Friday, November 24, 2017

Ryan O'Dowd -- I Hope You're Living By the Coast

Sad boys with guitars never gets old. What O'Dowd brings to the table is a dense verbiage and wall-of-sound strum that cuts to the heart of things. O'Dowd's gravely voice tells of punk concerts shout-sung in the not too distant past. But, the songs suggest, he's a little older if not wiser. "The Martyr," one of my favorites on this EP, contemplates the possible folly of following the itinerant lifestyle of an artist and defiantly declares why, at least for O'Dowd, it's the right choice for him.

Ultimately this EP has all the right ingredients (for me): a straightforward, sincere approach to songwriting with some powerful hooks to boot.

Ryan O'Dowd -- Soundcloud

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Tina & Her Pony -- Champion

Tina & Her Pony deliver a gentle folk music that inexorably swells into a powerful wave. The Asheville, NC-based duet could draw easy and favorable comparisons to The Indigo Girls. Like their forebears, Tina & Her Pony's harmonies are deep in the pocket; it's hard to imagine either Tina Collins or Quetzal Jordan singing on their own. The songs themselves carry a gentle wisdom that invigorates the listener. On Champion, their second full-length album, they've hit a good stride.

But there's nothing poppy here. Tina & Her Pony truly commit to a kind of chamber folk that feels as timeless as it does timely. The main tip-off that these songs are modern is that they deal with a perceptive interiority that older music does not. "Back In Your Life" illustrates that poignantly:

Please, please, please let me back in your life, it feels so good to hear about your wife
I don’t care if I cannot be with you, I just want us to be something
so I know it wasn’t all for nothing
thank you for the opportunity to heal this rift between you and me  

Champion is imbued with a warm and forgiving spirit, an understanding that people want to love and be loved and for that to happen, we need to be kind to each other. Rock and roll might not save the world, but it can sure remind us of the steps we need to take to get there.

Tina & Her Pony -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Mo Troper -- Exposure and Response

I'm not sure if there's any record I've heard this year that better captures the horrific sideshow carnival of this year as Mo Troper's Exposure & Response. This is the follow-up to Troper's critically acclaimed Believer, and this album seems to be a response to the indie rock publicity machine. (While it's smaller than the mainstream one, it is just as relentless.) The first two tracks, "Rock & Roll Will Save the World" and "Your Brand" are an acidic take on relative success. The album's title and the cover art featuring a person getting flayed alive suggest that Troper might not be having such a great time.

 It's Troper's command of power pop and consistently anguished tone that grabs me. The songs themselves are candy-coated but the nut at the center is starting to get stale. Troper cheekily cribs from the Beach Boys and the Beatles, reminding us that nostalgia ultimately provides distorted views of the past. The simpler times were simpler because we were ignorant. As Troper builds walls of guitars, horns, and strings around him, it's ultimately not enough to save him from himself. The music seems to mindlessly churn even as, lyrically, the walls collapse on him. Exposure & Response is simultaneously an easy album to listen to, but also a test of an endurance in the best possible way. Troper's not the only one out there combining happy music and sad lyrics, but he's one of the few who can make it matter.

Mo Troper -- Facebook, Bandcamp

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Monday, November 20, 2017

The Light Wires -- The Invisible Hand

I don't think I'll ever get tired of sad songs written in G. Especially when they're held in such capable hands as Jeremy Pinnell's. Before Pinnell set off on his own with his remarkable OH/KY, he trekked across the Midwest with heavyweights Ampline's Rick McCarty (drums), Alone at 3 AM's Andy Hittle (guitars), and bassist Mike Montgomery of R. Ring and Ampline. The band put out a self-titled album and had The Invisible Hand in the can but called it a day before it was released. Now both albums are being reissued thanks to Sofaburn Records.

These albums are starkly different. The Light Wires is a bit more acoustic and predicts Pinnell's future success on his own as a peddler of heartbreaking, intimate country songs. The Invisible Hand is equally strong but takes a harder approach. Fans of Two Cow Garage, Lucero, early John Moreland, and the Sparklers will find The Invisible Hand easy listening. It's Midwestern rock at its best, with the band throwing their hearts on the stage and delicately alternating between stomping on them and dancing around them.

At the moment, I'm surprising myself by leaning closer to the first album (I can hear hints of Adam Faucett in there and am digging it) but I'm glad of the opportunity to listen to both at once. The band was extremely capable and both albums explore every corner of that weird country/folk/punk intersection that has such a strong hold on me. It's unfortunate that The Light Wires only put out two albums, but they're both gems.

Purchase the 2-LP set at Sofaburn Records.

Jeremy Pinnell -- Official, Facebook

This review was originally posted on No Depression

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Marissa Kay -- Trans Is Love

There are few things in this life as joyous as a queer punk show. They tend to be warm, affirming places where everyone's just having a nice time. It's fun to see folks on the stage who look like you or at least have similar experiences. And you already know that the songs that matter so much to you are landing on similar people in similar ways, so there's a sense of kinship with people you don't know and probably won't know. But, outside of the Queer Country Quarterly shows, I just don't feel that way at most of the other concerts I go to. In general, I'm the youngest, queerest, and often female-est person in the room. I often notice but it doesn't bother me. But a few nights ago, I went with my sister to see the Overcoats at the Bowery Ballroom, where I'd been many times, and the energy felt so different. I quickly realized it was because over 90% of the audience were women who were roughly my age.

So when Marissa Kay's music landed in my Inbox, I wrote back to her, "FUCK YES." The Queer Country shows are amazing but, at the end of the day, they're sad country songs. And sometimes you need the buzzy sad bastard punk-ish songs the likes of John Moreland and Brian Fallon. Marissa Kay, for me, bridges that gap.

To be clear, I'm a cis lesbian. While trans* people and queer people at this point in history undergo similar coming out processes, they're not the same. In fact, I think the days in which queer and trans operate together politically is coming to an end, for reasons both exciting and disheartening. So when I talk about my ability to identify with this album, it's not at all to suggest that my experience as a queer woman is the same as a trans woman's, though we have a lot in common. The blues rock "Fight Like A Girl," the album's keystone, makes that point abundantly clear. Unfortunately, trans women and, though increasingly less often, masculine-of-center women like myself struggle to be accepted as "real" women. Proudly deviating from narrow definitions of femninity the struggle women have been fighting for for centuries. Kay succinctly states it with three chords, the truth, a little twang, and a distortion pedal that makes my heart go pitter patter.

"Trans Is Love," the first song she wrote "as Marissa" (according to her liner notes), is a rousing anthem that's buoyed by Kay's pure performance. There are songs of love and breakups, too -- what would a country punk album be without those? -- and some of the bumps that come with anyone's first album. But Trans Is Love is exactly what our corner of the Americana world needs: defiance, optimism, and a fresh perspective. Thanks, Marissa. I can't wait for what comes next.

Marissa Kay -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Aaron Burdett -- Refuge

Sometimes, when I'm really bored, I tune in to New York's mainstream country radio station. (But also...we have a country radio station? I blame all you gentrifying transplants.) I have to say I don't hate what I hear; I just know that it could be so much better. It resembles so much of the music I do adore, yet there's a core that I struggle to define. Maybe it's the fact that a song written by committee is rarely going to make the same impact as a person or two with an authentic vision. Whatever it is, Aaron Burdett's got it in spades. Refuge has that spark that mainstream country is missing right now: catchy, accessible songs that have a genuine weight to them.

Burdett comes by his songs honestly. Having worked across the country in construction, farming, and ranching, Burdett did the opposite of what many of his peers did. Having established a life and lived experiences, Burdett turned to music full-time only recently. I'm glad he found his way to a bigger stage eventually; the man's got a voice that feels like the ur-country music voice. It's only matched by his pen, which delivers wisdom, strength, and empathy without ever seeming hokey.

Aaron Burdett -- Official, Facebook, iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Michael Gaither -- Hey Karma

For me, I have to feel something pretty intensely to get inspired enough to write a song about it. The other night, I flipped through my notebook of song fragments and was disappointed to find that my last six or seven were...pretty much about the same thing. And sure, there are people who make their careers singing about heartache but, eh. I don't think it'll be me. Michael Gaither doesn't have that problem at all, though. Hey Karma is an anthology of imaginative and witty compositions delivered with a warmth that's difficult to find in these edgiest of days.

Gaither's active imagination brings us to the gates of Graceland, ruminations on how karma works, a zombie attack on Boise, Idaho, and a corporate love song that studiously and admirably avoids crude double entendre. Gaither's brand of folk is gentle and insistent. You get the sense that these are stories Gaither needs to tell, but unlike most of the songs on here they don't sound as if he's had to rip them from his soul. (It's a nice change of pace.) Rather, these songs are the best expression of a truly creative and idiosyncratic observer of the world. If you sit still long enough, Hey Karma will take you places you hadn't anticipated.

Michael Gaither -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp (stream only), Purchase from Michael Gaither

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