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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Album Review: Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do (2009)

The Big To-Do

The Drive-By Truckers have always mined legend and lore for their storytelling punch.  From Ronnie and Neil to Buford Pusser to John Henry, the band’s three to four core songwriters have made a career out of exploring Southern mythology by examining its larger-than-life characters; when a real legend won’t do, they make one up.

So it came as a surprise when, with 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the Truckers shifted gears.  For the most part, its 18 songs were pretty ordinary–a character sketch of a good-old boy named Bob, some self-deprecating tunes about aging, an extended baseball metaphor.  It was a mostly successful turn, but what made Brighter a great album were a handful of songs about people the Truckers had met on the road: a returning Iraq war soldier, the family of another soldier still abroad, and a fellow musician and friend of the band who had been murdered, along with his family, the year before.  Those songs–all by chief songwriter Patterson Hood–rank among the band’s best and most powerful, precisely because there’s nothing legendary about them.  These characters experience the usual Truckers mythos–violence, family, death and duty–but they aren’t myths; damn, they’re just regular people.

The band’s latest, The Big To-Do, continues in this direction, but with a decidedly lighter approach; lead-off single “This Fucking Job” is a bone-toss to the tired everyman, a pounding, four-chord invitation to fist-pump and sing along with lines about  “workin’ this job” and “the piece of shit I’m driving”.  Making a living is a major theme here, as is maintaining a family, and for the most part, the normal people in The Big To-Do fail miserably at both.

Hood is the chief storyteller again here, both in bulk (8 of the 13 songs are his) and in tone.  His songs are tighter, catchier, and more darkly humorous than ever.  In addition to the aforementioned “Job”, there’s “Drag the Lake Charlie” which plays out like a Coen Brothers movie, and the self-explanatory cautionary tale “The Fourth Night of My Drinking”.  The brightest light, though, is “The Wig He Made Her Wear”, a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of kinky domestic ruin whose almost pornographic groove undercuts the narrative marvelously–it’s hard to tell if the through-the-grapevine narrator is horrified or amused when he sighs, “they seemed like the perfect family.”

Conversation between songwriters has always been a strength of the Truckers, though, and co-writers Mike Cooley and Shonna Tucker supplement Hood pretty expertly here.  Each of Cooley’s songs has a Hood counterpart–check out the juxtaposition between the prostitute in “Birthday Boy” and the preacher’s wife in “Wig.”  And not only is the nagging wife in Cooley’s “Get Downtown” one of the best characters on the album, her fast-talking rebuffs to her unemployed husband also serve as a wry uppercut to “This Fucking Job”.  Then Tucker one-ups them both with her simple, soaring ballad “You Got Another”, the emotional foil to the boys’ toungue-in-cheek bravado.

In the second half of the album, things get more personal with songs about life on the road, the decay of the scene, and parenthood.  Once again, the Truckers are singing about regular people, but here the normal people are the Truckers themselves.  Album climax “The Flying Wallendas” brings it all together.  Hood’s retelling of the story of the famous family of high-wire artists reads like an encyclopedia entry, but he doesn’t end the story with the family’s famed (and fatal) 1962 fall in Detroit.  He follows it through to the late 70s when Karl Wallenda, by then a grandfather, fell from the wire and died in San Juan.  Then Hood goes one step further, to a retirement village in Sarasota, where the narrator’s grandparents live next door to one of Karl’s descendants, likely Angel Wallenda, who walked the wire despite cancer and a prosthetic limb.  The closing line of the song: “What stunned and astounded: the old lady who was out pruning her orange trees had flown to the heavens and back.”

It’s an apt metaphor for the Truckers’ career at this point, both in their status as aging rock stars and in the way they’re dismantling the very mythos they spent ten years constructing. That’s an important step for rockers making the shift to parenthood; it’s also a timely statement by a band with an increasingly un- and underemployed audience. The title serves a double meaning here: “the big to-do” is a euphemism for the myth and awe of the circus, but it’s also a list of responsibilities.  For the Truckers, like the Wallendas, juggling performance and family, it’s unclear which is which. One could argue (and has argued) that every Drive-By Truckers album is really about rock ‘n’ roll.  If that’s the case, this one’s about the myth of performance: to the audience it looks like flying, but for the performers it’s just another fucking job.

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