Archive for the ‘First Impressions’ Category

The end of the decade is nigh. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize it until this week, but the clock’s hands are tick-tick-ticking closer to midnight. Before this annus horribilis gives way to the Year of Visual Acuity, however, listen to this:

That’s the opener to Leslie Stevens’ new album, Sinner, which as a whole conjures a century’s worth of country music in its 10 tracks, echoing everyone from Glen Campbell to Dolly Parton to Gram Parsons to Emmylou Harris and her Spyboy band. It’s the kind of album you play once, and wind up playing again and again, each time hearing something new. Her vocals are a thing of ever-shifting beauty, soulful and sweet and pure, and the songs are strong and sure.

It’s traditional. Alternative. Unique. Her voice trembles, rises and falls, dynamic and dramatic, in sync not just with the lyrics but the soul. Some are story-songs. Others are from the heart.

Here’s a live rendition of another of the album’s highlights:

Leslie Stevens is currently on tour in the States, and thankfully isn’t bypassing my neck of the woods. You can see where she’s playing, and buy Sinner, at her website. (It’s also available via the normal streaming sites.)

Swampy Southern Rock meets Outlaw Country on LoneHollow’s potent self-titled EP. The Nashville duo consists of Damon Atkins, who was born at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and one of my favorite up-and-coming singers, Rylie Bourne, who hails from Illinois. It’s quite the combination: His is a voice brimming with soul; and hers is a voice that pierces the soul. Together, they’re akin – somewhat – to Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams circa the late ‘90s: rough, gruff and stirring. They’re quite the combination.

Of the music itself: Lost spirits accent the melodies and rhythms, which fire with the wearied precision of a weather-beaten still. I’ve had the five-song EP – which is available on both Apple Music and Spotify – on repeat for most of the morning, and highly recommend it.

For more on them, check out this interview from late 2018.

On the heels of Springsteen’s sublime Western Stars, just about everything new I’ve heard has sounded flat – until this morning, that is. On their fourth album together, Texas troubadours (and husband and wife) Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis turn in a stellar 10-song set that delivers hard-earned truths about love, heartache and middle-aged life.

Here’s the opening cut, the Adam Wright-penned “If I Had a Rose,” which was released as a stand-alone single last fall. (According to this interview Robison gave Texas Monthly magazine, it’s what jumpstarted the album.)

Is that aural beauty in a song, or what?!

“Astrodome,” the second track, was written by Robison and Jack Ingram. One need not be from Houston or have ever stepped inside the former home of the Astros and Oilers to enjoy listening to its protagonist, an old man talking about the good old days and how the world sometimes feels like it’s moved on without him. 

Another walk down memory lane, albeit for different reasons, comes courtesy of “One Dime at a Time,” an old Ernest Tubb hit that was written by Jerry Chestnut and Dottie Bruce. It’s a tear-in-my-beer tune, the kind of thing that was once the hallmark of mainstream country music. Another track that channels that old-school country vibe is “Nobody’s Perfect,” which was also written by Adam Wright. It’s a killer cut with a killer vocal by Kelly: 

The title cut, “Beautiful Lie,” a stripped-down rendition of an old Amazing Rhythm Aces song, conjures no less than Gram and Emmylou.   

In short, for my ears and taste, country music doesn’t get much better than Beautiful Lie. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, the best music reflects its time even as it stretches beyond it. Such is the case here. 

The romanticism of youth doesn’t necessarily give way to regret and self-recrimination as we age, but Bruce Springsteen depicts life’s arc as just that in his CinemaScope-lensed Western Stars, which is essentially a John Ford western set in the modern age. The sonic anthology opens with a drifter on the side of a road, his thumb out in hopes of a flagging down a ride. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind,” he sings. “Got what I can carry and my song/I’m a rolling stone just rolling on.”

As “Hitch Hikin’” evolves, the album’s tone is set: Symphonic flourishes accent the songs, the bulk of which simmer with a fraught tension. “The Wayfarer,” the second cut, conjures Dion’s “The Wanderer,” the classic oldie that’s deeper and darker than, at first listen, it seems; and “Tucson Train” continues down the same thematic stretch of tracks; one has no doubt that the narrator waiting for his baby on the five-fifteen will, at some point, be hitting the road alone again. He’s compelled to move on, to escape.

The music often echoes the mainstream pop of the 1960s – everything from the cosmopolitan country sounds of Glen Campbell (think “Wichita Lineman”) to Burt Bacharach’s collaborations with Dionne Warwick, where strings and orchestral flourishes welled and jelled with the emotive melodies. Harry Nilsson’s rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” is another point of reference, as is “Ballad of Easy Rider” by the Byrds. (For more on the latter, see Ann Powers’ excellent review over at NPR.org.) As I wrote in this piece, I hear it as Springsteen framing adult stories via the adult sounds he heard as a youth and young man.

As the Bacharach mention infers, Western Stars is not a “country” album, per se, though it is western-themed. From the New Jersey turnpike to the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert,” open expanses have often played central roles in Bruce’s songs. Early on, the wide berths of land usually equated with freedom; now, not so much. 

In addition to the hitch hiker, characters include an aging actor, a stuntman, a ranch hand, a failed songwriter, and other men damaged by life. They’re invisible to many, and a source of derision to others – but they ache all the same. (In Time magazine, Andrew R. Chow posits that these folks are veterans still coming to terms with their service, but I think Springsteen cast his net wider than that.)

In Springsteen’s worldview, work is an escape, too (as his unwillingness to leave a concert stage shows). In “Tucson Train,” the narrator’s a crane operator: “Hard work’ll clear your mind and body/the hard sun will burn out the pain.” Likewise, in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the narrator admits that, “I make sure I work till I’m so damn tired/way too tired to think.”

The hitch hiker surfaces again in “Somewhere North of Nashville,” a potent and powerful song despite its brevity: “I lie awake in the middle of the night/makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right.”

The album concludes with “Moonlight Motel,” a song that echoes the haunting “My Father’s House” from Nebraska. Instead of returning to his childhood home, however, this time he finds himself revisiting a motel where he and a lover once enjoyed carefree afternoons. Instead of mourning the un-atoned sins of his youth, he mourns a love that tumbled away like leaves in the breeze.  

In short, Western Stars spins tales of life’s casualties who invariably take two steps back for every one step up. Springsteen’s sympathy and empathy for them ring clear, perhaps because he sees himself in them – as should we all. (“There but for the grace of God go I,” in other words.)

The track list: