonders why Strait took so long to concentrate more on his own material given the top shelf quality of "Let It Go," "It Takes All Kinds" and "Everything I See." There's a lot of thoughtful writing in these songs, including "To think a man who led such a simple life could leave behind so much" about the death of a friend in "Everything I see" with Dillon and Gattis helping write the ballad.
Strait is not an artist to stick his finger in the air to determine what's au courant in country. He doesn't seem to live up to the words in the title track where he sings of "Trying to find our place in this crazy old world." Strait seemingly has always known exactly who he is - a traditional Texas country singer. With ultra high quality outings like this, end of conversation.
Jimmy and the Mustangs
Frontman Jimmy Haddox and his original Mustangs made a bit of name for themselves in the early '80s California punk scene with an EP on MCA, a handful of TV appearances and opening for contemporaries such as The Go-Go's. Now based in Austin, Haddox and his new lineup with the Jimmy and the Mustangs deliver an entertaining mix of rockabilly, blues, swing, country and '50s pop on their latest independent release. The core sound is rockabilly, with harder edged tracks such as "Long Black Train" and "I Won't Cry For You" reminiscent of fellow California roots rockers The Blasters. The opening rocker "Roll the Dice" adds horns to the mix in a fashion similar to the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
One of the highlights is the salute to Gene Vincent "Ready, Set, Go!," which has more of a '50s feel to it, as does the Bo Diddley style blues of "Rock My World." The pop ballads "Love Is Just Pretend" and "Her Love is Gone" which recall some of Jack Scott's moody late '50s work, are among the stronger tracks along with the honky tonk weeper "Bourbon Street."
Haddox's vocals are nicely supported throughout by band mates Tom Coplen (lead guitar, slide guitar), Dylan Cavaliere (upright bass) and John Powell (drums, percussion) with solid contributions from such guests as Stefano Intelisano (piano, farfisa organ), Heather Rae Johnson (fiddle) and Guy Forsyth (harmonica). Produced by Haddox along with Mark Younger-Smith (former guitarist for Billy Idol), "Another Round" is a fun listen.
- Robert Wooldridge
Cam (Camaron Ochs) is another one of those artists only tangentially country. In the leadoff title track, you can hear banjo and twang in her voice (especially when she rhymes "wire" and "fire"), although the latter doesn't automatically stamp you with country bona fides. And this disc won't dispel the idea that Cam is more of an artist who has found her commercial marketplace in country, even if her songs more often tend to skirt country. After all, she did place ""Maybe You're Right" on Miley Cyrus' "Bangerz."
Ochs co-produced the 11 songs with Jeff Bhasker and Tyler Johnson. With credits like Jay-Z, Kanye West and fun. under his belt, Bhasker adorns Cam's music with a pop sheen. Johnson has worked with a few of the same artists, which includes a few tracks on Taylor Swift's "Red." The three showed their ability to put together a commercially viable album that leans heavily on pop.
What Cam benefits from is the ability to write a bunch of songs that befit her style. "Hungover On Heartache" sounds like a song that Reba McEntire could easily tackle, especially with her twang. Cam belts out the song with sadness in her voice where it would have been easy to deliver a frothy reading. Utilizing acoustic guitar at the beginning and end was a smart choice.
The California has enjoyed a huge hit on her hands with the tender "Burning House," contrasting rescuing her man from a burning house with the relationship beyond saving. Cam delivers a requisite tender reading of the down in the dumps song, which calls for a heavy dose of emotional ownership. On that score, Cam succeeds.
Mandolin and banjo adorn several songs ("Want It All" and "Half Broke Heart"), but at heart, these are pop rock songs, which Cam pulls off. She has fun with "Country Ain't Never Been Pretty," offering a contrast between farm life (Cam spent a lot of time on her grandparents' farm in northern California) and the city slicker girl. She follows that with the closing sad downer of a song, "Village," where she pledges her support for her friend.
At a time when a solo female country performer is a rarity (Kelsea Ballerini was the only other female debut in 2015), Cam shows she can write and sing her way around a song with depth, even if she is country challenged.
Genuine The Alan Jackson Story
Cynicism easily could reign about an Alan Jackson compilation set. After all, this 3-CD, 59-song release marks the 11th compilation release for Jackson since 1995 to go along with 20 releases of new material. But what sets this one apart is that it includes new previously unreleased songs.
The hits certainly are included, only it didn't quite start out that way for Jackson. His very first single, "Blue Blooded Woman" only hit 44 in 1989. One suspects that the song was included here as a chance to show exactly where the traditional country singer started. But the hits started rolling with "Here in the Real World" in 1990, and they're just about all here.
The question is whether eight new songs are filler or meet the typical Jackson quality, making them worthwhile additions And the answer is a decided yes. The first disc includes two songs he wrote with Randy Travis, "Born Too Late" and "If Tears Could Talk." Either artists could have conceivably sung the song with both having killer voices to pull off the material. That weeping pedal steel guitar underscores the sadness of the former, while piano punctuates the latter. "Seven Bridges Road," a Steve Young song, has long been a staple of AJ live shows. The lead-off harmony vocals kick off the song in fine style with a bluegrass bent.
The second CD contains the weakest of the new material. "Seguro Que Hell Yes" is catchy with its Mexican beat, but is on the lyrically light side. "The Star Spangled Banner," which closes the disc, is perhaps the least needed of the new songs, but then again, Jackson has no problem pulling off what is a difficult song for many to sing.
"Love is Hard" and "Ain't Just a Southern Thing" continue in the same twangy, traditional sound for which Jackson is known. Fiddle kicks off the former about the vagaries of love. Jackson goes uptempo with the latter about country being nation-wide - "But the people really dug it no matter where we strummed it/I felt that it would be ok/Cause I learned right away/It ain't just a southern thang." Jackson praises the popularity of country, unlike some of his contemporaries who falsely maintain that you have to from the South to be legit.
An extensive 57-age booklet penned by Maurice Miner gives an overview to Jackson's greatness with some telling quotes by fellow musicians such as Lee Ann Womack.
The bottom line on the new material is that every single one of them could have put on a regular Alan Jackson release and been up to snuff. Jackson always has been the real deal when it comes to country music along with forays into bluegrass and spiritual music. Jackson always has been the simple singer with a low-key style, singing about real life, real people without beating his chest. Yup, Jackson lives up to the title - he is "genuine." There is no cynicism in that.