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.

Spanks for the Memories cover

Asylum Street Spankers – Spanks for the Memories

Asylum Street Spankers – Spanks For The Memories

The Asylum Street Spankers were a large, chaotic band, who managed to create a united sound through incredible timing and technical precision. When recording their debut album, they decided to trust their own performance instincts more than any studio magic. A straightforward performance of their songs, from faithful old-time covers to obscene originals, Spanks For The Memories manages to sporadically capture the magic of their live performances. They would improve their recording quality later on, especially in the career-highlight Mercurial. However, the stripped-down approach still makes this one of the standouts from the band’s large and varied catalog. It also contains several fan-favorite tracks, including “Funny Cigarette” and “Startin’ To Hate Country”. True, there are live videos out there (commercially and on YouTube) that do a better job with these songs. Still, it was a fun, well-performed glimmer of hope during the commercial wasteland that was mid-1990s country. Standards have risen since then (partly due to this own band’s later work), but it still holds up well today.

Grade: B

Your Country cover

Graham Parker – Your Country

Graham Parker – Your Country

Aging rocker Graham Parker has gone solo with Bloodshot Records in recent years, recording folksy story-telling songs. Stripped-down rock instrumentation and Parker’s sandpapery-but-tuneful voice combine to make easy, pleasant music. It’s a good choice for someone in Parker’s position, and no one expects him to push the envelope. But the songs still feel disappointingly light on new ideas. It’s telling that the strongest track is a reworking of his old song “Crawling From The Wreckage”. Otherwise, it sounds aimless, and occasionally tired. The songs are solid, but it needs more standouts.

“Tornado Alley” is the kind of fun, upbeat song that Parker should focus on if he wants to make these simple ideas come across right. Its story, though, is off-putting: The narrator crows about a trailer park woman he dislikes getting hit by a tornado. It tries to push boundaries in a light-hearted way, but the extent of the slut-shaming for this presumably dead woman goes well beyond that. It’s uncomfortable enough to cast a pall over Parker’s other “amirite, men?” songs like “Queen of Compromise”.

Grade: C

Honey Don't cover

Honey Don’t – Honey Don’t

Honey Don’t – Honey Don’t

Honey Don’t is a clean-cut band playing rootsy instruments with a pop mentality. The fiddle and mandolin dominate the songs alongside Bill Powers’ earnest voice. Often joined by Shelley Gray for duets, this feels like wholesome music by a couple and for couples. Even the implications of cheating on “Pallet On Your Floor” fail to stick, and the album is defined by romantic songs like “Sixty Years” instead. “I’ve got three little birdies named ‘I’, ‘Love’, ‘You'” sings Powers on “Ellia Jewel”, with a deft sincerity almost strong enough to cut overcome the sickly-sweet cliché.

It’s probably unfair, but the impression I get is that of eager music students playing with a deep tradition that they have just been introduced to. They do know what they’re doing, though, and if they’re aiming for a safe-for-NPR exploration of roots music, they hit the mark. There’s a good mix of traditional and original songs, and it’s to the band’s credit that those two categories mix indistinguishably. It’s a lot of fun, even if it does feel slight, and many people will find this a nice alternative to the grittier themes that often dominate underground country.

Grade: B-


Preservation Jazz Hall Band – Preservation

Preservation Hall Jazz Band – Preservation

New Orleans’ Preservation Hall is dedicated to their city’s jazz tradition. This album features their in-house band performing songs with a variety of artists. Though jazz is a distinct genre from country today, the lines were blurred in the formative days of the city’s culture, as reflected in the contributions from Del McCoury and Merle Haggard.

The band is excellent, and the list of special guests is notable for both their talent and breadth. As an outreach program, this project should do a great job of attracting attention from music fans who wouldn’t normally think about jazz. The results, though, aren’t as impressive as you’d expect from the mixture of talent. Even their fans will barely recognize Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, or Brandi Carlile in this style, and some performers like Andrew Bird sound out of their league trying to keep up with jazz standards. Only the most distinctive people (such as Tom Waits) remain identifiable. That doesn’t mean these songs are bad by any means, but it ends up feeling like a much more generic introduction to New Orleans jazz than anticipated.

Grade: B-

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