Roundup of cool, recent Americana discs

It's time for another roundup of cool, recent folk/Americana discs from acclaimed musicians — as well as relatively unknown ones — in the American Back Roads blog.
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By Bruce Sylvester

OK, it's time for another roundup of cool recent folk/Americana discs from acclaimed musicians as well as relatively unknown ones.

At their start, the Catskill Mountains' Felice Brothers were likened to The Band – another upstate New York ensemble. There've been similarities to the Pogues too. At times, you might imagine a rural Lou Reed act. As the group has evolved over time since the departure of brother Simone, brother James's accordion has remained a buoyant constant. On their new Undress (Yep Roc), the tongue-in-cheek title track suggests an aid to international and interpersonal harmony. Sometimes playful pop arrangements replace their usual Americana. A King Missile-like goofiness with underlying seriousness propels “Special Announcement” (“I'm saving up my money to be president. … I can promise you more berries on Blueberry Hill. I can promise you Charlie Parker on the ten-dollar bill.”). In contrast, the chilling closing track, “Socrates,” has vestiges of Leonard Cohen.

Back in Rhiannon Giddens' days revitalizing 1930s black string band music with Carolina Chocolate Drops, she'd surprise audiences with a burst of a cappella Scottish music she'd learned during her studies there. A MacArthur Foundation Genius Award winner, she brings incredible breadth to her musical vision. Still, she can be very focused too. Sparely arranged There Is No Other(Nonesuch) – her collaboration with Italian multi-percussionist Francesco Turrisi – reaches from delicate art song to spooky Medieval English (and then American) ballad “Lady Margaret,” whose lyrics seem even more ominous thanks to Turrisi on an Iranian daf. As John Jeremiah Sullivan's revealing profile “Folk like Us: Rhiannon Giddens and the Evolving Legacy of Black String-Band Music” in May 20's The New Yorker put it, “Here's a song from the mountains of America, and here's a drum from halfway around the world, and they're speaking the same language.” An underlying message seems to be that despite ethnic differences, beneath the surface we're all actually similar. Thus the CD's title, There Is No Other. Giddens herself has a white father and a mother of African American and Native American descent so in effect the breadth of her music is a reflection of the breadth of her own heritage.

One of my fave debut discs of 2016 was Alice Howe's five-song EP You've Been Away So Long(www.alicehowe.com). Oh, how her golden tones caress her lyrics. Nature references abound in her writing that lets listeners take key words in the direction they choose. She doesn't fall back on rhymes we've already heard enough times. Freebo (Bonnie Raitt's long-time bassist) produced her new 10-song Visions, on occasion writing with her as well as bringing out her blue-eyed soul side. Among the covers are Taj Mahal's “Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes,” Sam Cooke's “Bring It on Home to Me” and Muddy Waters' “Honey Bee.” As for “Too Long at the Fair” – which Raitt gave a weary tone that suited the lyrics on 1972's Give It Up – Howe's delivery soothes. Based in the Boston area, she's not well known, but her discs are gorgeous.

For pure fun, Harpdog Brown's For Love & Money (Dog House) takes us on a vintage blues/swing/jump blues road trip from Chicago to New Orleans with covers of Memphis Slim and Wynonie Harris (no, not their best-known pieces) plus originals by singer/harpman Brown himself. After almost four decades of performing, he's seeped in the music's celebratory spirit, with a full band backing him when one fits. Philosophical “One Step Forward” becomes Biblical boogie in a verse about Job. Brown himself wrote “Reefer Lovin' Woman” (“She's the biggest little woman I've ever seen.”), while his “Stiff” laughs in the face of cash flow (or lack thereof), the aging process and other vicissitudes of life. Steve Dawson's well-conceived production frames the songs well. Minor point of interest for music history buffs: Bouncy “Vicious Vodka” (first done by Amos Milburn in 1954) was penned by Joseph Coleman Smith, who sang using the stage name Sonny Knight on his tender 1956 hit “Confidential.”

So why did Atlanta-based singer/writer/guitarist Chuck McDowell and singer/cellist Gail Burnette choose ESOEBO for their duet's name? It's an acronym for “Eclectic Selections of Everything but Opera.” McDowell's New Orleans origins are jubilantly clear on ESOEBO VI (Knot Reel Records). On the opener, “Airplane,” they sing of potential disaster – or maybe merely paranoia – with cheerful voices and upbeat backup for comic effect. Note the track's last few seconds. The practical conclusion to “Baby I Love Your Shoes” brings a surprise. They can address heavy issues (cancer, Alzheimer's) with subtlety. As for “Far Away Tale,” McDowell remarks, “I got tired of everybody hating on everybody. I see people in my life on both sides. I'm not making a political statement, but I wish people could talk with civility.” The disc's final track, “I'll Follow the Sky,” eases down the mood to quiet tranquility.