The summer may be over, but there is plenty of dancing in the street that will greet this fall's outstanding slate of releases from a variety of folks. A couple of legends, a couple that should be legends by now, some you know well, some you may have read about but never heard, and a few that may be totally new. Following these ten excellent albums, I am also taking it to the Spinal Tap eleven by including a biography that is an absolute must-read.
I do not need to tell you that Prine is a titan, a monster songwriter and musician whose work is admired and performed by too many A-list artists to mention. His new album is full of duets, titled, For Better, or Worse.
I remember when, in 1999, Prine was interviewed on NPR about his other duet album In Spite of Ourselves. He said that he chose certain songs with certain women artists in mind to record with him, and was surprised when most said yes. I also recall him saying that album was about "meetin', cheatin', and retreatin."
This one's more about the highs and woes after you get what you wanted. I also doubt that anyone he asked this time around said no. Included this time is Amanda Shires, Lee Ann Womack, Kacey Musgraves, Holly Williams, Susan Tedeschi, and Iris DeMent who -- along with Kathy Mattea -- has two duets with Prine on the disc.
Particularly lovely are "Dreaming My Dreams" with Mattea (first recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1975) and "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" (first recorded by Flatt & Scruggs in 1952). The latter is done Western swing-style with a playful Shires. But with Prine you can always expect the unexpected, and his duet with Alison Krauss on Marlene Dietrich's signature song "Falling in Love Again" is no exception. Their take on the 1930 song from The Blue Angel is heart-wrenching.
Jewly Hight has a nice interview with him at NPR Music, which also features one of the new duets, and the Fall issue of No Depression in print includes a long interview he did with Holly Gleason. This gem gets polished on September 30.
Shires' new album -- her fifth -- is titled My Piece of Land. It further explores her exquisite insights into the human psyche. Dark, lovely, inwardly focused, and at times touching on the existential, some early reviews have called it dreamy and romantic. I think that is an overly simplistic assessment, as it fails to fully grasp the depth of Shires' intellect and musical abilities.
Even more so than her previous efforts, her songwriting has gotten tighter on My Piece of Land, presenting a solid foundation upon which to anchor the music, instead of the other way around. That's not to say these songs are without a driving force.
An example is "When You're Gone," which has the same sure-handed fire I heard when she did "Hurricane" at DylanFest in May. I don't know how autobiographical these songs are, but one cannot hear "Harmless" and not think it is about a certain chance meeting that became an inevitability.
Throughout, she paints Rothko-like images, both physical and emotional, the ephemeral becoming a haunting novel of desire. Lines such as these evoke a passage from Rilke's lone novel about the sake of a single verse:
It might have been cheating, where exactly is the lie
I kissed Maria in the alley, you laughed and spilled your whiskey
There was a sword in my drink
Everything's a sign if you want it to be
Apparently Jason Isbell co-wrote that one. So much the better, it's resonance is dynamic. It's my pick for song of the year. Produced with considerable tenderness and admirable restraint by Dave Cobb, the album is more than arresting: it's essential listening. My Piece of Land takes up permanent residence on September 16.
I first became acquainted with Allen some 25 years ago when I visited his art installation at the Wexner Museum in Columbus. I think it was called A Simple Story (Juarez). I was quite taken with its explorations into the mythos of the West that went deeper than, say, The Last Picture Show. On my way out, I picked up a vinyl copy of Lubbock (On Everything). I thought I knew a lot about Texas music, but Allen was revelatory. How this 1979 masterpiece had escaped me was stupefying. But I quickly became a fan, like David Byrne, who contributed an essay on Allen in this set, Guy Clark, and Lucinda Williams.
The album contains songs such as "New Delhi Freight Train" and "Amarillo Highway," that you have no doubt have heard but perhaps never knew who wrote them. The album was helmed by master musician Lloyd Maines, who also played quite a few instruments on it. It also has a sly touch of Van Dyke Parks here and there.
This re-issue is long overdue and corrects the technical issues on the original release. It also includes a 28-page book that features artwork, photos, and an oral history by Allen. Allen describes the album, and the town its named after, as having, "A hard bark, with little or no self-pity; its music has an edge that can be smelled, like Lewter’s feed lot. No one from Lubbock ever apologized for what they were or where they lived."
Do yourself a favor, complete your Americana music collection with this album, and then seek out his other recordings and work. Juarez was also re-issued this past May; you can feel the dust, the sun of Texas, so you may want to double up. Allen is the not-so-missing link between Townes and later masters like Isbell, Simpson, and Williams. The album leaves Texas on October 14.
It's hard to believe that Dowd has 20 albums under his belt, not including his contributions to many others, including my personal favorite: a one-of-a kind revisionist/reimagination tribute to Townes Van Zandt, There's a Hole in Heaven Where Some Sin Slips Through.
I was fortunate to catch Dowd twice in July, where he played songs from his 21st, Executive American Folklore. I have described him before as William S. Burroughs with a guitar, with a pre/post punk mentality, mixed with alt-country.
Live, he's a tightrope walker. But on record, the firebrand is controlled, smooth to the emotional touch as he glides -- first on high, then back down to a semblance of Earth.
Dowd's half-spoken, half-sung lyrics are like poetry set against more of an electronic backdrop that some of his other work, with a groove, a definite groove. You can also dance to it. A nice example is the segue from "Sexual Revolution" ("You're either part of the problem or part of the pollution" with an under layer of a tortured "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" Wynette-style). That moves into the electronica of "Mr. Muggles," punctuated with horns and the operatic vocal of Anna Coogan, where Coogan plays Klaus Nomi to Dowd's Bowie. Then, again into "Rumba in the Park" with a Caribbean, rockabilly feel with a distant fuzzy guitar where you have found yourself in a Jim Jarmusch movie.
I don't think Dowd has ever been more literate than on this album, with his vocals distinctly mixed so you can bask into the Beat-like delivery and imagery. The album is delivered into your hands on September 9, and is still available via Indiegogo, along with some perks. (Dowd is also included in ND's fall issue, "Speak Up!")
We Banjo 3
This band is a quartet from Ireland that includes dueling banjos and high-energy bluegrass-infused Celtic music. They are also one of the hottest bands on the "traditional" music circuit. At the time a complete unknown to me, I first saw them last winter and they not only knocked my socks off, they knocked everybody's socks off to such an enthusiastic audience that they played twice as long as their allotted time slot. We have a vibrant Irish music scene where I live, so much so that it gave birth to a music series that is still going strong after 30 years. This audience knew their stuff.
Of course, We Banjo 3 is not your straight-up traditional-to-a-fault Irish music band; instead they take the traditions and run with them... with high energy, I might add. Usually, I am a bit put off by that, but these guys present it in such a way that does not get in the way of the music itself. To me, it's about the music, not merely about entertainment. The former is lasting, the latter transitory.
We Banjo 3's new album, String Theory, is a good place to start if you are not familiar with them, as it concentrates on the music. It's a nice mix of vocals and instrumentals, half originals, half older tunes, and one by Greg Brown as if to solidify their American folk leanings.
In physics, string theory is a framework in which the point-like particles of particle physics are replaced by one-dimensional objects. It describes how these propagate through space and interact with each other. We Banjo 3 presents their own musical theories in a not-dissimilar manner, but way more pleasant to contemplate. This non-theoretical album was unstrung a few weeks ago. If you get one Celtic album this year, this is it.
The Handsome Family
I do not know how the Handsome Family got labeled as "Gothic," as they have always been squarely in my acoustic world of Americana. With each album, they offer a different way of seeing things, a unique look into the unexplored depths of the world around us.
Their new album, Unseen, travels some new roads in the post-Breaking Bad New Mexico they call home, folding banjo, mandolin, and Dobro into the mix.
The album reminds me of what it was like as a child growing up on a farm in West Virginia. Even though the days were filled with chores, there was also a sense of unseen wonder. I remember often looking across a hillside field to where the forest began and imagining about that dark at the edge of the wood: what inhabitated its shadows? That type of exporation is quite apparent on this album -- especially in "Back in My Day," where "There were ghosts in the tress/The nights darker, longer and deep/And when the songs turned to water we couldn't help but cry." It hits me like that time on a summer's night long ago, when it became too dark to play hide and go seek any longer.
Unseen rises into the light mid-September, around the time they play AmericanaFest. See them, as their Americana credentials are in order.
Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur
Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band's rough-and-tumble roots music in the 1960s directly inspired countless bands like the Lovin’ Spoonful, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Grateful Dead. In the early 1960s, Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, along with Maria Muldaur and others, bounced between the Boston and New York folk scenes, hanging out with Bob Dylan and Mississippi John Hurt at the Newport Folk Festival. They have a long and noted history in the folk music world, and they have also recorded the year's best traditional roots album, Penny's Farm.
Drawing upon their combined musical knowledge and history of playing blues, traditional, jug band, and contemporary music, this duo makes the timeless feel immediate and necessary, not a mere stroll down nostalgia lane.
While Kweskin has never stopped playing, Muldaur has been more prolific, recording a nice selection of albums, including one of my favorites of the recent past, The Texas Sheiks. Muldaur does not overtly display his masterful playing, which moved Garrison Keillor to say, "There are three great blues guitarists; two of them are Geoff Muldaur." But here, he does not need to do that, in part because it may not be that called for, in other part it might be a bit distracting.
That said, it is clearly evident on a couple of tunes, including a gorgeous "Frankie." I cannot stop playing this record. The album seeks greener pastures on September 23.
I have been wanting O'Donovan to release a live album ever since her Crooked Still days. There was just something about her, her presence, and her approach to her music, that's so inviting. Afterward, when she put a band together, she had Jacob Silver on bass, who brought a subtle jazz flavoring to her live shows.
Now, after two remarkable solo studio albums, I got my wish, and it is a dandy. While Silver is no longer with her, I feel his presence on this disc. What you never know is whether he incidentally brought that to O'Donovan's music, or whether she brought him in because she wanted that sound.
She recorded this album on a single night in April in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with just guitars and drums. It has an organic feel that's absent from stitched-together performances. From the opening track, "Magpie," I got the distinct feeling that I was hearing a huge influence of Joni Mitchell, circa Hejira. As with the deluxe version of In the Magic Hour, she includes Mitchell's ever-so-perfect radio song, "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio." But she slows it down, does it solo. O'Donovan's audiences may be unfamiliar with it, but it is apparent she adores the song.
Again, like Mitchell, she does not take the easy or oft-expected turn on a song. Instead, she sets a course that offers different rhythms, different vocal patterns, different chords, resulting in a challenging and rewarding musical experience. The digital version of The Man in the Neon Coat can be had on September 9, with a limited edition CD to follow on September 30.
I am about one-third of the way though Tamara Saviano's marvelous biography of Clark, Without Getting Killed or Caught, and got so lost in it that if I don't put it aside I'm never going to finish this column.
Saviano is no stranger to Clark, as she was responsible for the tribute album several years ago that took home the AMA Album of the Year award. As a one-time publicist for Clark and a longtime confidant, she began the book in 2007 and had access to many of his friends, contemporaries, and his first wife. As she said in her 2015 article for ND, the book "Traces the life of music pioneer Guy Clark, who, with his wife, Susanna, shaped the contemporary folk and American roots music scene much like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald fashioned the jazz age in Paris."
It also reads like an Americana version of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, as there is a lot of travel, with the Clarks' various homes serving as a cafe society for many who are household names today. It stretches back to his formative years, early marriage, various jobs, including guitar repair and building, and, of course, the crucial meetings with Susanna and Townes. In short, it is a fascinating chronicle of not just a man and master songwriter, but of the times and the creative processes that spawned what we take for granted today. The Clarks served as the Gertrude Stein of Americana music, and their various homes served as the salon that gave it birth.
Without Getting Killed or Caught is as essential as Patti Smith's Just Kids. The book is complete with early photos, drafts of songs, writings, musings, and drawings, and will be published on October 14.
Chicago Farmer is the moniker of Cody Diekhoff and this is his seventh album. How he's flown beneath the radar is unknown to me.
Midwest Side Stories begins with the Neil Young-like "Umbrella." With a strumming guitar and lyrics such as, "I want to sing you a sad, sad song that I hope will make you smile," the resemblance between Diekhoff and Young is unmistakable -- and undeniable. But, he is no mere imitator. He springboards from that auspicious beginning to songs generally about the current state of the formerly industrious Midwest, offset with its many rural areas, and their many problems: job loss, meth, farms, shift-work factories, social divisions, etc.
Diekhoff adroitly mixes Woody Guthrie-isms and Todd Snider's sensibility with Dylan's imagery and misdirection. A prime example is how he turns skateboarding into a sardonic protest song:
Skateboarding is bad
why don't you stay inside and make your bombs?
Skateboarding is what's wrong with kids today.
Not to be undone by the troubles we have today, the album ends with a semblance of hope, on the album's only cover: John Hartford's "I'm Still Here." The album hits the streets on September 30, but you have just a couple of days to get it via Kickstarter.
Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt
Why is it that no one uses the term "supergroup" when it comes to women artists? Well, I do. When Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt released their first Trio album, they were not only at the top of their game, they were the most accomplished artists in their respective fields. This re-issue not only remasters both albums, but offers up 20 new tracks, including alternate takes, unreleased gems, and alternate mixes. No further elaboration is necessary. The Complete Trio Collection circles back on September 9.
Many thanks to: James Bland for the Terry Allen photo; John Longmire for the Chicago Farmer photo; and Stephen G. Smith for the Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur photo.