Review – The Weight – The Weight Are Men (The Colonel Records)

The Weight are a Brooklyn, NY based country rock band that, in spite of it’s North-Eastern local, delivers the Southern-fried goods. The band was beget by singer/songwriter and veteran of the Atlanta, GA, punk rock scene Joseph Plunket who began dabbled in country music and recorded several EPs and one long-player with a revolving cast of musicians as he tapped his inner hillbilly.

Now blessed with a stable and top-notch line up Plunket, along with Fletcher “Poor Boy” Johnson on guitar, piano, and harmonica, Will Noland on bass, Jay Ellis on drums and Johnny Carpenter on pedal steel, has recorded an album of shear authentic and audacious country-rock, stripped clean of post-whatever and 100% free of ironic smugness. Imagine as the 60’s came to a close that back off in the woods of Saugerties, NY the Band had hung out with Gram Parsons instead of Dylan cutting tracks in the basement of Big Pink, that alternate history it might have sounded something like this.

The Weight’s newest release “The Weight Are Men” kicks off with a gentle strumming of “Like Me Better,” a bittersweet barroom testament to love gone wrong delivered by Plunket in his earnestly gruff vocal style. The highway rave-up “Had It Made” follows with its Southern boogie roots planted firmly in Chuck Berry’s territory.

“Johnny’s Song” is a lulling tune on life and love that builds to a big singalong finale and “Talkin” is a tune taken right from the Neil Young book of groove-roots compositions (complete with yawning harmonica) and offers one of my favorite lines from the album – “Give me a lady and rent control, it might take one, it might take both, to satisfy my soul.”

“Sunday Driver”  is reminiscent of the best of The Band’s bittersweet compositions. It’s a slow-moving, pedal-steel laced gem that really showcases Plunket’s voice. “Hillbilly Highway” is a traveling man’s fiddle-laced yearn to come back to his love that should be on mainstream country radio (it won’t be, mainstream country is too rigid and short-sighted.) “A Day In The Sun” is a harmonica fueled Southern boogie gives a the release a woozy “Sticky Fingers” send off.

Bottom line, “The Weight Are Men” is one of the best roots-rock releases of 2008.

The Weight – Had It Made (mp3)

Review – Eleven Hundred Springs – Country Jam (Palo Duro Records)

Where can a self respecting upright, clean thinking country music fan find solace in this world of soulless corporate market-tested pop-country confection? I have the remedy right here friends.

Eleven Hundred Springs is THE best country band on the road today. That’s right, you heard me, THE BEST! I defy anyone to show me a band that exhibits even half of EHS’s passion and agility.

Their blend of trad but contemporary Western swing, honky-tonk and country rock speaks to the roots while it pushes the edge, and the band’s first release in four years (and after a band shuffle) “Country Jam” showcases those skills in spades.

You can almost feel the heat, smell the Tex-Mex combination platter, and taste the ice-cold cervezas as the album opener “Texas Afternoon” stretches out with a Tejano accordion and hints of West Texas artists Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely. It’s a song that genuinely makes you want to smile.

The first single from the record, “Every Time I Get Close To You,” heads back out to the flat lands of West Texas to harken back Lubbock’s own Buddy Holly channeling his rave-up rockabilly style that once burned up the local sock hops.

“Nobody Told You About The Love” is a beautiful banjo and pedal steel woven reflection on fatherhood and love featuring lovely backing vocals from guest Heather Myles. “Whose Heart Are You Breaking Tonight” is a Western swing number. It’s smooth shuffle provided by drummer Mark Reznicek is sure to fill up boot-scooting dance floors for years to come and “I Never Crossed Your Mind” beautiful lament of heartache and “V-8 Ford Boogie” moves back into Rockabilly’s wrong side of the tracks will a pulsing “go-cat-go” sound right out of the Carl Perkins songbook.

The songs so seamlessly from style to style it belies the incredible dexterity being quietly exhibited and Matt Hillyer’s vocals are prefect for the songs with his ability to achieve longing and carefree hell raising with equal success. His writing is tight and effortless with nary a tired cliche in sight. Thankfully there are no obvious reaches for “the hook” that lead so many songs to trite repetition. The sincerity in each tune is solid , irony be damned.

The cover art merits Texas underground cred by featuring a psychedelic painting by legendary Austin artist/actor and Spicewood, TX. resident Kerry Awn. Locals might recognize Kerry’s unique style from the great graphics he did for the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters back in the 70’s.

Like the Greats, Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, this is hillbilly poetry at its finest. Hopefully the next release from this great band won’t take as long to get out.

Texas Afternoon(mp3)

Eleven Hundred Springs – You Can’t Hide From Your Heart – Denton, Texas


Review – Hayshaker – Black Holiday in Mexico City EP (Shut Eye Records)

Surveying a wide swath of American music in just 6 songs, Waycross, Georgia’s Hayshaker features the wedded C.C. and Laurie Rider on rhythm guitar and vocals, and vocals respectively and T.W. Lott on guitar and Frank Sikes on drums. The band belies their leanness in members by producing a massive sound sure to shake the tin roof off any roadhouse.

Their recent EP, Black Holiday in Mexico City gets things rolling with the Bakersfield-sound fueled “Laurie’s Song” with C.C. and Laurie’s harmonies reminiscent of Exene Cervenka and John Doe in X’s twangier moments. The middle part of the song breaks off into the chug-chug-chug that starts off Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, but then kicks back into that sweet West Coast honkey-tonk beat.

In the Snow is a dark moody rocker that makes you want to bang your head to the story mental anguish. Scrap Work stretches out a country-rock landscape with yearning pedal steel and searing guitar work.

El Camino brings Dick Dale spastic surf-guitar spiked with Pixies fury complete with Black Francis yelps and exquisite Black and Kim Deal-style harmonies “Oh my pain, is like a candy cane, you lick and you lick, and it goes away.” Classic!

Black Holiday is a swampy murder ballad punctuated with a cool jumpy guitar lick that turns fierce in the middle then suddenly shimmers like asphalt heat just to jump up and blast out at the end.

Mexico City is a hoedown stomp reflection on South of the Border wantonness. “I lost my heart, I lost my soul, to a bottle and a whore in Mexico.” The EP ends with Dirtkick, a Black-Betty-eque hot rod surge to the cliff on a whiskey fueled race to hell. The drunken phone message hidden at the end is hilarious and a little freaky.

Pack up your ’56 Plymouth Fury and hit the long lonely dusty road and let Hayshaker’s “Black Holiday in Mexico City” be your soundtrack.

Laurie’s Song (MP3)

Laurie’s Song

Joe Pug – Nation of Heat EP

We mere mortals can only hope to be meager conduits for the grand themes of life – Love, hope, fear, death – these concepts are bigger then any one of us but that doesn’t stop the courageous and foolish from shaping these experiences into music and words.

Joe Pug, a Chicagoan sometimes-carpenter, is standing on the shoulders of Guthrie, Dylan, Van Zant, Prine, Clark, Simon and Young to join the ranks of present-day troubadours like Ryan Bingham, Willy Mason and Ray LaMontagne. Joe Pug’s songs belie this greenhorn’s recent foray into the craft of songwriting and his world-beaten voice belies his youth (early-twenties.)

“Hymn 101” is worth the price of admission alone. A trotting acoustic guitar supports the lyrics  “I’ve come here to get high, to do more than just get by, I’ve come to test the timbre of my heart.” and “I’ve come here to meet the sheriff and his posse, to offer him the broad side of my jaw, I’ve come here to get broke, and then maybe bum a smoke, we’ll go drinkin’ two towns over after all.” This is goddamn staggering in its courage and rich in it’s symbolism.

“Call It What You Will” has a mournful mood that brings to mind Townes Van Zandt at his most melancholy. “I call today a disaster, she calls in December the 3rd” Pug sings being at once melodramatic and nonchalant. You can almost feel the whiskey and brimstone on Pug’s breath when he sings “I am the day, I am the dawn, I am the darkness coming on” on the harmonica laced Hymn 35

There is a timeless quality to this 7 song EP, like a found chest of remembrances in your grandparent’s attic, there are treasures for this that pay attention. And the foolish courage of man armed with only an acoustic guitar standing as a lightening rod for the ages is a wonder to behold.

Joe Pug performing Hymn#101


Review – Rodney Parker & Fifty Peso Reward – The Lonesome Dirge (self-released)

Some compare Rodney Parker to the Old 97’s Rhett Miller is style, tone and subject matter. You won’t find me doing that.

I was designing band and club graphics, doing mural painting and bartending part-time in Dallas’ Deep Ellum in the early 90’s and remember Rhett with his “Mythologies” era Brit-pop stylings, with his teen beat poster-boy looks, playing the bars and coffee houses with an endless pack of swoony sorority scensters in his wake. Safe to say when he headed into alt-country territory with the Old 97s I could appreciate the song craft but he was still a bit too precious.

That said, to compare Denton–based Rodney Parker to Rhett Miller is to give the latter too much credit and the former not enough. If pressed I’d have to say I would liken Parker to West Texas singer/songwriter Joe Ely. Like Ely Rodney Parker, and his phenomenal band the 50 Peso Reward, forge honky-tonk tinged pop spinning tales of love and pain all shot through with humor. But Rodney Parker and the 50 Peso Reward spices up this recipe considerably with a hefty dose of rock. And like any good Texas music worth it’s salt there is plenty of bravado, brawling and whiskey in equal measure.

The Lonesome Dirge tears out of the shoot like an amped-up Ring Of Fire – all Mariachi horns and squeeze-box accordion and Gabriel Pearson setting a furious gallop of military-styled drums that drives this song of roasting rattlesnake, drinking moonshine and spiritual cleansing toward a searing a Springsteen-like anthemic conclusion. Speaking of Springsteen, Parker and Co.take the Boss’ spooky atmospheric “Atlantic City” (hey, that pretty much describes all of Nebraska) and makes it a defiant opportunistic declaration rather than Springsteen’s original exercise in existential resignation.

“In The River” is probably the closest Parker and Co come to a mainstream country song, except that it’s good and structured in ways that take you by surprise. “Brother” is a helluva pedal steel girded mid-tempo rocker about sibling rivalries and “Ghost” moves into melodious Ryan Adam’s-style pastoral narrative territory ending on an Irish ballad note. I’m not sure what brought the Emerald Isle spirit running throughout this release, but it rears it’s head again on “I’m Never Getting Married” which is a straight-up Irish whisky-soaked sing-along celebrating bachelorhood.

It’s good to get the message here in New York City that great music is not only surviving but thriving in the Lone Star State and bands like Rodney Parker & Fifty Peso Reward are doing us proud.

Sera Cahoone – Only As the Day Is Long (Sub Pop) and Caitlin Rose- Dead Flowers EP (Theory 8)

I’m drawn to music that sounds both timeless and new. It represents to me the concept of the connection in time of the past and future all running like a river with us standing right in the middle with the muddy now caking our boots. It also assures me that there are forms of innovation happening within country and roots music that stand starkly in contrast to the Nash-pop variety (which is not always bad, but I’ll post more on that later.)

I’ve come across a couple of ladies making waves in that river of time and music by showing a palpable reverence for country music’s traditional roots while bringing a refreshing shot of indie creativity and a sense of daring into the mix.

Colorado native and Seattle resident and Sera Cahoone’s early life experiments with the sax and junior high musical path that led her to the drums where she established her bona-fides as a drummer for the now-defunct indie sadcore band Carissa’s Weird (who’s members also included Ben Bridwell and Mat Brooke now in the group Band of Horses) led to her surprising sophomore solo outing “Only as the Day Is Long.” the release is a country-noir landscape where Cahoone’s voice stretches sleepily over spare, atmospheric dobro, pedal steel, guitar, and fiddle backing. Like a slow-core book end to Neko Case’s Furnace Room Lullaby Cahoone’s themes of innocence, hope and dread are woven throughout. With titles like “The Colder the Air,” “Happy When I’m Gone,” and “Shitty Hotel” you know your not in for a sunny romp, but country and roots music has always mined a rich vein of the melancholy and Sera Cahoone has staked a rich emotional and musical claim.

As her early incarnation with the moniker Save Macaulay a teenager Nashville’s Caitlin Rose was able to deliver classic country tunes with respect and authority in her distinctively Dolly meetsEmmylou vocal style. After dropping alias and at the ripe old age of 20 this Waffle House aficionado has released a quirky and beautiful EP that was cut in two days in November 2007 at the Bombshelter studios in East Nashville.

The love of country’s history exhibited immediately with the EP’s packaging and on the first cut of the Dead Flowers EP. With ‘Shotgun Wedding” Rose sings the tune with a Smokey Mountain lilt over Bob Grant’s excellent mandolin . “Answer In One Of These Bottles” takes it’s place with another classic narrative of drinking to forget Rose then shows she has the pipes to take on the Patsy Cline classic Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray as she covers it with all it’sforelorn beauty. Docket is a quirky Kris Kristofferson -style solo-guitar number that is perfect Summer listening and a lone tambourine accompanies the whimsical Gorilla Man brings to mind ShelSilverstein play on words. Rose then tackles the classic Cosmic American Rolling Stones-come-Gram-Parson a;;ad of heroin overdose from which this stellar EP derives it’s title.

“Only as the Day Is Long” – Sera Cahoone

“Dead Flowers EP” – Caitlin Rose

Record Review – Ridley Bent – Buckles and Boots (Open Road)

Most Americans aren’t aware of the rich country music tradition in Canada. The twangy stuff drifted up from the States in the early part of the 20th century from then burgeoning US radio shows like WBAP, Fort Worth (1923), WLS, Chicago (‘WLS Barn Dance’ 1924), and WSM, Nashville (‘Grand Ole Opry‘ 1925). Country music was soon being broadcast on Canadian radio, beginning with George Wade and His Cornhuskers on CFRB, Toronto, in 1928, and Don Messer on CFBO, Saint John, NB, in 1929.

The point of this Canuckian history lesson is to understand how someone as genuinely country as Ridley Bent can come from the Great White North (Halifax-born, Alberta-raised, Vancouver-based, to be exact.) There’s a lot of history to draw on.

From the official PR sheet- Ridley was “Fed by a steady diet pulp westerns, and recent collaborations with housemates and sometime writing partners, Dustin Bentall and Cam Latimer, Ridley’s renewed interest came to a head during a long, unplanned detour on Vancouver Island. He had a grand total of five records to hand, but never got past George Jones’ Super Hits and Brad Paisley’s Part Two. Those records got Ridley to thinking, not just about what kind of music he wanted to make, but what kind of band he wanted to make it with…

“A wicked Country band,” he says flatly – the kind that makes a record sound like its been tracked in one go, by a crew of heavy, road savvy players in matching suits. So, with a fist full of new songs, Ridley teamed up with Vancouver based producer and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Ellis to do just that…” And with “Buckles and Boots” (Open Road) Ridley Bent has made a great country album that should assure him Nashville stardom. He has the looks, the wardrobe, the sound, hell, he even has the perfect name. The rub against mainstream success is what makes Ridley Bent’s music so compelling. His daring ventures into smart narratives instead of hackneyed cliches and and an occasional genre-bending excursion instead of cookie-cutter arrangements dictated from the marketing department (Ridley’s MySpace genre is listed as Country / Hip Hop / Western Swing) will be his mainstream undoing. Even with his adept grasp on tradition he clearly is clearly unafraid to take on a challenge.

The opening title song gets things is revved-up Bakersfield style with forlorn broken-hearted lyrics that stand in contrast with the boot-skootin arrangement and the cracker-jack 7-piece band consisting of the country staples of steel, slide and lead guitars, fiddles, piano and organs – all ripping it up with abandon.

“Nine Inch Nails” is another break-up song in a Texas-shuffle Bob Wills style with a ripping guitar break and a title that refers to the mixed up albums that resulted in the split with his lady. I love a song that name checks Tom T Hall and Husker Du in the same song! Funny and brilliantly executed with heart.

“Cry” is another breakup song (sensing a theme here), but it’s the first one that sound like it. Opening with the sad mourn of lap-steel and fiddle the song is a waltz of loneliness. I don’t know if Scott wrote this song as a tip-of-the-hat to Johnny Cash (who had his own hit with a different Cry, Cry, Cry) but if he did this is a fitting tribute to the Man In Black.

“Heartland Heartbreak” (here we go again!) gets the party stared again with a song George Strait would kill to record and “Arlington” is a life-on-the-road country love song that can only be described a beautiful and shows no hint of Nashville-style cloying. A moving tale of unrequited love loaded with longing, “Faded Red Hoodie” should be a hit on all country radio stations everywhere. “Mama” sound like a Lyle Lovett-style ditty about a long in the tooth road-racer on run from the law.

Apache Hairlifter is where genre’s fold in. Ridley blazed new ground with hick-hop on his first release “Blam” and on this cut he moves back to his brand of spoken word story-telling. It works better then anything Kid Rock ever tried and rap and country aren’t that as strange as it might see, Listen to Johnny Cash’s cover of Hank Snow classic “I’ve Been Everywhere”
and tell me rap and country have no common elements. Apache Hairlifter has dope flow (couldn’t resist, yo) as it unfolds a story about a cow-puncher and his adventures in the wold-west and an encounter with an Indian beauty.

This is a pleasant late addition to my best of 2007 list!


Rolling Stone Reviews Merle Haggard’s “The Original Outlaw”

Rolling Stone has a nice review of the new Merle Haggard box set “The Original Outlaw.”

A sample:

Merle Haggard’s toughest song may be his 1968 country hit “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.” Despite the title, it’s not about a working man — he sings in the voice of a hobo loner, drifting from place to place. “I keep thumbin’ through the phone books/Lookin’ for my daddy’s name in every town,” Hag sings — the way he picks up that line, cuts himself deep on it and sets it back down is the essence of his hard-boiled vocal genius. This could be the guy Bob Dylan sang about in “Tangled Up in Blue,” except he doesn’t even have a redheaded woman in his past — just empty roads. It’s the song they played at the funeral of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant, and you can still hear why.

Elliot Randall – Take the Fall (self released)

Elliott Randall is a man to watch.

Randall, not Elliott Randall the ex-Steely Dan guitarist best known for his guitar solos on Reelin’ in the Years, but the Bay area by-way-of Charleston, South Carolina, rocker has a lot going for him. On first listen it’s easy to be lazy and compare Elliot Randall’s superb release “Take the Fall” (self released) to some of Ryan Adams best work.

For instance take the melancholy slide-guitar and Rhodes keyboard steeped “Elephant” and the soul-wrenching title track, Randall sounds much like he’s channeling Adams more soulful moments. But Randall is his own man and as an artist he’s in many ways more focused in his compositions than Adams has been of recent. “How to Get Old” is a damn fine song that could have come from Uncle Tupelo with little mainstream Nashville hook added in to sweeten the experience. It works skillfully and without coming off as sterile and contrived. More Early Guy Clark storytelling than Kenny Chesney clichés.

Barn-burning rave-ups like Don’t Give Up On Me” and “Leaving This Town” show that the man can get a room moving when he wants to.

A recent feature on an Americana Roots podcast, Randall straddles the country and rock worlds proficiently and his work sounds both timeless and fresh.