Welcome to A&A. There are 12 full reviews in this issue. Click on an artist to jump to the review, or simply scroll through the list. If you want information on any particular release, check out the Label info page. All reviews are written by Jon Worley unless otherwise noted.|
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A&A #308 reviews
I'll Be Home
A word of warning at the start of all these reviews: There's a lot of alt country, americana or whatever you want to call such sounds. That kinda stuff filled my mailbox this month, and a lot of it was pretty damned good. Christopher Bell trafficks in the lean and mean version of this sound, and he is, indeed, pretty damned good.
Heavy echoes of Uncle Tupelo's second album--the one that was a bit more refined but dark as all get out--combined with a some really fine arrangements. Bell plays most of the instruments and does most of the singing, but he makes sure each song is properly dressed.
And these are some gorgeous songs. Think Gerald Collier in terms of lyrical content; maybe not quite so caustically witty, but just as bitter. The sparse sound simply brings out that much more emotion.
Not a fun listen by any stretch of the imagination, but utterly compelling. Bell's songwriting is confident and assured, and he knows how to make his songs sing. Like I said up top, pretty damned good.
There are eight Cubists mentioned in the liners, but the principals appear to be Noel Brown and Marcus Barfield, who wrote all the songs and seem to have played most of the music as well.
That uncertain note is a feeling that never left me as I listened to this album. The songs veer from sound to sound, always retaining a passing resemblance to ethereal pop/rock. The press sticker references Swervedriver and the Flaming Lips, which seems vaguely appropriate to me. But the Cubists have a math-y, proggy sensibility that takes these songs in a slightly different direction. Kinda like ALL playing the Flaming Lips, maybe.
Except that a fair number of these songs are languorous or simply vaporous. The Cubists shift gears so often I think they've burned out the clutch. Nonetheless, no matter how far afield the band ranges, these songs still retain a certain "Cubists" feel.
That sense of self is one of those things that cannot be taught. A band either feels it or it doesn't. The Cubists (whoever they might be, in total) is feeling it. Which makes this sprawling album all the more impressive. This one will impress more and more as time goes on.
(Dying Van Gogh)
Power pop ought to be loud, crunchy and impossibly catchy. Ex Norwegian is loud, generally crunchy and catchier than it seems on first listen. These songs take a moment to work into the brain. I guess that sets the hook even faster.
In many ways, this reminds me a lot of the Meadows, a band that's more on the rootsy AOR side of things. Both bands have a laid back feel that seems counterintuitive. And both bands are impossible to put away. The music is far too insistent to sit on the shelf.
There's nothing particularly distinctive about the sound. That's part of the deception, I guess, as it might make some folks dismiss the band. But just as you might be ready to ask, "What's so special about this?," your brain won't allow you to switch out the disc. Turns out there's lots of special going on.
I dunno. Sometimes the good stuff has a mundane window dressing. Ex Norwegian makes some fine music. And that's the bottom line for me.
Dodd Ferrelle sounds a bit like Steve Earle, but his music is much more eclectically raucous and tuned to a pop sense. Which is pretty good, too.
Basically, we're talking about well-crafted songs bashed out with a bit of twang. Ferrelle rarely treads in unfamiliar territory, but his ear is so sure that these songs sound fresh nonetheless.
There's simply too much energy to allow this album to drag. There are a few moments of stunning beauty and the occasional twinge of regret, but by and large these songs are all about movement.
A fairly uncomplicated affair, but that's not a complaint. Ferrelle presents his music with style and passion, and that makes this album a real treat.
There's this huge section in the musical universe that's full of women who sing with a low alto and prefer to adorn their songs with as little accompaniment as possible. Patti Smith is the high priestess of this cult, even though she was smart enough to move on more than 30 years ago.
Every once in a while, though, someone else comes along and catches my ear. Edith Frost comes to mind, as does Alice Despard. Meredith Fierke isn't quite up to those singers, but she's awfully close. Her pieces draw the listener in and proceed to shatter one bone after another.
With the lyrics, that is. In general, I'm not much for lyrics, but this kind of music rises and falls with the expression of the singer. Fierke's eye is unsparing, and she ratchets up the intensity as the album progresses. Even an extraordinarily pretty piece like "Train's Song" crackles with emotional fire.
I dunno. Maybe Fierke does match Despard and Frost. This album is a wrenching experience, and by the end it can be hard to imagine living through these songs again. And then your hand hits play once more...
Them Dirty Roads
There are a lot of folks out there playing music that goes by the extraordinarily vague label of "americana." This catch-all refers to music that incorporates country, blues, folk, bluegrass, rock and even a little jazz. Most people who play this are singer-songwriter types who find this style quite amenable to hanging out with a guitar and slinging a few songs.
Adam Hill, however, seems to take this moniker most seriously. He trends closer to a classic folk line, but he's not afraid to throw in a little bluegrass or dixieland or, well, whatever into his songs. He seems to have the ability to figure out exactly what sort of feel a particular song feels--and then he's able to play that way.
So there are a few songs with just him and his guitar. Some of these are ravers and some a bit more somber. A fair number of these songs rattle, rock and swing. I imagine that Hill is an exceptional performer. His adaptability is most impressive.
An album that is a joy from beginning to end. Hill is a most impressive songwriter, but his performance skills are what sends this album soaring. Perfect for evenings spent savoring bourbon on the back porch.
Jeffrey James & the Haul
Ride the Wind Carnival EP
Six songs that roll through rock and roots and the whole shooting match. On the whole, like Dodd Ferrelle (reviewed above), Jeffrey James stays within the pop universe. Even if there's a bit of a southern breeze blowing through.
Pleasingly dark at times and generally complex, these songs wend their way through a world that is colored in shades of gray. The sun does shine, but not all the time, even if James's voice is always a ringing joy.
This sounds a lot to me like an indie rock version of the southern AOR that was modestly popular in the 80s--think bands as disparate as .38 Special and the Georgia Satellites. James and the Haul take anthemic riffs and turn them inside out in a most appealing way. This is really quite cool.
Absolutely gorgeous experimental pop fare. Experimental in that Judd doesn't stick to the basic pop song structure, but don't fear. The hooks are absolutely amazing.
Really. Judd has an almost inhuman knack for spinning catchy threads and then weaving them together into an irresistible tapestry of shimmery pop. Every song progresses along slightly different lines, but they all end up in the land of bliss.
Judd is equally at home in the electronic and analog worlds. Often enough, he includes copious servings of both within a single song. So you get snatches of laptop and emo blending together into something greater.
A transcendent album. I don't like to use that term often, because very few come close. But Judd blows away just about everything I've heard this year. Impossibly wonderful.