By Lee Zimmerman
Brooks Williams has cause to celebrate. An American expatriate living in the U.K., he’s made quite a name for himself in British folk circles. As its title suggests, Work My Claim more or less sums up the success he’s achieved in his adopted homeland thanks to a set of songs culled from throughout his career and re-recorded in lieu of a compilation. Naturally then, the album reflects his signature style, a combination of alluring melodies, astute fretwork, and supple, seductive vocals. Williams is a wonderful songwriter, but one of the real standout songs here is his take on Dave Alvin’s “King of California,” reimagined from its high desert origins to what sounds like a richly embossed traditional ballad. Elsewhere, Williams maintains his even keel and gentle sheen, but his arrangements take on additional emphasis given the assist of some notable friends and associates, among them singer Christine Collister and fiddler John McCusker.”It’s my turn now,” he insists on the bluesy song of the same name. Clearly that’s the case.
Three albums on, and after a delayed initiation of his recording career, Bill Curreri sounds like nothing less that a veteran pop purist, a man with a knack for crafting songs that resonate like radio-ready standards even on first listen. Ironically, he didn’t record his first album until the age of 63, but now, eight years later, he’s clearly making up for last time. Curreri may be a Social Security beneficiary, but he clearly conveys youthful exuberance and a knack for ready refrains that belies his senior status. His new album, Hard Road Home, offers any number of examples — the title track, “She’s the One,” “Love Gone Wrong,” “If Only To Be Me,” and “A Fool’s Heart Crying” being but a few. Curreri’s songs boast more hooks than an entire fishing fleet, and his exuberant and infectious delivery make each offering all but irresistible. If rock radio packed the potency it once did, Curreri would be a certified star. For now, one can only hope that he still gets the recognition he deserves. Indeed, Hard Road Home is a compelling sojourn from start to finish.
It’s ironic, but actually appropriate in fact that the Nields, one of the nation’s foremost folk collectives, should open their new album November with a plaintive reading of “America The Beautiful,” singing its hallowed verses with such special guests Chris Smither, Dar Williams, Vance Gilbert, Peter Mulvey, Kalliope Jones, and Ben Demerath. Given the disparity and discord that plagues our country, and indeed, during this time of pandemic crisis, the world as a whole, the song’s message needs to be reaffirmed. Indeed, the album is a timely call to arms, with each entry reaffirming the need for conviction and determination during times of crisis. “There are more of us than there are of them,” they sing on the hopeful “Tyrants Always Fall,” the song that follows. The same message rings true on “We’re Gonna Build a Boat” and, for that matter, all the offerings throughout the set. Hopeful and inclusive, November is an album that’s needed now more than ever. Consider it a seasonal celebration that needs to be shared throughout the entire year.
In a career that spans some 30 years, and almost as many albums and EPs, John Andrew Fredrick, the mastermind behind the band called The Black Watch, has carved out both a resume and reputation as an indie auteur operating within a specifically psychedelic power pop niche. Frederick, who holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California Santa Barbara, makes music that is both catchy and crafty, with an intelligence that befits his scholarly credentials. His band’s latest album, the inexplicably dubbed Brilliant Failures, reflects that knowing stance through a set of songs that brings to mind the ‘80s mindset of British bands like Modern English, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Lightning Seeds and other cool combos who made a firm impression on the musical mindset of the era. Frederick follows a similar formula, illuminating these melodies with massed harmonies and driving rhythms that seem to sweep the songs along while adding an emphatic emphasis to the proceedings. This time out, Frederick cedes some of the responsibility to his colleagues, Scott Campbell, Rob Campanella, and Andy Creighton, thereby making for one of The Black Watch’s most dynamic and dramatic efforts to date.The time has come for The Black Watch reap recognition that’s long past due.
Denver-reared, Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter Ben Noble opts for a slightly more celestial sound on his sophomore set, Where The Light Comes In, an effort that balances his precious approach with synths and shimmer throughout. While many comparisons come to mind — the elfin-like vocals of Jon Anderson, the precious posturing of Bon Over, the ambitious soundscapes on Sufjan Stevens — Noble can take credit for daring to venture beyond the folk musings of his earlier album, 2017’s Whiskey Priest. The melodies hold together well, but Noble also places emphasis on an atmospheric ambiance that lends a quiet contemplation to the album overall. It’s lovely stuff, and in a very real sense, a nice antidote for these turbulent times. Noble keeps a calm disposition, only occasionally steering the music to venture into the slightly more perilous realms posted by the cosmic cacophony that accompanies “Turning,” the unlikely ambiguity of “Earthshake” and the abstract effects of “Weeping Willow.” Two albums in, Noble’s already positioned himself as a decidedly intriguing auteur.
If there’s certain familiarity that accompanies Casey Van Beek and the Tulsa Groove’s new album Heaven Forever, it’s no coincidence. Born in Holland but transplanted to Oklahoma after living in Los Angeles, Van Beek shares a sound that borrows heavily from his heartland environs and one of its musical mainstays in particular, JJ Cale.Van Beek possesses a lengthy resume — once that includes a tenure with several ‘60s bands (Peter and Gordon’s in particular as well as a group called the Vibrants that had opportunity to open for the Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five) — as well as early associations with Linda Ronstadt, Leon Russell, Don Henley and Glenn Frey. After playing with the Grammy nominated country group The Tractors, he found himself contributing to Cale’s album The Road to Escondido, which also found Eric Clapton playing alongside him. Van Beek continued to play with Clapton after that, and it’s clear that the blues groove and supple sway so identified with both Cale and Clapton left a lasting impression on him as well. Indeed, it’s a sound that translates well to aptly dubbed Heaven Forever. Songs such as “Sugar Bee,” “Roberta,” “Waltzin’ With My Shadow” and the title track take that same amiable, unhurried approach, resulting in an album that makes for the essence of easy listening affability. Consider Heaven Forever its own slice of pure paradise.