Album Review: Dandelion by Carolina Story


Album: Dandelion
Artist: Carolina Story
Release Date: September 4, 2020
Label: Black River Americana
Favorite Tracks:

  • Light of the Moon
  • Lay Me Down Easy

Thoughts:

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.

Rating: ***1/2

 

 

Album Review: Unlovely by The Ballroom Thieves


Album: Unlovely
Artist: The Ballroom Thieves 
Release Date: February 12, 2020
Label: Nettwerk Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • Unlovely
  • Tenebrist
  • Homme Run
  • Begin Again
  • Pendulum

Thoughts:

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.

Rating: ****

This performance from WGBH leads off with “Tenebrist” and some older tracks.

The Paste Studio performance includes “Homme Run,” “Love is Easy,” and “Pendulum.”

 

Album Review: All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do by Milk Carton Kids


AlbumAll the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do 
Artist: Milk Carton Kids
Release Date: June 29, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Just Look at Us Now
  • Mourning in America
  • One More for the Road
  • Big Time
  • I’ve Been Loving You

Thoughts:

The folk duo of  Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel – tight harmonies, introspective lyrics, and understated instrumentation.  This is the first album recorded with a backing band, but nevertheless the instruments are restrained, adding resonant bass notes, thumping bass drums, and country twang only to support and emphasize the vocals.  Of course, the instrumental performances should not be overlooked, and the 10 minute long “One More for the Road” is highlighted by solos that are not at all indulgent.  While much of the album is inward-looking as you’d expect from contemplative folkies, “Mourning in America” is a standout political track.  I don’t listen to folk music nearly as often as I did about 15-20 years ago, but this is a standout album.

Rating: ****

Album Review: The Thread That Keeps Us by Calexico


Album: The Thread That Keeps Us 
Artist: Calexico
Release Date: 2018 January 26
Favorite Tracks: “Under the Wheels,” “Flores Y Tamales,” “Eyes Wide Awake,” and “Shortboard”
Thoughts:

Calexico is a band that’s been active for more than two decades, although I was not familiar with their work until I heard “Under the Wheels” and decided to check out the rest of the album.  As the name implies, this Arizona-based indie rock band takes inspiration from the borderlands between Mexico and the southwestern United States. Those aren’t their only influences though, as listening to this album I heard music similar to John Lennon’s solo work, the 1980s oeuvre of bands like U2 and Midnight Oil, and even surf rock.  The feel of the music is cinematic, painting pictures of the desert landscape and the people who inhabit.  Lyrically, the songs are topically relevant – perhaps gaining significance from our national political disorder – as border politics and wildfires color the stories of everyday people.

Rating: ***

Album Review: Ruins by First Aid Kit


AlbumRuins
ArtistFirst Aid Kit
Release Date: 19 January 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Rebel Heart
  • Ruins

ThoughtsRuins is the latest release from the Swedish folk rock duo of sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg.  I’m inextricably drawn to close, female harmonies and lush instrumentation in all cases, and this is no exception.  All the same, I think that First Aid Kit can create music with more bite, and there’s something missing here.  Thus it’s good album, worth a listen, but not as great as it could be.
Rating: **1/2

Album Review: If All I Was Was Black by Mavis Staples


AlbumIf All I Was Was Black
ArtistMavis Staples
Release Date: 17 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Little Bit,” “If All I Was Was Black,” “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” and “Try Harder”
Thoughts:

One of my favorite musical trends of 2017 is the appearance of the legendary Mavis Staples as guest artist on various recordings.  First, Arcade Fire released “I Give You Power” on the eve of Inauguration Day in January:

Then staples added her gospel chops to Benjamin Booker’s statement on police killings of black people “Witness.”

Next Staples joined Pusha T on the virtual hip-hop/electronic band Gorillaz’ Trump-inspired track “Let Me Out.”

Now, at last, we have a full album of new songs from Mavis Staples herself reflecting on our fraught, divided times and what we need to do to fight against it.  Frequent Staples’ collaborator, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, produced the album, appears on one track, and wrote all the songs (quite remarkable when you think that means he wrote the title track).  Staples’ versatility that makes her such a strong asset as a guest artist with distinctly different bands is seen here as well as the music mixes gospel, soul, blues, folk, and Americana.  Lyrically, the civil rights icon is still fighting the good fight but recognizes that she has limitations and that she’s still called to love her enemy.  Mavis Staples’ legacy is already well-established, and this album is probably not going to be what she’s remembered for, but nevertheless it is great to have her voice confront the issues of our times.

Rating:  ***1/2

Music Discoveries: Tom Waits


Tom Waits is a veteran singer-songwriter whose voice is a combination of sidewalk preacher, carnival barker, beat poet, and barstool philosopher. I first heard of Waits in the 80s when he was known as the guy with the crazy, gravely voice.  But then I heard the track “Innocent When You Dream” on a compilation album and fell in love with the heartfelt beauty underneath what sounded like a drunk guy crooning at a bar.  I got the album Franks Wild Years and it remains one of my all time favorites, and I’ve checked in and out on Waits’ career over the years.  This is the first time I’ve listened to all of Waits’ catalog from beginning to most current, and let me tell you it’s not easy to listen to all that Waits’ music back-to-back-to-back, although it is a worthwhile exercise.

Tom Waits’ career can be summed up into three basic eras:

  • 1970s – Waits was a little more eccentric than his contemporaries, but listening to his early recordings and he seems to fit in with the singer-songwriters of the era. You might even imagine an alternate universe where his career followed the paths of the likes of James Taylor, Elton John, or Randy Newman.  His trademark gravely voice didn’t even make its debut until the third album, and in the seventies it was more of an homage to Louis Armstrong or Doctor John as Waits recorded jazz and blues tinged tunes.
  • 1980s – This decade marked the emergence of the iconic Waits’ style, verging between lost recordings of American and avant guarde music with unusual instrumentation and tunings.  The decade is marked by the trilogy of albums he’s most remembered for: Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987).
  • 1992 to present – While Waits’ music in this period remains experimental by the standards of contemporary popular music, and inspiration for “alternative music,”  it doesn’t vary much from the template he established in the 1980s.  Similarly, while 1990s and 2000s recordings include numerous gems and good albums overall, Waits is own worst enemy as a producer in that he allows the albums to be bloated with excess tracks that should be judiciously trimmed.  In short, don’t do what I did and listen to everything, but definitely seek out the good stuff.

Tom Waits hasn’t released anything new since 2011 or toured since 2008, but hopefully he has some songs left in him and there will be another Tom Waits era to look back on in the future.

Five Favorite Albums

  • Closing Time (1973) – definitely one of the great all-time debut albums, and the first three tracks are a strong start to any album.
  • Rain Dogs (1985) – Waits’ masterpiece and one of the great albums of the 1980s.
  • Franks Wild Years (1987) – the soundtrack to a play I’ve never seen, it remains a sentimental favorite
  • Bone Machine (1992) – Waits charges into the 1990s showing the alt-rockers how things are done with haunting lyrics and aural soundscape
  • Blood Money (2002) – these are songs from another play, but also reflect the misanthropy and pessimism of the post-Sept. 11th world under George W. Bush

Twenty-Five Favorite Songs

 

1. “Ol’ 55”

2. “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You”

3. “Virginia Avenue”

4. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)”

5. “Jersey Girl”

6. “16 Shells from A Thirty-Ought-Six”

7. “In the Neighbourhood”

8. “Jockey Full of Bourbon”

9. “Hang Down Your Head”

10. “Downtown Train”

11. “Hang on St. Christopher”

12. “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)”

13. “Yesterday is Here”

14. “Way Down in the Hole”

15. “Cold Cold Ground”

16. “Jesus Gonna Be Here”

17. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”

18. “T’ Ain’t No Sin”

19. “Hold On”

20. “House Where Nobody Lives”

21. “Misery is the River of the World”

22. “God’s Away on Business”

23. “Flowers Grave”

24. “Hoist That Rag”

25. “Chicago”