Indie Spotlight: Beau + Luci, Beth Snapp, Dan Johnson, Sevi Ettinger, Handsome and the Humbles and Kris Gruen

By Lee Zimmerman

They call themselves the “Siren Sisters of Swamp Rock,” but on their current studio set Fire Dancer, sibling duo Beau + Luci come across more as giddy folkies with a penchant for catchy, compelling melodies and ready refrains. Not surprisingly, their harmonies are consistently in sync, but with their propulsive rhythms underscoring their efforts, the effect is as engaging and as it is intriguing. While the duo have no shortage of pop appeal, there’s an underlying intensity that suggests they should be taken seriously. That’s the tact they take on the new offering and rumination, which finds songs such as “Like a Drum,” “Black Boots,” “Rattle Bones” and the tender ballad “Among the Stars” sharing the groove with a sense of gravitas that clearly demands a closer listen. It’s not only the stirring vocals which make such a striking impression, but the arrangements as well, indicating that these two ladies have both the savvy and assurance to make a formidable impression with fans of all tastes and persuasions. Rarely has any artist found such a fine compromise between heft and harmony.


Handsome and the Humbles may seem an auspicious name for a band, but that has little to do with the music that’s provided as part and parcel of their new album, We’re All the Same. Long an integral part of the East Tennessee music scene, the band — singer/guitarist Josh Smith (the “Handsome” referred to in the band’s handle) and Jason Chambers (guitar, vocals), Tyler Huff (bass), Josh Hutson (guitar), Zack Miles (guitar) and Laurel Brisson (drums, recently replaced by Chris Bratta) — creates a rugged but resilient sound, offset by tender sentiments and a drive and determination that asserts their assured authority. These are the kind of rootsy melodies that resonate even on first encounter, and then reappear with a freshness and familiarity with each return listen. Every effort the group has undertaken to this point has been noteworthy, but with We’re All the Same, they’ve clearly reached a new plateau, one that makes them worthy of any accolades that Americana music can afford. And yet, by any standard, it’s a superb set of songs.


Beth Snapp’s musical journey is still in its relative infancy, but after two exceptional albums — 2014‘s That Girl in the Magazine and 2017’s Write Your Name Down — she is clearly set up for success. Her new EP, Don’t Apologize, again demonstrates her ability to craft a set of songs with indelible melodies while also ruminating on the triumphs and challenges that life generally offers all of us at one time or another. Backed by a sturdy ensemble comprised of notable guests — cello player and pianist Dave Eggar, guitarist Phil Faconti, Black Lillies frontman Cruz Contreras, and her band mates Jason Crawford (banjo, Mandolin), Jay Farmer (upright bass), Kevin Jackson (fiddle), and Justin Short (drums) — she delivers these remarkable audio snapshots with a typical assured finesse that’s archival in form and yet contemporary in credence. Here again, she demonstrates a marked ability to blend gravitas with nuance, ensuring a sound that resonates through both message and melody. A distinctive artist, Snapp has brilliance etched all over.


Hemingway is a rare recording, a combination of an EP and an audio book that delve into the tragedy and harsh realities faced by returning veterans and their families when despair and depression ends in suicide. Dan Johnson’s father was one such victim who took his own life when Johnson was still a child, and the fact that this effort is named after Ernest Hemingway references the fact that the author in question took his own life as well. Fittingly, the five songs on disc one are taut with emotion and urgency, with Johnson sounding like a cross between Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson while singing with a gravitas that’s both gripping and foreboding. The audio portion, written by Johnson and Travis Erwin, is also dark and defiant, short stories that relate drug crazed hallucinatory episodes of nightmarish proportion, intermingling tales of a young man who struggles with his heritage and birthright as a Native American. Profoundly affecting, the CD offers another reason for consideration as well. A share of the proceeds benefit www.operationhemingway.org, an organization devoted to suicide prevention.


Sevi Ettinger is one of those young and upcoming artists who have already mastered the ability to dig deep into the purity of pop. Her new 4 song EP Salty Water is both humbling and infectious, a series of thought-provoking melodies that quickly get under the skin and reside there long after the disc’s final notes fade away. With their compelling, insistent rhythms underscoring Ettinger’s effusive, embracing vocals, these are the sort of songs that ought to appeal to today’s pop audiences as well as any dance floor denizens. There’s not a single song here that doesn’t entertain and entice, suggesting that Sevi has the savvy needed to climb to the top of the charts and win herself some well deserved recognition. Indeed, Salty Water is both fresh and refreshing; don’t be surprised if it elevates her to the top of the charts.


Kris Gruen makes a sound that’s flush with enthusiasm and unstoppable energy. With his new album, Coast & Refuge, he comes on like a cyclone, grabbing attention instantly with first song, the aptly named “Body in Motion,” and maintaing a clear connection from that point forward. The son of famed photographer Bob Gruen, the new album follows three earlier works, Lullaby School, Part Of It All and New Comics From The Wooded World, as well as an EP, Duos and Trios, and features contributions by Peter Morén of Peter, Bjorn, The subjects of these songs concern a subject that touches nearly everyone these days, that is, how to maintain relationships and friendships in an increasingly fragmented world where communication often fails due to distance or disagreement. Nevertheless, Gruen clearly sings from the heart, and his touching sentiments are both engaging and affecting. Coast & Refuge demands attention, and the result is easily one of the most resilient and refreshing efforts of the year so far.

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