Calvin Russell, obviously a true survivor and a hardworking country boy from Texas, his past etched in every line of his face and hands. As a country boy who wakes up every morning with that doggone white man's blues, it's not hard for Calvin Russell to find the inspiration in the troubles of his daily life and put it into four-minute novels. Strangely enough, Calvin Russell only penned two out of thirteen tracks on his latest release 'Rebel Radio'. Nestled in good Texas tradition, Russell covers three songs by Townes van Zandt: the album's leadoff track 'Still Looking for You', the lost classic 'Ain't Leaving Your Love', and, simply the highlight on 'Rebel Radio', 'I'll Be Here in the Morning'. He also borrowed some nice tunes from The Rolling Stones, Gillian Welch, and Willie Nelson, all them good, rocking country songs and not without a sincere love of the originals. With a voice that can even scare die-hard fans of Leonard Cohen, Russell's own back-to-roots style is very much like a great ravine that stretches endlessly from straight-forward honky-tonk road songs to hard-rocking blues, but always meant to be played with the volume cranked up to war level. Still, the simplicity of his words and music is the essence of his well-chosen formula. The comfortable easiness and coolness that comes with these tasteful tunes often gives the listener the idea that making music is dead simple for everyone, and, of course, it should be direct and simple like on Russell's 'Rebel Radio'. On the other hand, it's also kind of dangerous, because it often makes other music seem like a waste of time and somewhat pretentious, but maybe that's exactly what good music is supposed to do. OK, sometimes he might come across as your grumpy grandfather, but he always finds his way to add an emotional impact to his music, and that's why it's not that hard to like his road songs. Although it shows that Mr. Russell is having a good time, I must admit that it would have sounded better to slow down some of these rollicking road songs such as 'It Is What It Is' and 'Country Boy'. Well, I'm not complaining here, because it is what it is, and it is another excellent collection of truck-driving songs from Calvin Russell. So, if you are a fan of country music and you drive a truck, you should already own this album. If you're not, they should sell you this album with a truck, so you'll end up riding a big truck and listening non-stop to Calvin Russell's 'Rebel Radio'.
Visit Calvin Russell's website
PHIL TAGLIERE | SLOW (CD, Bong Load)
While being in various bands in and around the area since 1995, Phil Tagliere has already gained some notoriety in the blooming LA music scene. Recently, he has returned from several successful shows in Europe, and his first full-length record 'Slow' will be released on Bong Load Records in early 2002. Mixed by Tom Rothrock (Beck, Foo Fighters, Richard Thompson, Elliott Smith) and not without the grateful help of such renowned musicians as Rick Shea, Ward Dotson, Bill Blonk, and Don Heffington, Phil Tagiere delivers a debut album grounded in solid songwriting and pure acoustic arrangements, along with an unabashed introversion and literate touch. As both a singer and songwriter, Phil Tagliere seems to be comfortable couched in the folksiness of such artists as Belle & Sebastian, Kings of Convenience, Elliot Smith, and even Simon & Garfunkel. But then there are pedal steels and mandolins added to his lively music. And with the influences of Richard Buckner, Gillian Welch, and Willard Grant Conspiracy, it is obvious that Phil Tagliere brings himself to a newer dimension of folk music. Though a few of the ten tracks on 'Slow' can be easily overlooked when listened to as stand-alone tracks, as a whole it's hard to deny that this disc is one of the strongest debut and solo albums of the new century.
Visit Phil Tagliere's website @ www.philtagliere.com
ERIC TAYLOR | SCUFFLETOWN
Although he was born in Georgia, Eric Taylor continues the heritage of Townes van Zandt, sparking a wave of all of the other great singer-songwriters from Texas such as Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Guy Clark. Eric Taylor wanders in the darkest corners and alleys of the Hall of Fame. Admired by many great musicians, but unfortunately forever caught in a haze of obscurity, Eric Taylor is one of these underrated songwriters, but with 'Scuffletown' it seems that he's found a home in the underground. Very much moving into claustrophobic barroom blues for the lonesome and down-and-out, Eric Taylor welcomes the listener to his 'Scuffletown' with an ironically-titled track, 'Happy Endings' that foreshadows the hypnotic blues that follow for another 60 moody minutes. And then there is a beautiful ode to Charlie Rich's blue moon of Kentucky, 'All The Way yo Heaven'. He continues to explore the nightlife, painting images of the broken-hearted, while such haunting ballads as 'Blue Piano' have never sounded so warm and inviting. Eric Taylor wrote eight-and-a-half of the eleven tracks on his latest record 'Scuffletown', undoubtedly the bluesiest album when you compare it to his previous albums. The other two compositions, 'Where I Lead Me' and 'Nothing', were originally written by the late, great Townes van Zandt. Another remarkable composition is entitled 'Delia/Bad Music', ten spellbinding minutes of haunting music, where he successfully combines a traditional blues song with his own breathtaking lyrics and idiosyncratic folk singing. In the liner notes to 'Scuffletown', Eric Taylor says he never set out to write or produce a "concept" album, because concepts are troublesome and dangerous, like politics. But no matter what's in these liner notes, 'Scuffletown' turned out to be an impressive concept album anyway, which I don't think is anything for Eric Taylor to be ashamed for. What you'll hear is, without any doubt, an incredible triumph: ambitious, lengthy, and tightly produced, but also quite intimate and thrilling at the same time.
Visit Eminent's website @ www.eminentrecords.com
RANDY CASEY | SAY NO MORE
For those hillbillies out there who want to dig a little deeper into music and who aren't afraid of a record that mixes country music with triphop and ambient, Randy Casey's 'Say No More' seems to be an excellent choice. Don't be too scared to find your classic country favourites done at 250 bpm or something similar to that, because Randy Casey seems to know what he is doing. This original recording includes eleven instrumental tracks with guest appearances by Eric Heywood (Richard Buckner, Alejandro Escovedo, Son Volt), Jessy Greene (VioVoom, The Jayhawks, Golden Smog), and more. Very much like Sid Griffin's Western Electric, 'Say No More' is an ambitious work of art. Furthermore, Randy Casey's music walks the line that stretches between different styles, influences, and all kinds of genres. All of this has been carefully brought together with some incredible playing on six- and twelve-string National steel guitars, but of course you'll also hear some pedal steels, accordions, violins, and mandolin. Leading off with what I've recognized as a sample from the Carpenters' 'Hurting Each Other', 'Say No More', with its friendly and relaxed atmosphere, may be best characterized as quite enjoyable and refreshing. Who would have ever thought that country was going to become cool in the year 2001?
Visit Randy Casey's website @ www.randycasey.com
OL' YELLER | S/T (CD, SMA)
So this is Ol' Yeller, one of such bands that hang out in local bars and live on free beer. Well, at least they do have some twang in their name and a wannabe singer with the same unfashionable haircut as Jay Farrar. Halfway through their debut album, you might even hear some Wilco-influenced melodies in 'Piece of Work' and 'The Denial Song'. Theoretically, Ol' Yeller have just released a mighty fine album. But, unfortunately, it's not. So, what's wrong with Ol' Yeller? First of all, the vocals are terrible. Surprisingly or not, the second song on this album is called 'You Can't Sing!'. Do I really need to add anything more? OK, at times when singer Rich Mattson is not trying to sing, the music is the one shining hope, but nowhere does it get really new or exciting. All of the twelve songs on this disc aren't bad, but it seems that Ol' Yeller is hopelessly stuck in the middle of the road. I believe the best way to experience this band is seeing them play in a bar somewhere near you. You might even wanna buy them beer, but it's better to stay away from this record.
HOWE | CONFLUENCE (CD, Thrill Jockey/PIAS)
Oh boy, where do I start? "Dreamy" and "spontaneous" are the two words that come to mind when you listen to this record, but it's not that easy to pigeonhole the music of OP8 and Giant Sand's front man Howe Gelb. Well, on his latest record 'Confluence' he is not miles away from anything that Giant Sand has ever done, but when Howe Gelb welcomes you to his world it's very much like embarking on a new journey that you know is always going to be strange and exciting. On his second solo record (the first being 91's 'Dreaded Brown Recluse') he takes you away to that strange place in your mind where there is no such thing as time and everything seems to be floating upside-down. Many of the songs on 'Confluence' are based on half-finished ideas, healthy experimentation, and primitive acoustic melodies, but there's also something sophisticated and mysterious about Howe Gelb's music. The journey begins slightly confusingly with '3 Sisters', one of these peculiar tracks that makes Howe's sound on the opening track somewhat like Frank Black whispering on a lost outtake from Calexico's 'Hot Rail', but with the helping hand of producer John Parish, it's an excellent example of Howe Gelb's introspective living room creativity. While most of his songs never exactly begin or end where they should, Howe Gelb demonstrates with gentle songs such as 'Saint Conformity' and the desert blues of 'Pedal Steel and She'll' that he knows how to write well-crafted songs as well. However, Howe Gelb is not a rock hero, not even a genius, but he is certainly a creator and a man with ideas. Some of his ideas are better than others, but before the musical ride ends up in Neil Young-style with 'Slide Away', 'Confluence' hides a dozen of surprises in 17 songs, and that includes the King's 'Can't Help Falling in Love'.
Visit Howe's website @ www.giantsand.com
THE SID HILLMAN QUARTET | THE
SID HILLMAN QUARTET (CD,
Every cowboy has a sad song, but there's something unique and stunning about the Sid Hillman Quartet. Most of the time the beautifully depressed vocals are moving the intense music in opposing directions, but, then again, it all seems to flow down into the same river of melancholy and tight musicianship. This is a terrific album, filled with icy atmospheres, spare use of melody, and unusual, claustrophobic song structures: "The way you sang those words/Even though they weren't yours/But they fell off your lips/And landed sadly on the ground." ('Lingering') This is also that kind of late-Saturday night music that comes very slowly but grows on you quickly. However, listeners are rewarded ultimately for their patience. As far as influential styles, the Sid Hillman Quartet easily fit into the same camp as Willard Grant Conspiracy, the Kingsbury Manx, and Lullaby For The Working Class. Needless to say, this album is not something for the dancefloor. The Sid Hillman Quartet have just completed their second full-length record, due for release later this year, featuring guest players Jaydee Maness (Byrds, Beck, Desert Rose Band) on pedal steel and Matt Devine (Possum Dixon, Medicine) on baritone guitar. This full-length debut album includes nine excellent songs and was independently released in July 1999 on compact disc and vinyl.
Visit the Sid Hillman Quartet's website @ www.theshq.com
CROOKED COUNTY | DRUNKARD'S LAMENT (CD, Rustic)
Crooked County's 'Drunkard's Lament'
is more than a solid 15-song collection of drinking songs. The songs that
you'll hear on Crooked County's second full-length release are heartfelt
songs that tell stories about real people with real emotions. These are
honest and more than often heart-breaking songs that sketch the lives of
hardworking men in a beautiful way. Given that 'Drunkard's Lament' doesn't
come as a trademark in country rock and Crooked County isn't groundbreaking
or crossing any musical borders, there is surely something unique and refreshing
about the way they easily combine soulful bluegrass-style harmonies with
rough honkytonk country music. Such fine crafted ballads as 'Kentucky'
and 'True Evil' are irresistible to anyone with a good ear. Though
it's very easy to overlook these gems, because the music is rich, and there
is plenty to explore on 'Drunkard's Lament'. This is an album that gets
better with every time that you put this in your CD player. Crooked County
also prove again that country music can be endlessly reinvented, but that
doesn't come as a surprise. More surprising is the unusual lineup of Crooked
County: Songwriter Toby Purnell is joined by his brother Jason, multi-instrumentalist
and singer-songwriter Merrie Sloan, and two drummers. The vocal styles
of Toby Purnell and Merrie Sloan work very well, and the instrumentation
is as big as you would expect it to be from such a lineup of excellent
(by Maurice Dielemans)
Visit Rustic Records' website @ www.rusticrecords.com
THE PSYCHEDELIC COWBOYS | TRAGIC
SONGS AND HOP-A-LONGS
(CD, Stone Legal)
The Psychedelic Cowboys, whose name reveals their Cosmic Americana-influenced music, emerges from the dreamy Californian ambience. Like Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, these Californian dreamers combine classic country music with 60s rock drenched in LSD. Though 'Tragic Songs and Hop-A-Longs' is an ambitious work of art, the Psychedelic Cowboys don't take themselves too seriously. No doubt that songs such as 'Kaleidoscope Canyon Drive (Overture)' and 'Good Ole Boy in Gomorrah (Ode to Los Angeles)' are way over-the-top, but all of this is never without an irreproachable sense of humour and a good Southern California pride.
Visit the Psychedelic Cowboys' website @ www.psychedeliccowboys.com
RON LASALLE | TOO ANGRY TO PRAY (CD, PHQ)
All of the 13 songs on this album are of a typical singer and songwriter nature. It's more or less what you can expect from someone who thanks his mom and dad in the liner notes. Musically, Ron Lasalle has somewhat of a Steve Earle style, and his rootsrockin' music also reminds me of an unplugged Bruce Springsteen in his early years, but unfortunately Lasalle's songwriting is dealing with the same old clichés of sin and redemption: "Because of past mistakes/I was a prisoner of me/ Chained to a faithless life/But now I hold the key." OK, the words easily rhyme, but overall his songwriting isn't that impressive for a singer and songwriter. It has to be said that nearly every song is about how Ron Lasalle successfully battled the demons of his alcohol abuse: "Well my drinking days brought Hell to pay/My soul black as the night/I had sinned so much/That I lost touch with what's wrong and right." OK, aside from these somewhat pretentious poetry, the raw and honest soulful music itself isn't really that bad - especially if you like this kind of lonesome white man's blues from Texas - but unfortunately almost every song on 'Too Angry To Pray' carries on for a few seconds too long. Thankfully, there is a memorable song worth mentioning as well. 'I've Had it with Love' is a nicely done duet with the beautiful vocals of Shawna Hulse, one of the few songs that truly capture the spirit of Ron Lasalle's music that he describes as Soul Twang.
Visit Ron Lasalle's website @ www.ronlasalle.com
Buy this album from Miles of Music @ www.milesofmusic.com
CLYDE WRENN | THE BLUE CLIFF RECORD (CD, self-released)
Clyde Wrenn hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where he developed his songwriting and guitar playing skills. On his latest release, 'The Blue Cliff Record', his sound leans towards a spacey folk/acoustic country mix that at times sounds like the Vulgar Boatmen meet the Grateful Dead. 'Opaline' starts the album off in fine fashion and is the disc's most up-tempo tune. After this opening, things slow down and for the most part stay that way until the finale. Wrenn has a penchant for writing of life's and love's struggles as evidenced in songs like 'Sawdust in the Mash'. A happy boy Mr. Wrenn ain't, as he sings "there is evil in love when love is what you need/and when they say my name I'll take another oath/solemn and profane like liquor in my throat." While his songwriting is strong throughout the album, many of the songs tend to blend together because of the lack of variety in pace. Though several of the cuts are really nothing more than instrumental introductions, at 18 songs totaling 60 minutes, the album suffers from being too long. Ultimately, this is mood music for those who believe misery loves to ride with company. As you hop on, be prepared to meet an interesting cast of downtrodden characters. I just wish the scenery offered a little more variety.
Visit Clyde Wrenn's website @ www.clydewrenn.com
Whikeytown - Pneumonia
By Doug Waterman
Recorded over two years ago in Woodstock, New York's Dreamland Studio, Whiskeytown's Pneumonia was slated as a successful follow up to their acclaimed major label debut, Stranger's Almanac (1997). However, the Universal/Polygram merger forced the closure of Whiskeytown's label, Outpost Recordings, leaving the band high and dry and wondering if the album would ever see the light of day.
Since the recording of Pneumonia, the band has officially broken up, and each member of the trio is pursuing promising solo careers. Frontman Ryan Adams released Heartbreaker on the alt. country oriented Bloodshot Records in the summer of 2000, and fiddler/vocalist Caitlin Cary released a 5-song EP entitled Walzie on Chapel Hill's Yep Roc Records. Guitarist Mike Daly is currently shopping his just-finished solo album around to record labels. Fortunately for Whiskeytown, Lost Highway Records was founded at just the right time. Spearheaded by Mercury Nashville President Luke Lewis and the band's former manager, Frank Callari, this Mercury imprint label (based in Nashville) agreed to put out Pneumonia as its first release. Aside from Whiskeytown, Lost Highway has also signed established singer/songwriters such as Robert Earl Keen, Lucinda Williams, and Ryan Adams.
Adams and producer Ethan Johns re-mixed and put finishing touches on Pneumonia in the spring, setting the release date for May 22. Accompanying the band on the album include Backsliders guitarist Brad Rice, former Replacement Tommy Stinson, ex-Smashing Pumpkin James Iha, and Ethan Johns on drums.
Pneumonia is somewhat of a departure from Whiskeytown's first two releases, which are characterized primarily by elements of the broadly interpreted alt. country genre. Though the fiddle and pedal steel are still prevalent on many of the tracks, the album transmits more of a pop sound than their previous releases. Nonetheless, Pneumonia is clear evidence of the band's lyrical and musical maturing process. The album contains a collection of intriguing pop/rock tunes, as well as a number of well-crafted experimental pieces.
Pneumonia's first track, "Ballad
of Carol Lynn," is flooded by Adams' raspier vocal tendencies, as well
as an eerily brooding horn section. "Don't Wanna Know Why" is a catchy
pop song that emphasizes both Caitlin Cary's prolific fiddling ability
and her distinct harmonization. "Jacksonville Skyline" and "My Hometown"
both give accounts of Adams' reminiscent predisposition toward his hometown
of Jacksonville, North Carolina (from his perspective while living in New
York City). These two songs seem to be the simplest, yet easily the most
convincing songs on Pneumonia, combining steady acoustic progressions and
free-flowing pedal steel echoes with Adams' honest, country-tinged vocals.
The seventh track, "Under Your Breath," identifies closely with the slow,
solemn lyrical emphasis of Ryan Adams Heartbreaker album. "Mirror, Mirror"
seems extremely influenced by the Beatles' instrumentation during the mid-Sixties.
"Paper Moon" experiments with a creative island flavour, and "What the
Devil Wanted," which Adams wrote about a recurring dream, is shaded with
a disoriented, psychedelic aura. Closing out the album, "Bar Lights" returns
to the compelling, melodic harmonization between Adams and Cary that penetrated
Stranger's Almanac. On the whole, Pneumonia is a very commendable final
album from an undeniably influential band of the Nineties, and it furthermore
sets a promising tone for the future solo careers of Whiskeytown's band
Lost Highway Records
by Doug Waterman
Ryan Adams' second solo effort, Gold,
is an obvious transition from the generally acoustic, self-pitying assortment
of songs on his 2000 debut
release, Heartbreaker. This is not a bad thing by any means. The album is more happy-go-lucky in a broad sense. Its buoyant flare gives it a kind of uplifting edge that isn’t present in Heartbreaker.
The strikingly internal, poetic pieces that characterize Heartbreaker are certainly not lost. However, they are replaced by several piano ballads that achieve the same lyrical spirit, and they furthermore elevate Adams' genius in crafting very original, compelling melodies.
As the result of Adams' prolific, daily songwriting process, Gold contains an impressively vast selection of twenty-one tracks (five of which are contained on a limited edition bonus disc). Producer Ethan Johns once again fosters a creative range of instrumentation and musical arrangements that heightens the album's overall effect. Several special guests contribute to the ambiance of Gold, including Counting Crows' front man Adam Duritz, who lends his harmonization to several tracks.
The album's first track, "New York, New York,” Adams' farewell to the city, sets a sanguine tone with its rollicking vocals and guitar grooves. "Firecracker" resounds with a blistering harmonica lead. "Answering Bell" asserts clever lyrical catches (“Did I slip? No I stumbled. Did I trip? Cause I know I fell”). "La Cienega Just Smiled" slows the tempo down through its steadily brooding piano-guitar combination.
"Sylvia Plath,” a song written about
one of Adams' most esteemed, contemplative poets, offers a solemnly introspective
variation on the
album's development. Adams' vocal timbre artfully hangs by a thread in "Wildflower,” an intriguing acoustic track reminiscent of Heartbreaker.
With almost hypnotic orchestral arrangements in "Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard" and "The Bar is a Beautiful Place,” Adams alludes again to his increasing tonal diversity and his tendency to curiously explore different musical mediums. “Touch, Feel, and Lose” brings in choir-like backing vocals (including Duritz) to produce a surprisingly likable gospel effect.
"Tina Toledo's Street Walkin' Blues,” undeniably Stones-influenced, rings out with gut-wrenching, overlapping guitar riffs and speeding lyrics. In "Sweet Black Magic," Adams briefly introduces a taste of bluegrass with a captivating guitar-banjo duet. Closing out the final disc, the barreling acoustic guitars of "Cannonball Days" return Adams' to the carefree vibe that opened the album.
Gold is undoubtedly the work of a
musician who embraces an array of musical genres and brings a unique touch
to their exploration. Still this side of thirty, Adams proves that he is
growing into one of his generation's finest singer-songwriters. He has
an abundant gift for melody, which he intrinsically constructs in his music.
Gold is a sure bet.