Dear Apollo ready for launch with debut release

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(Before you read this review, I would highly suggest reading (or rather listening) to my prior piece before this one on the Ithaca, NY-based band Dear Apollo via my radio segment The Arts Beat. If you haven’t already of course. I feel like it really adds another great layer to this story.)

But anyway, onto the EP. Having recently met both Ben Robinson and AJ Dicembre (the core members of Dear Apollo) for the purpose of conducting the aforementioned Arts Beat interview, I feel like I possess an added level of context for this album review that I don’t normally get to receive. And that really gives it an interesting spin.

For one thing, hearing firsthand how the pair recorded this debut album in separate locations and in many stages via the computer program Dropbox doesn’t ruin or take away from the evident chemistry contained on the EP. In fact, it makes it more impressive listening to Dicembre and Robinson reach through the traditionally disassociated membrane of technology with something that makes every effort to connect with its audience.

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Exploring the thought of that borderline between futuristic feats and the fragile nature of humanity makes opening track “Parachute” a perfect way to set the scene of the EP. Pulsing with synthesizers like the gentle wave of a heartbeat, the song makes the Dear Apollo name feel literal as the emotional turmoil of the lyrics seems to play out over the shiny blue Earth spinning far down below.

Similar terms apply for following song “Won’t Stay, Won’t Go”, which has a David Byrne and Brian Eno sense of chorus in the higher tempo sections before settling into more gradual areas of moody guitar strums and blooping background textures. The wide-ranging influences of Robinson and Dicembre get a chance to play on third track “Your Way”, as vibes initially resembling The National get a folk-bearing twist of The Avett Brothers with the presence of banjo that seems to float up out of the mists. Its arguably the moment the record pauses most to get reflectively introspective, calling to mind Elliott Smith titles like Figure 8 where Smith’s confessional murmurs were met with more fully-fleshed arrangements.

Closing with the infectious bop of pop-rocker “Indestructible” gives the EP’s finish just the hook it needs to bring the listener back to the start, which comes quickly with an overall runtime of just over 10 minutes. Not exactly a lengthy amount of time for either an audition or making a first impression, but Dear Apollo proves themselves worthy of the challenge on this versatile, impactful debut.

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For more on the band, check them out at dearapollo.com. 

 

 

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Brent Cobb “Shines On” In LP Debut

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Country music is such a funny thing. Mention it to the average person and odds are they’ll either wrinkle up their nose at you in disgust, or name a favorite artist. The odds also state that favorite artist is probably from the list of Nashville industry regulars who made the first person do all that nose-wrinkling in the first place, which is really quite the interesting phenomenon.

Rarely can I think of a genre that either inspires so much blind love of retread stereotypes, or blind hate of a style that’s way more than meets the eye. For every Toby Keith or Brad Paisley there’s a Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson out there folks, and for every trailer park-loving, beer-swilling, tractor-obsessed milquetoast songwriter…. there’s another out there stabbing at their own heart just so you can listen to it bleed.

Isbell and Simpson are just two examples of that along with many others (The Lone Bellow, Chris Stapleton, and Ryan Adams when he still cared about country music to name a few). But today I’d like to focus on a young Southern artist who much like Stapleton paved his initial way as a songwriter before bringing his quiet, rough-around-the-edges style to his first major label LP.

And while I can’t say if this album is going to turn out as well for him as Traveller did for Stapleton, regardless it’s a pleasure to welcome Brent Cobb and Shine On Rainy Day into the world here in 2016. Cobb is another break of blue light in the cloud bank of business as usual in the industry of country music. He is every bit the soft-spoken, pastorally-minded singer-songwriter who may not dominate a room vocally, but still captivates it in just his debut the way guys like Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson have their whole careers.

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Just listening to Cobb’s songs (led by his accent-heavy minimalist croon) is like taking a step back in time to the beauty of early country and folk music and what made them tick. I mean before there was “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” there was “She Thinks I Still Care” after all. There was “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. There was the real time honest sentiment from both male and female artists that made country music so relatable, because so much of it was just about the strong emotions tying us to our day to day existence.

And when it comes to Cobb, he eagerly joins the club that keeps their eye firmly fixed on that keyhole of a mentality. Take the title track for instance, which incorporates a basic backing arrangement and leaves all the soul-stopping up to just Cobb’s vocals and lyrics alone. The song forces you to take notice, feeling as fresh as today yet as priceless as a 1960’s era masterpiece B-side you find abandoned in a stack of old vinyl.

It’s certainly not alone in that regard. “Solving Problems” is an easygoing toe-tapping strummer that would get along well with the songwriting of Isbell and Josh Ritter, while “Country Bound” has all the sepia-washed innocence of a walk through the woods listening to John Denver songs.  Pair that with the strength of tracks like “South Of Atlanta” and “Diggin Holes”, and you’ve got a record that’s already preparing to blast into the stratosphere of the next generation of country music artists.

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Add the fact Cobb teamed up with country music super producer cousin Dave Cobb on this one, and Shine On Rainy Day has got a little bit of everything your roots loving heart could ask for. A little cheatin’, a little bleedin’, a little done me wrong, with a slice of a heart born as a result of living through the world as garnish on the side.

You know, just a few of the problems of the world. And that’s nothing to wrinkle your nose at.

Walker Shines Bright On Glitteringly Fun “Gold”

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Following the somber, introspective tinge of Butch Walker’s 2015 statement piece Afraid of Ghosts, the question loomed large…. what would followup Stay Gold entail just a year later? I mean the Georgia-born singer-songwriter had just stripped down and bared the ragged grief of a son losing his father on Ghosts, so it was hard to foresee just where Gold would take Walker creatively going forward.

Could he be as intensely raw once again?

Not exactly. While Stay Gold does possess some moments of darker frailty (“Record Store” and the wonderful Ashley Monroe duet “Descending”), Walker is once again back to turning up his amps and shaking off the dust and demons in the process. Gold is much more dominated by joyful, E Street Band style rockers (“Irish Exit”, “East Coast Girl”, “Wilder In The Heart”) that recall the Gaslight Anthem during a year in which their frontman Brian Fallon ironically leaned away from that sound on his debut solo record Painkillers.

Even more ironic considering that Walker himself produced that album, but that’s a different point for another post.

The stories and lyricisms of drunken nights, hookups gone wrong and lifelong debauchery remain, but with an undertone of greater maturity beneath them. The realization of getting older, having back problems, grey hair, craving a Porsche (to quote “East Coast Girl”)… it’s a common problem rockers face with age, but one that Walker doesn’t happen to shy away from.

He’s not so much Green Day as Prince, who always knew “life is like a party, and parties aren’t meant to last”.

Walker may bring the party with Stay Gold, but he knows how to make the moments last too.

Stay gold, ponyboy.

Grade: B+

Standout Tracks: “East Coast Girl”, “Irish Exit”, “Descending”, “Record Store”

Bon Iver Weaves Intricate Sonic Tapestry On Dynamic “Million”

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When I first got wind of the band Bon Iver and frontman/figurehead Justin Vernon, it was around the time of the Bon Iver, Bon Iver record and the much-acclaimed solo piano take of Vernon’s spin on Bonnie Raitt’s classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. It was very much the For Emma, Forever Ago version of Vernon stripped down to the very roots, though I remember being puzzled at the time by this strangely ultra-high falsetto coming out of this… burly Wisconsin woodsman of a guy.

To put a long story short, I really didn’t understand Bon Iver’s rising upswing of appeal amongst the alternatively-minded people in the music community at first. I remember buying Bon Iver, Bon Iver on vinyl while on a vacation because of the rave reviews, the beauty of the cover work done by artist Gregory Euclide, and the need to just want to understand it. And the record did sit unplayed in my collection for a while. I remember looking at the lyric booklet that came with it and enjoying it’s poeticism (once I could understand what Vernon was saying, a problem I still have to this day). But it still hadn’t clicked.

Now I don’t remember the day when all the puzzle pieces finally settled into place, but once they did it was easy to appreciate Vernon’s mystique as well as his ability to say so much behind what was essentially a veil. Puzzling at his falsetto was replaced by the discovery of his early work solo and in DeYarmond Edison, which switched out curiosity for marvel at the vocal range Vernon has employed across his entire time in music. Rarely have I ever heard someone as equally capable of being a baritone as well as an uplifting falsetto.

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But I digress (so much for that long story short thing). I eventually grew to admire Vernon for his sense of that aforementioned veil while still managing to relate. He was an entirely unique character tearing at the heartstrings. Being as brutally broken up as he was on For Emma as he was anthemic with bigger tracks from Bon Iver like “Towers” and opener “Perth”. Whatever he put his touch to just seemed to work.

So when it was announced that Vernon was taking a hiatus from Bon Iver-related projects and was going back into the shadows for a while, I read into it with understanding even if it was a bummer to hear. The more I listen and learn and read into the music business the more I can respect the need to take breaks. As a writer, as much fun as it is to be creative you can never force that process or try to exhaust it for all that it’s worth. That only ends up making a freeing thing that much more like a shackle (which in hearing the backstory for this album seemed to be exactly the problem and stress Vernon was running into personally).

And so that’s where Vernon retreated to for a whole five years. He would appear from time to time with singles or collaborations or an album with side project Volcano Choir, but otherwise no plans seemed on the immediate front.

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Fast forward to this year and the sudden appearance of Bon Iver again along with live sets, new songs, and an album title. 22, A Million. A mysterious album title of mysteriously titled songs that seemed to be buried even deeper beneath…. what exactly? It was hard to say in a release that seemed to be characterized by strange symbols, mythologies, binary and hashtags (yep there’s one in there).

Well, many listens later I can tell you that it all does eventually make sense. This isn’t any season after 3 of the TV show Lost we’re dealing with here (or most any JJ Abrams project after it’s been allowed to spiral out a while). I think taking this extended break of just about five years was one of the finest moves Justin Vernon could have made, along with working at the side of guys like James Blake and Kanye West.

Yes despite the hatred many people have for West, he is regarded the way he is musically for a reason and 22, A Million showcases a lot of influence from that. He and Vernon have been tight for years (right up to JV thanking him in this album’s liner notes), and I don’t think Vernon’s deft sense of sampling, digital orchestration and autotune could have been done quite as well as it is here without that working relationship.

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I know what you’re thinking now that you’ve read the word autotune, and no this isn’t a ridiculous viral Youtube video or pumped out pop song. As much as the use of autotune has been well overcooked since guys like rapper T-Pain emerged with it years ago, it still has a legitimacy when used from the experimental side of the fence.

Tracks like “22 (Over S??N)”, “33 “GOD””, “715 – Creeks” and many more benefit from this, with a blending of digital and organic thoughts that create a deeply gorgeous sense of contrast. At times it feels like songs are on the very verge of slipping away into collapse, or are aging as you listen to their stories. Like an old record being put on that’s just a bit warped and being played a fraction out of tune as the needle slides across it. It’s almost jarring, yet warmly welcoming as untouched banjo, saxophone and piano runs play up against corrosively echoed vocals and the hammer of pulsing bass.

The sampling is brilliant as well, with nods across the record to the likes of Stevie Nicks, Paolo Nutini, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Graham, and my personal favorite Irish folk singer Fionn Regan. To my knowledge it’s a very rare thing to even hear Regan’s name mentioned on this side of the pond despite “The End of History” being one of the most underrated folk albums of all time (seriously, look into it if you haven’t). Yet here’s Vernon sampling a line from Regan’s song “Abacus” on closing track “00000 Million”, and doing it in the most hair-raisingly perfect way to boot.

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The song continuously gives me goosebumps every time I play it.

For some Bon Iver fans (especially those who desire another For Emma) some of these effects might prove a bit too much to bear, but that’s the thing about 22, A Million: it automatically requires patience.  Much like Wilco’s return to form on last year’s Star Wars, this isn’t an album made for digesting on the first try or song by song. It’s a complete composition unto itself, and I hope that Vernon will treat his as Wilco treated theirs and play it front to back onstage. It just doesn’t make as much sense any other way, especially with the knack many of these tracks have for slipping into and out of one another.

And it will still reward most any fans if they stick around long enough. Vernon’s folk-embracing side hasn’t disappeared from his work within Bon Iver; rather it’s become more of a cog in the machine of a greater tapestry of creative energy that’s at work here.

And wouldn’t you prefer that over just trying to pave over the dirt roads you came down in the first place? From the indication of things Vernon was not only frustrated with his sound but also his own image, so it’s a relief to hear him sounding as fresh as the time these five years have given him.

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I could go for paragraphs and paragraphs about what I hear out of this release every time I listen to it, but now you simply need to go listen. You’ll receive no better education than what your ears will tell you, and there’s a lot to learn on 22, A Million. Some may not be able to stick out the ride and that’s okay, but for those who can…. you’ll be in the midst of what may be the year’s best album.

Barham Brings Southern Gothic Americana To Solo Standout “Rockingham”

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The phrase “Southern Gothic Americana” may be the widest set of metaphorical body parts I’ve ever dug up and Frankenstein’d together in attempting to describe one album’s genre of music. It also may be one of the more unusual terms I’ve ever put in print here on OTBEOTB, but I promise it’ll all make sense in just a matter of a few paragraphs.

When I think of a phrase like this and attempt to paint a picture of it…. the first word I think of is stark. Plain grass and backwoods framed houses in towns whose names are just as quickly noted as they are forgotten by travelers passing those familiar green road signs dotting the rustic landscape. Unassuming places to the casual observer, but beneath the surface lingers a thousand stories of tragedy, heartbreak, birth, death, pride and a blue collar struggle that’s run on longer than the roads can ever hope to stretch.

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The closest musical elder to that portrait is Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, an album originally intended for Springsteen and his E Street Band but eventually reimagined as the stripped down lo-fi cast of working class lovers and losers it began as in the demo phase. Nebraska illuminated Springsteen’s still growing songwriting during one of his most prolific periods of musical history by not illuminating him at all. The words and stories remained, but gone were the layers of chunky guitars, Roy Bittan’s airy flow of piano, and most any traces of that trademark Asbury Park anthem-seeking. Instead, the album was a densely knit fog of shattered souls, uncertain futures and depressions laid bare to the world beneath a set of window panes as dingy as the album’s cover.

It’s a dark listen that remains one of Springsteen’s most underrated, yet certainly is one of the heaviest to emotionally journey through.

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I found myself having many of these Nebraska reflections while listening to BJ Barham’s similarly toned upcoming August 19th solo release Rockingham. The Pledgemusic-funded project also finds Barham (like Springsteen) momentarily breaking away from his band American Aquarium in order to release a small set of songs that made the most sense stripped right down to the bones.

The end result is a cross somewhere between Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson. Barham is the essential “pearl snap poet with bad tattoos” (as he once coined himself in the AA song “St. Mary’s”) who’s gruff, ragged around the edges vocals hold inside them one of the more underrated storytellers of this generation.

Barham is very Guthrie-like in the way he can embody the Dust Bowl farmer with no way out on the dirge-like “Water In The Well”, the real life story of his grandfather on “American Tobacco Company”, or the Bonnie & Clyde pushed to the brink in “O’ Lover”. It’s not just that he can tell the story of the common man, he can make you feel every breath of his characters. Whether their stories happen to be real, or just well-crafted fiction.

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Regardless you grasp every straw of that emotion in the desperate sadness of a husband meeting/losing his wife in “Unfortunate Kind”, the father entrusting his every bit of wisdom on an often troubled world to a newly born daughter on “Madeline”, or in the embodiment of simple Southern life on the rootsy title track. Barham expresses a tender respect for his North Carolinian background all across this record actually, but never resorts to the kind of chest-thumping, overcompensating, flag waving, tractor driving stereotypes that modern mainstream country music has bogarted the hell out of in recent years.

Instead, he paints us a bit of that image I attempted to sketch for you earlier. Like every note was carefully built with his own two hands. Not by using the idea of women in tight jeans or Red Solo Cups as a centerpiece (I’ve got my eye on you Toby Keith), but by just relaying to the listener the often harsh or dirt poor realities of life in the small town South. And just like any average life, it’s a rollercoaster. Many of the endings might not be happy, but in the end you might still just come away proud of where you’re from simply by surviving.

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Rockingham shows off an all-too-brief but strongly knit nucleus of songs for Barham. Rarely do they need more than just his voice, spare acoustic guitar strums and fills here and there of instruments like piano, percussion, banjo and harmonica. And while his work can be just as soulfully raw with AA, it’s nice to see Barham step to the side for just a moment to show off how strong his solo skills are as well.

In either formation he proves extremely captivating, and when paired with a novelist’s sense for lyricisms it’s impossible to not be stopped by just the simple need to listen. And while I may throw out plenty of comparisons to other musicians, at the end of the day Barham is an artist unique unto himself.

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For everything Ryan Adams has almost hatefully thrown away about his Southern heritage, BJ Barham has embraced with a full-throated authenticity that few others are so gracefully capable of. And it’s not because they can’t write it.

Barham just sings it with a singular, steely-eyed conviction that makes me believe every word of every note, each and every time I hear it. And Rockingham is yet another perfect echo of all that Southern Gothic Americana sweat and blood.

See? Told you it would make sense.

Dinosaur Jr “Give a Glimpse” At Band Still Capable Of Cranking Out The Jams

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Since they originated back in 1984, the Massachusetts-based trio Dinosaur Jr has made a household name for themselves in the melodic punk-rock scene as one of the heaviest hitters in the game. Not only did they lay down the kind of fat riffs that would eventually make J Mascis a long-haired luminary of six-stringed electric guitar gymnastics, they would eventually combine it with the sort of crunchy psychedelic clarity that the best of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s material would certainly be able to appreciate.

And despite some tumultuous fallout over the years between guitarist/vocalist Mascis, bassist/vocalist Lou Barlow and drummer Emmett Murphy (“Murph” for short), the trio once again found themselves blossoming after reuniting in 2005. Despite a 19-year hiatus between studio albums for the core members, 2009’s Beyond and it’s subsequent followups have led to strong reviews as well as highly positive opinions of these now rather grizzled music veterans.

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Dinosaur’s 4th release back together (August 5th’s upcoming Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not) doesn’t exactly reach out and try to reinvent the wheel in order to buoy the band’s recently prolific state, but it doesn’t have to either. Rather, Mascis, Barlow and Murph heavily rely on their well-honed ability as a trio in order to give Glimpse all the punch and listenability that it could ever ask for.

The album is earmarked and chock full of many familiar Dinosaur Jr hallmarks: Mascis with his trademark vocal drawl and feast of hearty feedback-washed solos and hooks, Barlow adding rippling bass lines (as well as exceptional lead vocals on “Love Is” and closer “Left Right”), and Murph crushingly in command bringing the thunder behind the drumkit. Having the three back together and so clearly in sync is a pleasure to hear, as the songs on the record easily bristle and bounce with an ageless sting from the first hum of feedback all the way to the final closing notes.

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Having Mascis and Barlow together is an especially tasty listening experience as the two continue to make an especially strong complementary pair to one another. Where Mascis wades through waves of dissonant feedback and listless weariness to his words, Barlow feels more content in an almost Nick Lowe-esque display of compact melody. Not that he can’t keep pace when the power chords have been laid down, but the two being on the same page feels like an especially pleasing sense of balance.

It seems to bring the best out of both musicians, and keeps Glimpse on a perfect edge that can thump with a heavy hand while still maintaining it’s honesty beneath the surface of the layers. I could see fans of earlier Dinosaur Jr records perhaps tuning out this return to the spotlight due to the lack of the lo-fi punk that was present on the band’s earlier work, but in my mind the current core iteration of what this band is doing is demonstrating so much of them at their best.

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Glimpse shows that Dinosaur Jr is still maturing gracefully with a stronger studio style, still knows how to absolutely slay a mega ton of power punched industrial rock, and can still bring out the softer side of their well-tenured sound whenever the moment calls for it. Their deftly wound capability brings to mind former Husker Du lead man Bob Mould’s late season career resurgence, especially his trio of tightly constructed recent solo albums Silver AgeBeauty & Ruin and 2016’s Patch The Sky.

And while I don’t see Mould pleasantly reuniting with Grant Hart or Greg Norton for a Dinosaur Jr style reunion anytime soon, his chemistry with fellow Bob Mould Band members Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster is just as similarly dynamic. With that thought in mind, it comes as no shock that both Patch The Sky and Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not weigh in as two of the best and brightest in this year’s rock category.

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Don’t sleep on the old guys ladies and gentleman. They still keep going out there and getting it done, all while incorporating plenty of face-melting jams along the way.

And really, could we ask them for anything more?

Album Review, Ryan Bingham “Fear and Saturday Night”

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Ryan Bingham has a consistent knack for capturing the essence of the Southwest. New Mexico-born and Texas-bred, the grizzled singer songwriter has always known just how to paint a dusty canvass of border towns, long liquored up nights and the hardest and most scarred roads down the path of rough living. He showed it off to critical acclaim with 2010’s The Weary Kind, but for Bingham that’s a place his whiskey-soaked heart seems to consistently inhabit.

His prior release (2012’s Tomorrowland) did get away from that in order to venture towards a harder, more rocked out edge, which left many fans feeling a bit dubious about where his sound was evolving. Enter January 20th’s launch of Bingham’s 5th studio LP Fear and Saturday Night, which should go a long way towards putting any of those possible uncertainties to rest.

While it’s not exactly Mescalito or Roadhouse Sun redux (which would only be unnecessary retreads), Fear essentially finds Bingham going back to his mix of rootsy, rockin’ country-folk that knows how to blister with a lyric as easily as a guitar riff. It bears a lot of similarities to the best of what his past work was about, yet manages to feel like it’s an expansion upon new ground.

Nobody Knows My Trouble and Broken Heart Tattoos are great introductions to this, because while they feel like classic Ryan Bingham storytelling they also feel…. older and wiser. Now almost 34 instead of where he began in his mid-20’s, Trouble is an autobiographically honest look at making it through the worst of all that hard living, while Tattoos seems to examine and advise a pure heart on some of those more painful emotional arrows still yet to find their mark.

But not everything is quite so melancholic and threadbare on FearRadio and Island in the Sky are hook-heavy foot tappers playing havoc all across the highways of a Santa Fe skyline, while Top Shelf Drug and Darlin are two very differently toned love songs. One is brash and strung out on god knows what, while the other has sobered up to reveal a few more tortured insecurities buried beneath the surface.

All in all, Fear and Saturday Night doesn’t attempt to revolutionize anything so much as go further into the depths of prolific perspective and strong songwriting. I don’t think Bingham is going to initially blow anyone away with this exactly, but Fear does get stronger and more ear-catching with every listen. It’s Ryan Bingham at his best with what he does best, and fans as well as new listeners alike couldn’t really ask for much better than that.

Grade: 8.2/10

First Thoughts, American Aquarium “Wolves”

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I’ll tell you something, we may only be about a month into 2015 so far, but I’m already noticing just how hard the Southern born artists are throwing down the musical gauntlet this year. This week alone has seen an excellent release from Georgia/Virginia hybrid The Lone Bellow, a recent return to form from Texan Ryan Bingham (that I’ll be talking about soon), as well as an early preview stream of a weathered heart-stopper of a record from Georgia’s Butch Walker.

And if that wasn’t enough, today we have the Wall Street Journal (of all unlikely places) streaming the upcoming February 3rd release from North Carolina’s own American Aquarium. The record (entitled Wolves) is the band’s 8th studio release since 2006, and finds the group in their next chapter following the brilliant resurrection from the ashes of musical frustration that was 2012’s Burn. Flicker. Die. And indeed Wolves really does feel like a succession from one stage of life to the next, even if the band didn’t end up giving in and breaking up as initially planned.

For one thing, while Burn felt like the take no prisoners white hot glow of a band prepared to lay all it’s guns on the table with a snarl instead of a whimper, Wolves feels much more self-assured within it’s own stability. Buoyed by new found life as a band, an overwhelmingly successful fan-funded album project and lead man BJ Barham’s impending marriage/sobriety, that same cynical edge and dusty traveler’s desire remains hard wired into American Aquarium’s DNA. But along with it is a sort of survivalist’s perspective; an acknowledgement of the hard roads and back streets it took to succeed, the dead ends that nearly ruined it all and when all is said and done, the good that made the journey getting here worthwhile.

Barham himself has referred to this album as a “huge departure”, and lyrically it’s easy to see why. Songs like Family Problems and Losing Side of 25 still seek out the familiar anxieties and despair within the shadows of age and addiction, but this time around there are flickers of a silver lining. Those flickers become steady beams on Man I’m Supposed To Be and Who Needs a Song, which have to arguably be two of the most sweetly intended love songs this band has ever created.

The darkness and the drifting still exists within the marrow of the songwriting, but with Wolves the overarching feeling is…. that isn’t all there is anymore. That plunge into bitter darkness, night after night spent with alcohol in seedy bars and the grind of hotel room after hotel room on the road…. life has changed with a certainty towards the better. A reassuring hand, a relationship to build, that knowledge that somehow, imperfect as it may be there is a way out from under even the worst that life has offered.

Frankly, BJ Barham and American Aquarium sound as happy and as uplifted as they’ve ever been. Of course as with most great alt-country bands that dose of happy still comes with a hearty layer of eloquent self-deprecation, but it’s a suit that fits them better than others who faded once the alcohol and amphetamines did.

Either way, Wolves stands as testament to the type of pedal steel-laced, road worn Springsteen-esque storytelling people should refer to when they think of what true country music is. It’s damaged, intelligent, and it draws in the listener with it’s sheer power of passion…. instead of tractors and drunken frat girls. Lookin’ at you over there Kenny Chesney/Florida Georgia Line.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review, The Lone Bellow “Then Came The Morning”

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(not the right cover, blame Google images)

It certainly seems as though waiting on The Lone Bellow to offer up their second album has been a lifetime in the making (give or take an impatient infinity or two). After a point the release process started to feel like a war of attrition as announcements like album title, track list and singles started to slowly bleed through to the spotlight like sand through an hourglass. So it goes in the casual day to day to life of a music fan when confronted by the notion of a far off release date though I suppose.

But thankfully time can be a blessing (at least in this regard), and as I write this we stand upon the eve of the official release for Then Came The Morning. I’ve had many thoughts and emotions about this record after almost a solid week of listening now, and while I could include more notes and details about the blessing of having songs like Marietta or Fake Roses in the world (or the band’s appearance on the Letterman show tonight), I’m simply going to let the video I made speak for me.

So go check out my Youtube album review for The Lone Bellow in the little link down there below, and DO check out the Bellow on Letterman tonight. I’ve heard they’re going to be accompanied by an 11-piece band, and it promises to be a good one!

Album Review, Justin Townes Earle “Absent Fathers”

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Music lovers and fans of folky alt-country stylings discovered they were in for a treat when Justin Townes Earle announced a September 2014 release for his then-latest LP Single Mothers. More exciting still was that the announcement of an immediate January  2015 followup (entitled Absent Fathers) was printed directly within the vinyl release’s download card. The albums were intended as companion pieces to each other, and given the delay between releases following Earle’s label dispute with brief partner Communion Records, it didn’t seem shocking to find a pileup of music ready once the smoke cleared.

And while that sort of news seems exciting on the surface (especially for an artist as solidly consistent as JTE), the payoff has been… lukewarm at best. Mothers delivered some of that classic heartbreak storytelling Earle is known for on tracks like Picture In a Drawer and White Gardenias, but Fathers flounders under the realization that it’s TOO much like it’s predecessor. Almost a b-side version of it in fact.

One of the best things about Earle over the span of his career arc has been the ability to effectively chameleon his way into different sounds from one release to another. On Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now it was brassy Memphis blues, with Midnight At The Movies it was classic country blended with rootsy folk, and on Harlem River Blues it was all that with a hearty shot of rockabillied rock’n’roll layered in between.  Absent Fathers just follows the lead of Single Mothers and consists of Earle either singing solo (which is when the album arguably works best) or surrounded by a session band of simple drums, bass and guitar.

And while there’s nothing wrong with KISS (keep it simple stupid), it’s done extensively to the point that songs from these two sessions start becoming more identical from listen to listen. When The One You Love Loses Faith and Call Ya Momma are pretty inoffensive as far as lead songs go, and Looking For a Place To Land captures some of that infamously moody JTE sentiment, but overall there’s just no spark to be found here. Much of the material is actually quite dull in this basic environment, which is actually more frustrating given that Earle’s consistent edge is visible, but wasted here with TOO much copy and paste. In the end Absent Fathers comes off as dry and lacking the need for much in the way of repeat listens. Good for the collection of a diehard Justin Townes Earle fan perhaps, but uninspiring as a whole.

Grade: 6/10