Music Reviews

Rock Ridge – “Drifter’s Prayer” [Self-produced]

Sally Goodin   4/2/2015   CD, Country, Format

Rock Ridge is a 4-piece bluegrass band – guitar, bass, banjo, and mandolin, based in the Chico area. This is their debut album, from 2011, which is self-produced. It includes traditional and contemporary bluegrass, gospel, and some originals. The singing and playing are good; it is well produced. The female lead is especially good.?? Reviewed by Sally Goodin
Faves: 4 5 9 11

Gunn, Steve and Black Twig Pickers – “Seasonal Hire” – [Thrill Jockey Records]

abacus   3/15/2015   CD, Country

Steve Gunn leads the Black Twig Pickers through some old-time traditional tunes carrying forward into a modern colloquial. initially staying true to form with the opener jamming on a simple tune, letting the different players take turns in front. Sally Ann Morgan really carryies that country twang on fiddle and vocals whereas when Steve takes over singing on Trailways the mood shifts to that of some sort of Appalachian raga, Mike Gangloff on the jaw harp and tanpura giving it a more esoteric flavor. the side-long title track really lays in and spaces out into an expansive rustic drone, drifting like a heavy fog through the narrow hollows. true music to lay back and drink moonshine to while smoking cigarettes on empty mountain roads (don’t try this at home).

Three Thirds – “Buffalo Skinner: a Tribute to Woody Guthrie” – [Self Released]

Thurston Hunger   3/27/2014   CD, Country

Sweet harmonies, sour tales…four people make up Three Thirds, living
in the Woody Guthrie songbook and working in Southern California.
Cowboys and outlaws dot the landscape, along with the bleached bones
of a crooked drover. The chamber saloon approach works exceptionally
here, Alex Wand while at the forefront with guitar and his innocent
man’s vocals in a guilty world, truly needs his accomplices. Claire
Chenette may be the secret weapon with oboe and english horn, one
can sputter with blood, the other shine like an angel’s halo.
Similarly, Heather Lockie’s viola can careen like a getaway car
on “Pretty Boy Floyd” or skip blythely through the willows to
her jilted lover’s grave. Both ladies pitch in singing with campfire
purity. Jake Rosenzweig is forbidden from singing on this, but
gets some whooping in and his bass is a backbone that brooks no
shivers. Listen to him bow open “Ranger’s Command.” The title
track will given Cormac McCarthy night terrors, it’s a hauntingly
beautiful cautionary tale. Thoroughly enjoyable listen, and best
of all it artfully illuminates Woody Guthrie’s genius. High
praises at noon, or anytime. This band is your band.

-Thurston Hunger

78 Project – Volume 1, The [coll] – [78 Project, The]

Naysayer   3/11/2014   12-inch, Country

What makes a musical project really exceptional and surprising is a lack of smarminess, a lack, or at least a reduction of, ego, and a level of sincerity and care that is not overblown, but meets the right balance. This is a difficult place to arrive at but when it’s done—- wow!
So along comes “The 78 Project – Volume 1”, a collection of artists large and small who are covering traditional songs. Sounds good. But the real draw is that “with just one microphone, one authentic 1930???s Presto direct-to-acetate disk recorder, and one blank lacquer disc, musicians are given one take to cut a record anywhere they choose.”
Hmmm…. My initial reaction was split- half ready to embrace, half ready to toss. Is it all just a little too charming? Well I hunkered down to listen and, boy, was I surprised. I was smiling by the first 30 seconds and continued throughout the whole two sides. What we have here are artists, professionals who understand music, the making of it and the recording and production of it, but who have tossed aside the contemporary experience for a basic, old time recording. Being faced with the technological limitations of using this old style 78 recording system, the musicians must stretch themselves to let go to get to the heart of what they do. It is a superb project and process to listen to. The recordings are strong in their simplicity. Acoustic instrumentation makes for a warm sound. Vocals shimmer. It is all so rich. The Presto recorder makes the music and vocals sound distant, like playing with memory. The noises of street sounds, animals barking, background noises, as well as the scratches and skips in the recording make it like a time machine listening party and the Presto recorder is that machine. Bravo for this project. Just pick a song and listen and think and feel and enjoy.

Wanderer’s Swing: Texas Dance Hall Music [coll] – [Krazy Kat]

humana   12/4/2013   CD, Country

Reading the impressive liner notes for each of these songs is a must! The lowdown is that these 25 songs were recorded in the 40s and 50s primarily in Texas dancehalls, which were the sites of entertainment and music post-WWII and pre-TV and other distractions. Some dancehalls still feature this Western Swing, which is upbeat and downhome fun, mixed with polkas, rags, two-steps, and other types of folk music. The lyrics are entertaining, and you need only look to the titles for some inspiration.

Bellows, John – “Traveller’s Shoes” – [Permanent Records]

Naysayer   9/23/2013   7-inch, Country

Hailed by some as Chicago’s current most important underground star, John Bellows is a unique voice in a dynamic music scene. Reading that he comes from parents of Kentucky pig farmers made my ears prick up. An interesting journey it was from pig farm to current musical hailed position. He has a number of limited pressing releases which vary somewhat in style, from punkypoppythrashytrash to a grungy children’s album, to psychish garage, to folk country but all have several things in common: a low to no fi quality which I love, really good sometimes twisted lyrics, and a dynamic power and energy. On this two song 45, Bellows goes to the land of trashy thrash country. Less produced than the Geraldine Fibbers, it’s got that pained, stripped down feel with twangy guitars and slightly misguided drums. All good. “Traveller’s Shoes” is a slowish lament about a troubled man. A sad one it is. “Second Nature” is co-written and co-sung with Lee Relvas (of a number of other Chicago bands). Their sweet and sour harmonies, accompanied by the slide guitar that sounds like it’s gonna slide right off the neck of the guitar, sing of an off kilter relationship between one person and one alien visitor. This song was written for the no budget film “On A Clear Day You Can See For Shit.” (Watch it on Youtube!!!!) This is a wonderful piece of alt-country which deserves your attention. Put it on the turntable.

Le Percolateur – “Pop Manouche” – [Chicago Sessions]

humana   9/16/2013   CD, Country

I absolutely love this! The vocals remind me of Elana James, and the combination of guitar strumming, violin and bass picking, and horns (mucho awesome trumpet on 2) make for a truly enlivening, percolating experience (earning the band its name). It’s bouncy, upbeat country with jazz elements that are irresistible. Have fun listening to this one!

Kirchen, Bill – “Seeds and Stems” – [Proper Records]

Art Crimes   8/6/2013   CD, Country

This release finds Kirchen working primarily with his road trio and a few friends. Nearly all of these songs have appeared on various earlier releases by Kirchen, or with the Lost Planet Airmen back in the ’70s, but these stripped-down renditions are pretty representative of how they sound at Kirchen’s current shows — a sort of a “greatest hits live in the studio” approach, easy on the overdubbing. This results in a perfect show souvenir for the merch table and a confirmation of what this group does well: truck driving songs, country weepers, substance abuse anthems, and in the case of “Hot Rod Lincoln”, the history of guitar as Kirchen salutes a parade of heroic axe-slingers both living and dead. Anyone who has seen Kirchen’s live show over the last 15 years or so has heard this routine, but it’s evolved over time to include a few piano players as well, with Austin DeLone adding the requisite riffs. Some may quibble with the recycling of so much old material, but these performances are tight and well-recorded. ((( crimes )))

Hurley, Michael – “Back Home With Driting Woods” – [Mississippi Records]

mickeyslim   5/8/2013   12-inch, Country

Old timey folks songs from Michael Hurley, cohort of the Holy Modal Rounders. Originally recorded in 1965 as part of “First Sessions,” his freshman release. These are tracks released for the first time from the same session recorded by Fred Ramsey Jr. (same as the one who recorded Leadbelly’s last session, used the same reel to reel to record Hurley, too)

Feels like old time, early sixties folk music, solo acoustic, sweet and soft vocals at times. A little yodelling on Intersoular Blues. I guess The Tea Song, was one of his hits. Mississippi Records love….

Cogan, Ora – “Ribbon Vine” – [Hairy Spider Legs]

abacus   4/3/2013   CD, Country

A storm builds yonder, looming over hillsides on the horizon; a dark brooding yet delicate storm that seems to gently brush over in its ferocity. This is the sound of Ora Cogan’s haunting and ethereal brand of post-americana. Her somber, expansive style places her somewhere between Grouper and Gillian Welch though she grazes the same pastures as The Be Good Tanyas, even covering one of their songs (5). The back up band of bass, drums and bowed guitar provide a full backdrop for her songs to thrive without getting in the way, even helping build the songs into almost rock ballads. The Way??showcases especially her painfully beautiful vocal styling, singing so perfectly off-key that it tears at the gut and guts out tears while tracks like Summer Wine??allow her to show off her songwriting expertise without the band. She disappeared in the Canadian wilderness for two years after recording this, I kinda want to do that after just listening to it…

Civil War Naval Songs [coll] – [Smithsonian Folkways]

humana   1/14/2013   CD, Country

The subtitle of this release is “Period Ballads from the Union and Confederate Navies, and the Home Front,” and it is the baby of Dan Milner of Irish Pirate Ballads fame. The authentic flavor of this CD shines through in each of the songs, which feature vocals, concertina, piano, fife, drum, fiddle, dulcimer, banjo, and other instruments. The extensive liner notes detail Civil War naval history, as well as the story behind each song. 2 and 13 are my favorites.

Windy Hill – “Let’s Go to The Fair” – [New Wine Recording Studios]

humana   1/13/2013   CD, Country

Listening to this made me feel like I was in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. Downhome picking from a local band (Windy Hill refers to the “golden hill separating the SF Bay Area from the Pacific Ocean”). It’s chipper bluegrass featuring mandolin, banjo, guitar, and bass. Ask our resident bluegrass expert Sally Goodin what she thinks, but in the meantime play it and decide for yourself.

Saddle Cats, The – “Herdin’ Cats!” – [EastLight Records]

ArtCrimes   10/4/2011   CD, Country

Western swing revival acts can take many forms, from a stripped-down trio like Hot Club of Cowtown to bigger bands like Don Burnham’s Lost Weekend. ??The Saddle Cats run lean — a four piece plus a guest drummer for these sessions — but they wield a secret weapon — steel guitar master Bobby Black, a long time Nashville session player and former member of road warriors such as Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen and Asleep at the Wheel, just to name a couple. ??Black lends authenticity to the overall sound here, with an eye to the past rather than an update of the western swing template. ??Bakersfield-bred Richard Chon leads the group and takes the lead vocal here on a few tracks (with instrumentals making up the rest of the repertoire), and he demonstrates exceptional taste in choosing western swing classics and obscurities, as well as appropriate jazz and pop standards. ??Chon plays the fiddle throughout and shares solos with Bobby on nearly every song. ??Although Bob Wills is a huge influence here, the Saddle Cats are a little less wild and know how to take their time, excelling especially on ballads like “Stardust”, where Black provides a master class in steel dynamics. — crimato

You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me: Charlie Poole & The Roots of Countr [coll] – [Columbia/Legacy]

ArtCrimes   6/1/2011   CD, Country

Charlie Poole (1892-1931) was a hard living drunk with jug-handle ears with a wild performing style. ??He wrote no songs of his own, but absorbed influences ranging from then-current pop ditties, marches, spirituals, minstrel songs, vaudeville, novelty numbers, Civil War songs, fiddle tunes, and whatever else you got… mixing them all up into a repertoire he would take on the road with his three piece crew, the North Carolina Ramblers. ??In addition to his unhinged vocal style, the 5 string banjo style Poole used (despite his lack of virtuosity) helped set the stage for what eventually would become bluegrass, with finger picking and melodic inventions rather than the more rhythmic frailing style heard we know from old-time and rural sources. ??Poole’s recordings for Columbia in the late ’20s are still echoed today via contemporary artists who found Poole’s larger-than-life performances inspiring, with Loudon Wainwright III among them. ??This three-disc collection puts the Poole repertoire from those Columbia 78s in context with other artist’s recordings side by side with Poole’s versions of the same songs (although often retitled, rewritten, and rearranged by Poole). ??The result serves as a great overview of popular American music from around 1900 to 1930. A nice booklet with this set provides biographical detains on Poole and his influences. ??<crimes>

Frazer, Paula and Tarnation – “Now It’s Time” – [Birdman Recording Group]

lombard   5/31/2011   12-inch, Country

This March 2007 release, “Now It’s Time,” from Paula Frazer and Tarnation takes me back to the early 1990s in San Francisco, when Frazer was the toast of the town with her unique take on country-ish music (she started Tarnation in 1991). It always impressed me that with her genre-spanning musical history (from church choirs to jazz groups to the punk band Frightwig) she was able to turn goths and romantics on to a country-tinged project. This release from 2007 continues in that tradition. Frazer’s wavering vocals might remind you more of her former 4AD labelmates from back in the day (think Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses) than of a traditional country singer. It’s a subtle, gorgeous sound, accented with pedal steel, violin, viola, cello. slide guitar, auto harp, banjo, hammer dulcimer, pump organ, etc. She’s working on new material, so this LP from a few years back is a lovely taste of more to come.

Kirchen, Bill – “Word to The Wise” – [Proper American]

ArtCrimes   5/20/2010   CD, Country

Seems like every artist gets to a point in the career when they think, “Why don’t I invite all my friends to guest on my new album?” This is usually followed by the sound of a thousand phone calls from lawyers, resulting in historic mismatches such as R.L.Burnside with Kid Rock, Alison Moorer with Kid Rock, and probably an inevitable exhumation of Ray Charles’s corpse to appear with Kid Rock. Fear not, Bill Kirchen not only ignored Kid Rock’s poke on Facebook but instead did duets with people he actually knows, respects, and has played with before. It does make for some stylistic leaps here and there, but the default setting is classic country weepers and honky tonk with side trips to swing, blues, and whatever it is that Elvis Costello does. (“Man In The Bottom of The Well” is a nice throwback to Elvis’ “angry young man” sound, and Kirchen gets to do some biting guitar heroics). Some original tunes are made to order for the guests, and suit them fine, and the cover tunes are thankfully so obscure you won’t immediately think, “Oh, this was much better done by Merle.” Among Kirchen’s own numbers here, “Time Will Tell the Story” is a swampy country-soul number (and may be my favorite here), “I Don’t Work that Cheap” is a goofy, mid-60s-era Dylan pastiche, and “Valley of the Moon” apparently features Norton Buffalo’s last recording session. (( crimes ))

Bolotin, Jay – “Jay Bolotin” – [Locust Music]

ArtCrimes   4/6/2010   12-inch, Country

In the category of “lost albums,” the release of jay Bolotin’s 1968 recording more than fills the bill. He was briefly contracted to record this LP in New York City, but the 18 year old Kentucky native had some culture shock on the way (as discussed in the LP’s insert, written some 40 years after the LP finally was released in 1970). Coming a few years too late for the folk boom and just a couple of years too early for the singer-songwriter craze to come, Jay Bolotin’s LP will perhaps bring to mind better known artists like Leonard Cohen (although Bolotin has none of Cohen’s verbal grace, only a bit of his vocal tonality), the earliest of Jackson Browne’s albums, the tasteful ensemble work of Lovin’ Spoonful, and the non-comedic works of Arlo Guthrie. These aren’t folk songs as much as they are confessionals, windows into his troubled young mind, trying to grapple with what seemed to be “real life.” The arrangements are spare but intelligent, with lead guitar that never takes over but is certainly of structural importance in each song. Bolotin is still around, working as an artist and composer of film music, and was surprised as anybody to find there was interest in his earliest work. (( crimes ))

Stonemans, The – “All In The Family” – [Mgm Records]

Hawkeye Joe   3/24/2010   12-inch, Country

A compact LP of tunes that The Stonemans put out the year they won the CMA “Vocal Group of the Year” (1967). Group patriarch “Pop” Stoneman had Country music’s first million-seller in 1924 with “The Sinking of the Titanic”. Here, with five of his offspring, are 11 cuts, witha a mixture of blugrass, “traditional” (1960’s) Nashville sound & A few current songs of that time: “Early Mornin’ Rain” by Gordon Lightfoot & “Rita” by Doug Kershaw. Two singles were culled from this release: “West Canterbury Subdivision Blues” (reached #49 on Country charts) & a smokin’ version of “Cimarron”. A fun LP, predating the demise of “Pop” and Ronnie’s regular slot on Hee Haw by a few years.

Hurley, Michael & Nichols, Betsy – “Michael Hurley & Betsy Nichols” – [Mississippi Records]

ArtCrimes   3/9/2010   7-inch, Country

Four tracks of Hurley originals, some being older songs in new versions, with Betsy Nichols singing harmony. This was their very first time singing together; they had apparently never met prior to this session. The first track “Jocko’s Lament” is a very short a capella piece, and the rest feature Hurley on acoustic or electric guitar. “Don’t let Me Down” is NOT the Beatles’ song. No other instruments, it’s very casual. This is a much more “folkish” release than his recent “Ida Con Snock” release with a full band, but the songs, vocals, and guitar work are very much as per Hurley’s usual: distinctive and odd, funny but maybe not ha-ha funny… and sometimes strangely moving for unknown reasons.
PGM: track order on sleeve is WRONG, check vinyl label for correct info. This plays at 33-1/3. (( crimes ))

Hurley, Michael & Ida – “Ida Con Snock” – [Gnomonsong]

ArtCrimes   3/8/2010   CD, Country

Now in his fifth decade of recording, Michael Hurley (code name, Snock) has recorded for Folkways, Warners, Rounder, and any number of small labels (like Gnomonsong), in most cases without much label interference, yielding a truly idiosyncratic and sometimes shambolic catalog of distinctive original tunes and covers of folk, country, jazz and standards. Constantly working with different sets of musicians, this release finds him supported by Ida, a group with varied instrumentation but roughly hoeing the same ditch Neil Young and others dug in the early 70s, with pedal steel, some fiddle, light drumming and bits of pretty background vocals. The covers this time out include “Rag Mopp,” the silly hit by the Ames Brothers that’s a perfect fit for Hurley, and a medley of Scottish/Irish folksongs, “Loch Lomond / Molly Malone”. Meanwhile, “It Must Be Gelatine” and “Hoot Owls” are typical of the more oddball fare he’s served up all these years. “Wildegeeses” and “Valley of Tears” are slower, prettier tunes. (( crimes ))

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