Posted in On Air, Reviews

The Singing Butcher Kills It On Debut EP

I’ve thanked many artists for writing a song during my years hosting a radio show and for the most part I’ve gotten ‘thank you’s back. My conversation with Timothy George, who performs as The Singing Butcher, went differently in the most delightful way.

“That’s awesome,” George said. “I don’t have dreams of singing that song in front of 20,000 people. I have dreams of someone sending me a Facebook message to the band page and saying ‘Holy shit. That song really helped me.’”

“It also makes you feel a little less crazy,” George added after a brief pause.

George’s ambitions are made clear on his debut EP The Butcher Papers, a collection of five introspective songs with complex arrangements and deeply felt vocals that at times bordered on unconventional.

“I’m not classically a great singer,” George admitted. “I’m pitchy and gravelly, and I can be a bit nasally. But I don’t think those songs would’ve had the same effect if they were sung a different way. I don’t think you can convey the same emotion without sounding like every long note is destroying you

He had just been discussing his vocals on “Big Two-Hearted River,” a six-minute Western centered around a prisoner arrested for doing some butchering on something more human than the meats at the job George, as his moniker suggests, continues to work. He did have one critique for his vocal work, though.

“I feel like my performance on the record would’ve been a lot better if I hadn’t been so hungover every time I tried to sing vocals,” George said.

During an interview for the April 3rd episode of Country Pocket on WUSB, George was also frank about his struggles with anxiety. He wrote “Whatever Keeps Your Love Around” after seeing the effect his anxiety had on the women he’s dated. In the song he struggles with a significant other’s compliments, ultimately deciding to accept them while disagreeing with them.

“It’s whatever keeps you here. I need you. I don’t know what I’d do without you. But you probably shouldn’t be in this relationship.” George said of the song’s message.

The Butcher Papers has an unusually full and varied sound for a debut EP from a singer-songwriter. “Indiana Gal,” originally about a woman from Louisiana, features Dixieland horns in its second half. “Whatever Keeps Your Love Around” switches from fingerpicking to electric with backing singers. It’s only the wanderlust-driven “Early Morning Heat” that sounds conventional and entirely within George’s vocal range.

“I knew I was going to be performing predominantly as an acoustic artist for a while, but that wasn’t serving [my songs],” George said. “So I wanted to try to create different flows and different feelings and different movements to one song, so it’s not just one thing.”

George succeeds here. The five tracks feel as fleshed out as an album, and not just because they total 26 minutes long. Each is fully realized, and together they make The Singing Butcher a compelling act to watch as he gets ready to record his next project.

Posted in On Air, Reviews

Robert Randolph Talks “Got Soul” and Keeping Listeners Feeling Up

Pedal steel guitar innovator Robert Randolph’s latest album is jubilant and energetic, full of reverb and motivation. It’s a jolt of positivity that comes at the right time for many.

“Everybody’s sorta depressed with a lot of stuff going on in the country and the world,” Randolph said during an interview for the April 3 episode of Country Pocket on WUSB. “People are just looking for something like this to pick them up.”

Count Darius Rucker among those who received this boost. His guest vocals on the track “Love Do What It Do” are among the best in his career largely because it’s so obvious he’s having the time of his life jamming along with Randolph and the family band.

Randolph knew he wanted a soulful country vocal on the track and auditioned the track for an incredibly receptive Rucker over the phone. The fun song with down-home charm provided both Randolph and Rucker with plenty of opportunities to dig into riffs with their respective instruments.

“I’ve collaborated with other people before, and they weren’t too excited,” Randolph said, describing the collaboration process as one some musicians view as more of a job or a favor than an expression of their art. “But [Rucker] kept saying ‘Yeah man, yeah man, I can’t wait’ and while he was in the vocal booth, he was just really excited about it.”

Cory Henry, someone Randolph described as a “great soul” who’s on the path to be “the next Herbie Hancock” also turned in a spirited guest vocal on a cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You.”

“I always had that song in the back of my head to record it one day,” Randolph said. “It’s about time we really start learning to appreciate what others do for us and the joy that someone can bring to us. It’s alright to tell them ‘thank you.’”

Randolph’s signature steel guitar playing is the primary draw on Got Soul. He plays it the way he would in the Pentecostal church he grew up in on “Heaven’s Calling.” The pedal steel rarely makes an appearance outside of country music, and on this track, the sound is quite similar to something you’d hear played at the Grand Ole Opry. On other cuts, like the title track “Got Soul,” Randolph uses it much like a traditional electric guitar, except of course with more reverb and the ability to sound more comfortable at higher notes.

Higher octave and even falsetto harmonies on tracks like “Shake It Off” and “I Want It” sound excellent and contribute to the joyous energy central to the album. The brief “Lovesick” stands out for Robert’s shredding and cousin Marcus’s remarkable drum playing.

Randolph chose to end “Gonna Be Alright,” a song he retooled from a message to a depressed friend to one with a wider audience.

“It just seemed like it should have a little bit of a wider message for the time that we’re in with everyone freaking out and thinking that it’s the end of the world, World War III… So we wanted to re-tweak the lyrics to fit what’s going on today.”

With those changes, it became the best choice to end the album.

“I’m always looking for the positive ending. It’s always to keep people’s minds up. It’s one of those things I carried out of the church. The slogan was you come in here feeling down, but you’re supposed to leave here feeling up.”

Posted in On Air, Reviews

Universal Favorite: Noam Pikelny’s One Man Show

For Steve Martin, comedy and singing came first. Then he embarked on a career as an acclaimed banjoist. Though Noam Pikelny is very much still actively pursuing his interest in banjo playing, he’s also picking up on a few of Steve’s old tricks.

Early in Winter 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing Pikelny on his first solo tour on what had to be the coldest and windiest night in recent memory. At the very least it was the most brutal that I’ve attempted a walk from a train station to a theater. There in Bayshore, Pikelny filled the space between songs, including many on this album, with standup comedy. There were memories of senility at the Opry and an idea for using the slide guitar to prevent suicide. The crowd, including myself, thought he was consistently hilarious. When I spoke to him for the March 20 episode of Country Pocket on WUSB, Pikelny had a different theory.

“It’s possible that it was hypothermia that led you to enjoy my banter,” Pikelny said, deadpan. “Maybe that was all fueled by some sort of primal survival instinct that laughing would maybe keep you alive.”

While not touring and recording solo, Pikelny is the banjoist for Punch Brothers. The two roles have made him somewhat of a universal favorite in the world of progressive bluegrass, particularly since he released the incredibly titled Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. His latest album, which happens to be called Universal Favorite, finds him singing on one of his records for the first time. Pikelny admitted he doesn’t have the most natural bluegrass voice.

“So much of bluegrass vocals kind of hinges on the high and lonesome sound and singing at the top of people’s ranges,” Pikelny said. “Well, the top of my range is still in the subterranean zone. I found music that seemed to fit my voice that I felt comfortable singing that would also be a springboard for instrumental playing.”

Pikelny chose exceptionally well when it came to which cover songs he sang on. “Old Banjo” worked exceptionally well thanks to Pikelny’s exception ability to convey dry humor while singing. “My Tears Don’t Show” and “Sweet Sunny South” benefited from the deep, glum notes not many other bluegrass singers could hit. “Folk Bloodbath,” a Josh Ritter tune, used a little of both of those traits. It’s only “I’ve Been A Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be A Long Time Gone)” where Pikelny runs into the limits of his voice on a few stretched out notes and some fast spoken words.

As to be expected, the best part of Universal Favorite is the banjo playing. Pikelny is pictured standing alone on a small island on the album’s cover, which is appropriate considering he’s the only musician on the album. It’s hard to tell on lush tracks like “Hen Of The Woods” and “Moretown Hop,” both of which blend twang and classical music the way one might expect progressive bluegrass. “The Great Falls” is a serene track played on a slide guitar and the attention-grabbing “Waveland” is almost unrecognizable as a banjo tune but just as graceful.

He described his approach to this album as wanting to provide an “intimate glimpse of the banjo.”

“There are a lot of things that the banjo can do that don’t necessarily happen when there’s a five piece band,” Pikelny said. “The banjo can actually be very warm and can sustain when just played solo. It was a chance to write music in a different fashion and come up with tunes that would stand up without interpretation from a band. It delivered me to a spot where I was making music that was very direct, and I wanted that to be encapsulated on the record.”

It’s Pikelny’s ability to showcase the lesser known qualities of the banjo that will likely make this album a favorite among new grass fans.

Pikelny will be playing Bowery Ballroom at a seated show on Friday, March 24. There will be sublime banjo playing and probably more than a few laughs, preferably without any hypothermia. And listen below to Pikelny explain his history with “Old Banjo” before the show airs.

Photo by Justin Camerer from Noam’s website. 

Posted in On Air, Reviews

Thoughtfulness and Fingerpicking: Cary Morin’s Cradle to the Grave.

“Please indulge me, I’m gonna cross that line,” Cary Morin sings on “Ghost Dog,” a track from his rich solo effort Cradle to the Grave. By that point in the album, seven tracks in, the line between storytelling and an exploration of the mind and reality had long since been crossed.

The combination of Morin’s heady, challenging lyrics and rich finger-picked guitar results in an album that somehow sounds like thinking feels. As the only performer on the album, Morin delivers an intensely personal experience that provokes thoughts almost as often as it deconstructs them.

On “Dawn’s Early Light,” in which Morin, who is a member of the Crow tribe, heavily references the protest at Standing Rock. He repeats the ‘if a tree falls in a forest’ thought experiment with the word ‘treaty’ in place of ‘tree’ and repurposes words from the Star Spangled Banner, both to devastating effect. In urging “no compromise,” Morin slams the United States for suppressing the ideals the nation was built on and repeatedly violating treaties with few repercussions. Yet, he feels an optimism, citing “the support that Native people are receiving for their efforts to protect clean water, not just for Native people but for everybody.”

“Another wonderful thing is the unification of all of the different Nations that have come together in support of that effort,” Morin said.

Morin does much more to explore the mind on tracks like the daydreaming “Laid Back” and his motivation on “Back on the Train.” “Mishawaka” delves into a vision or dream of the singer’s death. All are recorded live in a folk/blues fingerpicking style he calls Native Americana.

“The end result doesn’t really get edited that much,” Morin said. “I record without headphones. I basically sit in a room and play the songs. The recordings hopefully, and I believe they do, sound like my live shows.”

Just about any YouTube recording of his performances suggest this multiple Colorado Blues Challenge Solo Championship is right about that.

Morin also included a cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” mostly courtesy of YouTube. He based his interpretation on a video of Prince performing his composition in Las Vegas and originally intended it to be released only on the video streaming service before placing it on his album. The Sinead O’Connor version of the track is the most well known, but its synth-heavy production has not aged well.

Much like the Prince video, Morin’s take on the song seems likely to sound as relevant years later. But while Prince delivers anguish and style, Morin goes with a more defeated sadness and simplicity. It’s an impressive achievement for Morin, and even more so a testament to Prince’s songwriting abilities that the power ballad sounds so good stripped down. For insight into Morin’s decision making here, listen below.

The album starts and ends with songs featuring the lyrics “watch over me/ for I’m only a child.” Though the first track, Cradle to the Grave, finds the speaker in significantly more distressed than the closing “Watch Over Me,” the idea of needing a higher power is the theme for both.

“I took that lyric from Cradle to the Grave and I tried a couple of different melodies and guitar lines,” Morin said. “I thought, ‘it’s an interesting take on the same set of lyrics, so why not use them as bookends?’”

It’s a wise choice for an album that spends so much time in Morin’s thoughts. Though he’s reaffirmed his desire to trust others and actively shape his life, it feels authentic that Morin still needs someone watching over him. It’s a believable and relatable place to be after deep thought: a bit more positive and resolute, but still needing the same things as before.

Cary Morin appears on the March 6, 2017, edition of Country Pocket on WUSB. In this clip from the show, he discusses his cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Posted in On Air, Reviews

Darin and Brooke Aldridge Go “Faster & Farther” with New Grass Influences

Darin and Brooke Aldridge are enjoying a revival of sorts. Their latest album, Faster and Farther, was in part shaped by New Grass Revival’s John Cowan, who has been touring with the band.

Six albums into their bluegrass career, Darin and Brooke accomplished exactly what they needed to with Faster and Farther: they found a way to sound exciting and new without actually sounding different. It’s also noteworthy for contributions from musicians and songwriters like Cowan, Vince Gill, and Carl Jackson, as well as Pat Flynn, who wrote the standout track “Kingdom Come.”

“[Flynn] wrote that song and pitched it to us when we were playing a few dates when we were looking out for new material,” Darin told me during a recent interview for Country Pocket. “He said that was one of the songs he was saving if they’d ever done the next New Grass record.”

Cowan’s influenced Faster and Farther by writing “This River,” a ballad that feels equal parts tribute to earthly and spiritual guidance, and by updating New Grass Revival’s “Lila” with extensive harmonies.

“He said It was the first time he’d ever had a female in the band with a great voice like Brooke’s got for us to be able to do a lot of vocal harmonies in songs that he’d never got to experience in his career,” Darin said of Cowan. “Me and Brooke are just smiling ear to when we get to play with him.”

Even with Cowan’s involvement in the album and backing vocals from Gill on the fantastic lead single “Mountains in Mississippi,” the Aldridges’ vocals remain the driving force behind almost every song. Brooke powers through the energetic “Kingdom Come” and traditional “Sacred Lamb” with poise. Darin, meanwhile, delivers the tenderness “This River” needed to be as effective as it was. Most tracks on Faster and Farther benefit from harmonies between the couple. Their high and lonesome notes in “Highway of Heartache” are particularly strong.

“We’ve still got a good mix of Darin and Brooke music in there,” Darin said. “We still got our touch on everything.”

That’s particularly evident on the Carl Jackson tune “Fit For A King.” In it, Brooke delivers a stirring vocal about a homeless man who is redeemed through his faith.

“The Gospel is in there, and that’s something me and Brooke set out to do since we recorded our first record: to be true to who we are and to be a great couple who puts a positive message out there to the audiences,” Darin said.

To hear Darin talk about falling for Brooke and which classic country song they enjoyed singing together while they were first dating, listen here. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Posted in On Air, Reviews

Down In Texas There’s A Party Growing: Peace & Cornbread by The Buffalo Ruckus

For an album that’s equal parts compelling eclectic rock and Texas dancehall-filling roots, Peace & Cornbread seems like a natural title and a flaming image of soul food bathed in bright red seems the perfect image. Occasionally it’s entirely appropriate to judge an album by its cover.

In fact, the greatest strength of Peace & Cornbread is the band’s significantly improved ability to convey a mood in each song. Much like the title and cover art of the album matches up with the group’s overall sound, each set of well-crafted lyrics seems to have the perfect score and performances to match. That’s no insignificant feat for an album that also delivers the fun, catchy refrains expected of the best Texas music and the sing-along soulfulness of a gospel church that prefers an electric guitar alongside its organ.

That commitment to mood pays off most in lead single “Hills and Valleys,” where the attitude of a determined, caution to the wind romantic is paired with uplifting chords and keyboard riffs that capture persistence in the face of a struggle. Lead singer Jason Lovell’s vocals are confident yet somewhat understated, almost as if he means to say “I got this, and you do too” to anyone daunted by one of life’s hills.

Though neither Lovell nor lead guitarist Brad Haefner is a native Texan, they certainly benefit from having a lot in common with the Texas music scene.

“Fortunately, we have kept just enough of the Texas sound that appeals to the Texas music fans,” Haefner said during a recent appearance on Country Pocket, “But we still allow ourselves plenty of space just to experiment and to be creative musicians.”

Almost every track on Peace & Cornbread is written to play well live, something at which The Buffalo Ruckus is known for excelling. The group took home the top prize at the Texas Music Showdown and was named the Shiner Rising Star, both in 2014.

“They basically helped us get the attention of one of the local radio stations and we were able to get going,” Haefner said of the competitions. “Honestly I think we were all pretty surprised by our first real gig, which got really good reactions. It kind of ignited the whole project.”

Peace & Cornbread builds on that recognition with some of the band’s best vibes to date. “High In The Garden” is a master class in roots/funk guitar playing and “Carolina Calls” mixes an Appalachian breakdown with gospel-driven rock in a way that will make most any audience in Texas or on the East Coast “rattle and shake.”

But it’s tracks like “Troubled Southern Sky” and “Born To Die” that show the band’s evolution — Lovell’s in particular — most. It’s easy to imagine a more forceful delivery blunting the impact of either, but instead, Lovell cuts a bit of edge off his voice to go for a more triumphant and chill sound, respectively.  As “High in the Garden” points out, there’s a party growing down in Texas. Also growing: this young band’s credibility.

Click play below to hear Jason Lovell talk about the cornbread portion of Peace & Cornbread, as well as some other Texas eating. Image courtesy The Buffalo Ruckus.

Posted in Reviews, Top Picks

The Lone Bellow’s Sophomore Release Somehow Improves on Their Debut

It was always going to be difficult for The Lone Bellow to exceed their soaring first album. And yet, the Brooklyn trio that’s so difficult to assign a genre to has shown they can somehow equal its highlights while missing of fewer songs. The harmonies are sharper and arrangements slightly less predictable; this time around the only formula followed is variety.

For fans of the first album, everything is there and more. “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” provides a foot-stomping good time. “Fake Roses” expertly describes loneliness before easing the pain with a bit of compassion. “Then Came the Morning” is a breakup song equal parts bitter and uplifting. “Call to War” is haunting and shockingly pretty considering its subject. Links to the videos can be found here.

But the highlight has to be Marietta, which really doesn’t compare to anything the group has done before. It tells the story of a relationship troubled by mental illness. “I’ll let you in again,” Williams sings to the title character, “and patiently wait for your storm.” He refers to a time Marietta was at a low point as “in your midnight,” a time when loneliness “seeps through the cracks in your floor.” He also includes the line “what you call your family are gone.” It’s heavy and almost too dark to bear for someone with a similar character in their life. It’s also uncompromisingly true and therefore gorgeous. Thank you, The Lone Bellow, for representing such a difficult topic with such beautiful words. Even in the banner year of new releases that is 2015, this song and album will likely still stand out.

Score: A+

Must Hear: “Marietta,” “Fake Roses” “Then Came the Morning” “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” “Call To War” “Diners” “Cold As It Is”

Skip: “I Let You Go”

Posted in Reviews, Top Picks

The Mulligan Brothers Remain Near Perfect

2836393In their first album, The Mulligan Brothers suggested they one day might write a song just stupid enough to make the radio. Thankfully for their fans, they haven’t yet.

“Via Portland,” the Alabama group’s second studio effort, finds them all in fine form, especially Ross Newell. His voice is still sweet and rich and the lyrics he sings with that voice are still worthy of it. “Wait For Me” is one of the better album openings I’ve heard in a long time and though the words are simple, something unusual for this band, the melody more than carries the song.

Some of the ideas this band comes up with for songs are absolutely unbelievable. A man talks to himself unconvincingly about a breakup while driving in his car to distract himself from the very topic he’s rambling about in “City Full of Streets.” In “Calamine,” another man is taken on a terrifying ride across the country and eventually killed by his murderous friend who earned his nickname for relieving the itch of his trigger finger. Calamine, of course, is a gun. “Let Them Ring” uses patriotic language to describe a drinking problem fueled by a breakup in a way that illustrates the downside to a certain kind of freedom. There’s also “Bad Idea,” a song named for something that the brothers claim make for beautiful days. “Let Them Ring” may miss the mark, but it’s better to hear a band try something ambitious than listen to another song we’ve heard done before.

Of course there are scores of great lines to choose from in this album, but I’ll point to one in the song about long distance relationships made difficult by distance and death, “Run On Ahead,” as my favorite.

“I wish we lived forever/Oh, how I wish it wasn’t so/That our minds wear out our bodies just like shoes.”

Is “Via Portland” as good as the debut album? Almost, but it only fell short because nothing was quite as perfect as “Sensible Shoes.” The harmonies are better, this time around, though, so it is of a high enough quality to earn my top mark and keep The Mulligan Brothers at the top of my list of most promising and under-appreciated talents in Americana music today.

Score: A+

Must Hear: “Wait For Me,” “Calamine” “I Don’t Wanna Know,” “City Full of Streets,” “Run On Ahead,” “So Are You”

Skip: “Let Them Ring” “Not Always What It Seems”

Posted in Reviews

Cody Canada and the Departed Dig Deep in the Red Dirt

Cody Canada wants what’s comin’ to him, just as he should. With fellow red dirt rockers like Will Hoge and Wade Bowen tasting success in recent years, it seems only fair that the former Cross Canadian Ragweed singer joins in with his and his band’s latest album, “HippieLovePunk.” Continue reading “Cody Canada and the Departed Dig Deep in the Red Dirt”

Posted in Reviews

Singles Tuesday: Tim McGraw’s ‘Diamond Rings and Old Barstools’ Plus More

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“Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” may seem like an odd pairing, but the two work well when combined in a Tim McGraw song. Tim comes up with a creative way to say he’s not good enough for a woman, alluding to a problem with alcohol in a subtle enough way that it feels fresh. Not everything about Sundown Heaven Town is perfect, but the singles are pretty impressive so far.

Continue reading “Singles Tuesday: Tim McGraw’s ‘Diamond Rings and Old Barstools’ Plus More”