Archive for January, 2010

A Little Knox Music: Spies, Lies, & Burning Eyes by R.B. Morris

Posted in Knoxville Music, R.B. Morris on January 14, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

R.B. Morris is a singer/songwriter who has shared a stage with Lucinda Williams and had his songs recorded by John Prine.

R.B. Morris is a poet and author who has published multiple books and once served as the editor of the highly respected Hard Knoxville Review.
R.B. Morris is a playwright who once wrote and starred in his own one man show based on the life of Pulitzer Prize winning author (and Knoxville native) James Agee.
I once referred to Morris as a one man literary wrecking ball, and his skills with the written word in all of its myriad forms are showcased brilliantly on his new CD Spies, Lies, & Burning Eyes. On this album, Morris moves from Dylan style folk, to abstract spoken word pieces, to straightforward rock and roll bombast with ease… sometimes within the same song.
The album kicks off with the subdued travelogue “Amsterdam.” R.B. croons softly over faint accordions and guitar before transitioning into the funk fueled word art of “Big Wheel/Vowels” on the album’s second track. Here Morris references the works of french poet Arthur Rambaud as he muses on the colors represented by different vowels. Morris speaks rather than sings as his studio band, including longtime compatriot Hector Quirko and guitar maestro Kenny Vaughn provide a perfect canvas for his words.
It’s a formula he repeats on a few other tracks as well. The whole thing can be a bit jarring if you aren’t expecting it, but those who are familiar with Morris’ previous works and live shows have come to expect such departures. These Beat inspired pieces provide a backdrop for his poetry that a standard song structure simply can’t provide.
That’s not to say, however, that Morris can’t turn out a straight forward song when he tries. “Spy in My Brain” is a guitar rocker of the highest calibre that brings to mind some of Alejandro Escovedo’s heavier work. The fire is balanced nicely with the more restrained “That’s How Every Empire Falls” and “Then There is a City.” All three tracks (along with “Big Wheel/Vowels” and “Buddha in European Clothes”) also appeared on Morris’ 2007 EP Empire but have been re-recorded and given new life here. The album is wrapped up nicely with the Dylan-esque “Plato’s Perfect World” in which he wishes for a world where there was no need for poets to point out societal ills.
R.B. Morris is already a legendary figure in Knoxville and an artist Lucinda Williams once called the “greatest unknown songwriter in the country.” Maybe his new effort will help to remove the “unknown” tag from that title.
Here are two tracks from the new album… one song and one “other.”
R.B. Morris: Spy in My Brain (Buy Album)
R.B. Morris: Big Wheel/Vowels (Buy Album)

Catching Up and Looking Ahead

Posted in Allison Moorer, Nolan McKelvey on January 12, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

The gentleman pictured above is Andrew Bird, the author of my favorite album of 2009. And that’s almost the last time you’ll hear me reference 2009 on this site. It’s time to move on to 2010.

The end of last year and the early part of this year have been extremely busy for me. I put in some extra hours at both of my jobs, and spent a great deal of time re-listening to music from the past year and the past decade. In fact, I spent so much time working on my year end list, my decade list, and the year end mix CD that my wife and I make every year (complete with six pages of liner notes) that I haven’t taken much time to catch up on any new music that’s come my way or look ahead to anything that’s on the horizon.

I’d like to do some of that today.

My biggest sin lately has been neglecting my inbox over at ReviewShine. ReviewShine is a tremendous resource for bloggers where (mostly unknown) artists can post their music for bloggers to sample and download. I’ve discovered some great artists there including Boca Chica, Madison Violet, Kelly Mannix, and several others.

Recently though, I went roughly two months without listening to anything from the site. When I logged back on last week, I had 40 or 50 albums waiting for me. I’m slowly trying to work my way through them to pick out the best stuff to share. I’ve already found a few that show some promise, and one such artist is singer-songwriter Nolan McKelvey.

I don’t know much about Nolan other than to say he is a singer/songwriter from the Boston area who now resides in Arizona. During his time in the Northeast, Nolan developed a solid reputation in the region, and his bands were nominated for seven Boston Music Awards. He may also have once accidentally stolen songwriter Kris Delmhorst’s accordion.

His new album Matter of Time came out late last year, and is full of catchy folk/pop tunes that immediately grabbed my attention. The song I’m sharing with you here is the lead track on the album, “All We Ever Needed.”

Nolan McKelvey: All We Ever Needed (Buy Album)

The second thing I want to do with this post is take a small look ahead at some of the new releases I’m looking forward to in the early part of 2010.

Several of my favorite artists seem to have plans for the year including the incomparable Patty Griffin. Patty has two releases planned for 2010 with the first being a gospel album produced by Buddy Miller called Downtown Church. The album will be available January 26th, but one track, “Move Up,” is already streaming on Patty’s Myspace page.
Over the weekend, I also alluded to news of a new Tift Merritt album that is in the works. It seems the album has been recorded and is just awaiting a final mix and mastering. Even though it’s not quite in the can, the album does have a title and a tentative release date. Look for See You On the Moon some time in May.
Much closer to a physical release date is the new offering from Austin alt-rockers Spoon. Transference won’t be released until January 19th, but you can listen to the album in its entirety right now at NPR’s website as part of their “First Listen” series. I haven’t heard the whole thing yet, but I have full confidence the record will be another finely crafted album full of insanely catchy indie pop tunes.
Finally, Allison Moorer’s new release Crows is set to hit the streets February 9th. I’ve been listening to this for a couple of weeks now, and it’s beginning to grow on me. Crows is a quiet record overall that features a bit of a departure for Allison as a good deal of the songs were composed on piano instead of guitar. Guitars are still present in places, including the up tempo single “Broken Girl.” Here’s an acoustic version of the album’s lead track.
Allison Moorer: Broken Girl (Acoustic) (Buy Album)

Random Weekend Post: Happy Birthday Tift Merritt

Posted in Tift Merritt on January 9, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

Lost in all of the hub-bub over Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday yesterday was the fact that Friday was also the birthday of Tift Merritt. Here’s a video of Tift performing at the Mercy Lounge as part of the 2007 Americana Music Conference. I attended this show with my wife. It wasn’t until the end of the night that we realized we were sitting next to Lee Ann Womack for a good part of the show.

Bonus Tift Merritt News: Tift’s upcoming album has a title and a tentative release date.

Top 20 of 2009: 3-1

Posted in Andrew Bird, Band of Heathens, Bombadil, Top 20 of 2009 on January 9, 2010 by AmericanaPulse
#3 – Tarpits and Canyonlands by Bombadil

The album coming in at number three on the list is one of the most stylistically diverse albums I heard this year… and one of the most fun. The members of Bombadil claim that the core of their sound has its roots in Bolivian folk music. Having never heard any Bolivian folk music before, I’ll have to take their word on this one. It is clear, though, that band culls their influences from a myriad of different sources. When it’s all mixed together, their sound is a whimsical stew that pulls from several ingredients without letting any one flavor overpower the rest.

Whimsical may be the best word to describe this record… but that’s not to suggest that it is in any way childish or immature. It’s quite the opposite. When I first reviewed the album in June, I made mention of how the ebullient music often concealed darker subject matter. The album hooked me immediately with… well… a ton of hooks and a sense of wonder that just isn’t found on many records anymore. This song, “Honeymoon” is one of those tunes that catches you off guard with a catchy beat and lays you flat with lyrics that deal with life once the Honeymoon is over.

Bombadil: Honeymoon (Buy Album)

#2 – One Foot in the Ether by The Band of Heathens

The Band of Heathens are a collective of songwriters from Texas who originally started playing together as part of a songwriter’s night at Momo’s in Austin. Ed Jurdi, Colin Brooks, and Gordy Quist each started out doing solo sets… then occasionally sitting in on each other’s sets… then adding a rhythm section and playing as songwriters in the round. A local music reporter made reference to a group of “heathens” that had started playing regular sets together and a legend was born. The guys have now released two albums as The Band of Heathens, and both can be considered essential listening for fans of intelligent, roots flavored Americana songwriting.

What makes The Band of Heathens so special is the three pronged songwriting force that almost assures the well of tunes will never run dry. The three guys share songwriting credits on this album so it’s difficult to tell exactly who is responsible for what, but it is easy to see a healthy range of styles and sounds on this record. Despite the variety, there is a strong gospel feel to most of this set including the call-and-response of “Shine a Light” and the distorted rodeo gospel of “Golden Calf.” The bottom line is that this album is full of top-notch Texas songwriting and is one of the finest releases of the year.

Band of Heathens: Shine a Light (Buy Album)

#1 – Noble Beast by Andrew Bird

No matter how much I may love his music, I always find it difficult to write about Andrew Bird. His songs just seem infinitely complex and layered, and they don’t really sound much like anything else that I listen to. After watching Andrew play a set at the Bijou Theatre in October (my wife’s anniversary present to me) I became even more convinced of the complexity of his sound. Andrew played guitar and violin. He also sang and whistled and used any number of foot pedals to record and playback loops of various instruments, whistles, and vocal lines.

All of Andrew’s various skills come into play on this album as well. Andrew is a classically trained violinist and quite the impressive whistler. I know it’s an odd combination, but the two play so well together that it’s very easy to forget how strange what you’re listening to actually is. This album is incredibly melodic and infectious, and Andrew’s whistling just seems to burrow into your head and take root. I often find myself whistling one of the melodies from this album when I’m washing the dishes or walking the dog. These songs have imprinted themselves on my brain… and that is why Noble Beast by Andrew Bird is my #1 album of 2009.

Just try to resist the urge to whistle along with this one…

Andrew Bird: Fitz and Dizzyspells (Buy Album)

Top 20 of 2009: 6-4

Posted in Levon Helm, Scott Miller, Shane Nicholson, Top 20 of 2009 on January 5, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

#6 – Electric Dirt by Levon Helm

Levon Helm was a legend long before he revived his solo career in 2007 with the critically acclaimed Dirt Farmer. As a member of The Band in the 60’s and 70’s along with Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson, Levon was responsible for creating some of the most beloved Roots Rock music of all time. His sharp drumming and weathered voice helped to define The Band’s sound and continues to shape his music today. Electric Dirt is Levon’s second album since returning to the music business following a battle with throat cancer.

This album picks up almost exactly where Dirt Farmer left off, and finds Levon covering several classics such as The Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” Randy Newman’s “Kingfish,” and Pops Staples’ “Move Along Train.” Levon covers some new ground as well. The most inspired piece here is “When I Go Away,” a gospel flavored tune written by the album’s producer and fiddle player Larry Campbell. The song is also very representative of the album’s overall sound that blends a bit of soul into Levon’s country framework.

Levon Helm: When I Go Away (Buy Album)

#5 – Familiar Ghosts by Shane Nicholson

Here’s where this list deviates a bit from the one I turned in to The Bird List. Although it was a 2008 release in Shane’s native Australia, and it still hasn’t been issued in the U.S., this album was a big part of my year and needs to be included here. I told the story of how I obtained this album back when I wrote my review of it in August. What I didn’t say was that I started playing the record at WDVX (the only person in the States to do so?) and had several listeners email me to find out how to get a copy (iTunes). One listener even found a way to have a copy imported to him from overseas. I’d say this album is worth the extra effort it might take to find it.

The album is a continuation of the sound found on the collaborative album Shane released last year with his wife Kasey Chambers. The songs are all built around acoustic grooves and float from standard singer/songwriter fare to bluegrass flavored rambles and back. The result is a classic sound that also has a strong footing in the present. There was a time before I became familiar with Shane’s work when I thought he was merely a complimentary player piggybacking off of his wife’s name and acclaim. I no longer hold that belief.

Shane Nicholson: Easy Now (Buy Album)

#4 – For Crying Out Loud by Scott Miller & The Commonwealth

Again, I can’t have a list without putting Scott Miller on it. In fact, this album may even deserve to be higher on the list than it is. I certainly think I listened to it more than anything else this year. I know I played it more than anything else on the air at WDVX. The truth is that Scott is one of my favorite artists, he’s based out of Knoxville, and this site is named for one of his songs. I don’t want to appear too biased by placing him too high on the list. I interviewed Scott about the album when it was released in the Spring, and finally got around to posting my review in the Summer.

As I said in my previous review, don’t believe Scott when he starts the album with the lyric, “I’ve got nothing for you.” It’s just not true. What this album does is illustrate exactly why I love Scott Miller as a songwriter. He can write about both the ridiculous and the sublime and make both work extremely well. “Sin in Indiana” is a song based on Scott’s theory that uptight Midwesterners actually send all of their sin down the Mississippi River where it is released in the people of New Orleans. It features characters with teeth made of limestone and church deacons who hide pornography in cornfields. Ridiculous. It also features “I’m Right Here My Love,” a touching song about a married couple saying goodbye. Sublime. The song I’m sharing here is an older tune that has its origins in Scott’s days with the V-Roys.

Scott Miller & The Commonwealth: Heart in Harm’s Way (Buy Album)

Happy Birthday: Michael Stipe

Posted in Michael Stipe, R.E.M. on January 5, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

Today is the birthday of Michael Stipe of R.E.M. I wished him a happy 49th last year, and this year he is celebrating the big 5-0. I would break out a special birthday post again today, but Whitney Matheson at USA Today’s Pop Candy Blog has already beaten me to it.

As the frontman for R.E.M., Stipe is one of my favorite musical figures of all time. I didn’t have a favorite artist before I was introduced to Berry, Buck, Mills, & Stipe in high school. Maybe I wouldn’t be such a musical freak if I hadn’t been.

Follow this link to see Pop Candy’s tribute to Stipe in the form of ten amazing YouTube videos. Here’s one more video featuring Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant.

Random Weekend Post: Josh Ritter

Posted in Josh Ritter on January 2, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

A few videos today from one of my favorite songwriters… Josh Ritter.