Review & Video: The Mastersons: Birds Fly South (New West)
Review: Moors and McCumber: Gravity (Self-released)
Review & Video: The Doc Marshalls: Look Out, Compadre (Twinpost Music)
Review & Video: Claudia Schmidt: Bend in the River – Collected Songs (Red House)
Review: Josephone Foster & the Victor Herrero Band: Perlas (Fire)
Review & Video: Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires: There is a Bomb in Gilead (Alive)
Recent & Upcoming Release Highlights
Video: The Band – “Ophelia”
(This installment is dedicated to Levon Helm: May 26, 1940 – April 19, 2012)
I’m sitting here shaking my head over The Mastersons; kind of amazed at how “in sync” they are. There’s something special about the interplay between husband and wife Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson; along with the places their songs go, and the just-right guitar licks, and vocal nuances. Some of this is explained by the couple’s having toured as part of Steve Earle’s backing band, and having played in each others’ combos. There’s nothing like sharing stages, night after night, to hone chops and communication.
I’m not talking about a “cute couple” kind of thing – in fact, I’m relieved to read that Masterson’s shared, “Sometimes the ‘couple’ thing can seem a bit schmaltzy. We’re more a band than a duo, and we’re not going to be George and Tammy. We might not even be John and Exene.”
One of the first things I picked up about the Mastersons was their easy integration of circa-‘90s and classic rock and pop with more traditional country and folk. I never thought I’d be using Buckingham-Nicks as an example (being an earlier-Fleetwood Mac fanatic), but the couple occasionally hits a similarly raggedly harmonious spot. Here they’re spouting one of my Birds Fly South faves, “Money.” It’s one of the best pop songs I’ve heard this year.
A riff that reminds me of Rubber Soul-era Beatles, with Whitmore yodeling on the toe-tapping chorus? I’m still having a hard time getting this one out of my player so I can move on to other releases. What more can I say? Well, one more heads-up: A video for “One More Word” that has someone pushing peas around their plate, Whitmore sitting there looking like Poison Ivy Rorschach’s deadpan cousin, a kid in a cowboy hat, and the beginning of a cat fight? Gotta at least mention it in It’s a Hoot.
The headline on Moors and McCumber’s website reads, “Influenced by the songwriting of Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and Neil Young…” and, “Although successful solo songwriters, (James) Moors and (Kort) McCumber discovered that their music together is more than the sum of the parts”.
Especially after the Masterson’s high energy, Moors and McCumber provide a palate refresher of folk-footed storytelling. With just two instruments (which could be a guitar, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, dobro or bouzouki, depending) on each song, and shared tenor vocals, we’re back to what I think of as a Caffe Lena-style presentation. Gravity is a good one to get if you’re missing the warm vibe of sitting in a coffeehouse for singer/songwriter night. It bubbles over with choice string sounds and textures. So far, I’m partial to the title track, “Quick as I Can,” and “3,000 Miles, ” which adopts the voice of a homeless guy with nothing to do but ride a Greyhound bus. And if you’re jonesing for a song with a soft, Simon and Garfunkel feel, you may want to give “Marjorie” a listen.
Roll up your shades, ladies and gents: It’s not a gang of outlaws but the Doc Marshalls who’re riding in with their third effort, Look Out, Compadre. Although there’s some word on the (dusty, tumbleweed-pocked) street about leader Nick Beaudoing’s sojourn in New York translating to less of the Marshalls’ traditionally Cajun-spiced C&W (and to more “Indie Folk,” “Folk-Rock,” or something like that), two-steppers, gumbo-slurpers, and fans of verse/chorus songwriting have nothing to fear. Fervent love for old-timey sounds and song structures is all over Look Out, Compadre. I wouldn’t expect anything less from the lively founder and former host of a songwriter night he dubbed No Hank, No Cash, No Merle. ‘Course, as readers of any music commentary by me may have noticed, I don’t care what it’s called if the band can cut the mustard in the songwriting and delivery departments.
Well, this group of law-keepers can arrest me any time. The Marshalls stir a kettle of swirling, lap pedal steel over burbling acoustic guitars, click-clackity beats, and perfectly-appointed fiddle commentary. Beaudoing’s several-steps-above average songs meet the band’s vital, seasoned wryness. And, yes, a few, including “Here They Come” “Kernow,” “Been Busy,” and “When I Wake” have a serious kick. The kickin-est of those position the Marhsall’s mud-streaked boots right up next to those of Crazy Horse.
Still, there’s a joy about the Marshalls – and me — when they center themselves in more traditional and old-timey sounds. “Why I’m Leaving” is a convincing mid-tempo story. “Pennsylvania” artfully balances wistfulness with propulsion of a tune that’s not likely to depart my consciousness any time soon. And you can practically hear Beaudoing thinking, “If there’s going to be a train song, it’s going to be a damned good one; a fiddler’s dream” when he put “Light Rail” together. At the top of the heap are a couple of Western swingers. “You Must Have Loved Me” could masquerade for the kind of rueful, up-tempo nugget penned by Bob Wills or Johnny Bond in the 1930s. And “Abilene” is a tenderly bittersweet two-stepper’s dream on any terms. The only recent songwriting I can compare with it would be a few by The Hot Club of Cowtown.
If you don’t believe me, some guy or gal at the 9513.com country music blog wrote this about the combo a few years ago: “It’s a damn shame that a band this good is self-releasing their albums. The Brooklyn-based Marshalls are Americana’s greatest unknown band, mixing accordion-heavy Cajun music with Parsons-esque alt-country to create a sound both unique and infectious.”
Although the official release date is May 29, you can grab a copy of Look Out, Compadre now at iTunes or CD Baby.
When I first heard about Claudia Schmidt, I thought, “With a name like that, she’s got to be good.” A composer, vocalist, guitarist, and mountain dulcimer player, Schmidt could probably make a traditional folk recording in her sleep. But Bend in the River, which compiles highlights from Schmidt’s Red House catalog, belies the impossibility of putting this genre-blurring artist into any box. A consummate musician, Schmidt is also very much a child of the ‘40s through ‘60s (she was born in ’53). When artists from that era were initially active and/or coming of age, the boundaries of the folk, rock, and blues genres were being pushed together, and into new definitions and territories. A handful of exemplars includes Savoy Brown circa Chris Youlden, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, John Martyn, Ellen McIlwaine, Nick Drake, Phoebe Snow, and Joan Armatrading. Schmidt has the wondrous, life-is-full-of-possibilities ethos that exemplified these artists – in 2012, a noteworthy attribute.
The title track is a burst of syncopated African beats, Schmidt’s jazzy vocal phrasing, and call-and-response (with Farley and The Original Soul Stirrers; the group with whom Sam Cooke performed gospel). Schmidt displays more of her jazz nuancing, with a dash of vaudeville, on “You Can Call Me Baby.” The singer’s deeply reflective approach to ballads is represented by “Persephone” and “It All Depends.” She weaves an introspective tapestry with the album’s only cover, the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger.” Also noteworthy are the rich harmonies on the dulcimer-based “Going By” and the percussive ruminations of “Rising,” which has a buoyancy similar to that of Joni Mitchell. “Black Crow” could be a response to any number of Nina Simone’s compositions. I’m especially drawn to the evocative moods Schmidt produces with the jazz and blues shadings of “Pretty at the End” and “Racer.”
She’s s a grassroots star in the midwest, and a favorite of vintage Prairie Home Companion broadcasts. She’s known for thriving in the casual ambience of street fairs and house concerts. Nevertheless, Schmidt has somehow managed to elude high quality video recordings of the jazzy-bluesy tracks I love best. But I managed to track down footage of her singing the heck out of Pete Seeger’s “Old Devil Time.” It presages the soul she’d later bring to more intricate arrangements and compositions. As you watch, just imagine this woman, 30 years on, with all the skill and experience she’s accumulated in the intervening years. That’s what Schmidt brings, now, to Bend in the River.
I suppose anyone who dislikes vibrato-rippled, soprano vocals might want to stop reading at this point. But that would make it difficult for me to read what I’m writing — if I didn’t sometimes make exceptions for folk of the exceptional stripe presented by Josephine Foster and the Victor Herrero Band. Perlas was caught on analog tape in Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain (if the city sounds familiar, you were probably paying attention during history class: It was the launch point for Columbus’s second junket to the Americas, and is famous for its sherry). You might say that I had a bit of a cheat sheet, re: Puerto de Santa Maria, having lived nearby for two years, many moons ago.
Foster’s path has included dreaming of singing opera, working as a voice teacher, making an album of childrens’ songs, recording another accompanied solely by her ukelele playing, generating more buzz with a psych-rock album, All the Leaves are Gone, and releasing a record of vintage folk and blues, followed by one in which she interpreted 19th century German art songs. She makes me yearn for a term other than “ballsy” – even though it fits, it sort of doesn’t fit the tall, reedy soprano. More recently, Foster’s been collaborating with the Victor Herrero Band; hence Perlas, and the ensemble’s first recording, Anda Jaleo.
Perlas flickers with gaslight ambience. Sure, I could joke that, at least for a minute (and/or during a few tunes that seem to inspire a bit of goofing amongst the players), it makes me think of one of those scenes wherein the Marx Brothers start jumping onto tables and pretending to be toreadors with some lady’s oversized napkin. But it’s such a lovely bouquet of (and to) traditional Spanish folk music, I have to add that after larking about, the Marx Brothers would settle down, at which point Harpo would accompany Josephine Foster with such beautiful harp notes, everyone would be wiping their eyes with little hankies. The Victor Herrero Band is a tight little crackerjack of a string-and-percussion ensemble; concisely providing yang and emphasis for Foster’s airy tendrils.
Foster + Herrero is an exemplary, almost heroic project. Some of what results is sublime; a living ghost of old-time romanticism that could pass for a relic unearthed from a neglected Andalucian music store (that somehow eluded Fascist interference with Spanish popular culture). Particularly shimmering are “Cuando Vienes del Monte,” “Cuatro Pinos,” “Dame esa Flor,” and “En Esta Larga Ausencia.”
Ms. Foster & the VHB too pretty-pretty, airy-fairy for you? Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires are here to put tigers in your tanks. Well, they’re not here, exactly. But their debut, There is a Bomb in Gilead, will be out, officially, on May 15. I think it’s only fair to give warning. ‘Cause once I heard it, I felt considerably more hopeful about the state of the world, the union, and my own motivation for staying slim enough to look good in a pair of jeans with rolled-up legs. I mean, you can sit around wishing a band would emerge sounding like a fusion of the Stones circa Exile on Main Street and the Band at its down ‘n’ dirtiest – with a touch of the Allman Brothers, and a few shakes of CCR’s “anything could happen tonight” wildness. And nothing happens. But, within the last few years, something’s wafted up from Birmingham, Alabama. It’s shot through with juicy, smoky, backyard barbecue rock/blues/swamp punch. I know – that’s a lot of cliches, but I think I put them together fairly well. Here’s the band digging into “Opelika” – I’m pretty sure that Levon Helm would have loved it.
I can’t help liking a band that prints the words “I used to could sing a pristine Hallelujah” inside its CD cover. Maybe that’s about spending my first 12 years in South Carolina and Virginia. In any instance, I want these boys to drive carefully – we need ‘em around for a good, long while. And if I’ve snuck some rock into this blogumn again, I’m not going to apologize – there’s enough blues, dust, and biscuit gravy in Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires’ bucket to assure me that they belong at the It’s a Hoot party as well as they do anywhere.
Your comments (below) make my world go ‘round. Before we get to recent & upcoming release highlights, here’s one of my favorite performances featuring Levon Helm – and one of the best lines I’ve ever heard in a rock song – “Why do the best things always disappear?”
Some Other Items of Note (recently released or forthcoming):
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls (ATO)
Andre Bird: Break It Yourself (Mom & Pop)
Ben Howard: Every Kingdom (Republic)
The Boxcars: All In (Mountain Home)
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden (Nonesuch)
Chuck Mead: Back at the Quonset Hut (Ramseur)
Craig Morgan: This Ole Boy (Black River)
Davy Graham: Anthology 1961-2007 – The Lost Tapes (Les Cousins)
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver: Sing Me a Song About Jesus (Mountain Home)
Dr. John: Locked Down (Nonesuch)
Drunken Prayer: Into the Missionfield (Fluff and Gravy)
Dubious Ranger: Found Recordings from theThe Panda Valley Mining Company c.1931 (Self-released)
Early Takes Vol.1: Music From The Martin Scorsese Picture Living In The Material World (Ume)
Eric Tingstad: Badlands (Cheshire)
Various Artists: The Inner Flame: A Tribute to Rainer Ptacek (Fire)
JD McPherson: Signs & Signifiers (Rounder)
Jenn Rawling & Basho Parks: Take the Air (Self-released)
Josh Abbott: Small Town Family Dream (Pretty Damn Tough)
Justin Townes Earle: Nothing’s Going to Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (Bloodshot)
Lake Street Dive: Fun Machine (Signature Sounds)
The Lumineers (Dualtone)
Lyle Lovett: Release Me (Lost Highway)
Mirel Wagner (Friendly Fire)
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Americana (Reprise)
O’Brien Party of 7: Reincarnation – The Songs of Roger Miller (Howdy Skies)
Pete Seeger: The Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960 (Smithsonian/Folkways)
Ruby Throat: O’ Doubt O’ Stars (Self-released)
Trampled by Turtles: Stars and Satellites (Banjodad)
Loudon Wainwright III: Older Than My Old Man Now (2nd Story Sound)