Seth Bernard, organizer of northern Michigan’s Earthworks music collective, has created a solid foundation of his own with the diverse series of albums he’s released under the Eggtones moniker. With three collections released to date and a fourth due later this year, he’s channeled his concerns about the earth, the environment and assorted social issues into music that speaks to both mind and body. His latest, Eggtone Blues, addresses his concerns about the waste of our natural resources, but the music remains riveting and resolute, a stirring blend of melody and message. While Bernard is prone to proselytize to get his point across, his musical abilities underscore his intents. He plays an array of instrumentation, further evidence that his efforts are as sturdy as his intents. His admirable efforts, both individually at at the helm of the record label, demonstrate an astute ability to steer a new and exciting musical movement capable of getting a much wider reach.
Gregory Stovetop is another member of the Earthworks collective, and with his album The Good Stuff, he offers a stirring set of songs that place verve and vitality as the essential elements in his delivery. The music is forthright and assertive, a ready mix of defiant rock ‘n’ roll and insistent pacing. Stovetop (a nickname, of course) is a demonstrative singer, and with Seth Bernard as one of the back-up players, the music surges forth with anthemic fury. Imagine a ready mix of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy, and you’ll get some idea as to the power and defiance inherent in Stovetop’s insistent surge and conviction. It’s rare to find music as driving and dynamic as Stovetop conveys it here, and that makes this effort merit additional kudos for that exact reason. Suffice it to say the title tells it all.
There seems to be no end to the talent involved with the Earthworks collective. Add Mark Lavengood to the list of those who contribute their talents to this stunningly diverse and prolific label. As demonstrated by his exceptional album We’ve Come Along, Lavengood is a guitar/dobro player of exceptional ability and versatility -- check out his bluegrass take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” for all the evidence needed -- and with his four piece back-up band in tow, he serves up a rowdy, rambunctious set of tunes that finds the band’s vibrant picking front and center. In person, Lavengood is a consistent whirlwind of energy, flush with exhilaration and a smile that never leaves his lips. His joy in making music translates here, and given a set of songs that sound like archival standards, it’s apparent he takes all his inspiration from the heartland. Three albums on, Lavengood’s not only forged a superb path, but come remarkably far indeed.
Van Wyck bills herself as An Average Woman, but if that’s the case, then she’s a lady with an uncommonly mellow disposition. Her sumptuous new album is lush and lofty and bears more than a hint of introspection. There are moments where she purveys some ominous airs, adding to the sense that she’s concerned with some less than serene circumstances. Yet for all her somber circumspect and bouts with trouble and turmoil, the sounds she emits are flush with intrigue. She ruminates on matters of love and longing, taking time to contemplate the ramifications of romance without judgement or condemnation. The result is a set of songs that requires time to lean in and listen, casting an overcast feel that resonates with every entry. An Average Woman weighs heavily with its understated sobriety, but it also leaves a haunting if harrowing feel even after its final notes fade away.
To call Fernando Perdomo a genius is like saying it snows in the arctic. An imaginative artist, producer, songwriter and sideman, he takes his cues from his beloved influences of the ‘60s and ‘70s -- The Beatles, the Alan Parsons Project, ELO, et. al. -- and then absorbs them into his own output, resulting in a glorious mesh of sonics and suggestion. Dedicated to his cause, he makes melody his first priority, blending elevated and elaborate arrangements to underscore his intents. Not surprisingly then, Perdomo’s ambitious new effort, Out to Sea, takes a slightly different turn, an all-instrumental outing with a decided progressive posture. It’s both rich and riveting, often bringing to mind Yes, ELP and other outfits that populated freeform FM radio early on, before structured formats dictated the stringent playlists. It’s also soaring in scope, given that all the instruments are performed by Perdomo himself. Inspired and ambitious, it reflects what Perdomo himself refers to as the sounds that made him the masterful musician he is today.
Kerri Powers is a perceptive songwriter, a native of New England whose songs resonate with intimate emotions and a delicate yet decisive delivery. Starseeds, her new album, is typically poignant and personal, and yet it relays sentiments common to anyone who’s found life’s journey to be both ominous and overwhelming at various time, when no easy answers are evident. With songs flush with expressive emotions and a slight slant towards the blues, Starseeds is Powers’ most definitive statement yet, one that finds a common bond in both its music and its message. Its eight originals and two choice covers -- a moving take on Blind Faith’s restive anthem “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Polly,” a lovely song of wistful reflection written by the late Gene Clark -- find her sharing her sentiments in ways that ring with authenticity. At times, she comes across as a backwoods chanteuse, showing off a folky finesse that affirms a knowing delivery. Suffice it to say, Starseeds shines.
Ben De La Cour could be called a crooner, at least as far as “Dixie Crystals” and “Tupelo,” two of the superb songs off his excellent new album The High Cost of Living Strange, are concerned. A former boxer turned heavy metalhead, the London born/Nashville-based troubadour is a master storyteller who pairs his narratives with dense arrangements and an unforeseen sense of drama and deliberation. While he easily traverse the terrain between folk and country and the various layers in-between, his dark and dense delivery imbues a heightened sense of drama that never makes the melodies suffer. It’s compelling stuff, a style he aptly refers to as “Americanoir,” almost like a mystery novel you simply can’t put down. Even so, De La Cour takes an unassuming stance. “If I had a dollar for every song I wrote, I’d still be broke,” he insists on the title track. Clearly, he deserves more.
Angie Aparo is anything but ordinary. His earlier effort, The American, released a full decade ago, established him as a captivating singer and songwriter whose songs probe far deeper below the surface than it often appears on first listen. His new effort, the cryptically titled Life Is a Flower; Life is a Gun is no different. A complex mesh of spoken word samples, technology and giddy and mirthful arrangements, it finds Aparo lightly skipping through even the most bizarre soundscapes. On the inside of the sleeve, Gus, his self-described “canine son,” says this: “It is a replica of several emotions the singer may have been experiencing during the original recordings of this music. At times the singer may have felt joy, anger or sadness, as these are the normal emotions of the soul expressing itself through music and lyric.” Given the kaleidoscopic whirlwind that ensues from beginning to end, Gus’ description couldn’t be more apt.
Released on the distinguished UK Americana label, At the Helm Records, Southern Wind by Dean Owens is a solid, straight ahead example of rowdy, rough hewn, heartland music infused with both attitude and aptitude. Owens is a skilled Scottish songwriter who emotes from his soul and in so doing, purveys an absolute sense of authenticity. It helps that he’s also enlisted some stellar support in producer Neilson Hubbard and guitarist Will Kimbrough, the latter of whom describes Owens’s sound as “the lure of home. The lure of the muse, Both romantic and hard to reach.” Kimbrough’s eloquence is hard to deny, and indeed, what he says sums up the album’s obvious appeal. A veteran artist of considerable merit back home, Owens himself says he possesses “country spirit/Celtic soul,” and indeed that’s an ideal way to characterize this moving manifesto.