Doug Hoekstra, Steve Almaas, June Star and others make up the Indie Spotlight column for April 2021.
By Lee Zimmerman
Veteran Nashville-based singer-songwriter Doug Hoekstra never settles for the ordinary, but his new album The Day Deserved may be his most ambitious project yet.. With songs that veer from the cajoling (“Seaside Town”) to the caressing (“Late Night Ramble,” Grace”) to the carousing (“Keeper of the Word”) and even the quirky (“Wintertime”), it is, by Hoekstra’s own description, a record “intended to be a marker of the times, fleshed out by “disenfranchised characters inhabiting the tunes, pressing on through barriers and breaks fostered by their surroundings.” It is, by any definition, an ambitious outing, one that covers a lot of musical turf while keeping its intents intact. Nevertheless, it’s also throughly intriguing and compelling, an album that reaches well beyond the usual melodic and thematic constraints. Hoekstra’s low cast vocals belie the album’s more urgent intents, but the emotion and intrigue imbued in the effort overall is evident nonetheless. An album that reflects deep thought fleshed out with full finesse, The Day Deserved ought to be considered a truly singular accomplishment.
Steve Almaas’ formative years as a professional musician were spent with Minneapolis mainstays the Suicide Commanders, a band that gained significant prominence in the post-punk era while helping to pave the way for groups like Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and Soul Asylum, the latter having shared their midwestern roots. In the mid ‘80s, Almaas shifted his stance and helped form an alt-country combo called the Crackers before fully indulging a roots rock regimen with the better known Beat Rodeo. A short-lived stint with George Usher found Almaas purveying a purer pop sensibility that later evolved over the course of six stand-out solo albums. His latest, Everywhere You’ve Been, finds him returning to a country-style caress, an amiable approach that eschews any upstart leanings in favor of an agreeable down home delivery. Songs such “Cigarettes, Coffee, Or You,” “Three Women,” “You’re the One for Me,”and “Down By the Lake” sound like the kind of songs Gene Autry or Minnie Pearl might have shared on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in decades past. Indeed the a sweet sentimentality here that exudes charm rather than challenge, and makes each song a delicate delight. In a very real sense, Everywhere You’ve Been takes listeners everywhere they’d like to be.
Steve Almaas is the kind of band that would have found a perfect fit in the sun ]-drenched environs of Southern California at the end of the ‘60s and within the initial onslaught of the ‘70s. They could have easily shared stages with alt-country kin like Poco, the Buffalo Springfield, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the other ensembles who took it upon themselves to marry an unobtrusive roots rock regimen with a sensual soft rock palette. Founder and mainstay Andrew Grimm is responsible for the eleven songs that grace the band’s impressive new album, How We See It Now, putting emphasis on a cool caress and a decidedly soothing sensibility. Comparisons to Old 97s morphed with The Jayhawks and the Gin Blossoms also come to mind, especially given the depth and devotion that Grimm and company share in each of these songs. It’s all the more impressive considering their recent spate of recordings, proof that in June Star’s case, quantity never negates quality. Pedal steel guitar naturally finds equal footing, but the added inducement provided by an occasional cello, soaring harmonies and Grimm’s forlorn lead vocals, which often come across like Gram Parsons sharing mournful tales around the campfire with Morrissey who’s also leaning in to counter with his. A remarkably resilient effort, How We See It Now offers clear-eyed conviction every step of the way.
In a cookie music world, Canada’s Art of Time stands out by taking a fresh — dare we say, daring — approach to songs that normally breed familiarity, but are reinvented here in experimental ways. The treatments featured throughout Ain’t Got Long are distinctive to be sure — opening track “Ain’t Got Long” offers an immediate example of the group’s off kilter soundscapes — and even the guest vocalists (Madeleine Peyroux, Jessica Mitchell, Gregory Hoskins, and Sarah Slean) fail to find confinement to any particular parameters. Nevertheless, even given the familiar fare— the blues standard “Love In Vain,” Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,’ the Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and Joni Mitchell’s haunting and oft-covered “River” — the atmospheric arrangements and eclectic construction overseen by musical director Andrew Burashko provide an odd and idiosyncratic perspective, one that renders them all but unrecognizable in many cases. That’s not a negative; far from it in fact. It’s as intriguing as it is inventive, a regal array of avant-garde orchestration that’s challenging and yet always tasteful. It is, in a word, one remarkable record.
John John Brown follows up The Road, his promising debut, with a shorter yet equally ambitious project, one that goes by the unobtrusive title Americana Comics. Both a visual and audio compendium, it imagines a meeting with none other than Jesus Christ himself on a black Friday at Walmart. It’s a fanciful excursion to be sure, but one with a spiritual undercurrent that comments on the cynical side of today’s society. It’s an interesting twist to be sure, and while all sorts of meanings can be read into it, the music itself is surprisingly supple and agreeable. While the premise appear preachy on the surface, Brown takes a gentler tack, and offers up seven songs that can easily win over their listeners, any deeper message aside. It’s both folksy and fanciful in equal measure, and given the intent, reassuring as well. Those that find it hard to follow need only skip ahead to the final track, “Big Old Beard,” and soak in some hopeful happenstance. “My beard grew a little, but ain’t it a beautiful life,” Brown sings, and thoughtthe correlation isn’t clear, the sentiment is soothing regardless.
Michigan native Jason Singer, A.K.A. Michigander, offers up his third EP, Everything Will Be Ok Eventually by way of half a dozen songs and lovely, luminous melodies that make an emphatic impression even after a single listen. Indeed, the title offers an upbeat exhortation in and of itself, especially at a time when a bit of cheery trumpeting is certainly needed most. The melodious arrangements sweep and soar with spacial and celestial deliberation, a combination of rich harmonies, orchestral-like keyboards and a sure, steady pace that allows the exhortation and exuberance to remain intact throughout. Singer is… well… a fine singer, one who exudes the kind of energy and enthusiasm that shines without posture or pretense. Indeed, while the title tells all, it’s the music that confirms the credence. One can only hope that Singer keeps them coming because music this radiant should never be in short supply.