Archive for the ‘ Country ’ Category

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway (Music Review)

The Low Highway cover

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway

Two years after the excellent I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Steve Earle returns with a solid but unexciting album. The Low Highway does everything fans will want from Earle, but has no real standout songs.

This time performing with “The Dukes (& Duchesses)”, Earle’s band makes this his countriest album in years. Confident, polished, and sticking to a familiar style, this easily fits in with the pop-Americana resurgence of these post-Mumford years. But, while the album mixes his blues-rock with everything from harmonica to fiddle to jazz piano, it’s usually comfortable with slow ballads that fit Earle’s age and his pain. It’s a good choice, and one that stands out next to younger, less soulful bands. Again, it’s just missing those couple great songs that would define it.

So what songs are on this? Well, one of the highlights is “Invisible”, a heartfelt story of homelessness. Earle is one of the few people who still seem to remember that country has a tradition of sympathy for the downtrodden. He sometimes comes across as over-earnest, though, as on “Calico County”‘s description of a poor, meth-blighted town. It’s the rock track on this album, but his heart doesn’t seem in it. Somewhere in between is “The Low Highway”. His personal daydream of hitchhiking mixes in scenes of poor folk on the road and damaged veterans, but they sometimes feel shoehorned in.

Every Earle album has a duet with a woman, and “That All You Got?” is an energetic, swinging track that leads into the equally upbeat “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way”. It’s the most fun part of the album, but there are a couple other sections that come close. On the other hand, those stand out against a couple disappointments. “21st Century Blues” tries to rail against the injustices of today, but his complaints too often sound dated. Missing “flying cars”, “teletransporters”, and Kennedy’s promises, he overlooks the wonders that today does offer. The old promises of jetpacks and Dick Tracey watches have been completely outdone by the reality of smartphones and internet. Not that that is Earle’s main point – there are plenty of injustices around us as well – but his lighthearted comments serve to make him sound out of touch instead of humanizing his political complaints.

Overall, Earle is still refusing to settle down, and he’s a good songwriter who (usually) knows how to play to his strengths. The Low Highway is a nice change of pace, if not one of the albums that stand out over his career.

Grade: B-

 
Advertisements

Country Capsule Reviews: Neo-Traditionalists

Today, I have a few quick reviews of new country albums from people who stick carefully to old styles. This can work well, as there is a lot of emotional depth left to explore in traditional country, but being too strict can also become a straightjacket. All three of these artists are people I’ve reviewed before, but surprisingly, my opinion of each one has changed since then.

Continue reading

Sons of Rogue’s Gallery (Music Review)

Son of Rogue's Gallery cover

Various Artists – Son of Rogue’s Gallery

I was a big fan of Rogue’s Gallery, a 2006 compilation nominally spun out of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It didn’t really feature pirates that often, despite a subtitle promising “Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys”, but it did resurrect a lot of old folk songs to demonstrate how dirty, violent, and desperate the seafaring life was. Admittedly, most of the tracks were forgettable, but there were several amazing stand-outs, and on the whole it made for a fascinating study of forgotten songs. Now we have another two-disc set, entitled Sons of Rogue’s Gallery, that follows largely the same pattern. There are a few differences, such as a couple recordings that predated this project and slightly less depressing subject matter overall. However, It’s safe to say that if you listened to Rogue’s Gallery, you already know whether or not you’ll like Son of Rogue’s Gallery.

This new project got more press than I ever heard for Rogue’s Gallery, thanks mainly to Tom Waits and Keith Richards collaborating on “Shenandoah”. It’s a slow, faithful rendition of the one song from this that everyone already knows, but it’s always nice to hear Waits’ voice in a simple, unironic performance like this. What I would have chosen to represent this compilation, and what I wish there were more of, is the excellent songs from both Shane MacGowan and Macy Gray. They each found a perfect balance between the old culture and modern expectations, bringing their songs alive for today.

There are also several tracks that reinterpret the source material more drastically, with both good and bad results. Todd Rundgren presents “Rolling Down To Old Maui” as a disco-era party song, and Kembra Pfahler’s “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” is a jarring contrast between a classic, gentle style and a noisy experimental one. Elsewhere, Katey Red and Big Freedia (with Akron/Family, surprisingly) turn an old story about sexual conquests into a hip-hop-tingued schoolyard chant, and Shilpa Ray sings a seven-minute revenge fantasy with moody backing from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. And I have to mention Iggy Pop’s scenery-chewing ode to sodomy, “Asshole Rules the Navy”. (Yes, the people I’ve listed are a pretty good representation of the breadth and talent gathered for this. Artists from Ivan Neville to Broken Social Scene to Patti Smith appear here. The most surprising is a duet between Michael Stipe and Courtney Love.)

Despite those examples, most of these songs stick pretty close to a gentle folk approach. I think a few of the performers felt obligated to treat the originals with staid respect. Much like hesitant high school kids reading Shakespeare, you’ll almost overlook the danger and murder that lurks in those gentle-sounding songs. Here is my big complaint about Songs of Rogue’s Gallery, because the original came with liner notes to give more context about each track. This made all the songs part of an interesting tapestry, even when they weren’t as attention-grabbing. Here, though, if a song isn’t interesting on its own, the rest of the compilation does nothing to help justify it.

Sons of Rogue’s Gallery is uneven, but like its predecessor, it has enough great tracks to justify it. The lack of liner notes and inclusion of happier, less desperate songs do make this feel like a step down from the first album. Still, although a lot of people would not necessarily want to purchase this, it’s definitely something that everyone should get the chance to hear.

Grade: B-

 

Joseph Huber – Tongues of Fire (Music Review)

Tongues of Fire cover

Joseph Huber – Tongues of Fire

Tongues of Fire is one of those situations that I find difficult to review: It features lackluster recordings of very good songs. It’s a solo effort by banjo player Joseph Huber, part of the now-defunct .357 String Band. And yes, “one part of something great” could describe this album. Featuring a more traditional country sound than .357 String Band usually had, Huber performs clear, acoustic songs that you could share with your grandmother. But the basic production gives everything a slightly reserved air, like a singer of a past era on his best behavior to perform on television. The upbeat songs have their wild edges sanded down, and the more reserved ones still have a peppy delivery. Overall, this has a bland sameness throughout, despite featuring the sort of variety that in theory should make it a well-rounded album.

The songs, though, prove that Huber remains a writer to watch. “Iron Rail” and “Walkin’ Fine” are the most fun of several contenders, while “Burden On the Wind” and “Hello, Milwaukee” provide quieter counterpoints. None provide especially memorable characters or slices of life, though “An Old Mountain Tune” comes close with its mix of nostalgia and knowing cynicism. (“I stole the words I used to get closer to you, while stealing the chords of an old mountain tune.”) And when the lyrics lack solid hooks, Huber’s music makes up for it.

Tongues of Fire is best heard in pieces. As one or two songs on a mix, it would feel fresh and interesting. As a full album, though, it’s unsatisfying despite the obvious quality. Maybe it’s the recording, or maybe Huber needs to figure out how to fill the roles that his old bandmates provided. Either way, it’s consistently ok.

Grade: C+

Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal (Music Review)

The Grifter's Hymnal cover

Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal

After I named Ray Wylie Hubbard’s previous album one of the best albums I discovered in 2011, you’d think that I’d know to check out his next one as soon as it came out. But I missed out again, waiting until now to try his 2012 release The Grifter’s Hymnal. And while I don’t think this one is quite going to make it on my year-end list, it’s a reminder that I need to pay closer attention to Hubbard.

Hubbard is an old country bluesman with a penchant for slide guitar, but he’s more versatile and experimental than you’d expect from that description. He sounds a little more settled down this time, which is probably why it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. But still, it features the rocking, irreverent “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell”, half-spoken stories of his restless youth in “Mother Blues”, and “Henhouse”, a catchy tale that rambles through country life and exaggerated character studies. Mostly about sinning, with a few heartfelt moments about God, Hubbard still sounds wild and fun despite the knowing way he looks back on life. And songs like “Moss and Flowers” provide a soulful counterpoint to his jokester moments. This is still a varied, well-rounded album.

Even when he’s playing around, music is serious business to Hubbard. Throughout tales of sex, drugs, and faith, it’s obvious that music is what really drives him. Some songs address this directly, such as the DIY blues set-up of “Coricidin Bottle”, while others just mix music directly in with the rest of his life. When he is judged in “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell”, Hubbard mainly considers his musical accomplishments (“Sure I drank a lot of gin and tonic, but I never threw away my Panasonic.”) It’s a philosophy that should make Hubbard a friend to any music lover.

Though my preferred Ray Wylie Hubbard album was A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), don’t let me scare you off of The Grifter’s Hymnal. It’s an excellent celebration of life, as seen through the eyes of a man who mixes the best parts of youth and age.

Grade: B+

 

Bob Wayne – Till the Wheels Fall Off (Music Review)

Till the Wheels Fall Off cover

Bob Wayne – Till the Wheels Fall Off

Since reviewing Bob Wayne’s Outlaw Carnie, I’ve wondered if I was too harsh on it. My general opinion holds true: He has a good country sound, if a little rough and obviously metal-influenced. And while some of the songs are fun, the overall impression is that of a boorish party animal who’s more interested in telling you how he wins all his fights than in reflecting real life. Despite that, I do keep going back to the best songs, because they’re worth listening to. The album as a whole is obnoxious, but the standouts arguably redeem it. I bought his latest release, Till the Wheels Fall Off, to give him another chance. Unfortunately, this one sees Wayne doubling down on the outlaw posturing, and is definitely a lesser work than Outlaw Carnie.

Part of Wayne’s problem is that his vocals aren’t singing so much as a country affectation and exaggerated quaver. It’s not out of bounds by the standards of harder underground country, but it definitely makes it easy to question his authenticity when the songs get a little unbelievable. This happens with tracks like “There Ain’t No Diesel Trucks in Heaven”, which can’t seem to decide whether that’s supposed to be a relief for weary truck drivers, or a curse. A couple songs about killing drug dealers and rapists barely even try to establish a plot or characters; Wayne sounds too eager to get to the vengeful fantasies.

I just have to laugh at “Fuck the Law”, in which he complains that the government is against him just for “writing and living these songs”. In another song he claims that he’s shot at cops for fun, so I have to agree that living out his songs would be a problem. Maybe that gets to the root of the matter: There’s nothing wrong with living vicariously through songs (even if I do complain about how one-dimensional these get at time), but there’s a confusing mix of reality, too: As far as I can remember from a live recording a while back, “Fuck the Law” was a real response to him being barred from Canada. So it’s real, but the idea that he’s “living” these songs in general is a delusion.

As I said before, the best songs are very good in isolation. “Devil’s Son” is the most fun example of claims to bad-assery, and “All Those One Night Stands” comes close if you can forget that he already covered similar territory with “Chatterbox”. “Lost Vegas” and “Hunger in My Soul” show that he can write moody, somber songs when he wants to. They’re still odes to sin, of course. Don’t expect any of the reflection from his previous highlight, “Blood to Dust”. The only one that tries at that is “Wives of Three”, a surprising song about a polygamist begging his mother to accept him for who he is. In different hands, that would be a touching character study with an unusual point of view. In the context of this album, though, it’s hard to believe that Wayne isn’t really cheering at the idea of having someone having his own little harem.

I still want to like Wayne, and it looks like every album will have a couple tracks good enough to give me hope. He’s heading in the wrong direction, though.

Grade: D+

 

Country Capsule Reviews: 2012 Catch-Up

Though I reviewed plenty of country music throughout 2012, almost none of it was actually new that year. To catch up on what I missed, I went to Saving Country Music’s nominations for the best albums of the year. I don’t always agree with Trigger at SCM, but he makes a great guide. From his seven nominees, I picked out the four that were available on physical CDs. (My preferences are falling out of step with modern times, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the indie country scene. It seems like half of the albums that Trigger loves are only available electronically.) Here are my opinions of those four.

Continue reading