Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sera Cahoone -- From Where I Started

Sera Cahoone's newest solo album is, in a word, delightful. It serves as an interesting bookend to Caroline Spence's Spades and Roses. Where Spence is hurt and vulnerable, Cahoone's songs come from the same wounds but are playful and healing. I get the sense that Cahoone's coming at these songs from a greater distance, with a little bit of contemplation and self-reflection to help the medicine go down.

Cahoone strikes a delicate and expert balance between folk and country. Shimmery mandolins and soaring string arrangements pair well with steel guitar and fiddle. Cahoone approaches heartbreak and fresh starts with a similarly warm, almost detached approach. Contrary to alienating the listener, these songs feel cozy -- like you could snuggle up in them (or maybe listen to them while you're snuggling up with someone.) Folksy without being folk, down-home without being country, From Where I Started incorporates a patchwork of identities and experiences to create a lived-in, well-realized whole. It's right up there as one of my favorite albums this year.

Sera Cahoone -- Purchase from her official site or Amazon

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Moonage Shine -- Catacombs EP

I never really quite know what to make of a Moonage Shine EP but I always enjoy where it takes me. Catacombs is murkier than the Texas-based band's previous releases. Instead of channeling heat stroke-induced visions, Catacombs asks us to descend deep underwater (or at least that's what I hear.)

As you settle into depths, every so often an intelligible lyric or a detuned country lick shimmers through. Catacombs seems to be invoking an ancient spirit -- someone much more innocuous than Cthulu, but potent nonetheless.

Moonage Shine -- Bandcamp

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Jake McKelvie -- The Rhinestone Busboy

Man, I thought my relationship history was dysfunctional. But compared to McKelvie's L Word-worthy messes, mine are just Sweet Valley. McKelvie's got an aloof self-deprecation that makes these painfully awkward and tense standoffs a little more bearable to listen to. These are war stories, to be sure, but McKelvie revels in using them for entertainment.

McKelvie's got a country crooner voice, which makes lyrics like these all the more incongruous:

At 2 a.m. after two hours I sign off
And no one has come scrape the dead porcupine
Off the road by your house, where you just kicked me out
'Cause I flat-out can't kiss you with food in my mouth 

Instead, we get the sense of a man who's belatedly realizing that the antics of his teens and early twenties maybe aren't so charming anymore, assuming they ever were. Rhinestone Busboy is a refreshing take on realizing that you're getting older -- it's not too self-conscious, serious, or self-deprecating. It just slyly worms its way into your brain.

Jake McKelvie -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Shawna Virago -- Heaven Sent Delinquent

What is a virago, you may ask? It used to be a slur for a woman who had "masculine" traits. Like being brave, pugnacious, and bawdy. I can't for the life of my remember her name, but there was a well-known woman in Elizabethan England who dressed like a man and beat up ruffians. I wrote a pretty good paper in college about a truly mediocre play (there's a reason Shakespeare is as revered as he is) that may have actually had some pretty interesting political implications. But I just wish I fucking remembered the name of the woman it was based on. Point is, there were a lot of people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) who went around brawling and dueling and sleeping with women. And that's my Saturday night.

However, it is also used to refer to a woman who manages to transcend the frailty of her sex and act nobly etc. etc. etc. like a man.

Shawna Virago straddles both definitions.

Virago's songs are plainspoken, feeling almost like conversations or monologues set to guitar. Her lyrics are alternately sweet and bawdy, delighting in wordplay and blunt -- often in the same song. Virago's most strident on barnstormer "Gender Armageddon," which imagines a world in which gender no longer matters, and the beautiful mayhem that ensues. But I also like the quieter songs that are about...well, not love, exactly, but not just lust. "Bright Green Ideas" (a clever pun in itself) and "Last Night's Sugar" are both poignant in their attempt to make something fleeting last. Virago's addressed the trans* experience throughout her long career. Heaven Sent Delinquent wears those highs and lows like an elaborate tattoo -- Virago's alternate longing for acceptance and reveling in being outside of the norm create a beautiful tension in this album. But she's making sure we all have fun while we're in it.

Shawna Virago -- Official, Bandcamp

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Bill Mallonee -- The Rags of Absence

Bill Mallonee puts out an album every six months. Minimum. There's never a dud and I wish I had more time to just sit with each album. But then a new one comes out. It makes me wonder if Mallonee hits the studio once he's written another ten to twelve songs -- never mind culling the pack because he's just that good. Each of Mallonee's album is recorded with a devotion and desperation like he's scared it'll be his last. So when Mallonee writes (and he always writes extensive liner notes) that this might be his best solo album, that means something.

I think it's also my favorite of his in a long time, too. What is it that's different? As I've written before, Mallonee often reuses similar chord structures and melodies, and specific symbols and imagery make regular appearances in Mallonee lyrics. I don't think this is a bad thing; to me, it's Mallonee revisiting a theme to refine his language. To be sure, one must wonder what hasn't been said about loneliness, heartbreak, love, and religion on Mallonee's other 77 (yes) albums.

I will say that Rags of Absence is a lot bolder sonically. This is a roots rock album that rests comfortably with Mallonee's Vigilantes of Love output. Though Mallonee's voice has been aged by 20 years of pounding the asphalt, this time he sits on his bass and middle range, as opposed to reaching for what is now a high and lonesome (see what I did there, Mallonee fans?) upper register on his more acoustic-oriented albums. The songs also feel a little more focused. The album feels like a slice of life on the road. While many of the songs hit you where they need to, I appreciate "Two-Fingered Wave's" ability to capture a small moment -- when a driver and a pedestrian salute each other for no particular reason -- and turn it into genuine poetry. I think that song does a nice job of capturing the whole album, and even Mallonee's ethos -- even in the midst of our bubbles of isolation and guilt and loneliness, caused by all kinds of socio-cultural factors that Mallonee digs deep into, we all search for connection. And no matter how small those moments are, they're worth something.

Bill Mallonee -- Official, Bandcamp

Friday, March 17, 2017

Caroline Spence -- Spades and Roses

Spades and Roses At first I wrote it off as the kind of frail, boring acoustic guitar songs about broken hearts that seems to pass for feminine these days. I was being a fucking idiot. I'm not sure which line it was that caught my attention. Maybe it was describing being given two room keys while she was on tour, and the resulting loneliness in "Hotel Amarillo." Maybe it was the album opener, "Heart of Somebody," in which Spence is just looking for a person to call home. I'm about two months into something great, but it wasn't so long ago that I often asked the same question aloud to myself on lonely, tearful nights. So I guess what I'm saying is, if that's the place you're in right now, Spence is going to hit way too close to home, but at least you'll feel a little less lonely.

Every song on this album is a minor masterpiece. Each of them. Spades and Roses is the best album I've heard this year. "You Don't Look So Good (On Cocaine)," is a heartfelt but bouncy plea to a loved one struggling with addiction. "Southern Accident" is one of those songs that inspires me to write a version of my own: a grueling but gentle accounting of all the reasons she's reticent in a new relationship. The album dips up emotionally in "Slow Dancer," a happy sequel to "Southern Accident." "Softball" was another song that felt all too familiar to me, recounting Spence's constant bumping up against gender norms.

And that's just the fist half of the album.

Spence is one to watch, and this is an album that will stick around in my rotation me for a good while.

Caroline Spence -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Caroline Spence, iTunes

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Scott H Biram -- The Bad Testament

Scott H Biram is passionate, to say the least. If you haven't heard his stuff before, I think the best way to describe his music is "bloodcurdling." Biram's committed to the blues, but for the most part his music has the speed and aggression of a heavy metal band. The Bad Testament takes a bit of a left turn, though. There are still plenty of Biram's characteristic freneticism -- "Train Wrecker" is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. But where his previous album, Nothin' But Blood, called to mind a gothic roadhouse, The Bad Testament, reminds me of that X-Files episode with the snake preacher.

The Bad Testament takes on everyone of that ilk, calling to mind what may feel to most an obscure and forgotten chapter of American culture. I'm not sure if those kinds of churches are still around -- they must be -- but Biram's blues stylings take us back to an alternate time and place, where mysticism, moonshine, and rockabilly fermented into a heady mixture of superstition, fear, and self-righteousness. Biram takes on the hypocrisy of these would-be spiritual leaders, with "Swift Drifin'" being one of the finest of a subgenre of what I like to call "I just realized my preacher is a racist piece of shit." The album's closer, "True Religion," is a little more subtle, taking us out on a wave of dark gospel. Curiously, though, Biram taps into his gentler, acoustic side with songs like "Feel So Wrong." It's nice to see Biram's tenderness side amidst the moral outrage. But if you have either one without the other, you're not much good to anyone.

Scott H Biram -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bloodshot Records