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Indie Spotlight: May 2018

An indie spotlight on Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jessie Kilguss to Americana's Mammals.

By Lee Zimmerman

Five albums on, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jessie Kilguss has acquired a reputation based one her ability to betray her innermost emotions through a remarkable pastiche that looms large through mystery and mystique. Indeed, her’s is a sound manifested through sensuality and suggestion. Not surprisingly then, her latest effort, The Fastness, is flush with moody yet mesmerizing melodies, a sensory display of emotion and intrigue conveyed through each of its ten beguiling tunes. The stated theme of the album is the direct connection between travel and transition, manifest not only in our temporal world, but through life itself as it traverses in its entirety, connecting culture and consciousness to death and rebirth. Those are heady concepts to be sure, but it’s a credit to Kilguss’ prowess that she’s not merely content to simply create some pleasing aural imagery. Rather, she uses her songs to probe possibilities that lie just below the surface, allowing them to resonate in ways that allow for greater interest and intrigue. A slow burn in the best sense, The Fastness is nothing less than both a captivating and compelling collection.

After an absence that found singers and front persons Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar taking their a sojourn, the Mammals are back, sharing the upbeat fusion of bluegrass and Americana that inspired their sound so early on. The transition from past to present appears to be seamless, and indeed, the band’s new album Sunshiner is as vibrant as its title implies. The Mammals are in fine form thanks to a series of songs that demonstrate the group’s varied musical skills and their inherent knack for writing songs that are uplifting, inspiring and beg attention from the first listen on. Anchored by the tracks found at the midway point in the album -- “Fork in the Road,” “Doctor’s Orders, “The Flood” et. al. -- Sunshiner clearly qualifies as the band’s best effort yet and one which should reestablish them as a preeminent group in terms of today’s populist precepts. For many, it’s a return that’s long overdue, and given the talent involved, it’s a fortuitous occurrence at that. Suffice it to say, one would be well advised to put some Sunshiner in their day.

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Rachel Sage is not only an outstanding singer and songwriter, but also an accomplished entrepreneur, especially given her success at the helm of her own MPress Records label. While it’s often been shown that business and creativity don’t necessarily mix, Sage has proven otherwise as her ongoing series of solo albums easily attest. Indeed, her new offering, Myopia, ranks among her most accomplished efforts yet. The title refers to a visual impairment, and the clever cover illustration alludes to opthalmology as well, although the music is 20/20 and spot on all the way through. A brilliant cover of Howard Jones’ “No One Is To Blame” fits seamlessly in with the rest of the material, but it’s the upbeat album opener “Alive” that sets the tone for the album overall. “It’s a wonderful time to be alive,” she insists, belying all the trouble in this tumultuous world. That’s not to say that Sage is prone to wearing rose-colored glasses. Her approach finds her deep in thought and rumination, likening her to a kind of cross between Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell as far as her evocative sentiments are concerned. Be assured, it doesn’t take an optical exam to see that.

The Lied To’s have lived their music in ways few other bands can claim. The two principals, Doug Kwartler and Susan Levine, each suffered bitter break-ups with their respective spouses and were forced to face the difficulties of putting their lives together in the aftermath. Not surprisingly then, their songs reverberate with the aftertaste of the challenges they weathered along the way. Taking their name from a lyric contained in the Everly Brothers song “When Will I Be Loved,” the blend of country, roots and folk imbued in their sophomore set The Lesser of Two Evils isn’t sugar coated in any way, but echoes instead with the hard realities most folks encounter in similar circumstances. It’s both tough and tender, spearheaded by opening track “Cruel World,” a song that sets the tone for all that follows. The theme is picked up by “The Lesser of Two Evils,” which finds the duo laying down a matter-of-fact mantra that further defines the realities brought to bear in the toughest of circumstances. These are hard lessons for the learning, but given their tenacious delivery, honesty and conviction, it’s completely compelling regardless.

From the first supple notes of “Redwing,” the ever so sweet opening track on her album of the same name, Sarah Sample sets up a sound flush with harmonious assurance and the hushed glow of pure affirmation. “I met God in a high desert sunrise,” she coos. “I found God in the quiet of the golden plains, On the red, red wings of blackbirds.” The words are sheer poetry, but the beautiful melodies that drift beneath make the album a complete treat indeed, one capable of providing a respite, however temporary, from the cacophony of an anger-infested world. Sample’s sound is one that requires a contemplative listen, its quiet sentiments and gentle embrace well worth concerted attention. Song titles such as “Love Who You Love,” “Living Is Hard To Do,” “Love Ain’t Enough Anymore” and “Heart That Falls Apart” offer lessons in perseverance even when the odds of coming together are stacked against you. It’s the reassurance that lingers in these effusive and engaging melodies, making for a genuinely moving experience from start to finish.

Dan Israel is another of those names that is frequently mentioned when more astute singer/songwriters come up in conversation. Even so, after 14 albums, he’s yet to get his due. An artist who possesses exceptional skills when it comes to crafting instantly indelible melodies, he could be considered among the best of today’s breed, given his knack for probing the deeper layers of human emotions. That’s especially evident in his new album, succinctly titled You’re Free, a striking set of songs that deals with life on the precipice of new beginnings after past experience is left behind. It examines the ways one seeks a path forward though the challenges may sometimes seem intense or overwhelming. Israel knows of what he sings; after leaving a job that found him spending 14 years in the Minnesota legislature, he opted to devote himself entirely to making music and indulging his prime interests. As a result, the songs offer the consummate declaration of purpose -- some edgy, some aggressive, but all on point. Sweeter sentiments prevail, but beneath it all is a throughly engaging set of songs, which, as always, proves both captivating and compelling.