Album Review – Rhiannon Giddens’ ‘Freedom Highway’

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Rhiannon Giddens is undoubtedly one of the most talented artists in Americana today. The front woman of the Carolina Chocolate Drops might be mistaken as new by fans introduced to her via her appearance on Eric Church’s current single “Kill A Word.” But I assure you she’s been making music for a while and is an artist I consider essential listening for Americana fans. Her voice is absolutely enthralling and impressed from my first listen of her debut album Tomorrow Is My Turn. That was an album of covers, so I was looking forward to hear an album of mostly original material, which is exactly what we get on her new album Freedom Highway. There was a reason I’ve had my eye on this album and man does it live up to the high expectations I had for it.

Slow, rhythmic drums play in the decidedly folk “At The Purchaser’s Option.” It’s a song about a woman raped by an owner at an early age, leading to her conceiving a child out of the assault. But she’s reminded that her baby can be taken at any moment at the purchaser’s option. It’s an incredibly powerful song that can take on multiple meanings. “The Angels Laid Him Away” is a cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s song. It’s a solemn song about death that shows off Giddens’ beautiful voice, as well as her great banjo picking. The bluegrass driven “Julie” is about a mistress and slave being in love, but the slave finding out later the mistress has sold her children. It’s another emotional story on an album full of them. Not to mention the instrumentation really sets the tone of the song and draws the listener in. Giddens does a fantastic job covering Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday.” The song is about the 16th Street Baptist church in 1963 being bombed by members of the KKK that ended up killing four girls and 22 others.

It’s kind of hard to pick the best song on this incredibly deep album. But if I had to pick one it would be “Better Get It Right the First Time.” The funky sounding song is about a young African-American man mistakenly ending up at the wrong place and getting gunned down as he ran. It demonstrates how African-Americans are expected to walk a tight rope and get it right the first time, or there won’t be another time. Giddens’ nephew Justin Harrington comes in later in the song and lays down a rap to make an already excellent song better. The softer “We Could Fly” tells of flying home after death. It’s a very much a spiritual, meditative reflection of finding peace and freedom. Giddens dives into smooth and upbeat New Orleans style jazz on “Hey Bébé.” It’s probably the happiest moment on this album, as it’s an instant toe-tapper and the horn play is top-notch.

“Come Love Come” is about a slave couple on the run trying to outrun their captors and just trying to live their lives together. The song ends with the woman waiting for her man to arrive in Tennessee, hopeful he one day makes it to her. We get more jazzy goodness on “The Love We Almost Had.” It’s about love that almost was and leaving both sides wondering what if on the possible relationship. The forever fleeting love song is another standout on the album. The somber “Baby Boy” is about a mother vowing to always watch over her son. The song features some wonderful harmonies from Giddens and Lalenja Harrington that impress. The instrumental “Following the North Star” plays in the album’s title track, a Pops Staples song, to close out the record. Giddens duets with fellow Americana artist Bhi Bhiman on this energetic anthem about marching down the highway of freedom. Some lively horns appropriately play out the song and end the album with a real exclamation point.

To be honest I really don’t feel like my words do justice to this magnificent album. Rhiannon Giddens’ Freedom Highway is a flawless album from start to finish. The songwriting and themes explored on this album are incredibly powerful and graceful. Giddens voice is golden as always and I can’t believe how many different genres this album explores. There’s folk, bluegrass, blues, funk, hip-hop, soul and jazz. Each are executed wonderfully and show the true definition of Americana (a big credit goes to multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell). This is absolutely one best albums you’ll hear all year and may even go down as the very best of 2017.

Grade: 10/10

 

Recommend? – YES!

Album Highlights: Better Get It Right the First Time, At The Purchaser’s Option, We Could Fly, Julie, The Love We Almost Had, Freedom Highway

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


Album Review – Balto’s ‘Strangers’

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Balto is a group from Portland, Oregon. But the band’s story really begins in Moscow, Russia. Lead singer Dan Sheron decided to exile himself from the city and went alone to Siberia where he was inspired to write many songs of his experiences before returning to America to record those songs that make up Balto’s debut album October’s Road. The band itself formed as they describe it, “through friends of friends.” Their sound is kind of all over the place: embracing pure American rock and roll at times, while also embodying a folk, roots driven sound and a pinch of psychedelia for good measure. They’re one of those groups that fits the Americana label well mixing such a variety of sounds. It certainly comes across on their newest album Strangers, an album that not only dazzles you with their eclectic sound, but meaningful lyrics too.

Balto opens with the pondering “Lost On The Young.” The song wonders if love is lost on the young of today and goes on to wonder if we’ve become lost in the fog of the American dream. It’s quite the thought provoker. Twangy guitars usher in “Restless Generation.” The instrumentation on this song is really just flawless and draws you in with ease. One of the things you quickly learn about Balto is instrumentation is an area they absolutely excel in on this album. “CA Luv” is an instantly catchy song. Everything about this song is effortlessly smooth. The dreamy “Midnight” lulls you in and wins you over with its guitar play. The bluesy and soulful “Born Astray” is one of the best songs on Strangers. It’s about a man who realizes he’s born astray while at the same time dealing with acceptance of a break-up that he knows was the right thing (he freely admits he was a waste of time). Yet he still wonders about her and what she’s doing now. The heavy organ play really gives this song some great texture. The frenetic “Shots In The Dark” is about the heartbreak of realizing you found the right person at the wrong time. A man realizes he has to let a woman go he’s known for a while, even though he feels like he’s right for her. He sees the dreams he had with this woman dissolve before his very eyes as he’s forced to let her go. It’s just absolutely fantastic storytelling from Balto.

The piano-driven love ballad “Star of Bethlehem” is another standout of the album. The song is about an embattled relationship where both sides have felt like leaving at times, yet the other always convinces them to stay. Despite these leaving feelings, they also can’t shake the feeling it’s never a good time to leave. I love the vulnerability that is conveyed in the vocals on this song, really driving the lyrics across well. “Celebration Smile” is probably the most interesting song on the album. It’s about a man recalling the life of the woman he was married to and left for a life of freedom on his own. He realized he didn’t want a life of growing old with someone. As he says he wants to “keep the best intentions, but regret the things I’ve done.” It’s a poetic take on life choices and their effects on a person. The cherry on top of this song is the energetic electric guitar play that ends the song with a bang. “A Year Lasts A Lifetime” is another great display of the band’s infectious and driving sound. The album concludes with the heartbreak song “One Night Show.” It’s about a couple that may lie next to each other every night, but are really miles away in their hearts. As the song says, it’s the perfect one night show: pretending to be so close, yet so far away. Its another great tragedy penned on this album.

Simply put Strangers is a fantastic album. Balto intrigued me from my first listen of Strangers and the more I pulled back the layers of this album, the more impressed I became. There’s such a rich, variety display of sounds throughout this album that pair up so well with their lyrical counterparts. It’s an album that kind of pulls you every which way and you feel a little bit of everything listening to it. While the instrumentation is something that will immediately impress, the songwriting is equally admirable and lead vocalist Sheron really does a great job bringing the songs to life. Strangers is the type of album that will leave a smile on your face and reward you for listening from start to finish.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – Yes! (especially if you enjoy acts like Robert Ellis, Chris King or enjoyed The War on Drugs’ last album)

Album Highlights: Shots In The Dark, Celebration Smile, Born Astray, One Night Show, Star of Bethlehem, CA Luv

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


Video – Valerie June’s New Song “Shakedown”

Up and coming Americana artist Valerie June has released a music video for new song “Shakedown.” It’s from her new upcoming album The Order Of Time, set to be released on March 10. The video was directed by Steve Lippman and produced by Jeremy Kotin. Give it a watch and get a taste of her new upcoming album, which based off this has me pretty anxious to hear.

Album Review – The Band of Heathens’ ‘Duende’

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The Band of Heathens are a veteran group no strangers to the Americana scene. Formed since 2005, the Austin, Texas based group tends to primarily stick to a sound grounded in rock with plenty of country, blues and soul influences mixed in for good measure. In other words, they fit the Americana definition quite well. The Americana Music Association nominated them in 2009 for New Emerging Artist and in 2010 for Best Duo/Group of the Year. Only two original members of the group are still apart of the band, Ed Jurdi (vocals, guitars, harmonica, keyboard) and Gordy Quist (vocals, guitars, harmonica). The rest of the current group joined from 2011 on, including Trevor Nealon (keyboards), Richard Millsap (drums) and Scott Davis (bass, vocals). Their last album came in 2013, Sunday Morning Record, which was excellent and really set the bar high moving forward. If you haven’t heard it I highly recommend it. They return now with the follow-up and their fifth studio album, Duende. 

The opener “All I’m Asking” gets the album off to a fun start. It’s instantly catchy lyrics and beat makes it a real toe tapper. The vocals are also great, really conveying the desperation of a man trying to change a woman’s mind of him. The smooth, easy-going melody of “Last Minute Man” is infectious. “Deep is Love” seems cliché and corny upon the first listen. But then you listen to it more and the production really frames the song well, having an almost throwback quality. Not to mention the vocals make me really buy into what the song is saying. “Trouble Came Early” is a more raucous rocker with great keyboard and electric guitar play. The Band of Heathens take a more soulful approach on “Daddy Longlegs,” sort of outlier to the rest of the album. But it surprisingly works really well, arguably the best track on the record. The song goes into great detail of how a woman’s love and features a killer organ line throughout.

The most interesting song of the album is “Cracking the C0de,” which serves as commentary on social media and relationships. Specifically it takes a look at how this virtual world lacks the real connection of physically being with a person. It’s real thought-provoking. “Road Dust Wheels” offers some compelling thoughts on people migrating from Mexico to America. The group really harmonizes well on the final track “Green Grass of California.” I would have liked to hear that even more throughout the album, in addition to the thick steel guitar play. It’s a really great combination. The last song I have to mention is “Keys to the Kingdom,” which really didn’t catch my ear at first. But then after more listens it clicked and I’ll leave it to you to figure it out too because it’s a great, though sad message that I think applies well to the concept of the American dream.

Overall I find Duende to be a great album. It features rock solid instrumentation, which is a real strong suit of The Band of Heathens. The second half of this album in particular is really enjoyable and is the band shining at their best. The whole album has a great variety of both fun and thoughtful songs. There’s a real smoothness about everything this band does and this really resonates with the listener. Once again The Band of Heathens deliver great music and make Duende an album definitely worth your time.

Grade: 8/10

 

Recommend? – Yes

Album Highlights: Cracking the C0de, Road Dust Wheels, Keys to the Kingdom, Daddy Longlegs, All I’m Asking, Green Grass of California

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


Album Review – Paul Cauthen’s ‘My Gospel’

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If you’re a follower of Country Perspective, you’ll notice one of the themes I’ve been harping on lately is distinctiveness. Too many young and new artists suffer from a lack of distinctiveness on their albums. The music just doesn’t do enough to stand out from the rest of the crowd and music that came before it. You’ll see new artist after new artist just recycle a sound we’re all familiar with and you eagerly await someone to come along like Sturgill Simpson in 2013, Karen Jonas in 2014 or Chris Stapleton in 2015 that will deliver something special and completely change the genre. Well I think we’ve found that artist for 2016 and his name is Paul Cauthen. Mark it down folks: this is the next big star in the independent country/Americana scene. The Texan used to front an Americana band called Sons of Fathers, but a few years back realized he was ready to do something else. He’s now struck out on his own to release his debut album My Gospel vis Lightning Rod Records. And it’s probably one of the most refreshing albums I’ve heard this year.

Right away it’s Cauthen’s voice that stands out to me. At times it can be this deep, bellowing voice that engulfs you from the moment you hear it and at other times it has this soaring, soulful sound about it. Cauthen cites country, blues and souls as his influences. It definitely shows in his voice, as it reminds me of a combination of Waylon Jennings, Bill Withers and Neil Young. Cauthen reminds me the most of Waylon on “Let It Burn.” It just sounds like something he would cut on one of his albums, especially when Cauthen’s voice is growling similar to his. But then when Cauthen hits the higher notes it wouldn’t sound out of place on an old soul record. It’s kind of surreal how Cauthen can embody two completely different sounds on one song and sound equally great with both (credit too to producer Beau Bedford). The album’s title track ties the whole album together and serves as Cauthen’s personal creed and anthem. From the lyrics to the emphatic organ and backing choir, it’s an uplifting song that shows him completely in his element. There’s just so much honesty and passion behind every word in this song and this will be reverberated in the listener as they take the song in.

Opening song “Still Drivin’” sounds like something straight out of the outlaw era of country music. It’s one of several moments on the album that has this sort of swagger and coolness about it that you just can’t help getting wrapped up in. It’s probably most evident on “I’ll Be the One.” The spacey steel guitar combined with the percussion really makes for a fun and catchy sound. The song itself is about a guy declaring his love for a woman and vowing to be the one for her. It makes for the most memorable song of the album in my opinion, as you’ll probably be humming this to yourself for the next day after giving it extensive listens. “Hanging out on the Line” sees a man desperate to win over the heart of a woman he deeply loves. Cauthen sounds great on every song, but this might be his best vocal performance on the album as the helplessness and desperation he conveys in his vocals are palpably fantastic.

The themes of love and the super natural meet on “Marfa Lights.” A man likens his love with a woman to the Marfa lights, which runs for miles and miles. Texans like Cauthen are quite familiar with this place, but everyone else probably not so much. Marfa lights refer to lights that have been seen around U.S. Route 67 on Mitchell Flat that’s east of Marfa, Texas. Many people have claimed to witness ghosts and UFOs here, making it a hot spot for people who believe in paranormal activities. Research says though that these lights do not have anything to do with aliens or anything of the sort, but are just lights from cars and campfires. It’s cool to hear about weird local places like this in songs, so kudos to Cauthen for incorporating this interesting place into his music.

Some songs you just want to sit back and bask in their sound as you listen to this album. There’s just such a warm vibrancy and colorfulness about them on songs such as “As Young as You’ll Ever Be” and “Be There Soon.” The twangy pedal steel guitar and the pianos and organs that show up throughout this album all unite to make for a really intriguing sound. Cauthen explores self-realization and discovery on “Once You’re Gone.” He ponders whether him and his partner should head out west and discover new things, but also realizes once they do they can’t go back to the way things were. It’s a realization of how a journey ahead can shape your life into something completely different and new, never to turn back to once was in your life. “Grand Central” and “Saddle” are about the freedom of life on the open road. Specifically “Grand Central” is about a man who is hurting and takes to the open road (well in this case train) to heal his broken heart. It’s one of those songs that won’t immediately grab you, but once it clicks you can really resonate with the lyrics. Meanwhile “Saddle” is one of those songs you put on as you go on a long drive in the night. It just has this naturally adventurous attitude about it, which is something I can say about this entire album.

From beginning to end Paul Cauthen blows me away with My Gospel. It’s hands down the best debut album I’ve heard this year and perfectly exemplifies the distinctiveness that every new artist should strive for in their music. Not to mention you can tell this comes straight from the heart and soul of Cauthen, as it shines through on every aspect of the album. This is the type of music the world needs more of today. With My Gospel Cauthen immediately establishes himself as one of the best in the genre. The sky is the limit for him and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend ? – YES

Album Highlights: I’ll Be The One, My Gospel, Still Drivin’, Saddle, Grand Central, Let It Burn, Hanging out on the Line

Bad Songs: Nope

Wallpaper: Nope


Stream The Entire Album Below: