5 - 1
(Dirt Farmer; US: 30 Jun 2009; UK: 29 Jun 2009)
Any record that approaches the rollicking swagger of the Band at their most exuberant takes the guesswork out of whether it deserves a spot among the year’s best. Certainly, Levon Helm, the sole American at the heart of the Band’s Americana, is a national treasure, and his recovery from throat cancer and the return of his salty good-ol’-boy singing voice is one of rock’s happiest stories. The Dixieland-on-the-farm version of the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” is alone worth the admission price into this particular Midnight Ramble, but Electric Dirt is full of blues-gospel shouters, soul-country laments, New Orleans jazz, and mountain-folk reveries, all played with ragged, live wallop. By mixing these classic roots elements, Helm ends up with an album that covers considerable ground but provides precisely the familiar party you desire coming from an old friend. And he shall be Levon.
Written in Chalk
(New West; US: 3 Mar 2009; UK: 9 Mar 2009)
Neither Buddy nor Julie Miller make bad albums, so we would expect the two of them to collaborate winningly on their new record together, only the second full-length of its sort. No disappointments here, as it’s hard to pick out the best moments on an album of so many highlights. A few: Buddy’s vocal performance on Julie’s exquisitely written “Chalk”, the gin-soaked torch in Julie’s jazz vocal on “Long Time”, Buddy trading verses with Robert Plant on Mel Tillis’s “What You Gonna Do Leroy”, the piano-and-fiddle stomp of the husband-wife nostalgia in “Ellis County”, Buddy’s duet with Emmylou Harris on a pulsing version of Leon Payne’s “The Selfishness of Man”, the… oh, you get the picture. Plus, if you’re reading this sentence, you probably don’t need any convincing of the riches that the Millers invariably provide.
With the Pines, the sun never shines, and you shiver when the cold wind blows. Or so it feels when listening to this alt-folk duo’s remarkable new album, Tremolo. The group, led by singers-guitarists David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey, captures a spectral single effect throughout, evoking an otherworldly landscape of fallen moons and dead valleys, campfires and ghost towns, meadows of dawn and broken dreams. These Minneapolis-via-Iowa boys pick delicate, spare acoustic guitars wrapped in glass-slide reverberations and gentle, haunting organ embellishments on ten scorched-earth songs. Tremolo is one seductive record, perfect for the witching season.
Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses
(Lost Highway; US: 2 Jun 2009; UK: 1 Jun 2009)
At first listen, Ryan Bingham’s charbroiled voice sparks concern of blown-out damage, until you realize that his larynx contains enough power, range, and durability to go the distance. Bingham puts those burlap pipes to good use on Roadhouse Sun, his killer follow-up to 2007’s also-terrific Mescalito. This year, Bingham proved that this bad-man’s son is badass enough for hammer-slinging hard country like “Endless Ways”, but sweet enough for “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So”, one of the coolest songs of the year. More than anything, with these 12 uniformly excellent songs and back-to-back stellar albums, Bingham has earned a spot as one of country-rock’s leading (and toughest) songwriting voices.
I and Love and You
(Columbia-American; US: 29 Sep 2009; UK: 29 Sep 2009)
Depending on whom you talk to, the Avetts either sold out this year by dispensing with the rough edges that made them unique, or they cut the crap and finally started making the smart, elegant music they always had in them. Sure enough, this album is crammed with exquisite songs, including the instant-classic title cut and acoustic drifters like “Laundry Room”, as beautiful as anything they’ve done to date. But on sweeping epics like “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” and “The Perfect Space”, Scott and Seth reach ever higher, creating the kind of melodic and lyrically profound transcendence that their ardent fans have always cherished. With Rick Rubin, the boys push their songwriting and musicianship on a dense album of generous returns, while prompting everyone to wonder where they’ll go next.