By Lee Zimmerman
Michael Barry may be relatively unknown outside his native New England, but given the number of artists and ensembles that he’s produced and performed with over the years — acts as varied as Feast of Fiddles, The Knock-Ups, The New Zeitgeist, Susan Cattaneo, and others — and his reign at the helm of various other bands — Super Genius and Pooka Stew — it’s certainly not due to any lack of effort on his part. His initial solo effort, Party at the End of the World, marks his first new music since 2007, and yet, despite the absence of a dozen years, it reflects the fact that he’s clearly confident with his assertive approach. With the help an all-star support crew, including former Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks and singer Syd Straw, he’s created a rich and riveting set of catchy, classy folk pop songs that resonant even on first hearing. The arrangements are hammered out with depth and diligence, and it ought to come as little surprise that oftentimes Fairport, Steeleye Span and Richard Thompson come to mind through his music. Still, there’s no denying that Barry has established a signature sound, and one can only hope that it won’t be another 13 years before he offers a follow-up.
Irish singer and songwriter Ben Reel has never been afraid of varying his template over the years, and with nine albums to his credit, that easily accounts for a rich catalog that accommodates folk, country, reggae and R&B. He’s sometimes compared to Bob Dylan and John Hyatt in terms of his rich melodies and effusive approach, but even so, there’s little doubt that he’s also a singular artist and individual. His new album, The Nashville Calling, finds him firmly imbued in Americana firmament, and with such stellar sidemen as Will Kimbrough, Tommy Womack and Garry Tallent providing support, it finds him reaching a new pinnacle of perfection as well as offering his fans ample cause for renewed recognition. Reel is, of course, an astute instrumentalist, but here he also excels as a songwriter, and there’s not a single track that doesn’t immediately sink in tomake an emphatic initial impression. For those who are unfamiliar with his previous work, this is the place to begin. Dare we say it’s the “Reel Deal?”
Given a name like Jangling Sparrows, one might forgiven for thinking this particular band might make music similar in style to the folk rockers that once resided in Laurel Canyon circa the mid ‘60s. In truth, this North Carolina-based trio take a rockier approach to their pastiche, one that’s especially apparent on their new album Bootstraps and Other American Fables. Led by singer/songwriter Paul Edelman, the band don’t hold back when sharing their extreme enthusiasm and effusive delivery. In the midst of all that energy, they also take time to impart a few well worn reminders, and while a song like “Hey! Hey! Harriet Tubman!” might seem an unlikely inclusion in a set mostly given to sturdy rockers — of which this particular song is a fine example — it imparts a lesson that’s especially pertinent to the troublesome times we’re living through today. Mostly though, Jangling Sparrows excel in exorcising an emphatic sound, one that ought to help expand their audience and bring them their justly deserved wider recognition.
David Berkeley is one of the most talented and creative singer-songwriters in the entire indie scene right now, and while the word has yet to get through to the wider world as a whole, Berkeley continues to release one exceptional effort after another. While his solo career often gives way to his supposed sailing ship duo, Son of Town Hall, it clearly remains in fine form, especially if his new digital album Oh Quiet World offers any indication. With its shimmering melodies and lush but spare instrumentation, it’s so breathtakingly beautiful, so tender and touching, that it may even bring tears to the eyes of its listeners. Inspired by his family’s and his own harrowing last minute departure from Spain at the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, its songs are meant to share the sense of isolation everyone has gone through, while also emphasizing the redemptive powers that music and meditation can bring, especially in today’s turbulent times. It’s nothing less than a moving and mesmerizing masterpiece.
Not surprisingly, Hank Williams songwriting stature has come to assume mythical proportions in the 70 years since his premature demise, not only because he was an early and essential pioneer of contemporary country music, but also because he was a man who lived life too fast and died too soon. Many of his songs have rightly emerged as standards, and when they’re covered in a current context, it’s clear that they resonate as much now as they did when originally written. That said, credit Darrell Scott, an exceptional singer/songwriter in his own right, for covering the lesser known songs from Williams’ remarkable catalog while eschewing the temptation to flaunt any actual familiarity. Darrell Scott Sings the Blues of Hank Williams is exactly what it implies, a transformative take on Hank Sr.’s grittiest compositions as revisited from the roots up. It commands a darker delivery to be sure, but given a superb backing band — bassists Danny Thompson and Todd Phillips, keyboard player Reese Wynans, fiddler Shad Cobb, and drummer Marco Giovino — Scott easily gets in a groove and illuminates the earthy essence of each these tragic tunes. It’s an excellent example of how it’s possible to take the material of a master and essentially make it one’s own. Scott’s success becomes clear through listening alone.
John Statz is a prolific singer-songwriter whose songs tug on the heartstrings while eliciting sheer joy and enthusiasm as well. Statz’s latest effort, Early Riser, is another astute example of his proficiency, thanks to a sound that veers from easy, unassuming laments to exhilarating, up tempo revelry. Statz’s songs sound like a summons from a longtime trusted companion and when he sings “Thank you for being my friend” on opening track “Rainy Days in the U.K.,” the album’s affable opener, the feeling makes an indelible impression. Still, Statz varies his approach accordingly, achieving both a folk-like finesse and a radio-ready flair that allows the listener to sing along straight from the get-go. Accompanied by an adept backing crew that includes Kate Hannington on keys, Jeremy Moses on bass, Christine Palmer on trumpet and Flugelhorn, Billy Conway playing drums, and all the musicians on vocals, he creates a fluid approach that taps an essential emotional core. Statz says the title is “a self-reflection on a tendency of mine to wake up early in the mornings, both when I am anxious and upset about something and when I am eager to explore the world, especially when camping and backpacking around the western US. It's a very 2019 album, the year in which I recorded it and wrote most of the songs, with references to Notre Dame burning, Brexit, and Trump's racist attack on four congresswomen of color last July. There's even a song I wrote about not wanting to survive the zombie apocalypse which... I'm not sure is funny anymore? There's a healthy dose of heartache, sure, but it's all growth in these tunes.” We couldn’t agree more.