Three Bloodshot Records Reviews

As usual, I bought several CDs during Bloodshot Records’ year-end sale. Since they’ve extended it through the end of January, I figure it’s worth getting my reviews out before the sale ends. Three of the albums I bought just came out in 2011, while three more were released before that. Since it makes sense to focus on the newer ones, I’ll give each of those individual articles over the next few days. But first, here are quick reviews of the ones from 2010 or earlier.

Tulsa cover

Wayne Hancock - Tulsa

Wayne Hancock: Tulsa

It can be tricky to review someone’s older work after reviewing their newer stuff, but I bought Tulsa a year after Hancock’s more recent Viper of Melody. I can’t help but wonder what I would have thought had I heard them in the other order, since Tulsa seems consistently weaker than Viper. Admittedly, the A- I gave to Viper was too high – I was still figuring out my grading scale at that time – but it definitely deserved a B or B+. In comparison, Tulsa feels like the work of someone still figuring out their sound.

Tulsa was still Hancock’s sixth album, and by this point his Hank Williams-meets-western-swing sound was solidly established. However, he didn’t seem to have as much to say. The songs are a little repetitive and stick to traditional themes without anything new in the lyrics. Authenticity is especially important when affecting a style from generations ago, and Hancock’s biggest hurdle is to convince the audience that he’s expressing himself instead of just copying from the past. He achieved this on Viper with a wider range of topics and lyrics that seemed to be based on his personal experiences, not to mention the common ground he found between today and the economic struggles of the past century.

There are no specific examples of bad songs on Tulsa, but neither are there great ones. With only one exception (“Shootin’ Star From Texas”), I can’t imagine choosing to listen to any songs here when I also have access to directly comparable, and superior, versions on his follow-up album.

Grade: C

Country Love Songs cover

Robbie Fulks - Country Love Songs

Robbie Fulks: Country Love Songs

One could make the same complaints about Country Love Songs that I made about Tulsa, because Robbie Fulks solo debut wasn’t always as good as his later work. However, Country Love Songs still stands up well alongside those other albums, and even has its share of classics. “She Took A Lot of Pills (And Died)” is one of those rare tracks that works as a both a novelty and a serious song, and “I’d Be Lonesome” approaches a stock theme with the clever lyrics that define much of Fulks’ work. True, a few of the songs seem to offer little more than mainstream country does, but in 1996, no one in the alt-country scene had figured out exactly how to sound. (But lest anyone think that Fulks was considering a shot at country stardom, he savagely attacks traditional morals on “Let’s Live Together” and uses “Papa Was A Steel-Headed Man” to question the simple, hardworking ideal of many country songs.) It helps that Fulks has always occupied a space somewhere between traditional country and modern underground experiments: Since few others were aiming for a sound like this then or now, it doesn’t feel dated.

Like his later concept album Couples In Trouble, Fulks doesn’t let the theme limit him on Country Love Songs. Break-ups and cheating are more common here than happy love songs, and he stretches the definition to include “(I Love) Nickels And Dimes” and “The Scrapple Song”. It’s varied and satisfying, with the tracks also ranging from sincere ballads to clever jokes.

A relic from the early days of Bloodshot Records, Country Love Songs remains a worthwhile album even by today’s much-changed country standards. It may not be the first Robbie Fulks album I’d buy, but I can still confidently recommend it.

Grade: B

Mirepoix And Smoke cover

Ben Weaver - Mirepoix And Smoke

Ben Weaver: Mirepoix and Smoke

Ben Weaver is a bit of a novelty on Bloodshot, as he is more of a folk singer than a country one. However, he populates his songs with rural characters and imagery, such as the “rabbit fur in the coyotes’ shit” that sets the scene for a stark, beautiful song of longing. City-dwelling folkies will find him intelligent and relatable, even if his frame of reference features berry trees and foxholes instead of busses and coffee shops.

The songs on Mirepoix and Smoke are sparse, often featuring nothing more than Weaver singing and playing a single instrument. (Sometimes he has female backing and a second instrument going, but those songs are no more complex.) His voice is distinctively scratchy, but still clear and young. The music, whether on banjo, piano, or other instruments, is slow and deliberate. The lyrics, however, use all this simplicity to portray rich lives. The words are basic and literal, but the lives they portray seem full. Some songs are easy to parse meaning from, others less so.

Mirepoix and Smoke is pleasant and evocative, if not always memorable afterwards. The only songs that really stick with me are “Drag the Hills” and “While I’m Gone”, but I keep coming back to hear what I can in the rest of them as well.

Grade: B-

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