Posts Tagged ‘Punch Brothers’

Album Review: Sara Watkins – ‘Young In All The Wrong Ways’

July 14, 2016

Sara Watkins

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Young In All The Wrong Ways

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Since the release of her eponymous solo debut in 2009, Sara Watkins has been embarking on an artistic journey towards finding her own voice as a singer and songwriter. She populated her first two albums with outstanding cuts by others, all the while honing her personal craft. Her output has been as rich as it is interesting, but it’s child’s play compared to Young In All The Wrong Ways, where she finally shed her inhibitions, picked up her pen and wrote the entirety of the album herself.

The difference is clear, from the strums of the blazing electric guitar on the opening title track. We’re hearing Watkins emerge as a woman for the first time, one who isn’t scared to embrace the messy and lay it all on the line. There’s a newfound defiance as she sings desperately about needing to turn the page. The aggressive backdrop provides the perfect emotional balance as she bleeds the frustration she’s kept bottled up inside.

She’s equally as punchy on “Move Me,” which I lovingly reviewed back in April. The bite in her vocal, paired brilliantly with the barn-thumping arrangement, reveals an urgency that drives the restlessness in her soul. Watkins’ agitation turns to regret on “Without A Word,” in which she gorgeously displays her stirring unease with lush precision.

Confrontation with an ex sets the stage for bluegrass romp “One Last Time,” in which she reveals he’s merely in love with the idea of her. “Say So” is introspection at its finest, a moment where Watkins looks inward to reveal the only one holding her back is herself.

The exploration continues on “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free,” a delicious slice of classic country with a modern twist, which finds Watkins fully aware that we take ourselves with us wherever we go. She takes a step back on “Invisible,” a prequel of sorts, in which she is searching for the very truth she’ll not be able to escape.

“The Love That Got Away,” one of Watkins’ finest vocals ever on record, is a spellbinding delicate mediation on voyeurism of examining life from the prospective of others. Her innate restlessness, once again, takes center stage:

All the people passing by

I wonder how they live their lives

And think of one outside of mine

I imagine and I envy all of their discoveries

Their simple, plain complexities

I’ve often taken issue with her songwriting – her songs often rely too heavily on repetition – but that gives way here to beautiful bouts of poetry, especially on “Like New Years Day” and “Tenderhearted,” two more highlights. Young In All The Wrong Ways is Watkins’ masterpiece, a searing self-exploration in which she emerges as the fully formed artist (thanks in part to friend and producer Gabe Wicher, who is also a member of Punch Brothers) her previous solo releases only hinted at.

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Predictions for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards

February 11, 2016

logoCountry music fans have much to look forward to come Grammy Night, which is coming up on Monday this year. Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt will croon their duet “Heartbreat.” Chris Stapleton is slated to join Bonnie Raitt and others in a tribute to B.B. King. Luke Bryan is joining a slew of pop artists in honoring Lionel Richie, who is the Grammys MusiCares Person of the Year. Little Big Town will take the stage as well.

Best of all is the last minute announcement is that Eagles will honor Glenn Frey along with their good friend Jackson Browne. The rest of the show promises to be equally as jammed packed, with just about every major artist under the sun slated to take the stage.

Here are my predictions for the country nominees, plus categories that feature artists marketed within the country or American Roots genres. Please leave a comment and let me know who you think/hope will walk away with Grammy Gold.

Best Country Solo Performance

Little-Toy-GunsThis is a very solid group of nominees. Perennial favorite Carrie Underwood has lost this category only once – when Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” bested “Just A Dream.” Cam, surprisingly, is the weak link. Her hit version of “Burning House” is nowhere near as good as Emily Ann Roberts’ from The Voice last season. Who would’ve imagined a contestant on a reality singing competition would find the hidden nuance in a song its own singer couldn’t?

Should Win: “Chances Are” – Lee Ann Womack has yet to win a single award for her seventh album, a transitional record that showcased the artistic sensibilities she’s only hinted at until now. This is the album’s finest track, possibly the greatest performance she’s given to date. Real country music deserves to slay the competition.

Will Win: “Little Toy Guns” – It’s a fool’s game to bet against Carrie Underwood. Not only does she stand the strongest chance of winning, she’s the only one powerful enough to stop Chris Stapleton in his tracks. He will walk away a Grammy winner before the night it through, it just won’t be for the title track of his debut album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

81T8Z9H91mL._SL1500_This is a hodgepodge of nominees, with some forgettable performances along side some treasures.

Should Win: “If I Needed You” – Joey + Rory have the sentimental vote and a serge in name recognition since Joey’s cancer turned terminal last fall. They deserve to walk away the winner on what is their first and will likely be their only Grammy nomination.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – There’s no stopping the Little Big Town behemoth, which is also in the running for the overall Song of the Year award. No one else is going to win this award.

Best Country Song

lovejunkies-660x400This is a heavyweight category, with a few extremely worthy nominees. I would love to see an upset here, but like the category above, there’s a very clear winner.

Should Win: “Hold My Hand” – Brandy Clark stole the show with her simple performance of this tune on last year’s telecast. The story of a woman determined to hold on to her man in the face of his ex is an instant classic. Clark deserves the prize for a tune she wrote and smartly kept for herself.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – Should they lose Song of the Year, this will be their consolation prize. Should they win both, this will serve as icing on the cake.

travellerBest Country Album

Of all the country categories, this is easily the weakest. Little Big Town’s album was a dud, Kacey Musgraves’ was charming yet very uneven and Sam Hunt is…Same Hunt. The Grammys do deserve credit though – this is the first time in her career that Ashley Monroe has been nominated for an award for her own music.

Should Win: Traveller – I’m not fully on the Chris Stapleton bandwagon, but he does have the strongest album in this bunch. 

Will Win: Traveller – This is one, if not the only place, the Chris Stapleton bandwagon won’t be stopped.

A few more Predictions:

Jason-Isbell-24-frames-single-500x500Best American Roots Performance: I’d like to see Punch Brothers take this and finally win a Grammy of their own.

Best American Roots Song: Jason Isbell and “24 Frames.” The genius in the lyric is criminally underrated.

Best American Roots Album: I liked the upbeat nature of Punch Brothers Who’s Feeling Young Now better than the somber tone of The Phosphorescent Blues. They still deserve it, but I’d love to see Jason Isbell take this one. He hasn’t been recognized enough for his brilliant work.

Best Bluegrass Album: I haven’t a clue, but it would be interesting if the Steeldrivers take home an award the same night as their former lead singer Chris Stapleton does the same. If not, I’d go with Dale Ann Bradley.

Album of the Year: A strong category from which I’ve heard cases for each nominee to win. Stapleton could take it, as couldUnknown Alabama Shakes. But I’m going to go with Taylor Swift’s 1989, easily the most important pop album of the eligibility period.

Song of the Year: Taylor Swift has never won an award for her pop work with Max Martin. I expect that to change this year, when “Blank Space” deservedly takes this category. “Girl Crush” has a shot, but “Blank Space” is far more developed and clever.

Best New Artist: I’ll take a shot in the dark and choose Courtney Barnett. I just don’t see how this award could go to Sam Hunt. But stranger things have happened.

Top 10 Singles of 2015

December 16, 2015

What does it say about me that the highest charting single on my list took eight months to peak at #9? I’ve continued to broaden my tastes as I’ve aged while continuing to closely follow the artists I’ve always admired. There was some stunning music this year and these ten selections are only the tip of the iceberg. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

cdca72c7ec5625f0f1f483fb_440x44010. I’m With Her – ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan) is one of the more unique collaborations of the year and their cover of the fifteen year old John Hiatt song is the amuse-bouche to a main course full-length album that may come within the next few years. This track is too faithful to be a doozy but it more than proves they have the potential to be an artistic force should they go down that road. I really hope they do.

Trisha-Yearwood-I-remember-You9. Trisha Yearwood – ‘I Remember You’

Every Trisha Yearwood album has its own personality and PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit lies on the more Adult Contemporary side of the country spectrum. “I Remember You,” a tribute to her mom, is far from the most dynamic ballad she’s ever recorded. But it shows off a tender side of her voice we’ve never heard before. Yearwood is a vocal chameleon able to adapt to any style and work within any parameters. She’s still a master after twenty-five years. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next.

Traveller8. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

“Tennessee Whiskey,” the early 1980s George Jones hit he sang on the CMA Awards, is the standout showcase for his gifts as a vocalist. “Traveller,” showcases his talents as a songwriter. This autobiographical mid-tempo ballad casts Stapleton as a vagabond who knows his path but cannot see his destination. Like any great artist he’s spent his time paying his dues and working the system until he could shine in his own light. He may always be a “Traveller,” but I bet he has a much clearer picture of where he’s headed now that the world finally knows his name.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-05-at-10.39.03-AM7. Jason Isbell – ’24 Frames’

“24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with a chorus that compares God to an architect and declares, “he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

Thile & PB6. Punch Brothers – ‘I Blew It Off’

The coolest track from The Phosphorescent Blues is this plucky slice of bluegrass-pop, a style Chris Thile and the boys have perfected over the course of their four albums. They returned after a three-year hiatus to find Thile with a ‘bad case of twenty-first century stress,’ which is about the only thing he can’t shrug off. He’s furious yet knows he isn’t alone, declaring by the end that modern technology is having an effect on everyone, not just him. “I Blew It Off” is as simple as any song could be saying a lot in a very tiny space. That’s often where the most valuable riches can be found.

Fly5. Maddie & Tae – ‘Fly’

Not since “Cowboy Take Me Away” has a fiddle driven pop-country ballad reached these artistic heights. At a moment when Maddie & Tae had to show the world what else they could do, they blew away the competition with their exquisite harmonies and pitch perfect lyric. They aren’t the Dixie Chicks by any means, but they’re pretty darn close.


Dierks-Bentley-Riser-Album-Art-CountryMusicIsLove4. Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

Even in the face of commercial pressures, Dierks Bentley sticks to his convictions. “Riser” is a sweeping tale of overcoming odds and one of his finest singles. I have no clue why he hasn’t risen (no pun intended) to the upper echelon of country greats at a time when he’s bucking trends and releasing worthy songs to country radio. He’s one of the best we have and deserves to be compensated as such.

2647969113. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

Leave it to Jamie Lynn Spears, of all people, to write the strongest hook of the year: ‘I got the boy, you got the man.’ Leave it to Jana Kramer to sell the pain and conviction felt by the scorned ex who is seeing the boy she loved transformed into the man she always wanted him to be.

Eric-Church-Like-a-Wrecking-Ball2. Eric Church – ‘Like A Wrecking Ball’

When Eric Church brought the idea for this song to co-writer Casey Beathard he balked. At the time, Miley Cyrus was hitting big with her similarly titled smash. Church, who cannot be under estimated, knew exactly what he was doing. This tour de force is the most original song about making love to hit any radio format in recent memory. It’s also the coolest one-off artistic statement since Dwight Yoakam hit with “Nothing” twenty years ago. Eric Church is the strongest male country singer in the mainstream right now.

lee-ann-womack_9601. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Chances Are’

What needs to be said about Lee Ann Womack wrapping her exquisite voice around a pure country weeper? She came into her own on The Way I’m Livin’ and finally found the space to create the music in her soul. The album’s third single is a shining example of the perfect song matched with the only artist who has enough nuance to drive it home. Lee Ann Womack is simply one of the greatest female country singers ever to walk the earth.

Album Review: Della Mae – ‘Della Mae’

June 11, 2015

Della Mae

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Della Mae

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2015 has already been an exceptional year for releases from roots and Americana based artists. Sets from Rhiannon Giddens, Punch Brothers, Gretchen Peters, Alison Moorer, and Shelby Lynne are some of the year’s strongest; with more standout moments then one can count off hand. The eponymous third album from Della Mae, out last month on Rounder Records, is worthy addition to that hallowed list.

The Boston-bred Della Mae, who formed in 2009, consist of Celia Woodsmith on guitar, Kimber Ludiker on fiddle, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, and Courtney Hartman on guitar and banjo. The foursome shares the vocal duties on the album, which was produced by Jacquire King.

The album is anchored by Woodsmith’s distinctive voice, deep and swampy, like a preacher sent from a higher power to deliver upon us a message we can’t help but want to hear. Her songwriting prospective is just as sharp, beautifully evidenced on five of the album’s very diverse tunes co-written with Hartman.

Nowhere is the power of her voice more evident then on album closer “High Away Gone,” a gospel-tinged number that recalls Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss’ duet of “I’ll Fly Away” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Rude Awakening” blends mandolin, guitar, and fiddle quite sadistically, while serving as a battle cry for eliminating stagnation from one’s tired life. “Can’t Go Back” is a softer ballad featuring gentle acoustic guitar with the thought-provoking hook, “if you never go, you can’t go back again.”

“Shambles” is a stunning folksy kiss-off about a girl carrying on with her life, while her man continues to dig himself into an increasingly deeper hole. “Take One Day” is a sunny banjo-driven change of pace, and one of the best straightforward bluegrass numbers I’ve heard in a long time.

The album’s standout track, “Boston Town,” is the first single. Woodsmith, who penned the track solo, has the guts to create a modern-day workingwoman’s anthem the dives headfirst into wage equality. She beautifully structures the lyric to juxtapose the physical pain of the work with the emotional ruin of disrespect. She drives her message home without hitting us over the head, a fine achievement for anyone tackling a hot-button issue.

Hartman takes the lyrical reins on “For the Sake of My Heart,” a tender ballad about reconnecting with one’s homeland. She also teams up with Sara Siskind for “Long Shadow,” a mid-tempo number beaming with acoustic texture.

To round out the album, the band looked to outside inspirations including covering two tracks previously done by other country artists. They managed to outshine Emmylou Harris with their take on The Low Anthem’s “To Ohio,” which was more grounded then Harris’ wispy 2011 recording. They were less successful on a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.” It wasn’t terrible, but Nanci Griffith proved the song, in her 1997 version, deserves more imagination than they brought.

The album rounds out with Phoebe Hunt and Matt Rollings “Good Blood,” the second true uptempo number on the album, and a vocal showcase for Gardner. Woodsmith has an incredible voice with enough color and nuance to wrap around just about anything and make it her own, but Gardner’s pure twang is just as powerful and a welcomed change of pace.

Della Mae is a very strong album that traverses a wide expanse of ground in a quick thirty-eight minutes. Woodsmith proves she’s not only an incredibly gifted foundation for the group vocally, but she has a sharp pen as well. In a world where there is an embarrassment of riches with regards to banjo, fiddle, and mandolin based groups it’s easy to overlook Della Mae. But to ignore them is to miss out on tight musicianship and four women with unique substantive perspectives.

Album Review: Nickel Creek “A Dotted Line”

April 10, 2014

Nickel Creek

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A Dotted Line

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One of the most welcomed surprises late last year was the news that Nickel Creek, easily my favorite acoustic band, were reuniting to record their first album of all-new material in nine years. Produced by Eric Valentine, the mastermind behind Why Should The Fire Die, the project marks their twenty-fifth anniversary as a band.

Whenever an act disbands, especially in the prime of their abilities, there’s always a sadness marked by countless ‘what could’ve been’ thoughts had they stayed together. But more now than ever, it’s easy to see that the members of Nickel Creek (Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins) were more than just members of a group, but rather vibrant solo artists who needed to explore life apart from the musical force that had guided their lives since they were teenagers. Their personal growth away from Nickel Creek has been extraordinary; with solo projects and other unique ventures serving to further hone their creative geniuses and better inform them as a band now that they’ve reunited.

Our first taste of their reinvigoration came from “Destination,” the fiery Sara Watkins-led first single. The track is an outstanding addition to their legacy and perfectly matches Thile’s rip-roaring mandolin with Watkins’ smoky yet biting vocal. Two more songs were released in advance of the album – “Love Of Mine,” a gorgeous ballad led by Thile’s mandolin and Watkins’ fiddle and “21 of May,” a crisp traditional bluegrass number showcasing Sean’s glorious talents with acoustic guitar. The latter is my favorite of three, and one of their greatest performances as a band. Rarely have they ever sounded this tightly engaged.

As far as Nickel Creek albums go, A Dotted Line is a fairly conventional set, with relatively few stylistic surprises. That’s a good thing, though, as the music is allowed to stand for itself without too much experimentation getting the best of them. As far as progressive bluegrass bands go, they show why they’re the best of the bunch on “Rest of My Life,” a soaring ballad showcasing the high lonesome side of Thile’s voice in marriage with his signature crashing mandolin picking. He takes the lead again on the excellent rapid-fire “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” a stunningly aggressive number with a punkish attitude and enduring angry rock sensibility. If only all such songs would sound like this.

“Where Is Love Now,” a Sam Phillips cover, finds Sara singing lead once again, with a delicate ballad that gives her room to breathe. As a vocalist, Watkins is a curious case in that her voice is often obstructed by production (especially on Sun Midnight Sun) that drowns her out. She has the ability to keep up with muscular production, “Destination” is a good example of this, but on lush ballads Thile’s mandolin and Sean’s acoustic guitar is the right amount of production to let her shine. What I love the most here is how the song rolls along conventionally until the chorus, when the three-part harmony kicks in beautifully, allowing the track to soar to new heights.

“Christmas Eve” is the rare moment Sean sings lead, and he more than holds his own with the story of a guy pleading with his girl not end their relationship. The track distinguishes itself in lyric alone, as it’s the most story-centric number on A Dotted Line. There’s a tinge of sadness in Watkins’ vocal that mares his conviction, but it works in allowing him to lay open his broken heart. “Christmas Eve” is skillfully subtle in all the right ways.

In contrast to the rest of the album, the band gives us one track brazenly unafraid to reimagine the definition of what a Nickel Creek song can sound like. “Hayloft” is a duet between Sara and Thile where they assume the rolls of a couple being chased by her disapproving father (“My daddy’s got a gun,” wails Watkins in the refrain). The track, originally done by Mother Mother, an indie rock band from British Columbia, is wacky, nonsensical, and the album’s standout number simply for daring to be different. I wanted to hate it, but Watkins infuses it with the personality she brought to her solo albums and its so endearing that the proceedings are nothing less than charming. If Watkins hadn’t made those two solo albums, I doubt “Hayloft” would even exist – her growth and newfound confidence as a musical being is astounding.

As if eight lyrical numbers weren’t enough, we’re also gifted two instrumentals that are as excellent as anything on A Dotted Line. “Elsie” is a strong mandolin and fiddle ballad that rolls along quite nicely while “Elephant In The Corn” picks up the tempo a bit and features a wonderful acoustic guitar breakdown from Sean. I’m not usually one to go crazy for instrumentals, preferring songs with lyrics, but these are excellent.

So, after nine years, was A Dotted Line worth the wait? More than anyone involved in its creation will ever know. With the rise in popularity of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, I’m come to appreciate Nickel Creek (and Thile’s other band The Punch Brothers) even more because they approach their music from a bluegrass and not rock perspective.

With purely acoustic instruments and lush not aggressive vocals, they make this acoustic progressive bluegrass the way it’s supposed to sound. That they do it with exceptional lyrical compositions is just an added bonus. Their asaterical lyrics have always been their downfall, but they’ve grown by leaps and bounds as writers on A Dotted Lineas well as singers and musicians. Lets hope it’s not another nine years before we’re gifted with their next set of new music.

Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 10-1

December 6, 2012

Adventurism. Turing convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the 19 albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. Here’s 10-1, enjoy!

Hello Cruel World

10. Gretchen Peters

Hello Cruel World

Thinking people’s music from a lyrical master, it’s easy to overlook the beauty of Hello Cruel World and cast it off as slow, depressing, and moody. But to do that is to completely miss the point of an emotional woman bearing her soul for all who will listen.

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9. Various Artists 

Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

A patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments with simple yet evocative lyrics brought to life by a stellar cast, Kin is a concept project done right. But the marriage of the poet and song master is its greatest achievement, two people from different fields of work, aiming at the same goal – affecting emotion. Look no further than “My Father’s Advice” or even “Mama’s On A Roll” to know they’ve succeeded in spades.

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8. Jamey Johnson and Friends

Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

 One of country’s greatest songwriters gets a tribute from one of its fieriest advocates for tradition. Johnson could’ve done the work solo and still come through with a masterwork, but instead he’s paired with some of the finest vocalists of our generation, elevating simple lyrics into works of art.

the-time-jumpers

7. The Time Jumpers

The Time Jumpers

Time and again I’ve said it but I really miss the days when Vince Gill brought his class and sophistication to mainstream country. Now its a prime example of you don’t know what you had until it was gone. Like last year’s stellar Guitar Slinger, he’s back working his magic, this time with his stellar string band. A not to be missed delight The Time Jumpers is the convergence of expertly talented musicians and singers coming together to spread their considerable awesomeness onto the world.

100-Proof-Cover2

6. Kellie Pickler

100 Proof

Often regulated to singing kiss off songs about men that have done her wrong (“Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” “Best Days of Your Life,” “Red High Heels”) and empowerment anthems (“Don’t You Know you’re Beautiful”), Kellie Pickler became a singer who never quite rose above mediocrity.

Enter 100 Proof, a wham bam thank you maimtake no prisoners unapologetic classic country tore de force that finally matches the music to the talent and for the first time since America first met Pickler on American Idol, makes a statement. A giant leap forward.

Jana-Kramer-Album

5. Jana Kramer

Jana Kramer 

Haven’t we seen this before? An actress from a television show detours through Nashville to have their fifteen minutes of fame as a country singer. They claim their allegiances to the music, try to sing and look the part, but end up only as a parody of the real thing, a jokester trying in vein to pull of a charade so fake you wonder how on earth this could’ve transpired in the first place.

Luckily they’re not all built from the same tattered cloth. Jana Kramer is the exception, turning the most satisfying and promising debut album in years. I found myself continually mesmerized by her voice and spellbound by her ability to fish through the dreck and find quality music. So this isn’t Storms of Life Part II. But she’s obviously trying and cares to sound country. And not generically pop-country, either. She might not be a revaluation, but she’s the most promising step in the right direction a commercially viable mainstream country singer has gone in years. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

marty-stuart-nashville-cover

4. Marty Stuart

Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

Stuart’s latest foray into traditional country refines the formula set by Ghost Train by penning originals with well-chosen covers. He fearlessly wears his love for country music on his sleeve and proves he’s the best teacher any contemporary country singer can learn from, if only they would take his class. A cover of Luke The Drifter’s “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” a duet with his grandson Hank III, is easily among the best album cuts 2012 had to offer.

punch-brothers-ahoy-450sq

3. Punch Brothers 

Ahoy! – EP

A creative risk like none you’ll hear all year, Punch Brothers fill their Who’s Feeling Young Now companion with brazen eccentricity, wild abandon, and more than enough musical gambles to make anyone dizzy.

They stand out because they’re fierce and bold, charting a course all their own. No one else looks or sounds like them and their underground following is a testament to their originality. Where they’ll venture from here is anyone’s guess.

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2. Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Now this is acoustic music I can fully endorse. Where acts like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers blend too much rock into their sound for my liking, The Punch Brothers take their cues directly from the foundations of bluegrass and build their sound from there. But like their rock counterparts, this isn’t strictly acoustic – odes to pop (“This Girl”) and funk (“Patchwork Girlfriend”) mix in effortlessly and are guided by Chris Thile’s measured vocals and brilliant mandolin playing. For lovers of an adventurous out of the box take on the traditional album format, look no further than Who’s Feeling Young Now, one of the finest albums of 2012.

Calling Me Home

1. Kathy Mattea

Calling Me Home

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of current popular music, realism is as rare a virtue as honesty, with singers churning out products aimed at returning maximum profit at radio and retail without effort towards impact or intention. Music as a means to influence emotion and affect thought is nearly non-existent. Not everyone sees it that way, thankfully, as Calling Me Home is the infrequent exception to the current model, a masterwork forcing us human Beings to venture inward and examine our complacency towards place and the havoc our irreversible actions have had on mankind.

Although the chronicled subjects rise from the Appalachian Mountains, and the day-to-day realities revolve around the “scoundrel and saint” that is coal, the overarching messages in these songs are universal to anyone with a conscious. But even more important is the conveyor, and Mattea brings each track to life with the power of her voice, a ribbon weaving through the complexities of each lyric, driving home every declaration.

At 53, Mattea is singing from the sharpened eye of experience, pondering the meaning of life and death with the vibrancy and vigor of wisdom that surfaces through a life lived with spiritual connectedness to ones own body and mind. And for that reason, Calling Me Home is one of the most important records to come along in a long, long time, a masterpiece of the soul and the earth from which all of us are born.

EP Reviews: Lori McKenna – “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole” and Punch Brothers – “Ahoy!”

November 29, 2012

A commanding drum beat and cheeky 1980s style electric guitars greet the listener on “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole,” a Disney jam session meets “Down At The Twist and Shout” confection that anchors Lorrie McKenna’s EP of the same name, her six-song follow up to last year’s highly emotional Lorraine. It’s by far the most experimental thing she’s ever done, and the results are phenomenal. In this instance, taking creative risks pays off in spades.

McKenna then goes on to incorporate these creative instincts in the other tracks, showcasing a willingness to step beyond the familiarity of the lush acoustic sound she’s honed for the better part of her career. These differences, sometimes far subtler than others, make most of the EP an enjoyable listen.

An electric guitar penetrates the musical bed of “Whiskey and Chewing Gum,” a Troy Verges co-write, while the acoustic guitar underpinnings of “All It Takes” (co-written with her ‘sixth child’ Andrew Dorff) gives the track a fun, folksy vibe. Both songs are also standouts lyrically, with more than an abundance of memorable lines.

With three such strong forward thinking songs, the rest of the EP sounds a bit like a retreat back to the comfortable with McKenna sticking firm to her coffee-house roots. That isn’t necessarily a bad choice on her part, but I wanted more, especially since she’s surrounded herself with such ear-catching songs. The lush arrangements actually get in the way of two tracks – “Sometimes He Does” and “This and the Next Life,” which are both excellent songs in their own right, but feel predictable, with the latter a bit too slow for me to fully engage with.

I had similar thoughts with her Ashley Ray co-write “No Hard Feelings,” but the hook is strong, and their twist on the classic break-up ballad (“Once it’s gone – it’s gone/So no hard feelings”) is stunning – they leave the listener hanging – how is she able to break off their love so cleanly? Did she ever really love him at all? That simple mystery gives the track its allure.

Punch Brothers, one of the coolest – and criminally underrated – bands making music today take similar strides, serving up Ahoy! their companion EP to February’s masterwork Who’s Feeling Young Now?, one of my favorite albums of 2012. Consisting of five tracks, the project brilliantly displays Chris Thile’s continued growth since Nickel Creek, proving why he so richly deserves his MacArthur Grant.

Thile is seemingly unmatched as both a mandolin virtuoso and effective vocalist, but Ahoy! proves he and his band mates are also equally skilled as musical interpreters, turning the set’s three cover songs into completely reimagined takes on the originals. The vastly different tunes, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ “Down Along The Dixie Line” and Noise Rock group Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus” all feel right at home in the progressive folk settings Punch Brothers frame them in.

Ritter’s ethereal “Another New World,” a slightly ambiguous epic, is the least transformed, staying true to the original. But the addition of Thile’s mandolin and the accents of fiddle give the track grounding, adding dimension to the somewhat tragic story. “Down Along the Dixie Line,” from Welch’s 2011 The Harrow and the Harvest is the complete antithesis, morphing from a southern gothic ballad into a fiery romp. Both are effective readings, although Punch Brothers barely give the lyric room to breath, nearly suffocating the story by speeding it up a little too fast.

The real delight is “Icarus Smicarus,” a noise rock disaster turned progressive bluegrass delight. One of Punch Brothers’ core appeals is their left of center oddity, which is fully explored in this song’s brilliant eccentricity. The lack of any significant narrative structure, let alone the usual verse/chorus/verse/bridge pattern of country songwriting will alienate anyone in search of tangible meaning, but the connectedness of the group cannot be denied.

“Moonshiner,” the traditional folk song made famous with versions by The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan is my personal favorite on the set, showcasing the band’s wicked instincts with a killer narrative. The lone original is the wonderfully titled “Squirrel of Possibility,” an elegant mandolin and fiddle driven instrumental.

As a whole, both McKenna and Punch Brothers have turned in some exquisite work, each exploring different facets of their creativity all the while staying true to themselves as visionaries. I still would like to see McKenna challenge herself even more, with further exploration of songs in the vein of “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole.” Her ballads are still effective but are too frequent and beginning to fade into sameness, thus stripping them of their potent emotion.

Luckily Punch Brothers seem nowhere near the peak of their artistry, and Ahoy! shows a band built on taking daring risks that more often than not feature big pay offs for the listener. I can only dream about where the coming decades will take them, and if they stay as crisp and in tune as they are now, it’s going to be one heck of a prosperous musical odyssey.

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole* * *

Ahoy!* * * *

Album Review – Punch Brothers – “Who’s Feeling Young Now”

March 26, 2012

The Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

* * * * 1/2

With Who’s Feeling Young Now, the Punch Brothers have completed the musical trifecta (which also includes For The Good Times and Hello Cruel World) shaping my current listening experience. There’s a joy and delight to this album that only becomes deeper and further realized with each play though.

As a rabid Nickel Creek fan, I’ve understood Chris Thile’s genius for more than a decade. But I was hesitant in diving into the Punch Brothers after feeling alienated by his How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. Thile’s knack for high-pitched singing was foreign to my ears and his experimental nature jolted me too far out of my musical comfort zone without smooth transition. But that didn’t stop me from diving into Who’s Feeling Young Now, my first foray into his latest musical creation.

Like any great musical work, the album transports the listener into a world all its own, a place nonexistent on the geological map. The mix of mandolin and fiddle ground the record in a post-apocalyptic meets gypsy-like setting (think “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss), and the instraments used throughout fuse together to create a sound completely unique and original.

This is most obvious on the opening track, “Movement and Location,” a rousing mix of mandolin, upright bass, and haunting fiddle inspired by former Major League Baseball Player and Cy Young Award recipient Greg Maddux. Thile uses the range of his talents to full effect and brings an otherworldly element to the track by going places with his voice I never dreamt possible.  You’re not likely to hear a more interesting song this year.

Another example of the band’s animalistic prowess is “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a weirdly off-beat traveling circus-like number that opens with a downward fiddle crescendo that leads into Thile’s dazzling manipulation of the mandolin. But the combination of his outlandish yet ordinary vocal delivery proves he’s mastered the comedic undertones of the lyrics, but isn’t trying to reach parody in his delivery.

Going even further into this eccentrically experiential universe is “Don’t Get Married Without Me,” in which strokes of mandolin gel beautifully with frantic bursts of fiddle and touches of banjo. The track benefits greatly from a lack of fullness musically, as the darkness of Thile’s vocal and the harmonies with his fellow band members shine through.

But for all the improvisation going on, Who’s Feeling Young Now has its fare share of “normal” moments, too. The art of Progressive Bluegrass, which the band is categorized under, is to sound completely modern in your approach to the acoustic stylings of Bluegrass while still maintaining a sound mixture familiar to purists. While there isn’t anything traditional about their approach, they hit this melting pot head on. A few of the tracks seem to evoke a touch of pop/rock almost like a roots version of Mumford and Sons.

My favorite of their less funky numbers is the bouncy “This Girl” which elicits the joy of young love and the rekindling of a father/son relationship. The driving mandolin blankets the song in a sunny warmth and the rapid-fire lyrics bring fourth the intensity of his feelings towards the prettiest backslider in the world.

Another standout is the title track, the most pop/rock influecned on the whole album. The opening mix of mandolin and acoustic guitar is heightened by the introduction of fiddle to create a layering of instruments giving the listener the feeling of a full band. It’s my other favorite song on the album because I’m drawn to the receptive nature of the lyrics, in which Thile repeats they tried to tell us and at times we tried to listen to almost primal screams in the final moments of the song. But beyond that, the lyrics, written by the band, are genuinely crafted. The way they’re able to string words together is a work of art.

As much as Who’s Feeling Young Now is an upbeat, full of driving beats, and not-much-heard musical manipulations, there are a few slower moments that add depth to the overall sound. “No Concern Of Yours” may be the closest thing to Krauss’s trademark style, while “Soon or Never” brings back found memories of Nickel Creek’s early days (i.e. “When You Come Back Down” and “The Reason Why”). Of the slower songs, “Clara” is easily the most progressive, and showcases Thile’s higher register, which in the six years since How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, has become a taste I’ve happily acquired.

Like any great acoustic band, time to show off your instrumental abilities is key when giving the audience the fullest picture of yourselves as a band. Plus, its the time to let loose and just play for playing sake. That’s almost unnecessary here, though, because every song more than accomplishes that directive. But, nonetheless, we have “Flippin (The Flip),” a rousing number that gives ample time for Thile to showcase his skills as a mandolin prodigy, Gabe Witcher a spotlight for his fiddle playing, and Chris Eldridge another chance to blend in his acoustic guitar. The less straightforward “Kid A” is also in the mix, and brings the album back to its gypsy-like beginnings.

Overall, in pinning the three albums in the trifecta against each other, Who’s Feeling Young Now comes out on top. Without a doubt, its the most exhilarating album I’ve heard in quite a long time and, in my book, the best country/bluegrass/roots album of 2012 so far. I’ll be quite surprised if any mainstream country release will be able to top this in the coming months.