It’s hard to think of a more brilliantly chameleonic songwriter than Jenifer Jackson. She can switch from honktonk to bossa nova to oldschool soul to psychedelia and absolutely own all of those styles. Throughout her career – from the Beatlesque tropicalia of her first full=length album Slowly Bright, through her most previous, more mistily bucolic The Day Happiness Found Me – one constant has been how economically she writes. No wasted notes, no wasted words, always straightforward and direct with an unselfconsciousness that can be downright scary. The other constant is that she’s always had an amazing band. She did a long stretch in New York for about ten years, ending in the late zeros, before setting down new roots in Austin. The change did her good, inspiring her to follow the Americana muse that always seemed to be perched on her shoulder somewhere.
Her latest album, Texas Sunrise, is streaming at Bandcamp. Jackson opens it with the gently evocative title track, fingerpicking her guitar against the warmly wistful backdrop of Kullen Fuchs’ vibraphone and Chris Meitus’ mandolin, Tony Rogers’ cello adding a stark undercurrent. A Heart With a Mind of its Own goes deeper into 50s C&W, period-perfect down to the fluttery cello multitracks. By contrast, the album’s other vintage country tune, Sad Teardrops is a hard-hitting hard-honkytonk kiss-off anthem worthy of early Loretta Lynn. And Paint It Gold, a duet with co-writer Fuchs, takes the idiom forward twenty years to the early 70s proto-outlaw sounds of bands like the Flatlanders.
Jackson’s voice can be fetchingly poignant, as on the warily introspective ballad Easy to Live, or the evocative, balmy atmospherics of the nocturne When Evening Light Is Low. And her gently ambered, vibrato-tinged vocals on the dreamily regretful Ballad of Time Gone By will give you goosebumps. Yet her most nuanced and quietly impactful moments are actually on the more upbeat material here, particularly the Rosanne Cash-esque In Summer, a blend of Americana and the elegant pop tunesmithing of Jackson’s early days, lit up by Fuchs’ one-man horn section.
Similarly, the most energetic songs here are the real knockouts. All Around, with its windswept angst and desolate shoreline milieu, evokes Steve Wynn at his most haunting and wintry. Fuchs colors the uneasy Texas shuffle On My Mind with accordion washes and swirls and then a soaringly aching brass section. A Picture of May plunges more broodingly into southwestern gothic, a plaintively stately, bolero-tinged number. The most quietly devastating track here is White Medicine Cloud, a hypnotic, metaphorically bristling anthem with an understated antiwar message, Jackson painting a great plains tableau that’s genuinely touching.
On a more sobering note, over the past few weeks Jackson has been battling an injury that’s forced her to switch to piano. Although she’s a competent player, guitar is her main axe, and not being able to play it has thrown a wrench in her ability to just pack up and perform pretty much anywhere. She’s pretty tough, so the longterm prognosis is optimistic. But if there ever was a time to support this resolutely individualistic artist, now is it. You can pick up the album at Bandcamp or Jackson’s merch page.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #542:
The Long Ryders – Native Sons
Since this blog is located in New York City, every day is 1984 here, so we hope it’s ok with you if we stay in that year for another day. This album is one of the best early alt-country records. Frontman Sid Griffin – who would go on to write an acclaimed Gram Parsons biopic – shifted from Stonesy stomp, to twang, to the occasional venture into the psychedelic paisley underground sound that the other northern California bands of the era were so well known for. The real gem here is the ferocious Cali gothic Wreck of the 809, driven by its eerily soaring bassline. The rocking stuff includes the surreal Final Wild Son and Run Dusty Run (a Steve Wynn reference); the country is represented by the bittersweet Ivory Tower, I Had a Dream, Fair Game, the wry bluegrass-tinged Never Got to Meet the Mom and a boisterous cover of Mel Tillis’ Sweet Sweet Mental Revenge. The band would stay together through the 80s; everything they put out is worth a spin. Here’s a random torrent via Gas Music.
With laid-back vocals and smartly catchy tunes, Minerva Lions’ new album puts a uniquely psychedelic spin on Mumford & Sons-style Americana as well as other retro styles. They’ve got a new ep out that many fans of folk-rock and the mellower side of psychedelia will enjoy. As much as this music looks back, it’s full of surprises and originality. The opening track, For R. A. is a very smart arrangement of a lazy, hypnotic 70s-style British psych-folk tune, with all kinds of neat flourishes from the organ, tersely soaring steel guitar, baritone guitar and a cool solo where the organ and the acoustic guitar join forces as one. The second cut, Megrims, works a lushly apprehensive acoustic guitar hook into a casual, backbeat sway, steel guitar sailing warily, all the guitars kicking in with a vengeance as it winds out.
Protection Ave reminds of mid-period Wilco, with a sweet, oldschool Nashville pedal steel intro and some of the swirliness that Jeff Tweedy likes so much. Black Mind Decides is a catchy, slightly less glam-oriented Oasis-style electric piano-and-guitar ballad, its unexpectely noisy, practically satirical off-kilter guitars leading to a neat trick ending. Ascension Day offers a more bouncy take on a bluesy 1970 style minor-key soul vamp with organ and smoldering layers of guitars. The album ends with a pointless trip-hop remix of the opening track that strips it of most of its originality and replaces those ideas with cliches: that’s what happens when you take a good song and give it to a nonmusician who’s all about doing what he thinks will please a crowd rather than creating something interesting and original. Lyrically, this stuff is neither here nor there: rather than making any kind of statement, it’s all about hooks and melody. Much of the album is streaming at the band’s site; they’re at Rock Shop in Gowanus tonight (July 22) at 9.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #561:
The Hangdogs – Wallace ’48
These New York hellraisers got their start as sharply literate if drunken alt-country types in the late 90s. By 2003, when this final album came out, they’d gone in more of an Americana rock direction: imagine Jello Biafra fronting Social Distortion, and you’ll get some idea of what the Hangdogs were all about at the end. This is a slice of life from the early Bush era, a scathingly hilarious account of everyday people battling sadistic bosses, broke and too wasted on reality tv to realize how much closer to slaves they became every day. The title track is a bluegrass homage to perennial Socialist Party candidate George Wallace, followed by Waiting For the Stars To Fall, the towering, elegaic ballad that Oasis never wrote. Lots of funny country songs here: Memo from the Head Office, making sure that we max out our credit cards on the all shit we don’t need; Drink Yourself to Death, a spot-on satire of “new Nashville” music; the self-explanatory Alcohol of Fame, and Serious Guy, who’s somebody you hope you never work for. And just as many genuinely serious songs: the workingman’s lament Early to Bed; the plaintive She’s Leaving You; lead guitarist Texas Tex’s hallucinatory, somber Porch Swing; and the bitter band-on-the-road anthem Goodnight, Texas. Frontman Matthew Grimm would go on to equally good things as the leader of socially aware Iowa rockers the Red Smear later in the decade. Utterly impossible to find as a torrent; the usual pay sites have mp3s, and the whole thing is streaming at Spotify.
More new stuff coming later today – promise! In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #646:
Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen – Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas
Did Commander Cody invent alt-country? Maybe. Pianist and stoner Americana maven George Frayne – who’s still going strong, with a different band behind him – is sort of the missing link between Dan Hicks and Little Feat. On this sprawling but tight live set from 1974, the eclectic showman and his three-guitar band blaze through a mix of western swing, roots rock, blues, and a snarling electric take on oldtime country. Lead guitarist Bill Kirchen, then in his early 20s, had already earned iconic status with his sizzling licks, and gets to air them out on his signature song, Too Much Fun. There’s also the C&W dance tunes Armadillo Stomp and Git It; the Chuck Berry style shuffle I’m Coming Home; the barrelhouse blues number Oh Momma Momma; a romp through Riot in Cell Block #9; a hippie update on the old cowboy song Sunset on the Stage; and a couple of sad ballads, Crying Time and “one of the world’s saddest songs,” as the Commander put it, Down to Seeds and Stems Again Blues. The only thing missing here is the most obvious one, Lost in the Ozone. Here’s a random torrent via chocoreve.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #652:
American Ambulance – Streets of NYC
Along with the Hangdogs, American Ambulance were the best Americana roots rock band on the planet from the late 90s – when Wilco went to La La land – through the early zeros. They literally never made a bad album, from their 2001 debut though this final gem from four years later. This is a defiant concept album about growing up in the 70s. It’s an allusive, whiskey-fueled 48 hours of fun despite it all, frontman Pete Cenedella’s snarling vocals set the stage with the Stonesy Down in the Basement and Won’t Be Home Tonight, lead guitarist Scott Aldrich firing off searing riffs that draw as deeply on the Yardbirds and Kinks as much as Johnny Cash. The hopeful Here Comes the Day and expansive Shimmering Rain set the stage for the tongue-in-cheek Don’t You Like Rock N Roll and First One of a One-Too-Many Night, a big concert favorite. The night peaks with the surreal Your Name Little Girl and the foreboding Bad Moon Over Brooklyn. The classic here is Ain’t Life Good, a cruelly beautiful hungover Sunday morning scenario lit up with Erica Smith’s wounded, beautiful harmonies. Cenedella hints at a bitter future with Leave This City, but that’s a false alarm. Too obscure to find at the sharelockers but still available at the band’s site, and much of this is streaming there. More torrents tomorrow.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #655:
Kelly Hogan – Because It Feels Good
Hogan got her start in the obscure but smartly adventurous indie band the Jody Grind. She was a good singer then; by 2001, when she released this cruelly underrated gem, she’d become one of the most hauntingly compelling voices in any style of music. And as much as she can haunt, she can also be very funny. Backed by a killer twangy Americana band, she’s a David Lynch girl on the lush tremolo-guitar soul ballad I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You. She’s more of a Russell Banks character on the countrypolitan kiss-off to a white trash guy, No Bobby Don’t. The misty, creepy Speedfreak Lullaby reminds of Mazzy Star; Please Don’t Leave Me Lonely has a vintage 60s Dionne Warwick feel. The best of the bunch is the Nashville gothic (You Don’t Know) The First Thing About Blue. There’s also the echoey, sparse ballad Stay (an original, not the oldies radio hit); a spare, poignant version of Randy Newman’s Living Without You, and a Smog cover done as Castles Made of Sand-style Hendrix. Why an album so good would be so hard to find is a mystery: other than at Hogan’s myspace, which has some of the tracks, it simply doesn’t exist online. And if you stream the songs there, be careful, you have to reload the page AND clear your browser after every play or else you’ll be assaulted by a loud audio ad.
Like Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, Jay Bennett’s final album Kicking at the Perfumed Air is unfinished. Yet it’s still relatively polished, and a cruel reminder of what we lost when Bennett died in May of 2009. One of this era’s greatest talents in any style of music, the ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist could play pretty much any instrument and could write pretty much anything as well. And his songwriting was only getting stronger. We picked his previous, solo acoustic album Whatever Happened, I Apologize – issued a couple of months before his death by insurgent Chicago netlabel rockproper – as one of that year’s best. And over two years later, our review of that album remains one of the ten most popular articles in the history of this website. Despite a chronic back condition that required him to take the pain medication that ultimately killed him, this album is the reverse image of the previous one: upbeat, fun and often very funny, it puts to rest any claim that Bennett might have been a suicide.
There are a couple of stark acoustic tracks, just guitar and voice, that revert to the vibe of the previous album. When Heaven Held the World, a sad country ballad, ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note, while Footprints somewhat grimly recalls an affair with someone who “only left footprints on my heart…you were just her to take pictures.” There are also a couple of first-rate collaborations with Bennett’s longtime pal Edward Burch: Second-Last Call, a raucous country blues that paints a sarcastic, surreal barroom scene, and Twice a Year, a lament which despite its roughness has layers of piano and acoustic guitar that are absolutely exquisite. The title track of sorts is a cover of the Boomtown Rats’ classic Diamond Smiles, done as oldtime country with layers of acoustic guitars, piano bass and mandolin that only enhance the song’s brutal sarcasm: in this one the spoiled suicide girl grew up on a plantation. There’s a marvelous rumble after Bennett reminds that “love is for others but me it destroys,” and a LOL funny ending.
The best song here is Mirror Ball, a gorgeously lush, distantly Big Star influenced psychedelic pop ballad. It’s as good as anything Alex Chilton ever wrote, a bartender’s remembrance of a star he never knew. Hotel Song is another gorgeous one, a big towering ballad with watery Leslie-speaker guitar in the background, Bennett playing agile Stax/Volt leads and finally a pretty unhinged, icepick solo over Jason Sipe’s blistering, sustained power chords. There’s also a funky, Afrobeat-flavored number, a Dylanesque chamber-pop ballad, the bitter, rustic waltz Chamber Physics and a tribute to beer funnier than anyone else’s since Tom T. Hall did I Like Beer in 1975.
So why didn’t we review this when it came out over a year ago? At this point, it’s impossible to remember. Yes, we were remiss: this is our atonement. Download it for free from rockproper and be grateful they put this out.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #725:
The BoDeans – Joe Dirt Car
Despite their occasional brushes with fame – the powerpop hit Closer to Free was the theme song to a 90s network tv sitcom – the BoDeans have always been colossally underrated. Gifted with not one but two first-rate songwriters, they foreshadowed the advent of alt-country by almost a decade. By the turn of the 90s, they’d moved on to a more anthemic straight-up rock style. This exhilarating 1995 double live album intersperses singer/rhythm guitarist Sam Llanas’ dark, cynical Americana songs among lead player/singer Kurt Neumann’s big rock anthems. The iconic classic here is Idaho, recorded on the spur of the moment at a soundcheck, a brutally sarcastic portait of rural redneck hell. The big hit is their 1985 debut single, the lusciously jangly revenge anthem She’s a Runaway. The scorching Stonesy rockers here are Fade Away, Still the Night, Say About Love and an absolutely volcanic Feed the Fire, alongside the starkly intense Ballad of Jenny Rae – another battered woman’s revenge tale – and Black White and Blood Red. Llanas mines a wry, wistful oldtime country vibe with I’m in Trouble Again and Looking for Me Somewhere; Neumann’s distant, alienated angst gets plenty of space on the jangly concert favorite Paradise and the bitter You Don’t Get Much and True Devotion. More than two dozen tracks here, virtually all of them first-rate and a handful of genuine classics. Almost thirty years after they started, Llanas and Neumann still tour with a revamped version of the band, continuing to pack stadiums throughout the Midwest. Here’s a random torrent.