By Lee Zimmerman
The somewhat skittish, alt-independent artist Mary Timony has been involved in a variety of initiatives since taking the first tentative steps towards establishing a career in the early ‘90s. However unless one follows the D.C. area underground scene, most of those early efforts would likely be confined to the edge of obscurity. Nevertheless, with her first solo outing Mountains, Timony established herself as an indie artist to be reckoned with. By turns delicate and dainty, curious and quirky, the songs remain consistently compelling, giving full reign to Timony’s hushed vocals and atmospheric soundscapes. It was a missed masterpiece to be sure, but now, thanks to Matador’s expansive double LP reissue, there’s renewed opportunity to revisit an album that mostly escaped notice some 20 years ago. It also offers the added bonus of previously unreleased original takes of three songs, “Return to Pirates,” “Poison Moon,” and “Killed by the Telephone,” all of which were originally omitted from the final album. In addition, an orchestrated version of “Valley of One Thousand Perfumes” completes the package. Consider this trip to Mountains a welcome return.
An erstwhile troubadour, Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter Dan Israel has never failed to acknowledge the confusion and complexity of current circumstance. His last album, Social Media Anxiety Disorder, dealt with the conflicting effects found in the new era of virtual communication. His newest offering, a five song EP aptly titled Pandemic Blues, deals with — what else — the distance and isolation that’s plagued society for the past year due to Covid. It’s a determined set of songs, as evidenced by the title track, which is shared twice — as both a finished version and as a demo. ”Late at Night, an equally evocative offering, gets the same treatment. It is, in Israel’s words, “about how I have been getting up many nights during the pandemic at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and savoring the peace and quiet and serenity at that hour.” As a result it offers solace in the midst of mayhem and finds the perpetual silver lining in the midst of mayhem. Short but seductive. Pandemic Blues is an excellent addition to a catalog that encompasses 15 albums and a skill set that’s both astute and engaging.
Andrew Rowan is a composer from New York City. Steven van Betten is a songwriter living in Los Angeles. And while they’ve collaborated in the past, both as bandmates and co-composers, their new album No Branches Without Trees marks their first real release as a duo. Bringing to mind the soft celestial sounds of Nick Drake, the ethereal touches of middle period Pink Floyd and a cinematic sweep that incorporates strings, celeste, reed organ, it offers tones and textures that are both intimate and alluring. To make matters even more intriguing, the duo incorporate field recordings collected around Blue Diamond, Nevada, which, in turn, allow for a series of delicate, defining vignettes. Each of the offerings unfold in a series of subtle soundscapes and engaging short stories, providing tales of unexpected and unfolding circumstance. Despite the fact that both men are academics and skilled in both theory and composition, the album reflects a shared humanity and oneness with nature that are organic, innate and soothing in substance. A genuinely unique audio experience, it shimmers and shines throughout.
James Yorkston is an old-school folk musician, one that reveres British tradition while also reflecting the introspective musings of that newer generation of artists represented by the likes of Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, Roy Harper, and Sandy Denny. Indeed, though Yorkston can claim a fabled catalog of his own, he still resides on the fringes of wider recognition. To his credit, he’s made very little concession as far as commercial credence is concerned, focusing instead on music that’s intricate, intriguing and flush with lyrical and instrumental sophistication. An ideal example can be found in his newest offering, The Wide, Wide River, an album recorded in tandem with The Secondhand Orchestra. The album traverses an array of intricate and sometimes tenuous soundscapes, each enhanced and arranged with strings, chorus and all manner of ornate instrumentation. It’s decidedly delicate, but never too precious to divert or distract attention from the beauty and precision invested in each of these eight exquisite offerings. The grace and serenity with which this wide, wide river flows clearly helps illuminate what can only be described as a sweeping set of songs.
Credit Jason Ringenberg for being among the first true Americana insurgents, an artist whose sardonic attitude made him the epitome of a hip hillbilly, one whose reverence for country tradition was tempered by a decidedly bent irreverence. That was immediately evident in his initial role at the helm of Jason and the Scorchers, but with occasional detours into children's albums, he might have created the mistaken impression that he had tempered his approach to a significant degree. That misconceptions is easily laid to rest with Rhinstoned. Ringenberg’s bold new album, and, it’s fair to say his best in recent memory. In it, he offers an unvarnished look at the contradictions of American history and its obvious injustice, standing with those who were given short thrift in the process. "The Freedom Rides Weren't Free" and I Rode With Crazy Horse" offer two of the more obvious examples. So too, his revved up take on tradition -- an arched version of the Carter family's hallowed standard "The Storms Are on the Ocean, a revved-up gospel gangbanger "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" and a reprise of Hank William's' well trod standard 'You Win Again" all provide a worthy testament to both his creativity and conviction.
Eliot Wilder — in the guise of The Revenants — shares a bold new album that plies the notion of mercy from various perspectives. Aptly titled Mercy, it offers a series of uplifting anthems that provide the optimism, affirmation and confidence that have been in such short supply during today’s troublesome times. The album surges from the get-go, with Wilder’s quivering vocals occasionally bringing to mind the timbre of Peter Gabriel soaring at full throttle. A robust rhythm propels each of these impressive entries, finding a dynamic that falls somewhere between prog and stadium-ready rock, putting the emphasis on both exuberance and expression in the process. Indeed, Mercy is a fully fleshed out effort underscored by drive and determination. Those are the qualities that carry the music forward across the span of its 12 tracks. Wilder’s ambitions are evident throughout, and as a result, Mercy has all the makings of a classic.