M. 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.
Sometimes 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.
“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.
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.
Posted in music, reviews
Tagged alt country, amparo sanchez, calexico, carried to dust, jairo zavala, joey burns, john convertino, pieta brown, reviews, sam beam, southwestern, victor gastelum