Jacob Furr’s Sierra Madre is a wide-open, spacious alt-country/folk album that evokes fully-realized outfits like Hiss Golden Messenger, Magnolia Electric Co., and even Calexico. Furr’s weathered tenor sets the tone for the record: his sturdy yet lithe vocals mirror the music’s ability to thunder and whisper. The title track/opener is the thunder part: crunchy distorted guitars lead into a bass-led stomp that perfectly frames the opening line “Look into the darkened sky.” Closer “Easy Waves” brings more of that electric guitar fire, ratcheting up to a tremendous, towering album conclusion.
But Furr got his start as a folk troubadour, and there’s still good evidence of that here. The central songs of the album see Furr with just his voice and a fingerpicked guitar, telling stories like “The River” and “El Paso.” These are intense, minor-key works, not the major-key folk ramblers you might expect; they are almost as emotionally tumultuous as the stomping rockers are sonically tumultuous. The complexity of Furr’s voice and delivery are on full display here, showing him to be a careful, delicate performer in this vein. Sierra Madre is a complex, serious album that will be deeply enjoyed by fans of thoughtful, intense alt-country/folk.
I rarely go out of my way to comment on the religiosity or lack thereof espoused in the lyrics of the bands I cover here on Independent Clauses. While I’m not quite as agnostic as Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman on whether “Christian music” can exist, I focus pretty heavily on the music at IC. (This decision in and of itself points toward my answer on the question; a deeper philosophical treatise on this issue will have to wait.)
However, it’s almost not possible to talk about Nathan Partain‘s Jaywalker without mentioning that these Southern-rock/folk-oriented tunes are meant to be sung in churches. Partain’s melodic and arranging chops accent but never hinder the ability of these songs to be easily sung by congregations (or people in cars, or walking down the street, etc.).
“I Have Found a Hidden Fountain” opens the record with squalling electric guitar feedback before launching into a full-band Southern-rock vibe, complete with screamin’ organ. After the intro, the band tones it down to feature the dual vocals: Partain’s yearning tenor up front and female vocals supporting with harmonies and tasteful wordless counterpoint. The band doesn’t totally drop out–they merely make way for the vocals to take center stage. This allows the tune to feel tight and real while still leaving the vocal melody easily heard, a trend that continues throughout the album. They get soulful in an instrumental solo section, drop down the volume for dramatic effect, then ramp back up to full weight to close out the tune.
Partain rolls out more Southern rock vibes in follow-up “It’s God Who Saves,” unveiling a nicely arpeggiated lead guitar line on top of more tight band interplay. He also lets his voice get a bit ragged in points, giving the performance a grit that wasn’t present in the more straightforward opener. Even though there’s not as much guitar action in this one, this is a bit more wide-open full-band performance. Partain and co. max out the rock grit with the innocuously-titled “Love is a Gift,” which contains a thunderous guitar riff and roaring vocals in the chorus. (As a result, this is the song that least feels like a congregational possibility.) If you love a bass-heavy Southern rock tune, you should skip straight to this one.
Moving toward the folkier end of the spectrum are tunes like “A Son of God” and “In Tenderness He Sought Me”; these dial back the electric firepower and lean heavily on the polished, evocative vocal melodies. The former includes swinging syncopation that makes it straight-up fun to sing; the latter gives Sarah Partain a verse, and her gentle, affectionate alto softens the already-sweet tone of the tune. “Hold Thou My Hand” is a stark, vulnerable piano ballad whose lyrics and melodies helped develop a catch in my throat by the end.
The most intriguing two songs on the record transcend tunes identifiable by genre labels: “Jesus Is Mine” and “He Was Wounded” invert generic stereotypes to create unique tunes. “Jesus Is Mine” opens with heavy-handed piano whacks and insistent bass thump, then splays out into a vaguely minor-key jam: the piano goes all saloon, Partain distorts his “oh-oh” vocals in the verse breaks, and the guitar wails in engaging ways. It’s not your average Southern-rock jam. Ominous isn’t the right word for a worship song, but whoa. “He Was Wounded” uses organ and delicate clean electric guitar to open in an almost ambient drone; there’s a spacious, elegant, cathedral-esque glamour to the tune that doesn’t draw its strength only from the gentle reverb. It’s quiet and tense without being a solo acoustic performance, something that isn’t so common in folk (with the strong exception of the Barr Brothers).
Jaywalker is a powerful album of Southern rock and acoustic-folk tunes that slots nicely next to bands like Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun, and Jason Isbell. Because of its roots, you can sing along every single tune (a highlight in my eyes!). On top of that, the arrangements are tight and finely calibrated to make the songs work right. I’ve been listening to it for weeks and haven’t gotten tired yet. Highly recommended.
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.