Posts Tagged ‘Alt-Country’

Scott Hirsch

A couple of years back Scott Hirsch moved out of the studio pool, producing Hiss Golden Messenger records and holding down time in The Court and Spark to release a solo record. The record touched on plenty of the same ground he’d explored with those outfits – mellow, smoke and sunset country-folk that was nuanced and peppered with seasoned vets in the studio. On his follow-up, Hirsch has refined that sound, but added a low-slung groove to his tanned leather soul. Among those other plaudits, Hirsch was instrumental in mobilizing the one-off brilliance that was Golden Gunn and he brings the same reverence for the catalog of JJ Cale’s cocaine country to the fore here.

Lost Time Behind The Moon weaves between the roadhouse wrangle of Cale’s legacy and something of a transcendental peace, picking up the scattered pieces of Fred Neil alongside the respective ’72 vibes of Little Feat and Tim Buckley. Hirsch outstrips his previous effort time and again as each new song on his sophomore stint cues up – each one full of deeper humility, more vibrant hues, and rougher cut features. In a way the album sidles alongside the wave of Cosmic American that’s blossomed in 2018, though its nowhere near the heady sweat of most of the core chooglers operating in that sphere. While “No No” could easily slip in to bridge the divide between One Eleven Heavy and Howlin’ Rain, the scope of Hirsch’s album aims for more than just a nostalgic niche. Lost Time bristles and broods and in the end is a salve and solace to lost souls.

There’s something ephemeral that ties 1972 and 2018 – a tangle of turmoil, terror, desperation and delusion. The corruption wormhole of Watergate shot through to whatever ham-sliced timeline we’re currently operating in is palpable and by turns the same battered blue-collar brilliance on the stereo seems to hit home. Hirsch’s vision of country elegance and barbiturate boogie hangs heavy on he diaphragm, groovin’ and singin’ in the same breath. It’s both a damn shame and a blessing that this is coming out in December. The release schedule rush means a lot of people are going to gloss right over this, head stuck in the wet sand of year-end wraps ups. On the other hand, that makes this a brilliant gem for those still paying attention to the right channels. This one’s feels like it’s already got future collectors itchin’ to find a first press. If there’s one last record you add to the stack before the year tumbles down, this should be it.



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State Champion

State Champion have been carving their initials in the bar wood for a few records now and this time around the gouge is getting hard to ignore. I’ll admit I’m guilty of not giving the Louisville band enough credit, credence, or most importantly enough time on the speakers. There are a lot of bands battling for the haggard and hangdog void left behind by The Mats, Uncle Tupelo and Camper Van Beethoven, but few are actually able to capture the effortless ease of any of those record shelf regulars. Ryan Davis belts like the best bar band basement chuggers inhabiting your average college town’s VFW circuit, but elevates himself out of the depression dens with his indefatigable wit and an ear for raw melancholy that’s enviable.

The magic of State Champion is they’re wading through an alt-country ramble that’s been picked clean before but making it work like few of their peers. Davis is without a doubt a big part of that. Much like fellow perennial underdogs James Jackson Toth, Ned Collette or Joseph Childress, he’s one of this generation’s great songwriters, sketching out a vision of the American Midwest that’s self-aware, unpretentious and biting. Full of crumpled last cigarette vignettes and bar rag blues, Send Flowers is without a doubt the best vision of their quarter-draft night aesthetic. While the band’s last couple of records wore down the threads on their flannel resolve, this one breaks through the disguise to reveal State Champion as more than just top-billed Louisville royalty.

Its not simply a vehicle for Davis though. While the touchstones of alt-country and bar rock aren’t revolutionary, the band backing him up are nailing the sound with a subtle grace. There are soft touch slide guitar runs that practically weep, fiddle that dances slowly in the corners, and an uncluttered strum that knows just when to step out of the way. There’s something beautiful in a record that lets the listener crumple in its wake. Send Flowers is that friend that will buy a few rounds when that relationship that stretched past the point of breaking finally does you in. It lifts you up with a few great stories and leaves you to think in the cold, numb embrace of the parking lot’s void staring up at the stars – afterward you’re better, even if you’re not better off.



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Doug Paisley

With his fourth album for No Quarter, Doug Paisley has released a quietly devastating look into getting by. Starter Home, as the title might suggest, revolves around humble family life – burrowing into the weariness, happiness, worry and wonder that’s stretched across the American landscape. From the rain-streaked Sunday strums of the title track opener to the last lilting ripple of “Shadows,” Paisley proves that he’s got a deft hand for crafting winsome country that sketches out small town life in painstaking detail. His characters can’t move beyond the meager means they intended to be temporary fixes, can’t move beyond the jobs that were supposed to drag them out of their paycheck to paycheck lives. They’ve got friends, though, and family and they recognize the small miracles that pull us each through every day with enough of a smile to forget the weight, letting a few beers stoke the will to get to tomorrow.

Paisley’s vignettes aren’t cast in gilded frames. He’s a master of restraint, giving songs just enough to make them gorgeous but not showy, like high contrast black and white photos of ’50s modular homes with worn furniture and a cigarette in each hand. There’s a sense that this album is rooted in the same kind of sorrow and sighs that might have driven Townes or Fred Neil, but also a sense that Paisley is taking his rough roads better than the brand of artists who let the world cut them too deep. Starter Home is, without a doubt, an aching record with despair hovering right around the corner. The charm is that Paisley never lets it catch him or his characters.

The firelight flicker underneath the bittersweet blues keeps each song floating on a comforting warmth. The album’s centerpiece “Drinking With A Friend” kind of sums up the album’s underlying aesthetic. Paisley’s there to buffer your bad days and buy a round. Its the aural equivalent of that ache that hangs at the center of your chest – the pang throbs until it sometimes overwhelms, but it also reminds you that you’re alive, and that in itself is ok. Within the brief nine songs of Starter Home Paisley is able to unbutton then salt the wound and sew it back up for the next day’s lacerations. Its a humble album, that nonetheless leaves a pretty sizable mark.



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Cool Sounds

Melbourne’s Cool Sounds shift their spotlight from the “Real Estate dreaming of John Hughes subplots” sound they held on previous album Dance Moves and embrace a more languid, jazz-soaked vision of Aussie indie. While a stop-gap EP last year leaned towards a more austere acoustic vision, on Cactus Country the band again fleshes out the sound with rain stained sax lines, sunset twang that makes good on the promise of that title and a narcotic cool attached to the vocals that’s never in a hurry to push out of the permanent vacation saunter. The band once coined the term jazz-gaze to approximate their sound, but up until now it didn’t really feel like they were making good on it. While that’s still a bit of a smirking swing at how their sound shakes out, the comparison lands. Cool Sounds have baked this record on the boardwalks and beachfronts and tied the whole thing up in strains of “Baker Street” sax crushed out just a touch by the din of the waves.

At times the effect can push Cactus Country into the background music category, like quite a few of the lite jazz and drive time ‘80s references it’s evoking. Yet, the band has worked tirelessly on the aesthetic and even when they’re sometimes poking at the saccharine or cheesy (see: “Nylon”) they still feel genuine in their affection for the delivery and that gives the record its own gravity. There are some positively gorgeous moments on the record that melt away the frantic pace of 2018 and help hold the clock’s hands at bay for at least the thirty-odd minutes that Cactus Country spends on the speakers. For that respite, I remain grateful.

Ultimately the record feels like a faded and folded brochure for a long-gone vision of recreational living. The band succeeds in making it never feel like a modern take piped through a wood-grain filter, but rather a vintage find that’s just been packed in a dusted crate all these years. The nostalgia gives the record a slight tinge of bittersweet bliss and an aura of comfort that’s hard to resist. Cactus Country isn’t going to shake your foundations, but it might just soothe your soul, which is a welcome promise these days.



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Scott Hirsch – “When You Were Old (El Dorado)”

On the follow-up to his lauded album, Blue Rider Songs, Hirsch starts out strong tapping into a sunset country mix of mellow strums, buttery pedal steel and the tight-laced punch of horns. This time around Hirsch has enlisted members of Wilco alongside Edward Sharpe and M. Ward’s touring players and the results sound as well-oiled as that lineup would suggest. Hirsch sighs his way through “When You Were Old,” unraveling a tone of weariness and resigned sadness. The song shimmers in a way that’s not showy. It’s not the jukebox pick that’s gonna bring everyone to the floor, but its probably gonna save someone’s night, reaching out an arm of solidarity through any darkened bar. Hirsch has a deft handle on country tinged with Southern soul. The track swings like its got a touch of Muscle Shoals in its DNA, provided the house band relocated to Laurel Canyon for a dawn session among the trees. The record is out in December on Scissor Tail, which is a mark quality in and of itself, the label is an essential barometer for high quality folk and country these days. Get into this one and keep your finger above the repeat button.



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Anna St. Louis

Last year Anna St. Louis released a tape of striking, hushed songs on Woodsist’s small Mare imprint. They hinted at an accomplished songwriting talent and showcased St. Louis’ honeyed drawl, but the tape’s warm emersion in hiss and sunny afternoon vibes didn’t mark it as the kind of release that wrestled for constant attention. So, when her debut proper showed up in the inbox a few months back, I wasn’t quite prepared for the sucker punch to the gut it had in store. If Only There Was A River unfolds like a seasoned country-folk record, feeling classic and eternal like the kind of release that’s canon before it ever hits the shelves. It has an ache in its bones that’s raw and real, but St. Louis has wrapped the record in a lush warmth of an heirloom sweater pulled tight against the chill rolling across the plains. She’s teamed up with Kevin Morby and King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas to work the record into a bittersweet brilliance, gathering grey skies and painted sunset hues to color the spare, yet effective ambience around her tales of heartbreak and woe.

Most of the songs on If Only There Was A River have the kind of deep mournfulness and effortless age that seem like they might underscore a key scene in a Cohen brothers film. Her songs feel universal, timeless and torn in the way the catalogs of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Wanda Jackson often do. She’s most like Van Zandt, though, in her use of simple country cool paired with a just enough orchestration that a song feels gilded, but not so much that it feels gaudy. Van Zandt often chafed in this context. The production hung on him a bit loose, like a borrowed suit, but St. Louis is able to work the same juxtaposition to her advantage. She’s the kind that can walk into any vintage store and not only find something that fits well, but make it her own, casting out the ghosts of previous owners on her way out the door.

The album lends itself to multiple listens, touching different heartstrings each time it winds its way around the turntable. St. Louis’ vocals move from whisper to wrench over the course of the record. She’s a master of producing the pang that grips the guts and chokes back tears for undeserving lost loves. While the touchstones of the past cling to the edges of the record, it doesn’t feel like its looking back. She’s earning a place among albums that transcend eras and in that regard she’s positioning herself to stand alongside fellow L.A. troubadour Jenny Lewis as the kind of songwriter who is comfortable in her heartbreak and carving out a sound that eventually belongs only to her. This release is a large step in that direction and a highlight among 2018’s already stellar showing for music. With the arrival of If Only There Was A River it feels like St. Louis has gained a longstanding place among the artists that scar our souls over time.



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Anna St. Louis – “Understand”

Well there seems to be a unanimous love for this today, but hell, “Understand” is a hard song to ignore. St. Louis’ debut tape for Mare / Woodsist was homespun, sounding like a backporch 8-track session that traded in the intimate and spare. Going in with that cassette in mind, the polish on this first peek at her new album, If Only There Was a River, is considerable. The production from Kyle Thomas (King Tuff) and Kevin Morby has wrangled her beautiful songcraft into the kind of lush country that often fell by the wayside commercially but accrued critical fans and massive cult followings. The label has name checked Townes here, and that’s not far off, but this one’s got more of a Guy Clark vibe (think “She Ain’t Going Nowhere”) mixed with the pristine pop of Nico’s less bracing days.

St. Louis’ vocals ring rich and true, imbuing the song with the kind of classic charm that endears vocalists like Françoise Hardy, Bridget St. John or the aforementioned Nico to a certain swath of filmmakers. The accompanying video is a slow crawl through gorgeous terrain and works as a nice backdrop to the stunner that Anna lays on us all with this song. Gotta hope the rest of the album lives up to this, but with that crew attached and her songwriting skills, it might be safe to rest easy in that department. The LP is out in October, again on Mare / Woodist.



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Harlan T. Bobo

With A History of Violence songwriter Harlan T. Bobo steps out of the forgotten shadows and broken alleyways and into the sinister gel lights of a lounge peopled by addicts and guarded by a coded knock you’re definitely not privy to. The album elevates Bobo’s songwriting (though it wasn’t exactly slouching) to some of his finest and most pointed performances yet. He’s embracing several decades of Nick Cave, stretching from The Birthday Party scratch to the towering demon work of Cave’s latter-day output. He pours through the soul of Lou Reed’s most weathered screeds, picking at the bones Lou’s most hangdog heaviness. Bobo crawls from the cigarette-hung punk mangle of “Spiders,” – a decidedly driven and ferocious cut that’s reaching for its place among the Verlaine-veined fallout of ’78 – to his spot next to the pedestal of the haunted troubadour class. He’s still lighting sonic candles to raise the ghost of the dearly departed Leonard Cohen, and in some cases the voodoo appears to be taking hold.

Harlan wields a whiskey boiled croon better than most, slinking his way through tales of women, ghosts and grizzled souls with the lived-in spirit of a man possibly possessed and most certainly haunted. He writes characters that crawl the stage in search of solace, though they always seem to die a dime short of redemption. When the tempos boil over his songs live without care or conscience, but the consequences always come back to haunt his gallows work on the slower numbers. He’s long been scratching out ring worn gutwrenchers hung heavy with the musk of roadside motel stretches, but with A History of Violence he’s brought this vision to life like never before. The album is visceral and engrossing, a sinister triumph that’s sopped up the gutter and hung it in a crooked frame.




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Cut Worms

On his debut proper for Secretly Canadian Max Clarke invokes swooning ‘60s doo-wop, country shimmer, a dash of Danny Elfman’s quirk and plenty of love for The Kinks. Hollow Ground is particularly steeped in the Muswell Hillbilies era of the latter band, creating characters that are rough around the edges, but easy to love. He’s a storyteller in the country tradition, with few of his heroes coming out unscathed, but these tear-in-beer anthems find themselves in more precious terrain than hardscrabble hollows. While his shiny, shaggy country-folk cold easily find a kindred spirit in the likes of Sonny and the Sunsets and perhaps even slide after Beechwood Sparks on your infinite alt-country playlist, Clarke is crafting turn-key dioramas that are stuffed with moving parts that all seem to delight the listener rather than overwhelm the sense.

He’s crafting calliope wonderlands on “Cowards Confidence,” sweeping out a bar room tear-jerker on “It Won’t Be Too Long” and evoking the heartfelt warmth of John Denver or Neil Diamond on “Like Going Down Sideways.” The record flips the dial around enough mid-60s pop nuance it could practically qualify as a Wes Anderson soundtrack, all that’s missing are a few interludes from Mark Mothersbaugh. And just as often as the films connected to those soundtracks, Hollow Ground is a splash of colors, intricate draping and meticulous craftsmanship housing characters with a heavy heart and more than a dash of ennui.

Clarke’s skill is apparent here and its an impressive album for a debut – If this is only the start, one has to wonder how far he’ll go in time. Come for the whimsy, stay for the endlessly enjoyable songs that burrow deep with earworms and just a touch of aural pizazz.



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Cut Worms’ Max Clarke on Leonard Cohen’s – Death Of A Ladies’ Man

Sometimes an album can sucker punch you in the best ways. After hearing Cut Worms’ first EP I was prepared to know what to expect from a full length. It seemed like an extension of the folk pop from that short format would follow, but instead the band’s Max Clarke shines with an album of country pop that’s on par with Sonny Smith’s dry-wit and easy hooks. The record is a refined affair that shows an artist growing exponentially from his early works and it makes me excited for what’s to come from him down the line. Clarke makes a pick here for the site’s Hidden Gems series, singling out Leonard Cohen’s unlikely team-up with Phil Spector as a a diamond among the artist’s usually worked over and oft analyzed catalog.

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