The Flower of Muscle Shoals by Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer

The title of Cahalen Morrison’s latest solo effort — The Flower of Muscle Shoals — implies a nostalgic tie to roots music history. Through his duo work with Eli West, Morrison has already demonstrated a reverence (and considerable talent) for acoustic Americana. The Flower of Muscle Shoals turns up the volume, augmenting Morrison’s gentle vocal twang with a rock-solid backing band easily at home in the diviest of honky-tonks.

That’s not to say The Flower is a raucous collection of tunes; Morrison errs toward the tear in your beer, as opposed to the fighting side of classic country. Fans of Morrison/West will find much to appreciate in the pace and acoustic ambience of this album, from the easy two-step of “Cascabel Valley” to the western swing of “Our Love is Like a Hurricane.” The fingerpicked acoustic guitar, walking bass, and reverb-laden Telecaster of “The Delta Divine” is particularly satisfying, marrying toe-tapping country blues rhythm with concise and skillfully crafted lyrics. Morrison started in ranchero, and as a fellow New Mexican I couldn’t help but smile at the accordion and fiddle-fueled romp of “Hobbled and Grazing.”

The Flower of Muscle Shoals is a deeply satisfying album, amply demonstrating this artist’s versatility and potential across a range of roots idioms. It’s also proof that great country & western music is still readily accessible — you just have to switch off the radio and tune in to the sounds of a true craftsman like Cahalen Morrison.

Jet Engines by Amy McCarley

The alt country scene is crowded these days, which is great for fans but tough for artists looking to stand out. Fortunately for Amy McCarley, the first thing that strikes a new listener is her distinctive voice. There are shades of genre luminaries in her Alabama drawl — a little bit of Lucinda Williams slur, a touch of Dwight Yoakam-esque mountain twang. But comparisons are really only useful for reference purposes; McCarley’s sound is all her own, and her latest album Jet Engines showcases an artist firmly grounded in Americana, yet well-poised to make an individual statement.

Roots guitar fans will immediately be drawn to the production imprint of Kenny Vaughan, probably most well-known for his picking in Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives. Indeed, Vaughan leads a rock-solid band, and tasty blues-meets-country riffs abound. However, it’s Amy’s songwriting that commands the stage. Her voice is a nuanced instrument best paired with a strong lyrical hook, evidenced by honky tonk gems like “Here I Am” and “Radio On” — hard-driving, foot-tappings tunes with country soul that puts the current Nashville radio crop to shame.

That’s not to say McCarley can be narrowly categorized; Jet Engines is sonically diverse while maintaining a coherent thread throughout. The title track segues seamlessly between a swampy blues verse and a dynamic, melodically memorable chorus. The anthemic “Hands Tied” is probably the most pop-oriented track, recalling Tracy Chapman at her radio-friendly rootsiest. Amy McCarley could easily take her music in any one of these directions and create a name for herself; hopefully she continues to follow the more eclectically rewarding muse that yielded Jet Engines.

Ready for the Spring: “The Second Hand” by Susan Gibson

The Second Hand opens with an energetic live reading of Susan GIbson’s Top-40 masterpiece, the coming-of-age anthem “Wide Open Spaces.” It’s the song that put her on the songwriting map (and the Dixie Chicks on the path to country mega-stardom), and Gibson indulges her audience by playing the song at every show. Indeed, loyal fans who turn out at every opportunity to catch Susan at a house concert, songwriter circle, or dive bar will find much to love on The Second Hand.

But it’s also fitting that the setlist gets “Wide Open Spaces” out of the way at the start. It’s a great song, but Susan has spent more than a decade crafting great songs that share (and usually exceed) the qualities that made “Spaces” such a hit — authenticity, wit, and themes just about anyone with a heartbeat can relate to. On the album’s title track, Gibson sings that “It’s been a nuclear winter, and I’m ready for the spring.” Like most of her songwriting, the quip works on several levels. Whether eagerly awaiting relief from the endless 2014 polar vortex, or the bone chill of a relationship gone bad, Susan Gibson has a cathartic verse to help thaw your soul.

There’s a lot of music to be heard on The Second Hand, which is as much a career retrospective as a live album; the 17-song disc is a great starting point for the uninitiated. Fortunately, the producers also left a little room for between-song storytelling, which is a big part of the Susan Gibson live draw. Susan has weathered some tough life experiences the past few years, experiences many of us can relate to and look forward to empathizing with in her songwriting. A tune like “Best of You” — inspired by the strength of cancer survivors — stands on its own, but is rendered all the more powerful when Gibson candidly shares the backstory.

Finally, it’s gratifying to hear Susan’s tunes fully realized with an ace pickup band. We imagine singer-songwriters to be lone wolves, and Susan certainly plays her fair share of solo gigs. However, most relish the idea of fronting their own band, if only gigs and income would permit. The Second Hand lineup — featuring Billy Masters on lead guitar, David Carroll on bass, and Ray Rodriguez on drums — complements Gibson superbly throughout, lending sonic dimension while giving the songs plenty of room to breathe. The Second Hand stands among those rare concert recordings that successfully capture the energy and spontaneity of a great live set, though that shouldn’t be surprising coming from an artist who so consistently delivers — gig after gig, song after song.

Check out this post on my No Depression page.

A New Year with Campy’s “Dream Dictionary”

Only two months in, 2014 has already seen a raft of great guitar album releases (stay tuned for more highlights). Regular readers should know by now that I’m a huge Jim Campilongo fan and was eagerly awaiting the January 21st release of Dream Dictionary. It’s been a month since release day, and it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that I still have the disc in heavy rotation.

Dream Dictionary is consistent with Jim’s creative trajectory since American Hips (2003). Operating largely in a trio format (Dictionary features Josh Dion on drums and Chris Morrissey on bass), Campy picks, bends, and squawks his way through twelve tunes that demonstrate his uncanny ability to infuse the well-trodden soundscapes of Americana with a beautifully eclectic and instantly recognizable electric imprint. Fans of the guitarist’s output over the past decade should find themselves in familiar territory as Campilongo navigates through reverb-laden slow burners (“The Past is Looking Brighter and Brighter”), loping snap-and-pop blues excursions (“Nang Nang”), and the requisite guest appearance by Norah Jones (“Here I Am”), a frequent collaborator vis-à-vis the Little Willies.

While Dream Dictionary isn’t a radical departure, there is evidence of an evolution in Jim’s sound that was starting to become readily apparent on his last album, Orange (2010). Jim’s early recordings with the 10 Gallon Cats were rooted in country and western swing; subsequent trio recordings relaxed the breakneck tempos and explored moodier, jazzier territory. Jim certainly hasn’t abandoned those influences in recent years, but his affinity for the more eccentric capabilities of the electric guitar – feedback, overdrive, pinch harmonics, and microtonal bends – has increasingly taken center stage since Orange. Most guitarists employ these techniques for novelty effect; Campilongo, by stark contrast, has made them central to his musical vocabulary.

In a recent interview, Campy noted that he had been listening to a lot of 70s-era Miles Davis while writing the material for Dream Dictionary, manifested in the slow, sinister funk of the album’s opener (“Cock and Bull Story”) and the meditative title track. However, to a greater degree than any previous Campilongo album, this one seems to channel a more fundamental influence – the late Roy Buchanan. Roy’s imprint on Jim has always been evident, but Dictionary takes the listener in darker and more intensely contemplative directions than ever before, forging a soulful connection to the music that recalls the best of Buchanan’s early recordings (before the tragic picker’s inner demons took a toll on the consistency of his output). Reassuringly, Dream Dictionary closes with the upbeat and playful “Pie Party,” a galloping country romp that reminds us of Jim Campilongo’s lighter side and his consistent ability to connect with audiences on multiple levels — both musical and emotional.

2013 Track of the Year

I’m working on a couple “best of” album lists for 2013, including best guitar and best Americana albums (to be cross-posted on No Depression). In the mean time, I’ll share my favorite track of the year.

There’s not a guitar to be heard on “When Love Was King” from Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. It’s no matter, because every guitarist picking a ballad or slow blues can learn something from the man’s careful phrasing, vocal timbre, and masterful use of dynamics. Guitarists often try to emulate aspects of the human voice on their instrument, but rarely do they achieve anything quite this sublime. Happy New Year!

Righteous Beards, Righteous Songwriting: New Music from The White Buffalo and Anders Osborne

Two new albums from a pair of songwriter/guitarists with righteous facial hair — the perfect soundtrack to Movember.

Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways by the White Buffalo

It’s been almost two years since Jake Smith, aka The White Buffalo, released his outstanding sophomore LP Once Upon a Time in the West. That album, along with a heavy touring schedule, has helped cement Smith’s reputation on the alt-country scene (contributing to the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack hasn’t hurt either). Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways demonstrates that The White Buffalo is staying true to his muse, continuing to deliver gritty and honest — yet thoughtful — songwriting.

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Kickstart Jana Pochop’s Next EP

I’ve dropped Jana Pochop’s name a few times on the blog. She’s a prolific singer-songwriter and a fellow Manzano High School guitar program alumnae. We rocked the Albuquerque folk scene in college. Now Jana’s based in Austin, making her living as a musician and social media entreprenour  She has a new EP on the way, and you can be a part of the creative process via Kickstarter. I can heartily vouch for her first two EPs (see “Resurrection Buzz” from EP2 below), and have no doubt this one will round out an epic trilogy. Think Led Zeppelin I through III — she’s even holding a Les Paul! But fewer Tolkien references. And more emotionally insightful lyrics about the human experience. 11 days left!


Walk “39 Steps” with the John Abercrombie Quartet

Last year, John Abercrombie released an album of standards that appeared on my 2012 shortlist of favorite jazz guitar albums. His 2013 followup is a collection of mostly originals, performed by a quartet featuring Mark Copland on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. 39 Steps shares the contemplative, acoustic vibe of the standards album, but demonstrates that Abercrombie is still a cutting-edge innovator among modern jazz pickers.

The addition of Copland sets 39 Steps apart from much of Abercrombie’s latter-day output, in which he is often the sole chordal instrument. Copland (a saxophonist turned pianist) has a sparse, open sound that melds well with the guitarist. The album’s tone is set by the ethereal opening tune “Vertigo,” followed by a swinging yet still-cerebral “LST.” Other reviews have noted shades of Bill Evans in this album. Indeed, fans of the Village Vanguard recordings, or Evans’ telepathic collaborations with Jim Hall, will find much to enjoy in the chemistry of this quartet.

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Guitar Lit: “Perfecting Sound Forever” and the Vapor Trails Remix

In high school, our most advanced guitar class was  “Guitar Literature.” We did more playing than reading, but the name conveyed a certain intellectual gravitas. It’s also a catchy title for a new column on my favorite guitar- and music-related literature.

On September 30th, Rush released a remix of their 2002 album Vapor Trails. In Rolling Stone, Geddy Lee declared the original mix to be “really loud and brash,” and that the “mastering job was harsh and distorted.” This was something that die-hard Rush fans had bemoaned for a decade.

Vapor Trails was one of the more prominent — and contentious — products of the so-called “Loudness War,” a recording industry arms race to boost the perceived intensity of music, especially broadcasted music pumped through car stereos. The album (and the war) features prominently in Greg Milner’s 2009 journalistic history of recorded music, Perfecting Sound Forever. Milner’s well-researched and highly readable book details the evolution of recording technology from Thomas Edison onwards, including its impact on music production and audiophilia. Suffice to say, not all change has been welcome, and the merits of the digital transition in particular remain highly contested (just ask Neil Young).

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Road Worn and Ragged with Jeff Jensen

Blues guitarist and songwriter Jeff Jensen closes Road Worn and Ragged with “Thankful,” a funky/soulful ode to a musical life well-lived; it’s a sentiment not often associated with the angsty 3-chord art form that is the blues. But we should all be so thankful for what the blues has given American music, despite its roots in some dark chapters of our country’s past. Jeff seems to get that, delivering an album that manages to be heartfelt without being overwrought, respectful of the form without being self-consciously reverential.

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