Cesaréa is a ten song journey, a blend of western influences and the tales of a true road dog told with a mature lyricism. From the scent of pine trees and small town life in the opening track “The Town Where I’m From” to the simple “In My Thoughts,” listeners are invited into authentic and vulnerable world of Charles Ellsworth via his third full-length release as a solo artist.
There are no mistakes in who crosses someone’s path in life. “Right around the time I turned 22, I was in Las Vegas with a group of some of my oldest friends. On one particularly hungover/still drunk afternoon, I was talking with a friend about how neither of us knew exactly what we wanted to do with our lives. He was about to head to the Peace Corps for a couple years, and I had just gone through a bad band breakup and had decided to go back to Utah to finish my Bachelor’s degree,” said Charles Ellsworth, when asked about the origins of his latest album set to drop May 26th, 2017. It was prior to his emotional musical breakup that this listener first crossed paths with Ellsworth and heard his story. Swearing off music to focus on film, this wandering man was was truly born, more open to the possibilities of life.
Ellsworth grew up in logging country of Arizona’s White Mountains where families are generationally embedded into the land. This simple life instilled in Ellsworth the value of hard work and sacrifice. These values show in songs like “California,” an uptempo Americana folk trip about moving on. Long a favorite at live shows, this mix has created a beast with soaring guitar work from Jon Rauhouse. The beautifully arranged waltz of “Hold On to Me” shows the trust that Ellsworth has in producer Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket Recording (Courtney Marie Andrews, The Format, Gin Blossoms) in Mesa, Arizona. Another song first heard live, this song has been brilliantly transformed into a lush ballad with an elegant tempo and instrumentation: a barn dance for two with the rest of the world listening.
Every path in life comes full circle, allowing the traveler opportunities to get lost along the way. Originally meeting and working with the producer Bob Hoag, the intentional life was born without any realization of the destination at that point. Ellsworth’s friend that joined the Peace Corps gave him a parting gift. “At some point I told him I just wanted to write, play music, and travel the world. I didn’t care about money, I cared about a life spent creating from outside my comfort zone. He suggested that I read The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I read it in the final week of the summer before starting school again. It immediately became one of my favorite books, and without realizing it at the time, influenced most of my decisions that have led me to now.”
Being on the road of life is the only way to find new experiences outside one’s comfort zone, in true Tom Waits fashion. “50 Cent Smile” is the first single off Cesaréa. The song is a connection to the man that was and the man that moved to Brooklyn, New York, after years of touring with a guitar. Ellsworth toured with and without his friend Tres Wilson (AKA Shadow Puppet), wandering from Salt Lake City north, west, east, and south to all parts in between. “50 Cent Smile” is a song mirroring the western freewheeling mentality that was inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden. Lyrically the song taps into the questions that are posed in the classic American novel, exceptionally relevant in the world today.
“I re-read The Savage Detectives while in the studio last year and was blown away by the fact that I was still doing what I wanted to all those years ago. I decided to name the album Cesaréa after one of the characters in the book. While the album isn’t necessarily about the book, the album wouldn’t exist without it,” says Charles Ellsworth when asked recently about his upcoming album.
“Growing Up Ain’t Easy” and “Dyre Straitz” have a totally different feel for the singer. Giving voice to a more mature musician coming from a place outside of his comfort zone, it’s like the first time you ride the A Train from north Manhattan to south Brooklyn: the thirty-one mile stretch is a lifetime of change. Solid instrumentally, the resonance in Ellsworth’s vocal delivery has matured as well.
Some tracks on Cesaréa have been years in the making, having appeared in other incarnations on previous releases. “Always Looking Twice” is one of those uptempo moments of greatness that happens on this album. A new instrumentation that includes piano, movement and familiar images flickers like a crooked smile at long time fans. With its sprinkling of the road, this song sets up at the entrance to the American songbook.
Heading full circle and out of the album, “Sunday Shoes” is the connective tissue for the lyrics. The arrangement and vocal delivery gives a western strength to a song that has been evolving for years on the road, with roots in the logging country of the Arizona White Mountains where Ellsworth is from. Sprinkled with piano, the city is part of the landscape and the mountains part of the foundation in the music of Charles Ellsworth. There is a strength and confidence in his lyrical craftsmanship, an undeniable thing that cannot really be taught. Like Jason Isbell‘s highly anticipated The Nashville Sound and The American West’s The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again, this album comes out of experience that shape artistic sensibilities.
Now on the third section of his quest, like The Savage Detectives, musician and songwriter Charles Ellsworth is narrator of this story. He combines solo, acoustic, live, and collaborative releases that have culminated in the masterwork of Cesaréa. Ellsworth is destined to join the collection of folk country troubadours that are part of the American songbook.–Lisa Whealy
Indie folk rock musicians Red Sammy & Some Charming Trespassers channel some greats here in their latest release, True Believer, dropping this fall. Taking a page from the song book of Tom Waits is a challenge, often landing in a crash. This is definitely not the case here, with a collection of eight songs that feel like a throwback to something past, a campfire along the train tracks of life.
Adam Trice is Red Sammy, and that is an important distinction to make. His songwriting is inspired, simple and down to earth. Storytelling is a lost art to many indie musicians; a few come to mind, like Sedona’s decker. and Brooklyn transplant Charles Ellsworth. Both pull in ghosts from the greats as shadows to call on. Some Charming Trespassers are a band of highly skilled musicians including Sarah Kennedy (violin), John Decker (resonator), and Rebecca Edwards (backing vocals) who, with the help of sparse arrangements, play a simple part in the success of this album. They are vehicles that get out of the way and let the music soar.
Opener “Caribou” takes this release out in a stampede for people not yet familiar with Red Sammy. Subtle and powerful, it weaves together a beautiful violin and loaded lyricism. At a little over three minutes, a lifetime is a picture the song paints. “Barefoot in Baltimore” is a love song in the tradition of Appalachian bluegrass, except this is coming out of Maryland, which makes it all the more transcendent of race and economic status. Music is a great equalizer, and “Barefoot” is just that.
“Chickenwire” is poetry bleeding with pain, and “Western Bound” is pain bleeding with hope, all done with skilled arrangements and poetry. Strange thing is, the message is the same, just wrapped in different ribbon. “Heaven the Electric Sky” is filled with harmonic echoes that flesh out the song, reinforcing the band’s stated desire for sparse arrangements on this album. The music shines. Choices like this make this album, and indie music in general, such a force.
“I Knew You Better” is a testament to thinking and how this is a dangerous pastime. Violin-driven, it is terrific. “Santa Ana Wildfire” is that drawn out feeling that isolates us all. As a bit of sequencing genius, it tells a beautiful story that is a complete contradiction and paradox to the previous song. True Believer closes with “Aunt Mary”: sometimes all there is in life is the comfort of an old song, a campfire, a cold beer or a cup of coffee with friends. Desperation is a shared and palpable thing, with taste, sound, and feel. Let this one settle in like a pair of well-worn boots. —Lisa Whealy
Abandoned Delta‘s self-titled debut is a uniquely beautiful alt-country album that combines the delicate nature of Mojave 3’s work with thick arrangements that leave little space unfilled. However, the tightly constructed arrangements of tunes like “I Am Gold,” “Tulsa,” and “Cause and Effect” result in a tender–even sweet–whole instead of becoming impenetrable. Pedal steel, keys, gentle tenor vocals, wispy harmonies, pristine electric guitar strums, and loping acoustic guitar picking mesh into a dense web of sound that is always awash in warm, sunny vibes.
But this isn’t West Coast Laurel Canyon work; there’s a Midwestern lyrical and melodic groundedness permeating the whole work. It may make me want to float away, but the songs don’t sound like they’re going to get lost anywhere. “My Heart’s an Open Road” accelerates the tempo, amps up twang, and infuses a sense of humor to the proceedings–the Western Swing influences in the songwriting is a lot of fun. Elsewhere, contented horns hover above the slightly more ominous “Black Car,” and the acoustic guitar gets a feature in “I Never Lived in New Orleans.” It’s not folky, though–and that’s the most marvelous element of Abandoned Delta. The members have a consistent, distinctive sound that integrates elements of other genres seamlessly. If you like beautiful music, alt-country, or hearing musicians at the top of their game, you need to check out Abandoned Delta.
I find the self-aggrandizing crowd screaming that attends most live records tiresome, so I don’t cover many of them. However, Charles Ellsworth‘s Live from the State Room has such great songwriting contained in it that I must commend it to you. (It also doesn’t have that much audience howling, which I appreciate.) Ellsworth is a guitar-and-voice troubadour, gifted with a melodic sense in his hands and throat. The ten songs of State Room show him breaking out his solo material first, then transitioning to a full-band set-up later. It allows him to show off his poignant lyrics and weighty vocals in an intimate setting first, then gently augment that core sound. “The Past Ain’t Nothin” is the highlight of this section, a tune that unspools several emotional narratives linked by a vocal motif. It hits home to me, musically and lyrically.
Once the band joins in, the poignant elements of his sound get amped up, notably on “In My Thoughts” (which IC had the privilege of premiering). A swooping cello and tasteful drums underscore the gravity of the tune. “Fifty Cent Smile” is another standout, built on train-rhythm drums and one of the most memorable vocal melodies of the record. Even with a full band, Ellsworth never lets the sound get weighed down; many of the lovely tunes keep a fragility about them. (A notable exception is the noisy “Take a Walk,” which is “about having anger issues.”) Live from the State Room is that rare live record that feels like a real experience captured on tape; it’s a great introduction to Ellsworth’s charms for the uninitiated. You can get now as part of his “Not a Kickstarter” campaign.
We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together by hunters. is a drama-filled folk album with strong female vocals. The 11-song album puts the spotlight on Rosa del Duca’s alto pipes, which have a mature quality not unlike those of Lilith Fair artists. Other ’90s singer/songwriting influences creep into the folk instrumentation too: a flourish here, a chord structure there, an unexpected vocal embellishment.
The band leans more toward chord-strummed folk than finger-picked folk, so tunes like “Firestarter” have lineage that can be drawn from many points. del Duca’s voice shines on “Firestarter,” as she ratchets up from an calm presence to an intense delivery and back several times. The band frames her performance with a tense arrangement of spacious, jazzy drums and nimble upright bass. “Painting the Roses Red” takes on a bit of a country vibe, while “Orion” recalls ballad-bluegrass guitar (but with their overarching mood of dramatic tension). Fans of female-fronted singer/songwriters and folk artists will find a mature, vocals-driven folk album in We All Go Up the Mountain Alone Together.
Ellsworth is about to record the follow-up to that record, and he’s looking for funds to do that. But instead of running a Kickstarter, he’s purchased the URL NotAKickstarter.com. Instead of asking for a goal amount and then making everyone wait, he’s going to ask for donations and then give his music to you immediately as a thank-you for that donation. He has six albums, EPs, and singles available as part of the promotion. That’s a lot to love, and a lot of reasons to contribute to this campaign.
To help whet your appetite for what you may hear when you contribute, here’s a live video of “In My Thoughts,” a track that appears on the Live from the State Room record. IC is lucky enough to debut the video today! (The live album is new, too, as part of the campaign.) “In My Thoughts” is a gorgeous, delicate tune that seems to tumble out of his mouth and out of the band’s instruments. His subtle arrangements frame his mellifluous baritone voice, as the band provides just the right amount of color: cello swoops, guitar garnishes, and percussion keeps the song all held together. The highlight is the chorus, where the rhythms of Ellsworth’s melody gently push against the calm setting for a memorable tension. It’s a song that shows off his skills. (And even though it’s a new song that wasn’t on Salt Lake City, he gives a shout-out to the city twice at the end of the track. Awesome!)
Charles Ellsworth and Vincent Draper’s Salt Lake City; A Love Story is a triumph for American songwriting. The pair spin ten stories that stretch out across the deserts of the southwest, blending outlaw grit with a raw streak of self-awareness.
The format could best be described as an “un-split.” Ellsworth and Draper, who are best friends, alternate songs on the record, but the songs share a sonic palette and instrumentation. Ellsworth’s voice is the more conventional of the two–a breathy baritone clear and strong enough that it wouldn’t be out of place in a straight-ahead pop-country outfit. Draper’s attack is deep and mournful, a highly ornamented bass that shows versatility when he jumps an octave and a half to belt harmonies on the title track.
Each man’s voice and a bright acoustic guitar sit squarely at the center of any given song, backed at various times by crackling drums, lilting cello and fiddle, a clanging Telecaster, and vocal harmonies by Josaleigh Pollett. Salt Lake City‘s production is stellar: it bounces manically from stripped-to-the-bone stillness to lush washes of compressed cymbals and strings. Ellsworth and Draper are credited with bass and drums, respectively, and their chemistry as a rhythm section is impressive. The tone for the orchestration across the board is definitely dramatic, but not overdone.
What sets this pair apart from the legion of young practitioners of Americana is the diversity of influences that come through on the record. For every anthemic moment that brings to mind Waylon or Bruce, there’s an entangled strain reminiscent of Mount Eerie or The National that drifts up from beneath a shadowy shroud.
The same contrast emerges lyrically. Ellsworth writes with an approach that’s full of big ideas (“She said believe in yourself, ’cause there ain’t no one else. But I’m still holding on to this love I know that you felt when I held you in my arms.”) and builds narratives that are moving and relatable. Draper’s lyrics are perhaps the bleaker of the two, driven by endearing detail. Both explore the care and feeding of personal demons, travel, and uncertainty.
All things considered, this is a hidden gem: 43 minutes of melancholy country-folk songs with no filler, written and executed with precision. If you’re feeling down, pour a glass of bourbon and give it a listen. You can stream the album here.-Declan Ryan
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.