Indie Spotlight: The Textones, Cliff Westfall, David Olney, Roger Salloom and others

By Lee Zimmerman

You really wouldn’t know that Cliff Westfall is a Jersey boy simply by listening to his latest LP, Baby You Win. No way, no how. A master of twang and a country continuum, he dedicates himself to creating a classic sound in a contemporary context. At times, echoes of seasoned forebears come through in his songs — Willie Nelson in the remorse and regret of “Hanging On,” Dylan in his uptempo wallop of “I’ll Play the Fool,” and the Bakersfield bravado of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakum everywhere else. Westfall is a master of classic form and the air of authenticity that purveys the effort overall makes the album a classic example of country composition executed adroitly and efficiently, complete with shimmering steel guitar and a voice that seems to hail from the heartland. If Nashville beckons, Westfall would be wise to heed its calling.

David Olney has been releasing albums for several decades now, acquiring an admirable reputation as an artist with a reverence for roots tradition along with contemporary credence. A compelling singer and songwriter, he’s adept at conveying hard luck tales flush with weathered rumination and ernest, uncompromising intent. With his latest release, This Side Or The Other, his turgid rumblings and gritty ballads are as ominous as ever, each an astute example of a style that effectively ploughs the rich top soil of arcane Americana music. These dark tales mostly find little light, and yet they have the power to draw the listener in and not let go. There’s no extraneous embellishment and few notes are wasted, yet both melody and message are always on point. Imagine an unholy alliance between Nick Cave and Kris Kristofferson draped in traditional trappings and it ought to provide some idea of what awaits. At any rate, it’s long past time that Olney got his due, and if justice prevails This Side or The Other will be the album that ensures that success.

Born in Lima Peru, singer and songwriter Brown Kid is a performer and singer-songwriter who has slowly but steadily built a loyal legion of followers. His latest EP, Rusty Strings, offers ample reason why; a warm, unassuming collection of rhythmic melodies sung simply and expressively, it boasts six songs performed in a reggae-infused Caribbean style. It’s already garnered a win from Radio Airplay’s Summer Song Contest as well as various key nominations — Toronto’s independent music awards among them — while also finding placement on the radio both here and abroad. It’s little wonder why; his warm, unpretentious delivery conveys a kind of Everyman attitude by sticking to the basics and creating a sunny vibe that’s absolutely irresistible from the get-go. Brown Kid never talks down to his audiences; his sound is relatable, engaging and flush with honest appeal. It’s also obvious that he is fully committed to his craft and happy to serve up songs with honesty and integrity. Color Brown Kid as one to watch.

The easy pluck and strum of Bill and the Belles suggests a scene around a campfire, a carefree nonchalance and frivolous feeling that demands nothing more from the listener than to settle in and enjoy it. The Belles‘ three part harmonies convey an adroit old-timey feel that made for essential radio-ready fare back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and indeed, there’s a collective quaintness that suggests a blend of Jimmie Rodgers (two of his seminal songs are revisited here) and the Andrews Sisters singing in tandem. Dreamsongs Etc., the group’s debut offering, is a pleasant respite from today’s tenuous times, songs plied with a soft sashay and idyllic innocence that’s as cheery as it is charming. The group take their name from Bill and Belle Reed, performers who gained a measure of fame in the 1920s, and indeed these vintage trappings capture the essence of a long ago era when innocence was the absolute essence of entertainment.

Roger Salloom is an artist without pretense. His music is simple and straight forward, but that doesn’t mean it’s not thoughtful and provocative as well. His latest album, humbly titled Hearty, serves up several styles, from the Dylanesque protest of opening track “Not Here Not Anywhere,” performed solo with voice and acoustic guitar, to the boogie and blues of “Jelly Roll Baker” and some sturdy covers that include the rock and roll standard “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees,” a song that is sadly as relevant as ever. This isn’t Salloom’s first album — he has at least three others to his credit — but the effusive enthusiasm exhibited throughout shows he’s obviously eager to share. On the other hand, his ability to jump between genres and pull it all off with such aplomb suggests he’s been plying his skills for some time. Mostly, Salloom is a terrific entertainer, and given his unassuming style, it’s clear he’s capable of making a connection the very first time out. Consider this a hearty helping of easy engagement.

Over 30 years after first bursting on the scene and helping establish the template that would eventually morph into Americana, The Textones have reemerged with an unexpected and much belated new album that reaffirms why they were so vital the first time around. Drop the needle on the opening notes of the ironically titled “Downhearted Town” and it quickly becomes apparent that they’re back with a vengeance. There’s an undeniably fury and frenzy surging through these songs, and with Carla Olson’s searing vocals at the helm of the proceedings, its clear that they’re playing for keeps. Of course, Olson’s retained a solid solo career, including forays with the late Gene Clark and former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor (the new album’s special guests include cameos by Poco’s Rusty Young, the Hollies’ Allan Clarke, Barry Goldberg, the late Phil Seymour, and original Textone Kathy Valentine), but here she sounds refreshed, revived, and absolutely committed to the cause. “Hear the cry of the old stone gang,” she implores on the title track, making that conclusion all but unavoidable. After an absence of 30 years, it’s a testament to the Textones that they’re sounding as vigorous as ever.

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