Review: Amanda Shires writes at the edge of danger with a rare and delicate precision

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Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land (2016)

amanda-shires-piece-of-landAmanda Shires is to confessional folk/country what a puffer fish is to foodies; an irresistible delicacy that is so unsafe only chefs with 3+ years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare it.

Shires started training on the road at age 15 with Texas Playboys, and under John Prine, Ryan Adams and future husband Jason Isbell learned to use her natural gifts judiciously. Her voice is soft and sweet, her violin slow and soulful, and she writes with a rare precision honed by formal study of poetry. Most songwriters study their peers, hence cliche and contrived rhymes.

But danger lurks nearby. She’s no longer singing about taking boxcutters to the bath or lying on railroad tracks, and life with a now-sober Isbell is good; they have a baby and are buying their piece of land. But it’s also scary. What if he slips out on the road? What if his head is turned? She knows what it’s like to want to give up on life, she writes, to want so much to run away.

Drive-by Truckers are pissed off and they want you to know it. #BlackLivesMatter

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Drive-By Truckers – American Band (2016)

Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, the twin towers of America’s hard-rocking south, are pissed off. As pissed off as they’ve ever been. They are sick and tired of reading about mass shootings, innocent blacks gunned down, and the “vile” continuing social injustice of modern day America.

The result is their angriest album in a decade and one of their best since forming the band in 1986, which is saying a lot.

Usually, they tell stories that guide listeners to an enlightened way of thinking. Nothing so fancy this time: “I don’t want there to be any doubt as to which side of this discussion we fall on,” Hood says. “I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding of where we stand. If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Cooley is more succinct: “I wanted to piss off the assholes.”

Patterson and Cooley talk about writing in anger HERE. Fittingly, it’s #NSFW.

American Band is due out Sept. 30.

Bill Evans’ jazz/funk/blues fusion rises above the usual traps of the genre(s)

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Bill Evans – Rise Above (2016)

Hreinn Gudlaugsson photo

Hreinn Gudlaugsson photo

The lesser known of the two Bill Evans Miles Davis hired or the eclectic solo banjoist, the sax veteran (tenor and soprano) continues to push jazz-funk boundaries. Any jazz fusion is a delicate row to hoe because there’s a fine line between improvised solos and self-indulgence, and Evans usually manages it.

He fused jazz and bluegrass into Soulgrass in the early 2000’s and this time out adds guitarist/vocalists from blues-rock jam bands Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers/JJ Grey. Some of it works and some doesn’t so much, but the four successes below are distinctly original and worth the price.

Big Dog review: The full power of Albert Castiglia’s blues is finally unleashed

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Albert Castiglia – Big Dog (2016)

albert-castiglia-big-dog-thinLike many starting out in blues, Miami’s Albert Castiglia has struggled to forge a sound. Even his self-penned songs sound like Albert King, Stevie Ray, BB, Ronnie Earl, Junior Wells (who gave him his start) and the other luminaries who have (or would have) sung his praises.

His eight albums since 2004 have been small-label (even a German independent) or self-released. And they sound like it, masking some pretty darn good blues writing; 2014’s Solid Ground is especially strong.

The always amazing Mike Zito, who produces and plays, and a Grammy-worthy mix at Dockside Studios (Louisiana) help reverse much of the above. They settle on one style and let fly with a “driving along the highway with the top down” blues party. This ain’t American Idol and there’s no precocious deals at the crossroads (Get Your Ass In The Van); it’s a hungry ole hound let off it’s leash for the first time.

7 songs to take to a desert island? This’ll do me:

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I did this for a friend who asked a bunch of us to post our ‘Desert Island Discs’ – 7 songs we’d take with us if banished to a desert island. It’s HERE if you want to see what others picked – or suggest your own if you like.

I’m not going to explain my picks. That’s between me and my therapist🙂

Does writing about being trapped become it’s own trap: Lori McKenna, The Bird, and The Rifle

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Lori McKenna – The Bird And The Rifle (2016)

lori-mckenna RSLori McKenna was once described to me as a songwriting ninja, and that she is. The Bird And The Rifle finds a master songwriter in her prime, Dave Cobbs’ production is sure but gentle, and the highlight songs are an easy jump for new fans awakened by last year’s writing successes with Little Big Town (Girl Crush) and for Tim McGraw (Humble and Kind). It’s less a complete album than some of her others, most notably 2013’s Massachusetts or 2004’s Bittertown, but the kids won’t care.

My real issue is little seems to have changed for Lori personally since her debut, Papers and Halos in 2000, began to lay bare the pain of life with a flawed man and the melancholy of youth lost. She was 32 then and burning furniture for heat, and had few options.

Now she’s got millions (one supposes) in royalties rolling in and friends in high places yet still airing the same complaints about her man and the unfulfilling marriage. Her early life and songs were tremendously empowering for women leading similar trapped lives; she risks now leaving them hanging.

Review: It’s all amateur hour until the Hall of Famer sings.

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Chip Taylor –  Little Brothers  (2016)

chip taylor little brothers

Famous brothers: Chip Taylor, actor Jon Voight and volcanologist Barry Voight.

Grandpa, now 76, sets on his porch with a well-worn guitar and probably a tall glass of lemonade and starts conversing on thoughts and remembrances as they come. Yawn, right? Please tell me to get off your &#@* grass. A brother’s golf trip, a dream he had, revisiting a Swedish resort, the grandkids; it’s great living history stuff to record for the family scrapbook before the old guy kicks it, but too amateur hour for public sharing.

Except if Grandpa is a Hall of Fame songwriter, because the muse still strikes and when it does, it’s stunning. As it does when he sings about his long-time wife Joan.

FORE: Taylor turned to music when golf didn’t work out and the passion remains. His next project is an EP called I’ll Carry For You about teenage golfing phenoms Brooke and Brittany Henderson (from my hometown Smith’s Falls, Ontario!) who caddy for each other. Brooke became the youngest to win the LPGA Championship in June… and won a car, which she gave to caddy Brittany.



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