The Waco Brothers, a band of Brits and Yanks based in Chicago, have always been pretty much the poster boys for Bloodshot Records' "insurgent country" aesthetic, bringing a punky, rebellious edge to alt-country (they are, after all, an outgrowth of first-gen punks the Mekons). But by joining forces with Nashville-based Americana singer/songwriter Paul Burch, the band finds a way to evolve its approach without sanding off any appealing edges. For instance, though they come roaring out of the gate with the album's fervid, titular opening track, they soon settle seamlessly into everything from the gently hip-swinging, Tex-Mex-flavored "Monterey" to the loping, lyrically evocative "Flight to Spain" without breaking a sweat or sacrificing a single iota of intensity.
Jim Allen, Google Play
Justin Townes Earle's 2010 effort Harlem River Blues sounded like he'd found his way as a singer/songwriter amid the spidery, criss-crossing lines of Memphis' long and sometimes fractious musical heritage. Earle moved to London, but the sound of Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now is even more haunted by Memphis than its predecessor. Its sounds have woven their way so far inside his songwriting and arrangements here that he "almost" disappears. Recorded in North Carolina, loneliness, frustrated desire, regret, thinly veiled admissions of substance abuse, and even self-pity topically weave themselves through these songs. On "Am I That Lonely Tonight?" he talks about being emotionally and physically wasted when hearing his father on the radio and the conflicting feelings it raises. The sad, slow horn chart, nostalgically acknowledges the Memphis influence. The fingerpicked electric guitars, standup bass, and brushed snares just underscore the singer's desolation. The title track, with a shimmering B-3, muted horns, and upright bass walking a straight line, is the third heartworn ballad in a row, and it threatens to overwhelm the proceeding. (Sequencing on this date is an issue.) Its melancholy, dragging tempo, slurred, uneven time signature, and most of all, Earle's voice, all sound completely ragged. On the first uptempo number, "Baby's Got a Bad Idea," populated with a rockabilly swagger, Earle's hoarse, near-spoken, off-key delivery almost derails it. "Maria" fares better with a Willie Mitchell-style slippery horn chart and in the pocket drums. The muted trumpet in the gospel-blues of "Down on the Lower East Side," is a nice touch, as is the restrained passion in Earle's vocal delivery. "Memphis in the Rain" is more lighthearted and actually swings, with R&B effortlessly carrying the singer. "Won't Be the Last Time" and "Unfortunately Anna," both exhausted, oppressive ballads, commence as halting folkish Americana -- though the latter has a very attractive jazzy mid-section and bridge. Closer "Movin' On" uses Johnny Cash as an inspiration, and it feels more natural than anything here. It shuffles and hops; it finds a groove and relaxes inside it. As strained as some of Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now is, there is much to enjoy: Earle's lyrics, while sometimes sophomoric, are fairly sophisticated and searingly honest; the arrangements and his melodies usually lovely. While it's true this album often feels like the listener is being asked to endure a personal confession without redemption as a reward that is also part of its hopefully deliberate, perverse charm.
Thom Jurek, Rovi
If you're someone who seeks out the place where punk rock, country music, crafted songwriting, and raw, immediate, visceral garagey rock & roll meet, look no further than Indestructible Machine, the Bloodshot debut of Lydia Loveless. The 21-year-old Ohioan is the product of a rock & roll drummer daddy (who plays in her band), a Loretta Lynn-worshiping momma, and a boyfriend who hipped her to country music's outlaws and the latter-day XXX-brand country of Hank III, Shooter Jennings, etc. Indestructible Machine reflects all this, but Loveless is more than the sum of her influences: her writing and singing talents are in their own class. She has a big throaty voice that recalls Neko Case's at first blush, but Loveless' is bigger, richer, more expressive -- her singing owes more to singers Lynn and Jeannie C. Riley. She's backed by a bona fide careening country sextet with lead guitarist Todd May, banjo boss Rob Woodruff, pedal steel player Barry Hensley, fiddler Adrian Jusdanis, Ben Lamb on bass, and dad Parker Chandler on skins. The set kicks off at 100 miles per with "Bad Way to Go." The banjo and guitar struggle for dominance, the snare and kick drums skitter at a gallop, and Loveless wails atop a charging bassline. Her colorful language is filled with double and triple entendres and images of a seedy America reflected in the rear-view mirror. "Can't Change Me" is a feminist anthem that stays on electrical overload but in a minor key. "How Many Women" is a straight-up honky tonk weeper. "Jesus Was a Wino" is a rockin' triple-time 2-step that celebrates the Son of God's empathy for the struggling human race. The song "Steve Earle" simply has to be heard to be believed; it's hysterically funny. If the Rolling Stones had ever recorded with the young Emmylou Harris when she was part of Gram Parsons' band, it might have sounded similar to "Learn to Say No," one of the finest moments on the record. "Do Right," with its NASCAR-fueled bluegrass tempo and dueling banjo and guitars, is an unapologetic paean to the consequences of substance abuse. "Crazy" is a spare country lust song worthy of Charles Bukowski. Lydia Loveless' Indestructible Machine possesses a classicist's grip of country, a rock & roll sense of swagger, and the keen eye of a songwriter twice her age.
Thom Jurek, Rovi
In a better world, Rosie Flores would be a major star, given her estimable skills as a guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist, and the truth is there are plenty of roots rockers who have enjoyed more lucrative careers with far less to offer musically. But if Flores has had to settle for the life of a cult heroine and journeyman (journeyperson?) musician, she doesn't seem the least bit bitter about it, and the title cut of her album Working Girl's Guitar finds her proudly celebrating her life as a hard-working picker, as seen through the eyes of the well-used Telecaster copy pictured on the front cover. Flores picks up a storm all over Working Girl's Guitar, and though she's tasteful enough not to let her solos get in the way of her songs, when she feels like tearing up the fretboard, her chops are just as impressive as her melodic smarts, and she can strut her stuff on tunes that lean toward country ("Yeah, Yeah"), rock & roll ("I'm Little But I'm Loud"), surf ("Surf Demon #5"), vintage R&B ("If I Could Only Be with You"), or rockabilly ("Too Much") and sound equally at home and fully in command. Flores also pays tribute to her friend and inspiration Janis Martin with a joyous cover of her classic "Drugstore Rock and Roll," and Flores' vocals are just as limber and as spirited as her guitar work, no small accomplishment. Flores has some talented accompanists on this project, including Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Tommy Vee on bass, and Noah Levy on drums, but this is Rosie's show from the jump, and her jazzy re-imagining of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" closes out the show in style. Working Girl's Guitar shows that Rosie Flores is still earning her keep as a musician the old-fashioned way, and she sounds like she's loving every minute of it -- and when the music's this good, there no reason she shouldn't.
Mark Deming, Rovi
The night can be a scary place sometimes, with myriad dangers masked by a shroud of darkness that requires us to simply take a deep breath and head into the unknown. Most of the time, what's actually out there is fairly mundane, and the things we fear are living inside of our minds, tricks dreamt up by our subconscious to scare us. It's these imagined parts of the darkness that Murder by Death call home, peeling back the shadows to show not what is actually lying in wait in the darkness, but what we secretly wish was there. On their sixth album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, Murder by Death continue in the tradition of their previous albums, delivering 13 ominous tracks of the band's brand of "whiskey devil music." While it's hard to deny the sinister nature of lyrics like "Lost River"'s opening salvo, "Hush now creature, don't you cry/I know a place where a body can hide," Bitter Drink feels more exuberant than the band's earlier work, upping the tempo and grandeur of the songs in a way that shines a little light on the band's darkness without snuffing it out completely. This rollicking clash between light and dark gives the album a kind of macabre tent-revival feeling. You can almost imagine a dilapidated tent appearing in a vacant lot overnight, its occupants inviting all who'll listen to enter and hear the tales they've picked up on the long and lonely road before disappearing without a trace the next day. This level of immersion alone makes Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon worth the time it takes to give it a listen, and the fact that the album is filled with killer songs to slam bourbon to is really just icing on the (probably arsenic-laced) cake.
Gregory Heaney, Rovi
The Bloodshot label, generally known for its "insurgent country" music, releases its first soul album, and while the tendency is to call this "insurgent R&B," Chicago-based singer JC Brooks and his white trio are closer to garage soul. Along the lines of Austin's Black Joe Lewis and Brooklyn's Dap-Kings, the group finds its groove in the tough '60s rumble of Stax and Motown before the latter became overly commercialized. Brooks has a convincing tenor voice and the songs, predominantly written or co-composed by guitarist Billy Bungeroth, tap into the raw power of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett at their most rootsy. Added sweetening from guest horns, keyboards, and background singers fleshes out the sound, but keeps things unpolished and, well, at least somewhat insurgent. When the band hits a get-down funky James Brown backbeat as on "Baaadnews," it nails a frisky "Cool Jerk" vibe that is inescapable and hip-shaking. Brooks shifts to falsetto for the smooth, string-enhanced Philly International-styled "To Love Someone (That Don't Love You)" (one of only two covers, this one originally performed by obscure Chicago soul group the Kaldirons), but ballads are not what the outfit is about. Rather, they excel at a harder-edged R&B, frequently with offbeat themes as on the interestingly named "Sister Ray Charles," a title that never appears in the song's lyrics. The other cover, Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," is given a fascinating, surging rearrangement and is stamped with the seal of approval from no less an authority than Jeff Tweedy. There's a nod to the Fine Young Cannibals in the finger-popping "Good Thing" Motown beat of "Everything Will Be Fine," and while little is unique, there's plenty of energy and enthusiasm to go around. Brooks and company take an unlikely detour on "Missing You" that seems like they have been listening to the Band, and close with an Impressions/Curtis Mayfield-inspired, politically charged "Awake," a sweet ballad with somewhat clichéd "this train is bound for glory" words that mix some gospel into the approach. Nothing is extended past its breaking point and the disc winds up in just over half an hour. But, like the best albums soul or otherwise, it leaves you -- as the title says -- wanting more.
Hal Horowitz, Rovi
There are plenty of people who attribute a reactionary, narrow-minded attitude towards country music and the folks who play it (and listen to it), but while it's not often acknowledged today, hillbilly music in the 1920s through the '50s was strongly informed by R&B and jazz, and blues, boogie, and swing were all key components of the country & western vocabulary during the music's formative days. Wayne Hancock is a guy who lives for the music of country's rough and tumble days in the '40s and '50s, so none of this is news to him, and while elements of jazz and blues have been a part of all his albums, he brings this side of the music into clearer focus on his sixth studio album, Viper of Melody. Hancock is a master of classic honky tonk, and tunes like "Working at Working," "Driving My Young Life Away" and "Throwin' Away My Money" conjure up the shade of Hank Williams as effectively as anyone alive, but there's just a little less grit in Viper of Melody than in his previous sets, and a greater emphasis on the swinging side of traditional country. The sly and slinky title tune practically defines the nexus between classic jazz and country, "Tropical Blues" and "Freight Train Boogie" are great examples of how blues and its variants made their way into Nashville, and the opening number "Jump the Blues" finds Hancock pledging to "make the hard times swing," a notion as relevant today as it would have been in the '30s. Hancock can effortlessly write tunes in the classic idiom without sounding as if he's drowning in nostalgia for an era he never knew (this is a man who can use the word "hep" and sound like he means it), and his rough but sweet vocal style is the perfect complement for the music. And as usual, Hancock has some gifted accompanists helping to bring this music to life (Izak Zaidman on electric guitar, Anthony Locke on steel guitar and Huckleberry Johnson on doghouse bass), and with producer Lloyd Maines at the controls, they put down Viper of Melody in less than two days, and it sounds as lively and as honest as a vintage 78. Before generic boundaries ruled popular culture, there were two kinds of music -- good and bad. Wayne Hancock offers just a bit of a history lesson on Viper of Melody while showing he can play the good stuff as well as anyone on the bandstand today.
Mark Deming, Rovi
Who says outlaw country is dead? Whitey Morgan and the 78's are a rough-hewn, edgy, honky tonk band from Flint, MI, and they embody the spirit of Waylon, David Allan Coe, Hank Jr., and Johnny Paycheck from the '70s. That said, this is no mere tribute band; they also have an unsentimental, rock & roll attitude from the rust belt's DNA. This isn't "alt-country" or Americana. The 78's --Morgan (Eric David Allen) on guitar and vocals, Jeremy Mackinder on bass, Travis Harrett on drums, fiddle player Tamineh Gueramy, and pedal steel player Brett Robinson -- offer hard-edged, 2-stepping, beer-soaked barroom music. Their unsubtle brand of outlaw country is likely going to appeal more to factory workers and bikers than it will to the pressed-shirt-and-jeans-cowboy-hat-wearing young fans of contemporary country. Their self-titled sophomore effort -- and debut album for Chicago's Bloodshot imprint -- contains seven originals and four well-chosen covers recorded at Levon Helm's Woodstock studio. The set opens with a slow-burn reading of J.D. Loudermilk's "Bad News," and the night ride is on. Former Dylan sideman Larry Campbell handles the pedal steel chores on this one, and Morgan's rich baritone delivers the authority of one who "knows" what he is. The band plays a solid 4/4 stride with accents on the two and four; they weave nasty Telecasters, unadorned fiddles, and up-top basslines with the snare/hi-hat combos underneath. "Turn Up the Bottle" is an homage to the music of Merle Haggard and George Jones (the latter is name-checked). The layered fiddles, whining pedal steel, and 2-step beat create a perfect atmosphere for drinking. "Buick City" is a rambling, restless, open-road-rolling,12-bar Jennings-esque blues about the 235-acre manufacturing complex in Flint that was torn down in 2002. The message is clear: I gotta get going, gotta get out. "Cheaters Always Lose" is a gorgeous lounge weeper with accordion by Mike Lynch. Paycheck's "Meanest Jukebox in Town" and Hank Cochran's "Memories Cost a Lot" are executed with a looser, rawer feel, but add levels of meaning to the originals with their under-the-radar rock swagger. The highest points here are Morgan's own songs: they are disciplined, often clever, and always written to be played by this particular band live and without compromise. The 78's are the real deal: working class outlaws who love country to the core. Highly recommended.
Thom Jurek, Rovi
Indicative of Robbie Fulks' sly sense of humor, The Very Best of Robbie Fulks is nothing of the sort, but a collection of tracks culled from EPs, promos, limited-release 45s, soundtracks, and various obscure compilations. While much of the material is probably meant to be a little more fun than serious, with Fulks adding humorous self-effacing humor in the liner notes, there is some truly first-rate material here. The very strong country ballad "I Just Want to Meet the Man" and the frantic mock rockabilly of "Roots Rock Weirdoes" make for very entertaining listening. "Parallel Bars," a nice duet with Kelly Willis, and the catchy straightforward rock of "Wedding of the Bugs" also should not be missed. "That Bangle Girl," which Fulks mentions as being a personal favorite, is an absolutely essential piece of sharp country-rock bliss that ranks well with anything he's ever written. While everything here may not always be in the best taste (the rather low-brow "White Man's Bourbon" comes to mind), the material is generally consistent enough for it to be possible that a few first-time listeners could mistake this for an actual greatest-hits collection.
Matt Fink, Rovi