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You hear her open the album singing and strumming her guitar, simple yeah, but why is your skin tingling? It’s the first time you hear Dori Freeman sing and you know she’s the real thing. By the third track, “Go On Lovin,’” producer Teddy Thompson backs her with a sweet old-fashioned country band, and you hear channels opening up strong to the the legendary women of country music. The next track, “Tell Me,” has a chart-topping arrangement. She sings it with an honest twang and a sexy yodel on the one syllable of the word “man.” (You may find yourself playing this song over and over in your car, futilely trying to ape this sound.) The album cruises seamlessly through genres grounded in Freeman’s singing style that is as natural as if she’s letting the lyrics sing themselves. “Ain't Nobody,” is an original tune that borrows its theme and syncopated beat from Tennessee Ernie Ford's “Sixteen Tons.” She swings it with nothing but a finger snap and woman’s hardworking soul. This auspicious debut is proof that Dori is well worth getting to know on a first name basis, like her predecessors, Loretta, Dolly, Dusty and Patsy. —Michael Devlin
Annie Gallup certainly has a style of her own, it just never sounds exactly the same. Over the years she has produced music with a wide variety of sounds including, string quartet, solo electric guitar (recorded live in an empty theater), impeccable quiet arrangements with Peter Galway and various tasteful modern singer-songwriter configurations. This album is the result of Gallup’s quest to work with Gabe Witcher, after hearing his haunting fiddle work five years earlier. When the first track, “Diamond Ring,” starts with Witcher's rich mountain fiddling, it seems to be quite a departure from Gallup's previous work… until she starts to sing. The integrity of her lyrics and her unique phrasing translate seamlessly to the traditional style of this song. “My mother’s diamond ring/ Witnessed everything/ It was there for the spark that made me/ Sharp on the hand that raised me.” I would not have been surprised if I had found that Dolly Parton had written this song (and I'd surely like to hear her cover it!). Actually the only covers are a bluesy interpretation of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails,” and Dougie MacLean’s “Caledonia,” a duet with Witcher's fiddle also featuring harmony vocals by Anna Abbey. Ever eclectic, Gallup inhabits the different genres and rhythms her songs demand, as Witcher teases a sweet range of emotion from his bowed strings. David West on mandolin, dobro and National Steel and Peter Gallway on string bass and vocals each contribute subtly to the essence of the music. Deep artistry and musicianship is the constant in Gallup’s work and it once again it shines brightly in fine company. —Michael Devlin
The sound of this album is somewhat of a departure for Peter Gallway. Over the years he has shown himself to be a master of quiet arrangements and eloquent spaces between notes. On many of the tracks on this album he fills the spaces with keyboard chords, overdubbed vocals and drum samples. This denser texture is well-suited to songs that deal with the complex and intense issues of the day. “Downtown Ferguson” marches head-on into the emotions behind the headline shooting. The roiling rhythm of the song boils the tragedy down to its most basic element, “Fear, shot from a gun.” “Hymn,” by contrast, is just piano and vocal as Gallway seems to answer the despair of "Downtown Ferguson" with a call to express spirituality, to “help us through the night.” “Tear Something Down” is complex, with rage juxtaposed with a desire for sanctuary and peace. “Reversal” traces the echoes of hatred from the holocaust into the present. Gallway presents no easy answers to the mysteries written in muscle and bone and spirit, yet the diverse flow of sound and emotion of this album points towards a credible hope for the future. This is best seen in a chanted quote from Mahatma Ghandi heard in “Downtown Ferguson” and in the last song, “Blow This World.” “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words/ Your words become your actions, your actions become your habits./ Your habits become your values, your values become your destiny./ When I despair I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won./ There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they can seem invincible./ But in the end they always fall.” The complexity of it all is beautifully expressed in Muscle and Bone.—Michael Devlin
2018, Red House Records
On this her 20th album, Eliza Gilkyson presents music that is as urgent as a debut, conceived, performed and produced with the love and care of a life-long artist. In songs with lyrics by her grandmother, Phoebe Hunter Gilkyson, and her own songs from the last three decades, Gilkyson meditates on the mysteries of life, thankfulness, wonder, love and all the things that some people say make us human and others say make us divine. Gilkyson takes on topical issues without naming them. “Lifelines,” described in notes about the album as a reaction to waking up to find that Trump was president, makes reference to Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” to rally good-hearted people. “Reunion” is about refugees at sea, invoking their plight on the immense ocean with rolling piano and a lush strings (courtesy of the Tosca String Quartet) and compassionate lyrics. “Seculare” with a pensive rhythm and etherial choral backing meditates various iterations of “Thank you for…” without requiring an answer to the question “to whom?” Gilkyson does not always banish an addressable deity. Assisted by gospel singer Sam Butler on “Sanctuary,” Gilkyson sings the refrain “Thou art with me.” “In the Name of the Lord,” is the most strident song, challenging those who bend scripture to suit their prejudice, greed and willful ignorance. “Down By the Riverside,” a pre-Civil War African American spiritual is well-placed among these songs, and especially fitting as it is a duet with fellow Austin musician Jimmy LeFave, who died after a long illness in May of 2017. There is not a small song on this diverse and beautiful album as Gilkyson considers the big questions one more frequently asks when a friend passes. No matter the way one answers these questions, such a fine collection of songs is something to be thankful for.—Michael Devlin
John Gorka—True in Time 2018, Red House Records True in Time sounds like the work of a musician who has been perfecting his art since the late 1970’s… because it is. In three days in a studio full of fine musicians and with vocals by fellow singer-songwriters Lucy Kaplansky, Eliza Gilkyson and Jonatha Brooke, he has produced another masterful album of songs that must be considered to be among his finest. No matter whether the songs are whimsical or profound, Gorka’s rich baritone is still the perfect instrument, and his playing has never sounded better. The title track was written in collaboration with Pete Kennedy shortly after the consecutive deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Gorka quoted Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” (“a mother and child reunion is only a motion away”), and Pete responded saying, “maybe all songs come true in time.” The song that sprouted from this topical seed grows into a reflection on the nature of truth in passing time. “Crowded Heart” is classic John Gorka, nailing a bit of truth and beauty with gentle humor, pondering what it feels like to be filled “with all that living brings.” “Fallen for You” recalls the alert system ads, “I’ve fallen for you and I can’t get up,” with a wry senior romantic twist. True in Time is an essential listen for anyone who finds truth in a crowded heart. —Michael Devlin
Tracy Grammer—Low Tide 2018, Tracy Grammer Music Low Tide, things have been taken out to sea, never to return, other things uncovered under the sky, and the promised return of a teeming flood—this is the shore that Tracy Grammer looks out from. After years of curating and completing her duo work with her late parter, Dave Carter, she has produced and album of mostly her own songs, finding her own voice and aural space. The work with Carter was somewhat wryly referred to as “post-modern, mythic, American folk music,” and was the product of soaring genius. Where to go from there? The love of language and finely crafted songs is still central to Grammer’s work, but she now sings her own story and observations. The album opens with “Hole,” a song with some very Dave Carterish touches (such as the use of the word “shatterlings”), but also a bold new sound, attitude and personal viewpoint. Romantic disappointment is the theme of “Daffodil Days” and “Were You Ever Here.” “Good Life” is a song from the point of view of her father who passed away in 2013. He reviews his life as its end approaches, acknowledging mistakes and lessons learned, still summing it up as a good life, enjoying a peach, “with the juice from that fruit dripping all down my face/ there is only this moment, only this place.” The cover of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” will surely get stuck in you head with its string-laden arrangement and catchy chorus. The song is even more interesting upon discovering that it is based on Peter Reich's 1973 memoir, A Book of Dreams. The new recording of “The Verdant Mile,” a song that totters between despair and acceptance of her partner’s tragic passing, illuminates Grammer’s personal and artistic journey. Previously recorded for The Verdant Mile EP, the song has undergone a complete makeover. The original featured an uptempo beat and urgently emotionally vocals in an acoustic arrangement without drums. This version features a marching drumbeat complete with glockenspiel, a complex, moody arrangement and stylized vocals. Once one gets over the fact that Tracy has altered a song that was a part of the healing process for Dave Carter’s many fans, one can clearly see and appreciate that she is no longer looking at her grief from the inside. That point is more specifically made in the last song, “Free,” the last lines of which state, “whatever comes will be okay/ you know it will.”Low Tide is more than “okay,” with engaging songs beautifully sung and arranged. The rising tide is eagerly awaited! —Michael Devlin
The album starts with a homage to a Texas singer-songwriter (presumably Eric Taylor). In it, Peter Gallway sings, “I’m going to Texas, gonna learn to tell the truth/ Just like those Texas songwriters and the simple words they use.” Although this song is about another musician, The duo of Peter Gallway and Annie Gallup are stating their raison d’être, their need to tell the truth in a song. These are late night truths, the kind that only come out when it is quiet enough for a sweet guitar to have it’s say. The nocturnal sensibility extends to the arrangements—their instruments are equal parts pluck and sustain as they sing with a quality of intense listening. Some of the truths are specifically personal. In “Beggar and a Thief,” Gallway sings about his recovery from drug addiction and his new life, nurtured by music and his love for Annie. "Tornados Sound Like Trains" establishes a funky slow-train groove with just their two guitars, as Gallup sings a twisting story of dangerous love in semi-droll detail. "I Speak to Fewer People," based on a poem by Charlie Smith, fits well with the duo’s sense of irony, innocence and gently self-deprecating humor. Gallup and Gallaway's last song, "Coda—Remember" gathers lyrics from the previous songs that speak of things that matter most to them, before the dawn sends them off to bed and tucks them in with sweet guitars. —Michael Devlin
The Kennedys—Safe Until Tomorrow 2018, The Kennedys L.L.C. The Kennedys have been the buoyant folk-rock heroes of the singer-songwriter scene since the optimistic mid-1990s, through the shattering early 2000s and on into our current WTF era. I am blessed to be within Pete and Maura’s frequent touring radius, hearing some of their songs within days of being written. Emerging into their set lists alongside songs from their twenty-plus years together, the new songs are among the best of their career. Even though I am very familiar with their sound, Safe Until Tomorrow still covered me with goosebumps from the thrill of their jangle guitars and Maura’s sparkling, pure voice. Several of the songs address issues of the day. The title track refers to California’s wildfires and mudslides, before broadening to a more universal appeal in the chorus, “If we can only keep you safe until tomorrow.” “Don’t Talk To Strangers” compares the dilemma of a five year-old lost in the city, who must ignore her mother’s advice to accept help from a kind stranger, with the story of refugees coming to New York in need of the welcome promised by Lady Liberty. “Be Silent No More,” “Sing The Chorus” and “Is Anybody Listening?” are less specific but no less a relevant to our times. “Dancing On The Moon” cleverly parodies “Dancing in the Street,” to satire our lack of regard for our planet. A cover of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” the elegantly poetic “Pistol Island” and the culinary ode, “Cayenne In My Coffee,” are all outstanding. Our culture may have lost the capacity to have it’s consciousness raised by popular music, but those who are alive to that sort of thing will want to make this album a part of their personal hopeful soundtrack.—Michael Devlin
Vivian Leva—Time is Everything 2018, Free Dirt Records
Although the arrangements are a nice mix of country, honky-tonk, singer-songwriter and other contemporary sounds, the voice is of a young woman singing with a deep appreciation of traditional mountain music that goes well beyond her years. She yodels as easy and sweet as if she has been doing it all of her life, then it dawns on me as I look at her last name; Vivian Leva is the daughter of Carol Elizabeth Jones and James Leva, an incomparable traditionally influenced duo. I also realized that this was not the first time I had heard her voice. In July of 1998, I interviewed her parents by phone for The Music Matters Review, and as they were describing how she had already travelled with them to festivals, I heard her crying in the background for just a few minutes. On Time is Eveything Leva surrounds herself with excellent musicians, especially Riley Calcagno whose intuitive support on fiddle, banjo and vocals is an integral part of the music. She keeps the production uncluttered, true to the various forms of the songs. “Wishes and Dreams” is a simple waltz, carried by the sweetness of Leva’s voice and soothed by Calcagno’s gentle banjo. “Why Don’t You Introduce Me As Your Darlin’” sounds every bit like a classic honky-tonk country hit. Leva and Calcagno update traditional singer Texas Gladden’s “Cold Mountains,” with a simple banjo and guitar arrangement (click here for a charming live performance of this). An original recording of the song by Gladden can be heard here. Paul Burch’s “The Last of My Kind” sounds like a personal statement, perhaps commenting on the fragile continuity of the kind of music that springs from community and tradition. Time is Everything is somewhat of an Athena, a brilliant debut springing forth fully formed from a childhood filled with music. It is exciting to think of what the future holds for this deeply rooted musician.—Michael Devlin
[Click here to see our review of Jones and Leva’s Vertie’s Dream, released in 2000.]
Claire Lynch has long mastered the art of loveliness—the gentle twang of her voice complimenting her easy way with the melody as she draws you into the songs. And what a fine collection of bluegrass and Americana songs this is…except that almost all of the songs are the work of Canadian singer-songwriters. You could describe these songs as simple, with their clear narrative and Alison Brown’s uncluttered arrangements and production, but that would overlook the sophistication of getting all of the little things right. It doesn’t hurt to have stellar studio musicians including Stuart Duncan, and headliners such as Jerry Douglas and Béla Fleck lending their talents. Lynch and company give Gordon Lightfoot’s “It’s Worth Believin’” country harmonies and a gentle mandolin and dobro sound that will henceforth be the only way you want to hear this song. J.P. Cormier’s “Molly May” uses a touch of accordion to invoke the Cape Bretton origins of this song, even as Lynch’s vocals and Bryan McDowell’s fiddle pulls it further south. Lynn Miles’ “Black Flowers” is as moody and dark as a place where “black flowers grow in my yard,” should be. Lynch’s own “Milo,” an upbeat love song, fits in well with the rest of these well-written, nicely arranged and produced tunes. It’s nice to see that this fine album’s easy going charm and musicality has gained it a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album. I’m not sure that is the right category, but I don’t think there is an award for Lovely North-Americana. —Michael Devlin
Heather Maloney—Just Enough Sun
2018, Signature Sounds Recordings
Heather Maloney has been making albums since 2009, five of her own (including this one) and one collaboration with the band Darlingside.Just Enough Sun is an EP with five originals and a cover. Maloney’s expressive voice and engaging songwriting draws one in from the first track, “Let Me Stay,” exploring our relation to the places we’ve called home as they become places we visit (“I am a guest in every room I’ve ever known.”) It is rich with details of her childhood room, “My brother’s old room used to be mine,/ he painted it blue when I left it behind.” Her strong melodic sense keeps these songs in your ear all day, recalling her stories of doomed space monkeys and delicate pansies that survive storms that topple oak trees. She covers “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” revealing its timely urgency even though it was released 55 years ago on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Heather Maloney is well worth checking out, and this EP is a good place to start. —Michael Devlin
John Moreland—Big Bad Luv
Pain induced art and wisdom, with a heartland accent, this is roots music grown in the grit and manure life throws at you. His rugged voice can’t hide the raw power of a heart that knows how to break. Musical brother to Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, John Moreland is convincing fronting a rock band on the first few tracks, but the quiet tracks really let you know who you are listening to. When someone titles a song “Lies I Chose to Believe” and starts it with “Well I’ve gone and lost my faith in photographs,” you stick around to hear what he has to say. Similarly, “Amen, So Be It” gets going with “So your heart is not a souvenir/Singing from behind a sad veneer.” Just when you begin to expect kick-ass kick-offs to his songs he takes it to another level in “No Glory In Regret” with “Did you hear the devil laughing/ From the ambulance passing?/ Or was that just my troubled mind?” Once you hear John Moreland, you’ll never be satisfied with rock that doesn’t care and doesn’t craft.—Michael Devlin
Kacey Musgraves—Golden Hour
2018, MCA Nashville
The late Glenn Frey celebrated his peaceful easy feelings in song with the Eagles, but the Eagles were also the band that famously decried life in the fast lane and warned about “Hotel California,” where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” In contrast, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour will leave you feeling peaceful, and truly at ease. The thirteen songs are filled with a bevy of good vibes, much like a leisurely Sunday drive to grandma’s house, (as opposed to speeding down the highway to check into hell’s hotel).
Musgraves recent romance is most likely the power source behind her current musical vibes. Musgrave extols her new love in the title track. She also expresses optimism. (“I know everything’s gonna be alright.”) Musgraves has been criticized for experimenting with distinctly non-country sounds in her music. “Oh, What A World,” another feeling-good-in-love song, features vocals modified to sound robotic. (I don’t think Loretta Lynn done it this way!) Musgraves gets away with taking these brave sonic liberties because she writes such smart songs and sings with so much sincerity. She may give an aural nod to Daft Punk on the song, but it’s impossible not to become enraptured by her celebration of her happy place.
Musgraves reveals a knack for incorporating familiar cultural signposts to make her songwriting relatable. “Velvet Elvis” alludes to the kitschy roadside artwork; “Wonder Woman” finds her admitting she’s no superhero, and “High Horse” is about informing a guy that he’s no John Wayne.
Not all Golden Hour is giggles and grins. “Lonely Weekend” is about getting through the weekend without the company of friends and family. Musgraves sings of experiencing loneliness, but she’s not lonely. When your life is pretty good overall, a solitary weekend is a mere blip on the radar screen. On the other hand, lonely weekends for the truly lonely are emblematic of a relatively friendless life.
Artists such as Carrie Underwood blow you away with their powerful pipes. The songs are like rockets, created to show off vocal firepower. Not so for Musgraves. She engages with a gentle vocal spirit. Her songs are more akin to wildflowers arranged in an inviting bouquet. And it’s this beauty that contributes to the album’s overall peacefulness. Hers is the voice of comfort. When she tells you “everything’s gonna be alright,” you believe her. This is not a voice that lies.
Peaceful easy feelings are getting harder and harder to come by these days. But when you’re able to love and be loved, and sing about it with Musgraves’ gentle integrity, well, let’s just say she won’t let you down.—Dan MacIntosh
You know James O'Malley if you know what it's like to be in love for decades, to work a job to keep your family going and while finding a little time to feed your muse. Likewise, James knows you and sings your songs. His voice may seem familiar, gently reminding you of Paul Simon. He weaves narratives in details that convey profound sweetness as if it was an ordinary thing. "Little Gold Watch" is a quintessential James O'Malley song, in which he invites his wife to an anniversary party at work. "Without you there'd of been no me,/ for twenty-five years with the company./ So in your beautiful dress and those sparkling eyes,/ I want them all to see the reason why,/ they could count on me each and every day,/ it wasn't the work, it wasn't the pay." Here is an artist who knows how to take sweetness seriously. O’Malley’s melodies catch your attention from the first listen. If "classic rock" was still being invented, "I Could Find You in My Sleep" would top the charts for a whole summer. “The Writer Remains” is autobiographical in that he actually works as a rigger at the Brookhaven National Laboratories, but he sells himself short in this song by merely identifying himself as a songwriter. He is an accomplished finger-style guitarist whose singing will remind you of a genial Paul Simon and his engaging stage presence makes him a must see performer. The album is produced by Pete Kennedy, who lets the vocals and guitar tell his stories with just a light touch of instrumental support. This is O’Malley’s best work yet, but seeing how you and James already know each other, you’ve probably already decided to pick up a copy of this extraordinary album! —Michael Devlin
Phillip Sandifer—Go On 2018, Wider Sky Music
Philip Sandifer has been recording since the early 80s, but because much of his early work was only released into the contemporary Christian market, he may be a new name to many. His participation in Disney Records’ A Bugs Life Sing Along earned him a Grammy Award nomination in 1999, and he’s amassed a goodly number of solo albums, as well as multiple production credits. Listening to Go On may just make you wonder how Sandifer has managed to fly under your radar for so long.
All nine of these songs are smart and significant. None of these is more gripping than “Looking for a War,” portraying a troubled individual who is always spoiling for a fight, whether on the battlefield or away from it. “Seen Too Much” explores the way the constant barrage of bad news, whether the nightly news or our Facebook feeds, beats us down emotionally. “That Kind of Lonely” puts the listener in the shoes of a homeless soul. “Have you ever been that kind of lonely?” Sandifer asks.
A few of these songs speak directly to Sandifer’s job as a songwriter. “The Trouble with Guitars” has the potential to become a huge country hit in the right hands. Sung with an arrangement prominently featuring mandolin and steel guitar, Sandifer sings about how so much of his personal life ends up in his songs. Much like the novelist who poorly conceals his friends and acquaintances in his stories, even Sandifer’s wife knows when he is writing a song about her.
“Forever Home” speaks positively about adoption. It’s a ray of hope that contrasts with “Seen Too Much.” Where “Seen Too Much” finds Sandifer unwillingly focused on all the negatives of modern life, “Forever Home” salutes the strong that help the weak, where, amidst all the chaos in the world, good things happen because good people do good things.
God is conspicuously absent from Go On, which is not to say these songs are particularly godless, but that he doesn’t refer much to his Christian faith. Even so, there is a Christian empathy saturating these songs. He may be disappointed by the world, but he never expresses anger at it. In the end, he has the hopeful attitude of a spiritual man.
With all the fluff in popular music, it’s heartening to discover music with real substance.—Dan MacIntosh
Carolann Solebello—Shiver 2018 Modern folk often is defined by what it’s not, rather than by what it is. Not twangy enough for country, yet too soft for rock (or even soft rock). It’s acoustic, yet hardly as musically intricate as bluegrass. It’s singer-songwriter, but much more traditional than what’s typically heard on pop radio. It’s unlikely that Carolann Solebello experiences issues concerning categorization; she has one of those Joan Baez-like pure singing voices, which always leaves her sounding conspicuously folk.
Solebello, known to many folk fans as a founding member of Red Molly, also has a flair for the eclectic, exemplified by the Spanish-sounding backing for “Meeting the Muse.” Lyrically it personifies creative inspiration as an exotic woman found in a bar.
The album hits its peak with “Our Lady of Sorrows” and “Jesus Played Guitar,” tracks six and seven respectively. In “Our Lady of Sorrows,” Solebello sings longingly to a religious icon, imagining the statue is really listening and empathetic to her needs. “Our Lady of Sorrows,” she requests, “comfort us.” This song is performed with just Solebello’s voice and guitar, with unobtrusive bell tower chimes nicely added into the mix. “Jesus Played Guitar” paints a picture of Jesus that is far more friendly than religious. This Jesus is not just a savior of souls, but also a working musician, much like Solebello. This track also utilizes nothing more than Solebello’s voice and acoustic guitar. Solebello wonders out loud about Jesus’ humanity. “I wonder if Jesus was afraid,” she muses.
One of the best tracks is the overtly country “So Bad.” Over a honky-tonking swaying beat colored by down-home fiddle, Solebello clearly has fun belting out this tavern lament. Solebello has a strong singing voice, and it’s a sincere joy just to hear her let her hair down. “Listen” is also sweet, as this one is augmented by mandolin and what sounds like a cello. Solebello closes the album with another acoustic folk number called “Right Here.” She sings this in a clipped rhythm, a little like Suzanne Vega. Shiver is a strong effort showcasing Carolann Solebello’s smart songwriting chops and bell-clear singing voice. She is an unashamed folk singer, and while she may mix in a few other musical styles, it’s clear her bread and butter is traditional folk singing and songwriting. Even those who are not interested in albums categorized as folk will likely gravitate to Carolann Solebello’s real deal folk music. —Dan MacIntosh
The Waifs—Ironbark 2017, Compass
There is nothing “waifish” about the sound of The Waifs. The Australian independent band, with sisters Vicki Thorn and Donna Simpson, and Josh Cunningham, has been making venue tested music for their enthusiastic fan base since 1992. They play with the confidence of a band that has been together for twenty-five years. They are master song creators who know how to blend their talents into each other’s songs. Their harmonies are intuitive, adding just the right touch to each song. Similarly, the arrangements give room for instrumental riffs to work their magic without needing to take a bow. The tracks each have their own mood and feel, in an amalgam of roots rock, pop and acoustic. The singers have the chops to range from James Taylor-like ballads to Bonnie Raitt R&B. They flow with chameleon grace through distinct flavors and styles. “Done and Dusted” is a jazzy guitar stomp, “Ironbark” has a South African lilt, “The Shack,” is an atmospheric talker and “Sugar Mama,” sports an upright-bass in a country string band rocker. There’s even a yodeling cowboy song, “Goodnight Lil’ Cowboy.” Twenty tracks in and I laughed out loud when Vicki Thorn belted out the first line of “Take Me To Town,” “Someone’s gotta wear a dress around here!” This would be a great cover for a singer who has the chops to handle a kickass song! There are twenty-five tracks, but the songs are all so different that the album seems more like a compilation than all the same band. The lyrics are worth a closer listen than you are likely to do playing the album through the first time, but that shouldn’t be a problem as you are likely to straight-spin this one several times! If you are new to this band, get yourself a copy of this album, fall in love with the The Waifs, then dive into the back catalogue and do whatever you can to see them live! —Michael Devlin
The Wailin’ Jennys—Fifteen 2017, Red House Records The Wailin’ Jennys’Fifteen celebrate fifteen years of putting their beautiful voices to magnificent songs, in this case a collection of covers that will be familiar to those who live for this sort of thing. Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse don’t just sing well together, they are harmony singers, soprano, mezzo and alto. Whether they are reinventing the songs, changing the phrasing or rhythm, or simply applying their lovely, rangy voices, they always give you a reason to hear the songs in a new way. With the exception of Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock” with finger snaps, hand-claps and foot stomps as the only accompaniment, the trio favors curiously sober songs for young moms. The Wailin’ Jennys have the talent and empathy to cover Emmylou Harris’s “Boulder to Birmingham,” a song that welled up from a heart broken by the death of Gram Parsons. This is a tricky cover because the original was so personal to Harris and her vocals are so unpredictable. The Wailin’ Jennys’ version stays pretty close to the original, matching the pace and to a certain extent, the phrasing. The production is a little simpler, losing strings and keyboard for a more acoustic feel. One is struck by the way the complex three-part harmonies capture the ache of the song. In “The Valley,” the creative harmonies of the three woman capture the essence of another idiosyncratic vocalist, Jane Siberry. “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” is a Dolly Parton cover. It is a song of hope that sounds like it was written for our divided times, but it was written in the late ‘70s as Parton started to see her way clear after splitting with musical partner Porter Wagoner. This transcendent a cappella version turns the song into a hymn of healing. [The song was arranged for the movie, “The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom.” Here is a quick review of that movie… “See it!”] Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” became a song that many of his fans turned to as an epitaph when he died in 2017. The Wailin’ Jennys’ cover is faithful to the original in tempo, but the harmonies and string arrangement reveal the full spiritual glory of the song. Their versions of Warren Zevon’s farewell, “Keep Me In Your Heart,” and the traditional “Old Churchyard,” are brave and affirming in the face of death. These are good times to turn to powerful songs for strength, and Fifteen will fill you with harmony and hope. —Michael Devlin