Tag Archives: folk

Album Review: Ags Connolly–Nothin’ Unexpected

Rating: 9/10

IN my pursuit of older 2017 albums, this has to be the coolest discovery. And yeah, I’ll be totally up front with this and say I wasn’t all that interested in listening to this when it came out because the track record of UK country artists is not the greatest, especially with me. Look, I’m not about authenticity in the sense that I couldn’t give two shits what background Midland come from as long as they produce good music, and they have. If you come from Georgia or New York or London, so be it. But equally, if you come from New York, Zephaniah Ohora, don’t inject a Southern accent, just be yourself. That’s what made This Highway such a great listen; it didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t, and that in turn made it authentic. Forget trying to be rural and/or Southern, Zephaniah Ohora knows he’s not, and he’s not going to try and sell you on it. British country artists notoriously won’t do this though–instead of using their unique British perspective as a cool feature, they often try faking Southern accents and using American slang to sound more authentic and just end up sounding fake in the process. Their music is probably often completely sincere, but I can’t seem to take any of them seriously, even if the music is good. So I just never really made time to listen to Ags Connolly until someone told me on Twitter it was the best 2017 album he’d yet heard, and I decided to give Connolly a shot.

“I Hope You’re Unhappy,” the album opener, doesn’t fully convince me on Ags either, as on this track, he does have an exaggerated accent (though not to the degree of many artists who do this), but something about the song keeps me listening. I want to like him because the lyrics are so catchy and because that fiddle is so great. And then “Do You Realize That Now?” comes on and just blows me away. This is easily the best song on the whole thing, and from here on, except for little inflections, you don’t hear an American accent. IN light of that, the opener can be somewhat forgiven as well; these inflections and phrasing seem to be more a result of careful, loving study of country music rather than an ill-advised attempt to imitate the style. The opener is still a bit too exaggerated for me, but there are some moments, like in the opening line of the title track, where there’s no R in “working” at all, wherein Ags Connolly is so openly British that it pretty much makes up for these concerns.

But what really makes this record shine is the way Ags Connolly calls bars “pubs” and “haunts” and frames a whole song around the phrase, “I suppose” in a context where Americans might say, “I think” or “I guess.” It’s these subtleties throughout the album that really convey a sense of authenticity and add a personal, unique quality to the stories portrayed here. They’re still universal enough to relate to people in the States, but the familiarity here will no doubt resonate even more strongly with those from Connolly’s homeland, much like the way songs about Texas stir the hearts of those from that region. Songs like the title track and “Haunts Like This” might remind you of any old place you used to frequent–there are certainly holes in the wall all across America too, or as Ags says, “haunts like this can be found in every town”–but hearing them sung in his way specifically calls to my mind little pubs in Wales and England. That’s cool for me as an American who only got to visit them for a second, so I can only imagine that it’s a pretty awesome and rare thing if you’re a British country fan to be able to relate even more to these songs. So British country artists, take note, and keep singing about your own stuff–it’s a feature, not a flaw.

Though a couple songs lean more toward folk, the majority of this record is very traditional in sound. I mentioned that Ags Connolly has obviously studied country music, and the result is a really entertaining listen. True, you only get a few faster songs, but the variety in instrumentation more than makes up for that. There’s the fiddle in the opener and in the excellent “Neon Jail,” the steel guitar in “I Suppose,” and the piano that pops up in various places throughout the album to cheerfully remind you that it’s an underappreciated instrument in country music and to ask you why so many of Ags Connolly’s stateside counterparts have forsaken it so casually. Its most prominent appearance is in the aforementioned ode to holes in the wall “Haunts Like This,” one of those songs you should just hear. Perhaps most amazingly, there is a supply of accordion on this record second only in 2017 to that on Aaron Watson’s latest album. That accordion pretty much makes the songs “Do You Realize That Now?” and “When the Loner Gets Lonely.” I can honestly say I haven’t heard a record in 2017 with this much focus on and variety in instrumentation; production, yes, but not instrumentation itself. And while we’re on that, let me also congratulate Ags Connolly on being one of the few singer-songwriter types to actually pay attention to his melody as much as his lyrics. I’ve harped on this before, but engaging melodies are just as vital as lyrics, maybe more so, because they keep songs from being boring. And so many of these artists treat melody as some sort of secondary element, focusing too much on words so that often those words are lost when they’re translated into uninteresting musical form.

That brings me to the lyrics themselves, which are mostly really strong, and with a couple standouts sprinkled in. I’ve mentioned “Do You Realize that Now?” enough already, but it excels lyrically too, telling a story somewhere between love and introspection. Actually, love is a theme explored quite a bit here, from the hopeful “I Suppose” to the regretful “Slow Burner.” There’s also a lot of nostalgia, like in the reflective “Fifteen Years” about past love and the more folk-leaning title track about returning to an old pub where he used to play and now misses the waitress he used to know who once worked there and the customers he used to see. Often, it’s not just the lyrics that stand out, however; it’s the combination of them paired with the stirring melodies and thoughtful instrumentation that work together to produce all-around great songs.

If I had to be nitpicky about anything, I suppose–yeah, might as well use Connolly’s word–it would be that it could have benefited from another upbeat track or two like “Neon Jail” and the opener, and if you like more variety in this area, I could see how it might be a little sleepy. Personally, I don’t care about this at all; I found it to be a nice, easy listen, but it’s a criticism I can understand, even if I don’t agree with it in the slightest. The only thing that personally bothers me at all about this entire album is the exaggerated accent on “I Hope You’re Unhappy,” and that that song really doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album in general. But there’s not much to say against this record, from the stories to the melodies to the instrumentation. Hell, Ags Connolly is a pretty good singer as well, which is a nice change from what is starting to be quite an unfortunately large number of singer-songwriters these days. Most importantly, Ags Connolly doesn’t try to be anything other than himself with this record, and the result renders it inherently unique and cool in the country space. My only regret is that I didn’t discover this sooner.

Buy the Album

Album Review: Sarah Jane Scouten–When the Bloom Falls From the Rose

Rating: 7/10

Lindi Ortega, Whitney Rose, and most recently, Colter Wall–all exhibits for the argument that Canada is producing some very cool and unique country artists, artists that are taking their own perspective and usually Canadian folk influences and lending them to American country music to create some very good and frankly, just cool, music. I could add other names too, these are just the three I felt most qualified to comment on given my familiarity with their material. The latest artist we can add to the evidence is Sarah Jane Scouten, who blends country, folk, swing, and sometimes even more contemporary styles on her latest record, When the Bloom Falls From the Rose.

It’s an interesting title for a record, and nature is indeed referenced quite a lot in Sarah Jane’s imagery. Colter Wall’s writing is slightly similar; he writes about the past in story, while Sarah Jane Scouten echoes the past in the primitive metaphors and images she references in her songs. There’s a beauty in the way she writes–“in an acre of shells, you’ll find just one pearl” has been blowing my mind for weeks in the way it explains in such simplicity the rarity of finding someone to love. It’s such a simple statement on the surface, but think of the vastness of the beach, and then apply that to one of the next lines in the same song, “How could I ever love somebody else when I know that you’re in the world?” That line on its own might be in any love song, and it’s beautiful on its own too, but after you’ve just realized this person is a pearl in a beach full of shells, then yeah, of course, how can she not love him? “Acre of Shells” is not only the standout of this album, it’s one of the best songs of 2017. She uses other cool imagery like this in the title track and in “Rosehips for Scurvy” as well, and you get the sense that Sarah Jane Scouten has a deep and profound love and respect for nature.

There are some other cool moments in the writing, though none are as brilliant as that opener of “Acre of shells,” but that’s not the strongest point of the record overall. The strongest point, and I’m so glad I get to say this about a folk/Americana album this year, is the production. No, not just the production itself, the variety in production. The title track manages to blend the traditional and contemporary very nicely and features some pretty cool fiddle, sort of like the way Aaron Watson might feature it if he leaned toward folk. I love when fiddle is used to drive songs along like this; it doesn’t always have to arrive in a fiddle solo. There’s the swinging “Coup de Ville Rag,” which is cool enough to feature a clarinet. ON slower stuff like “Acre of Shells” and especially “Crack in Your Windshield,” there are extra little production details that frankly, a lot of other people just don’t pay attention to which make these songs come alive and separate Scouten from so many other songwriters. Much credit goes to her producer Andre Wahl for bringing out the best in her and in these songs. There’s even “Bang Bang,” which is rocking, or maybe rockabilly, since it’s still really throwback, which comes after “Acre of Shells” to be fun and bright and just plain refreshing. Who knew that in 2017, you could actually get some personality on a record like this? That’s no disrespect to any record I’ve reviewed here, more so a comment to the ones I’ve heard but couldn’t get into because despite good writing, they lacked something. There have also been some I’ve enjoyed immensely that still could have benefited from a fun moment like “Bang Bang” or “Paul,” which comes later on this album and sees Sarah Jane scouten cheerfully explaining that she can’t be tied down, or more accurately, “the more you try to make me good, the more that I’ll do bad.” I’ts just so refreshing to see her embracing this less serious side of herself, and equally to see the variety in production and mood on this album.

This is not a perfect album, but it gets so many things right that other projects, especially in 2017, have lacked. The songwriting is not necessarily great throughout, although in some places it’s very strong, and on “Acre of Shells,” it’s absolutely fantastic. But the variety and the production and really, the care that was put into this album by both Sarah Jane Scouten and her producer should be commended.

Cool artist. Nice, pleasant little record.

Buy the Album

Album Review: Colter Wall (self-titled)

Rating: 9/10

Eleven miles west of Dodge City, Kansas, on West Highway 50, otherwise in the middle of nowhere, there is a boardwalk and a historical marker to denote the place where over a century ago, wagons passed through on the Santa Fe Trail. If you stand there on that boardwalk in that relentless prairie wind and look out over the land, you can still see the ruts these wagons drove into the ground as countless people made their way to Santa Fe, and though so much time has passed, their stories are still etched into the prairie and echoing out of the past. Though you stand there in the 21st century, a piece of 1872 is still with you in those ruts, and there’s something about that that’s powerful and timeless.

It’s that same sort of feeling you get when you press play on this record, and Colter Wall starts to sing, with often little else but his guitar and some well-placed steel or drums to accompany a voice reminiscent of Johnny Cash and stories that seem to come pouring out of another place and time. From the opening words to “Thirteen silver dollars,” where we are invited in with, “It was a cold and cruel evening, sneaking up on speedy Creek, I found myself sleepin’ in the snow,” it’s an album of rambling and searching, more story than song, more folk than country, and more past than present. That remarkable voice will draw you in and remind you of earlier days in country, but it takes more than that to sell stories like these, especially in these modern days. It’s the conviction and emotion in these words that keeps you listening and makes it more than just a singer with a great, throwback voice, and rather a storyteller taking you on a journey. This particular journey includes hopping trains and sleeping in lonely motel rooms, and culminates in prison–and that’s just the front half. This half of the record ends in fine fashion with “Kate McCannon,” as Colter Wall sings from his prison cell about meeting “the prettiest girl in the whole damn holler” and then subsequently “courting” her and murdering her after finding her with someone else. This song builds and builds until the climactic line, “I put three rounds into Kate McCannon,” and you can feel all the pain and guilt of the song and whole first half of the album in that line.

I separate the album into halves because that’s exactly how Colter Wall presents it, and between the halves, there’s another slice of the past, as a DJ on the “Old Soul Radio show” is supposedly debuting Colter’s album, complete with static and background noise before he “flips the record over.” I can see how people would love or hate this moment, but it does serve to add another vintage element to the album, and it also breaks the record nicely into two parts, providing a break after the intensity of “Kate McCannon.”

The back half of the album is just slightly weaker, at least for me, as I’m still not really getting into the song “You Look To Yours.” If there’s any filler on this record, it would be this song. Here we have two nice covers, Townes Van Zandt’s “Snake Mountain Blues,” which serves nicely as the opener to the second half, as well as the excellent “Fraulein,”–originally done by Bobby Helms, but also previously performed by Townes–featuring Tyler Childers. These two are excellent together; Childers adds some high harmony and some great contrast to Wall’s bass, and they should sing together more. Townes Van Zandt is a fitting artist for Colter Wall to cover on this album because his songs work well with the images and stories portrayed here. Some of the best songwriting on the record can be found on “Transcendent Ramblin’ Railroad Blues” and “Bald Butte.” The former is more of, well, exactly what the title says, but this one stands out for its lines like, “If I don’t leave here tomorrow, I believe I’ll blow out my brains. But either way, there’ll be sorrow, you won’t be seeing me again.” The latter is a story straight out of the past, as we are told the tale of Henry, who had his horse and rifle stolen by some Southerners and sought revenge, only to be shot. The details and imagery in this one are impressive.

I mentioned before that there’s not much to accompany Colter Wall here usually except his guitar. Sometimes there’s some steel and sometimes some drums, which certainly do a lot for “Bald Butte.” For people that knew Colter wall before this and enjoyed his debut EP, Imaginary Appalachia, this could be a good or bad thing–that EP had much more interesting instrumentation and production, often with lively fiddles. I think some of that could have helped this record in places, and having Dave Cobb as the producer is certainly to blame for this. Having said that, personally, for this particular record, I think Dave Cobb handled it excellently, getting out of the way of Colter wall and his stories and letting them speak for themselves. I do think that going forward, Colter will have to expand his sound–we saw with Stapleton’s record that it wasn’t as interesting production wise as Traveller. But as far as this record goes, I don’t have any major complaints with the production. And for me, it’s actually quite an improvement from Imaginary Appalachia for Colter Wall himself, as on that EP, I felt he was singing too often in higher registers; this record shows off much of his lower range which suits his voice, as well as these songs. I would say that while he may be still developing his sound and style, he’s also come quite a long way in that aspect on this album. So I agree the concerns of production are valid, but something we should hold off on for the 21-year-old Wall until his next project.

There’s also the concern that by singing in this throwback, sometimes dated style that Colter Wall could develop into a niche performer, and that’s also something I’d argue it’s too early to speculate about. If it turns out to be the case, I’m proud to be one of the throwback types that enjoys this music. if not, I think there’s a conviction and heart in Colter that, combined with that kind of voice, can impact people on a much larger scale. I see a tremendous amount of potential in this 21-year-old Canadian folk singer, and only time will tell if he lives up to that potential. For now, this is a pretty incredible album, and rather than speculating on Colter’s future, we should all just go listen to it.

Listen to Album

Album Review: Rhiannon Giddens–Freedom Highway

Rating: 8.5/10

It’s taken me quite a few listens to put my feelings about this album into words. Even now, it’s one of the more difficult albums I’ve ever discussed, but it’s definitely worthy of discussion. For those unfamiliar with Rhiannon Giddens, she’s the wonderful voice on Eric Church’s “Kill a Word,” a song that speaks out against all the evil in the world, from racism to hate to loneliness. Giddens has also released an album of covers, but this is her first album of original material and my first exposure to her outside the Church song. The album she delivers is as complex in sound as it is in theme, taking us on a journey from the days of slavery to the Civil Rights movement to the racism and police violence of today. None of these are easy issues to address, but Giddens has brought us a record that can open our eyes and teach us much about our history, all in a way that is more observation than judgment, more storytelling than sermon, and at once grieved by the past but hopeful for the future.

The album opens with the slow-burning “At the Purchaser’s Option,” and right away, we are told the story of a slave whose owner has raped her; now she has a baby boy, and she can’t help but love him even though she knows someday he will be sold. It’s a great opener and sets the tone of the album well. Next is a cover of “The Angels Laid Him Away.” The acoustic instrumentation really allows Rhiannon’s voice to shine, and her ability to convey emotion is something that will be an ongoing highlight of the record. This is the first of several smart covers chosen for the album. “Julie” is a standout of the record; it’s another acoustic-driven track, this one another, more complicated slave narrative. Both Julie and her mistress sing here; it appears that they had a good relationship and may have even been in love, but Julie has found out the mistress has sold her children and leaves when the Union soldiers come. I applaud Rhiannon Giddens for recording a song as complex as this one.

Giddens does an excellent job with the cover of “Birmingham Sunday,” a song about the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church murder by the KKK. The perspective shifts to today’s issues with the funky “Better Get it Right the first Time.” This one is upbeat and somehow lighter on the surface in the midst of a dark album, but the lyrics are some of the most thought-provoking on the whole record. Giddens repeats the line, “Young man was a good man,” in between recounting the details of his life; he did his best to live right but went to one house party and ended up being shot by police. Rhiannon’s nephew, Justin Harrington, adds a rap to the song that elevates it, telling the story from the young man’s perspective. The conclusion is that for black Americans, there aren’t second chances, so “You better get it right the first time.” This is another highlight of the record. “We Could Fly” is another standout, speaking of the hope that comes after death and flying away from what the song calls “the bonds of earth.” It’s the opposite of “Better get it Right the first Time,” dark on the surface but one of the more uplifting tracks on a somber record.

Speaking of light moments, next is the fun, lighthearted “Hey BéBé.” I wouldn’t necessarily say it adds to the album, but it’s definitely catchy and serves as a break from the intensity. The horns in this are just cool. At the same time, as a song itself, it doesn’t stand out; it says more in the context of the album. “Come Love Come” is another slave narrative, this time about a slave couple waiting to be reunited. The woman waits for her lover in Tennessee. This is a solid song, but it doesn’t have the same impact as the other slave stories; I don’t know if it’s because this is the third one or if this one just doesn’t resonate as much as the others. The soulful “The Love we Almost Had” is another light moment about a love that could have been. This one works better than “Hey BéBé” as a diversion from the dark themes of the record because it is more understated, whereas “Hey BéBé” almost sticks out like a sore thumb. “Baby Boy” is my least favorite track; it’s another acoustic song about Mary watching over Jesus, or possibly also any mother watching over her son. It’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t add anything to the record. The instrumental “Following the North Star” follows, and I have to say, I think it would have been a nice prelude to “Julie,” but it works well here before the closer and title track, a cover of “Freedom Highway.” The album ends in more of a place of hope than it began, asserting that the quest for freedom is daily and ongoing.

This is a great piece of history and commentary, using storytelling to bring us a message that can’t be delivered by activists or preachers, but only through art. It’s an album that can teach us all something if we let it, and that’s one of the most compelling things about music. I will say that it is held back for me a little because it won’t hold up as well as other albums, especially the latter half. even the excellent front half won’t have the staying power of some other records because it’s not something you will probably pull out months later for some nice, relaxing music. But that’s not what this album was meant to do. It was meant to be respected more than enjoyed and to teach and preserve pieces of history in an effort to keep the same mistakes from occurring in the future. IN that regard, this record excels, and for that, Rhiannon Giddens should be praised.

Listen to Album

Album Review: Courtney Marie Andrews–Honest Life

Rating: 10/10

Before I say anything, credit to trigger of Saving Country Music for bringing Courtney Marie Andrews into my life and now to my pen. There is a reason we do this–not to point out all the bad in the mainstream, but to introduce new and deserving artists to the world, to provide a platform for people seeking good music to find it. Enter Courtney Marie Andrews, a 25-year-old singer/songwriter from Phoenix, Arizona, and her latest album, Honest Life I will say two things about this record; firstly, it is not a country record, but more a folk record, with elements of country, rock, and pop mixed in, and secondly, it is the best album I have reviewed to date.

The album opens with “Rookie dreaming,” and the first lines immediately hold my attention and introduce the great songwriting that will be present throughout this entire album. “I was singing with the choir on the train. I was a traveling man, I did not yet have a name. I was a 1960s movie, I was a one-night love story, I was a you’ll never see me again.” This song features nice piano and acoustic guitar, and Courtney’s voice reminds me of an excellent cross between Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt. The style resembles Ronstadt too, with the blend of country, folk, and rock that was Linda’s signature. “Not the End” is a love song in which Andrews sings from a hotel bed where she is “dreaming up every memory” to feel closer to someone she loves. “I didn’t think it was possible to lose you again, so won’t you hold me and tell me that this is not the end.” If you didn’t hear Joni Mitchell in the opener, you certainly will here; the emotion and phrasing in Courtney’s voice is closer to Mitchell’s than anything I have heard.

“Irene” adopts a more folk/pop rock sound; here, Courtney gives advice to a woman named Irene, including “keep your grace” and “don’t go falling in love with yourself.” It is universal in that it is relatable to everyone, but also could be specific to anyone who hears it. “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” is the moment where you will recall Linda Ronstadt the most; here, a woman is “hiding out in the bathroom of this bar,” devastated that her ex is acting like they never met. She put on the dress he loved, and now she feels like a fool and can’t believe he is ignoring her–“go on, and leave with your new friends, how quickly your heart mends.” The piano and steel really stand out on this track. “Let the good One Go” is another heartbreak song, this one about a woman missing someone she apparently let go. She thinks about calling him and wonders if he thinks about her, saying, “Oh you will know, when you’ve let a good one go.” The light instrumentation on this song brings the emotion and lyrics to the forefront. “Honest Life,” the album’s title track, is another simple, acoustic song that feels very personal to Courtney. “All I’ve ever wanted is an honest life, to be the person that I really am inside, to tell you all the things that I did that night. Sometimes it just ain’t easy to live an honest life.” The songwriting is excellent on this whole album, but it may be the best here–ask me tomorrow, and I might change my mind.

The next three songs explore distance from those you love, similar to the theme introduced in “Not the End.” In “Table for One,” Courtney arrives in Ohio after a trip from Houston–the verses would suggest it might be on a tour–feeling lonely and ready to go home. “You don’t wanna be like me, this life, it ain’t free, always chained to when I leave.” This one is stripped down too and lets the lyrics and Courtney’s voice shine. “Put The Fire Out” brings back the piano and is closer to the sound of “How Quickly Your Heart Mends.” Here, Andrews sings from a plane, as she flies home to reunite with her loved ones and put her rambling life behind her. “I am ready to put the fire out. There’s a place for everything, and I think I know mine now.” This was the first one I heard from Courtney, and I’ll post it here because it should lead you to the rest of this record. “15 Highway Lines” is a similar song, but this one is focused on reuniting with the one you love after time apart;–“13 hours till I see you. Flying all around this world so you can see me too.” It really captures the love, pain, and hope unique to long-distance relationships. The album closes with “Only in my Mind,” another excellent song in which the narrator paints pictures of life with someone she loves, but these pictures are only in her mind, as the relationship has ended. It seems to be mainly her fault it is over, or at least she believes this. It’s another one that captures the emotion perfectly and closes the album brilliantly.

If you haven’t figured it out, this album is special. It isn’t strictly country; it’s a unique mix of folk, country, pop, and roc, with the perfect production for each track. It is one of those rare albums that defies and transcends genre lines and just speaks for itself. Courtney Marie Andrews has a voice you will not soon forget, recalling Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt, yet still unique. The songwriting on this album is nothing short of brilliant. It’s simple and complex at once. This album is both the poetry of Jason Isbell and the relatability of Vince Gill. It is raw and honest and real, and everyone should absolutely hear it.

Listen to Album