If first lines are important for setting the tone of an album, then the opening salvo from Salesman on Escalante lets you know that things aren’t going to progress in the normal fashion: “I believe the dead have to climb / up the narrow road that’s thinner than a chalk line / but they climb / like wine up my throat.” What unspools in the next 37 minutes is a hypnotic, haunting, eerie set of tunes that don’t adhere to any rules of genre or style. Escalante is its own thing, and that’s not something I get so say very often.
Opener “7×7” sets things in an ostensibly Americana/alt-country setting, with fractured but still recognizable alt-country guitar work and thrumming bass. It’s got those real wild lyics, but you can reasonably call it an alt-country song (albeit one that the Jayhawks never would have imagined). But by the second track, all genre markers are largely obliterated. “Horn” is the sort of song that seems fit for the desert: disjointed bass lines, spartan drumming, occasional dispatches of modified guitar noise, and distant sleigh bells accompany ghostly, mournful vocals for the first true taste of eerie. There is an impressive, grinding guitar bit (guitar solo?) halfway through, but it’s more like Tom Morello’s guitar solos than a surf-rock one.
Things get really wild on “Clear Cold Heaven,” which is a solo vocal piece accompanied only by unsettling clicking, buzzing, and whirring sounds. It is truly avant-garde, and more than a little creepy. (Bonus track “Bringing Upbringing” is constructed in a similar vein, but is less uncomfortable due to the mix of sounds around the vocals.) The members of Salesman know that they’ve been a bit rough on their listeners, so they close out Side A with the acoustically soothing “Spirit Jar,” a beautiful, pensive, slow, acoustic-led folk tune that’s about waking up in a spirit jar. (No rest for the eccentric.)
“Four Legs” counts as one of the more standard tracks here, a helter-skelter indie-rock track that invokes Pontiak and other swamp-lovin’ rock bands. It nears the levels of sonic aggression of Lord Buffalo, the noisy/apocalyptic alt-country band that shares members with Salesman. (“When You Face It” also cultivates this sort of deep-night, gritty-dusty groove.) “Loving Dead” also nears normalcy, opening with beautiful violin and guitar harmonics. So it’s totally possible for Salesman to make songs that adhere to genre patterns, but they just prefer to subvert them most of the time.
Escalante is a fearless, unrestrained record that makes a definite mark. It is not content to get in line with the other bands’ stuff. If you think there’s not enough alt in alt-country these days, Salesman might be on your avant-garde wavelength. Adventurous types, forge ahead!
Breakups are tough, no way around it–but there are things that are harder. When Jacob Furr sings “Does love still sit on our front porch / although your chair is empty?” in “Drift Away,” he’s not referencing some girl who ran off (or that he chased off with bad behavior); he’s talking about his wife, who died of cancer suddenly. I’m not a man to spill other people’s news, so here’s a long article about the album’s backstory from the Dallas Observer. But I mention it because it gives an accurate perspective on Trails and Traces.
With such heavy subject matter, it’s particularly impressive that these alt-country songs are so nimble, light, and upbeat. I don’t mean that we’ve got party rock going on here, but that songs like “Mockingbird,” “One More Round” and “Blakes Song” all rely on swift fingerpicking, major keys, gentle moods, and an overall melodic feeling of wistful calm. To have gone through the wringer and come out alive and intact is one thing; to be able to sing calmly, even hopefully, about it is another thing altogether.
There are some louder country-rock tunes here: opener “Branches” and follow-up “Lines” both get that Texas feel into the full-band arrangements. “Branches” has a wide-open rock feel, while “Lines” gets some honky-tonk vibe going on. Single “Falling Stars” is led by a squalling, reverb-heavy guitar line that evokes The Walkmen (a cross-genre reference, but an apt one). The end of the wrenching “I Remember You,” one of the few times that the depths of sorrow and angst emerge, is a crushing stomp populated by towering distorted guitars, staccato drums, and howling vocals. So there’s definitely some oomph and crunch here, if you’re into that.
But I’m most excited about the calmer tracks: “Drift Away,” “Sunrise Slow” and the three I mentioned earlier, where Furr’s wandering troubadour spirit shines. When Furr lets his voice and guitar do the heavy lifting, the songs push past their rock counterparts in moving quality. “Drift Away” is not the saddest sounding song on the record, nor is it the most devastating in lyric (although it’s pretty close). It does have a expertly nuanced vocal performance that grabs me and vaults the song above its counterparts into a highlight. “Blakes Song” pairs a beautiful guitar line with a mournful vocal line. These are gorgeous songs that are so neatly constructed that you can miss the depth if you don’t pay attention. Listen close.
“Mockingbird” closes the record on an upbeat note. It’s particularly telling of Furr’s intention with the album that he didn’t close with “I Remember You” or “Blakes Song”; he could have sent the listener away with a brutal reminder of loss and the difficulties of this world. Instead, he closes the whole album with a proclamation: “I sing to break the dying calm.” There is a darkness and a heaviness to death, and it affects the living. But it doesn’t have to define the living, as Furr knows. It’s a wonderful thing to discover; it’s an amazing thing to leave a listener with.
Furr labels Trails and Traces as Americana, as many people have been doing these days. He does bring in elements of folk-rock, country-rock, and folk fingerpicking; maybe that sound is what Americana means these days. Regardless of the genre labels, Trails and Traces is a powerful record about life and death that doesn’t get bogged down in morose musings–a rare and remarkable release, indeed.
The alt-country/Americana songs that Charlie Betts presents on Under Construction all hinge on his unique voice. His tunes don’t traverse far from time-honored instrumental traditions in the country genre: snare shuffle, accordion, slide guitar, acoustic strum and stand-up bass. The rustic sound hits the ear very well; the performances are spot-on, and the production is tight and bright. The immaculate instrumentation and songwriting don’t allow for those elements to be the defining aspect of Betts’ sound, and thus that honor falls to his voice.
The British Betts has a voice that you will remember instantly, for good or for ill. Those on the ill side will say that his nasally warble is off-putting and irreconcilable with the otherwise standard tunes. Those on the pro- side of things will say that the instruments provide a vessel for Betts’ real instrument. Those who are drawn in by unusual voices will find much to love in Betts’ songwriting, as it is the centerpiece of each of these tunes. Even The Mountain Goats don’t stress the vocals as much as Betts does.
Again, there are some who will say that he’s leaning too hard on a bad thing. Others will celebrate his songwriting and punk-rock spirit (“Just ’cause you say I can’t doesn’t mean I can’t”). This is a call you’ll have to make yourself, because whether I like it or not will have no effect on how it hits your ear. As for me, I like his calmer songs (“The Meaning of Freedom,” “Remember the Sun”) better than his faster ones, as I feel his voice fits best in them. Fans of alt-country and Americana should check this out.
Pineross‘s Detached is a set of rustic Americana tunes with mostly spoken word vocals on top of it. In tunes like opener “A Vision,” the cadence and flow come close to rapping; in the following track “Run So Fast,” there’s more of a storytelling vibe about it with some easygoing singing. The tunes here run the gamut, from the saloon-vibe piano-led pop of “Run So Fast” to the accordion-led Spaghetti Western feel of “Motorbike” to the carnival-esque, modern sounds of the rap-heavy “Ruins” and the bluegrass vibe of “No Soundtrack.” Acutally, that’s just the first half of the album; that’s how varied and interesting this thing is.
Songwriter Kevin Larkin is good at both the rustic sounds he creates from his instruments and the vocals he inventively lays on top of those songs, making for a fascinating and unique experience. Explaining it any more than that is nearly impossible to me; it’s such a complete, formed idea that it seems an injustice to try and explain it in words. Go listen to it for yourself if you like alternative rap, unusual acoustic music or something different in general.
Shelley Short‘s A Cave, A Canoo provides a clear distinction between Americana and folk. The acoustic-based music that Short plays is the type that you would expect to find in rural backwoods and Appalachian trails. It’s fragile instrumentally but strong lyrically. It’s very distinctive and unapologetic about this; it is what it is, and that’s either its selling point or its sticking point. It is truly Americana; no other place could have produced this album.
It’s hard to describe this album without sounding trite, because the it’s not what she does but how she does it that makes this album worth your time. There’s some gently fingerpicked acoustic guitar, some auxiliary instruments (grumbling cello, creaky violin, twinkling piano, etc), and her delicate, distinctive voice. She doesn’t stray far from this formula, other than the “Interlude,” which is made to sound like an a capella vinyl recording. It’s kinda weird, but endearing.
“A Cave” shows off her piano skills and impressive melodic content, as it is the most memorable track. Even when she shifts to piano, her gently rolling style transfers over perfectly. These songs all have a lilting gait that makes them incredibly pleasant to listen to. “Racehorse” seems to waltz gently by the listener’s ear, while the live-recorded hiss of “Tap the Old Bell” creates a feeling of security and honesty in the song. The greatest deviation from this is “Hard to Tell,” which is accompanied by an accordion. Even though this is not out of the tradition at all, it’s still feels almost roaring next to the gentle acoustic ballads and piano offerings that precede and follow it. It’s still a wonderful song, but it is a bit jarring the first time it appears.
In short, this is a true-blue Americana album. It suffers a bit from having a slow pace throughout, but the ease of listening almost entirely redeems that fact. If you’re a fan of folk, Americana, or great female singers, this is for you. Incredibly enjoyable.
It’s twice in a row now that Adam Hill has delivered. If another one of his discs winds up on my desk, he’s going to have to work hard to outdo himself again.
When examining Hill’s work, he starts to seem less like a folk musician and more like a folk composer. This album is not the work of a group that took the name of its leader. Hill, in fact, plays every instrument on Them Dirty Roads (except for the fiddle) and provides all the vocals (aside from some of the backups). Hill is in control of every aspect of the album and compiles it into a sort of an operatic Americana symphony.
Whereas his previous album, Four Shades of Green, was more subdued in tone, Them Dirty Roads comes off as restless and in need of wandering. Guitars, pianos, walking bass lines, and an almost total lack of percussion, along with Hill’s twangy vocals (which often come with some echoing reverb) provide an atmosphere akin to the wide open spaces that make up the album’s cover art.
Hill’s sound takes a more indie-minded turn in Them Dirty Roads, especially with the insertion of piano ballads like “Fool’s Gold” and his cover of Dave Carter’s “The River, Where She Sleeps.” The cover is especially wonderful with Hill’s choice to stick with piano and what sounds like wine glasses being played with spoons for the accompaniment to his vocals. The song exudes a sense of joy that will prove infectious to anyone.
In a sense, Hill also takes a turn toward classical music in the arrangement of the album. Similar to the way he put four versions of the song “Down In The Valley” in Four Shades of Green to provide cohesiveness to the album, Hill inserts transitional and framing tracks, “Prelude,” “Intermezzo I,” “Intermezzo II,” and “Coda” in Them Dirty Roads. These tracks are generally just a collection of sound effects, though “Prelude” includes a Bach arrangement played on trumpet over the sound of radio static. While normally I might write tracks like this off as superfluous to an album, when taken within the whole album, these tracks give Them Dirty Roads unity and cohesiveness.
Tracks of note are “Fueled Up,” which is very reminiscent of the later work of Johnny Cash, and the aforementioned “The River, Where She Sleeps,” as well as “State of Grace” and “Ribbons and Curls.”
Anyone who appreciates folk, bluegrass, or country should find something to love about Them Dirty Roads. And those who don’t should definitely give it a try as well.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.