Tag Archives: alt country

review – Blurry Blue Mountain

Another album and another winner, whatever musical incarnation Howe Gelb currently resides within. Giant Sand just keeps on truckin’, and with Blurry Blue Mountain Gelb and Co. have produced an album that’s surprisingly superlative.

Though firmly rooted in the band’s crispy Arizona desert sound, Gelb keeps pushing on from the edges of finality, seamlessly integrating his often brooding voice, often jarring guitar with a thoughtful and introspective piano tune.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an alt-country release that’s so heavily influenced by the jazz of Thelonius Monk, though still retaining a cohesive feel up and on down the line, as Gelb would murmur.

The record begins an introspection, an aging persona almost casually contemplating not only the loss of his heroes more importantly the mystery of its suddenness. The feeling of loss is pervasive, saved only by the tiny diamond discovered by his beloved who sees it as him, he a self-described chunk of coal.

Finding this tiny bit of redemption, the record picks up its emotional momentum, as the narrator regains his mojo from such disparate legends and influences as Thelonius Monk and the Molly Maguires, perhaps not so incidentally retracing Gelb’s own footsteps “from the Pennsylvania coal to the Arizona copper sun”.  What follows is the narrator’s newly found identity, a crafty, cheeky though contemplative musical self-sacrifice, which pays off handsomely. Listen closely enough and you might find a story cycle hidden just beneath the dust alongside the rail tracks.

The tracks are tight as a drum, with little deviation.  Fields of Green, Chunk of Coal, Ride the Rail, Erosion, Love a Loser, and Love Letters (bonus song) are the big standouts.  As usual, the guitar work, piano and percussion is dustily immaculate, if a bit too subtle at times. And like Marie Frank in previous GS works, Lonna Kelly provides provides some real sultry shivers on several tracks, nicely complementing Gelb’s droll. The problem is that Gelb is musically understated and/or too tongue-in-cheek, so one typically has to turn the volume up to get a better overall feel.  If anything, Blurry Blue Mountain is a grand upstanding album, while at the same time just another another teaser for Gelb’s future experimentation.

new music – hold time

mwardM. Ward’s latest release, Hold Time, continues his trend of revisiting and perhaps reinventing the good-old-time sound of none other than the good-old-times.  An ever-present countrified guitar, mixed with his usual lo-fi and low-key raspy voice, and a really well-conceived set of songs makes makes this his most thorough release evah.

A little more rock ‘n roll than his typical folkish sound, Ward keeps a good balance of electric vs. acoustic guitarmanship, with a subtle string section thrown in for good measure.  Add an impossibly haunting duet with Lucinda Williams and a beautiful complement of background vocals from Zooey Deschanel, and you’re left with an album that, like the throwback nostalgia Ward encapsulates, will stand on it own for repeated listening.

Among the many, standout tracks include One Hundred Million Years, Blake’s View, Jailbird, Stars of Leo, and Oh Lonesome Me.

review – yours truly, the commuter

lytle Jason Lytle will admit through his lyrics that this is not a triumphant return, but his reemergence back to the indie, alt-country, southwestern music scene is certainly redeeming.   Rather than further eulogizing the dissolution of Grandaddy, Jason has reified his talent through his new solo album Yours Truly, The Commuter.  Not only is it a lo-fi production continuing the Grandaddy vision of natural wonder surrounded with crunchy guitars and ethereal overtones, but it’s also a statement.  Lytle, in his pursuit of serenity, is here for the long-haul, not as a rock star, but as an artist.

The overall theme of the album is somewhat a continuation of Grandaddy’s What Happened to the Fambly Cat, where Lytle is not subtle about never being able to return to his Shangri-La, geographical or otherwise. The Commuter, however, stresses the classic idea of having the destination matter less than the actual journey, and it is in this journey that Lytle realizes the heroism of the ability to keep pushing on rather than cling to fleeting paradise.

As the album progresses the landscape changes from the typical earthy Grandaddy sound of intertwined guitar, synth and subtle percussion to the takeoff of ethereal chords and extended, up-close confessionals.  Plenty of standout tracks on this one; mine include Brand New Sun, Ghost of My Old Dog, Rollin’ Home Alone, Flying Thru Canyons and Here for Good.   It’s an album that gathers an emotional momentum, but soon dissipates, for it’s typical of Lytle: all his intention is to make an honest sound, watch it fly around, and then be on his way.

new music – middle cyclone

nekoNeko Case’s new album Middle Cyclone, is well titled.  A force of nature, it’s a commanding collection of songs not only showcasing the beauty and strength of her voice, but it’s also an intelligently conceived expression of a bold though suppressed anger of the overlooked feminine psyche.  More overtly, the album is a warning not to overlook the force of mother nature herself; in the closing thirty minutes Case deliberately bends our ears toward the night music of the marsh, the crying of crickets and frogs.  But more than that,  Case alludes to the theme of the feminine being taken for granted, and the resulting cyclone in wait.

Be forewarned, the first half of the record starts with the “tiniest sparks” and the “tenderest sound”, a lovely beginning to the showcase, as it were.  Once the listener reaches “I’m an Animal”, however, the cyclone becomes manifest, a darkening crescendo of turbulence.  With all songs are fairly short and predictably impressive, the absolute masterpiece for me is the longer “Prison Girls”; it’s a funeral dirge for those women eternally unimpressed, who’ve “traded more for cigarettes than I’ve managed to express”.

Middle Cyclone is an hugely solid album with incredible accompaniment.  The sound is awash with the drums, upright bass, piano, and guitars from eternal alt-country ambassadors Howe Gelb, Calexico, and M. Ward.  Case’s own band is impeccable as well, not only highlighting her voice but surrounding it with a fullness that nearly suffocating.  As usual, the lyrics are as haunting as in any prior Neko Case release, too.  Standing equal with Fox Confessor, Middle Cyclone is yet another jewel in Case’s crown.

frothcoming – yours truly, the commuter


Favored Dispatch! It brings great joy to have acquired news through the inter-tubes that Jason Lytle, former frontman of Grandaddy, will once again elevate himself into the stratosphere with his new release, Yours Truly, the Commuter.

Always introspective and always artistic, Lytle will no doubt offer an account of past memories tempered with the solitude and reflection of his move to Montana.  The spirit of alt-country welcomes you back into her sun-soaked arms, Jason.

new music – jolie holland

jolSometimes there appears a voice heard on the periphery, and once you hear it you can only hear it again and again; it’s like eating at the Bellagio Buffet, with all the style and variety there is no option but to consume more until explosion is imminent.

Such is the case with Jolie Holland. As with other alt-country sirens such as Neko Case, Holland is deliciously, completely captivating, particularly on her new album The Living and the Dead.  Her voice is so full and nuanced that without careful attention to her lyrics one can and probably will hang on her every note like a shipwrecked Greek sailor.

More so than on previous releases, Holland raises the tempo on this album, making it more accessible for newbies.  And though I am scrambling to recollect the milieu of her past releases, I can say that The Living and the Dead is more oriented toward rock ‘n roll than it typically would be a clever mash of blues, folk and country.  Another reason why I favor L&D is the inclusion of some first rate guitarists such as M. Ward and Marc Ribot lending their talents.

As if Holland didn’t already emulate the alt-country / southwestern genre at its most unique, this particular album cements her emergence.  Mexico City, Corrido por Buddy, and Palmyra are immaculate, with Fox in its Hole and Your Big Hands as the other standout songs.   Though quality, the remaining songs just don’t reach the heights as the others, and thus the album as a whole is slightly incomplete for me; were a different closing song chosen rather than the more frolicky Enjoy Yourself, L&D would have been less anti-climactic and thus perfect.

Nevertheless, Jolie Holland is absurdly captivating.



Neko Case, for those unawares.

music – lambchop

lamDon’t let Lambchop fool you.  Though one can mistake the band’s sound for, as David Berman so aptly puts it, “country restroom on the radio”, Lambchop is another alt-country superband that’s redefining genres.  If you don’t pay close enough attention, it’ll pass you by like the falling of leaves with the onset of winter.

Nashville’s best-kept secret, Lambchop is so subtle you’ll never know it’s there until their sound filters into your subconscious and you find yourself humming their songs on any rainy day, on the way to the grocery store,  or drifting off to sleep after a particularly trying day.

Kurt Wagner is an exceptional wordsmith, and combined with the extreme fullness of his band’s complement, ranging to maybe a dozen musicians, his musical vision is parallel to the imaginagtion and cleverness of Howe Gelb.  Yet while Gelb is more over overt in his musicianship, Wagner keeps tightly inward, straining to restrain his musings into impressionistic rock and roll, if there is such a thing.  More so than Gelb, Wagner softly speaks into the microphone more often than he sings, letting his atmospheric guitar-driven melodies take over.

It takes a careful ear to discern exactly what Wagner is singing about, but it’s certain that a whole lotta effort has been invested into his themes.  Excelling tracks on OH (ohio):  Ohio, National Talk Like a Pirate Day, A Hold of You, Close up and Personal, I Believe in You. Think of Lambchop as a soulful, resigned, oft humorous but always genuine rock and roll band…for the quiet times.

Here’s a goodie from their previous album, Damaged – Crackers.  Still not sure what it’s about.

new music

han“A little bit creepy and a little bit country.”

Such is the self-description of The Handsome Family, an overly under-appreciated alt-country duo that your ears deserve more listening to.  It pleases me to no end to hear that the Family Sparks (Brett and Rennie) will be delivering a new release with the delivery of the new year.

For those not in the know, the Family’s sound is, in my opinion, resurrecting country music as we know it today. Not the garbage on your radio nor on cable TV, but the stuff of old before it was mutilated and exploited by corporate clowns. Not only has lead singer Brett the voice and presence often compared to Johnny Cash, but Rennie’s lyrics are so starkly beautiful and haunting that it’s hard to stop listening.  Be forewarned…words like macabre, dark, and death-obsessed are well deserved; their songs involve the isolation and cruelty of the wilderness far from any road, the bottomless pits discovered in our backyards of all places, the sudden sleepiness induced by other-worldly visitors, and the mysteriousness of the creatures of the animal world we normally disregard without second thought.

My favorite release by the Family is Singing Bones, but their most recent album, Last Days of Wonder, is a stunning release that’s more lyrically philosophical than prior releases; its undercurrent is the great journey of life sung on grandiose, temporal themes.  Journeys ranging from cosmic explosions to not-so-chance meetings in airports, even to the brief encounters exchanged at the drive-through; either way, it’s a blurry collage of life in those times when you’ve always somewhere else to be.

new music – calexico

There are so many intriguing parts constituting the whole of Calexico that make its sound more an experience than a commercial product.  John Convertino’s drumming, the stormy, border-infused lyrics of Joey Burns, the duality of breezy subtlety and explosive thunder from the brass section of Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk, and Paul Niehaus’ dreamy, ultra-slick pedal steel and electric guitar can all have separate and successful solo avenues.  Together though, they are Calexico, one of the best under-the-radar southwestern and alternative bands around.

Their previous release, Garden Ruin, was an attempt to consolidate their well-established musical experiment, and though lyrically Calexico continued to push boundaries, the fullness of their sound was stifled. Carried to Dust is a return to form, slightly more sorrowful than The Black Light, Hot Rail or Feast of Wire, but it is incredibly strong nonetheless. It’s as if the chilled atmosphere of this album is symbolic of the desert in winter.

Calexico both captures and reinvents the haze and tumble of southwestern border music.  Miles upon miles of highway, man-made lakes, illegal ports, migrants avoiding spotlights, living on the wire, and dreams of a new life are the stories and images of Calexico. Stories which often highlight the plight of those overlooked by most citizens, the invisible people quietly struggling to survive.

In addition to the release of of Two Silver Trees, standouts of the album include Writer’s Minor Holiday, Inspiracion (with guests Amparo Sanchez and Jairo Zavala), El Gatillo, Slowness (with Pieta Brown), and Red Blooms.

Also, can’t forget to mention the always evocative artwork of Victor Gastelum.