Indie Spotlight: Dustbowl Revival, Mappe Of, Bill Mallonee and others

Lee Zimmerman expands on his print edition of Indie Spotlight with exclusive online reviews of Dustbowl Revival, Mappe Of, Bill Mallonee and others.
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By Lee Zimmerman

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Given their handle, it would be easy to mistake the Dustbowl Revival for a band of weathered, western troubadours with a weary perspective and a decidedly aged attitude. Yet, even a cursory listen to their upcoming album Is It You, Is It Me quickly dispels that notion. While their four previous albums had the pundits describing them a band of the distinct nu-folk/Americana variety — which, in fact, is little wonder given their arcane image and apparent fondness for instrumentation of a vintage variety — their current cascade of sounds finds them culling contemporary pop, with all its effusive energy, crafty quirks and pure melodic mayhem. It’s been a decided transition as far as their style is concerned, but one that ought to make a marked impression on more mainstream audiences. Longtime fans may be surprised at their newfound energy and enthusiasm, but given the sweetening and circumstance, they’ll likely find reason to appreciate the progression. After all, catchiness can be contagious.

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Mappe Of’s sophomore set The Isle Of Ailynnis as elusive as the band’s name itself. A shimmering set of transcendent melodies and day-go imagery, it finds the Canadian artist behind that handle — real name, Tim Meikle —offering up a series of songs with a specific storyline in mind. Set in a mythical village that’s being exploited as an excuse for some dark power’s wrong-doing, it paints a sinister scenario to be sure. Yet the music is mesmerizing regardless, all shifting sounds, atmospheric ambiance and unlikely excursions. It occasionally sounds like vintage Yes in a more experimental mode, but for the most part, any attempt at description inevitably comes up short. Both melodic and mesmerizing, it expands on the efforts initiated by Mapp Of’s dramatic debut A Northern Star, A Perfect Stone. Given its intimacy and intrigue, the album takes a concerted listen to fully appreciate all the detail and dynamic, but the investment in time makes any journey to The Isle Of Ailynn well worth the indulgence.

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John Moreland burrows deep into his own emotional abyss with his explicitly titled fifth album LP5, a decidedly subdued set of songs that resonate with dire determination and a conflicting array of scattered sentiment. On “In Times Between,” he pays tribute to friend and fellow songwriter Chris Porter, who lost his life in a van accident in 2016. His relationship with his wide is detailed on “When My Fever Breaks” a song that details their courtship beginning with their first date and continuing over a three-year span. Even the celestial instrumental “Two Stars” leaves a decided impression. Moreland’s music may be low-cast for the most part, but it’s also earnest and affecting, a sound imbued by his rich, resonant vocals and a sobering style that keeps the music stoic and steady throughout. Moreland is obviously a deep thinker and his somber approach allows plenty of room for both rumination and revelation. Less matters more, and Moreland’s music makes that abundantly clear. It’s best to lean in and listen.

Widely known as the poet laureate of East Tennessee, musician, writer and playwright RB Morris is a revered figure in that region’s thriving music scene. And rightly so. Nevertheless, it’s been a long time between releases, increasing the anticipation for the arrival of his new release, Going Back to the Sky, an album Morris calls his “dustbowl record.” There’s reason for that description; these tattered tales of westward rambling bring to mind the folksy demeanor of Woody Guthrie and the cowboy poets whose wanderlust still resonates with the public all these decades on. Like those predecessors, the music is decidedly well worn, humble narratives about folks who are simply in search of a better tomorrow and an escape from ill fortune. True to form, Morris has the exceptional ability to create aural landscapes that lend a tone and texture to those rugged recollections, making for a set of songs that are, by turns, tough, tender and tenacious. There’s a hint of a Dylanesque drawl in Morris’ dry delivery, and yet it’s both affable and appealing in that current context. With back-up from producer/guitarist Bo Ramsey, upright bassist Daniel Kimbro and multi-instrumentalist Greg Horne, Morris has made an album that’s as resilient as it is resolute.

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John Salaway titles his wonderful new album Americana Dreams, but in truth he’ s selling himself short. The album is a wonderful potpourri of vibrant melodies, many with a Beatlesque and Brit-pop flavor. That ought to come as little surprise to those who are already familiar with his work alongside his Beatles tribute band Forever Abbey Road. Indeed, audiences have come to recognizes his affection for, and devotion to, sounds that were so essential to the ‘60s sensibility. The fact that he was tapped by none other than former Wings man Denny Laine to act as musical director for his ace touring band adds further credence to that conviction. However it’s also evident from the outset that Salaway excels all on his own. Not only did he have a hand in writing all the material, but he also produced the effort and plays the vast majority of the instruments singlehandedly. The results are absolutely enticing, given his pop perfect delivery and the abundance of resilient refrains. Every entry is as catchy as it can be, making for a bounty of ebullient emotion within these ultra-accessible offerings. Americana Dreams is, in short, an excellent album that no pop purist ought to even think of doing without.

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Bill Mallonee is an overachiever by definition, a man known to release multiple albums in the expanse of a single year, oftentimes issuing several offerings practically simultaneously. He began his career as leader of the late, lamented Georgia band the Vigilantes of Love, and though that group disbanded in the early 2000s, Mallonee’s own output has been prolific and proficient ever since. His world-weary vocals and heartfelt tales of love, loss and salvation maintain a high bar that never disappoints, and together with his wife and collaborator Muriah Rose, he’s come to represent the essence of authentic Americana. True to form, Mallonee’s latest effort is actually two records in one, Lead On, Kindly Light and This World and One More. Both discs are as earnest as they are engaging, a series of loose rambles sung with the same diehard conviction that’s become his stock in trade over the course of nearly three decades and a catalog that includes well over 50 recordings, far to many to tabulate. A man of deep faith and immeasurable talent, his recognition is long overdue.

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