Posts Tagged ‘Alt-Country’

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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RF Shannon – “Black Madonna, So Divine”

Texan’s RF Shannon are making a good case for their upcoming album Trickster Blues with the record’s country lacquered second single “Black Madonna, So Divine.” The song is driven by Shan Renfro’s dream blurred vocals and pushed further by the cries of slide guitar that add to the bittersweet blush of the song. Pushing the surreal, dreamlike quality even further is the gorgeous cinematography of Melissa Cha, who renders the whole thing into a dessert sweatlodge vision that dissipates in a puff of dust. Lovely stuff.



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Bonny Doon

Sure there’s something “hazy and pastoral” about the songs that appear on Bonny Doon’s new LP, Longwave. There’s a soft focus around the edges and an undercurrent of bliss, but there’s something I’d have to call aimlessly suburban about the album. Despite writing a good deal of the record in the quaint sounding town of Mystic Lake, MI, I, as a born and raised Michigan lad have to note that this berg is smack dab in the middle of the state. That leaves it surrounded on all sides by the tedious sprawl of Michigan highways. Now, if you’ve never experienced them I envy you, they’re an almost unrelenting expanse of featureless roadway that boasts no change in elevation to break up the monotony. It’s with these concrete threads in mind that I find the core of Longwave’s charm. There’s something soothing in its laconic presentation of a pop that touches on cosmic Americana, but packages it in the ’90s hangover of Alternative that once scraped the radio waves late at night on my Midwestern car stereo.

On long stretches of these roads I’d often console myself with music and with the right kind of bittersweet sway, those dull drags through big box America blur into a heavy sigh. Bonny Doon have captured the swirl of cracked plastic signs lined in squat strips, eking out an existence swaddled in dulled teals and muddy yellow. They’ve found the soundtrack to the American ground loop of small town existence. There’s a great sense of pop that’s thriving under the hood of Longwave, but its ‘from-the-hip’ nature and sauntered tempos lend well to a kind of nostalgia that dredges up a sense memory for smoke stained bowling alleys, Bob’s Big Boys and that smell of rain right before it breaks. Sure the landscape is dotted with cell towers now, but as Detroiters themselves, Bonny Doon must know that some places hold onto the past as modern ruins – industrial dioramas to the American Dream gone south, haunted with the ghosts of fried egg routines and holding fast to traditions no one agreed on. There are plenty of ennui miners these days, but somehow the smoke rings that dissipate around Bonny Doon’s alt-pop, shaded thick with twang and a half awake, half dreaming sigh, evoke an era lost more than most. This one’s a long-latcher, finding its way to your heart and squeezing softly.




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A. Savage

Here’s the thing, as a band Parquet Courts lost me a while back. I championed Light Up Gold because it captured a certain moment in the slide of Brooklyn from youthful intrusion to full on infestation of wealth. It was a feeling in time mimeographed and cut to groove, but as the band continued they became more wrapped up in their own lineage and legacy than seemed necessary. The deadpan dynamics and new wave plundering fell too antiseptic on my shores. That’s not to discount Andrew Savage as a songwriter, he’s proven he’s got an angle that sells and a poet’s heart that lends itself well to the Jonathan Richman patter that he’s able to slip into seamlessly.

So it winds up that he’s gone back home to his roots in Texas and a brand of lonesome country pining for his latest, and here he finds his second wind. The album boasts no shortage of talent, swapping out his usual backing band for a bevy of friends and compatriots from Woods, Ultimate Painting, PC Worship, EZTV, and Psychic TV. The assembled masses take his drip dry delivery on a tour of the Southwest, grasping hands with slide guitar and an amiable amble without ever affecting any hackneyed country croon. Instead he staples his best Calvin Johnson talking blues to the tumbleweeds of alt-country and, at times, a starker strain that boils the noise out of his boots and lets an acerbic twinge show through the relaxed demeanor of Thawing Dawn.

This is actually where the album shines brightest, when the noise overwhelms the swagger (see: “What Do I Do”). The moment that the veneer is broken and the brain starts to boil compliments the easy going country ambivalence. There are some choice ballads here that showcase Savage’s handle on being the lonesome foal among a herd that might not love him back, but when he lets fly a brand of noise-country I’m fully invested in what he’s selling. There are those that will brand this a solo outing unmoored from his Parquet work, adrift and looking for purchase, but for me that’s where Savage excels. By balancing ennui painted in sunset hues and itching uncertainty, he’s found an explanation of what drifting into your thirties in the city feels like.




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Mapache

L.A. duo Mapache are probably a bit late on their particular sound a couple of times over, but that’s kind of the charm of it. The band is evoking the vibes that ran through the country-tinged revival that pushed bands Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde into the modern lexicon – their own sound itself just a reflection of The Flying Burritos, solo Gram, Gene Clark and The Byrds before them. The connection to those ’90s psych stalwarts is no chance happening, though. The band’s Clay Finch is a cousin to Beachwood’s Chris Gunst, who has championed the youngbloods along with The Tyde’s Brent Rademaker. Both have stepped up to push the young duo to their place among L.A.’s live set.

With that kind of endorsement and lineage you’re either coasting on the fumes of nepotism or you had better be able to back it up. The eponymous debut from the duo boasts more of the latter thankfully. It breaks with the widescreen, panoramic production of their mentors, instead opting for spare arrangements that focus on the pairs’ voices, often all tangled up in one another. Their simple country-folk songs evoke evening light and the feel of sunburn tightening on the skin. Often boasting simple setups that put slide and strum in sway with an amber-hued croon, their songs aren’t overwrought, but it’s easy to see how they could sink a crown into the bliss of permanent summer.

There’s an eternal quality to the songs, a feeling that they’ve just been around bouncing from bar band to bar band in the neighborhoods of L.A. for the last 50-odd years and Mapache has just now put these public domain yarns to wax. That’s certainly what they’re stretching for and more often than not, they hit that vibe effortlessly on the head. Some bands try damn hard to feel like they just showed up and strummed out a weary, road-dusted classic. Seems like Mapache have found a way to breezily harness eleven of them, each one sinking into the horizon with a deeper orange, kicking up the crickets as they fade away.




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Mapache – “Chico River”

Picking up the West Coast psych rock tradition and peppering a liberal dose of country swoons n’ American croons, Mapache are heirs apparent to the Rademaker brothers’ crown of Alt-country warblin’. The first cut from their upcoming eponymous LP on Spiritual Pajamas is sweltering in the afternoon heat of slide guitar and rambling plucks, but its the honeyed twining of their voices that seals the deal. The duo work their way around harmonies with the grace of artists twice their age. It seems that they’ve caught on to the old soul early and are making it work well to their advantage. Keep this one in your sights when the album hits next month.




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Premiere: Joseph Childress – “Footsteps”

Joseph Childress’ debut has been a long time coming, building out of the bones of his sorely overlooked demo collection, The Rebirths, and inspired by a move to ranching in Wyoming. He embeds plenty of the wide-skied country charm on his eponymous debut, moving from Townes Van Zandt weary-eyed yarns to fingerpicked folk that showcases his technical side. However, there are few songs like “Footsteps” on this album. Building from a slow, plaintive pluck, the song is hushed and practically bumping against the quiet calm of summer cicadas when Childress lets us in. One minute on, a powerful piano chord transitions the tone from wistful to mournful.

Each consecutive moment takes Childress closer to the edge of breaking. The song works through emotions that have no boxes built to contain them. The end of the track sees Childress pleading with the listener, howling to the wind while it overtakes him – a storm of sound that’s on the precipice and teetering. As I mentioned, there are big skies on this album, but none bigger than here. Cracked with lightning, it is proof that Childress can sling songs with the best of them. The entirety of his self-titled album is engrossing, but this is a true high water mark.



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Cool Ghouls

Not all EP’s are created equal, and often when connected with a tour, the word ‘asset’ gets tossed around more than the word release. So, it’s comforting to know that even on a stopgap tape they created for tour, the band still maintains a high caliber of songwriting. Not that I’d call most Cool Ghouls releases regimented, but this has a looser feel than most of their work – delving into instrumental psychedelics to stretch out their stage muscles a bit, but more often, crafting breezy West Coast country psych ramblers that swell with jangles and amber hues.

On the tape’s title track, they’re at their faded AM best, flipping through the kind of private press psych that burns the mind and warms the insides. They’re cycling through their Byrds lineage well, picking from the band’s permutations while hinting at great imitators like The Wizards From Kansas or Sapphire Thinkers and even a bit of Moby Grape as well. The EP isn’t as coalesced as they’ve been on record, but it feels like a way to indulge some influences in a great way. To be honest the loose production suits them so well, it makes me hope that they carry over the general vibe of this into their next proper album. Hard to get a bad bump from the ghouls, and this paints them as ardent ’60 psych fans with deep shelves.


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A.M. Son

There’s been a glut of power pop with an emphasis on the power half of the equation, but lately it seems that a few artists are starting to find the sweet spot between country ramble, Rundgrenesque ’70s AM sheen and the kind of power pop that befit The Flaming Groovies in their later Beatles obsession. Throw in an affinity for Muswell-era Kinks and Adam Paulson’s debut as A.M. Son checks all the boxes. Floating in on a sweet breeze of strums, twang, fiddle, and thick ’70s organ licks, this stands as a solid outlier in 2017’s indie field. The timbre of Paulson’s straw-scratched croon made me at once think that somehow Nobunny’s Justin Champlin had gone softly into the arms of country pop. And while Paulson doesn’t hold over in that circle, he’s not without his own garage and indie roots.

Paulson’s last stint saw him co-leading the short-lived but always intriguing Rainbow Gun Show, who had a few tracks out on HoZac. He’s also a touring member of Mild High Club, and though their psych-soul doesn’t really bleed in here, he does pick up psych in the form of a nod or two to the Elephant 6’s lush, strum-heavy variety (“You’ve Got Me”.) The record’s brief nine tracks are solid and endearing pop from start to finish, putting him squarely on the radar alongside some up and comers like New Rose or L.A.’s Mikah Wilson, who’s finding his way to similarly breezy territory. A pitch perfect offering from Throne Age, who, themselves are building up a nice little reputation as a label as well.




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