April 21 must be some kind of musical or spiritual get-together, or perhaps the moon is in the seventh house, as there are some outstanding releases coming out that day, the day before Record Store Day. Here's a look at some of the best in that crop. Also included are a few that slipped in my mail slot a wee bit late.
Angaleena Presley – Wrangled (April 21)
I first saw Presley at the 2014 AmericanaFest kickoff show at the Basement, hosted by Phil Madeira. Her first solo album followed just a month later, and I became a fan.
However, despite that well-received album and her work with Pistol Annies, I was not prepared for what happened when I first heard Wrangled. I do not know if it was intentional, or I am just hearing things, but it seems these 12 strong, memorable songs reflect and embody, both thematically and musically, the best that country music has had to offer over the past 70 years. The opening track, the cautionary "Dreams Don't Come True," debunks every myth that Nashville has proffered to aspiring dreamers over the years. Dreaming is a curse, "beating your heart heart black and blue ... making a mess out of you." For every one who "makes it," lower Broadway is littered with shattered glass slippers.
Similar to Margo Price's solo album, Presley said in a note that "Wrangled is an explicitly forthright journey through my experience in the business of country music. I tried to tackle uncomfortable realities like the discrimination against female artists at the height of Bro Country, the high school mentality of Music Row, and the pain that's just beneath the surface of the road to stardom.”
What is also amazing about Presley, this album and other recent notables is their unbridled embrace of country music as a genre, getting it back on track where it ought to have been all along before being derailed into a generically bland commodity with a cowboy hat and coiffured five-day old beard.
Presley wrote, or co-wrote with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Guy Clark, Wanda Jackson and her fellow Annies, the songs on Wrangled. It is, along with recent albums by Rhiannon Giddens and Valerie June, one of the top three albums of what is shaping up to be an outstanding year.
Robyn Hitchcock – Robyn Hitchcock (April 21)
If Robyn Hitchcock did not exist, we'd have to invent him. No one, absolutely no one, inhabits the world of popular music of the past 50 years like Hitchcock. I also know that a lot of folks simply do not get him. Like the time he did "Visions of Johanna" and most of the folks in the audience sat on their hands, stone-faced. But those that get him do so in a way that becomes almost feverish.
This self-titled album, his 21st, was recorded in Nashville (where he now lives) with a band that included Annie McCue, Emma Swift, Grant Lee Phillips, Gillian Welch, and Wilco's Pat Sansone, and right out the gate it is apparent that it is heavily influenced by the Beatles and Pink Floyd. These were bands that self-deprecatingly has said he aspired to when he was young and fell way short.
The opening track, "I Want to Tell You About What I Want" seems as though it could have time-lifted from The White Album, and it seems to be a summary of what Hitchcock has said generally about the album, whose title was going to be My Vision of World Empathy. To paraphrase what he said to NPR (and in a note to me), "Either we will become extinct and eventually be replaced by cats with articulated thumbs who have evolved the way apes slowly evolved into us, or we will become empathic and mildly telepathic ... We will become a species that isn't capable of bullying because we can feel what we're doing to other people. There is obviously some evolutionary step between the human and the angel that needs to take place."
Then he goes straight into the psychedelia of "Virginia Woolf" that's his take on the lives and suicides of Woolf and Sylvia Plath. After that is his perverse ode to Nashville and honky-tonkers everywhere, "I Pray When I'm Drunk." In it he prays when he's drunk, and when he's sober, but he doesn't know who to, he's swarmed with the bees and oozed with the mackerel and he thinks about someone every time he strums his guitar, while feeling the hammer as it smashes on the judgment of his soul.
Only Hitchcock could pull off something this disparate – in the first three songs, mind you – and yet you feel refreshed, even uplifted. Perhaps it's because there is no BS in Hitchcock's music and general take on life. Sardonic, yes, yet also a glimpse into eight billion alternate realities.
Gwyneth Moreland – Cider (April 21)
If you are unaware of Gwyneth Moreland, you are not alone. I had not heard of her until a couple of weeks ago, when a Nashville friend said I ought to give this Mendocino native a listen. Anyone from the town featured in my favorite Kate McGarrigle song and whose second album features the nearly forgotten Gene Parsons(!) (of the Byrds, and whose solo albums are treasures) must be kismet.
In my early listenings I heard a real homey sound, as if it had been written and recorded in her living room. Only afterward did I learn that most of the songs are co-written with her husband, and her brother and niece play on the album that was produced by their son's godfather. It's a family affair, and it shows.
The album opens with a slow, swinging blues of "Moving On." Not to be confused with Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On," Moreland's way of moving on is about walking in the country, listening to the birds sing while the wind caresses the trees, wondering where the time has gone. In the next track, "Broken Road," she mixes some Robert Frost-like imagery: "Snake the light above me/guide me home to sleep/feet are lost in darkness/and promises to keep." She sings it like an earnest Neko Case, but without the reverb or any trace of irony.
The songs on the album are clear and distinct. There is no doubt they reflect her life and experiences lived in the California countryside. As Moreland told me in a note, "Many of the songs on Cider reflect our life here on the family homestead in Mendocino, where we harvest apples every fall. And it was our homemade hard cider that continued to inspire us as we wrote the songs for the album."
While she tours mostly in California, she did trek to the International Folk Alliance in Kansas this past winter. Fortunately, you don't have to go that far, just down to your favorite record store.
David Olney – Don't Try to Fight It (March 31)
David Olney does not remember me. It was 1974 or so when he played my college coffeehouse when I first heard him. While I recall he did mostly originals, one of his covers was a Townes Van Zandt song. Talking with him after the show, Olney said he had seen Van Zandt a few years before in Athens, Georgia, and was mightily impressed. We all were. It also became quickly apparent that we had been at that same club at the same time. So, we had a lot in common, and a lot to talk about.
Flash forward to to today, and over 30 albums and EPs later, Olney is still at it, still keeping the faith in a world that seems to have lost theirs. All the other stuff I have heard him do has been in the folk vein, but the new album is amped up, highlighted by a blues snarl that you cannot dismiss.
Olney's songs are cinematic in nature (an EP not long ago was titled Film Noir). For example, in a note, he described "Big Top" as a "flat Oklahoma landscape with a circus tent in the distance, the sky a sick green, a storm is coming, and in the foreground, a a noticeably concerned clown." All in a Welles-ian deep focus. Another circus metaphor is used in the change of pace "Ferris Wheel" as we ride along with young lovers thinking it will go on that way forever.
Again, Olney brings his A game to these dark and uncharted times. Let him take you by the hand, you'll share an intimate ride on the carousel of life.
Tim O'Brien – Where the River Meets the Road (March 31)
I remember years ago when ND hailed Buddy Miller as the musician of the decade. It was well deserved. However, in the minds of many, Tim O'Brien should also have been included in that conversation, and would have been a close second. As Paste magazine noted: "In both traditional and progressive bluegrass, there are few musicians still performing today who have had a more lasting and wide-range impact than Tim O'Brien." You can take that to the bank.
Counting his work with the seminal Hot Rize and sister Mollie, this 21st album could have easily been titled, Going Back Home to West Virginia, as nine of the album's 12 songs were written by native West Virginians, and the three that aren't, written by Larry Groce, John Lilly, and A.P. Carter, are close enough not to quibble. Besides himself, the writers include Hazel Dickens, Billy Edd Wheeler, the Bailes Brothers (whom my parents knew when they lived in Dog Town – old-timer locals will know the reference) and the one, the only, Bill Withers.
Peter Rowan – My Aloha! (May 5)
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, Peter Rowan, the most intriguing bluegrass boy, comes up with something completely different. From Dharma Blues to Crucial Reggae to his quartets with Tony Rice to Crucial Country to the Twang and Groove incarnation with Cindy Cashdollar and Yungchen Lhamo, I thought I had heard all that Rowan had to offer.
But Rowan has had too many second acts to count. Now, after hiding out in Hawaii and deeply entrenched in the late night hapa haole honky-tonks and back alley steel guitar bars that few know of, let alone see, Rowan has been soaking in their sounds and sways.
These are not unknown sounds, as both Jimmie Rodgers and Mother Maybelle played the Hawaiian steels, and Jimmie sold ukuleles at his shows. Not to mention the records and sounds GIs brought home with them after the war.
Rowan pays homage to the music that was silently slipped into roots music over the years, even going so far as subtitling the title track "Appalachia Mountain Home." After all, there are some big mountains in Hawaii too.
He also wanted to make it as authentic as he could, so he tracked down original instruments and had traditional Hawaiian musicians play on the album.
Not to leave everything behind, one song, "Jerry in the Deep Blue Sea," has to be for Jerry Garcia, whose all-encompassing music sense continues to reverberate. With all that Rowan has done, you could call him the Paul Simon and Ry Cooder of roots music.
Zoe & Cloyd – Eyes Brand New (April 7)
Astute ND readers will recall that Zoe and Cloyd's first album was in my Top Ten of 2015, so I was primed for number two.
The duo came together from two different directions. Classically trained fiddler Natalya Zoe Weinstein is from New England, and her father was a professional klezmer musician. John Cloyd Miller is a 12th generation North Carolinian and the grandson of pioneering bluegrass fiddler Jim Shumate, his Appalachian roots running deep. Together, like spring water, they found their own level as both play inspired, traditionally based music by choice.
Miller told me, "Eyes Brand New is a return to a fuller band sound in contrast to our first duet album, Equinox. The album runs the gamut stylistically from stark old-time fiddle/banjo to bluegrass and acoustic country with a healthy dose of our harmonies and songwriting. The title track was inspired by seeing the world anew, through our 2-year-old daughter's eyes."
Eyes Brand New focuses on their burgeoning songwriting talents while the setting remains firmly in the duo setting, but with a few special guests, such as Jens Kruger on banjo. Notable tracks include the instrumental "Underground Railroad" written by Miller, but featuring only Weinstein and Miller playing a claw-hammer banjo, the mournful yet persistent, slightly strident fiddle against an incessant banjo, always keeping their eyes on the prize. The song sounds timeless.
"Running on Empty" is lighter in tone and tenor, with some spiffy word play, even though it's about the everyday hardships of farm life: "Nothing comes up, everything sounds wrong/You know the feeling, the one you just can't shake/I'm beat down, all wrung out out, I've had all I can take/I'm running on empty, no gas in the tank/I keep trying to remember, but I'm drawing a blank." Reminds you of Lester and Earl at their most playful. Later, Weinstein told me it's about becoming parents.
One of the two non-orginals is "Let's All Go Down to the River," which has been recorded by many country and gospel artists. The best known version may be George and Tammy's, but Miller has said it was not until he heard Jack Cooke's bluegrass version that it hit home for him. Kruger and his banjo add the final flourishes that makes this staple be seen through eyes brand new.
Michael Weintrob – Instrumenthead: The Book (April 21)
There are music photographers, and then there is Michael Weintrob. He has spent over two decades shooting over 5,000 artists at work, at play, and in his studio. His photos have been published in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Billboard, and many other publications. He has also had exhibitions at the the US Consulate in Spain, the Spoleto Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Newport Jazz Festival.
But it is his latest project that is getting major attention this spring: a book of his photos of famous musicians with their instruments. But not beside them, or on top of them, or under them. Rather, their instruments of choice, whether it be banjo, guitar, pipes, accordion, whatever, are in front of the subject's heads. He does it in such a way that is respectful. You know that the photos took a lot of patience on the part of both subject and photographer, but they also seem spontaneous and alive.
In Knoxville at the Big Ears Festival is where I met and chatted with Weintrob, and I was able to see some of the photos in all their enlargement glory. By necessity a book that features over 350 of these photographs is of coffee table size, and no less immediate. Moreover, the book has been printed and bound in Italy, where the finest art books are printed, because printing and binding is an art form unto itself.
I urge you check out individual photos on the web. At $75, the book is a bargain.
Note: The Gwyenth Moreland photo is by Kate Hayes.