Archive for November, 2009

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #4 – Decoration Day by The Drive-By Truckers

Posted in Drive-By Truckers, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 30, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

We took a bit of a break for the Holiday, but it’s time now to continue with the list of my favorite Americana albums of the past decade. The album here at number four stands as a stark contrast to the subdued beauty of Neko Case at number five, and is probably the loudest, most guitar driven album on the list.

Album #4 is The Drive-By Truckers’ 2003 release Decoration Day.
Others may place the band’s 2001 effort Southern Rock Opera in this spot… and that would certainly be hard to argue against (although I would rank SRO third behind even 2004’s The Dirty South). Southern Rock Opera was an ambitious, two-disc, concept album that used a backdrop of Southern landscapes and Southern issues to trace the career path of a Skynyrd-esque band of Rock & Roll misfits. The album tackles what front-man Patterson Hood refers to as the “Duality of the Southern Thing” all while presenting a dualistic quality in the music as well. Hood and guitarist Mike Cooley wrote an album full of loud, bombastic songs about heavy topics such as racism, Southern politics, death, drugs and alcohol, and the gaudy excesses of fame. They did so however with a careful and caring eye for detail that forced the listener to think while the electric guitars wailed.
Even with the bar that was set by Opera, I still can’t help but list Decoration Day as my favorite.
Some of the themes from the previous record are present here as well. Hood’s “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” is a classic “band on the road” song that both celebrates and curses the lifestyle they have chosen and could have easily blended in with the story arc of Southern Rock Opera. In fact, the formula here is basically the same. Start with powerful stories about flawed people in flawed situations, mix in some heavy guitar riffs, and play the whole thing as loud as possible.
The one thing that makes this album different from The Truckers’ previous work (and makes it my favorite) is the addition of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jason Isbell to the group. This is Jason’s first (of three) albums with the group, and he wasted no time in making his presence felt. Jason only wrote two tracks on this disc, but they are undoubtedly two of the highlights.
One of those is the album’s title track “Decoration Day.” It tells the tale of a modern day Hatfield and McCoy type family war. The feud has lasted so long that no one can remember how it started, or how many in the warring families have died. As the narrator, Isbell wants it all to end, but his father forces him to continue the fight. By the end, he comes to hate his own Lawson family as much, if not more than, the Hill clan he is sworn to destroy.
Isbell’s other contribution is also possibly the band’s finest moment. “Outfit” is another tune that features a relationship between a father and a son as its narrative touchstone. In this song, however, the dad offers some fatherly advice from a man who wants better for his son than he had for himself.
Of course, I don’t want to gloss over the contributions of the band’s other two songwriters. Patterson Hood is the longtime leader of the band and the author of nine of the album’s 15 tracks. Hood’s highlights include the full-on guitar assault of “Sink Hole,” the aforementioned “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” and the somewhat jangly “My Sweet Annette.”
Hood is a master at capturing the feelings of the flawed and confused. His characters often must face harsh realities or make hard decisions. In “Sink Hole” a desperate farmer fantasizes about killing the banker who has come to foreclose on his family’s land. His characters also leave their brides at the alter (“My Sweet Annette”), struggle through the trials of divorce [“(Something’s Got to) Give Pretty Soon” & “Your Daddy Hates Me”], and take their own lives (“Do it Yourself”).
If you’re looking for sunshine on this album, Mike Cooley isn’t the one to turn to either… although he may come the closest with the musical proposal “Marry Me.” The protagonist here simply realizes that while he isn’t perfect (and neither is she), he gets by much better by his girl’s side than he does when he’s off chasing some other dream. As Cooley puts it, “I’d rather be your fool nowhere than go somewhere and be no one’s.”
Of course, Cooley lets his dark side out on this album as well. “When the Pin Hits the Shell” offers another point of view on suicide. “Loaded Gun in the Closet” offers another picture of wedded non-bliss and leaves us wondering who will use the weapon first… and who they will use it on.
It’s a dark album to be sure, but one that continues to draw me in. The Drive-By Truckers essentially crafted an album full of tragedies and train wrecks, but those stories are told in such a compelling fashion that it’s impossible to turn away. Here are three tracks from the album… one each from Hood, Cooley, and Isbell.
Drive-By Truckers: My Sweet Annette (Buy Album)
Drive-By Truckers: Marry Me (Buy Album)
Drive-By Truckers: Outfit (Buy Album)

Random Weekend Post: R.E.M. – Nightswimming

Posted in R.E.M. on November 28, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

I hope to get back to my favorite albums of the decade soon. Until then, here’s something from my favorite band of all time.

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #5 – Blacklisted by Neko Case

Posted in Neko Case, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 25, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

You may notice that this album is a little different from the others on this list so far… and the ones that come after. Where most of the others on this list are mostly guitar driven with heavy doses of up-tempo rockers, 2002’s Blacklisted by Neko Case is a much more subdued and understated affair.

In fact, that understatedness led me to overlook this album for quite some time. I was first introduced to Neko through her debut album, 1997’s The Virginian, an album full of country rave ups and rockabilly stomps. As her music made the transition the darker sound and tone of Blacklisted, it took me a while to make the move with her.
Even as I hesitated to go along with Neko for the ride, I kept reading reviews on message boards and music mags about how wonderful and essential this album was. Every time I would read one of those reviews, I would go back and revisit this release. One day it just clicked.
I can’t say exactly what it was that finally put me over the top on this disc, but I think it’s probably safe to say that Neko’s voice had a lot to do with it. I once read her voice described somewhere as sounding like “Patsy Cline’s ghost.” I’ve always felt that was an appropriate comparison, and it really feels right here due to the etherial nature of most of the songs on this album and the subtle nods to Cline’s classic country sound. There is a natural resonance to Neko’s voice that shines throughout the album, but there’s also a bit of reverb added in the production on a few tracks that adds yet another otherworldly quality to her vocals.
As for the songs themselves… Blacklisted is a fairly dark album throughout, and the tone for that is set right off the bat with the album opening “Things That Scare Me.” Neko evokes images of birds frying on telephone wires and references to some sort of bloody revenge. That song is followed by my favorite track on the album, “Deep Red Bells.” Neko has said that this song deals with the sense of fear she felt while living in Washington state during the time the Green River Killer was at large. She has also said the song is an attempt to give voice to the Green River Killer’s victims, who were mostly prostitutes and runaways and who were often not given much sympathy in news reports of the slayings.
The darkness continues with threats of ruination in “Outro with Bees” and visions of plane crashes in “Lady Pilot.” Neko’s reading of the classic soul tune “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)” comes across as a menacing warning to the object of her desires instead of a heartfelt display of devotion.
Even when the lyrics aren’t overtly dour, Neko’s band (including slide guitar wizard Jon Rauhouse and Dallas Good of The Sadies) does a great job of conveying that feeling by exercising restraint and keeping things relatively down beat. The music provides a perfect backdrop for Neko’s haunting and emotive vocals. Her voice is given room to soar even as the tone and themes of the album keep things grounded. Overall, the album meets the definition of the phrase beautiful sadness.
Here are two tracks from the disc… and one bonus cut. First is “Deep Red Bells,” my favorite cut and one that is full of wonderful and complex imagery. Next is Neko’s take on Aretha Franklin’s “Running Out of Fools.” Her reading of the soul/R&B classic adds an element of country heartbreak while still doing justice to Aretha’s original. Finally, since I mentioned her earlier… a bonus track from Miss Patsy Cline.
Neko Case: Deep Red Bells (Buy Album)
Neko Case: Runnin’ Out of Fools (Buy Album)
Patsy Cline: You’re Stronger Than Me (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #6 – Thus Always to Tyrants by Scott Miller & The Commonwealth

Posted in Scott Miller, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 22, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

You knew he had to show up on this list at some point didn’t you?

Scott Miller is the one artist I’ve written about more than any other at this site. He’s been very good to me during my time in Knoxville, and he’s been very good to this website as well. Heck, he even agreed to let me use a lyric from one of his songs as the title for the site. That song, of course, is “I Made a Mess of This Town” (you can listen to it in the “About Me…” section on the right-hand side of the page) from this album… 2001’s Thus Always to Tyrants.

In fact, I’m not really sure what else I can say about Scott Miller and The Commonwealth that I haven’t already said before. I can, however, use this album as a vehicle to illustrate exactly why Scott is one of my favorite aritsts.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Scott’s music has always been his ability to write songs that deal with a wider range of topics than many other songwriters. He embraces self-destruction on the rocking “Absolution,” laments lost love on “Loving That Girl,” and muses on family dysfunction on “Daddy Raised a Boy.” The latter song being one of the most well written tunes in Scott’s catalogue. It shares a similar theme with Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In the Cradle” in that the sins of the father eventually become the sins of the son.

“Now when I look into my father’s eyes,
We both see something we can recognize.
He sees a young man who’s lost his way.
I look at him I swear I see the same.”
Where Scott really changes things up sonically and thematically, though, is on a two song stretch in the middle of the album. In the midst of an album full of up-tempo guitar rockers, Scott slows things down for two Civil War period pieces in “Dear Sarah” and “Highland County Boy.” “Dear Sarah” is an old fashioned string band number based on letters written by one of Scott’s ancestors to his beloved while he served as a soldier in the War. It’s a love song, but it’s a love song wrapped inside a history lesson.
Scott’s sneaky that way. He holds degrees in American History and Russian & Soviet Studies from the highly prestigious College of William & Mary. He’s written songs about The Civil War and World War II. He’s even written one song that is nothing but a musical biography of the great Tennessee and Texas statesman Sam Houston. He’ll make you learn something if you aren’t paying attention…
…Then he’ll sing a song about why he hates babies, tell a crass joke on stage, call himself a dipshit (one of his favorite words to describe himself), and shatter whatever illusion he’s built. That’s the true dichotomous nature of Scott Miller and his music, and it’s in fine display on this album.
Take the final two songs on this disc for instance. The album closing “Is There Room on the Cross for Me” is a gospel drenched piano number that ends the proceedings on a solemn and somber note. The song itself is prayer for God to bring some peace to the singer’s soul as he, “cannot bear this world alone.” Very touching. Very dignified.
The song before that? A fire breathing rocker called “Goddamn the Sun.”
Ladies and Gentlemen… Scott Miller.

Random Weekend Post: Jason Segal & The Swell Season

Posted in Jason Segal, Swell Season on November 21, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

Last week, my wife and I finally watched the movie Once… a wonderful, musical movie featuring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

We are also huge fans of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother starring Jason Segel as Marshall.

That’s why I was so excited when I found the video clip of Jason Segal joining Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova on stage earlier this week. I know this video has made the rounds already… but it’s too much fun not to share again.

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #7 – Fate’s Right Hand by Rodney Crowell

Posted in Rodney Crowell, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 20, 2009 by AmericanaPulse
I don’t know if it’s possible to fully love an album without having actually heard it. If it is, then that is exactly what happened with me with Rodney Crowell’s 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand.

On Father’s Day in 2003, I drove to Charleston, West Virginia for a taping of The Mountain Stage radio program. This trip was made fairly early in my discovery phase of Americana music, and I attended the show primarily to see Kasey Chambers. Kasey was great, but I also left the performance as a fan of several of the other acts on the bill as well. One of those acts was Rodney Crowell.
Rodney was in Charleston to promote his new (as yet unreleased) album, Fate’s Right Hand, and he brought his friend, the phenomenally talented guitar player Kenny Vaughn, along with him. With the Mountain Stage Band behind them, Rodney and Kenny played a stellar set including three songs from this album. I was hooked then, and when the album came out about a month later I grabbed a copy immediately.
The album begins with two of the songs Rodney performed at that concert in Charleston. The album opener, “Still Learning How to Fly,” is a song Rodney wrote for a friend who had recently lost a battle with cancer. It’s a very introspective and reflective song dealing with memories of a life well-lived with an anticipatory eye turned toward what lies ahead in the afterlife.
The opener’s sweetness is followed by fire on the vitriolic title track. In it, Rodney takes the role of a “Honkey with an attitude coming unglued” as he breezes through a stream-of-consciousness rant against the ills of modern society. War, drugs, sex, materialism, the 24-hour news cycle… even Ken Starr… are all mentioned here. Some of the references may seem a little dated today, but the anger still holds true and the song still holds up. This track was named Song of the Year at the 2004 Americana Music Awards & Honors.
Bela Fleck’s chiming banjo brightens the tone once again on “Earthbound” as Rodney searches out the good things in the world. He finds several examples… Charlie Brown and Ringo Starr among them… and decides that he would like to stick around.
Though he finds peace with his environment, much of this album deals with Rodney finding peace with himself. As the titles may suggest, “Time to Go Inward” and “The Man in Me” both find the artist struggling with his own personal demons. The former song is quiet and contemplative as Rodney examines his own conscience and causes. The latter takes a more confrontational tone as the singer examines the reflection he sees in his own mirror, and finds the person looking back at him to be lacking.
The album continues on with several more songs of self-examination and ruminations on societal woes. The contemplative tone of things can make the album seem bleak at times, but the sunny outlook returns on the album closing “This Too Will Pass” (the third song from Rodney’s Mountain Stage set). It closes the album with a rousing and uplifting sing-along and a reminder that most of the setbacks we suffer are only temporary and can be overcome.
I’ll leave you with this lyric from “Time to Go Inward” that I think sums up the overall theme of Fate’s Right Hand while also setting up a guest list for what would surely be an interesting dinner party.
“Jesus and Buddha and Krishna and Minnie Pearl knew,
Do unto others the things you want done unto you.”

Rodney Crowell: Fate’s Right Hand (Buy Album)

Rodney Crowell: Earthbound (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #8 – Buddy & Julie Miller by Buddy & Julie Miller

Posted in Buddy and Julie Miller, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 18, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

I love Steve Earle and Allison Moorer.

I think Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis are great.
Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine make me giddy.
You know how I feel about Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson.
For my money, though, Buddy & Julie Miller are the first couple of Americana music.
Buddy is the multi-instrumentalist/producer/singer/songwriter who is the most decorated artist in the history of the Americana Music Awards with a voice that can instantly transport you back to the glory days of country music.
Julie is the master songwriter who will break your heart with the pain and longing she packs into every verse and piece it back together with the warmth of her voice.
Together, the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. That’s no small feat when you consider the two main parts involved.
This self-titled release from 2001 served as my real introduction to the couple’s sound. I recall being completely enamored by Julie’s voice upon hearing the song “The River’s Gonna Run” on a sampler CD that came with the December 2001 copy of the British music magazine, Uncut (I heard Gillian Welch for the first time on the same disc as well). It wasn’t long before I realized that Buddy Miller was one of the artists featured on the new Kasey Chambers CD that I was just starting to get into at the time (more on that disc later in the list). That was all I needed to push me toward giving this album a shot.
The album opens with a cover of Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance,” a song about the power of lust to consume and destroy. Buddy and Julie bring a certain fire to the track with soulful harmonies on a vocal performance that highlights the longing in the in the words while cursing the restraint that must be exercised. “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” studies similar themes as Buddy’s guitars wail over Julie’s words that carry all of the passion with none of the restraint of the previous tune. I heard Julie say once that this song was her attempt to write a song like “Wild Thing”… a rocking, unrestrained, love song. Mission accomplished.
It was songs like those that first pulled me into this album. I loved the juxtaposition of the heavy electric guitars and pounding drums that just scream “Rock & Roll” with the breathy raspy twang of Buddy & Julie’s voices that come straight from days of Nashville past. Songs like their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Wallflower” fit that description perfectly. Fiddles cry while cymbals crash in a perfect blend of country, blues, and roots rock that forms a perfect blueprint of Americana.
Buddy & Julie Miller was named “Album of the Year” at the inaugural Americana Music Honors & Awards in 2002. It’s hard to argue with the panel for their choice.
Buddy & Julie Miller: You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast (Buy Album)
Buddy & Julie Miller: Wallflower (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #9 – Rainy Day Music by The Jayhawks

Posted in The Jayhawks, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 16, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

The Jayhawks are one of the most respected acts to come out of the early days of the alt-country movement. Led by Gary Louris and Mark Olson, The Jayhwaks won a legion of fans with their Byrds inspired jangle pop/country sound and their extremely tight vocal harmonies. The formula worked to perfection on three wonderful albums… 1989’s Blue Earth, 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall, and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass.

Despite the band’s success, founding member Olson left the group following the Tomorrow the Green Grass tour to pursue other projects. With the departure of his songwriting and vocal partner, Louris could have called it quits as well, but decided to keep the band together and keep releasing albums under the Jayhawks name.
Critical reviews were split on The Jayhawks first two post-Olson releases… 1997’s Sound of Lies and 2000’s Smile. On these releases, Louris seemed to abandon the group’s signature rootsy blend to explore a sound that drew from more pop and rock influences. Without Olson by his side, Louris took the opportunity to experiment a bit and try to expand his sound. He did so even while many fans were waiting and and hoping for a return to The Jayhawks sound of old.
In 2003, that return came in the form of the album Rainy Day Music.
The album’s opening track, “Stumbling Through the Dark,” begins with a finger picked riff that clearly recalls the band’s Byrdsian influences before settling into a loping country beat. The band’s trademark harmonies reappear here as well. This time, however, Louris blends with drummer Tim O’Reagan instead of Olson.
The next track is “Tailspin,” a song that adds an element of rock to the proceedings all while still featuring banjo (played by Bernie Leadon) and steel guitar. This track, along with the folksy rockers “The Eyes of Sarahjane” and “You Look So Young” go the furthest to remind me of the sound The Jayhawks so masterfully captured on Hollywood Town Hall.
The quieter moments on the disc play well here too. “All the Right Reasons” features harmony vocals from alt-popster Matthew Sweet (who also co-wrote “Stumbling Through the Dark”) and is a touching love song without being saccharine. The album closing trio of “Tampa to Tulsa,” “Will I See You in Heaven,” and “Stumbling Trough the Dark (Acoustic)” also provide a nice easy bookend to the proceedings.
Rainy Day Music doesn’t quite stand up to the level of the work The Jayhawks were doing when Olson and Louris were still a pair, but it does hearken back to that sound. This was also one of the albums that was very instrumental in shaping my appreciation of the Americana genre in the early part of this decade. For that reason, it belongs in my Top 10.
The Jayhawks: Tailspin (Buy Album)
The Jayhawks: All the Right Reasons (Buy Album)

Random Weekend Post: How to Play Guitar

Posted in Luke Doucet, The National on November 14, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent some time at some point trying to figure out how one of your favorite artists plays a certain song.

Ofcourse, if you’re really like me, then you have no idea how to play any musical instruments, and the endeavor of trying to figure out something like that makes your head hurt and is ultimately fruitless.

Luckily, two of my favorite artists have posted some YouTube videos to tell us all how to play a few of their songs. Blog favorites Luke Doucet and The National have posted a couple of handy tutorials on how to play a couple of tracks.

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #10 – Back to Me

Posted in Kathleen Edwards, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 12, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

Released in 2005, Kathleen Edwards’ sophomore effort Back to Me had some big shoes to fill in attempting to live up to her debut album Failer. All that album did was get nominated for “Album of the Year” at the Americana Music Awards (Kathleen lost to Johnny Cash), prompt the AMA to create a “Best New/Emerging Artist” category the following year, and place the Canadian songwriter on the map as a new and important voice in Americana music.

Fortunately, Back to Me was able to live up to expectations and deliver on the promise shown by Kathleen on her debut disc. The album opener “In State” sets the tone for the proceedings by giving us a glimpse at the hard edged persona that is so often present in her songs. This track serves as a warning to the singer’s no good man that he needs to clean up his act before she tells what she knows and gets him locked up in a state pen. As Kathleen puts it, “I know where the cops hang out./I know where you’ll be found./I know what you’re all about./I know when you’re going down.” We’ve all been warned that Kathleen is not to be messed with.
The attitude shows up again on the album’s title track in the form of a scorned lover who is determined to use every trick at her disposal to make her man come back. The attitude turns to incredulousness on “What Are You Waiting For?” (a song I recently featured in my “Songs I Can’t Play on the Radio” post) when the subject of the song tells Kathleen he likes her better in his memory. Her response is classic.
Of course, the album has its tender moments as well. “Copied Keys” is a very heartfelt song about picking up roots and moving to a strange place to be with someone you love. It’s not hard to feel displaced at times in a new town. Kathleen captures those feelings perfectly.
Musically, Kathleen creates an inviting roots-rock sound that brings a sense of warmth to her often confrontational lyrics. I’ve described her sound before as as what you might expect if Tom Petty and Lucinda Williams had a daughter who grew up in Canada listening to Neil Young. Kathleen herself has cited Petty as the biggest influence on her sound. That’s never more apparent as in the guitar solo on the title track. The fact that Heartbreaker Benmont Tench appears on the album certainly doesn’t hurt that comparison either.
I could have easily placed any of Kathleen Edward’s three albums on this list. I love all three. There’s something about this one though that just puts it over the top for me. Here are two of the tracks that I mentioned above.
Kathleen Edwards: In State (Buy Album)
Kathleen Edwards: Copied Keys (Buy Album)