Raleigh’s own Six String Drag is back after a 17-year recording hiatus with Roots Rock’n’Roll. The seminal alt-country band (they were kickin’ it with Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown in the ’90s) gets points for truth in advertising, as their new LP is a rollicking celebration of vintage rock’n’roll styles.
The track I have the great pleasure of debuting isn’t rock, though: “Hard Times, High Times” is a horns-driven soul tune. Vocalist and songwriter Kenny Roby leads the way with a lush baritone, encouraging a lover (but also pretty much everyone) to hang on through those hard times to get to the good ones again. The backdrop to that crooning vocal is a moving amalgam of motown horns and alt-country twang that works beautifully despite the seemingly disparate parts. It’s a beautiful, poignant tune that would work perfectly as a slow dance for people who don’t do saccharine, lovey-dovey stuff.
Drift Wood Miracle impressed me from the word go, and every interaction I’ve had with them or their music since then has only grown that admiration. The Between Three & Four EP takes their disparate ideas (punk, artsy emo, acoustic singer/songwriter) and melds them into a cohesive experience that ranks with some of the best artistic rock music being made today.
“41 (Blue)” starts off with morose vocals over dreamy guitars (emo revival!) before seguing into a snappy acoustic singer/songwriter section; it shifts into an arty, woozy, vaguely psychedelic coda, then closes with traditional classical piano. If you’re scratching your head, no shame there. It’s only held together by force of Drift Wood Miracle’s collective will. The band then smashcuts into the raging punk/emo track “Typical,” complete with their quickly-becoming-signature sliding guitar riff style. The type of guitar work here makes me immediately think of verse/chorus/verse style of Brand New and Taking Back Sunday, but they subvert those markers of familiarity by not complying with that standard songwriting style. Instead, they throw riff after riff, never returning to any of them. You can make three or four songs out of the ideas in “Typical,” especially if you include the pensive guitar ballad at the end. If you’re not impressed at this point, this type of music probably isn’t for you.
In the rest of the all-too-short EP (12 minutes?!), we get a spoken-word French section, a squalling instrumental emo breakdown, group vocals over an acoustic guitar in a haunting melody, the drummer singing a song he wrote (!), more piano, complicated drum rhythms, and a towering post-hardcore wall of guitars. It’s a tour-de-force collage of sounds and ideas that all come together in a consistent mood. Drift Wood Miracle has come into its own here, asserting their innovative artistic vision with impressive maturity and clarity. Between Three & Four is a dizzying, astonishing performance that will make you want to play it over and over.
Midway Fair‘s 2011 offering The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak leaned heavily on traditional English folk rhythms and melodies, throwing in some Springsteen-esque chug to cap it off. On their latest EP Most Distant Star, the band has grown into its sound quite a bit: the influences are still there, but they’re much tighter wound around each other. The result is a sharp four-song outing that gives me a feel for what Midway Fair is trying to accomplish as a band.
The opener/title track starts off with a strong piano riff and brash male/female vocals. By the middle of the first verse, they’ve introduced galloping drums to speedily pace the tune. They build the song throughout to a great, pounding high-point at about two minutes in, showing off their instrumental chops (those drum fills!), songwriting ability, and style. It’s a great song, totally appropriate to be the title track. The quartet keeps that energy and passion going through the rest of the EP, not letting any track drag. “Gone to California” features folk-style storytelling lyrics on top of a jaunty backdrop. “Ones and Zeros” incorporates some ’50s pop influences, while “Be What You Like” loops in some light soul and funk elements. It’s fun to see a band that’s comfortable with itself start to push the boundaries of its sound.
Midway Fair’s Most Distant Star may have started out as a folk EP, but by the end it morphed into a quick sampler of American pop music. Their tight instrumental interplay results in a light mood throughout: none of these tunes sound forced or heavy. If you’re looking for a fun pick-me-up today, look to Most Distant Star.
Eoin Glackin also sounds like an amped up version of himself on his new EP Pretty Girl. While the title track is a smooth adult alternative cut in the vein of David Grey, the other three tracks are louder, faster, and fuller than Glackin has experimented with in the past. “Morning Take Us Easy” turns rumbling toms into a punk-inspired, push-tempo pattern in the chorus; the bass, guitar, and speedy vocal patterns follow suit, making this somewhat like a Frank Turner song or a Ryan Adams song on speed. There’s still harmonica and piano in there for sure, but this ain’t your usual laidback singer/songwriter fare.
“Ride It Out” expands the sound even wider, pulling in some widescreen soundscapes reminiscent of U2. Glackin gets a tenor howl going on against a reverbed guitar riff–I can totally see him throwing his head back and going full Bono on it. He fills out the EP with a punchy alternate version of “Rain Finally Came” from his previous album, using the drums and bass to once again help create the energetic vibe of the tune.
Sometimes an artist loses all their charm when they “go electric,” but Glackin is able to transfer his appealing aspects to the new situation and incorporate new tricks. His vocals are perhaps even more suited to the electric style than the troubadour folk he was previously doing. Pretty Girl is a fun, exciting EP that shows a new direction for Glackin that could pay off in spades.
The deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and more have inspired the myth that 27 is the age past which no musical youth icon can live. M. Lockwood Porter, also aged 27 but definitely alive, thoughtfully grabbed the number for the title of his sophomore alt-country/country-rock/just plain rock album. His debut Judah’s Gone focused on the past (just look at that title); 27 is a coming-of-age rumination that turns his gaze from youthful aches to the troubles of living in the adult world.
27 does not contain fluffy or stereotypical lyrics: while there are a couple jilted-lover tunes, they fit into a larger paradigm of the difficult questions Porter is asking about life. Thoughts about mortality (“Chris Bell,” about another lost 27-year-old musician), the possibility of not achieving dreams (“Restless”), religion (“Couer D’Alene”), and leaving behind a legacy (“Mountains”) paint a picture of a person standing at the edge of adulthood and grappling with what he’s found so far. I may not agree with every conclusion, but I’m deeply glad that the sentiments are expressed with enough depth and clarity that I can actually agree or disagree with them. That’s a pretty rare accomplishment in the rock world.
The album’s centerpiece is the ballad “Mountains,” which pulls all of these thoughts about life together. It starts with tom hits that sound like a heartbeat before Porter wearily sings, “When I was young my father said / that faith could move a mountain / now there’s mountains as far as I can see.” Striking piano, tasteful percussion, and an earnest guitar line fill out the raw, earnest tune. I wish I could write out all the lyrics for you, but Porter distills it all into one sweeping statement to close the tune: “And as I stare across the vast expanse / I can hear my father shouting / but mountains are all that I can see.”
Porter serves up these musings in expertly crafted alt-country/country-rock tunes. Porter’s been in a bunch of bands of various genres over the past dozen years, and he’s learned things from all of them. Opener “I Know You’re Going to Leave Me” crescendoes to a pounding, ragged, desperate, shiver-inducing rock ending; he follows it up with “Chris Bell,” which is about as perfect an alt-country song as Gram Parsons could hope to hear. “You Only Talk About Your Band” is a rollicking, impassioned ’50s rock’n’roll tune that sounds like it fell out of a time machine somewhere, while Bruce Springsteen would approve of the insistent piano and urgent vocals in “Restless.” “Secrets” sounds like a San Francisco indie-pop mosey, an influence holdover from his time in The 21st Century. “Couer D’Alene” is a delicate acoustic-and-voice tune to close out the record. All of these songs are impressive in their own right, and yet none feel out of place on the record.
Porter keeps these disparate sounds and ideas held together through a consistent vocal presence on the record. No matter what genre Porter writes, he works to make his voice inhabit the song. There are no bad vehicles here: Porter sounds completely at home in each of these tunes. Instead of sounding pristine, the opposite is true: by feeling comfortable throughout, he’s able to allow his voice some fluctuations and character without needing to edit it out. It gives the whole album a careworn, comfortable feel, similar to a Justin Townes Earle song or Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks.
27 has the sort of musical and lyrical depth that causes me to come up with more things to say than I have space for. (Two things that got cut: 1. comparing the lyrics of “Mountains” with my favorite Ryan Adams track “Rock and Roll,” which you should do on your own time; 2. The production job is excellent.) Personally Porter is in transition, but lyrically Porter is hitting his stride to be able to describe the struggles so compellingly. Musically he’s creating work that shines as a whole and as individual tracks, which shows a rare maturity. You need to hear this one.
Fri, 10/10 – San Francisco, CA @ Brick and Mortar w/ Victor Krummenacher
Fri, 10/17 – Oklahoma City, OK @ The Blue Note
Sat, 10/18 – Tulsa, OK @ Mercury Lounge
Sun, 10/19 – Lawrence, KS @ Jackpot Music Hall
Mon, 10/20 – Iowa City, IA @ Gabe’s
Tues, 10/21 – Chicago, IL @ Reggie’s
Wed, 10/22 – Eaton, OH @ Taffy’s
Thurs, 10/23 – Philadelphia @ The Grape Room
Sat, 10/25 – NYC @ Wicked Willy’s at 6:30 pm (Official CMJ Showcase)
Sun, 10/26 – NYC @ Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1
Mon, 10/27 – Charlotte @ Thomas Street Tavern
Tues, 10/28 – Chapel Hill @ The Cave (I’ll be at this one)
Wed, 10/29 – Nashville, TN @ The 5 Spot
Thurs, 10/30 – Huntsville, AL @ Maggie Meyer’s Irish Pub
Fri, 10/31 – Clarksdale, MS @ Shack Up Inn
Sat, 11/1 – Lafayette, LA @ Artmosphere
Sun, 11/2 – Austin, TX @ Sahara Lounge
Mon, 11/3 – Dallas @ Opening Bell
People often ask me to define folk, Americana, folk-rock, or alt-country. I understand the confusion: the nuances are there, but for many casual listeners they can be pedantic or unimportant. It doesn’t help that many of those genres share traits, with the difference only lying in the emphasis of this one or that one. Then there are the grey areas. However, sometimes an artist comes around that fits the bill exactly. Keyan Keihani, for instance, is an alt-country artist through and through.
Keihani relies on country vibes, full-band arrangements, pedal steel, organ, rock-style songwriting (verse/chorus/verse), and modern melodies in Eastbound–which is exactly what alt-country bands are known for. The Jayhawks, Ryan Adams, and the Old 97s are all examplars of the modern version of the sound that The Byrds, CSN&Y, and Buffalo Springfield helped invent. But just because something can be named doesn’t mean it’s not exciting and interesting. Keihani’s vocal melodies and tight arrangements create a memorable, easygoing record that invites you to press repeat.
“Don’t You Ever Leave” is a perfect example of his sound. Swooping pedal guitar, insistent drumming, and honkytonk piano come together to create something much greater than the sum of their parts. Keihani ties all these parts together with his smooth, evocative tenor, giving a gravitas to the track that transforms it from solid to excellent. The wistful “Same We’ve Been” ties twinkling piano and treble-heavy mandolin together for a romantic vibe; “Good Country Night” turns up the honkytonk without getting abrasive, making for a song that’s just a ton of fun.
Keihani’s debut album shows a maturity unexpected in those putting out a first collection of tunes. His deft songwriting touch allows traditional instruments and well-known moods to be invigorating and interesting. His vocals allow people who might not otherwise get into the genre an in. The whole album comes off as an assured, welcoming set of tunes. Keyan Keihani may have just said hello with Eastbound, but it sounds like he’s got a lot more to say.
For those of you who have never heard Ringer T, Hello, Goodbye is the perfect introduction to their folk-laden, Americana rock sound. Unfortunately, the things that make this album such a good primer also bring up some potential problems for the future.
There are few bands that sound more genuinely American than Ringer T. Their deeply Midwestern sound incorporates a heavy dose of Paul Simon-esque pop songwriting, folksy drumming and strumming, old school rock n’ roll, some country twang, and a large amount of earnestness in the vocals. It may sound like a lot going on, but it never is. In fact, these songs are very easy to listen to. The first time I listened to this album, I felt like I had known these songs forever. They are comfortable to the ear; the songwriters have crafted songs with structures that never feel cliche but still make pleasant use of resolution and familiar chords.
One of the reasons that the songs sound so familiar is that at least four out of the ten tracks have been previously recorded on Ringer T albums or EPs. While this is mildly frustrating for veteran listeners, it brings no hindrance to those who are listening for the first time. They get to hear the best tracks of Ringer T, without any of the filler or weaker tracks.
The problem lies in that even though the four old tracks are re-recorded, they still fit perfectly into Hello, Goodbye. Ringer T is not growing. While they have refined their craft to a razor-sharp edge (the new version of “Cut the Cords” makes mincemeat of the old version in terms of precision, clarity and power), they haven’t pushed the musical envelope at all with Hello, Goodbye. The songs are great; any first time listener that gets past Grant Geertsma’s voice is going to be enamored with Ringer T. But if Ringer T puts out many more albums in this distinct motif, they’re going to run into problems.
One thing they can do is stop writing about breakups; it seems that every Ringer T song is based on the same traumatic breakup. There is a long-standing American pop music tradition of writing about breakups, but Ringer T practices this tradition without respite (except for the still-mildly-depressing “Where I Long to Go”). Even Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space (one of the most despondent breakup albums ever) has upbeat moments in it that have nothing to do with the relationship. Ringer T needs to break out of their funk and move on to new things in their lives, musically and lyrically.
There is strong evidence that Hello, Goodbye will be the culmination of this era of Ringer T’s musical life. They have refined their deeply affecting and superbly crafted folk/pop/rock to a T. If they use this album as a springboard to better and bigger things, they have a bright future ahead of them. If they keep rehashing their formula, they will only get so far. I hope that they have some tricks up their sleeve for the next release. In the meantime, Hello, Goodbye is highly recommended for fans of Wilco, Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Damien Jurado, The Elected and Neil Young.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.