Review: Leyla McCalla’s music reminds us Haiti is about beauty and proud culture, not just earthquakes and hurricanes

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Leyla McCalla – A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey (2016)

leyla-mccallaWith Haiti once again ravaged by Mother Nature, Haitian-American and former Carolina Chocolate Drop Leyla McCalla’s second solo album is a timely reminder that her kin are spirited, resolute and proud people.

Some context is helpful since McCalla sings in both French and English, but the roots cellist and her maestro violin, banjo and guitar friends’ heady blend of airy Lousianna jazz and soft Creole rhythms speak clearly to the unilingual.

That such beauty can come from a country we associate with poverty, corruption and international disaster relief is a potent reminder that music and art put the meat on the bare bones of headline journalism.

Review: Lydia Loveless writes some Real-ly strong songs. Too bad her band is so humdrum

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Lydia Loveless – Real (2016)

lydia-loveless-ll1It is well worth putting in the effort to block out a plodding rhythm section to get to the heart of Lydia Loveless’s latest songs. A timid bandleader, she is savage with a pen. Young women should be happy to hear her reaffirm that they can be strong and independent and still feel fearful and vulnerable sometimes.

Alas, her backing 80’s tribute band is only one mirror she hides behind. The other is her move to power pop after a country 2010 debut and a Knittersish cowpunk followup, a genre she now disowns. But she’s no stadium rock chick however much she’d like to be one, and her writing is too involved and sonically varied for that audience. She’s more Paul Westerberg than her inexplicable idol Kesha, and it’s Achin’ To Be heard.

Busking their way across America: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry shine a light on perfect travel


Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Shine A Light : Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad (2016)


Shine A Light isn’t perfect, and that’s by design. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry counted on intrusions while recording a dozen classic railroad songs semi-impromptu in public at train stations. The background noises (heard best on headphones) simply add to the earthy, homespun charm.

Travel became more efficient when air supplanted rail, but also more impersonal, so Bragg and Henry traveled like regular folk on a 2,700-mile train journey across America to reground themselves (in every sense).

It’s no stretch to imagine them as a pair of pretty good buskers, especially with Henry’s slightly off-kilter harmonizing (In The Pines, Midnight Special, L&N). Bragg harmonizes ‘better’ (Gentle On My Mind, Early Morning Rain, Hobo’s Lullaby), but this would never be mistaken for a studio album. Or anything but a heartfelt labour of love.

Shine A Light is a unique project executed to perfection. Cheesy to say, but ALL ABOARD!

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.

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