hopesandovalHope Sandoval, best known as the lead singer for the 90’s band Mazzy Star, returns with her second solo record, eight years after her first one. To say that it’s reminiscent of both that first album, Bavarian Fruit Bread, and her work with Mazzy Star is something of an understatement, but then this is a very good thing. Sandoval’s richly evocative, heavily atmospheric blend of folk, country, blues and rock is as striking, beautiful and mysterious sounding as it has ever sounded, so fans who have been patiently, or not so patiently, waiting for new material from Sandoval will be amply rewarded. (She also has gone on record as saying another Mazzy Star album is forthcoming, though she gave no indication of a possible release date.) Her voice, which is perhaps one of the most distinctive in modern rock, is alone worth the price of admission, though musically and lyrically, Through The Devil Softly finds her and her band to be in top form, even more so than on her first solo record. Hopefully it won’t take Sandoval the better part of another decade to record a third one. Standout cuts: “Blanchard,” “For The Rest Of Your Life,” “Trouble” and “Satellite.”


Monsters Of Folk

September 20, 2009

monstersoffolk Not every track on Monsters Of Folk, the self-titled album from the indie folk supergroup composed of Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis (both of Bright Eyes), M. Ward and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) is a winner, but standout material ranks among the best work these artists have yet done. While the majority of the album sticks to Americana, country, rock, pop and, of course, folk, it takes a surprising turn even now and then, too, as with the stellar opening track, “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.),” which has an old school soul vibe running through it, or “Losin Yo Head,” which melds power pop with a bit of psychedelic rock. The very best songs, “Temazcal” and “His Master’s Voice,” are startlingly good, lyrically provocative and strong, musically arresting and powerful, and are alone worth the price of admission here. Initial interest in Monsters Of Folk will probably be strongest among fans of its individual members, but the quality of its music deserves a broader audience as well. Standout cuts: “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.),” “Temazcal,” “Magic Marker” and “His Master’s Voice.”


mastersoftheburialMeant to evoke nocturnal wanderings of the mind as one prepares to go to sleep, Amy Millan’s second solo album, Masters Of The Burial, is appropriately moody, melancholy and occasionally oddly hopeful. Loss, getting lost and letting go are all themes visited and revisited in the 11 tracks included here, which are a mix of original songs and covers. Musically, county is obviously a primary influence on Masters Of The Burial, but Millan also weaves in folk and pop as well, and makes the most of string and horn sections that appear, sometimes in very subtle ways, on some of the songs. Front and center, however, is her gorgeous, evocative voice, one of my favorites in contemporary indie pop. This is a beautiful, elegantly crafted album, and definitely recommended. Standout cuts: “Bruised Ghosts,” “Old Perfume,” “Bury This” and “Run For Me.”


drugrugFor the first four tracks, Cambridge based band Drug Rug sound strikingly as if Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac had gone back in time and formed a psychedelic folk band with echoes of the Mamas and the Papas; later, they sound like Melanie trying her hand at the psychedelic folk thing. I don’t mean that in any way as a criticism because Drug Rug’s second album, Paint The Fence Invisible, is one of the most pleasing collection of songs I’ve heard all year. There’s such a bittersweet, earnest vibe to the whole enterprise that I bought into it pretty much immediately. I love the harmonies, the inventive arrangements that begin with an acoustic guitar foundation and are layered upon with various psychedelic and pop touches, and I love the savvy blend of folk, blues, rock and pop. It’s a groovy psychedelic pop pleasure from start to finish, and I highly recommend it. Standout cuts: “Haunting You,” “Never Tell,” “Hannah Please” and “Don’t Be Frightened Of The Devil.”


Those Darlins

July 19, 2009

thosedarlinsWickedly entertaining self-titled debut from Tennessee based band Those Darlins (Jessi Darlin, Nikki Darlin, and Kelley Darlin), featuring twelve odes mostly to wild and dubious behavior of various sorts, frequently alcohol or lust fueled, or both, though there is a tribute to Mama thrown in as well. The songs, often done in three part harmonies, are raucous, a little dirty minded, but also immediately infectious and just plain fun. They seem a bit like the West Coast’s the Hot Toddies, except working in a country vein. And like that band, they’re impressively talented musicians with a real flair for a pop hook. Call it country, cowpunk or rockabilly, but if you’re a fan of one or all of the above, you should give Those Darlins a listen. Standout cuts: “Red Light Love,” “Wild One,” “Cannonball Blues” and “Snaggle Tooth Mama.”


sonvoltLike that other band that emerged from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt’s latest release, American Central Dust, is mostly relaxed and laid back, so much so in this case that listeners may think they’re hearing a much more mild work than they actually are. Upon repeat listenings, however, the album starts to reveal its layers. It’s perhaps the best sounding Son Volt album I’ve heard, marked by superb musicianship, Jay Farrar’s marvelous country inflected vocals, all bound up in intelligent, sometimes surprising production. The band is very much in country rock mode here, sometimes delving into full on country, as on tracks like “Cocaine And Ashes” and “Dust Of Daylight.” There’s even a shot at writing a commemorative folk song, “Sultana,” about a Mississippi steamboat disaster that cost up to 1800 lives that was all but lost in history, having occurred close to Lincoln’s assassination. It’s one of the weaker tracks, but it’s an earnest attempt just the same. American Central Dust may not hit you with full force at first, but stay with it: It will. Standout cuts: “Dynamite,” “Down To The Wire,” “No Turning Back” and “Jukebox Of Steel.”


Rhett Miller

July 3, 2009

rhettmillerThe fourth solo album from Old 97’s member Rhett Miller has a strong California country rock feel, augmented at times with orchestral and 60’s pop influences, with some New Wave and psychedelic elements tossed into the mix as well. The twelve tracks collected here are by turns surprising, fun and often absurdly catchy. There’s also a sardonic wit at work on tracks like “Like Love,” “Happy Birthday, Don’t Die” and “Another Girlfriend,” as well as a sweet romanticism minus overt sentimentality. In other words, it’s top notch pop for adults. The whole album is pretty consistently good, but check out “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore,” “Like Love,” “I Need To Know Where I Stand” and “If It’s Not Love.”


peteyornbackandfourthBack & Fourth, New Jersey based singer/songwriter Pete Yorn’s first album in three years, was written and recorded entirely in Omaha, Nebraska, along with producer Mike Mogis, who has previously worked with Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley. The result is his trademark mix of country and rock with a distinctly 70’s flavor, a direction hinted at by the retro album cover. It’s the kind of relaxed, laid back album that grows on you, though the strongest material stands out immediately, tracks like the single, “Don’t Wanna Cry,” which is familiar territory for Yorn, but more so tracks like “Paradise Cove,” “Shotgun,” “Last Summer” and “Thinking Of You.” I haven’t really decided where exactly it fits in his body of work, but it’s a solid return for him at any rate. Yorn fans in particular should be very pleased.


thelowanthemTo say that Providence based band the Low Anthem’s major label debut falls into the Americana genre would be accurate without being very descriptive. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is an impressive mix of folk, country, blues and gospel, with a couple of raucous Bob Dylan and Tom Waits inspired tracks thrown in for good measure (“The Horizon Is A Beltway” and “Home I’ll Never Be”). They’re on firmest ground with their more country and folk inspired material (the rocker “Champion Angel” aside), notably the gorgeous opener “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” and the mid-album “Don’t Tremble,” though “To Ohio” is an early highlight as well. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s certainly one full of promise, and definitely recommended for fans of country, folk and Americana.


secretprofanesugarcaneRecorded with T-Bone Burnett over a three day period in Nashville, Elvis Costello’s latest release, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, is probably the very definition of a mixed bag, but as such, it holds up pretty well just the same. This is Costello in country/Americana mode, and since it’s a collaboration with Burnett, it’s been compared to King Of America, though this album is not nearly so carefully crafted nor is it as serious minded as that 1986 release. What is it is very entertaining, and I expect that was the primary intention here. The album includes four songs written for an unfinished commission about Hans Christen Andersen, duets with Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris and a couple of songs written with Burnett. Burnett the producer has assembled a crack team of musicians to back Costello, so musically it’s always a pleasure to listen to. It’s not on the level of his finest records, but Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is still great fun in its best moments, and certainly recommended for Costello fans and fans of Americana and country music in general. Standout cuts: “My All Time Doll,” “Hidden Shame,” “I Dreamed Of My Old Lover” and “The Crooked Line.”