Friday, July 28, 2006

Roots Music: An American Journey

A couple weeks ago my dad gave me this Rounder compilation out of the blue.

I had him proofread some stuff a few months ago for my grad school application in which I mentioned "roots" music and he asked me to explain what that meant. I actually had a really hard time. It was easy to list constituent genres: folk, country, blues, etc., but I couldn't give a definition that included the right stuff but also excluded the rest. He asked if Johnny Cash was roots music and I said I guess he was. Then he asked about the Statler Brothers, of whom he is a fan, and I didn't know what to say. Definitely not anything recent of theirs, but maybe their early stuff is. In the end I had to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart: I can't define it, but I know it when I hear it.

Anyways, he saw this four-disc box set at Barnes & Noble and got it for me.

It's a fairly good round-up of the most prominent genres/styles (or whatever you want to call them) that can be clumped under the term "roots" as well as a few tracks from lesser-know genres/styles. The set is a little heavy on stringband/old-time/bluegrass, but cajun & zydeco, a variety of Mexican-Americans styles, and a broad range of the blues also receive good-sized representation. The first two discs are meant to be an overview of "hard-core traditional styles" and the last two "roots-derived music and interpreters of folk traditions." I'd argue with their placement of several tracks, but overall I can see this organizing pattern.

There are also tracks from a bunch of places that don't fit that well into one of these larger groups: one Hawaiian song, one Mardi Gras Indian song, one New Orleans brass band song, one klezmer song. There are also some holes. Shape note singing and sacred steel have both been gaining popularity recently, but aren't included. Overall, though, I think that this is a pretty good overview when you consider that it is all taken from the catalogue of one record label.

In the coming months you might see some records by some of the folks in this set appear here as I explore their other work.

Rebirth Brass Band - Just a Little While to Stay Here

From Rounder
From Amazon

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Bluegrass Doubleshot: Bobby Osborne - Try a Little Kindness & The John Cowan Band - New Tattoo

Today I'm lumping together two solo albums from former members of "progressive" bluegrass bands. Try a Little Kindness by Bobby Osborne of the Osborne Brothers and New Tattoo by John Cowan of New Grass Revival.

I first heard about Bobby Osborne's new album on Living in Stereo, which featured its version of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" in a comparison of several versions of that song. That song is, I feel, the stand out of the album, but the rest does not disappoint. It features mostly covers and standards from bluegrass and country and beyond, including songs by Bill Monroe and Carter Stanley, Josh Turner and Kristofferson, as well as Paul Simon.

While this isn't a career redefining album, it is a good listen from a musician who could be in Branson.

This album follows pretty closely in the proto-jam band sound of New Grass Revival. While not featuring any extended cuts, the atmosphere is the same and is updated with a touch of that new-agey Celtic sound that was all over in the '90s. Featuring alumni of IIIrd Tyme Out and Leftover Salmon, this album has a bit of a mix of traditional and newgrass sounds. The harmonies, in particular, are of a more traditional nature, in the vein of IIIrd Tyme Out.

Of note on this album is "Drown," a brutal song by John Cowan about his experience of being molested as a child. Certainly a very brave thing to do, to talk in public so frankly about something generally taboo; however, the graphicness of the song sends me too quickly to the skip button. It does raise visibility, though, as does his work as a spokesman for Project Safe Place.

Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-Press - The Hard Times
The John Cowan Band - Carla's Got a New Tattoo

Try a Little Kindness from Amazon
New Tattoo from Amazon

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Solomon Burke - Make Do With What You Got

I have to admit that when I saw a taping of Conan O'Brien featuring Solomon Burke in the spring of 2001, I had no idea who Solomon Burke was. (Of course, this was before his "comeback" album Don't Give Up On Me (Epitaph, 2002). He was in New York to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) I also have to admit that it's only been recently, since the buzz about his upcoming album produced by Buddy Miller, that I've really paid much attention to him.

This album is his 2005 follow-up to Don't Give Up and follows much the same formula: record songs by well known songwriters. Songs from the pens of Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Van Morrison, Jaggar/Richards, and Dr. John appear as well as the Hank Williams gospel tune that I'm including. I don't know what the Buddy Miller-produced album is going to sound like, but this album, although an album I would consider thoroughly soul, shows that country isn't far from Burke's vernacular. As it shouldn't be, since has first Atlantic recordings were soul covers of country songs, records made in much the same spirit as my (almost) namesake album.

Solomon Burke - Wealth Won't Save Your Soul

From Amazon

Friday, July 21, 2006

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals - Nothing But the Water

When I first got this CD by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals in the mail, I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to the scope of what I review. But after several listens, I've decided that not only is it appropriate, but that it actually highlights the cross-generic interplay which I really like and which I feel is vital to so-called roots music.

After listening to this album three times through, I'm still having trouble deciding what genre I would classify the album as. It ranges in influence from the searing vocals of Janis Joplin, to the roots funk of the Band, to the soft and smooth vocals of Norah Jones, to the (almost annoyingly) catchy pop-funk of Maroon 5. While several songs combine many influences, several are also more easily discernible as a specific genre. The album hangs together remarkably well, though, having such a variety of style incorporated.

I think the song I'm including does a good job of showing the breadth of influence. The main guitar riff is Delta blues by way of Dire Straits era Mark Knopfler; the organ almost takes us to church; and the drummer doesn't refuse to use the fundamental drumming he learned in marching band.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals - Joey

From Amazon

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Gary Bennett - Human Condition

I'd been holding off on buying this CD for Gary Bennett's show last Saturday at Knuckleheads in Kansas City. I'm not glad I held off, but I am glad I finally got it. Well, maybe I am glad I held off; he signed my copy.

Gary played in front of a modestly-sized but enthusiastic crowd on the newly-moved outdoor stage. His set was on the short side, but he played all of this album (I think) as well as quite a few BR549 numbers and standards/covers. After the show he was very friendly, signing everybody's CD and chatting. He commented to someone in front of me that he had played just about everything that his touring band knew.

This CD is a bit of a departure, focusing much more on songwriting than any of the BR549 discs. That's not to say that the music isn't compelling, though; this is no singer/songwriter album. Gary plays finger-style guitar on one track, but largely leaves the instruments to a good cast of supporting players, including notables such as Marty Stuart, Kenny Vaughan, and Lloyd Green. The result is a musical background that is both compelling and focused on the songwriting.
The sound has a touch of the "retro" feel of BR549, but without the frantic energy. This meshes well with the theme of weariness that pervades the CD.

Gary Bennett - Headin' Home

From Amazon

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Meat Purveyors - Someday Soon Things Will Be Much Worse!

The Meat Purveyors' newest CD, out Tuesday on Bloodshot, is a bit of a different turn for the band. The album is largely electric and features drums prominently. I had heard that they did an electric set at SXSW (and they are allegedly going to be doing the same again at the North vs. South mini-fest here in Lawrence next month), but I was a bit shocked to hear electric guitar, drums, pedal steel, and honky-tonk piano when I put this album in my stereo.

Not that they've given up on the pretty distinctive punk-bluegrass sound they've been working on for something like ten years; it appears on the album also. The new sound and the old integrate quite well, so well that I can't recall without relistening which songs are electric. Highlights of the album include covers of the Human League's "Don't You Want Me" and Loretta Lynn's "Fist City" as well as original "Liquor Store." (On the other hand I could have done without the Foreigner cover; they're the reason I stopped listening to classic rock radio.)

The overall sound of this album is much more honky tonk than bluegrass, largely due to the electrification as well as the contributions of guest musicians, particularly Amy Boone on piano and "Sweet" Gary Newcomb on steel. The album also features a bit of a political undercurrent, as the title ought to suggest, including two (count them two) songs that question the genuineness of the president's Texas accent.

The Meat Purveyors - Fist City

From Bloodshot
From Amazon

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Black Ale Sinners - Honky tonkin' with the....

I'd been meaning to see the Black Ale Sinners for probably over a year. Every time they had a show, it seems like something else was going on and I figured that, them being a local group, I'd be able to catch them later. Well, Saturday, I happened to walk by a poster advertising their last show ever was going to be that night. I had been planning something else, but I couldn't put it off again, so I went.

They're a nice hard driving honky tonk and old time sextet. Many of the members switched between instruments, but usually at the same time, leading to two noticeably distinct sounds. The lead guitarist switched between archtop guitar and banjo and the steel player never played steel during a banjo song. Also, the drummer played washboard during the banjo songs, but played single snare during the archtop/steel songs. Another guy switched off between mandolin and fiddle, although his switching wasn't in synch with the others. In addition to the plethora of instruments, they also sang quite a bit of harmony. The harmony was good, but a bit gritty.

They played mostly originals, which this album features exclusively, but they also played a few standards, including a couple Buck Owens songs and a Roger Miller.

This album showcases their more honky tonk side (hence the title) and doesn't feature any banjo or washboard as far as I can tell. Many of these original tunes have a ring of familiarity about them, one of the hallmarks of good songwriting, I think. These guys are also obviously having fun, which brings out the best in their tunes. They fall into a nice place between the sometimes over-seriousness of Dale Watson and the snarky "irony" of so many indie rockers turned country.

Black Ale Sinners - Highway 10

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Kris Kristofferson - This Old Road

I saw this album in the used bin at my local record store in late January. I knew it must be pretty new 'cause of its '06 date, but I hadn't heard anything about it so I left it. I figured that if Kris Kristofferson put out a new album I would have heard about it if it was any good. Well, a couple weeks later, he's on the cover of No Depression and everyone's calling this CD his best in decades. Turns out someone had sold their promo copy to my local store even before the this had been released.

Well, it is a great album. Very sparse and atmospheric, yet not vapid as Kristofferson's lyrics come to the front. I could see comparisons to Cash's American Recordings, especially the character of the old voice. The production here, by Don Was, is much less obvious than Rick Rubin's on the American series, though. The songs are mostly rather sparse, with Kristofferson on guitar and harmonica with mandolin, drums, bass, and piano also appearing. The harmonica is rather Dylan-esque and complements Kristofferson's rough voice in a similar manner.

The lyrical content of this album is what you might expect of a lefty during a conservative political swing, particularly "In the News," which responds to the US-led occupation of Iraq as well as problems at home, and "Wild American," an ode to Steve Earle and others who have suffered for vocalizing their political beliefs. But Kristofferson's writing skills haven't lessened over the years and he once again proves his place as one of the great songwriters. He deals subtly with topics that might be approached more clumsily by lesser writers.

Kris Kristofferson - Thank You For a Life

From Amazon