American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums Of 2013
Given the arena-sizing of folk-rock over the last several years, you’d almost expect the opening track’s tethered-in-place acoustic guitar figure and faint four-on-the-floor kick drum pulse to build to a real geyser of a chorus. But “The Fall” isn’t that sort of song, and The Black Lillies aren’t that sort of band. They’re a storytelling, occasionally funky, Appalachian-pop outfit, which would make them not at all hard to pick out of a contemporary roots band lineup populated by stompers and shouters. Songwriting fiddler frontman Cruz Contreras delivers the tunes on Runaway Freeway Blues with the cracked, southern-accented croon of a guy who’s dabbled in indie rock yet camped out in country. And the performances get warmer—as opposed to just, you know, louder—when Trisha Gene Brady adds her dusky, blues-inflected harmonies.
It took two previous tries and a few unsuccessful run-ins with the major label machinery but Nashville based singer/songwriter Courtney Jaye has finally embraced her inner pop lover. On her third album, she goes indie and ramps up the hooks, sing-along choruses, guitar riffs and general ear-catching vibe to emulate a combination of the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs and Sheryl Crow at their most tuneful. These ten songs fly by in just over a half hour, each one a condensed hit single waiting to happen, if radio played music this organically vibrant anymore. Hints of country with sweet pedal steel appear on the irresistible “Summer Rain,” as perfect a seasonal gem as Johnny Rivers’ identically titled (but different) tune or Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.” But although there are hints of C&W, this is closer to Fleetwood Mac than Dolly Parton. The performances were recorded live in the studio, adding a sense of urgency and a rootsy groove difficult to capture with multiple overdubs. Producer Mike Wrucke’s (Dixie Chicks) expansive but never bombastic approach focuses on Jaye’s expressive voice and melodies you can sing after the first spin. Albums that immediately feel familiar, even short ones like this, are difficult to find. But if you’re in the market for the perfect soundtrack to a cloud-free sunny day, Love and Forgiveness is your ticket to a 30 minute smile.
For his third album, Jonny Fritz stuck to his real name and released the most starkly grown-up LP of his career. Fritz has always been more interested in Sunday morning than Saturday night, and Dad Country finds the Montana native doing what he does best: expanding the definition of acceptable country music subject matter. His fragile tenor is frightened and worried as he sings about nasty illness (“Fever Dreams”) and trash collection (“Trash Day”) with the type of blues normally reserved for songs about rambling, cheating and boozing. Fritz has always been a hard artist to market and even hard to categorize, and he’s started to put those frustrations down on paper. “Social Climbers” and “Wrong Crowd” are chilling tales of isolation and frustration, and “Have You Ever Wanted to Die” finds the Nashville humorist wondering if his quirky uniqueness is worth it after all. He still writes the occasional ode to oral sex, but there’s little to laugh about on Fritz’s arresting ATO debut.
47. Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You
On paper, this unlikely partnership between funnyman comic, actor, playwright, author and most significantly, Grammy Award-winning banjo player Steve Martin with hippie-ish, New Bohemian pop vocalist Edie Brickell, is an unlikely pairing. Add veteran producer Peter Asher (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt) for even greater commercial – and editorial – prospects. Martin, whose expert banjo playing nobody at this stage would describe as a “vanity project,” wanted to shift from the more notes per second approach that much of bluegrass adheres to, in favor of a sparser, more defined sound. That keeps the drama high and the ego low on these evocative songs. Much of the material has a darker edge that Martin’s playing enriches. Those unfamiliar with Brickell’s previous work, and even the singer-songwriter’s fans, will be entranced by her distinctive rounded, innocent yet mature voice. She brings sly, unassuming gravitas and the occasional lighter touch to the affiliation. Asher’s deft work provides breathing room between the instruments, Martin’s subtle playing leaves the showboating behind and the trio delivers a modest gem. The final product is informed by bluegrass yet expands the genre’s somewhat narrow boundaries while maintaining and even enhancing a reverence to its rustic roots.
Down Fell The Doves is Amanda Shires’ fifth LP, and the record is her most fully realized collection to date. With songs full of wistful regret and eager longing, Down Fell The Doves finds the Texas singer-songwriter-fiddler in complete control of her ever-developing narrative voice. The album’s sound, aided by longtime Bright Eyes producer Andy LeMaster, provides a rich, orchestral backdrop for Shires’ eclectic material.
Shires, who is currently pursuing a masters in creative writing, creates characters that are are well-rounded and complex, and she writes about marital infidelities and suicidal tendencies with a devastating sympathy. She tackles mournful Memphis soul and jittery folk-pop with equal ease. “A theme? I guess there’s a lot of wrecking and ruination” Shires has said of her latest album. On Down Fell The Doves, Shires finds tenderness and beauty in the ruin and destruction all around her, and the result is one of the most diverse, affecting Americana releases of the year.
He hasn’t hit it big . . . yet . . . but that hasn’t stopped Americana singer/songwriter Tim Easton from churning out ten solid, superbly crafted albums that have flown under the popular radar. Constant touring both in the States and Europe have honed his live show to a rugged, professional edge which makes anyone who enters a club not knowing Easton, leave a raving fan. His love of rootsy rocking has peeked out of most of his previous releases but a recent move to Nashville inspired this new set of predominantly rockabilly material. And it’s another winner. Recorded in five inspired days with veteran producer Brad Jones, Easton leads his stripped down band featuring rollicking standup bass through fiery originals that wouldn’t sound out of place on an old Sun Elvis record. His grainy voice with a smidge of ’70s Dylan is perfect for this style and he sings with the crackling enthusiasm of the ’50s rockers that have clearly inspired him. Even though rockabilly dominates the sound, Easton leaves room for the tough Tony Joe White styled grunge swamping “They Will Bury You,” the back porch acoustic country blues of “Gallatin Pike Blues,” the dreamy yet vitriolic ballad title track aimed at an old flame and a sweet closing Appalachian instrumental with fiddle dedicated to Levon Helm. It’s all crisply recorded, letting you hear the sparks that obviously flew in the studio.
In 2011, Seattle’s The Head and The Heart captured an impressive number of hearts and ears via their self-funded, self-recorded, self-titled debut. They sold 10,000 copies of the album before even signing with Sub Pop, and afterward, became one of the label’s fastest selling debuts. Given that the Billboard charts continue to stack up with like-minded earnest, folky Americana recordings — certainly the first time in decades a trend of this sort has been so dominant — the band arrived at exactly the right time. With a bigger budget to work with and broader goals in mind, The Head and The Heart ride that momentum into a more ambitious, yet still warmly organic second album, Let’s Be Still. Sometimes the results of their bigger-budget approach are quite stunning, as on the slow build and gentle roll of album standout “Josh McBride,” which features guest vocals by fellow Seattle singer-songwriter Brian John Appleby. And sometimes the results are an awkward fit, like “Summertime,” which seems to pluck a dated, mid-‘80s keyboard patch sound and shoehorn it into one of the band’s characteristic indie folk pluckers. Yet the distance between these extremes isn’t terribly vast, the band ping-ponging between Mumford-ized stompers like “Shake” and gorgeous country-rock ballads like “Cruel.” It’s in the latter when the band is at their best, their warmly gentle approach a much more natural fit than the makeshift hootenannies they sometimes engage in. And it’s only natural to want to get those feet stomping and hands clapping. But it’s unnecessary; what The Head and The Heart do best are ballads, even if they can’t help themselves from venturing into other arenas now and again.
Kris Kristofferson’s songwriting gift has always been his unique ability to combine a country writer’s knack for witty turns of phrase with his own personal penchant for soul-baring confession. That gift hasn’t diminished in the least, a fact that is proven again and again on Feeling Mortal. Produced by Don Was, Kristofferson croaks his way through these bare-bones songs with typically gruff profundity. Whether he’s contemplating his own mortality on the title track or “Castaway” or bemoaning lost loves on “My Heart Was The Last One To Know” or “Stairway To The Bottom,” there’s not a word that he utters that sounds even remotely false. Elsewhere he gives a rowdy eulogy for Rambin’ Jack Elliott that serves double-duty as a portrait of the roving musicial/outlaw lifestyle that Kristofferson has embodied with more authenticity and panache than all the pretenders in his wake. Feeling Mortal may start out with a guy on his last legs, but, by the time it’s through, it sounds like Kris Kristofferson has been through the rejuvenation machine.
Even with three previous albums, it has never been easy to understand Matt Costa. Signed by Jack Johnson to his Brushfire imprint, the West Coast born and raised Costa seemed to be infatuated with a Zombies/Searchers styled Brit Invasion sound one moment only to shift into a Donovan folk picker the next. His retro/UK approach and production was so convincing, you’d have to read his bio to know he wasn’t born and raised in England. Not much has changed on his fourth release, except that he recorded it in Scotland with producer Tony Doogan (Belle & Sebastian) making its Brit pop qualities even more prevalent. The sumptuous production on songs such as the Bacharach /David styled “Early November” with its cheesy horns and strings and the T. Rex thump of “Good Times” really seem transported from an early ’70s era Costa is too young to have experienced firsthand. His twee side is evident on the lovely ballad “Clipped Wings” that, with its fluttering flute, sounds like a pretty good Donovan outtake circa “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” The frisky strings and high vocal harmonies of “Shotgun” are straight out of the ELO catalog of ear candy hits. Everything is meticulously arranged, often with strings, horns and layered backing singing. They effortlessly capture a sweet, innocent, truly captivating folk pop whimsy that never seems forced, pretentious or outdated, even with its obvious reverence for an earlier time.
It’s standard practice in country music for younger artists to ask vets they admire to join them on a track, the goal being embrace-by-association. The pairings don’t always add up, but Mississippi-born, Berklee School of Music-educated Charlie Worsham really knew what he was doing when he got both Vince Gill and Marty Stuart to guest on his song “Tools of the Trade.” It makes sense for people to think about Worsham the way they think about those two. He shares their roots music rearing and his debut album proves he has good instincts, songwriting and multi-instrumental chops and the knack for sounding of his moment, in his element and comfortable in his skin, all of which could be said of a young Gill and Stuart in their days. Worsham spends most of Rubberband relishing how it feels to relish being young and full of promise and possibility. Even if it sounds like that’d make for a hermetic listening experience, the way he pulls it off—with a light touch, open-faced songwriting and real lift to the hooks—is really very accessible and appealing.