Jim Knable & The Randy Bandits boast a sound that lives up to the irreverent attitude inherent in the band’s handle. Their new effort, Blue Reunion, the group’s first in 12 years following a series of side projects that trailed their last effort, Golden Arrow, in 2009, finds the group as assured as ever, thanks to an easy approach and the unassuming attitude that defines their approach to Americana. Knable himself comes across as an affable singer, producer and front man, and while certain songs — “Judas Street” in particular — take a more somber tone, the album’s overall tone is ebullient, engaging and as winsome and rollicking as always. “Everything Is Not All Right” offers words of warning via a folky singalong style, but as its lyrics insist, “It’s only rock and roll,” a reminder often needed to set folks at ease. On the other hand, the melancholy mood of “Mourning Dove,” the final song of the set, shares that sense of loneliness and isolation that’s gripped the world over the past ten months, while also offering an optimistic view that this too shall pass. Although it was recorded just prior to the pandemic and rushed for release after it took hold, Blue Reunion makes a prescient statement of sorts that sums up today’s state of uncertainty while also offering hope for a happier tomorrow.
Lou Dalgleish and Michael Weston King, the duo that refers to themselves as My Darling Clementine, have built a career on a sound that emulates the classic paired approach taken by Tammy Wynette and George Jones, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, and Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and made it a point to adapt it with authenticity. While their early efforts hinted that they were solely aiming for satire, the pair seemed to take the music more seriously as their dual career progressed. Their recent trio of EPs, now combined into a single album called Country Darkness, focuses on the songs of Elvis Costello after he traded his insurgent attitude for a country croon, all part of a musical journey that’s found him exploring different genres. As a result, there’s a shared sense of discovery here, one that accompanies any appreciation found in a new encounter with a specific sound and style. Several of the songs Dalgleish and King cover are vintage Elvis — “Stranger in the House,” “Too Soon to Know” and “That Day Is Done,” the latter with a cowrite by Paul McCartney — although the casual fan may feel unfamiliar with many of these down-home discoveries. The presence of longtime Costello sidekick, keyboard player Steve Nieve — who, not coincidentally, is co-billed along with the couple — also provides an air of authenticity. Ultimately though, it’s the pair’s performances that illuminate this Country Darkness and make it the mighty masterpiece that it is.
Pal Shazar is a unique singer/songwriter in her own right, and given the fact that she’s married to an equally accomplished artist, Jules Shear, one can only conclude that they share a mighty talented home life. Now, following on the heels of her husband’s recent album Slower, Shazar has a gentle offering of her own, cleverly titled Blondes Prefer Gentlemen. With its understated arrangements and Shazar’s haunting vocals at the fore, she occasionally brings to mind Marianne Faithful in her darker yet delicate designs. Songs such as “Narcissus,” Candy Jar” and “I Only Take the Sea” share a solitary sound flush with rumination and reflection, a haunting happenstance that that encourages those that hear it to lean in to listen. It’s an introspective effort to be sure, but Shazar’s pensive musings are quietly assured and in this ear of distance and disconnect, her delicate delivery is as beautiful as it is beguiling. Credit is also due producer Julie Last, who finds the illumination in these measured melodies and allows them to shimmer and sparkle with a stealth-like suggestion.
Fats Kaplin is often found contributing his ample talents to the services of others, but with Montreal Tracks he reconnects with wife and performing partner Kristi Rose for a seductive set of songs that reflect the duo’s down-home sensibilities. Rose possesses a singing style that frequently brings to mind Emmylou Harris, especially on songs such as “Small Town Girl,” the resolute folk standard “500 Miles” and the quiet caress she shares on Randy Newman’s well-aged chestnut “Living Without You.” Meanwhile Kaplan’s instrumental virtuosity is evident everywhere throughout, particularly on the jaunty “Orphan Rag,” the down-home designs of “You Still Around” and the sweet pedal steel instrumental “Forgotten Isle.” It’s an assured combination overall, one served up with both verve and variety. Indeed, the duo cover a lot of musical terrain here, most of it falling under the Americana umbrella, which is hardly surprising considering the fact that the couple make their home in rural Illinois. Recorded in Montreal — hence the title — the album shares both delicacy and determination in equal measure, with arrangements seeped in sentiment, taste and eloquence. That’s a rare blend to be sure, but Kaplin and Rose prove that they’re ideal advocates when it comes to conveying authenticity.
With his latest album, Nashville singer/songwriter Donal Hinely shares his righteous indignation towards those that bask in hypocrisy while claiming their own moral or religious superiority. In some regards Diary of a Snowflake (an album that takes its name from the derogatory term applied to liberals by an extreme element of the far right could be considered a protest album of sorts, given its sense of outrage and robust repudiation. On “You Call Yourself a Christian,” he takes direct aim at the haters and fear-mongers, calling out those on the religious right who shun those who so desperately need care and compassion. “Couldn’t Breathe” finds him condemning the murder of George Floyd and the brutal circumstance that led to his death and the protests that followed. On “Dirty Business,” he lists a litany of missteps conveyed from God’s perspective, a blanket indictment of a world gone astray. Influenced by Steven Fromholtz, Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, John Martyn, and Leonard Cohen, Hinely has clearly inherited their gift for literate observation, affecting melody and articulate instrumentation (the latter courtesy of Finely on guitars and David Henry on everything else). This particular Snowflake is neither frail nor furtive.
Formerly the drummer for the popular cult outfit The Bogmen, P.J. O’Connor steps out on his own with a superb solo album titled Television’s Golden Age, an effort that thrusts him to the fore courtesy of his multi-tasking on vocals, guitar, piano and songwriting. He took the past few years to busk across Ireland, but following his return to New York City and the onslaught of a pandemic that turned his city into a veritable ghost town, he took the time to express his sentiments about a world literally turned upside down. It’s no surprise, then, that this individual outing offers such a varied array of melodies and mindsets, some serious, some contemplative, some flush with optimism and exuberance. Having worked with any number of talented musicians in the past, it also makes sense that his own songs are so expressive. “I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders without you,” O’Connor insists on the song “You Burned Your Name,” a narrative that ostensively deals with a bitter break-up but, in a larger sense, reflects the isolation and loneliness that’s been inflicted on us all due to the spread of Covid-19. Happily then, out of the darkness, a singular artists has emerge