Archive for the Essential Albums Category

Essential Album: Arkansas Traveler by Michelle Shocked

Posted in Essential Albums, Michelle Shocked on July 14, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

Been on a bit of a Michelle Shocked kick lately, and I thought I’d share this often overlooked gem with you.

Arkansas Traveler was released in 1991 by Mercury Records and was quite an ambitious and far reaching effort for the folkie Shocked. The album reads as a survey of several forms of American music that have been adapted and updated by an amazing roster of guests. In fact, Shocked traveled around the country and the world to record with many different artists and lend a strong sense of authenticity to each track.
For the opening track, Michelle went Chicago to have Pops Staples lay down some of his signature guitar licks on the soulful “33 RPM Soul.” Next, it was off to L.A. to record with an all-star group of session players including Mickey Rafael, Brian Berline, and Mark Goldenberg for the driving folk-rocker “Come a Long Way.” Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Albert Lee brought Shocked to Woodstock, NY for the accordion and keyboard (both by Hudson) driven “Secret to a Long Life.”
More traditional fare is explored on the nest stretch of songs as Shocked recorded with the Red Clay Ramblers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (“Contest Coming”), Irish folk/rockers The Hothouse Flowers in Dublin, Ireland (“Over the Waterfall”) and Alt-Country royalty Uncle Tupelo on a riverboat in St. Charles, Missouri. On the latter song, “Shaking Hands (Soldier’s Joy),” Shocked, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn bring a great deal of fire and grit to this reworked tale of a Civil War soldier’s battle with a bullet and his own conscience.
Blues legends dot the next few tracks as Shocked is joined by Taj Mahal in L.A. for the minstrel number “Jump Jim Crow/Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Bernie Leadon signed on in Memphis for a rambling retelling of the traditional song “Frankie and Johnny.” Shocked’s version, “Hold Me Back (Frankie & Johnny),” is told from Frankie’s point of view as she begs for someone to stop her from doing what she feels must be done to the two-timing Johnny.
Folk and bluegrass roots are explored once again as Shocked takes the stage with Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, and Mark O’Conner at Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina for the live track, “Strawberry Jam.” Alison Krauss and the original Union Station line up join in for the bluegrass romp “Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)” while Norman and Nancy Blake pick a bit in Georgia on “Blackberry Blossom.”
For the last few tracks, Shocked traveled to Australia to record with Paul Kelly’s backing band, The Messengers (“Weaving Way”), Arkansas for some Hee Haw style pickin’ and jokin’ with Jimmy Driftwood (“Arkansas Traveler”), and finally Texas with Leadon once again for the album closing “Woody’s Rag.”
At the time of its release, the album was not received as well as Shocked’s previous efforts. This was due in large part to her admission that a large portion of the album was inspired by an interest in the music of minstrel shows… a form of entertainment that was popular in the 1800’s and featured white entertainers dressed in black face make up. Today, the shows are widely considered as having contributed to many negative stereotypes of black cultre, and the mention of minstrel shows still carries strong racist connotations.
Shocked, of course, was inspired by the music of the era… not the racial overtones some of the songs represent. However, the presence of prominent black artists such as Pops Staples, “Gatemouth” Brown, and Taj Mahal as part of the project was not enough to silence some of Shocked’s stronger critics, and the album was a commercial failure.
I was unaware of this aspect of the recording when I started listening to this album a few years back. All I heard was the music… and that’s all I hear today. It still sounds good to my ears as a fine collection of traditional tunes updated to suit a modern (in 1991) audience with many strong originals from Michelle Shocked mixed in for good measure. Check it out if you get the chance.
Michelle Shocked w/Uncle Tupelo: Shaking Hands (Buy Album)
Michelle Shocked w/Alison Krauss & Union Station: Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe) (Buy Album)
Bonus: Here is the video for “Come a Long Way” from Arkansas Traveler.

Second bonus: A quick story about how Michelle was involved in one of my favorite concert moments… even though I’ve never seen her perform.
The first time I ever saw the Avett Brothers was during the 2004 Americana Music Conference in Nashville. There were tons of artists in town, and it seemed as though there were always a few musicians in every crowd at every showcase that weekend. The Avetts were on stage at the Station Inn, a bluegrass landmark that was hosting several showcases during the conference. About halfway through their set, I noticed two women had jumped out of their seats in the front row and started dancing together right in front of the stage.
Those two women? Adrienne Young and Michelle Shocked. It was the kind of thing that could only happen in Nashville at the Americana Music Conference.

Essential Albums: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams

Posted in Essential Albums, Lucinda Williams on January 28, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

Lucinda Williams celebrated a birthday earlier this week. I didn’t have time to properly acknowledge it then, but I’m going to do so now by paying tribute to her finest work, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

I’ve been thinking about this album quite a bit here lately. I knew it was time to put up another Essential Albums post, and I knew Lucinda’s birthday was approaching (She turned 56 on Monday)… but it was a comment from Paul on last week’s Sarah Borges post that cemented things. The consensus on Sarah’s new song is that she may have allowed her record label to smooth the rough edges of her sound in an effort to appeal to a larger audience. Paul noted that this was a fight that Lucinda had also fought (and won) many times in her career.

The evidence of her victories may be most visibly apparent on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. This is an album that was nearly six years in the making due in large part to label friction and Lucinda’s own dissatisfaction with the album’s sound. The album, as it was released, actually marked the third time many of the songs had been recorded. Sessions with Gurf Morlix were scrapped. Ditto sessions with Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy. Finally, Lucinda was able to get the sound she was looking for with E-Street pianist Roy Bittan helming the recording.

The results speak for themselves. Car Wheels was Lucinda’s first gold album, it was voted album of the year in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, and it won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The album’s reputation as one of the best ever released in the Americana genre has only grown since then.

The opening track, “Right in Time,” is a song full of private yearnings for an absent lover. The title track follows with a semi-autobiographical account of Lucinda’s childhood spent moving from town to town throughout the south with her family. The shuffling “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” was inspired by a book of photographs of old southern juke joints and was born, in part, after Lucinda spent a wild New Year’s Eve in Knoxville. I can always count on her to break this one out when she comes to town.

Of course, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” doesn’t mention Knoxville by name. It does, however, mention a few other southern locales and truly evokes a feeling of a specific region and place. In fact, the South is all over this album. Specific towns are referenced in several songs, and several others are named for southern cities. In “Greenville,” “Jackson,” and “Lake Charles” (Lucinda’s hometown in Louisiana) the titular towns are all destinations of some sort… places from the past that need to be revisited for some reason. Whether the character in the song is leaving a love gone wrong or returning to loves lost, it always seems as though a return to southern roots will solve all problems.

The most powerful song on the album, “Joy,” is also one of those destination songs. In it, Lucinda has been hurt and abandoned. She must return to the South to reclaim what has been taken from her. She does so over top of a screeching slide guitar and a driving drum beat. The fury and growl in her voice suggests she will stop at nothing to achieve her goal and may God have mercy on anyone that stands in her way.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road still holds me in rapt attention from beginning to end with well constructed songs that tell captivating stories and leave me tapping my foot the whole way through. The hardest part about this is deciding which two songs to share… I think I’ve played them all on the air at some point along the way. They’re all worthy.

Well… when in doubt… pick the two with the loudest guitars.

Lucinda Williams: Joy (Buy Album)
Lucinda Williams: I Lost it (Buy Album)

P.S.: Don’t forget to listen to Tennessee Shines tonight at 7:00 Eastern on WDVX for live music from Alejandro Escovedo, The Duhks, and more.

Essential Albums: A.M. by Wilco

Posted in Essential Albums, Wilco on October 21, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

It’s been a while since I’ve done an essential album post. Today, I’ll be focusing on an album that I feel doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.

Wilco’s A.M. was originally released in March of 1995 as the highly anticipated first project by Jeff Tweedy after the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo. Inevitably, it would be compared to Jay Farrar’s first release with his first post-Tupelo project, Son Volt’s Trace. Of course, Trace (released in Sept. 1995) is one of my favorites albums of all-time and is widely regarded as Farrar’s greatest achievement and one of the seminal releases of the alt-country genre. It’s no surprise then that A.M. is often undervalued when compared to its 1995 counterpart.

The extra dilemma for A.M. is that it also seems to get lost in comparison to Wilco’s later output as well. The band earned “critical darling” status in 2002 with the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The praise for that album was earned as much for the rights battle surrounding the album’s release as it was for the album itself. Wilco’s label, Warner/Reprise, wanted the band to change the album to make it sound more commercial. Tweedy refused, bought the rights to the album, and released it on the indie-label, Nonesuch. In doing so, he was able to release the album he wanted with a sound that mixed deft pop sensibilities with wild sonic experimentation. There is also a large contingent of Wilco fans that prefer 1996’s double album Being There to A.M. due to its country flavored experiments and departures.

So… If A.M. isn’t a genre defining blueprint for the alt-country sound like Trace… and it isn’t a bold artistic statement that stretches the band’s sound into strange new places… Then what is it and why is it essential listening?

To me, A.M. is a sterling example of a straight forward country-rock album that doesn’t skimp on either the country or the rock. When Uncle Tupelo split, many of the group’s side players and road musicians stayed with Tweedy. Drummer Ken Coomer, multi-instrumentalist John Stirratt, and producer Brian Paulson are all holdovers from Tupelo’s final album Anodyne. Tweedy also enlisted steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines and Bottlerockets frontman Brian Henneman to join the party for the album. The result is a studio crew with the chops to blast out the muscular Stone-style riffs of rock flavored tracks like “Casino Queen,” the right amount of twang to pull off country numbers like “That’s Not the Issue,” and the plaintive restraint to bring the proper emotion to weepers like “I Thought I Held You.”

A.M. is nothing fancy, but what it does… it does very well. Again, it may not make the artistic statements or garner the indie cred of the band’s later work. It does, however, provide a very accessible jumping on point to Wilco, and one that can be approached by fans on either side of the rock/country spectrum.

Here are three songs that show off the stylistic range that the album achieves all while not straying too far from the roots of country-rock.

Wilco: I Must Be High (Buy Album)
Wilco: Pick Up the Change (Buy Album)
Wilco: Passenger Side (Buy Album)

Essential Albums: Barricades & Brickwalls

Posted in Essential Albums, Kasey Chambers on September 1, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

In the spring of 2002, I was working as a Graduate Assistant at Morehead State Public Radio in Morehead, Kentucky. I mostly worked in the newsroom writing news and sports copy and anchoring the occasional newscast. On Friday nights, it was my job to sit in the broadcast studio and make sure nothing went wrong while we aired a few nationally syndicated music programs. Essentially, I would introduce a program, do nothing for an hour, and then introduce the next program.

I spent most of those Friday nights chatting with friends on line, making fantasy baseball trades, or just reading and doing classwork. Every so often, however, I would actually listen to the shows I was airing. One night, on a show called E-Town, I heard the voice of an Australian country singer named Kasey Chambers. The down under twang in her voice was unlike anything I had ever heard before. I wasn’t sure what I was hearing… but I knew I liked it.

The next week, I asked the music director at the station if he had ever heard of this Kasey Chambers person. He started raving about this thing called “Americana Music” and how great it was and how great Kasey Chambers was, and he gave me a copy of her CD, Barricades and Brickwalls that had just been released in the U.S. I still wasn’t sure what this Americana thing was he kept talking about, but I took the CD home for a listen. I had no idea at the time what that CD would lead me to.

I pushed play and was immediately met with the ominous guitar riff of the title track followed by Kasey’s distinctive vocal twang. I was immediately hooked. The song itself is a meditation on obsession. Kasey runs through a laundry list of things that have been placed between her and the object of her desires. Barricades and brickwalls, iron bars and big ol’ cars, locked doors, screaming and shouting… nothing will hold her back. In the chorus, she makes her intentions clear by declaring, “I’ll be damned if you’re not my man before the sun goes down.”

The rocking title track is followed by the softer “Not Pretty Enough” (the song that got my attention from the E-Town broadcast) and continues to mix ballads like “On a Bad Day” and “Nullarbor Song” with country weepers like “A Little Bit Lonesome” and “Still Feeling Blue” and alt-country blueprints like “Runaway Train” and “If I Were You.”

Each time I listened to the disc and read through the liner notes, I heard something different and discovered something new. The album became my gateway drug into Americana music. It was my introduction to Buddy Miller, who provided backing vocals on “Runaway Train.” I heard Lucinda Williams for the first time on “On a Bad Day.” The album also introduced me to Gram Parsons with Kasey’s cover of Parsons’ “Still Feeling Blue.”

Not long after I fell in love with the album, I discovered that Kasey would be appearing at a taping of The Mountain Stage just a few hours up the road in Charleston, West Virginia. Of course, I wanted to go see the show. I didn’t even care that I also had to sit through listing to four other artists who I had never heard of. Of course… those artists turned out to be Laura Cantrell, Dar Williams, James McMurtry, and Rodney Crowell with Kenny Vaughn.

Holy Cow! How could one artist and one album expose me to so many other artists who would all become such staples of my music collection just a few short years later? I don’t know… but Kasey Chambers did it.

I first heard Kasey Chambers and Barricades and Brickwalls in the early months of 2002. That summer, I began hosting Morehead State Public Radio’s nightly Americana program one night a week. The story goes on from there. Who knows what might have happened to me and my musical tastes without this album?

Today, I’m sharing with you the title track from this album, “Runaway Train” featuring Buddy Miller, and the song that first pulled me in… “Not Pretty Enough.”

Kasey Chambers: Barricades and Brickwalls (Buy Album)
Kasey Chambers: Runaway Train (Buy Album)
Kasey Chambers: Not Pretty Enough (Buy Album)

Essential Albums: Hollywood Town Hall by the Jayhawks

Posted in Essential Albums, The Jayhawks on July 26, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

I found this item last week while poking around on Paste Magazine’s website.

Remember a few years back when Gary Louris and Mark Olson of the Jayhawks reunited for a concert tour and supposedly recorded some new material? It seems that new material will finally be released this September (EDIT: The release date now seems to be January ’09) from Hacktone (New West) Records. The CD will be titled Ready for the Flood and was recorded in January of 2007 with producer Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. The album will also feature appearances from Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley and Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. It’s the first full album Louris and Olson have released together since Olson left the Jayhawks after the release of 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass. The project will not be released under the Jayhawks name, but this is good news nevertheless.

While I am excited about the prospect of new music from the duo that powered one of my favorite acts… this post is about one of my favorite albums. Hollywood Town Hall was released by The Jayhawks in 1992 on Def American Records. I mentioned this album briefly in last week’s post on Tift Merritt, but it really needs its own post.

The first thing that stands out to you when listening to this album are the vocals of Gary Louis and Mark Olson. It isn’t so much that either of them truly captivate you on their own, although both have serious vocal chops. It’s the sounds that are formed when their voices join together. Subtle harmonies soar through the chorus of each song, and shared lead vocals pepper several tracks. On “Sister Cry” the voices diverge through the chorus with Olson chiming with a counter melody overtop of Louris, who is singing the main line. When the chorus ends, the voices blend together again to share the next verse. At times they blend so perfectly together, it’s hard to tell that two people are singing. It’s a phenomenon that Jayhawks fans refer to as “The Univoice.”

The album shows the influence of legendary acts such as Gram Parsons and the Byrds, R.E.M., and CSNY. It also shares ground with contemporaries such as Wilco and Son Volt. This is surely what Gram Parsons envisioned when he began practicing what he called “Cosmic American Music” in the 60s. Elements of pop, rock, and country blend seamlessly together under a fuzz of Rickenbackers and inspired harmonies to create a classic sound and a classic album.

It will be nice to see if Louris and Olson can recapture that classic sound on their new project. But while we’re getting Ready for the Flood, it’s nice to know that we can keep “Waiting for the Sun.”

The Jayhawks: Waiting for the Sun (Buy Album)
The Jayhawks: Sister Cry (Buy Album)

Essential Albums: Trace by Son Volt

Posted in Essential Albums, Jay Farrar, Son Volt on July 10, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

When I was first kicking around the idea of starting a blog I always thought my first post would be about this album. Post #3 still ain’t too shabby.

Trace was the first album released by Son Volt… the band Jay Farrar formed after the split of his previous band, Uncle Tupelo. While in Uncle Tupelo, Farrar and his band mates Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn blended the heartfelt lyrics of Leadbelly and The Carter Family with the punk rock fury of Iggy Pop and The Minutemen. The group recorded four albums together before infighting between Farrar and Tweedy led to a split following the release of the band’s 1992 album Anodyne. Tweedy formed the band Wilco while Farrar, Heidorn, and brothers Jim and Dave Boquist rose from Uncle Tupelo’s ashes with a project called Son Volt in 1994.

In 1995, the band released Trace… a strong effort that perfectly blurred the lines between country and rock and still stands as the Masterpiece of the 90’s Alt-country movement.

The album begins with “Windfall.” An acoustic country number that transports the listener to a deserted stretch of road on a “trail spent with fear.” The narrator is alone on the highway with nothing but his troubles and his prayers for the wind to take them away. Somewhere in the night, he finds a radio station with a heavenly sound to keep him going to the next stop.

The last verse and chorus:

Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can’t recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down
Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana
It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven

May the wind take your troubles away
May the wind take your troubles away
Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel,
May the wind take your troubles away

Incidentally, the name of this blog would have been “Searching for a Truer Sound,” but it was already taken. I also heavily considered “Steel Guitar and Settle Down.”

After “Windfall,” the album alternates between fiery country rock and more sombre acoustic numbers before closing with “Mystifies Me”… a bluesy country cover that originally appeared on Ron Wood’s (Rolling Stones) 1974 solo album. The rockers all feature catchy guitar riffs and driving beats. Jim Boquist is usually ready with a nice harmony vocal as well.

I didn’t really discover Son Volt or Jay Farrar until sometime around 2003 when I downloaded the following two songs from a file-sharing network that I used at the time. Within a couple of weeks, I had bought almost everything Farrar had recorded to that point. These songs, and this album, had that much of an impact on me. Jay Farrar has the Real Ultimate Power.

Son Volt: Windfall (Buy Album)
Son Volt: Drown (Buy Album)