In the 21st century more and more musicians are deciding to hell with record companies and the old ways of getting their music heard, and doing it themselves. There’s many reasons for this, but of course the internet is a big help in getting the word out there. When you sign with a major label and even some of the smaller labels, the chances of seeing any money are slim. With the majors you have to pay back the cost of recording, advertising, promotion, and the money the record company spends on those spiffy tour busses. On top of that, the chances of getting played on the radio are slim. If you’re lucky and play the right kind of music maybe one of the Americana stations that used to be college radio will add you to their play list, and if by some chance you hit it big, you’ll stay there for awhile. These days, with a little luck you can do just as well and maybe reach more people with a youtube video. A friend of mine who’s been playing for more than 40 years, been on major labels and now is on his own label once told me, “An indie album is good for ten years.” So with that in mind, here’s a bunch of releases that came out in the last year and maybe a little longer.
Chris O’Connell was one of the original members of Western Swing Band, Asleep At The Wheel. She joined when she was 18 and stayed for 16 years. That meant a million miles (for real) on a tour bus, winning Grammys, working with the biggest country stars, and lots of ups and downs. After leaving the band, she sang on other people’s projects, on sound tracks, and ads, but it took more than 20 years to get around to making her own album which was released late in 2012. I only found out about it recently thanks to a correspondence with a fellow music journalist.
Be Right Back is a simply wonderful collection of tunes that crosses several genres from swing to rockabilly, country and a classic folk ballad. It’s a daring project because O’Connell is interpreting other people’s songs, which is rare in a business where original material is deemed all important. However this collection of songs and the way it’s presented is entirely original, on songs that range from Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman to songs written by friends best known to those who pay attention to country music that isn’t coming out of Nashville like Bill Kirchen, Leroy Preston (another original “Wheel” member) and Kevin Blackie Farrell.
While there are 22 musicians on the album, most of the tracks are with small ensembles including several musicians who played with Asleep At The Wheel at one time or another including bassist Tony Garnier (who has played with Bob Dylan longer than any musician), dobro and steel player Cindy Cashdollar, and guitarist Junior Brown.
What is immediately clear from the first note of the opening song, Brenda Burn’s “A Little More Love,” is that all of McConnell’s vocal powers are intact. In fact her delivery now has greater depth because she sings as if she’s lived ever single word. A lot of the songs deal with heartbreak and disillusionment and anger, yet even on the saddest songs such as Kevin Farrell’s “Skid Row In My Mind,” or the totally passionate “Suffering With The Blues,” (originally done by Little Willie John) her vocals the music around her is always uplifting, which is what the blues is supposed to do.
Produced by Daniel Davis Levin (another “Wheel” member) who also plays violin, keyboards and several other instruments, it is clear a lot of thought and care went into each arrangement. It’s an album where it’s hard to pick standout tracks became every track nails it. One of the surprises is “Shenandoah” which starts with an ethereal dobro by Cindy Cashdollar but by the end as the arrangement subtly builds and other instruments enter is almost classical, thanks to Dennis Ludiker’s fiddle. This is a song that’s been done by innumerable great singers from Paul Robeson to Van Morrison, but O’Connell sings it as if she’s standing on the banks of the river longing to get across. I can’t get through this album without playing this at least twice.
Another winner is “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame” best known by Elvis Presley, but originally done by Del Shannon. O’Connell’s driving Bo Diddley beat acoustic guitar sets the tone, and she turns the tables by singing it from her own vantage point.
Be Right Back is a surprise pleasure throughout, and I’m hoping the title means Chris O’Connell will be right back with another album like this one.
Bobby King is a guitarist, bass player and singer originally from Philly who’s been living in Nashville for a couple of decades working in road bands of various groups and singers, producing other artists. His eponymous solo album released at the beginning of last summer also reveals an excellent songwriter who is capable of writing in several genres. In another era some of these songs would be potential hits or strong album cuts.
On many of these songs he is clearly playing tribute to not only the music that’s influenced him, but the music he loves whether it’s Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul, country or Philly funk and soul. The album starts out with “Gypsy Road” which reminds me of Dan Penn both in the way King sings and the melody. He then moves into Western Swing with “Driftin’ Again,” and then back to Memphis for a bit of Rufus Thomas styled funk and fun on “Talkin’ To The Dog.”
The ballad “Just Put Me Out Of Your Misery” mixes classic Memphis and Nashville (which is a very thin line) and in another time this might have been done by any number of great singers from both cities.
“Eighth Wonder of the World” is pure Philly soul and perhaps because of that may be the track for the most heart. King follows that with a pop standard, “Not A Chance” before moving into slightly more modern country crossed with bluegrass on “Honky Tonk Hell” and a slow country ballad, “Tonight The Bible Let Me Down,” which one could imagine John Anderson singing.
King totally switches gears on the final cut to straight blues on “My Glory Days Are Yet To Come” on which he delivers not only his most passionate and convincing vocal, but cuts loose on guitar. Throughout this album is music by a master musician who not only clearly loves the music, but knows exactly what he wants to do and how to get there.
RoseAnn Fino is a singer-songwriter originally from upstate New York whose eponymous debut was released last year on Woodstock Records. Backed by members of the Woodstock based band, The Crowmatix, along with lead guitarist John Platania (best known for his work with Van Morrison, particularly Moondance), her album shows a songwriter full of promise. At times reminiscent of Lucinda Williams, many of the songs on the record are about being young, romance and New York City.
Defino has a way of capturing little scenes and the emotions that evolve from those scenes with refreshing honesty that is best captured in the opening verse of “Seventies Trousers”:
I saw you on the stage
I had a groupie gaze that I would never admit
And I followed you back to the bar, complimented your guitar
I felt like such a fool
And you wear seventies clothes
You talk real slow, my nervousness shows
On “Hallways” she goes for a deeper intensity, singing about screaming in silence and capturing the fear in loneliness:
Sometimes it’s like you were never here at all
The cold is like the damp under the leaves of fall
The cat scratches to eat against the sheets
But I just lay in your scent hoping it will comfort me
But as much as this album is about life and romance in the city, the most moving song is “Boxed Wine,” a song that is both a tribute to her parents and about leaving home. And again, it’s the way she takes small scenes like sitting in the kitchen and listening to Dylan and makes them vivid and real.
Aaron Hurwitz (aka Professor Louie) who produced the album, plays keyboards and did the arrangements with Fino has surrounded the songs with sympathetic arrangements that enhance Fino’s melodic strengths. Roseann Fino is a songwriter to keep an eye on.
Blaine Duncan and the Lookers
Blaine Duncan is a singer-songwriter from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who with his band The Lookers released his second album (actually an Ep) When She Dies last year. Duncan plays acoustic guitar and his songs are a curious mélange of alt country, old time music and grunge with occasional mad explorations into sonic noise when you least expect them. That doesn’t really do them justice because in a perhaps deliberately rough way they’re experts at creating context and mood for Duncan’s songs.
Blaine Duncan’s songs are unique. They are crazy little stories about the South, the Deep South. He has a writer’s eye for short descriptions that speak volumes and create visions in your mind that are reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor. These are best exemplified by the two songs in the middle of the disc, “Will” and the brilliant “After She Dies,” which has the refrain: “There’s something in the water that’s still alive/I know mama’s gonna live forever after she dies,” which is then repeated as “When she dies.” Backed by a twang guitar with the reverb turned way up, a stark banjo, and subtle bass and drums, it’s as scary a track as I’ve heard from anyone and you imagine some lonesome ramshackle house in need of paint in a foggy mist on the edge of some demonic swamp you want to stay away from.
That is followed by a couple of sweetly picked acoustics on a folky country tune named “Reckless,” that starts with the verse:
It’s a reckless motherfucker that don’t listen to the words
They don’t need no other channel coming through their monitor
I guess up there in the spotlight I could find a friend or worse
Someone who don’t ask for my opinion and don’t make my headaches worse
After describing more of whatever band he’s watching, it ends in a delightful chorus, “It’s a short life/Wishing every morning was Saturday night.” And just when you think it’s this nice little country tune with guitar and mandolin, in comes some crazy electric noise to disturb the peace and destroy whatever mood was set up only to return to that mood.
The album ends with a love ballad, except it isn’t called “North” that’s just guitars and pedal steel that finds Duncan at his storytelling and poetic best. At times his voice wavers but it makes the starkness of the melody and the words more real. However it’s not the end, because there’s a hidden unnamed track that’s one blast of loud rocking punky noise, and somewhere in the guitar solo in the middle is a tiny hint of “Dixie.”
Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter. His site and blog can be found here: http://www.peterstonebrown.com/