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Tag: laura cantrell

Jenny Scheinman Goes Back to Americana With Her Excellent New Album

Jenny Scheinman is best known as one of the great violinists in jazz, both as a bandleader and as a collaborator with guitar great Bill Frisell. But she also writes vivid, lyrical Americana songs. Her latest release, The Littlest Prisoner – streaming at Spotify – harks back to her eclectic, pensive self-titled 2008 album. Producer Tucker Martine, who took such a richly layered approach to Tift Merritt’s Still Not Home, does the very opposite here, matching the spareness of Scheinman’s previous Americana album. Most of the tracks feature just Frisell’s guitar and Brian Blade’s drums. She’s playing the album release show at le Poisson Rouge on June 30 at 7:30 PM; advance tix are $20 and highly recommended.

Wariness and unease counterbalance the summery sway of the music throughout these songs: Scheinman is always watching her back. The opening track, Brother, is a catchy, wary, slowly unwinding ballad in the Lucinda Williams vein, but with better vocals, Scheinman challenging a guy to be as solid and protective as a family member would be.

Run Run Run is not the Velvets classic but a shuffling bluegrass tune that contrasts Frisell’s signature, lingering guitar with Blade’s shuffle beat and Scheinman’s jaunty violin. It makes a good segue with the spare, Appalachian-flavored violin/guitar duet Thirteen Days.

The title track, Scheinman’s dedication to her then-unborn daughter, makes another uneasy juxtaposition between a lithely dancing, funk-flavored tune and a lyric that contemplates the perils of parenthood. By contrast, My Old Man looks back to Linda Ronstadt’s 70s ventures into Americana-tinged hippie-pop, but with purist production values. Likewise, Houston has the feel of a Lowell George ballad, but again with a spiky, sparse arrangement: Scheinman doesn’t waste a note anywhere.

She follows the brief, wistful Debra’s Waltz with Just a Child, a vivid reminiscence of a northern California back-to-the-land hippie upbringing: as she tells it, a bale of cocaine landed offshore there at least once. She winds up the album with the dancing, funky, bluesy violin instrumental Bent Nail and then its best track, the hypnotic, brooding, Velvet Underground-tinged Sacrifice. Once again, Scheinman reasserts that her prowess as an Americana artist matches her achievements in jazz. Fans of Laura Cantrell, Gillian Welch and other top-tier Americana songwriters will love this.

Red Tail Ring Bring Their Vivid, Evocative Americana to the Rockwood

 

On one hand, Kalamazoo, Michigan duo Red Tail Ring play music that’s rustic and old-fashioned, sometimes ancient-sounding. On the other, just like the folksingers of centuries past, they’re taking old sounds to new places. Fiddler/banjoist Laurel Premo is the more traditional of the two, guitarist Michael Beauchamp bringing the occasional hint of indie rock to his tastefully eclectic playing. Their original songs display a deep immersion in an oldtime vernacular, both musically and lyrically, with tasteful songcraft, tight vocal harmonies, solid playing and evocative narratives. Their music is warm, friendly and convivial, in the spirit of its influences. They’re winding up their current US tour with an 11 PM show at the small room at the Rockwood on March 31.

Premo evokes both the elegant, understatedly sophisticated phrasing of Laura Cantrell as well as the newschool folk of Della Mae on Ohio Turnpike, the uneasy nocturnal travelogue that opens the duo’s album The Heart’s Swift Foot, streaming at Spotify. Beauchamp sings the similarly pensive Katy Came Breezing, Premo’s fiddle adding a hypnotic ambience. Dirt Triangle, also sung by Beauchamp, brings a vacant city lot to life, imagining both its colorful past and an optimistic future when the citizens who claim the title to it decide that “this town’s worth more than cash.” Premo follows that with the album’s practically medieval, otherworldly title track. Then the two join forces for the foot-tapping fiddle/banjo reel In the Broom Straw.

Queen of the West & Other Stories is not the Laura Cantrell hit, but a dobro-fueled chronicle of personalities who’ve passed through Beauchamp’s narrator’s up-and-down life; it’s a Studs Terkel tale of sorts transposed to the Great Plains. Premo’s nature imagery on the wistful waltz A Clearing in the Wild portays an emotionally charged relationship hanging in the balance, while Suffer Every Soul reverts to an ancient Britfolk banjo ambience.

Beauchamp follows that with the goodnatured love ballad Body Like a Bell,  then the sepulchrally atmospheric, minimalist St. James Hospital, which sounds like a sketch for St. James Infirmary: in this particular instance, Beauchamp makes it a cowboy song. The album ends up with a gently resonant waltz and then My Heart’s Own Love, which adds a touch of indie ambiguity amidst the warmly rustic country chords and harmonies.

Laura Cantrell Is Back With That Amazing Voice and More Brilliant Tunesmithing

The onetime “proprietress” of the wildly popular Radio Thrift Shop on WFMU and BBC Radio Scotland, Laura Cantrell’s career is marked by the same quietly resolute determination that distinguishes her vocals. She’s one of the most extraordinary voices in any kind of music over the last twenty years – she can say more with a single, bittersweet bent note than most singers can in a whole album – and she resists pigeonholing. Cantrell made a name for herself as the greatest of the alt-country singers, then took an abrupt detour into rock, then more or less returned to the roots of her native Nashville (although she’s quick to acknowledge that as a kid, she was a lot more new wave than country). Her new album No Way There from Here (which you can hear on Spotify) is her first collection of originals since 2008’s fetchingly retro-60s Trains and Boats and Planes, and ranks among the best things she’s ever done. The songs are split about 50/50 between more-or-less oldschool country and jangly rock. That “more or less” qualifier is because Cantrell likes to push the envelope: for example, in back of the jangly twelve-string guitars on the album’s wryly knowing opening number, All the Girls Are Complicated (a co-write with Amy Allison), there’s a bass clarinet. Not your typical Nashville instrumentation.

And as much as Cantrell gets props for her voice, she’s a first-class songwriter. One of the best songs here is the biting country fiddle tune Beg and Borrow Days, a swipe at anyone who might have snarkily criticized her early in her career for championing material written by her friends in the Lakeside Lounge scene rather than coming up with her own material. The absolutely heartbroken, anthemic title track is another one, a big anthem with strings and piano and a mandolin that sometimes sounds like a balalaika, Cantrell ending it by morosely quoting the Tennessee Waltz.

Starry Skies paints a warmly vivid nocturnal tableau, with all kinds of neat touches from guitars, accordion and piano. Cantrell sings the steel guitar-driven ballad Glass Armour with a tender concern for a guy who’s gotten off his game and needs to get it back: we should all be so lucky as to have someone so caring in our corner. Barely Said a Thing is pensive mystery story, recounting a sseduction that might or might not go somewhere, set to an oldschool country tune with organ and more of that deliciously jangly twelve-string. Washday Blues is Cantrell at her aphoristic best, cleaning up a lifetime’s worth of disappointed metaphors against a backdrop of steel guitar and mandolin. The album ends with Someday Sparrow, evoking Neko Case with its mix of disheartened vulnerability and guarded optimism over a purist dobro-fueled C&W melody.

As intensely emotional as a lot of these songs are, Cantrell also has a fun side, and there’s lighthearted, upbeat stuff here too: the woozily optimistic after-the-party ballad Letter She Sent; the absolutely irresistible, briskly shuffing banjo tune Driving Down Your Street; the steadily strolling, bucolic When It Comes to You; and Allison’s breathless Can’t Wait. Cantrell is on UK tour right now; the remaining showdates are here.

Eilen Jewell: Lynch Girl With Guitar and Brilliant Band

Watching Eilen Jewell in her black dress in daylight, leading her brilliant band earlier this evening outside City Winery, was surreal. The self-described Queen of the Minor Key is best appreciated after dark under low lights. But the unlikely early hour didn’t stop her from turning the parking lot out back of the club into a noir movie set, sonically speaking at least. Jewell’s jeweled voice works the corners of dark Americana with a casual menace that’s just short of lurid: she’s always a step ahead of you, never giving in to the temptation to go over the top.

Her band was phenomenal. Guitarist Jerry Miller (not to be confused with the guy from alt-country pioneers Moby Grape) was, as he’s put it before, “Duane Eddy, Link Wray and James Burton rolled into one.” At this show he was also Otis Rush, and Steve Cropper, and Buck Owens, sometimes all of them within the span of a few bars. Miller’s twangy,  tremoloing blue-flame nonchalance made the perfect counterpart to Jewell’s aching, angst-tinged restraint. Drummer Jason Beek did the Tim O’Reagan thing on harmony vocals – the guy’s an excellent singer – while bassist Johnny Sciascia hit hard and tersely and kept the shuffles on the straight and narrow. Dark as Jewell’s music is, between songs, she was deviously charming, at one point giving a shout out to the club’s sangria. You know, the one thing that a wine bar wants to be known for.

In over an hour onstage, they gave a clinic in just about every style of elegantly dark Americana, ending pretty much everything they played with a big crescendo from the guitars and a ka-THUMP from the drums. Let’s hope somebody had the presence of mind to record this show and put it up at archive.org, where there’s more tantalizing live stuff from her. They played up the honkytonk energy in Loretta Lynn’s Give Me a Lift and the countrypolitan sophistication of Stonewall Jackson’s That’s Why I’m Walking, gave Eric Andersen’s Dusty Boxcar Wall a dusky southwestern gothic edge and ended the night with a long, haphazardly dangerous version of Shaking All Over with Miller flatpicking his way up to a wry Gloria quote.

But the originals were the best. The band got the after-hours neon ambience going with the bluesy, noir Where They Never Saw Your Name, Miller channeling Otis Rush’s All Your Love, and segued into the equally shadowy, even catchier Sea of Tears. Jewell brought it down and let her voice tremolo out a little at the end to match Miller’s guitar on a slowy, achingly Lynchian version of her torch ballad Only One, followed by the swampy shuffle Bang Bang Bang – which casts Cupid as a psychopath – and then the apprehensively swinging High Shelf Blues, more of a lament than a drinking song.

This blog once likened the swaying oldschool country ballad Breathless to Laura Cantrell covering X, and Jewell validated that description. A haunting new song possibly titled One More Time featured Miller playing at the murky bottom of his strings, as if on a baritone guitar. Going Back to Dallas, from Jewell’s first album (which her old label refused to supply her with for this show, she told the crowd) was just as purposeful and brought back the foreboding edge – could it be a Lee Harvey Oswald reference, maybe? They followed with the slow, regretful summery sway of Boundary County, a homage to Jewell’s native Idaho, then the uneasy janglerock of Home to Me, then began the encores with the defiant If You Catch Me Stealing and then the haunting, Julia Haltigan-esque I’m Gonna Dress in Black with its St. James Infirmary vibe. Fans in Westchester county can catch Jewell tomorrow night, July 10 at the Turning Point in Piermont at around 7:30.

Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone: Her Best Album

Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone is THE lead guitar album of 2012. She’s probably one of the least likely people you might expect to be behind something like this. But she deserves it. As somebody who first hit about ten years ago, in the dying hours of the radio-and-records era (she’s on Yep Roc at the moment: tomorrow, who knows) she’s had to shift gears to make a living on the road. And she’s done it: that’s where she is right now, on US tour. Good songwriters always have their choice of good musicians, but the band on this album is monstrous. Marc Ribot and pedal steel virtuoso Eric Heywood team up for some of the most gorgeous interplay on any rock or country record in recent memory, alongside multi-instrumentalist and Laurie Anderson collaborator Rob Burger plus Merritt’s longtime bassist Jay Brown and Calexico’s John Convertino on drums. Producer Tucker Martine finally got a real band to work with – as opposed to the meh-ness of the Decemberists et al. – and obviously had a blast with all the multi-tracking. Songs typically start out spare, even skeletal, but quickly build to a rich, lush thicket of guitars firing at you every which way.

And yet, Merritt’s nuanced voice is still front and center, often trailing down suspensefully at the end of a phrase to draw the listener even closer. She’s lived up to the comparisons ever since people started calling her the new Linda Thompson. The songs here follow a trail of existential angst, a wistfully knowing solitude: Merritt has never written better, or had so much command of a turn of phrase as she does here. For those who like the idea of Lucinda Williams but find the real thing overrated, this is for you.

There’s a romantic side to being alone, and Merritt is no stranger to that. The theme permeates much of the album, beginning with the title track, where she admits to enjoying it, stress and all. This one has Richard and Linda Thompson all over it, Ribot adding sweet tremolo and then a fiery, distorted solo. Sweet Spot radiates longing but not desperation: it’s Williams without the drunken rasp, over a lush bed of steel and tremolo guitar, Ribot taking it to Memphis with his solo. They go deeper into soul with Drifted Apart, Merritt going for Laura Cantrell-ish understatement [memo to self – who is that guy on the faux-Orbison high harmonies? Aaron Neville?]. Still Not Home grafts a slapdash My Sharona riff onto a brisk, anxious country shuffle, Merritt nailing the tense exhilaration as she makes her way out: “All the windows open and the wind and the wheels, nobody can tell me the way that feels.”

The band goes for a slow, hypnotic, bucolic early evening ambience on Feeling of Beauty, Berger’s piano blending with the steel and the web of acoustic guitars: “I’m all right, thanks for asking/Got a few hopes in my basket,” Merritt sings, misty and sultry. Too Soon to Go, a noir countypolitan tune, is just plain gorgeous with its richly intertwining guitar leads, building to an elegant conversation between Ribot and Heywood. Small Talk Relations is arguably the most intense song here, a towering piano anthem that rises from almost skeletal to lushly orchestrated. Merritt matter-of-factly develops her metaphors to a big crescendo:

Workmen in the street below
Softly play the radio
The crowd just turns to leave
A secret current underneath
Cannot be heard above the din below

A plaintive Appalachian ballad fired up with reverb guitar, steel and Rhodes piano, Spring is a defiant defense of living at the edge, existentially speaking. “Only for a minute just to be alive, before I hit the ground just below the spine,” Merritt intones bittersweetly as the song takes flight, up to a viscerally searing Heywood solo: it’s the high point of the album. Ribot’s slashing, bluesy solo out is pretty adrenalizing too.

The next couple of tracks take a surprisingly effective detour into 80s-flavored pop. The first one, To Myself, wears a backbeat country disguise: you want to hate this, but the hook is just plain irresistible. Likewise, In the Way is the Cure, 1986, with the deluxe Americana package: jauntily pulsing ragtime piano, lusciously watery layers of vintage chorus-box guitar and an artful multitracked solo. The closing cut, Marks, a towering breakup ballad, builds slowly to a fiery tangle of guitars, snarling, resonating and jangling as Merritt reaches for the metaphor in the pocket of her winter coat. Albums like this are hard to write about because it’s impossible to resist the temptation to replay the songs – and then they become distractions. Hopefully this is sufficient inspiration for you to investigate it.

Lianne Smith’s Two Sides of a River – A Classic

Lianne Smith is an individualist. She does things her way – even if it means taking ten years or more to put out an album. Long considered to be one of New York’s most important songwriters, she personifies the definition of cult artist. She’ll play the occasional Bowery Ballroom gig and owns a rabid fan base who’ve followed her since her days as the Brooklyn dark Americana rock girl “most likely to get signed” in the late 90s. But that coincided with the sea change where the big record labels started to drop off the map – and the fact that Smith never courted fame in the first place. Since then, she’s teased her fan base with home recordings on the web; one suspects that there are many prized live shows of hers kicking around as well. That it would take her this long to make her debut album, Two Sides of a River, turns out to be worth it: it’s the best rock record of 2012 so far by a country mile.

Check her Bandcamp site – where the whole thing is streaming – and among the tags is “folk noir,” an apt way to describe her more low-key stuff. And while most artists find themselves at a loss for words to describe what they do, Smith pretty much nails what she’s about: “I write songs about standing in the middle of the road and wondering which way to go, about how others cheat us and how we cheat ourselves, about free-wheeling, bicycle riding, look-ma-no-hands exhilarations, and how it feels to say goodbye to summer.” The album is a mix of the expected – allusive, enigmatic, captivating folk-rock and some psychedelia – along with several lush, towering art-rock anthems, a style that turns out to suit her better than anyone would have thought. Good songwriters never have to look far for good musicians to play their songs, and Smith is no exception: the band here includes Paul Simon sideman Larry Saltzman and Tony Scherr on guitars and bass, Flutterbox’s Neill C. Furio also on bass, Anton Fier (who also produced) on drums, Doug Wieselman on saxophones, and Joe McGinty on keys on a couple of tracks, with lush, sometimes stormy string arrangements by Irwin Fisch.

Smith also happens to be one of this era’s great singers, somebody who deserves to be mentioned alongside people like Laura Cantrell and Neko Case (and Mary Lee Kortes, with whom she’s collaborated). Surprisingly, she doesn’t show off her upper register here, instead lingering on the lyrics with a nuanced phrasing that’s sometimes wry, sometimes sultry and often viscerally chilling. The first track here is The Magpie Hunter, a bitter, subdued, symbolically-loaded dark folk lament with an anthemic “one for the this, two for the that” chorus. That one sets the stage for the other quiet tracks, like the concluding cut, Snow, a pensive waltz told from the point of view of a girl lost in a storm (Smith hails from Minnesota originally – she knows her subject matter well). And as much detail as there is in Smith’s songs, what isn’t said carries just as much weight, epitomized in The Ballad of Sad Endings. That one has prosaic origins, simply a capsulization of the plotlines from a couple of books Smith was reading in the early zeros, which she turned into a Great Plains gothic epic. When she pulls up the phrase “madness descends,” the effect is as poignant as it is lurid – the strings adding a grand guignol horror as the song reaches a peak.

The real stunner here is Hit and Run. In the past, Smith has done it as retro 80s (think Wire or Joy Division): here it’s a massive art-rock anthem, a gruesome eyewitness account (and account of eyewitnesses) of a deadly crash. Over the layers of guitar and the soaring bassline, Smith coldbloodedly addresses the driver who left a victim twisted by the side of the road and might have made that move too soon.

But not everything here is quite that dark. The mysterious dreampop rock anthem Marianne Was Tired reminds of the Church, with a big, soaring guitar solo from Scherr and just a hint of an ominous ending, while The Thief, a backbeat country song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Cantrell playbook, winds up its aphoristic cautionary tale with an irresistible singalong “I found out, yeah, I found out too late” chorus. The seductive, psychedelic Sugar and the blithely charming Bicycle have been concert favorites for years. There’s also the joyously expectant powerpop anthem Saturday (8 Million Reasons), lit up by C.J. Camerieri’s ecstatic trumpet, and the tensely artsy, ambiguous pop song Old Times Sake. One of the most stylistically diverse rock albums of recent years, it’s also one of the best – and tops the list this year so far.

Thanks for the Memories, Lakeside Lounge

Lakeside Lounge has been sold and will be closing at the end of April. After just over fifteen years in business, the bar that defined oldschool East Village cool will be replaced by a gentrifier whiskey joint, no doubt with $19 artisanal cocktails and hedge fund nebbishes trying to pick up on sorostitutes when their boyfriends are puking in the bathroom – or out of it.

Lakeside opened in 1996 [thanks for the correction, everybody] in the space just north of the former Life Cafe on Ave. B north of 10th Street in the single-story building between tenements that had previously housed a Jamaican fried chicken takeout restaurant. It was an instant hit. Owners Jim Marshall (a.k.a. The Hound, an astute and encyclopedic blues and soul-ologist with a great blog) and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (of the Del-Lords, and eventually lead guitarist in Steve Earle’s band) had a game plan: create a space that nurtures artists rather than exploiting them as so many venues do. And they stuck to that plan. Before long, Lakeside had become a mecca for good music. For several years, there was literally a good band here just about every night with the exception of the few holidays when the bar was closed. Artists far too popular for the back room would play here just for the fun of it: Earle, Rudy Ray Moore, Graham Parker, John Sinclair, the Sadies, Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby all had gigs here, some of them more than once. Dee Dee Ramone hung out here and eventually did a book signing on the little stage in the back, with people lined up around the block. Steve Wynn had a weekly residency here for a bit (which was amazing). The place helped launch the careers of countless Americana-ish acts including Laura Cantrell, Amy Allison, Mary Lee’s Corvette, Megan Reilly, Tom Clark & the High Action Boys, Tammy Faye Starlite and Spanking Charlene and sustained countless others through good times and bad. And as much as most of the bands played some kind of twangy rock, booking here was actually very eclectic: chanteuses Erica Smith and Jenifer Jackson, indie pop mastermind Ward White, punk rockers Ff and several surf bands from Laika & the Cosmonauts to the Sea Devils all played here.

As the toxic waves of gentrification pushed deeper into the East Village, Lakeside never changed. You could still get a $3 Pabst, or a very stiff well drink for twice that. Their half-price happy hour lasted til 8 PM. The jukebox was expensive (two plays for a buck) but was loaded with obscure R&B, blues and country treasures from the 40s through the 60s. Countless bands used their black-and-white photo booth for album cover shots. Their bar staff had personalities: rather than constantly texting or checking their Facebook pages, they’d talk to you. And they’d become your friends if you hung out and got to know them. Some were sweet, some had a mean streak, but it seemed that there was a rule that to work at Lakeside, you had to be smart, and you had to be cool.

But times changed. To a generation of pampered, status-grubbing white invaders from the suburbs, Lakeside made no sense. The place wasn’t kitschy because its owners were genuinely committed to it, and to the musicians who played there. It had no status appeal because it was cheap, dingy and roughhewn, and Ambel refused to book trendy bands. Had they renovated, put in sconces and ash-blonde paneling, laid some tile on the concrete floor, kicked out the bands and brought in “celebrity DJ’s” and started serving $19 artisanal cocktails, they might have survived. But that would have been suicide. It wouldn’t have been Lakeside anymore.

There won’t be any closing party, but the bands on the club calendar will be playing their scheduled shows. Ambel plays the final show at 9 on the 30th. Before then, stop in and say goodbye to a quintessential New York treasure.

Eilen Jewell’s Queen of the Minor Key: Truth in Advertising

Idaho native Eilen Jewell’s album Queen of the Minor Key is a dark, rich mix of noir retro rock and soul, along with some considerably more optimistic, major-key oldschool country tunes to brighten the atmosphere. Most of the songs here would have been big hits 45 years ago, which is a compliment: the songwriting, production and arrangements are period-perfect, right down to the virtuoso twang of Jerry Miller’s vintage guitars, Tom West’s lurid funeral organ and David Sholl’s smoky baritone sax. She’s playing the Bell House on March 8 at 8:30 PM on a killer doublebill with badass honkytonk band the Sweetback Sisters: if dark, purist oldschool Americana sounds are your thing, you shouldn’t miss it.

It takes nerve these days to open your album with an instrumental, but that’s what Jewell does here, with a reverb-drenched Lee Hazelwood-style southwestern gothic bolero titled Radio City that aptly sets up the first of the songs, I Remember You. “I tried to bring you cigarettes, you said leave me alone…locked in a padded room, I tried to teach you solitaire, you howled at the moon,” Jewell reminisces, with just the shadow of regret, “I let you shoot my hats off ’cause I knew you wouldn’t miss.” She sings to you over her shoulder, distantly, like she’s already moved on, and there’s more sadness to that than most anyone who will look you straight in the eye can deliver. With its menacing, hollow bent notes, Miller’s guitar solo is straight out of the Otis Rush playbook. It’s an amazing song, and it’s not the only one here.

The title track, a brisk rockabilly shuffle has another killer guitar solo, this one going from muted and kind of skeletal to eerily reverberating. That’s Where I’m Going takes a one-chord Howlin Wolf-style vamp and turns it into southwestern gothic, while Santa Fe – the first major-key track here – reminds of Dina Rudeen’s evocative retro soul stylings. Warning Signs is another absolutely gorgeous one, blending haunting garage rock with creepy desert imagery: “A rattlesnake hissed it in my ear, I knew you’d never get it right,” Jewell laments. She follows that with the soaring, upbeat Reckless, which sounds like Lianne Smith covering X, and then Over Again, a sad retro 60s country song that evokes Laura Cantrell, its narrator wondering wistfully if her initials, carved by her ex into the grille of his pickup truck, are still legible.

Bang Bang Bang is a novelty R&B song, two-year-old Cupid hanging out at the gun show and up to no good. A brisk noir bolero, Hooked juxtaposes Jewell’s charmingly understated, breathy vocals against yet another one of those wicked, dynamically-charged guitar solos. The band goes into noir lounge jazz territory for the slow, torchy Only One, lit up by Jewell’s bracingly off-center high harmonies; then they pick up the pace with another Laura Cantrell-esque country song, Long Road, a duet with Big Sandy. The album winds up with the jazz-tinged shuffle Home to Me and then a brief, Cramps-ish surf instrumental, Calimotxo. What a breath of fresh air, and not a single bad song here: you’ll see this on a ton of “best albums lists” sooner than later.

Great Oldtime Country Sounds from the Weal and Woe

The Weal and Woe write great original oldtime style country songs, and play them with soulful expertise. The guy/girl close harmonies of guitarist Russell Scholl and bassist Barbara Ann have an unaffected southern charm, soaring over an early 1950s style backdrop with fiddle, lapsteel and occasional resonator guitar. Ex-Moonlighter Mark Deffenbaugh’s lapsteel steel playing is absolutely off the hook, whether adding smartly spaced accents or sly Leon McAuliffe-style swoops and dives – just his parts alone make their debut album The One to Blame one of the most enjoyable recent releases in Americana roots music. The Weal and Woe are playing the record release show at the Jalopy on Feb 18 at 9 – if really smart songwriting and great musicianship are your thing, you should go.

Most of the songs on the new album are short, clocking in at about three minutes or less. They get things going with the harmony-driven In the West, which has more of an oldtime, 19th century folk feel than anything else on this collection, with a tasty, sailing resonator solo that Deffenbaugh hands off elegantly to fiddler Jason Cade. The title track is one of those songs that sounds like a classic from about 1952, except that it’s new. Barbara Ann sings it with a sad, biting edge, from the point of view of a girl who’s thinking about going to the bottom of her neighbor’s pool, and staying there – and maybe taking the guy who broke her heart with her. Once again, the steel handing over a terse instrumental break to the fiddle is absolutely gorgeous. They Think We Don’t Know, a brisk shuffle with twinkling steel guitar, also has an element of mystery. Sung as a duet, it’s about a couple who are the talk of the town, but because everybody wants to set them up? Or because they’re on the fast track to some serious cheating together? “If wishes came true, I’d drive them crazy with my moves,” Barbara Ann croons: “I’d stay up late and drink their booze,” Scholl replies goodnaturedly.

The one instrumental here is Kings County Blues, a western swing number driven by swaying fiddle, steel in the background until Deffenbaugh busts out with a clever, wryly swooping solo. The longest song is a big, somewhat brooding ballad, Taking One on the Chin, which chronicles someone’s long decline to barroom dissolution, pensive lapsteel contrasting with Cade’s offhandedly bright lines. There are also two covers here: a vintage Grand Old Opry-style duet version of Frankenpine’s clever I Don’t Love You ‘Cause You’re Pretty, and a brisk bluegrass take on the country gospel song S-A-V-E-D. Fans of the Maddoxes, the Louvins, the Delmores, Hank Williams and also current country songwriters like Laura Cantrell who’ve found a home in an oldtime Nashville vernacular will love this record.

More Free Stuff for Xmas

Do you know the Radio Free Song Club? Their specialty seems to be jangly 90s-style indie pop with frequent incursions into country music. Their home page has lots of free downloads – just right-click on the song title. There are some real gems here.

If you’re having a hard time waiting for a new Laura Cantrell album, you’re in luck: she’s got four great, relatively new songs here. The most enchanting voice in country music whisks gracefully through a wistful country waltz, Letters She Sent – just loaded with those images that Cantrell uses so well – which if you scroll down the page a little, is followed by Do You Know What I Mean. That one sets the same kind of vivid, plaintive scene, and it’s a very intimate, stripped-down performance.

There are also a couple of more upbeat tracks here, both of them co-writes with Amy Allison. Can’t Wait is a period-perfect early teens tune: she gets up early, he works late, and everybody’s exhausted. But love ultimately conquers fatigue. And Kitty Wells’ Dresses, a homage to the 50s country icon whose voice Cantrell’s most closely resembles, is an anthem for any woman with Grand Old Opry dreams and dollar-store realities.

There’s also a typical funny/pissed duet by Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby. And the best song on the whole page might be the one by Mary Lee Kortes, which is literally about loaded imagery.

If you go for the more innocuous side of 90s Hoboken pop – which is where most of these people seem to come from – you’ll probably like a lot of the other stuff too.