Category Archives: Popmatters

Album Review: Abigail Washburn – City of Refuge (2011)

This is one of my favorite records so far this year. I’ve had an intense personal connection with it that I hope to write about later. For now, though, here’s an excerpt from the review I got to write about it for Popmatters:

“Divine Bell”, a co-write with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, is the most old-timey thing here, a true country gospel tune about the end of suffering. Not only is it explicitly Christian, it’s pretty Dispensationalist, and its regionalism is pitch-perfect, both in eschatology and twang. Then, closer “Bright Morning Stars” is an Appalachian folk song that Washburn, Secor and fellow Old Crow Morgan Jahnig sing in Sacred Harp-style acapella. It’s not a hymn, though—it’s a mourning song—and its more inclusive vision of hope is given startling depth by Washburn’s choice to superimpose it over throat-singing by Mongolian string band Hanggai. That one-two punch poignantly closes a record about homesickness and community on a note of provocatively spiritual—and entirely global—uplift.

full review, originally posted on February 28, 2011, at Popmatters

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Album Review: The McMakens – Sleep Easy (2009)

Popmatters let me review a record my good friends Bonnie & Trevor McMaken made with another good friend, producer Kerry Haps. Even if I didn’t know them, though, this would’ve been one of my favorite albums of 2009. This thing’s a masterpiece.

Sleep Easy is definitely a kitchen-sink album, both in scope and content matter.  Domestic imagery abounds, from the candles to the teapot; sleeping, beds and lullabies are especially prevalent. For The McMakens, like many of the great American songwriters, the commonplace points to the sublime, and the everyday is full of moments of great art.  These 11 beautiful songs are just vessels for those moments.  That two first-time songwriters have crafted something so assured and aesthetically grounded makes it all the more exciting.  Yeah, it’s pretty, but it’s also awesome.

full review, originally posted on December 16, 2010, at Popmatters

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Album Review: Mary Gauthier – The Foundling (2009)

Mary Gauthier’s most recent album is a really beautiful, though flawed, exploration of adoption and emotional woundedness–sort of a new take on the old folk music trope of the orphan girl.

For her most recent album, The Foundling, Gauthier has front-loaded the backstory. Press materials describe The Foundling as a concept album about “the emotional journey and aftermath” of Gauthier’s search for the birth mother who abandoned her at an orphanage in New Orleans following her birth in 1962.  Though Gauthier has always done autobiography well, a confessional concept album is a big jump for any artist.  Especially given such personal subject matter, a project like this could easily slip into rhetorical solipsism.  Luckily, Gauthier fares pretty well here, in large part because of her careful way with words.

full review, originally posted on December 1, 2010, at Popmatters

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Album Review: Breathe Owl Breathe – Magic Central (2010)

These guys are one of the most interesting bands around. Check them out if you haven’t yet, and see them live at all costs.

Last summer I saw Breathe Owl Breathe live at a McMenamin’s Pub in Bend, Oregon. Even though they were playing a small venue in a small town hundreds of miles from their native Michigan, they seemed totally at home. Lead singer Micah Middaugh told hilarious, incoherent, rambling stories; cellist Andrea Moreno-Beals impersonated (if I remember correctly) a tiger. All three band members wore capes. The audience was good-sized and diverse: shy indie kids, couples with children, grandparents. All told, Breathe Owl Breathe played for three hours, and we were entranced. We sang and clapped along at the band’s direction to songs we had never heard before; at one point in the evening, every kid in the house under 12 years old was seated in a semicircle at the band’s feet.

full review, originally posted on November 15, 2010, at Popmatters

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Album Review: Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore – Dear Companion (2010)

Two of my favorite up-and-coming folk songwriters collaborated for this sort-of-protest album about mountaintop removal. I was underwhelmed at first, but it’s a big-time grower, and it turned out to be one of my favorite records of 2010.

…at the end of the day it feels strange to call Dear Companion a protest album. The coal mining songs of the early 20th century are certainly a benchmark here, but those stories (and earlier mining practices) are a whole different monster. The people in those songs didn’t need their awareness raised: They were working 70-hour weeks, suffering crippling injuries, and developing the black lung. The songwriter’s job was just to tell the story. In Dear Companion, the obvious main characters are the mountains themselves, and Sollee and Moore take every route possible—personifying them, apologizing to them, making them a motif, evoking them with that cello—just to get us to slow down and notice them.

full review, originally posted on June 24, 2010, at Popmatters

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Album Review: Solomon Burke – Nothing’s Impossible (2010)

What holds the album back is its songwriting. Nothing’s Impossible marks Burke’s return to the helm as songwriter, penning (with Mitchell) most of the album’s 12 tracks. There aren’t really any duds here, but his brand of vaguely positive, gospel-influenced love songs doesn’t quite hold the weight of an album, especially when compared to the power of some of his crossover work. It’s telling that a cover of an Anne Murray tune fits right in here. A voice still needs a text; here, Burke sometimes comes across as a great preacher who could have used a couple more points on his sermon outline.

full review, originally posted April 16, 2010, at Popmatters

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