Archive for the ‘ Country ’ Category

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+

Imperial Rooster – Decent People (Music Review)

Decent People cover

Imperial Rooster – Decent People

“Anything Goes At A Rooster Show”, the lead track on Decent People, wastes no time in announcing that Imperial Rooster is a quirky, irreverent country act. Featuring L. Ron Hubbard, monkeys, and a vending machine full of raw pickled eggs, it does sound like “a good old fashioned Rooster show” would be a lot of fun.

After that song, though, the band tries to go in too many directions, few of them good. One country standby after another is embraced eagerly, from warnings about divine judgment to an enthusiastic jug solo. I still can’t tell whether the exaggerated country moan in the vocals is satirical or just over-indulgent. At least it’s obvious that the huge body count comes from a less-than-serious love of murder and heartbreak songs. This young band has some strengths, but a lot of weaknesses, and they haven’t yet figured out how to tell them apart.

The attention-craving sinners of “Anything Goes…” and “DWI Marijuana Blues” clash with the God-fearing balladeers who sing “our ignorance will block out the Sun” and warn the listener away from internet porn (with too much fervor to be taken seriously). In case that isn’t enough variety, the singer occasionally switches over to a Tom Waits-esque yell. These all clash, especially when they show up in the same song. (For example, the painfully-slow ballad about their fears for the modern world would be more tolerable if it weren’t named “Korhn Sirup Sundae”.)

If Imperial Rooster has a future, it’s probably in that Tom Waits impression. Not that they have Waits’ gift for lyrics, but the growling and energy distract from their lack of singing skill. “45 Seconds Of Blood” is actually a fun little song, and only partly because it is too quick to wear out its welcome. In fact, “The Beast On The Backs Of Our Children” is almost seven minutes long and manages to stay interesting. It could use some polishing up, but its bloody morality play grunted out over an oompah beat is unique enough to work.

Unfortunately, every decent song like that is balanced out by a few completely forgettable ones. With production that makes the album sound like an unprepared first take and failed humor that never lives up to the promise of “Anything Goes…”, many of these songs shouldn’t have even been considered for release. (Even if women abusing their husbands were automatically funny, “I Like The Way (She…)” is plodding and forgettable enough to ruin the joke.)

There’s one reason I keep coming back to this album, though: “Suzie Anna Riverstone”. This mixes Imperial Rooster’s split personalities perfectly, and results in a song I will listen to on repeat. Modeled after a traditional country tragedy, the lyrics are just too over the top to take seriously, and the shit-kicking energy makes it a fun, self-aware celebration of the genre.

Decent People is a rare thing: An indisputably bad album that still makes me interested in seeing the band live. The country pranksters behind “Anything Goes At A Rooster Show” and “Suzie Anna Riverstone” have to be fun in concert, and given that those songs bookend the album, the band clearly knows those are their standouts. It’s just too bad that they haven’t figured out how to make the rest of their songs work like that.

Grade: D+

Amanda Shires – Carrying Lightning (Music Review)

Carrying Lightning cover

Amanda Shires - Carrying Lightning

Though I learned of Amanda Shires through country music fans, it actually took me a while to decide if I would categorize Carrying Lightning that way. Sure, she plays a fiddle (among other instruments), and has a banjo and upright bass in the band, but the arrangements often seem more suited towards folk. Many of the lyrics have a folk-singer’s worldliness (such as the eager sexuality in “Shake the Walls” or the acknowledgment that lovers drift apart in “Lovesick I Remain”), but the settings are pure country (consider the songs titled “Kudzu” and “Bees In the Shed”). The songs all have the honest humanity of great country, but ones like “Ghost Bird” and “She Let Go of Her Kite” obscure it with the metaphors more common to folk. And while I suspect many of her fans are more interested in Dar Williams than Willie Nelson, her voice frequently has a little tremble that I associate with country traditions. In the end, I accepted that this is country. A strict traditionalist might exclude her, but all genres need to evolve over time. And really, the important thing is that this is great music regardless of genre.

I’d say that it’s especially important to think of Shires as part of country’s evolution because she provides an alternative for people not interested in the Hank3-styled outlaw movement. Earnest, beautiful, and vulnerable, the music on Carrying Lightning sets a high standard for anyone who may be inspired by it. The music is slow and building, while the lyrics most of provide the hooks. (“Are you noticing that we’re breathing the same air at the same time?” whispers Shires about the slow, mutual seduction in “Sloe Gin”.) Her most common vocal hook is the tremble mentioned earlier, which is effective and full of personality, though sometimes it seems in danger to being overused.

Shires wears her heart on her sleeve, and is convincing with even the simplest, most clichéd messages. “Kudzu”‘s explanation of love (“and you never really get it till it’s happening to you”) seems too plain to work in theory, but she really sells it. It helps that she doesn’t restrict herself to the safe surface territory that most sentimental songs use. “When You Need A Train It Never Comes” is near-suicidal in its depiction of the narrator post-breakup, but its wish for destruction and a clean transition is universal.

Shires is an incredible new talent: Simple and catchy while intellectually satisfying, she is the only modern country singer who I honestly expect to break through to the mainstream. I certainly hope she does: Whether you call this country, pop, or folk, I would love to be discussing her influence on other musicians a decade from now.

Grade: B+

Ray Lawrence Jr. – Raw & Unplugged (Music Review)

Raw & Unplugged cover

Ray Lawrence Jr. - Raw & Unplugged

Ray Lawrence Jr. is positioned for the archetypal country success story. Broke, divorced, and living in a homeless shelter when someone gave him an old guitar, he eventually found himself given a seven-minute spotlight on Hank3’s Ghost To A Ghost album. Lawrence’s simple, traditional approach made a great counterpoint to the rest of that aggressive album, but the songs would have stood out anywhere.

If Lawrence’s rise continues, though, it won’t be due to his first full album. Rushed straight to CD Baby to take advantage of the sudden attention, Raw & Unplugged features nothing but Lawrence singing and playing acoustic guitar. These country ballads certainly don’t need fancy production – that big break was with recordings of him in the back of Hank3’s bus, after all – but he could have used a fuller band. The guitar work is better described as “minimalist” than “simple”, and Lawrence’s voice doesn’t have the energy that it did when surrounded by fellow musicians.

Do the songs live up to the promise of those initial hits? Sometimes. Lawrence is a very traditional songwriter, more in line with Hank Sr. than the standard-bearers of later generations. He’s also focused on pain and no-good women almost to the point of parody. Songs like “Two Timin Mama”, “She Stopped Lovin Me”, and “There’s Another Cheatin Heart” apparently cover what he knows, but don’t offer a lot of variety. His voice is perfect for those mournful ballads, though, to the point where he even sounds defeated when the song has him courting women. (“Tonight She’ll Be Making Love To Me Again” simply makes him the lucky recipient of a cheating woman’s affections, but still seems to regret the other man’s situation.) Maybe, though, he intends to sound hopeless when going after women: The less said about his approach on “You Can Hide Your Body But You Can’t Hide Your Beauty”, the better.

Despite all that, Lawrence knows how to write a memorable song. “She Stopped Lovin Me” and “My Hurtin Will Be Done” are every bit as good as the songs that appeared Ghost To A Ghost. “Lot Lizards Don’t Love You”, a trucker’s guide to prostitutes, also stands out. It’s good enough to support the gimmicky nature, but the delivery makes it clear that it’s not intended as a gimmick after all. He has that classic gift of making simple, personal tales feel memorable and catchy.

I firmly believe that Ray Lawrence Jr. has at least one great album in him. He has some handicaps, most notably that he’s decades too old to still be in these early stages of artistic development. Raw & Unplugged mixes great songwriting with too much filler, but it’s still notable for the level of raw talent on display. It’s chief selling point is the vision it provides of Lawrence’s potential future. As an album on its own, though, it feels incomplete.

Grade: C

Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – Unentitled (Music Review)

Unentitled cover

Slim Cessna's Auto Club - Unentitled

The gothic Americana of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club seems to be both authentic and an affectation. Intelligent, literate, and often unforgiving of the simple country characters who populate their songs, the lyrics nonetheless have an honesty that could only come from living the lives they deconstruct. Cessna’s adenoidal voice has a great range, but is not easy for country music fans to embrace. Like their previous releases, Unentitled will find devoted fans and rabid haters.

There are haunting, almost baroque ideas throughout. In Cessna’s world, problems with childbirth are a source of family shame, folksingers are ritually castrated, and finding the right dog to guard your property can become a consuming, self-destructive quest. The song quality varies widely, though. For example, “Three Bloodhounds, Two Shepherds, One Fila Brasileiro,” that song about finding the right dog, has little to offer on repeated listens. “United Brethren,” on the other hand, stays interesting due to its simple style and guilt-ridden vocals (in this story, the townspeople convert between Christian denominations in hopes of ending a drought). “The Unballed Ballad of the New Folksinger” has a menacing air appropriate to a song about castration, but “Thy Will Be Done” is simply monotonous and plodding. On balance, fortunately, there are more good moments than bad: Whispered chants of “dig the pit, fill the pit” and a militaristic call-and-response of “do you know the enemy?/yes we know it truthfully” provide the hooks for a band that refuses to simply make catchy music.

The gem of Unentitled is “Hallelujah Anyway”, a seven-minute story about a corrupt town leader demanding grandchildren, even though their birth would mean his daughter’s death. Told by the hapless fool who is being pressured to father a child, it takes on an air of impending tragedy. “Hallelujah Anyway” has scene changes, singers for the multiple characters, and an uncomfortably vague moral lesson.

Unentitled is worth hearing, though it demands effort of the audience before it can be appreciated. Its chief failing is that not all songs continue to reward that attention after the initial listen, but the ones that do provide an experience that no other band can offer. Not everyone will love Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, but everyone should have an opinion on them.

Grade: B-

Lydia Loveless – Indestructible Machine (Music Review)

Indestructible Machine cover

Lydia Loveless - Indestructible Machine

Lydia Loveless is the new star standard-bearer for Bloodshot’s “country punk” sound, with an aggressive snarl and songs full of taunts and kiss-offs. But she is just as quick to present herself as a socially awkward alcoholic, with references to depression that seem a little too real to write off as mere songwriting. Loveless’ biggest strength is in how she merges these two sides of her personality, and presents it as a consistent, fleshed-out life. If great country singers are expected to open their lives to the audience, she has the most promising approach in the modern rebel scene. Her debut album Indestructible Machine’s greatest accomplishment is shouting out lines like “you seem like such a pussy, babe” while still claiming a place in the conservative country tradition.

However, she still has some room for improvement. The opening songs demonstrate this best, with “Bad Way To Go” being simply jarring, and “Can’t Change Me” sounding like a rock band and country singer who are about to split over creative differences. The sadder songs could stand to have slightly more nuanced singing and less projecting of her voice. But when she attempts that with the more generic-sounding “How Many Women”, it seems that she had to forget her strengths in order to slow things down.

However, even the weak songs are usually excellent vehicles for Loveless’ character, and feature snappy, personal lyrics. When everything fits together as it should, the effect is excellent: “Jesus Was a Wino” is a shit-kicking justification for alcoholism, but with a dark edge that will discourage anyone from living vicariously through her. (The hook is “if I can’t find the corkscrew, I’ll just smash it open right here on the floor”.) “Crazy” should be the template for her quieter side, presenting a downward spiral that can’t be stopped despite the narrator’s self-awareness.

Indestructible Machine is consistently enjoyable, and at least for now, Loveless’ unevenness is part of her reckless charm. Even the songs that should be better are difficult to stop listening to, and the high points are worth the price of the album. I can’t tell how or if she’ll evolve next, but I have high hopes. This might not be the best debut of the past year, but it may be the most promising.

Grade: B

Eddie Spaghetti – Sundowner (Music Review)

Sundowner cover

Eddie Spaghetti - Sundowner

Sundowner is the third solo album from Eddie Spaghetti, but his first released through Bloodshot Records. The new label doesn’t change much, though. A review of this could match the earlier albums almost word for word. His formula is a series of country covers, with just a couple originals, as always including selections from both Steve Earle and Spaghetti’s own Supersuckers.

Spaghetti is a competent but unremarkable singer, and his band matches him in that. His strength here isn’t so much in his performance, but in his excellent taste as a curator. Spanning generations of country, and even choosing a couple curveballs from the punk scene, everyone should expect to learn some new songs from this album. (Did you ever expect to hear a country cover of The Dwarves or Lee Harvey Oswald Band?) I wonder, though, if I would prefer him to devote this energy to hosting a radio show or releasing compilations. His renditions stick so close to the originals that there sometimes seems to be little purpose to them. But then, nothing about this album implies commercial calculation: From the cover picture of his wife to the closing song by his son, not to mention the rambling greeting inside, this is obviously a labor of love. (And yes, those elements appear on all his solo albums.) From that perspective, it’s easy to enjoy this. I may wish Spaghetti tried to put his own mark on these covers, but his enthusiasm for them is unmistakeable. As an ambassador between country music and the punk scene, his intended audience will get a lot out of this.

As always, the cover of his own Supersuckers song (in this case, “Marie”) fares poorly next to the classics he’s chosen, but he acquits himself well with a couple new songs. They may not be technically the best on the album, but at least there are no better versions out there to compare them to. They flesh out the album, and establish him as a creative force in his own right.

Compared to his other albums, this doesn’t hit the highs of Extra Sauce (which had all his first picks of songs to cover, and was elevated, surprisingly, by an excellent harmonica performance), but it regains the energy that Old No. 2 often lacked. I’m still holding out hope for him to release an original country album someday. He’s already proven that he has the aptitude for that, both on his own and with the Supersuckers. In the meantime, these interesting but somewhat forgettable fans-only albums do their part to flesh out the legacy of a great rock-and-roll star.

Grade: C+

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.

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Dale Watson & The Texas Two – The Sun Sessions (Music Review)

The Sun Sessions cover

Dale Watson & The Texas Two - The Sun Sessions

With a band named “The Texas Two” and an album called The Sun Sessions, it could be easy to think that Dale Watson’s new album is a collection of rarities from the classic days of Sun Studio. He even does a passable imitation of the rockabilly that made Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two famous while recording there. Only a few modern references and the mature perspective betray this as new material. Whether this approach is a gimmick or not is a matter of opinion, but every sign is that Watson takes this perfectly seriously. He and his band never stretch themselves trying to sound more like Cash than they can handle, and the songs legitimately fit alongside the ones from that era without feeling like simple copies.

According to the liner notes. Watson wrote half of this album in a rush after spontaneously scheduling the studio time, and the band had almost no chance to practice. This shows in the simple nature of some of these songs, especially the music. However, this style is not meant to be complex, and there is a thin line between simple and iconic. Even the most basic songs such as “Gothenburg Train” and “The Hand of Jesus” could find a place as filler on the classic Johnny Cash recordings, and that’s no small feat. The fact that Watson managed this on  short notice is a testament to his songwriting skills.

Averaging two minutes each, the band barrels through the expected variety of country themes. The heartfelt songs about love and religion fit in alongside suicide and vengeance, and Watson covers the trains, trucks, tributes, and life lessons on other tracks. “My Baby Makes Me Gravy” is a fun slice of life that doesn’t feel as gimmicky as the lighthearted songs of many country greats, and the self-destructive “Down, Down, Down, Down, Down” is a passable shot at Watson’s own “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Mama Tried”. But the song that should truly enter the country canon is “Elbow Grease, Spackle and Pine Sol”. Despite the awkward name, it’s a heartrending new take on a traditional country topic, and a vivid character study as well.

Even if the songs seem dashed off, there is not a bad one on this album. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to simply imitate their inspirations forever, but for the length of The Sun Sessions, the results feel pretty nearly perfect.

Grade: B

Slackeye Slim – El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa (Music Review)

El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa cover

Slackeye Slim - El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa

It’s interesting that I’ve recently bought two story-focused concept albums. The first was Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life, and now I have Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa. It may be a coincidence, but I’m wondering if this is an emerging trend. Concept albums are a logical response to the modern focus on cheaply-purchased singles.

Albums like this have always had a tricky relationship with their stories. The repetitive verse-chorus-verse pattern of songs works against standard narrative structures, and song lyrics are generally expected to be circuitous and vague. El Santo Grial takes a very different approach to storytelling than any other album I’ve ever heard, basically by making the story a priority. Songs are either monologues or outright narration, with no almost no hidden meanings to be parsed from the lyrics. This is effectively a radio play set to music.

However, even radio plays have trouble attaining the sense of place and storytelling that Slackeye Slim manages here. The song structures are very simple, but the music and atmosphere are rich and beautifully textured. Nominally a gothic country-western work, this eschews traditional musical tropes to incorporate samples with a modern producer’s flair. Neighing horses, rambling town drunks, and haunting flutes set every scene from busy towns to deserted plains. The vision of a dangerous, mystical western land is firmly established in the music alone, leaving the lyrics free to focus on story.

That story is of a man who rants about the unfairness of life until being granted the holy Pistola Piadosa, which will make him the instrument of God’s vengeance. Silly but unique, this idea works largely because of its darkness and “be careful what you wish for” twist. The lyrics are compelling and often clever, driven by frontman Joe Franklin’s gravelly voice. He has a Firewater-meets-Tom Waits flair which is sometimes focused too much on the spoken word, but is nonetheless attention-grabbing.

The story drags at times, letting multiple songs cover plot points that a single one could have handled, but the varied soundscapes make up for these shortcomings. The ending is also a bit unsatisfying: There is a complete plot arc here, but the conclusion feels more like the beginning of something larger. The story itself ends up being entirely about one man’s struggle and self-discovery, without the larger battles and action that seem promised at times. But this truly is worth repeated listens all the way through, and how many albums can say that in this single-driven era?

A gothic “weird country”, Slackeye Slim won’t necessarily appeal to the people who normally listen to country music. Their sound is built on an honest appreciation for the sounds and traditions of the genre, though, and the result is something startlingly original.

Grade: B