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5


Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson
Wreck & Ruin


On their second album together as a duo, Australian husband and wife, Chambers and Nicholson continue to make a pure and interesting blend of country, folk, and bluegrass music. Dashes of banjo, fiddle, and harmonica clarify the soundscape and add a rustic feel to the album’s 13 harmonious tracks. In interviews, Chambers indicated that she hoped Wreck & Ruin would give listeners insight into their life as a married couple: “There’s a lot of songs on this album that I don’t think we could sing if we weren’t married.” On the surface, this comment may give thought to saccharine-filled lush odes to domesticity. On the contrary, however, the duo has avoided romanticized cliches and heart-on-the-sleeve devotions. Instead, songs like “The Quiet Life” and “Familiar Strangers” touch on the small building blocks that comprise the foundation of a marriage, and focus on the little things that eventually strengthen the bond of a union. There’s also a strong spiritual component to the album as Chambers and Nicholson bring in Biblical lessons and religious symbolism, not in a preaching manner but instead as guideposts from which to learn from and seek solace in. Jeff Strowe


You know, Shambers are a cute couple. Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, that is, the Australian hubby-and-wife team, both major stars Down Under, who have followed up 2008’s acclaimed duet album Rattlin’ Bones with the 13-track “Wreck and Ruin”, a country-before-country-was-cool record of barnstorming twang and turmoil. Nearly every song clocks in at under three minutes, so these are old-fashioned bluegrassy tunes about broken love, the fear of God, mountain myths, and hard-times blight. You know, country music. And as tradition-steeped as the record is—and the two sound terrific together throughout—the existential angst and the economic despair feel mined from today’s collective consciousness. Steve Leftridge


 

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First Aid Kit

The Lion’s Roar

(Wichita)

4


First Aid Kit
The Lion’s Roar


Johanna and Klara Söderberg, the Swedish duo who perform as First Aid Kit, are still just kids, which makes their second album, The Lion’s Roar such a marvel. It was 2012’s first great record, and in a year when indie-folk blew up huge, First Aid Kit provided the single best set of songs of them all on the most gorgeously-sung album of the year. The sisters’ harmonies feel entirely intuitive even though the girls’ American musical influences are contained in songs like “Blue” and “To a Poet”, songs that provide a modern-day afterglow to decades-old folk-rock archetypes, supporting hard-earned lyrics that sound otherworldly having been written by artists this young. They namecheck Johnny and June and Gram and Emmylou, as well, paying specific homage to musical heroes, but their biggest tribute and lasting gift to their muses is this shimmering, enchanting album. Steve Leftridge


 

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Tift Merritt

Traveling Alone

(Yep Roc)

Review [1.Nov.2012]

3


Tift Merritt
Traveling Alone


Traveling Alone is an appropriate title for Ms. Merritt’s sixth album as she picks up and moves along, both geographically and musically, whenever the spirit calls. From North Carolina to Paris to New York City, she has explored her whims, contemplated her career, and dabbled in various musical stylings, without ever losing passion for her work or trust in her instinct. Here, she insisted on seeing her own vision through to the end, and with the help of some “dream” collaborators who sidled up to her and a few of her long-time cohorts, succeeds with an album’s worth of lived-in experiences and insights. She rationally examines the failings of a relationship in a gorgeous duet with Andrew Bird on “Drifting Apart”, flirts with a nagging wandering spirit on the rollicking “Still Not Home”, and pines for a life with less outside distraction and more personal interaction on “Small Talk Relations”. As always, Merritt’s writing is stellar and heartfelt, and her voice beautifully carries each note along through the course of each song’s emotion. The attention to the musicianship is the other striking feature of this album. Merritt’s collaborators fill the spaces with warmth and feeling, ratcheting up the intensity when necessary, and staying out of the way when the feelings require it. Jeff Strowe


The Emmylou comparisons are obvious and have long been appropriately applied, and there are times on Traveling Alone when Tift Merritt once again recalls Emmy’s unsentimental country-folk resonance. But when is the last time you listened to Olivia Newton-John’s early ‘70s country phase?  Probably never, but much of Travelling Alone, Merritt’s best album to date, recalls that sweet, rustic seventies vibe (and ONJ’s voice) on steppers like “Still Not Home” and lilters like “Feeling of Beauty”. The record’s quickly-recorded, casual sound only makes it stronger and otherwise upholds what we’ve already known about Tift, now five albums in: she’s at the tip-top of today’s country-folk singer-songwriters. Steve Leftridge


 

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Old Crow Medicine Show

Carry Me Back

(ATO)

Review [18.Jul.2012]

2


Old Crow Medicine Show
Carry Me Back


A lot of Americana releases are devoid of fun. Empty bottles, lonesome sidewalks, and nagging dilemmas often populate the scenery, lending a sluggish feel to many of the genre’s compositions. The gentlemen of Old Crow Medicine Show, however, know how to dial things up a notch every now and then. Now over a decade into a solid career, this band can often be taken for granted as their rousing singalongs and the ubiquity of “Wagon Wheel” often gleam over the totality of their recorded output. Carry Me Back certainly has no shortage of “good times” vibes, as songs like “Mississippi Saturday Night”, “Sewanee Mountain Catfight”, “Country Gal”, and the title track can stand toe to toe with many of the band’s best-known material. Years of busking and toiling in rural outposts gave them the chops and swagger to pull off gritty, passionate, and energetic rave-ups that sound like they are emanating out the windows of a roadside barn. Contrary to some other likeminded bands though, Old Crow have walked the walk, thus giving their music authenticity and believability. Songs like “Ain’t It Enough” and “Ways of Man” prove the band’s versatility and ability to shift the emotional spectrum, but even an entire session full of barn-burners would be enough to place this album on many year-end lists. Jeff Strowe


It’s silly to pretend that the loss of Old Crow second-in-command Willie Watson didn’t hurt: gone are Watson’s merciless head-nodding and sweet-and-scrappy vocals as key elements of the Old Crows’ bangety-bang live shows. Ketch Secor, however, has taken on the sole starring role, and there’s no better frontman in roots-music for that job, as his band reformed with old friends for Carry Me Back, the band’s highest-charting record yet. The album is crammed with hooks on a few of the dingblastinest ruckus-raising string-band tunes the boys have put on record to date, including the swinging Hank mashup “Country Gal” and the fiddle-icous backwoods hootenanny “Carry Me Back to Virginia”. Steve Leftridge


 

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Carolina Chocolate Drops

Leaving Eden

(Nonesuch)

Review [26.Feb.2012]

1


Carolina Chocolate Drops
Leaving Eden


After the success of their 2010 breakthrough, Genuine Negro Jig, the Carolina Chocolate Drops kept the momentum going by turning to roots-music MVP Buddy Miller, who enriches the Drops’ African-American string band history edification by making them sit in the same room and play together. Plus, Miller, as a premier curator himself, led the band to wrap their banjos, fiddles, and back-porch percussion around excellent found songs by the likes of Hazel Dickens and Etta Baker. Yet it’s singer and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens’ own “Country Girl” that allows the band to update its sound beyond museum-piece reenactment without yielding an ounce of the meticulous craft that makes the Drops such a delight. Steve Leftridge


Alan Lomax was a renowned ethnomusicologist who took field recordings of Americans playing their regional folk styles. Many of his recordings in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s focused on black rural music. Some songs were recorded in homes, some in prison, some in the work fields and some in concert halls—altogether, these recordings documented what black music sounded like in the first half of the century and perhaps what shaped rock and roll, modern blues, and other essential American styles. Leaving Eden sounds like a collection of Lomax’s recordings. That, in folk music, is high praise. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a young trio of singing string players who play the old-fashioned way—but with a new energy. Learnt, in part, from the ancient fiddler Joe Thompson, they began with the banjo and fiddle music you might have heard in a 1940s North Carolina dance hall and have since developed a repertoire of originals and traditionals with a wider scope. Of all the racket: the violins, banjos, various strings, and percussive poundings—all the sounds employed by Carolina Chocolate Drops, the one that stands out is the voice of Rhiannon Giddens. Her intonation is as clear as a country night sky and as strong as moonshine. But it’s her delivery that’s truly potent—able to lock into a songs emotional energy and express it in full. One year ago, the Carolina Chocolate Drops were presented with golden gramophones in the category of Best Traditional Folk Album for their 2010 release, Genuine Negro Jig. But for it’s diversity, experimentation, and excellent performances, Leaving Eden is even better. Kevin Curtin


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