Indie Spotlight: Lissie, Wade Bowen, Born Ruffians, Robert Finley, Steve Gardner,Gavin Sutherland

I write this during the second week of January, confident that the flow of great independent releases will continue unabated in this still new year. As always, there’s plenty of new records that beckon our attention and at best, we can only scratch the surface. Still, those albums mentioned below are terrific examples of a healthy indie scene that remains fertile year after year. Not surprisingly then, our rants and raves find common purpose.

Suffice it to say that Lissie has a flair for the dramatic. Castles finds her proudly singing with stadium-sized confidence and authority, a glorious statement of defiance and determination in ways that proclaim her resilience and resolve. There’s no evidence of calm before the storm, and at times she summons up a sound that would do Jeff Lynne proud, what with the rich arrangements and a full on press that sometimes seems to encompass a cast of thousands. While she possesses her share of turbulence, there’s also an innate sense of optimism that shines through songs such as “Best Day” and “Somewhere,” numbers that find her soaring skyward with hope, humility and unabashed exhilaration. After three previous outings, this latest album rings like a statement of purpose, a true commitment to craft. Consequently, it ought to come as little surprise that Castles emerges as her best effort yet.

Robert Finley is living proof that good things come to those that wait, even if it takes half a century for those rewards to finally appear. Having written songs since the age of ten, and after playing professionally as a young man, Finley was discovered via a Youtube video by Black Keys guitarist and producer Dan Auerbach and subsequently signed to Auerbach’s fledgling Easy Eye Sound record label. His first album, Age Don’t Mean A Thing, served as a statement of purpose, but with its follow up, the boldly titled Goin’ Platinum, Finley fully comes into his own. With adroit backing from a sturdy cast of studio pros and armed with songs written by Auerbach, Nick Lowe, John Prine, Pat McLaughlin and others, Finley sings with an assertive authority that belies his delayed claim to fame. Indeed, Finley is a gritty R&B singer with a gospel pedigree, a man who takes his cue from the great soul singers of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Likewise, he has a way of tearing into a lyric and making it his own, putting his stamp of authority on the material in ways both singular and inspired. He’s truly an artist for the ages, any age as a matter of fact.

It’s been awhile since Gavin Sutherland reemerged on American shores, but with his moving new album Wireless Connection, his comeback rings in a way that echoes his seminal ‘70s efforts with the Sutherland Brothers. Gavin’s vocal has a decidedly down home flavor, an Everyman quality that occasionally brings Bob Dylan to mind without any hint of affectation. While the Sutherlands tended to soar, Gavin keeps to a course that’s decidedly down to earth, a good old boy troubadour whose concerns never extend further than everyday observations. The lack of pretence is particularly striking throughout, and by basking in a country-ish noir, he serves that purpose well. Part of his appeal lies in his ability to set the listener at ease, a task he accomplishes convincingly through both an easy amble and unencumbered arrangements of the back porch variety. Welcome back Gavin. Let’s all hope the connection stays intact.

It sometimes takes a well known mentor to bring an unknown artist’s talents the attention they deserve. In Steve Gardner’s case, the big boost comes from Chuck Prophet, who both produces and plays guitar on Gardner’s sprightly new offering, aptly dubbed Bathed in Comfort. While the music leans mostly towards West Coast twang, there are enough angular additives to suggest hints of New Wave, rockabilly and all American attitude. Gardner comes across like a hipster of sorts, but he’s wise enough to vary the motif so as to keep listeners guessing what he’ll come up with next. The music is sly, alluring and wholly appealing, not unlike Nick Lowe in his current Americana mode. Like Lowe, Gardner, a Brit from Yorkshire, made a remarkably easy transition when it came time to record. Yet, as his bio suggests, he had never played with a band before. So while this is his first album, he comes across as savvy and astute as a musician with far more experience under his or her belt. After an initial album this fine, things bode well for his ongoing musical trajectory.

Wade Bowen offers a rugged blend of down home country sentiment and a squinty eyed skepticism on his new disc Solid Ground, a tough love shout-out to his home state of Texas and an homage of sorts to the cold contemporary glare of Springsteen, Mellencamp and Petty. The cover representation of a weathered map imprinted in the cracked red dirt of his native state more or less sums up the emotions he represents here, and yet, he still offers reverence for his roots. Still, Bowen is a no-nonsense type of troubadour and his music makes any attempt to typecast him a moot point. In many ways he harkens back to earlier contrarians like Waylon Jennings and Guy Clark; while he pulls no punches, he’s also unafraid to wear his sentiments on his sleeve. Song titles like “Calling All Demons,” Fell In Love On Whiskey,” “Day of the Dead,” and “Death, Dyin’ & Deviled Eggs” give some indication of where Bowen is coming from, but the tenacious, tangled melodies really say it all.

Five albums in, Born Ruffians are as appealing as always. Despite their somewhat moody demeanour, this quirky Canadian combo boast songs that are effortlessly engaging, hooky and harmonious, albeit in an offbeat sort of way. The material sneaks up on you; angular at first, the melodies eventually explode in an overwhelming outpouring that makes repeated listens all the more essential. Like the Avett Brothers or XTC, they’re compelling even despite themselves, creating a sound that’s daringly defiant and engaging all at the same time. Their new album Uncle, Duke & The Chief marks a milestone in their trajectory, and even when they quote the “You’ll come running back to me” refrain from the Stones’ “Time is on my Side” on the defiant “Ring That Bell,” their sense of abandon is all too obvious. Not your usual pop/rock record, Uncle, Duke & The Chief is creative and clever throughout.

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