With so much happening in the festival and concert world of late, I'm finally playing catch-up on some intriguing new releases that might otherwise get lost in the big-name autumn shuffle. As the title of this week's column indicates, all are to die for, albeit in different ways. I have the good fortune to be acquainted with most of their creators. The most intriguing one resulting from a chance meeting with Martha Spencer on the streets of Knoxville several years back. I have been a dedicated follower ever since.
Martha Spencer – Martha Spencer (Oct. 26)
It would be an understatement to call Spencer a child of Appalachia, even though she is. Spencer inhabits a world that folklorists and outsiders can never be a part of, not really. You can feel the southwestern Virginia hollows and ridges of her upbringing, and the country roads in between, in a lovely voice that once would have been derided by some as "hick." In the album's opening track, "Blue Ridge Mountain Lullaby," she displays that voice and distills the mountain tradition in the form of a memory of her parents' lullabying her to sleep. With its beginning lines: “Daddy’d light up his cigarette, saw his fiddle, pluck the strings then tune a bit. Tell a story of days gone by … ” she lets that memory wander. It took me back to my own childhood watching, in wonder, the flames and smoke rising from a coal-sourced fireplace as my grandfather rolled his own from a tin of Prince Albert.
But this is not a solo record; she enlists her family's well-traveled Whitetop Mountain Band that an uncle formed in the 1940s, and which she joined while a child, as did her sister, Lillie Mae. Spencer, who plays banjo, fiddle, guitar, and upright bass, has also been part of a longtime duo The Whitetop Mountaineers with Jackson Cunningham. She wrote half of the album's 14 songs, and they have that lived-in feel that makes you swear you have heard them somwehere before. So it comes as no surprise that Spencer's music, which also touches on old-style country and at times even approaches the blues, is the most arrestingly authentic I have heard in a very long time.
Martha Scanlan – The River and The Light (Oct. 19)
Just as Martha Spencer inhabits her Appalachian landscape, Scanlan's songs seem not so much like songs as poetic soundscapes of the Big Sky West. She's always been more about evoking a certain consciousness, of place, of mood, of the nonlinear nature of time, than being concrete. She's joined here by Jon Neufeld in this multi-layered, guitar-laden adventure, along with support from Dirk Powell and Black Prairie's Annalisa Tornfelt. They provide an undercurrent, sometimes pulsating, sometimes contemplative, for her introspective vocalizing and mesmerizing lyrics. Here's a sample from "Brother Was Dying," in the lower case: "running open wide / chasing light chasing time chasing dreams that we'd never find / and the sky / you were young and you were with me."
Taken as a whole, Scanlan's music casts a spell. I first caught a glimpse of it when she won the 2003 Chris Austin songwriting contest at MerleFest. What has changed is she now bores even deeper into rhythms of the ancient, of what has always been there just waiting for someone as perceptive as Scanlan to become aware of it, to caress it into life. The album's title is an apt one, with its whitecap being "Buttermilk Road," which could be taken as a delicate response to Steve Earle's hard-edged "Copperhead Road." The album surrounds you, envelops you like few others, real and unreal, on the tips of your fingers yet unfathomable. I'd have to go all the way back to Tim Buckley's Happy Sad to find an album that takes you on such a journey as this one. (Here's another take by ND reviewer David McPherson.)
Lucy Wainwright Roche – Little Beast (Out Now)
Growing up in such an accomplished musical family must have been daunting for Roche. Perhaps an even greater challenge was when she left her job as a teacher to become a full time singer-songwriter. I saw her on one of those first outings. She was tentative, unsure of her footing. However, as time progressed I was privy to the steps she took to become what she has now: an accomplished writer of songs, deep in their sensitivity, that read like short stories chronicling the current human condition. Contrasted with most of her more edgy contemporaries, her stories are akin to Laura Wingfield's menagerie of glass figurines, except each one is an unbroken unicorn.
But Roche is not a homebody. As she expressed during a gig this past summer, she spends much of her time on the road, traveling alone, opening herself to the road, taking it all in. That takes a certain resilience, a certain sense of aloneness without ever being lonely. The title song seems to be a metaphor for things unsaid, things left buried until they give rise to an unforgiving, quiet rage. "Ohio is for Lovers" could be taken as a Raymond Carver story in miniature, and "Heroin," another quiet addiction. In such moments I am reminded of e.e. cummings, "the voice of your eyes are deeper than all roses / nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands." If you are not aleady a fan, you should be. Check out what ND reviewer Henry Carrigan has to say here).
Town Mountain – New Freedom Blues (Oct. 26)
The best bluegrass band to come along in quite some time has always heard and played the tradition a bit differently. This time out they enlisted Caleb Klauder to produce, engaged a drummer — Sturgill Simpson's, no less, and enlisted Tyler Childers as a co-writer and duet partner on one song. Klauder accentuated their sense of overt rhythm and tightened their take on honky-tonk and country, resulting in an exciting blend that is both a throwback to the Osborne Bothers and yet surges the genre forward.
The title song kicks off the album and seems to serve as a theme for our times and the ten songs that follow. Freedom's downside is, as the song warns, "Starting my morning in the middle of the afternoon / Yesterday's coffee and a little smoke ... barely hanging on." While the setting is an interpersonal one, it also reflects the current economic situation of many Americans. As superb as the album is, the highlight has to be Childers' "Down Low" that closes things out. It is the bluesiest bluegrass you'll likely to ever hear, with some jamgrass leanings featuring a fuzzy electric guitar. Damn, it's good. Our friends at Bluegrass Situation premiered the title track and interviewed the band's Jesse Langlais here.
Kaia Kater – Grenades (Oct. 26)
Born in Montreal and soaking up the tradition in West Virginia, Grenadan-Canadian Kater's third album is a radical departure from her previous efforts. In large part, if not in whole, it's a concept album on her father's leaving his homeland after the US invasion of Grenada in 1983. Contemplative, assertive, and outraged, her songs are stories of displacement, interspersed with short historical and personal interludes spoken by her father and a textured backdrop reminiscent of midcareer Joni Mitchell along with some soft electronics.
The result may startle some traditionalists, but it is obvious that Kater, along with her contemporaries such as Anna & Elizabeth, Aoife O'Donovan, and Lula Wiles, is seeking her own path, evolving as an artist in her own time and place. However, just as what we saw in the 1970s, we should not view this generation's take on traditional music as heresy. Rather, it's a continuation of that tradition through new eyes, ears, and experiences. There is wonderful piece on her, and a video for the title track, in Rolling Stone here. It and the album are highly recommended.
Nobody's Girl – Waterline (out now)
Ramping things up comes this Austin-based trio of Bettysoo, Grace Pettis, and Rebecca Loebe. They are, like Applewood Road, Pistol Annies, and I'm With Her, accomplished individual singer-songwriters who have joined forces to simultaneously stretch personal limits and explore new horizons. Each has won the prestigious Kerrville New Folk Competition and collectively wrote five of this EP's six tunes, plus a live acoustic version of the beguiling "What'll I Do" (not to be confused with the jazz standard). An AmericanaFest friend described them as the Bangles meet Americana.
But that's just a beginning, as their strengths lie not just in their melodies and harmonies, but in their shifting energy levels and perspectives, not unlike the best the '90s had to offer. With drum accents, their vocals, sometimes soft, sometimes soaring, front a wall of guitar-laced sound that is unlike any of their contemporaries, female or male. While it's hard to pick a favorite song, as there is no filler here, I am often taken with the title song, which echoes regret with lyrics like: "This is not where I thought I'd be by now / This is nowhere, passion moved out / The end run, damage done / We stood on the rafters, a natural disaster / A wreckage of happily ever after." With echoing, cascading vocals not unlike a multi-tracked Aimee Mann, it sends some shivers up your spine. For an additional take, read my buddy Chris Griffy's review here.
Now, on to those photos. Some by first-timers to the column, and thanks to all.