By Lee Zimmerman
This isn’t the first time indie outfits Calexico and Iron & Wine have combined their creativity and craft. An earlier EP titled In the Reins proved their prowess in 2005, but with the release of Years to Burn, a decidedly strong combined collection, it’s clear the two bands are still in sync. The material leans to a fresh-faced folkish noir, with lush harmonies, wholesome sentiment and an easy and unassuming delivery. Remarkably, neither party attempts to out maneuver the other, which leaves plenty of room for their shared enthusiasm. As expected, Calexico adds elements of their own signature sound, with muted trumpets hinting at their south of the border bravado. Yet even so, the sentiment is shared equally all round, with any extraneous elements relegated to the fringes. Though only nine songs long, Years to Burn makes an incisive impression, leading the listener to fervently hope that it won’t be another 14 years before they work in tandem once again.
The new album by Los Angeles’ Americana auteurs I See Hawks in L.A. is a cross cultural, trans-Atlantic collaboration which finds them connecting with the British band known as the Good Intentions. An outgrowth of some shared stages in the Mojave and Merseyside, the two outfits found that they were so in sync, an album almost seemed inevitable. Happily then, Hawks with Good Intentions finds them mining elements that they hold in common -- soaring harmonies, a decided determination, and a folk-like finesse that resonates like the shimmering glow of a sunset over Laurel Canyon. Indeed, there’s a certain sense of deliberation that echoes through these sumptuous songs, a sound that veers from sentiment to sing-alongs. Similar in style to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the songs they create in common sound as if they’ve been swirling about in the ethos forever. It’s the stuff by which standards are made -- rugged, resilient, sweet and sincere.
It’s title to the contrary, Natural Disasters finds former Knoxville native and current Nashville transplant Matt Woods ascending to the higher plateau he’s aspired to since early on. No longer the weary troubadour of years past, the new album finds him assertive, insistent and driven by a sense of absolute authority and emphatic urgency. Where earlier albums found him bound by a mournful mindset, here he’s clearly taking charge, declaring his determination to soldier on regardless of circumstance. He obviously found a perfect producer in Joey Kneiser, one of the former kingpins of the group Glossary and a fine Americana practitioner in his own right. The two not only share a knack for conveying earnest intent, but also common origins in the cloud draped mountains of East Tennessee. That largely accounts for the effectiveness of such cinematic soundscapes as “Blue-Eyed Wanderer,” “Cold Civil War,” “The Devil Drinks Scotch,” and, in particular, “My Southern Heart.” A wholly compelling and genuinely riveting encounter, Natural Disasters deserves placement on every must-listen list.
It’s one thing to release a superb new album justifiably titled Lucky 13. It’s quite another to release two identically dubbed albums simultaneously and not sacrifice quality for quantity. Then again, this Brooklyn-by-way-of-Carolina-based band which calls itself Yarn has never had to scrimp when it comes to their mastery of great melodies and a generally superb sound. While the group is accurately identified as astute Americana, the new music aims at something far more intrinsic -- that is, songs that ring and resonate with a timeless feel and finesse. There’s something truly indelible about their sound, and even with more than two dozen offerings spread across the expanse of two intwined albums, the band offers the impression that their inspiration is boundless and their enthusiasm equally attuned. There’s not a song here that doesn’t leave an indelible imprint even on the initial hearing. Lucky? Perhaps. But based on what Yarn offer here, it’s more likely that it’s simply their skills that have allowed them to succeed.
After an absence that seems to have lasted an eternity, Diesel Park West have returned with what may well be their most emphatic effort yet. The U.K.-based band have always made a point of wearing its collective influences on its proverbial sleeve, but with Let It Melt, they mostly echo the Stones in their drive and dynamic, while still retaining their distinctive melodic persona at the same time. Indeed, for all the grit and growl, the music remains remarkably compelling and consistent. At the same time, the band seems to have streamlined their approach to take full advantage of their overt energy and eager enthusiasm. It’s not exactly accurate to cite Let It Melt as their best effort yet -- there’s plenty of competition for that accreditation -- but for both newcomers and faithful fans, it makes an emphatic statement, one that not only reaffirms their reputation, but also show their enduring durability in ways both compelling and uncompromising. This is indeed one striking set of songs.
Ray Paul is a power pop provocateur of the first order, and his attitude and aptitude have remained intact for the past 40 years. If the cartoon cover of Bloody Rubbish, an anthology of sorts that spans the years 1977 through 2017, pictures him as resembling the Paul McCartney of the classic Beatles Saturday morning cartoon series, there’s good reason. This collection of singles, live songs and unreleased material emulates those who followed in the Fabs’ footsteps -- Eric Carmen and the Raspberries, Badfinger, the Shoes, and so many other unabashedly enthused pop practitioners who kept the spirit of the British invasion alive decades after the fact. Paul has never made a secret of his love for that particular brand of rocking revelry and indeed, each of these ten tracks reflect his dedication to the form. Those fans who share that fondness for the vintage vitality and unabashed innocence of that sixties sensibility would do well to sample this parcel of Paul’s music, and then go on to acquire the rest of his back catalog. If rock and roll had need for a cheery cheerleader, Ray Paul would be the perfect man for the job.
Annie Keating’s new six song EP Can’t Stand Still conveys enough sass and swagger to etch the sort of impression generally bestowed by albums that track twice as long. Keating, an accredited singer/songwriter, is no stranger to making records filled with quality content, but it’s rare to find her coming across with such visceral variety. She has her moments of repose as well, as evidenced by her wistful cover of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” and her own “Sun and Moon,” but it’s the overall ferocity of songs like “Beholden” and “Mother of Exile” that pick up the pace and affirm that somewhat arched attitude that informs this effort overall. Keating’s continued initiative gives the title of this effort deeper meaning, and indeed, the fact that she can’t stand still provides us all with a wonder reward. Here’s hoping that the forward motion continues.