Archive for the ‘ Country ’ Category

Bloodshot Records Capsule Reviews

As with the past couple years, I like to take some time in January to review the albums I bought at Bloodshot Records’ holiday sale. (As of today, the sale is still going on, though their site doesn’t say how long it will last.)

I don’t know if I will keep doing this, though. I don’t want to wait until January to review the brand new albums (I went ahead and reviewed Justin Townes Earle’s latest right away, for example), and I may have reached my limit for older items from the Bloodshot catalog. This time, I found myself scrolling through the list of sale CDs, asking myself if I really needed another Wayne Hancock or Waco Brothers album. So I don’t know what I’ll decide next time.

Continue reading

Three Country/Folk Tribute Albums

Today’s review looks at a few older tribute albums that I have. I’m interested not only in whether they are good, but what makes a tribute album worthwhile in itself.


Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows cover

Various Artists – Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows

For example, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows is a well-deserved tribute to John Prine. Its songs feature trendy-but-not-mainstream artists from the folk and country scenes, basically aiming this at the modern version of Prine’s audience. The covers are very faithful to the originals, but that actually speaks to the range and influence of those songs. Josh Ritter’s version of “Mexican Home” sounds exactly like a Josh Ritter song, and the slick country packaging of “Spanish Pipedream” is perfect for The Avett Brothers. (Justin Townes Earle’s “Far From Me” actually sounds like what Earle should be writing.) The only misfire is “Wedding Day In Funeralville”, in which Conor Oberst sounds like an eager kid begging to sit at the adults’ table.

These are excellent performances of powerful songs, but the album still can’t help but feel a bit slight. They basically are Prine’s songs, just polished up a bit for today’s audiences. But Prine’s originals hold up well, and are still well-regarded enough in the modern folk community that the people buying this have little reason not to just buy his albums. Broken Hearts is a good collection, but more in the sense of a greatest hits disc or a remastered update, not in the sense of something new.

There are tribute albums that recast the subject in a new light or bring an artist to a new audience’s attention. This doesn’t do either. Though it’s too well done to be thought of as a cash-in, it is obvious that these (very good) tracks will be forgotten before they are as old as the originals are now.

Grade: B-


Twistable, Turnable Man cover

Various Artists – Twistable, Turnable Man

Twistable, Turnable Man fills a very different role. Few people are aware that Shel Silverstein wrote songs, and many who do discover them are put off by his rough voice and joking delivery. He was a master songwriter, though, and a tribute like this is long overdue.

The performances here generally position Silverstein in the same folksy songwriter territory as Prine (he even appears here, in fact), though it has more variety than Broken Hearts did: Black Francis is a perfect choice for the exaggerated rock sleaze of “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”, and Dr. Dog’s pastoral approach to “The Unicorn” captures the hippie vibe. The artists represent multiple generations, from Ray Price and Bobby Bare, Sr. to My Morning Jacket and Andrew bird. Plenty of Silverstein’s recognizable humor is here, though he came from a less ironic era, and had a surprising amount of sentimental songs as well. “The Giving Tree” and “Daddy What If” both appear here to represent that. I don’t find them worth the re-listens of Silverstein’s other work, though. (My favorite song in that vein is “Comin’ After Jinny”, but it’s not included.)

With those exceptions, there isn’t a bad song here. Even better, you have probably heard of almost none of them, even though they sound like folk classics here. The only other track that casual listeners are likely to recognize is “A Boy Named Sue”. Todd Snider does a good job with it, but Johnny Cash already sang the definitive cover. However, “The Winner” sung by Kris Kristofferson deserves its place in the pantheon right next to that song. (Seriously, you need “The Winner”. It is another humorous song about a tough brawler, and just as good as the song Cash made famous.)

Twistable, Turnable Man doesn’t just introduce Silverstein’s songs to a generation that had no idea they existed. It also makes an editorial decision to present him as a sober songwriter with the occasional joke. In reality, Silverstein had many facets, and was predominantly a counterculture prankster. Though the artist selections here are impeccable, I find myself wishing for some of today’s libertines and stoners to cover songs like “Polly In A Porny” and “I Got Stoned And I Missed It”. They wouldn’t fit in on this album, though. The style presented here is an intentional artistic decision.

The songs on Twistable, Turnable Man are great on their own terms, just like those on Broken Hearts. But this album also serves a larger purpose, both drawing attention to a little-known artist and providing its own bold take on the works. That turns the whole work into something essential.

Grade: A-


Hard-Headed Woman cover

Various Artists – Hard-Headed Woman

Song by song, Hard-Headed Woman generally doesn’t live up to the standard of quality set by the above albums. However, Wanda Jackson arguably needs a modern update more than John Prine does. Her recording career began a generation earlier, and so the songs feel a little more dated today. Also, despite being adored by her fans as the “First Lady of Rockabilly”, she’s not generally well-known. (This is less true today, since Jack White engineered Jackson’s comeback album, but she definitely deserved more recognition when this compilation was made in 2004.)

This Bloodshot Records tribute loses Jackson’s personality and doesn’t try to copy her vocal tricks, but it offers honest appreciation and modern production. Also, it avoids presenting only one of Jackson’s faces. I’m sure it would have been tempting for this label, still early in its “country-punk” days, to focus on the proto-riot-grrl of “Hot Dog, That Made Him Mad” and “If You Don’t Somebody Else Will”. But they gave equal time to her wholesome country side with, among other songs, the prayer of “One Day At A Time”.

The main problem with Hard-Headed Woman is that the best tribute albums sound like they’re coming from peers acknowledging their influences. Here, the performers are obviously still living under Jackson’s shadow. Several have since become moderately big names, including Robbie Fulks, The Asylum Street Spankers, and Wayne Hancock, but the only real star is Neko Case. (If you’re a fan of Case’s pure country days, though, her version of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is a must-have. Never mind that Jackson isn’t one of the first five people you’d associate the song with.) The bulk of the album, though, is filled out with the people best known for rounding out Bloodshot compilations: The Bottle Rockets, Rosie Flores, and others. Aside from Neko Case’s standout, though, I actually think most of the best performances here come from the lesser-known artists.

It should also be said that the Bloodshot crew seemed more willing to adapt the songs than the stars of John Prine’s tribute did: Trailer Bride’s drone gives “Fujiyama Mama” a foreign, threatening feel, and The Cornell Hurd Band provide a funkier, country trash version of “This Gun Don’t Care Who It Shoots”. It’s easy to dismiss this as a bunch of covers thrown off from a small label, but they made a lot of their own artistic choices without any real missteps.

This album is far from essential, but it’s surprisingly fun and heartfelt. Plenty of music fans today know little about Wanda Jackson, and this tribute makes an introduction to her. The original songs would work as well, but these ones document her influence in a way that isn’t obvious from the old recordings themselves. In that way, this provides a unique justification for its existence.

Grade: B-

 

People Take Warning! (Music Review)

People Take Warning! cover

Various Artists – People Take Warning!

People Take Warning! is a three-disc set of songs from the 1920s and 1930s that all commemorate disasters. Its seventy tracks include some classics (such as Charlie Patton’s “High Water Everywhere”), but also a lot with unprepared backup singers and lyrics that don’t fit the meter. The liner notes explain that this is because some of the songs were quickly rushed out to capitalize on a tragedy while it was fresh in everyone’s mind. Unfortunately, this collection feels just as slipshod, and has no excuse about timeliness.

Most importantly, the recording quality is consistently poor. Flat, washed-out, and full of a record player’s static, most of them sound like the transfer to CD was done by just setting up a microphone ten feet from a turntable. It doesn’t seem like the creators searched very widely for material, either, with many artists represented repeatedly. Ernest Stoneman and Charlie Patton each have four tracks here, with Patton’s all on the same disc.

The material deserved better. The songs are an interesting snapshot of the concerns and fascinations of a lost time: The first disc is devoted to accidents on man-made devices, including the expected train crashes. But it also features seven songs about The Titanic, a common theme that has since been forgotten. (Until buying Dylan’s epic “Tempest” last year, I don’t think my collection had any Titanic songs.) The second disc, “Man V. Nature”, is full of floods and boll weevils, but also has a couple fires of the scope we don’t see today. Those tragedies have the same fascinating immediacy as murder ballads, which unsurprisingly are the focus of the final disc. Those are the best songs; There’s a reason murder songs remain more popular than the other themes. (The recording quality is also better here. Perhaps the producers had a better selection to pick from, or maybe it’s just easier to find well-preserved copies of these songs.) Even so, if you’re in this release’s target audience, you already have better renditions of “Stack O’ Lee”, “Pretty Polly”, and several others.

The liner notes include a decent, if short, essay by Tom Waits about the role of disaster songs in the culture. The rest of the booklet provides several interesting tidbits of information, but still feels as maddeningly rushed as the rest of the production. For example, it wouldn’t take much research to correct the assertion that we don’t know if “Frankie & Johnny” was a true story or not. Even the track listing is incredibly different between the CD case and the booklet. One song is alternately called “The Titanic” and “The Sinking of The Titanic”, while another is both “Mississippi Boweavil” and “Boll Weevil Blues”. Many backup artists are credited in only one of the locations , and neither source can consistently decide between “Alfred Reed” an “Blind Alfred Reed” (yet they disagree with each other in all three of his appearances). It doesn’t seem that much effort went into this at all.

People Take Warning! is a collection that I really wanted to like. Its compelling theme and ambitious scope are exactly what the project should have. However, the quality and attention to detail are lacking throughout.

Grade: C-

 

Wanda Jackson – Unfinished Business (Music Review)

Unfinished Business

Wanda Jackson – Unfinished Business

In addition to releasing his own album, Justin Townes Earle also recently produced Wanda Jackson’s Unfinished Business. He’s a very different talent than Jack White, who produced The Party Ain’t Over for her, and their two albums make an interesting contrast. Though I now think I was a bit harsh on Party, my basic criticism stands: White brought in an energetic rock band that drowned out the aging Jackson. Earle brings a gentler band in, emphasizing the swinging country side of Jackson’s rockabilly legacy, and she sounds a lot more confident now.

The song selection is strong throughout. It’s unfortunate that these are all covers, but Jackson came of age in a time when it was expected that other people would write the songs she sang. Today, that apparently means that she sings previously-released songs, instead of having someone write her new material. However, these are mainly underplayed songs that deserve her attention: One track from Earle appears here, as does one from his father Steve and namesake Townes Van Zandt. All feel appropriate for Jackson’s style and persona, even though only a few are from her heyday. The only one that falls short is “California Stars”. The Woody Guthrie/Wilco song is a good choice, but the delivery feels rushed.

Unfinished Business doesn’t have the high points of The Party Ain’t Over, but it more than makes up for that by feeling like a coherent album without the missteps either. Jackson is charismatic and comfortable, and her throaty growls sound as good as ever. While she’s obviously not young anymore, she and Earle never sound like they’re stretching beyond her capabilities.

I wonder if I’ll ever get to hear Jackson perform new material with supporters of this caliber. Probably not, but at least this is a fun album, and a worthwhile tribute to her influence.

Grade: B-

 

Two More From Justin Townes Earle (Music Review)

Midnight At The Movies cover

Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies

The opening track to Justin Townes Earle’s Midnight At The Movies is probably the closest he has ever gotten to sounding like his father Steve. Taking on the persona of a soulful man honest enough to realize what a loser he is, Earle tells a brief alt-country story about the lost souls who sit by each other in a lonely theater. But after that, Earle parts ways with his father, delving into the bluesier sound that he is known for. And as usual, the songs don’t quite fit the youthful singer.

In some ways, this has the same message as my review last year in which I looked at one old and one new Earle album: He’s an excellent songwriter who seems too young and innocent for the soulful, heartbreaking works he is drawn to, but who has started to find the right balance in his newer songs. However, neither of the albums this time around appeal to me as much as the previous round. Midnight At The Movies, Earle’s older album, aims for a style even more deep and sincere than The Good Life did. There are some great songs – I especially like “They Killed John Henry” and “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This” – but even those best ones don’t feel quite right. This is almost worth buying for the quality of the songwriting, but it feels lacking throughout. Maybe Earle can re-record all his early works in twenty years. That would probably be a masterpiece.

Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now cover

Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now

His new one, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, also fails to hit the highs of Harlem River Blues. Earle should be praised for his willingness to experiment with each new album, but his decision to play with a “Memphis Blues” style this time moves it away from the more personal feel of his last work. (That’s not to say it isn’t personal. The lyrics seem more directly about his life than ever before, with “Movin’ On” touching on the parts of his life that keep him restless, and “Won’t Be The Last Time” taking responsibility for a run-in with the police. It just doesn’t feel as personal, thanks to the hint of affectation in Earle’s chosen style.)

Earle does continue to grow into his folk-blues style, so much so that those tracks now feel more right than the rock experiment of “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea”. He’s getting there, and continuing to write some great songs. I expect this album to age fairly well, but I also expect his later works to far surpass it.

Midnight At The Movies: C+

Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now: B-

 

Catch-Up Capsule Reviews: Country

Obviously, I’ve fallen way behind on music reviews. I’m catching up now, mainly thanks to the motivation of “oh, crap! I need to make a best of the year list soon!”, but I averaged only one new music article per month from February through October. So I’ll need to get through a lot of albums quickly.

“Cult of the new” often means “… new to me”, and so I review even the older things that I’m finding for the first time. But I know that not everyone wants to see me dwell on old things as thoroughly. So over the next week or so, I’ll try to run through quick reviews of older albums that were new to me this year. None of these were released in 2012, and most are from before 2011.

Since I group my music loosely into Country, Rock, and Pop, I’ll start today with four that fall under the “country” umbrella.

Continue reading

Two From the Dirt Daubers (Music Review)

The Dirt Daubers album cover

The Dirt Daubers – The Dirt Daubers

The Legendary Shack-Shakers’ crazy music and over-the-top vocals sometimes make it hard to remember that their performance comes out of a sincere love of the South and its traditions. From that perspective, it makes sense that frontman J.D. Wilkes would start a (slightly) calmer band with a stronger connection to his everyday culture. The Dirt Daubers feature acoustic instruments and a fairly even split between traditional songs and originals. Wilkes’ hell-raising energy is present as always, though, and the result is a raucous celebration of old-time country and folk. Though the lyrics don’t have the surprising intelligence of the Shack-Shakers, they are sharp and honest, and the songs fly by at two minutes each.

Of their two releases so far, Wake Up Sinners is the essential one. In comparison, the self-titled debut feels more like a calling card than a complete album. Only four of its ten songs are written by Wilkes, and one of those is a misguided remake of an existing Shack-Shakers song. Another is redone (and improved) on Wake Up Sinners. Even one of the traditional songs, “Sugar Baby”, has already appeared on a Shack-Shakers album. A couple of the tracks feel more like incomplete snippets than full songs. That’s not to say there aren’t some great efforts: The loose, belted-out rendition of “Black Eyed Susie” and the mellow “On The Front Porch” summarize the range of their energetic-but-respectful approach to musical traditions, and the gravel-voiced “Ode to Conrail Twitty” brings a punk efficiency to a song about trains and tradition.

Wake Up Sinners cover

The Dirt Daubers – Wake Up Sinners

Wake Up Sinnersbrings in the Shack-Shakers’ Mark Robertson on bass and promotes Jessica Wilkes, J.D.’s wife, to lead vocals. It’s at this point that they seem like a self-assured band instead of a side project. The fuller sound and more fleshed-out lyrics will be welcome to Shack-Shakers’ fans, even as Jessica’ contributions distinguish it as a separate band. She doesn’t show much range, sticking to a fast-paced, slightly aggressive delivery, but it fits the band perfectly. With the two vocalists taking turns on songs, variety never becomes a concern. The excellent harmonica performance deserves a mention, as well. It’s rare for that instrument to distinguish itself like this.

The traditional songs are much improved, as well. I’d never wanted to hear “Wayfaring Stranger” again, but J.D.’s upbeat rendition of it is exactly what was needed. Later, Jessica delivers “Say Darlin’ Say” (a different version of “Hush Little Baby”) as an enjoyable song for adults. The songs still feel a little slight, and even the best ones wear out their welcome if listened to repeatedly, but they’re great if you return to them the next day. I wouldn’t be surprised if the band’s true masterpiece is still ahead of them. If they improved this much from one album to the next, why should they stop now?

The Dirt Daubers: C+

Wake Up Sinners: B+


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 110 other followers