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Indie Spotlight shines on Liz Simmons, Jason McNiff, Rod MacDonald, Rich Mattson and the Northstars and others

Lee Zimmerman reviews the latest from indie artists such as Liz Simmons, Jason McNiff, Rod MacDonald, Rich Mattson and the Northstars and others

By Lee Zimmerman


Liz Simmons could be considered a multi-tasker of sorts. A prime mover in the harmonious Vermont -based folk/bluegrass trio Low Lily, she purveys a sound flush with a warm embrace, as serene as a soft mid-winter’s fire’s glow. With her gentle alto vocal, she turns each song on her new solo album Poets into a gentle caress, a sound so soft and beguiling it can soothe even the most troubled soul. Her version of Sandy Denny’s mournful classic “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” is a perfect case in point; while the song has had innumerable interpretations, few are as quiet and contemplative as the read Simmons offers here. Likewise, her take on the Motown classic “This Old Heart of Mine” finds an equal measure of eloquence in her thoroughly original interpretation. Poets may be only Simmons’ second solo album, but taken in tandem with her earlier efforts via Low Lily and that band’s predecessor, Annaliva, she’s already established a body of work so rich and resonant it’s sure to find favor with anyone who’s drawn to the eloquence of folk music that’s culled from a traditional tapestry. The “Song My Love Lies in the Ground” and “Night in the City” offer further examples, and indeed there’s not a single song here that doesn’t offer that soothing caress, even on first listen. This is pure poetry indeed.



Florida native Brian Smalley takes an ambitious approach to his new album Chosen, a concept album of sorts that shares stories of the people that worked in the sugar mills of the town of Chosen, a sister city to Belle Glade Florida, a place where immigrants and poor people were forced to work in deplorable conditions to keep the local economy alive. It’s a theatrical work in the truest sense, with the songs illustrating different scenes/chapters of Smalley’s self-described “acoustic novel.” With a variety of different vocalists singing the roles of the different characters on the lower side of the socio-economic and cultural divide, the album comes across as a neo-opera of sorts, with each performer contributing to the narrative via their dramatic dialogue. It’s a gritty tale overall, one that’s not widely known, but which clearly deserves to be known. Despite its bare-boned arrangements and folk-like tapestry, Smalley’s work still manages to take on epic proportions, making it a work that resonates remarkably.



Rod MacDonald is among the last of his breed, an itinerant folksinger who got his start in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, at a time when its fabled folk scene was still at a peak. Now a resident of Delray Florida, he remains an active participant in a flourishing acoustic music scene where clubs and cantinas provide live acoustic music with places for it to prosper. MacDonald claims a hearty recorded catalog, but with his latest release, Boulevards, he takes a step back, sharing songs he wrote while a law school student living in Spanish Harlem and spending his summers as an apprentice reporter writing for Newsweek magazine. Embellished by only an acoustic guitar, harmonica and his earnest vocals, each of these offerings sound effortless and spontaneous, music that’s tailor-made for a fresh-faced troubadour making his way through the coffee-house circuit while playing for eager audiences. Not surprisingly then, the melodies are lithe and entertaining, first-person narratives devoid of posturing or pretension. There’s a purity that shines through each of these offerings, a reflection of the beginnings of a journey that’s still going strong. 


Mattson çover

Rich Mattson and the Northstars are a rock band that shun pretense. With their latest album, Skylights, this outfit from the north woods of Minnesota share a straight-ahead sound that both intrigues and entertains, offering a series of songs that grab attention from the get-go. The group — which consists of Mattson on guitars and vocals, Germaine Gemberline on vocals and acoustic guitar, Kyle Westrick on bass and vocals and Keely Lane on drums — offer twelve tracks that sometimes soar (the aptly titled “In Flight” being but one example) but often just share a steady pulse, as with “Another Stupid Song,” “Processing” and “Just Telling Stories.” Nevertheless, they also do well when simply assuming an easy gait and unassuming demeanor, and songs such as “Iowa,” “Short Lived” and the bass-heavy groove given “Against the Wall” prove the point. Mattson writes the majority of the material with occasional help from Gemberline and flautist and backing vocalist Keith Secola, who contributes his talents to his self-composed ballad “King By Now.” (Violinist Ryan Young also plays violin on Gemberline’s emphatic offering “Kiss the Sky.”) All in all, Skylights provides the ideal illumination for a band that not only has ample talent, but also the ability to showcase it to its best advantage. 



John Smith is an erstwhile English singer and songwriter, an artist whose heartfelt homilies frequently bring to mind artists like John Martyn, Nick Drake, Roy Harper, and others whose music is spun from a gentle but engaging pure folk finesse. Smith’s new album, The Fray, offers an ideal example of his sublime song craft, with topics that touch on the dishevel and disruption suffered over the course of a year when the pandemic brought life practically to a standstill. “If we don’t hold on, we’re lost,” he insists on the song “Hold On,” one of several stand-out selections on this delicately and decisively crafted LP. Smith gets some solid support from an all-star cast of contributors — Sarah Jarosz, Courtney Hartman, The Milk Carton Kids, Bill Frisell and frequent touring partner Lisa Hannigan in particular — and indeed, the cohesive bond they share belies the fact that each musician shared their work from a distance. Still, it’s Smith himself that naturally makes the most emphatic impression, with songs that are tender, touching and indicative of the emotions spawned by a year of trouble and travails. For most, this is likely a first introduction, but given Smith’s talent and conviction, it will doubtless leave a lingering impression. 



While on the subject of astute English singer-songwriters, consider the talents of Britain’s Jason McNiff, an artist hailed in practically every major U.K.major trade as both an exceptional writer and a deft finger-style guitarist whose work transcends a wide melodic reach. McNiff’s latest — his seventh album to date — Dust of Yesterday — offers a set of typically tender offerings, recorded at home over the summer in mostly solitary confines. As the title implies, the music is characterized by reflection and recompense, with McNiff’s gentle vocals and intricate fretwork complemented Roger Askew on guitars, bass, keyboards and backing vocals and the supple strains of Basia Bartz’s violin. McNiff excels at beautiful balladry, and here again, the comparisons come closest to Nick Drake in all its hallowed, hushed circumstance. There’s not a single song here that doesn’t enchant and entice, making it the perfect respite for a quiet Sunday morning when the air is still and a hint of tranquility provides ensures a perfect fit between mood and the music. It’s a work that finds the perfect mesh of idealism and excellence.


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