Artist: Carolina Story
Release Date: September 4, 2020
Label: Black River Americana
- Light of the Moon
- Lay Me Down Easy
Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s I was deeply invested in the contemporary Folk/Folk Rock/Folk Pop/Americana, etc. scenes. Eventually I drifted away, partly because everything started sounding the same and I wanted to hear something different. Hearing Carolina Story reminds me of the excitement of discovering something new during the height of my folkie days.
The duo is the married couple Emily and Ben Roberts of Nashville. They remind me a little bit of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer with more country twang and less mysticism. But the best thing about Carolina Story is that they interpret traditional folk sounds in a voice that’s completely their own. They are especially good using their voices to provide a wide range of expression and the instrumentation of the duo and their backing band is particularly rich.
Album: Jump Rope Gazers
Artist: The Beths
Release Date: July 10, 2020
Label: Carpark Records
- I’m Not Getting Excited
- Jump Rope Gazers
- Do You Want Me Now
The New Zealand quartet lead by vocalist Elizabeth Stokes performs perfect power pop. The Beths draw on a lot of pop/rock traditions but never seem to be derivative. The songs are head boppers while the lyrics are tender and introspective. In short, it’s perfect music for rocking out in a Covid Summer.
Note: The Beths’ “Future Me Hates Me” was my 19th favorite song of 2018.
Album: National Freedom
Artist: Lonnie Holley
Release Date: July 3, 2020
- Like Hell Broke Away
- Do T Rocker
Lonnie Holley of Alabama works in many art disciplines, visual media and sculpture, as well as experimental blues music. This album collects music recorded in a 2014 session. His music is rooted in blues with his gravelly vocals reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf but his performance draws on the improvisation of jazz (particularly on the 11-minute final track “So Many Rivers (The First Time)”). The result is oft-time weird, but not inscrutable, and evocative of deep human emotions.
Artist: The Ballroom Thieves
Release Date: February 12, 2020
Label: Nettwerk Records
- Homme Run
- Begin Again
I first learned of Boston-based trio The Ballroom Thieves a few years ago when they were the standout performers at a festival I attended. Their new album speaks to our times with lyrics that address personal relationship and social movements, and often both at the same time. The band is described as folk rock and Americana, but I don’t think those genres quite capture the infectious pop sound of the songs that also draw upon classic rock, soul, and even a touch of metal.
Calin “Callie” Peters (vocals, cello, bass), Martin Earley (vocals, guitar), and Devin Mauch (vocals, percussion) are all excellent instrumentalists and the recording captures their performances as well as their tight harmonies. I tend to get lost in music at the expense of the lyrics, but I was drawn into the chorus of my favorite track “Tenebrist” which is both inspirational and sarcastic:
We all muddy the water
To make it seem less shallow
And if our grief grows like a shadow
In the morning that’s alright
We need the dark to know the light
The music hides anger, frustration, and exhaustion with our political present in the lyrics, so it’s worth a deep listen.
This performance from WGBH leads off with “Tenebrist” and some older tracks.
The Paste Studio performance includes “Homme Run,” “Love is Easy,” and “Pendulum.”
Artist: Tony Allen, Hugh Masekela
Release Date: March 20, 2020
Label: World Circuit
- Agbada Boudou
- Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same)
- We’ve Landed
Tony Allen was a drummer from Nigeria who was key in defining the genre of Afrobeat when working with Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70 band. In 2010, he collaborated with the equally legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela on the sessions that would lead to this album. Masekela died in 2018. Allen completed the sessions with some of London’s top jazz artists.
Allen died on April 30, just a little over a month after this album’s release, so it stands as a memorial to him as well. Nevertheless, it is a joyous recording as the title proclaims. I don’t have the language and experience to adequately describe Afrobeat and jazz, but I like what I hear. Most of the album is instrumental, with exceptions like “Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same),” a tribute to Fela Kuti. In the music you can hear the freedom and friendship of two great artists pushing one another to greater heights. It’s also a very crisp recording where each instrument resonates richly and deeply.
This is a terrific album and makes me want to dive into the back catalog of both artists.
Release Date: July 5, 2019
Kokoko! is a collective of artists from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They use instruments fashioned from trash to create sounds for a musical style that blends electronica with dance punk. The synths layered on by their French producer Débruit also gives it an 80s freestyle dance pop sound. Kokoko! makes refreshing music that functions equally well at a dance club or a political protest.
Album: Freya Ridings
Artist: Freya Ridings
Release Date: July 19, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Castles,” “Wishbone,” and “You Mean the World to Me”
Freya Ridings is a young singer/songwriter from England who joins the tradition of women with bold, powerful voices (such as Adele or Florence Welch) singing songs of love and love lost. There’s nothing innovative on this debut album, but if you like this style of pop singing – and I do – it’s worth adding to your playlist.
Release Date: June 21, 2019
Favorite Tracks: Without a Blush
This is the first full-length album from Australian singer-songwriter Harriette Pilbeam, who records under the name Hatchie. The songs are lush and dreamy and a suitable soundtrack to a lazy summer day. The sound is reminiscent of early 90s bands with ethereal female lead vocalists like The Sundays. I really liked her 2018 EP Sugar & Spice, but the songs on Keepsake don’t packe the same punch with the exception of “Without a Blush.” A lot of songs suffer from a repetitious nature where they start with a good groove or lyric but it becomes grating as the song goes along. The song “Obsessed” is a good example of this. I was looking forward to this album but I don’t think I will be revisiting it.
Album: Cut & Stitch
Artist: Petrol Girls
Release Date: May 24, 2019
- Big Mouth
- Weather Warning
I have a soft spot for punk rock that features women’s voices shouting over shredding guitars. The Petrol Girls website bears the tagline “Raging Feminist Post Hardcore from the UK and Austria” which about sums it up. And while the shouted lyrics may not always be easy to understand, I appreciate that they’re saying important things, the emotion behind them is clear.
Artist: Cate Le Bon
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Welsh singer Cate Le Bon sings ethereally over lush arrangements in her newest collection of art pop. The reviews are good but it doesn’t resonate much with me. Typically, quiet and minimalist music appeals to me, but this album just feels, well … boring. I hate giving a bad review, so don’t take my word for it, and see if it is more Reward-ing for you.