By Lee Zimmerman
Despite an all star cast -- Sara Watkins, Will Kimbrough, Emily Saliers and the Weepies, among them -- any attempt to recast Bruce Springsteen’s landmark Born to Run album with little more than voice, percussion, bass, and ukelele seems like a suspect proposition at best. Surprisingly then, Born to Uke comes across as a pleasant surprise, a redefined set of songs that stays true to the passion and prowess of the original. It was likely no small challenge trying to capture that sentiment and spirit, but remarkably, each performer leans into the music with their own energy and emotion. Despite the sparse set-ups, the melodies still shine through. While it’s tempting to write this effort off as some sort of niche or a novelty, in the end, it’s hardly that. It’s a serious work that soars beyond whatever limits or liabilities it otherwise implies. And with the proceeds going to benefit “Little Kids Rock, an organization that funds music education in underprivileged public schools, it’s certainly a worthy work as well.
It’s never exactly easy to get a handle on Deer Tick. Their trajectory has been erratic at best, punctuated by solo projects, an extended hiatus and a seemingly schizophrenic feel that’s had them veering from folk rock to indie rock and then back to a place in-between. Happily then, their latest offering, Mayonnaise, finds them engaged in an assured delivery, and on several songs -- the George Harrison cover “Run of the Mill,” the delicate read of “Limp Right Back,” their surprisingly endearing version of the Velvets’ “Pale Blue Eyes,” and the silken caress of “Memphis Chair” (one of the few entirely new entries) -- there’s a brittle bond that’s too enticing to ignore. There’s a scarcity of uptempo tunes, but those they do offer -- “Hey Yeah” and a rollicking take on the Pogues song “White City” in particular -- show they can still be as robust as the delivery requires, underscoring a still spirited sensibility that helps underscore their reputation as among today’s most capable indie auteurs.
Granted, it takes a certain savvy to succeed in the music biz, whether one aspires to be a performer, a producer or both. However, it also requires a genuine passion for the music, as well as a fan’s fascination for the art itself. Nick Waterhouse possesses that and more. He started his career as a record store clerk and eventually evolved as an artist himself, releasing his own albums and sitting behind the boards for a steady succession of notable names -- Ty Segall, the Allah-Las and Leon Bridges among them. His self-titled fourth album offers further indication of his versatility, thanks to a series of songs that echo any number of vintage styles, from sassy swing to blustery R&B. In every instance, Waterhouse demonstrates his clear confidence, manifest by an assured swagger and a cool, cocksure delivery. He’s come a long way in a relatively short time, as evidenced his craft, command and immaculate approach. Here again,Waterhouse proves without a doubt he’s decidedly one to watch.
Vicky Emerson may not have set out to become a voice for the MeToo movement, but given her decidedly assertive stance and a steady strum, she makes a sound that well represents the power and passion today’s woman is determined to deliver. After a series of albums that received widespread acclaim, the native Minnesotan opted to sit behind the boards on the aptly named Steady Heart and the results clearly justify her decision. The performances reflect a confidence and clarity that allow these songs to soar in ways that reflect both her credence and conviction. Emerson plies the emotional depth of Lucinda Williams, Bobbie Gentry, Loretta Lynn and other tempestuous torch singers with her own air of dark defiance. Her smouldering take on the lofty “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” is but one example. It brims with a suggestive sexuality that makes the speakers sizzle through daring innuendo. Credit Emerson with effectively evoking all manner of emotion and making Steady Heart nothing less than a standout success.
The self titled album by Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys is a bittersweet affair. The liner notes refer to some sad circumstance. “The Pickup Cowboys played for seven years and this was out only recording. On our last day in the studio, Paul Ford (the band’s bassist) was diagnosed with a rain tumor, The Cowboys never played again.” As a result, this collection becomes a requiem of sorts, and yet, despite the tragedy, it still resonates with its full sweep of emotion and an adept execution that indicates a band very much in its prime. A set of songs best described as arched Americana, it’s compelling, convincing and a remarkable example of concise songwriting and precise execution. Byrd and his erstwhile sideman and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Waken continue to make great music together, but this eponymous effort marks a moment in time when the possibilities seemed endless and the future was wide open. Hopefully then, Byrd and Waken won’t be deterred, because the music they made resonates so remarkably.
Amelia White ought to be put on a pedestal. An assured singer and superior songwriter, she crafts music that sounds like the stuff of standards even on first hearing. White’s recorded several superior albums up until now, but Rhythm of the Rainranks as the kind of collection that ought to elevate her stature and bring her a level of recognition that’s long been her due. At very least, it ought to elevate her into the top tier of today’s most soulful chanteuses. White’s a torch singer whose individual acumen and sultry, sensual delivery is at once compelling, captivating and thoroughly convincing. She’s clearly invested in the material and it’s obvious in every note and nuance. It’s a bold and oftentimes brazen approach, but there’s not doubting her craft and commitment. Indeed, there’s not a single song here that fails to leave an emphatic impression. One number in particular, the aptly named “How It Feels,” is nothing less than a tour-de-force,.Suffice it to say Rhythm of the Rain is an essential acquisition. Soak it up.