Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Austin Lucas -- Between the Moon and the Midwest

Austin Lucas went to hell and back -- almost literally -- for this album. We were supposed to have Between the Moon in our hands two years ago. Following the success of Lucas's Stay Reckless, New West Records was prepared to give proper support to Lucas's psychedelic, alt-country concept album. But personal changes resulted in Lucas getting dropped from the label altogether. (You can read more about what happened at Farce the Music's thoughtful and compelling interview.) The long story short is that, in the spring of 2014, New West felt a country-heavy, pscyhedelic-tinged album would not catch on. A few weeks later, Sturgill Simpson released Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and demand for authentic, risky country music has not slaked. 

Most people would have stepped away at this point -- either from that particular project, or even music itself. But in spite of crippling depression and anxiety, Lucas pushed himself through the fire, purchased the tracks, and is finally releasing the album. Suffice to say, this is a project worth the effort. While it's a shame we didn't receive it when we should have, with the marketing budget this album deserves, it would have been a huge loss to the world if we had never seen it at all.

The songs are characteristically gorgeous -- Lucas's gift for creating beautiful, almost epic poetry to tell the stories of small-town love and heartbreak should earn him praise enough. It's his warm, wise-beyond-his-years voice that gives all of his songs that special punch. The album itself surely benefits from all of the friends Lucas brought on board: Joey Kneiser, who released a tremendous album of his own earlier this year, helmed the project as producer. Kneiser showcased both his and Lucas's skill at shifting styles when the moment calls for it. With a lush studio sound, restrained steel guitars, and an elegant, mellow bass to guide these songs, this album sounds the most traditionally "country" of either artists' ouvre. John Moreland shows his upbeat side accompanying Lucas on "Ain't We Free?" -- I almost didn't recognize him -- and Lydia Loveless turns down from 11 to 10 for her duet on "Wrong Side of the Dream." Glossary alumna Kelly Smith balances Lucas's loneliness with her own grace and gravitas.

I can't help hoping that the general music-consuming audience is going to snap this up. Between the Moon is a monumental achievement for everyone involved. Most people who read this blog have known for a long time that he's truly gifted. This album is as good an introduction as any to the uninitiated, as it is by far his strongest work in an already incredible lineup of albums. With artists like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, and John Moreland enjoying the success they richly deserve, everyone had better make room on their digital or physical shelves for Austin Lucas' unique voice.

Austin Lucas -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Last Chance Records, Amazon, iTunes

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Al Scorch -- Circle Round the Signs

Al Scorch brings a whole new meaning to folk punk. At least in my conception. I generally think of Frank Turner's gentle but aggressively frank songs. Scorch, on the other hand, lives up to his name. These songs spit hot fire, as the kids say. Scorch has the delivery of a seasoned Vaudeville trouper, selling these stories with everything he's got. This lends both charm and immediacy to his faster numbers, like the single "Everybody Out."

Unlike other musicians with an affinity for old-time music, Scorch uses these instrumentations as a vehicle, not as the main draw. This gives songs like "Lonesome Low," which feels to me like a historical story song, a piercing immediacy and "Lost at Sea," a deeply personal song, a sense of connection to the all too many people who have experienced fear for a loved one. Scorch may be traditional, but his punk leanings give his music a kick that launches old-time music into the present.

Al Scorch -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, Purchase from Bloodshot Records,

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

VIDEO: Redcast -- Corduroy

Maybe it's because I've been on a Weezer kick, but Redcast feels like a much more polished version of every 90s weird kid's favorite band. On its own, "Corduroy" would be a fun song, but the music video gives it an irresistible charm. There's something deliciously twisted about a '60s teeny bopper band singing a song about chemtrails.

I'm not sure if the band is still making music (their last Facebook update was in December) but if you've missed Fountains of Wayne, Redcast could be your dreams come true.

Redcast -- Facebook, iTunes

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Kaia Kater -- Nine Pin

Kaia Kater isn't just an excellent banjo player. She's a force to be reckoned with. When I started this blog almost five years ago (!) I promised my readers that I would feature artists who sounded like their lives depended on their music. Kater is very much in this category. Kater's first album, Sorrow Bound, established Kater's standing as a faithful scholar of roots music. Ninepin proves Kater's mastery of the form by writing songs whose lyrics are immediate and whose feel is timeless.

Kater's power comes from her delivery. These songs are treated with great urgency -- as they should be, considering their frank discussions of poverty and race in North America (Kater is Canadian, though the music itself is inspired by Appalachia.) Kater's musical accompaniment -- her elegant banjo plucking, muted trumpets, and sparse strings -- give these ballads a somber elegance that is rare to achieve. Nine Pin is unlike anything you'll hear this year, and it should be given the attention necessary to appreciate with as much thoughtfulness as Kater put into creating it.

Kaia Kater -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Kaia Kater

Monday, May 16, 2016

Simo -- "I'll Always Be Around"

I think you should listen to this before you read what I have to say about it:

I generally don't trust blues rock -- guitar virtuosos tend to be self-involved, the point that their solos become masturbatory in their technical proficiency without serving the feeling of the song itself. So Simo, as a band and JD Simo as their lead guitarist, stand out from a very crowded field. "I'll Always Be Around" is bursting with soul, feeling, and, of course, moxie. Exactly what the blues is supposed to be.

Simo -- Official, Facebook

Friday, May 13, 2016

Girls on Grass -- Girls on Grass

Girls on Grass is possibly the most apt name for a band I've seen. Not in terms of the Girls being on grass (though the band's interpretation of cowpunk is pretty mellow), but it gives you a good sense of the philosophy behind these songs. There's not much subtlety to Girls on Grass' songwriting -- "Drowning in Ego" is a damning indictment of selfie culture and social media. "Pissin Down a Road" is an unambiguous rumination about the life of a musician. On the other hand...is the band name a pun on weed? Maybe it's supposed to evoke freedom? Country music? Is there more to these folks than meets the eye?

Or maybe we just shouldn't care. Girls on Grass' unhurried songs are a chill af combo of country music musings with an aggressively on-the-nose approach to lyrics, and a touch of surf guitar for good measure. Personally, I'm eager to see this band in-person. The songs deserve at least a beer in hand, if not a dance floor and amps cranked up to 11. I have a feeling the pace is a bit punchier live, which I feel these songs could use. Or maybe I should cozy up to a field (or other type of grass???) and let it all wash over me.

Girls on Grass -- Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nudie -- Everything's Different in the Night

Two of the more important experiences I had in college were discovering Two Cow Garage and discovering printmaking. When I visited Nashville last summer, stopping by Hatch Show Print was a no-brainer. Hatch Show Print is one of the original print shops that created woodblock prints advertising concerts for country's earliest artists and, eventually, its royalty. It's easily the coolest thing in downtown Nashville. The studio prominently displays its posters, and I was pleasantly surprised to find an advertisement for Nudie's first album, Remember This.

But Nudie's approach to marketing is very much like his music: rooted in tradition. I felt the best songs on Remember This were those that combined Nudie's timeless country voice with 21st-century themes, such as the despairing "Sex Kisses." These songs will jar the listener's sense of time. 

Nudie's second go-round, Everything's Different in the Night, takes a more conservative approach. Other than a reference to smoking weed in "It Ain't Gonna Happen Today," these songs could easily have been written at any point in the last 60 (possibly 70?) years. Nudie reminds us, though, that even with the invention of the smart phones, heartache and loneliness never change. Story songs like "The Royal Tavern" and "Hearts & Flowers" display Nudie's excellent command when it comes to lyricism, but it's the songs about truly intimate moments, like "Everything's Different in the Night," that'll tug your heart strings and jerk some of your tears. 

Nudie -- OfficialFacebookAmazon

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Zack Shelton and 64 to Grayson -- Loved and Free

I was trying to explain my affinity for alt-country music to someone the other day. She thought it was a bit incongruous for a city kid to spend hours of her life writing a blog about alt-country music. I realized that her surprise lay in her perception that country music is all slickly-produced, blissfully ignorant songs about salt-of-the-earth types being happy with what they've got, even if life is hard. I assured her that the music I like most has a working class ethos (which, again, doesn't necessarily make sense I am very much a product of the 1%. But there's no accounting for taste.)

That being said, sometimes alt-country is a fucking downer.

I say this as a bit of a warning: if you like your country with an edge, you're probably not going to like Zack Shelton. It might be fairer to categorize Zack Shelton and 64 to Grayson as indie country rather than alt country. Shelton is aiming for radio airplay: these songs are as inoffensive as possible. (While most of the songs on here are innocuous, most readers of this blog will probably want to avoid "If Jesus Ran For Office.")

Overall, Loved and Free, like their debut The Next Chapter, is a spirited, energetic, and sincere batch of country music. The title track deftly combines the best of pop rock with twang. What makes Zack Shelton and 64 to Grayson stand out -- nay, outshine -- the rest, is their sincerity. I know that can be overused, especially when it comes to would-be country radio stars, but in this case it sticks. Shelton and his colleagues are committed to these songs and clearly have a lot of fun playing them, something that's lacking in most commercial music of any genre these days. Ultimately, these are songs for kicking back with a beer and celebrating after some hard times, not for crying into one. And that's a refreshing change for sure.

Stream Loved and Free here

Zack Shelton and 64 to Grayson -- Official, Facebook, iTunes

Will Bennett and the Tells -- "I Hope You Hear This on the Radio"

It's difficult not to tap your foot to Will Bennett and the Tells' debut single. Its pop-infused twang is sure to please, tempered by Bennett's yearning vocals. In another decade, this song would've had a sure shot at radio airplay. For now, here's hoping my small corner of the Internet can help it reach many hearts.

I've listened to the rest of the album, due in July, and it's a strong freshman album that makes me excited for where the band will go moving forward.

Will Bennett and the Tells -- Official, Facebook, Download the band's demos for free on Bandcamp

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Kate Vargas -- "Second Skin"

I got back from Jazz Fest on Sunday night. Thought I'd have some time to write posts during my down time, but instead a slept, played with my friend's pet bunny, and ignored the fact that I had brought 50 student essays with me to grade just in case I got bored. (I did not get bored.)

So while I had a great time (and there will be many new-to-me New Orleans artists to be featured here soon), that unfortunately meant my post about Kate Vargas, who recently answered a few questions for me and performed with the Paisley Fields (who are on tour now!)

"Second Skin" is a foot stomper, showcasing how Vargas uses her raspy vocals to add texture to her songs. Vargas juxtaposes a playful melody with ominous lyrics that can only be driven home with her unique sound. I, for one, am stoked for the full album.

Kate Vargas -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, iTunes