justintownesearleSuperb sophomore album from Nashville based singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle: Midnight At The Movies has a definite traditionalist sound about it, but it’s by no means a nostalgic trip. The twelve tracks hark back to pre-1960’s country and folk in particular, though his background as a member of a bluegrass/ragtime band shows through on a couple of songs, too (particularly on tracks like “Black Eyed Suzy” and “Walk Out”). Townes has a nice way of marrying the traditionalist elements of his music with a very contemporary lyrical sensibility so that the songs on Midnight At The Movies have a compelling and utterly pleasing immediacy and vitality. His excellent cover of the Replacements song, “Can’t Hardly Wait,” is a great example of melding the traditionalist with the contemporary. And though he’s just in his mid-twenties, most listeners are likely to think they’re listening to an old hand. If you’re a country or American roots music fan, or just a fan of plain good music, then you should definitely check out Justin Townes Earle. Standout cuts: “Midnight At The Movies,” “Mama’s Eyes,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Halfway To Jackson.”

http://www.justintownesearle.com/

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whispertown2000The second album from Los Angeles based band the Whispertown 2000 is also the first release for Gillian Welch’s new label Acony Records, and it’s a eccentric, ingratiating and often surprising hybrid of country, rock and psychedelic folk, with a now familiar mix of sunny musical surfaces and dark lyrical undercurrents. The first half of the album is dominated by easygoing folky pop, with a lot of acoustic guitars and the kind of vocal harmonizing that characterizes the record as a whole. The album takes a left turn into psychedelic territory midway with “Erase The Lines” and pretty much stays there, at least until the country rock ballad closer, “Mountain.” Morgan Nagler’s frequently eccentric lead vocals may be a matter of taste for some listeners, but fans of adventurous indie pop will want to check Swim out. Standout cuts: “Done With Love,” “Pushing The Oars,” “Erase The Lines” and “Lock And Key.”

http://www.myspace.com/whispertown2000

Despite beginning with the current single, “Real Love,”Little Honey, the latest album from Lucinda Williams, didn’t do much for me until track four, “Little Rock Star,” a barbed commentary on problematic rock stars. It’s followed in short order by one of the best rockers she’s written, “Honey Bee,” and from that point on, it felt like a real Williams record, romantic but tough minded, though considerably more optimistic and upbeat in tone this time out. It’s more of a rock and blues record than it is an alt-country and folk record, and she mixes in a bit of soul for good measure. The gospel tinged AC/DC cover that concludes the album, “It’s A Long Way To The Top,” is a good summation of what she’s up on Little Honey, and even if it’s not necessarily one of the best tracks, it’s clear she’s having a good time, as she does on the profanely funny duet she does with Elvis Costello, “Jailhouse Tears.” It’s definitely got its highs and lows, but this is a pretty solid album from Williams, maybe not her best album ever, but a lot of fun in general. Standout cuts: “Little Rock Star,” “Honey Bee,” “Well Well Well” and “Jailhouse Tears.”

http://www.myspace.com/lucindawilliams

Calexico – Carried To Dust

September 13, 2008

The latest album from Tucson based band Calexico, led by Joey Burns and John Convertino, has its foundations in traditional country, and builds on that with folk and Tex/Mex influences, then layers ambient textures over it all to create something unique in contemporary American music. Many of the 15 tracks here seem very cinematic as well, as if ready made for their widescreen interpretations. Though much of the album has a moody, atmospheric and sometimes mysterious aura about it, it’s not without its moments of levity and humor, as on tracks like “Writer’s Minor Holiday.” It also features guest appearances from Sam Beam (Iron and Wine), a past collaborator of theirs, and Pietra Brown. All in all, a uniformly excellent effort from Calexico. Standout cuts: “Two Silver Trees,” “The News About William,” “Man Made Lake” and “Slowness.”

http://www.myspace.com/casadecalexico

Twin Cities based singer-songwriter Haley Bonar takes a huge leap forward artistically with her latest album, Big Star. She retains the alt-country, folk and Americana aspects of her relaxed, easygoing sound, while adding a bit of a pop sheen to some tracks, resulting in her best, most infectious and catchy work yet. She’s always been a likable artist, but on this, her third album, Bonar really comes into her own, her songwriting having matured so that she puts her own unique stamp on a genre of music already brimming with other talent. At 31 minutes, its 11 tracks zip by all too fast, but Big Star is good stuff, and should rightfully earn her scores of new fans. Standout cuts: “Green Eyed Boy,” “Big Star,” “Something Great” and “Highway 16.”

P.S. I have no idea what to make of her expression on the cover of the album. Maybe it’s the furry hat?

http://www.myspace.com/haleybonar

Stellar debut LP from Los Angeles based the Watson Twins (namely Chandra and Leigh), who were last heard backing Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) on her solo record. Fire Songs finds the Twins fusing everything from Neil Young, 70’s era Linda Ronstadt, Dusty Springfield, REM and the Cowboy Junkies into a smooth, sublime mixture of alt-country, pop and rock that they make all their own. Like a lot of music that hits you just right, the music found on Fire Songs sounds strangely familiar, as if you’ve been listening to the Watson Twins all your life. I think when a lot of listeners get through the 11 tracks featured here, they’ll be wanting to listen to the Twins’ music evermore. Highly recommended. Standout cuts: “How I Am To Be,” “Just Like Heaven,” “Sky Open Up” and “Bar Woman Blues.”

http://www.myspace.com/thewatsontwins

Evil Urges, the latest album from Louisville, Kentucky based band My Morning Jacket, is the kind of album that some longtime fans of the band will love, while others will just hate. Nevertheless, this is the first album I’ve heard by them that I thought bordered on great. They’ve layered on some funk (by way of George Clinton and Prince in particular), soul and some Yes-style prog rock influences to their mix of country, folk and Southern rock. Listeners may not even recognize the first three tracks as even being My Morning Jacket, with their soul falsetto wailing and generally funky trappings, not until “I’m Amazed” kicks in, anyway, which treads on more familiar ground for them and also happens to be one of the best tracks. They eventually get around to kicking out the jams on tracks like “Aluminum Park” (another highlight) and “Remnants,” and wind things up with the eight minute plus “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt.2,” which almost, but doesn’t quite, morph into a disco/funk ballad. My Morning Jacket takes a lot of risks on Evil Urges, and while not all necessarily pay off, enough do to make it one of their most interesting and rewarding albums yet. Standout cuts: “Evil Urges,” “Highly Suspicious,” “I’m Amazed” and “Aluminum Park.”

http://www.myspace.com/mymorningjacket

The first new album in four years from Dallas based band the Old 97’s is a pleasant, relaxed affair, a mixed bag of pop rock along the lines of Big Star and later Replacements, and alt-country and Americana flavored tunes. The latter material works best, as on the opening track, “The Fool,” and later tracks, “Early Morning,” “The Easy Way,” “Here’s To The Halcyon” and “Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue,” but the power pop of “Dance With Me” is a highlight, too. The most memorable songs are weighted towards the second half of Blame It On Gravity, where the band seems to settle into a comfortable groove. It’s a solid effort from a band now celebrating fifteen years of making music, and still finding ways to have fun doing it.

http://www.myspace.com/theold97s

seracahoone“I’m safe for now, but I know the rest is on its way…”

The music on Sera Cahoone’s second album, Only As The Day Is Long, is solidly in a country vein, complete with acoustic and steel guitars, fiddles and banjos. This set of ten songs has been aptly described by her record label Sub Pop as “country noir,” as the lyrics are often marked by unease or tension, but listening to the record is hardly the heavy going “country noir” may imply in the minds of some potential listeners, as the focus here is on solid, stylish songwriting and musicianship, highlighted by Cahoone’s lovely and evocative voice. Definitely recommended for mainstream country and alt-country fans alike. Standout cuts: “Baker Lake,” “Only As The Day Is Long,” “Shitty Hotel” and “You’re Not Broken.”

http://www.myspace.com/seracahoone

chathamcountylineivThe fourth release from North Carolina band Chatham County Line is a simply beautiful album from first note to last: They are bluegrass quartet who list among their influences the Band, Bill Monroe and Wilco, but their songs, specifically the lyrics, often reminded me of Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. IV is marked by gorgeous vocals and often thrillingly good musicianship, so good I thought these guys were already stars in their field that had until now flown under my radar. (There are a couple of nifty instrumentals that highlight their playing, “Clear Blue Sky” and “Paige.”) I don’t think Chatham County Line’s future lies in becoming the next great bluegrass or alt-country band, as some might say they are already that, but rather I think they have a shot at becoming one of the next great American bands, period. Standout cuts: “Chip Of A Star,” “Let It Rock,” “Birmingham Jail” and “I Got Worry.”

http://www.myspace.com/chathamcountyline