Posts tagged: alt country

Two Gallants – Ride Away

By , November 8, 2012 10:00 am

San Francisco lo-fi duo Two Gallants have been cruising along just fine with their brand of punk-tinged folk-rock, releasing three excellent albums on indie mainstay Saddle Creek before relocating to ATO Records for album number 4, the recently-released The Bloom and the Blight. A track like “Ride Away” is a fine example of the pair’s overall aesthetic, running Adam Stephen’s guitar ragged and highlighting his throaty, powerful vocals and Tyson Vogel’s pounding drums. The apocalyptic imagery and general dusty, campfire tone imbue everything here, planting Two Gallants and The Bloom and the Blight firmly in Americana territory with an outlaw bite. 

Two Gallants – “Ride Away”

Andrew Bird – “Orpheo”

By , November 2, 2012 10:00 am

After March’s superb release Break It Yourself, one would have expected Chicago multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird to take it easy on the road for the remainder of the year, enjoying the success of the best album of his career. Instead, he just popped out another album, a so-called “companion piece” to Break It Yourself’s textured folk and fingerpicking goodness. Hands of Glory is more innately country, the rugged, sepia-tinged mirror image of Break It Yourself and one that is as effortlessly authentic as all of Bird’s discography. “Orpheo” is perhaps the best representation of Hands of Glory’s aim, a reworking of Break It Yourself’s majestic “Orpheo Looks Back” to a more rustic, contemplative acoustic shuffle. It’s lovely.

Andrew Bird – “Orpheo”

Band of Horses – Knock Knock

By , September 19, 2012 10:00 am

South Carolina by-way-of Seattle indie rockers Band of Horses released their fourth album yesterday on Columbia. Mirage Rock is a continuation of the more alt-country the band hinted at on 2010′s Infinite Arms (which I liked more than most). While I appreciate the twangier tendencies settling themselves into the band’s work, Mirage Rock doesn’t have the same kind of tautness, or songwriting discipline that made Infinite Arms so good. Things seem much looser and many of the songs may delve perhaps a bit too deeply into alt-country for some old fans (the influence of lead guitarist and folk singer-songwriter Tyler Ramsey is definitely growing). On “Knock Knock,” though, old Band of Horses is still very much in evidence, grooving along to a vintage melody and Ben Bridwell’s typically smooth vocals.

Band of Horses – “Knock Knock”

The Men – Candy

By , March 7, 2012 10:00 am

Brooklyn quartet The Men blew up the blogosphere last year with the under-the-radar, endlessly hyped Leave Home, a taut, pounding reaffirmation of punk’s viability in the modern age that succeeded where similarly minded bands (see: Iceage) failed. Capitalizing on the hype, the group released Open Your Heart yesterday, and it’s another predictably virulent punk-rock guitar assault, amps generously at 11 and hoarse vocals the order of the day, but there’s a softer side to things here, less DIY and more carefully textured and arranged. It makes for a much more varied record and sound, no more evident than in the poppy, Wilco-esque “Candy.” RIYL: Japandroids, Women, loud guitars, Dinosaur Jr.

The Men – “Candy”




Ironically referred to by Timeout NY as "Thurston Moore & the E Street Band," The Men have never been a band to play by categorical punk subgenre rules. Instead, over the last three years, this band has dabbled in everything from hardcore punk to psych to shoegaze to black metal; and they have done all of it effortlessly, and for the most part, flawlessly. Totally removed from the current climate of a.d.d-youtube-blog-hyped generation of musicians under 21, The Men stand out from the pack as both scene elders and actual record collectors.
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Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

By , October 12, 2011 11:00 am

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

PAX AM 2011

Rating: 7/10

The best part about being a Ryan Adams fan is that there’s really something for everyone. Do you like populist ‘70s-styled rock ‘n roll, like 2001’s Gold, or do you prefer the tears-in-your-beer country reminiscent of Haggard and Emmylou Harris, in which case Jacksonville City Nights is one of the best you’ll ever hear? Or maybe you like depressing alt-rock akin to Elliott Smith (Love Is Hell), with a side dish of adult contemporary pop rock (Easy Tiger)? It’s easy to be frustrated with Ryan Adams, because he’s just as often to drop a dud as he is to release a brilliant pastiche of past styles. Then again, it’s easy to love him, because if you don’t like his newest release you can just wait a few months to hear another one. That’s why Ashes & Fire could be one of the most “anticipated” Adams albums in years, simply because it’s his first new material since 2007’s Easy Tiger, not counting last year’s requisite demos collection and the “sci-fi metal” concept of Orion that I’d sooner forget existed. The words that attach themselves to Ashes & Fire, consequently, are just those I would never have connected with Adams: tired, restrained, meditative . . . fucking at ease.

If there’s a touchstone for Ashes & Fire in Adams’ discography, it’s in the album that put Adams on the map, at least critically: Heartbreaker, specifically the acoustic parts of that superb record. Gone is that sparkling electric guitar tone that Adams’ has marked every record with since Rock N Roll, gone is the excellent Cardinals backing band, and gone is Adams’ anguished yelp. The songs here center on Adams’ acoustic technique and liberal use of keyboards, exploring the space between them while Adams sings about true love and miserable love. In that respect, nothing’s changed; the best Adams songs are those that reflect on messy breakups and the darker places he’s traveled, like the gorgeous tale of addiction “Lucky Now” and opener “Dirty Rain,” where Adams’ tragic nostalgia is in fine form. Elsewhere, Adams’ is tripped up by occasionally overwhelming amounts of sap (“Come Home”) or unbecoming schmaltz (“I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say,” a song one-upped only by its own title in terms of clichés).

For an album heavily predicated on Adams’ historically hit-or-miss songwriting, Ashes & Fire is surprisingly steady. Whether it’s the Meniere’s disease that very well could have ended his career or his recent marriage (to Mandy Moore! If I had a celebrity marriage pool in 2001 that would have been dead last), Adams has a noticeably better appreciation for the intricacies of songwriting. Adams’ other largely acoustic effort, 2005’s 29, suffered from a general sense of malaise and engendered boredom rather than interest. Ashes & Fire, however, is nothing really new in the Ryan Adams catalog, but the sequencing and occasional creative flairs make all the difference. Here, Adams fleshes things out with a tentative hand – the guitar solo that closes out “Do I Wait,” the campfire drumming coupled with moody strings on “Rocks” – and is the better for it. “Chains of Love” could very well have been a full-fledged rocker, but Adams understands that more is not always necessary, and is left with one of the finest melodies on the record. Adams has always been a great songwriter at heart, but he’s always preferred to shoot himself in the foot rather than focus his energies in one place. Ashes & Fire is not his best record. It’s dragged down near the end by a sameness that is hard to avoid in an album composed strictly of acoustic, mid tempo alt-country tunes, and his lyrics can be unfortunately maudlin. Yet, two decades and thirteen albums into his career, it shows a newfound sort of maturity that proves that Adams is not necessarily the living example of “if you fling enough shit onto a wall, some will stick.” Let’s just hope he doesn’t follow this up with a rock opera.

Ryan Adams – “Do I Wait”

Wilco – The Whole Love

By , September 29, 2011 10:00 am

Wilco – The Whole Love

ANTI 2011

Rating: 9/10

It would have been so easy for Wilco to just fade away. No one would have begrudged them any; Yankee Hotel Foxtrot still engenders enough goodwill in the music community ten years after its release that if Jeff Tweedy decided to spend the rest of his years writing paeans to fatherhood and singing sweet, insubstantial love songs with Feist, everyone would simply nod their heads and go along with it. But what Wilco has always done best is growth, from Being There’s epic expansion of classic Americana to the unapologetic power pop of Summerteeth to A Ghost Is Born’s startling abrasive rock classicism. Through it all the constant was Tweedy, suffering through a recurring painkiller medication and the woes of growing old, his biting lyricism continually well tempered with fine melodies culled from the best folk tradition, from Cash to Young to Bragg. That’s why it was so weird to see the band settle into such a droll tedium starting with 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, like the band had decided writing about midlife crises wasn’t enough and that maybe they should start living one as well. Wilco (The Album) showed that all the cries of putting this aging band out to pasture were a bit premature, but even that album was more a celebration of past successes, a victory lap of the things Wilco did best, like their updated “Via Chicago” rendition in “Bull Black Nova.” It was all well and good, but for a band as continually predicated on evolution as Wilco, it now feels depressingly stagnant.

As a first single, “I Might” was disturbingly coy; for all the lyrics about parental discord and setting children on fire, it was fairly rote late-period Wilco. That is to say, boring and not particularly memorable. In the context of The Whole Love, however, it’s one hell of a red herring. It’s the most conventional song on here, an old-fashioned rock ‘n roll respite cleverly placed after the delightfully unconventional opener “Art of Almost.” That is the song that sets out the mission statement of The Whole Love – an unassumingly complicated drumbeat propelling a foggy atmosphere of discordant electronics and haunting strings, Tweedy himself practically a ghost in the background, all the elements swirling around each other without falling apart. It’s a harkening back to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot territory, at least until Nels Cline rips in with a guitar solo that stretches the song to nearly seven and a half minutes and serves notice that this is not the same Wilco that made that seminal 2001 release. It’s the biggest mark Cline has made since joining the band, and the only tragedy is it’s taken them three albums to finally realize this incarnation of Wilco’s potential.

It’s hard to pinpoint just what The Whole Love does best. There’s hints of Summerteeth-esque pop bliss on crunchy guitar numbers like “Dawned On Me,” where Tweedy’s charmingly imperfect voice gives the chorus all the pizazz it needs. The countrified ballad “Open Mind” finds Tweedy at his most confessional, the campfire vibe recalling Uncle Tupelo and the lyrics Tweedy’s most unashamedly direct. “Capitol City” is a bit more ill advised, a disposable little vaudeville exercise that sounds like a Beatles outtake circa Sgt. Pepper’s, but what still captivates is just how damn well crafted it is. Mikael Jorgensen’s jaunty keyboard, Cline’s lilting pedal steel, Glenn Kotche’s waste-not/want-not drumming (the man is brilliant in giving even the wispiest rhythm a very real substance and gravity): it’s all greater than the sum of its parts. That is perhaps the enduring lesson of The Whole Love; for all of Tweedy’s evocative songwriting and pained, autobiographical stories, Wilco is a band, first and foremost. More so than perhaps any other album in Wilco’s catalog, The Whole Love succeeds because the band isn’t evolving exponentially or diving headfirst into musical waters unknown. For all its weirdness, “Art of Almost” isn’t exactly indicative of what’s to come, per se. It’s how the band members interact on “Art of Almost” and “Capitol City” and the deceptively simple title track that makes The Whole Love such an improvement over lackluster previous outings. There’s so much going on here that even the most straightforward of tracks has a subversive flair about them that an initial listen might not catch. The buzz saw lower-end distortion in the otherwise sunny “I Might” and the understated bass rhythm from “Rising Red Lung” are just two examples, and the fact that they both involve John Stirratt is no coincidence – he is the unsung hero of The Whole Love. But it’s more than any one man’s contribution, more than Tweedy’s forlorn vocals, more than Cline’s elegant guitar licks, more than Kotche’s economical drumming. It’s Wilco the whole band, a unification of talents so seamless you wonder why every Wilco album doesn’t come out so brilliantly (and so effortlessly) put together.

Perhaps nothing encapsulates what makes Wilco such a special band at this stage of their career than closer “One Sunday Morning (A Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).” It’s not a song that reinvents the wheel; stylistically it would feel just as home on 1995 debut A.M. as it does here. It picks a destination and it sets out for it, riding the back of an irresistibly simple fingerpicked motif and a syncopated hi-hat. “This is how I’ll tell it / Oh, but it’s long,” Tweedy sings, and he isn’t kidding; at just a hair over twelve minutes, it’s one of the longest in Wilco’s catalog. But it never feels that way, despite the song’s unerring consistency. Embellished by strings and piano, it stays its course and gradually dissipates over a long outro, but the experience is timeless. For twelve minutes Wilco isn’t some institutional rock group, testing the outer boundaries of pop and creating something new and exciting. This is a song in the great American tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, painting a picture of old dust roads and melancholy sunsets, Tweedy bemoaning at the end “bless my mind, I miss being told how to love / what I learned without knowing / how much more I owe than I can give.” It’s a celebration of the art of storytelling, a tradition and a template that Wilco have always been deeply indebted to. That’s what The Whole Love is all about, telling a story and sticking to it, crafting a mix of sound and lyrics that best symbolizes the music that beats under American highways and floats around American campfires. Wilco have had their peaks and valleys, but they have never sounded as confident as they do on The Whole Love. For a band with eight studio albums and coming up on eighteen years running, I can’t think of anything more impressive.

Wilco – “Whole Love”

Ryan Adams – Lucky Now

By , September 1, 2011 10:00 am

Seems like just a few months ago I was reviewing another Ryan Adams record, but already there’s an announcement for Adams’ 13th (!) studio album, set to be released October 10. It’s called Ashes & Fire, and if this teaser is any indication, it’s a return to what made Adams’ great; the graceful alt country of Cold Roses and the confessional songwriting of Heartbreaker. It’s better than the genre exercises Adams’ has been seemingly tossing off the past few years, anyways. And if it’s a disappointment, I’m sure I won’t have to wait long to give him another chance…

Ryan Adams – “Lucky Now”

My Morning Jacket – Circuital

By , May 31, 2011 12:00 pm

My Morning Jacket – Circuital

ATO Records 2011

Rating: 5/10

“RIYL: getting reacquainted with your roots, music recorded in a church gymnasium, forging new ground while maintaining a distinct spirit.”

The above is loosely taken from a Circuital press release. In related news, marketing is one of the worst professions around. Circuital would have you believe that it’s a reaffirmation of the My Morning Jacket of old, of stellar alt-country gems like At Dawn or Z’s soaring experimental psychedelia, but Circuital is more a weak-kneed reminder of My Morning Jacket’s potential. It’s sort of like looking back on one’s misspent youth and remembering things to be a helluva better than they actually were, or, alternatively, listening back to 2008’s Evil Urges and thinking those funky side trips were actually a good idea. Circuital, luckily, doesn’t go quite as far off the rails as Evil Urges did, and it even starts off like everything is going to be okay. The one-two punch of “Victory Dance” and the title track are vintage MMJ, the former building itself up into a feedback soaked wail and the latter a plucked acoustic ditty that explodes into an invigorating display of power chords and Southern-fried guitar histrionics. When they’re on, their combination of old school rock musicianship and James’ distinctively powerful voice is hard to beat. It’s unfortunate, then, that much of this album finds the band unsure of just what they’re good at.

For a record that is supposed to be about the band rediscovering their identity, the rest of Circuital sounds like a hideously unsure thing, torn between sticking to the best of their folksy roots and playing up the worst of leader Jim James’ genre-of-the-day desires. “Outta My System” is a passable Beach Boys imitation, but with its elementary lyrics and go-nowhere structure, it merely serves to stick out like a sore thumb after the beautifully delicate ballad “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” That’s nothing compared to “Holdin’ On To Black Metal,” a wantonly neon-lit big band number replete with Stax horns and a backup children’s choir. It calls to mind the worst excesses of Evil Urges and then some, a song so egregiously out of its depth that it throws the whole album out of whack. Placed as it is smack dab in the middle of Circuital makes it harder to ignore than most, and it’s a direct shot in the foot to a band that up until then had been well on their way to a record that, if not a true return to form, was at least mildly enjoyable.

It’s the kind of enjoyment distinctly separate from the kind one experienced when hearing the classic rock ‘n’ roll of It Still Moves’ “One Big Holiday” or Z’s ambitious opener “Wordless Chorus.” These are songs that float pleasantly, like the Beatles retro pop of “First Light,” or merely tease with hints of past successes (“You Wanna Freak Out”), songs that show the occasional glimpse of James’ songwriting talent but nothing more. Where previous MMJ albums have burnt out, usually in a haze of glorious guitar twists and turns, Circuital fades, first with a mushy track guaranteed to put everyone by the campfire asleep with “Slow Slow Tune” and then hammering away at the point (yet ever so softly) with the completely unremarkable “Movin’ Away.” It’s a light, pastoral tune that glides by on a melancholy piano line and the scenic pedal steel guitar that arcs over the melody, but it’s also completely, entirely safe and, dare I say it, boring. James’ Hallmarky lyrics (“possessed by your love / under the influence / and though there’s a new life line / I won’t forget the one I left behind”) don’t help matters, making the whole affair seem more like a man interested in creating some gently haunting sounds than saying anything real.

It drives home the point that My Morning Jacket has been making music for going on thirteen years now, and have appeared less like a band divining new inspiration from each other as time goes on and more like a group grasping for a sound that will make them relevant again. Better bands than MMJ are hooking onto the alt-country, folk scene that they brought screaming riffs and James’ howling falsetto to, including James’ own side projects. Circuital isn’t a bad album by any stretch, but in the context of My Morning Jacket’s body of work, it sounds hopelessly unsure of itself, content to create lesser shadows of past greats. A distinct spirit? Always. Forging new ground? Only in the minds of marketing execs.

My Morning Jacket – “Victory Dance”

My Morning Jacket – First Light

By , May 24, 2011 12:00 pm

Marketing calls My Morning Jacket’s new album “a return to the band’s roots,” but marketing also said the same thing about the Strokes new CD. Circuital is certainly more focused than 2008′s wildly uneven Evil Urges, but still retains much of the experimentation that pervaded that album. “First Light,” however, is about as retro as MMJ can be nowadays, complete with a barn-burning coda that sends the song off in anthemic fashion.

My Morning Jacket – “First Light”

The Elected – Bury Me In My Rings

By , May 23, 2011 10:00 am

The Elected – Bury Me In My Rings

Vagrant 2011

Rating: 6/10

It used to be that ignoring Blake Sennett’s integral role in Rilo Kiley was a grievous mistake. His buttery wisp of a tenor on songs like “Ripchord” and “Three Hopeful Thoughts” provided a nice counterpoint to Jenny Lewis’ West Coast twang, while his 2004 solo album Me First under the Elected moniker made it quite obvious that the songwriting team in Rilo Kiley wasn’t just Lewis and three faceless dudes. Me First was an album arguably better than anything Rilo Kiley have released, a strange yet appropriate amalgam of pedal steel alt-country and Postal Service-esque electronica, all held together by the ghost of Elliott Smith and Sennett’s incisive lyrics. Yet just as Rilo Kiley leaned towards a more vapid sound on Under the Blacklight, Sennett careened more and more towards the pursuit of the perfect pop song, first in shades of country on 2006’s Sun, Sun, Sun and now with Bury Me In My Rings, a fitting title indeed if the rings in question are made of fool’s gold.

Bury Me In My Rings is an album begging to be ignored. Sennett’s strengths are still well evident, from his hushed, anguished tenor to a knack for songwriting that eclipses most indie artists nowadays. If anything, his talents have improved; few artists can have a delicate finger-picked ballad like “Jailbird” sandwiched between the funky ‘70s AM stomp of “Look At Me Now” and the arena sing-a-long in “Go For The Throat.” Unfortunately, his penchant for sickly sweet arrangements and lyrics as diary-centric as they pretend to be love weary has only increased. “Born To Love You” is the perfect introduction to Bury Me In My Rings, a flawless slice of summery pop rock, complete with shimmering keys and a soothing chord progression that calls to mind the pop classicists . . . only to be sabotaged by a line like “I was born to love you / and I’ll love you / even if you’re with someone new.” Aw, isn’t that just the cutest thing?

One could make the case that this is all part of the package, the simplistic lyrics fitting in nicely alongside Sennett’s retro arrangements and glossy West Coast sunshine rock vibe. But then there’s a song like “Who Are You,” where Sennett marries melancholy strings to haunting atmospherics and faintly creepy lyrics, and it’s easy to see that the Sennett of Me First isn’t all that far off. Instead, the focus is clearly on barnstorming numbers like the tears-in-your-beer-and-violins surge of “Have You Been Cheated” and the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mess of “This Will Be Worth It,” a song that deserves more hyphenated descriptors than I care to use.

But damn, can the man still write a tune. Bury Me In My Rings is more to be criticized for what it could be than for what it actually does: as far as crafting hooks and envisioning an album that nearly replicates the best of old school California cool, Sennett is still one of the best around, as anything from “Born To Love You” to the introspective, regret-tinged shuffle closer “See The Light” clearly proves. When Sennett falters on a song, it’s more from an ill-advised genre detours like the inoffensive ‘80s dance number “Babyface” than the man’s own talent. “Babyface” doesn’t really suck, per se, but in the context of the rest of Bury Me In My Rings, it’s just a little too cheesy, too out of place. It’s the worst of Sennett’s tendencies all plopped in one poorly chosen single, embarrassing lyrics further marred by a beat that sounds like it should be shot back in a time machine to a roller-skating rink circa 1982 and never heard from again. Yet if that’s what Sennett is going for, it sounds absolutely perfect, and that is exactly what is at the heart of Bury Me In My Ring’s problem: Sennett’s overwhelming perfectionism, his pursuit for the ideal pop song, is just as likely to submerge him in soft rock clichés and painfully obtuse lyricism as it is likely to lead him to an aces country-rock tune that sounds like the best song Fleetwood Mac never made. It’s an interesting paradox and one that Sennett seems unlikely to solve on his current path, but even if he never does, there will always be some choice tunes to blare out on the summer highways, and the world can always use more of those.

The Elected – “Born To Love You”

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